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In Remembrance of Faith Past

In Remembrance of Faith Past

When we sweep our religious history aside we devalue the present, writes Nick Spencer.

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Donald Trump launches pre–emptive nuclear attack on Pyongyang is news. David Davis and Michel Barnier publicly hug and agree to split the difference is news. Stormzy is handed best solo artist prize at GQ Awards by Jeremy Corbyn is news. Slightly fewer Britons call themselves Christians compared to last year is…

Well, it is newsworthy, apparently, and was widely covered. But, I have to confess that it didn’t surprise me greatly. It’s the kind of thing I used to blog on but quite frankly I bore myself now (and as for you, dear reader, even assuming you’ve made it this far…)

Some pointers: the BSA survey in question measures personal religious affiliation. This has been on the slide since BSA measures began in 1983, and almost certainly for two generations before that. It will continue to slide for quite some time. ‘Christian’, let along ‘Church of England’, is no longer our default identity. ‘No religion’ is. Identity is not the same as belief. And it is not the same as attendance. Both of these have also been falling, although not as precipitously. Fewer people believe in the creeds of institutional religion, but that does not translate into fewer people believing at all (the proportion of coherent and complete materialist atheists is relatively small). Fewer people attend religious services, but the way in which they do (frequency, regularly, institutional setting) is also changing. I can’t bring myself to go on. Please read the first chapter of Doing Good: A Future for Christianity in the 21st Century for a more detailed analysis of all this. In essence, the picture is not sepulchral black so much as sepulchral grey.

So, let me use this blog to say something different. The data were discussed by ComRes’s Katie Harrison and Humanist UK’s Andrew Copson on Sky News yesterday. The discussion was intelligent and personable but ended with a slightly worrying one–liner from Andrew Copson.

Asked by Dermot Murnaghan to comment the fact that people appreciate Christian history and heritage, Andrew said “History belongs in the past, of course.”

Such peremptory dismissal of history is problematic, the kind of thing St George warned us about in Nineteen Eighty–Four. Reshaping the future in your own image is much easier if you don’t have the shadows of yesterday to obscure your view.

The project of modernity – it was never really a ‘project’, of course; it’s the kind of phrase intellectual historians like to use to sound clever – was about pushing history into the past. History was the place where bad things happened, a gloomy land of witch hunts, judicial torture, antisemitism, and appalling diet. And, of course, religion, with all its superstition, ignorance, bigotry, and violence.

Keeping that history in the past would afford us a new start, a kind of temporal holiness, where all that is fresh and clean and revitalised is held apart from the dirt and contamination of our mistakes and stupidity. Revolution became a social consummation to be devoutly wished, rather than the dark, anarchic nightmare that haunted our forebears.

The idea is indeed a liberating one. St Paul would have agreed. “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here.” But for every moment of neophilia, the (ahem) New Testament asks us to remember what went before – the covenant, the Exodus, the law, the prophets, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection; to receive and pass on, as Paul advised the Corinthians, what he himself received from the Lord. Newness is possible but only at the cost of honouring history, not jettisoning it.

Christianity had an incalculable impact on England, Britain, the UK, indeed Europe (a cynic might say that was why some seem indecently keen to condemn that history to the past). That doesn’t mean it does today or will in the future. Indeed, the BSA data make it clear that 21st century is heading to be our least Christian century since the seventh. Nor does it even mean that it should: just because the past was Christian, doesn’t mean the future should be. By their fruits should ideas be valued, not their roots.

Nevertheless, to sweep history aside is to devalue the present, and to deny the possibility for change that it apparently secures, for if everything is new, nothing is. If the history is merely ‘past’, so are the identities, and loyalties, and commitments, and practices that constitute who we are. Any secure sense of self, either personal or communal, melts into the air, as we erase and rewrite our being once more.

This is troubling, and it is a poor reflection of reality. As William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Nick Spencer is the Research Director for Theos | @TheosNick 


Image of St Martin’s Church Canterbury – the oldest church in England. By Nilfanion from wikimedia commons available under this Creative Commons Licence

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Director of Research at Theos. Nick is an acclaimed author of books and reports, most recently The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014).

Posted 6 September 2017

Christianity, Future of Religion, History

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