The inherent strength of religion cannot mask the fragility of Christian belief in Britain

10 February 2014

10:04 AM

10 February 2014

10:04 AM

Terry Eagleton, the Marxist literary critic, has been something of a hero of mine since the publication of his Reason, Faith and Revolution, a thoroughgoing demolition of the Richard Dawkins critique of religion – on the sound basis that Prof Dawkins didn’t know what he was talking about – and his latest, Culture and the Death of God, promises to be pretty good too.

He touched on it in an interview on the Today programme where he was excitedly introduced by Evan Davis as an atheist – ‘you are an atheist, aren’t you?’ – which was an odd sort of assumption to make about a man whose career began as a youthful contributor to a Leftish Catholic journal. The prof brushed this aside, but went on to make his fundamental point, that religion has, over time, trumped all the attempted substitutes: Reason (practically deified in the Enlightenment), Nature (ditto, by the Romantics), nationalism, and above all, culture, endowed by what passes for our own intelligentsia with all the ennobling effects of religion without the tiresome necessity of belief.

According to Prof Eagleton, religion remains ‘the single most wildly successful symbolic system’ in human history. This is a shot at the cultural atheists, Ian McEwan, John Gray et al, and it may give pause, if no more, to the assumption of, say, Evan Davis and most of the commentariat, that religion isn’t really for clever people.


(Actually that assumption, that religion is not for people like us, but fine for everyone else, was shared by the grandee intellectuals of the Enlightenment, something Prof Eagleton usefully described in the Firth Lectures at Nottingham University on which his latest book is based. Both lectures are available online, and just as well, because they look as if they were sparsely attended.)

I haven’t, I should say, actually read Culture and the Death of God but the gist of the argument was also usefully summarized in an interview the prof gave to the Oxonian magazine in 2012:

‘There have been attempts to make culture stand in for religion. Modernity is littered with failed candidates, substitutes, surrogates for religion. Culture was actually more successful than many of them. But it didn’t work. In my view, no symbolic system on earth has had religion’s power, pervasiveness, depth. Whatever you think of religion I think that’s just a fact. Not always a fact to be celebrated by any means, but I think it’s a fact. Culture can’t hold a candle to religion.’

Notwithstanding that, he suggests that postmodernism, the intellectual position of our time, had pretty well seen off religion prior to 9/11 after which things changed, and religion again assumed an important aspect in public life, except that the God of believers was now perceived as the God of a particularly militant strand of Islam.

In a sense he’s right.  When people now talk about the importance of religion and of understanding it (pace the Tony Blair Faith Foundation) what they really mean is that it’s awfully important to understand Islam. And so it is. But that still leaves us with the question of the condition of the non-Islamic parts of the culture. Post-Christian is one way of putting it. But that doesn’t quite do justice to the breadth of ignorance of Christianity in contemporary Britain, especially working class Britain: the sheer gulf between what the simplest souls would have known about the faith two generations ago and what even educated young people know now.

A survey by the Bible Society last week suggested that most young people do not know the stories about Jonah and the Whale, Adam and Eve and the parable of the Prodigal Son, or do not know they are from the Bible, as opposed, say, to Harry Potter. Michael Gove may like to brood on that. Parents are, by and large, well disposed towards the Bible (as indeed is the PM, who said recently that he found it a useful guide ‘but there are many others’), as a source of values, even if they’re hazy about the content. But one thing Prof Eagleton makes clear is that without the belief, you don’t get the morals and values.

Of course a post-Christian culture does still have a Christian foundation. And there are stubborn signs of life in the churches – in this week’s magazine, I suggested that even an institution as ostensibly moribund as confession is showing unexpected signs of vitality. But the trajectory of Christianity in terms of baptisms and church attendance is going inexorably in one direction. Terry Eagleton has made an excellent case for religion as stubbornly and inherently human. The narrower question of whether Christianity will survive in Britain as part of the common culture once the generation of Brits that attended Sunday School is gone is quite another matter.

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Show comments
  • Randy Wanat

    Let’s not care if our beliefs are correct. As long as they’re persistent, that’s plenty.

  • Terry Field

    “Religion may be inherently strong, but without belief it is weak”.

    Good God, do people earn a living writing such bloody obvious stuff. Send my theology masters in the post, if that is the expected standard of ‘expert’ observation.

    • Brian Westley

      It’s like applauding for Tinkerbell.

  • Gerard Spekboom

    I do understand people are pissed off by ‘Christianity’ because many have turned it into a dead Institutional form of religion. But that is not the message and purpose of the Gospel. And that is the reason the Gospel remains relevant, it contains the possibility for a restored spiritual condition required to know God, made possible through Christ. I have known religion but did not know God, did quite and turned to God many years later. In the first state I did not have a glue, in the second I experienced disconnection and in the third there was reconciliation that made me free. Free from religion and free from sin. In its purest form the gospel is a message of deliverance and is not supposed to be any thread to society as expressed by the first disciples in the book of Acts.

  • The Daily Cocca

    nothing moribund about confession, cf you almost lost me after using commentariat so close after intelligentsia, but I’m glad I read on.

  • Terry Field

    A funny little article coming from the English conceit that it is the centre of the world.
    The depth of belief in religions across the globe does not show decline – rather the reverse, and particularly in those places where culture biased education is most active. Why?
    Simple. People exposed to the icy blast of a culture of atheism and the hopelessness of the Dawkins logic engine become, quite simply, revolted by it.

    • bigsammyb

      Atheism is not a culture it is a rejection of claims made by people like you that are demonstrably false and ridiculous. You cannot have free will and a omniscient god it is a logical impossibility, the entire concept of monotheism is asinine. And do you know what I get revolted by? People like you advocating a system that buggers little boys, rapes and murders women and causes worldwide conflict, famine and genocide.

      • Lagos1

        sounds like a culture to me. And not a very deep or appealing one judging by your post.

      • Paddy S

        Sounds like your talking about communism dude, and that was atheistic to its core….

      • Terry Field

        You display a lack of rationality. You seem to be incapable of following an argument,
        Firstly, I have made no claims.
        Secondly, Belief is false and ridiculous to people who take the view it is, and is not so to those who take a different view. None is provable by science or any other method, and come down to simple opinion, preference if you like; belief is a loaded word.
        Silly words like asinine, logical impossibility – you argue like an immature undergraduate, and you scramble words to sentences with no meaning.
        Then you talk about buggery.
        You are a raving bigot, with no real intelligence at all.
        You are a simple, unadulterated…………….joke.

  • Daniel Maris

    Well we are commemorating the first of two world wars during which hundreds of millions of men defied their genetic programming to sacrifice or risk their lives for symbols of ethnic and dynsatic nationalism. So I am not sure Eagleton is right – certainly not in Europe.

  • andagain

    Did he give any particular reason for believing that any actual religion is correct, and if so which one?

    Or did he just observe that there are a lot of religous people in the world? Which is true, but not obviously any more meaningful than the fact that there are a lot of superstitious people in the world.

    • john

      A bit mean but very aposite! Why is religion different from any other belief system?

      • andagain

        I wasn’t trying to be mean though. It is difficult to find an example of things that are widely believed that most people will accept as being untrue…

  • Druth

    When you say a ‘Marxist literary critic,’ who ‘has been something of a hero of mine’ I assume that you’re not properly making the connection between the theory of Marxism and the practice of Communism which presently stands accused of the murder of more than 100 million people.

  • la catholic state

    This was intended. Secular education over the generations has succeeded in destroying Christianity in Britain. It also introduced a sparse secular culture…..and unless religion produces a strong culture, it will die.
    No (even nominal) Christian child should be sent to these soulless secular schools….where Christian culture and Christian children are not respected or honoured. Mind you….every other religion and culture is. More Church schools please! And ditch the national curriculum. Unlike Christianity….it is full of pessimism.

    • Terry Field

      If you travel the world, you will discover how very nasty, and untypical, the stripped-out atheistic British culture is.

      • bigsammyb

        I have travelled the world, and we have one of the best education systems in it. In fact nearly all other education systems are modelled on ours, same as health and the law too.

        • Paddy S

          Ha as an Irish teacher that is pure bullshit. I have countless friends who teach in UK in comprehensive schools and they would explode with laughter at that statement. ANd by way if it was true – why do so many atheists and liberals send their kids to religious schools and not state ones…

          • Terry Field

            ‘friends who teach in comprehensives’
            Some recommendation!!!!!!
            But the rest of your post is ok

        • Terry Field

          What rubbish.There is an extreme avoidance of the NHS as a model for healthcare delivery in nearly every advanced state.
          As for education, just look at the place of the UK in the international league tables.
          You are a blinkered little Englander.

    • bigsammyb

      If christianity had to much value then young people would embrace it independently. Sending a child to a christian school is child abuse and should be illegal. There is no such thing as a christian/muslim/jewish child only the victim of abuse.

      • Terry Field

        Unjustifiable, bigoted garbage.

  • tigerlily

    ‘Successful’ at what?

  • allymax bruce

    Alex, I think you are making a lazy mistake in conflating Christianity of The Gospels, to what amounts to a millenium of entrenched dogmatic ideals forced on Western society. I was reading Calvin by Bruce Gordon recently, and Calvin was nuts! Nowadays, Calvin would be seen as a bad tempered, rude, self-important cringing old scrooge today! Why are we conflating Jesus with horrible ‘puritans’ like this? See beyond the soul, what we endeavour to please as flesh, and find the Spirit of God in your Heart. That’s where the Truth lays; not in punishing/pleasing the flesh. Our Church in Scotland needs to understand we are seeing these new things, a kind of La Vita Nouva of poetic pace in Modernity; Postmodernism is nothing; like its philosophical basis it has no kernel of Truth, Existence, nor Reason. It is basically a 21st century tool of the Marxist Capitalists to rob, plunder, and control society. Postmodernism is just as harmful to society today as was Calvinism centuries ago. Many lessons of virtue, human virtue, can be gleaned from Pauline philosophy, but that’s not the Tenet of what Jesus meant to us; applied in parable and lesson in The Gospels. The New Testament is exactly that; not of the Old ‘Order’, and Christian, not Judaic. In-deed, the Old Testament is to all intents & purposes Jewish Talmudic, not Jesus-Christ Christian; it was these Jews that Jesus came to ‘save’. If you read when God began creating, then you will see Jesus is ‘foretold’ to come as The promised One; but Judaism doesn’t even believe that. But, ironic enough, even the Jewish unbelief in Jesus is ‘foretold’, and rebuked in the same ‘book’! Anyway, Religion is the existential perspective human belief, the flesh of God’s Spirituality. But what we need to see is that no amount of self flagellation will bring salvation; Salvation only comes from Faith in Jesus. Progressing to Witness & Works is very rewarding; it allows the person to see what Jesus Himself was telling us in The Gospels. The gap between the first row of pews, and the Alter is man-made, not God-Given!

  • Paddy S

    The greatest atheist who ever lived in terms of his views was Nietzsche who recognized that death of God would have profound effects on civilization – will to power, will to secular ideologies, contempt for all equal before God idea, contempt for idea that all are worthy of dignity and respect. The modern atheists dont understand this mainly because they are naive, some stupid and utterly limited in their thinking ( damage of 4 decades of liberalism in universities)

    • pearlsandoysters

      True, though some would trace the “tilt” to will straightway to Duns Scotus, which is not a mean feat. The modern atheists are a way too engaged with their own secular dogmas & can not be bovvered to look at stars.

  • Cyril Sneer

    The are many reasons for the decline of Christianity here, one thing that doesn’t help is our government and previous governments who consistently ignore the plight of Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere. By ignore I mean they literally do not talk about it, do not care, do not mention it. Then at the same time it would seem our government falls over itself to appease muslims at home whilst seeking to overthrow secular dictators who protected such minorities and replace it Sunni jihadists.

    Questions should be asked since 1997 of where this government and previous governments loyalty lies.

    • Randy McDonald

      Where would it possibly lie?

  • itbeso

    The morality in the OT is either revolting (or plaugurised from earlier civilisations) the morality in the NT is again either borrowed or dubious. Either way they have nothing new to say. Morality predates religion and has evolved through it and out of it leaving it behind as a relic of darker times. Islam needs to follow toute de suite.

  • itbeso

    “Reason, Faith and Revolution, a thoroughgoing demolition of the Richard Dawkins critique of religion”

    In your dreams.

  • zanzamander

    Not all religions are equally peaceful, tolerant, progressive (in its real meaning, not the lefty hijacked one) or unifiers. One of the militant faiths is even a political cult masquerading as religion. I am inclined to say that both Christianity and Islam has done more harm to humanity than good and they continue to be a millstone around the neck for humanity.

    If you have two dominant cults fighting to be the top dog, you end up with an internecine war like we’re witnessing in the Islamic world and even after one of them emerges as alpha male, going by what is happening in the world, the fundamentals don’t look too bright for mankind.

    I would argue that there is too much religion, not less. We were plodding along nicely then along came 9/11 and now the whole world has turned upside down – what was once good, is now bad and vice versa. Dark age beckons.

    • itbeso

      Last para is sadly the truth.

      • Paddy S

        Well the world without religion would not be pleasent given the 20th century thats for sure….

        • Jackthesmilingblack

          “A world without religion”
          Has it ever been tried?

          • Paddy S

            Ye in the countries of the Iron Curtain and the Far East – didnt end well many skulls many victims and more deaths than any cause in history….

          • Rocksy

            North Korea

        • pearlsandoysters

          There’s an excellent book by a Canadian philosopher that contemporary situation (world without any monotheistic or pantheistic religion) is unprecedented and has very serious implications, which are not immediately obvious.

  • Bert3000

    The stream of wibble in this article is a very good example of why religion plays no part in the lives of the overwhelming majority of people in Britain.

    • John Lea

      What a lucid and in-depth riposte – you’ve converted me with your reasoned argument and point-by-point destruction of all the issues covered in the article.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      By religion you obviously mean organized religion, specifically Christianity in one form or another. Compare with Islam, a male-led, hard-edged religion, with church attendance at Sunday service. A few elderly middle class ladies that can’t bring themselves to realise it was all a scam.
      Jack, Kathmandu

  • Jack Dawson

    One current manifestation of religion, with sects, pious believers, heretics, apocalyptic prophecies, totem poles and appeasing sacrifices is the faith we call Anthropogenic Global Warming.

    • chump23

      This is the single most boring thing a Speccie comment can say. Go back to Guido or troll CiF.

      • AndrewS

        I find a lot of religious types get very touchy when someone questions their faith.

        • Jack Dawson