For the first time, less than half the population of England and Wales identifies as Christian, according to the latest UK census data. And not because Christianity has been outstripped by other religions followed by immigrants – though some wishing to whip up sectarian moral panic have tried to prove otherwise. Rather it is because the number of those who identify as having ‘no religion’ has soared to 22.2 million.
Ireland is a long way off reaching a similar position. According to 2018 data, four out of five Irish people identify as Christian. The numbers are trending in the same direction as Wales and England, however. Non-practising believers already outnumber churchgoers. And between the 2011 census and the 2016 one the number of Catholics declined by 132,220.
The numbers in Ireland may appear less dramatic, but this is in fact a far more acute sea-change than in Britain. Only recently has Ireland begun to buck its supine relationship with the church, spurning its most illiberal strictures at the ballot box twice in the past decade. Britain might be a tale of the slow ebb of Christianity from public life, but in Ireland this mode of liberalisation has been rapid and precipitous.
Of course, in Ireland there are good reasons to want to dismantle the structures of the Catholic Church and practices that enabled decades of ruinous behaviour. The recent revelations about the extent of sexual abuse in Spiritans-run schools including Blackrock College are among the many reasons. Abuse of unmarried mothers, further stories of sexual abuse, institutional cover ups – all of these have left an indelible stain on the character of an institution that has wielded outsize power for far longer than should have ever been tolerated, whether by society, the State or individual acolytes.
That Ireland has been beleaguered by an institution with a rotten core for so long should hopefully point to the hastening of its demise, at least in its current incarnation. The irony, of course, is that the church will undo itself precisely by its unchristian actions.
But the influence of the Christian church on all of our lives is far harder to shake than simply ticking a different box on the census. A steady decline in the number of churchgoers does not rid society of its Christian architecture, as if by divine magic. The influence of Christianity echoes through western society whether we like it or not, in good ways and bad. It will be take far longer than we might admit – in Britain and Ireland – to bid Christianity farewell for good.
Quantifying the religious identity of a country is a far more complicated task than analysing census data. Of course it is patently clear that institutional religion’s grip on Britain is loosening. Even in 1997 the historian Peter Clarke declared the 20th century as the one in which the nation lost its Protestant identity. The British Social Attitudes survey names the decline in religion as one of the most important postwar trends in the country.
But in reality the nation’s relationship with religion is far more nuanced than all of that. The building blocks of daily life are informed by the long history of Christianity, no matter how many herald the triumphant rise of liberal secularism.
The queue last September to see Queen Elizabeth lying in state had all the qualities of a pilgrimage. The lord bishop of London recites a prayer at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday. Around this time of year carol singers take to the corners and doorsteps of London, hymns hang in the air on cold and busy streets, unmistakable in their holiness. None of this feels like a country that is shedding its religious heritage. Rather – and perhaps thankfully – it is just moving into a less conspicuous role.
Historian Tom Holland in his book Dominion tracks the centrality of the Christian faith to our lives. The structure of our working week is informed by the long-held idea of Sunday as the day of rest. Our celebratory calendars are centred on the birth and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The language we use to praise and demonise is hardly secular too.
Writer Helen Lewis sees this play out in the culture wars too. The language of repentance, heresy and hell ought to be on its way out of our dialect as public religion wanes. But instead it is being co-opted by activists who seek to excommunicate sinners and make pariahs out of those unfaithful to their social justice creeds. The scriptures may not be strictly about God, but they are inflexible and demanding.
So what would replace religion if we could remove it from society altogether? It is clear that we still seek divine ordinance, rely on the language of fire brimstone and cling to mythology. Without religion that energy may just be directed into extreme politics, astrology and intense devotion to particular celebrities. Those instincts are all, however, Christian in their nature.
The cultural force of Christianity will not dissipate that quickly. Some believe it is too central to the western imagination to ever vanish entirely. Religious institutions can and should be challenged properly. But the story is far more complicated than the numbers could ever portray.