Faithless in Britain

Those of us in the US who are atheists and other forms of skeptics and are surrounded by religious people tend to look enviously at countries in Europe that seem to have thrown off those shackles a long time ago. I have long argued that things are not nearly as bad as they seem and that there are increasing signs that disbelief in the US is growing and it will only accelerate with time.

There was an interesting article in The Telegraph by Fraser Nelson about the state of religion in the UK that pointed out that the lack of religious faith in Britain is actually quite a recent phenomenon.

The current opposition Labour party leader Ed Milibank is quote open about the fact that he is not a religious person and recently made a speech where he said that he did not have a religious faith though he had faith in humanist values. The writer of the article pointed out how remarkable it was that such a statement seemed to provoke hardly any comment, let alone a fuss. This is a far cry from the state of affairs during the Thatcher years when a former Labour party leader made a similar statement.

When Neil Kinnock spoke about his atheism, he was monstered, as if this were evidence of his otherness. In fact, he was at the vanguard of a growing secularist trend. Today religion has become, if anything, a handicap to those governing modern Britain. Tony Blair judged it best to keep quiet about his faith. David Cameron has declared a Christianity-lite, one that comes and goes like “Magic FM in the Chilterns”.

Over the past 30 years, the two single most striking changes in Britain have been mass immigration and the collapse of Christian worship. The former has only partially offset the latter. Pews have been emptying at the rate of 1,500 souls per Sunday, and churches have been turning into pubs almost as fast as pubs have been closing. Deconsecrated churches now stand all over the country, like memorials to an era where weekend worship was the focal point of the community and “Sunday best” meant something. Today, just one in seven Brits says they worship every week. Regular church-going is as odd, now, as atheism once was.

So take heart, fellow heathens! History is on our side, and the arrival of unbelief in various forms as a majority viewpoint is going to be more like a wave that suddenly sweeps over the US rather than a slow creeping tide.


  1. stonyground says

    I am now 54, but as a kid attended a Methodist chapel most weeks. Even then I got the feeling that there were normal people who ignored religion, and then there were oddballs like us who still went to religious services. The congregation would consist of our family of five plus about half a dozen old people. That chapel closed down years ago and is now a house.

    I don’t recall the fuss over Neil Kinnock’s atheism. I know that our politics was a lot more polarised in those days and it was probably the case that Kinnock’s opponents were just using atheism as a stick to beat him over the head with. I suspect that the reaction from the general public on this matter would have been indifference, that would possibly explain why the incident didn’t register on my radar.

    We do have the downside that the CofE* still has quite a bit of political influence that is quite inappropriate for a democracy, although I suspect that the machinations of the bishops tend to leave the population with a cynical attitude toward religion.

    *Church of England.

  2. TGAP Dad says

    I think you are a bit too optimistic in your assessment of the long slow march of secularism in the U. S. I also think you underestimate the fervency of the believers, and their increasingly desperate clinging to their fairy tale. As the island of christianity shrinks more and more, they will feel ever more besieged. I am sure they realize how the war is going to end, but will fight ever more fiercly to the bitter end.

  3. gshelley says

    Maybe it’s a regional thing? As a child, 20-25 years ago, few people at my school were openly church goers and they were thought of as being a bit strange. I certainly knew more open atheists than openly religious. Most people never really said much about it either way

  4. Mano Singham says

    But the very fact that the the religious are more militant is the sign that they are fearful of losing ground. If they felt unthreatened, they would just ignore the trend. I expect them to become even more angry and hostile with time.

  5. csrster says

    “I don’t recall the fuss over Neil Kinnock’s atheism.”

    Neither do I. Even 40 years ago I remember a teacher taking a show of hands in our class to ask how many were regular worship-attenders. There were at most two or three, and he used this as a springboard for a discussion of how radical a change this was compared to 20 or 30 years prior to that!

  6. Dunc says

    As the last authentically socialist leader of the Labour party in the era of Thatcherism, Kinnock got “monstered” whenever he said anything at all.

  7. Bill Openthalt says

    In “catholic” Europe, religion has become mostly folklore. There is a small core of “real” believers, but the vast majority has stopped attending Sunday mass, confessions, daily prayers etc. Christmas is for giving presents and having a nice (pre-christian) decorated tree, easter is a good moment to have a family get-together and eat chocolate eggs, other religious holidays are perfect excuses for a day off work, and so forth and so on.

    The pope’s teachings on contraception are gleefully ignored even by “real” believers (those who go to mass every Sunday). It’s called “supermarket catholicism” because people pick only those parts of doctrine they find attractive. Previously religion-based political parties have replaced “christian” with “humanist” in their names and logos.

    Births/baptisms, weddings and funerals are still celebrated in the church, and are the only moments that churches are full. In rural communities there’s the odd blessing of a new fire engine, getting us back to folklore…

  8. Mano Singham says

    Interesting. So the change occurred over about 60 years rather than 30. Still not too bad. It is still just one lifetime.

  9. robster says

    Watching, reading and listening to the godbots fall all over themselves defending their childish nonsense really is the best free entertainment around at the moment. The beauty of it is, given their gullibility to fraud which does suggest a somewhat compromised intellectual ability, that they are their own worst enemies. They shoot themselves in the foot (feet) whenever they speak. They have no understanding of just how silly and hatefilled their dogma sounds to the unafflicted and that has to be positive for the greater good.

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