Growing up in England in the ’70s, hardly any of my friends believed in God but we all went through the motions – daily prayer in school and church for special occasions – without complaint. It was the *normal* thing to do. There was no compulsion to proclaim a faith that you didn’t believe. There was very little hostility to religion and believers and non-believers lived happily side-by-side. There was no proselytising in either direction. It was just accepted that different people believed different things.
When I came to America in the ‘90s, it was a bit of a shock to discover that almost everyone proclaimed their Christian identity proudly; hardly anyone I knew was openly atheist – this was in liberal Manhattan and Palo Alto. Especially, in New York, it was amazing to see how many people had ashes on their forehead on Ash Wednesday. I had NEVER seen that before.
Coming into what Andrew Sullivan called the Christianist era, the Bush years and immediately after the Iraq War, the public professions of piety seemed (to this atheist) to be multiplying. There was a brief period where it felt a little dangerous to be publicly atheist with Senators rushing to the steps of the Senate to say that this is a Christian nation “under God”, Prop 8 (banning gay marriage) passed in California, Karl Rove won the 2004 election for Team Red with a campaign to outlaw gay marriage and Texas was putting warning stickers on textbooks that taught evolution. At the time there was not a single openly atheist person in the Senate or Congress.
But then, all of a sudden, the rise in religious fervour stopped and the tide started to turn.
In my view, this was caused by several factors:
- Among young people, there was a strong association building that Iraq War = Republican Party = Christians (remember when John 3:16 was stamped on guns headed for Iraq?). As the former became discredited, so did the latter.
- The very public evolution wars were lost (remember the Dover evolution trial?). The Pastafarians won that one with their beer volcanos and their stripper factories. Meanwhile, the Republicans doubled down on creationism (Remember the GOP debate where only 1 out of 11 candidates put their hand up when asked if they believed in evolution?)
- Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists. People laughed at the new atheists to think they would change anyone’s mind with their shallow intellectualism. But they didn’t have to change anyone’s mind. By 2005, there was a whole generation ready to reject the former pieties. They didn’t need to be told what to believe, they just had to be told that it was OK not to believe and that there were millions of others who believed the way they did. Once young people learned that it was OK to be atheist and that there were no social penalties for saying so, the relentless decline in religious belief was inevitable.
Coming back to England after 25 years over there, I experienced the same cultural shock in reverse. The decline continues – a study announced last week by Humanists UK showed that, for the first time, a majority of British people reject religion entirely and 42% say that religion should not be taught in schools – and yet religious and non-religious people still live happily side-by-side. We get along.
There are still minor culture war battles around things like assisted dying, bishops in the House of Lords and prayer in schools (daily prayer is still required by the 1944 Education Act) but battles over abortion and same-sex marriage are ancient history and no one in the church is eager to rekindle them.
The Benedict Option is a book by Rod Dreher who writes for The American Conservative. The Benedict Option provides a strategy for the survival of Christian communities in an increasingly hostile world. If I were hired by the Benedict Option strategy committee to provide enemy intelligence, I would advise that the place where Christianity in England has ended up is not a bad place to be. The decline in religious belief continues but there is no persecution and we mostly get along peacefully and amicably.
The religious battles of the 2000s in the USA backfired spectacularly and any victories were pyrrhic and temporary. If Roe vs Wade is ever overturned, the final defeat will be swift and overwhelming and permanent. The association between Christianity and the Republican Party in the minds of young people is fatal and every little win in the culture wars makes the journey towards peaceful coexistence more treacherous.
My advice to would-be Benedictines is to imagine the future life you want your future community to enjoy and travel purposely towards that. Leave the culture wars behind. They are lost.
I wish you safe travels and a fair wind.