20091223-_DSC5237_38_39_40_41 Knowlton Church

Image by ClifB via Flickr

The controversy over the Pope’s visit to the UK is linked by the media to the sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. And it is true that some priests committed terrible crimes and that the church did an inadequate job in disciplining the priests involved and helping those victimized. However, the ultimate source of hostility to the Pope’s visit seems to be British secularism.

Less than 10% of the UK population attends church services on any given Sunday (as opposed to a high 30s figure in the US). A significant number of the residents of the UK are atheist/agnostic (ranging from 31-44% as opposed to 3-9% in the US according to adherents.com). While this percentage is much lower than in Scandinavia and a few other European countries, it is still very high. If one adds to that percentage pantheists and nonpracticing believers, the percentage of nonreligious people greatly outweighs the percentage of religious people in the UK. Unfortunately this has been combined, in some individuals, with a hostility to traditional Christianity. The Roman Catholic Church, which opposes abortion and homosexuality activity is hated by many members of society who support such practices. There is also hostility to the Roman Church’s opposition to the ordination of women to Holy Orders (a practice only recently introduced into the Church of England). There is something ironic here: people who are anti-religious trying to tell a religious institution what to believe.

But the sad thing for traditional Christians everywhere is how Europe has, since the eighteenth century Enlightenment, thrown off its Christian heritage, beginning with the French Revolution and continuing until the present day. Although this means that the remaining practicing Christians take their religion seriously and are very dedicated, throwing out Christianity has left a hoard of people without a sense of purpose in life. Into that void comes consumerism and hedonism–if this life is all there is and there is no ultimate meaning, why not? But a people without meaning cannot maintain a stable society over time. Muslims in the UK and in other European countries understand this, and this is one of the sources of their success. A people who no longer believe anything other than “shop until you drop” will not be able to withstand Muslim believers who maintain a purpose beyond self-gratification.Muslims hold on to the idea of moral discipline formerly held by Christians, and are willing to take a stand against both legalized murder and sexual perversion. The few remaining Christians in the UK and in Europe do their best to survive in a hostile society that is much like the hostile Roman Empire prior to Constantine. History is not an inevitable march in one direction, and hopefully UK and other European Christians can make an impact on society–the Roman Catholic Church has in a small way. More UK citizens in Great Britain attend Roman Catholic services than members of the Established Church attend services in the Church of England, and the crowds who have come to see the Pope, while smaller than expected, are still large and enthusiastic. Perhaps some of the individuals in that crowd can do their small part to reverse secularization in the UK.

The US should take notice. Weekly church attendance in the US has dropped seven percentage points in the last twenty years. More and more US citizens consider themselves “spiritual,” which usually means that they want the benefits of religion without making any moral changes in their lives or paying the price that religions such as Christianity demand. The percentage of atheists and agnostics is rising in the US. The Courts have removed religion from the public square, allowing large segments of the population to only hear a secular message. The positive point is that there are millions of traditional Christians in the US, both Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant who are willing to fight the growing secular tide. It may be a losing battle (it is far easier not to be a Christian than to be one), but at least Christians can continue the fight. I pray that the US does not rapidly secularize as Europe did–I must admit I am not optimistic–but Christians always have one thing that the atheist lacks by the very nature of his lack of belief–hope.