Barbara Ellen, quoting Stephen Bullivant, reported that the number of people describing themselves as having “no religion” now exceeds the number claiming adherence to Christianity (“Has anyone kept their faith in Christianity?”).
The discussion between believers, agnostics and atheists has been going on since long before the Enlightenment and has been catalysed by Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene, 1976) and others. Their work gave a powerful stimulus to studies of evolution, but Dawkins failed to observe adequately the need to describe the behavioural phenomena one is trying to explain.The anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (Magic, Science, and Religion, 1948) pointed out that religions involve a number of elements, including belief (usually in an entity that has some improbable characteristics, such as the ability to answer prayers, and satisfies a human need, such as providing comfort); narratives, relating beliefs to the everyday; a moral code countering the ill effects of excessive greed; and religious experience.
The several elements support each other – narratives may support morality and ritual supports belief. In Christianity, belief takes precedence, but did Jesus really walk on water? Many narratives are more like Aesop’s Fables. Churches inevitably lose potential believers if they insist on belief in improbable biblical stories as factual. Differences between these elements are behind religious disputes and have been basic to bloody wars.
Interestingly, differences in morality are much less stark. “Don’t take more than your share” or “be kind to those weaker than yourself” could form part of any religious code.
Therefore, we should give up talking about whether or not people are religious, implying belief. In my view, differences in belief need not matter too much – differences in morality are vital.
Robert A Hinde
St John’s College
Barbara Ellen considers herself a “None”, one of a majority in this country outnumbering Christians.
Such a state of affairs is not difficult to analyse: satisfaction with the spirit of the age, comfortable, cultural and material wellbeing, individualism and Christianity regarded as irrelevant to living, but more significantly ignoring or dismissing new insights into wide Christian understanding since primary school days.
Admittedly, the Christian church has been less than candid about several of its doctrines, but it is important to distinguish between churchianity and Christianity. There may be a decline in churchgoers, but without doubt there is an increase in the numbers who seek a spiritual dimension to their lives.
You report in the same issue a statement from faith leaders, including a former archbishop of Canterbury, supporting the Remain position (“Faith leaders oppose Brexit”, News and Letters) claiming the EU is vital in preserving peace, fighting poverty and tackling the migration crisis.
These professors of faith can be useful advocates when supporting the “right” side of the argument!