Belonging Without Believing?

New research reports that 53% of the British public now describe themselves as having “no religion”. Josh Bullock ProfileIn this media response blog, Josh Bullock comments on his research on the Sunday Assembly London in this post-Christian transition.

This week the Independent reported that a “Record number of British people say they have no religion” and ‘the news has prompted fresh calls for the Government to cut the amount of public money going to the church and reduce its influence in society.’

This was in response to NatCen’s British Social Attitudes (BSA) 2016 survey that found that ‘More than half (53%) of the British public now describe themselves as having “no religion”, up from 48% in 2015. The proportion of non-believers has increased gradually since the survey began in 1983, when the proportion saying they had no religion stood at 31%’.

As sociologists, we know that nonreligion is ‘sticky’ in a way that Christianity is not (Woodhead, 2016). ‘For every one person brought up with no religion who has become a Christian, twenty-six people brought up as Christians now identify as nones’ (Bullivant 2017, p.13). So, it is really to no surprise that the BSA reported that young people are particularly underrepresented within the Church of England — ‘just 3% of those aged 18-24 described themselves as Anglican compared to 40% of those aged 75 and over.’

This cultural shift was noted by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who declared that Britain is no longer a society of practising believers and, despite a relatively strong Christian cultural presence and memory, the habitual practice has destabilised and as such has become post-Christian (Sparrow, 2014). With the UK having an established church, I argue that we are transitioning to a post-Christian society, which can be understood as “one that is born from a predominantly Christian culture, where (importantly) a cultural memory and established church is still present, or in decline, but where religious and historical practices and beliefs, values, culture and traditions have weakened substantially and thus would be described as not normative” (Bullock, 2017).

Lois Lee, in response to the BSA survey and the media attention it has received this week said, “The really interesting question now isn’t how many people no longer identify with a religion, but what they are identifying with instead.” Lee’s question is of greater importance.

My doctoral research has explored the Sunday Assembly London pictured in the BBC’s response to the latest figures.

Generational Y (born after 1980 and sometimes referred to as ‘Millennials’) trends towards nonreligion in the UK have allowed the Sunday Assembly — a secular community that uses existing religious structures, rituals and practices — to flourish. It is through this post-Christian transition and religion as a chain of memory (Hervieu-Léger, 2000) that people are still seeking to belong, but do not wish to believe in a religious doctrine. It is this current transitional phase that has provided the correct conditions for the Sunday Assembly to take flight as an idea and global congregational movement. Clichéd as it may sound, the world was not ready for the Sunday Assembly even as recent as 25 years ago — simply put, it would not have served a purpose or fulfilled a niche. However, with the dawn of the new millennium, then post-9/11, post-new-atheism, and the decline of Christianity in the UK, the Sunday Assembly could thrive as a ‘half-way house’ for those leaving their religion and those who had never been religious, but who sought what religious communities had to exclusively offer. What becomes apparent is a need to not completely cast out Christianity and its rituals and traditions.

At present, the Sunday Assembly taps into predominantly Christian church-leavers as its main demographic for attendees. If Christian heritage is abandoned completely and this transitional phase becomes redundant, the current model and structure of the Sunday Assembly will no longer be relevant; thus it will need to continue to evolve or risk similar decline to the Church of England. Whether the Sunday Assembly goes down the road of a ‘secular spirituality’ or embraces the buzzword of 2016/2017, ‘wellbeing’, or even trains its congregational leaders as secular chaplains, thereby creating new rituals and strengthening community ties, whichever path it chooses it will need to adapt with each new generation to create a slightly different brand to draw new individuals in.

Where the effects of religion might be diffuse and indirect in the UK, the effects of a post-Christian transition are still felt. The relationship between religion and secularisation reveals that a post-Christian transition is not an easy transition, one particularly felt by those who left their religious tradition. Charles Taylor, in A Secular Age, hypothesises that a feature of the ‘future of the religious past’ is that ‘much of our past, which our modern narratives tell us is firmly behind us, cannot thus simply be abandoned’ (2007, p.770). Therefore, society cannot simply jump from ‘religious’ to ‘unbelief’ (as if these were clear, bounded and distinct categories) without transitional phases, and secular society still wants to hold on to what religion provides, but not directly.

The Sunday Assembly fulfils this role of holding on to what religion provides, but not directly, by adopting the congregational format but secularising the structure and practices. It reveals that, despite a transitioning to a post-Christian society, ‘we are very far from settling into a comfortable unbelief’ (Taylor, 2007, p.727).

To further explore this, my new research project will contribute to mapping the diversity of unbelief in Northern and Central Europe to see if the nonreligious are “Reaching for a New Sense of Connection?”


References

Bullivant, S. ‘The “no religion’ population of Britain’. Catholic Research Forum Reports. (Online) Available at: https://www.stmarys.ac.uk/research/centres/benedict-xvi/docs/2017-may-no-religion-report.pdf [Last accessed 07.09.2017].

Hervieu-Léger, D. (2000) Religion as a Chain of Memory. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press.

Taylor, C. (2007) A Secular Age. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Woodhead, L. (2016) Why ‘no religion’ is the new religion. [Online] Available at: http://www.britac.ac.uk/sites/default/files/11%20Woodhead%201825.pdf [last accessed 07.09.2017].


Josh Bullock is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Kingston London. His doctoral research explores the recent phenomenon of godless congregations, using the Sunday Assembly London to develop broader understandings of the nature of belief, community, belonging, wonder and atheist identity. Josh studies under the supervision of Doctor Sylvia Collins-Mayo and Doctor Sonya Sharma.

@JoshBullock

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