Who needs a Stalin or Pol Pot to destroy Christianity when apparently it can do so of its own accord?
"And now congregation, put your hands together and give thanks, for I come bearing Good News. My country, Britain, is now the most irreligious country on earth. This island has shed superstition faster and more completely than anywhere else. Some 63 percent of us are non-believers, according to a 2006 Guardian/ICM poll, while 82 percent say religion is a cause of harmful division. Now, let us stand and sing our new national hymn: Jerusalem was dismantled here/ in England's green and pleasant land.
How did it happen? For centuries, religion was insulated from criticism in Britain. First its opponents were burned, then jailed, then shunned. But once there was a free marketplace of ideas, once people could finally hear both the religious arguments and the rationalist criticisms of them, the religious lost the British people. Their case was too weak, their opposition to divorce and abortion and gay people too cruel, their evidence for their claims non-existent. Once they had to rely on persuasion rather than intimidation, the story of British Christianity came to an end."
Johann Hari's diatribe continues in similar vein here, under the heading "The slow, whining death of British Christianity."
There is, of course, great nonsense at work in the citation above. To say, without qualification, "For centuries, religion was insulated from criticism in Britain. First its opponents were burned, then jailed, then shunned," is to overlook the centuries when opponents of Christianity were converted to Christianity, as well as to overlook the centuries when the British people widely embraced Christianity (but had trouble, for about one century, coping with internal dissent and difference without resorting to bonfires). Then there is nonsense at work in these sentences:
"Their case was too weak, their opposition to divorce and abortion and gay people too cruel, their evidence for their claims non-existent. Once they had to rely on persuasion rather than intimidation, the story of British Christianity came to an end."
I suggest it is far from clear that "opposition to divorce and abortion and gay people" has contributed much to the "story of British Christianity" coming to "an end." Nor is it accurate to pit "persuasion" against "intimidation" as the only dynamics at work in the public face of Christianity in British society over the last few centuries. When the intimidation of the 16th and 17th centuries ended, the story of British Christianity did not come to an end. For starters, it had some vigorous new life in it - Methodism, evangelical revival, the Oxford Movement, the Alpha Course - the last mentioned reminding us that the story is far from over!
Having got that off my chest, I acknowledge that mixed in with the nonsense is a telling point. That point is the ebbing away of belief in the existence of God among British (and Western) people. Almost certainly contributing, since the Enlightenment, has been a perception that we have a "weak case" and "non-existent evidence."
Also contributing, I suggest, has been the confusion we have sown in people's minds by being divided churches. I wonder how many people have wondered, "If Methodists think Anglicans are wrong who think Roman Catholics are wrong who think Pentecostals are wrong ... perhaps they are all wrong!" But those divisions have also reflected our uncertainty in Western Christianity about what the gospel is. The gospel is the power of God for salvation, but has God's power been inhibited in the world by uncertain notes being struck in the proclamation of the gospel? If Christianity is weak then chances are that we have failed to proclaim the gospel with the vitality, urgency, and persuasiveness that in previous times has made Christianity strong.
What is the gospel?
That is the great question Western Christianity needs to focus on in the 21st century. An extremely modest contribution by me will be a few posts over the next period which engage with the question.
Back to Hari. He concludes his diatribe with these words:
"As their dusty Churches crumble because nobody wants to go there, the few remaining Christians in Britain will only become more angry and uncomprehending. Let them. We can't stop [sic, I think he means "let"] this hysterical toy-tossing stop us from turning our country into a secular democracy where everyone has the same rights, and nobody is granted special rights just because they claim their ideas come from an invisible supernatural being. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a Holy Lamb of God to carve into kebabs - it's our new national dish. Amen, and hallelujah."
Since we are talking about British Christianity and secular democracy in Britain, it is astounding that he should imply here that Christianity as privileged by legislation is the last barrier to the imminent triumphant establishment of secular democracy in every corner and layer of British society. Reference to "kebabs" might have alerted him to the presence of another strong religious force resistant to that triumph which he will have to deal with! I cannot see Islam "crumbling" anytime soon in Britain.