We often hear from the public media that most British people now have ‘no religion’. But last Christmas millions of us attended a church service – presumably we weren’t just celebrating the winter!
Pope Francis suggested at the time that our western Christmas was becoming a ‘charade’. Perhaps that’s what our religious festivals have become – once or twice a year we play out a pantomime of pretending to be religious. That’s not as cynical as it might appear. We also hear much media talk about ‘British values’ – can we list them? Peace, Love, Justice, Forgiveness, Selflessness, Generosity …… but aren’t those the things we are always likely to hear in church? Surely these Gospel values still serve as national values?
Last Christmas, the Prime Minister once again braved the derision of the media pundits when he identified British values with Christianity. Certainly, British people seem to have a profoundly laissez-faire attitude to any religious values, in contrast to most other world faiths. Christianity does seem to represent the faith most of us no longer believe in, but isn’t that just a ‘religion-lite’ form of faith? As one atheist writer put it, again last Christmas:
‘It’s as if the things we don’t believe in, we do try to live, even as we live to doubt them. Nothing draws me more to religion than Christmas – not because I lose my atheist faith but because I dislike all the baggage that surrounds the festival. So I always go to at least one carol service and even a midnight mass, as a form of protest!’
I warm to his attitude. After all, theism and atheism alike depend on decision, conviction and commitment after careful scrutiny of the evidence, which takes time and thought. But there is so much competition for attention these days, and little time for appreciating a religious dimension to life. So the classic stories of faith, even at special times of the year like Christmas, seem to pass us by without real engagement or deeper study.
All religions have stories at their heart, and Christianity has the best, all the way through from Christmas to Easter and beyond, with its many imaginative leaps and surprises. The story has endured for centuries – but may now be in real danger of being lost, especially in Britain. Lost, not by force of argument, not by real debate, not by the collision of ideas, but rather by mere indifference in a culture seemingly driven only by self-absorption and self-promotion. Are we slipping into merely commercial values as a nation? It is perhaps no real surprise that we are becoming a people who find it increasingly difficult to know who we are and what we truly stand for anymore.