Religion in Europe – a public utility

They may not turn up, but that’s not the full story

Just read a fascinating interview about faith in Europe. It’s a little old now (2005) but one of those pieces that makes lights go on in your head. It was with Grace Davie, an Exeter University professor, the sociologist who popularized the term ‘believing without belonging.’

July 23 - Prague - Cathedral & Castle (10)A few highlights:

European exceptionalism

‘The patterns of religion in Europe are not a global prototype. They are, in fact, an exceptional case. European self-understanding is premised on the idea that modernization implies secularization. Europeans think that what Europe does today, everyone else will do tomorrow; they don’t find it easy to grasp that the European case is, perhaps, sui generis.’

Contracting out your faith

Religion is contracted out. Regular church attendance is small and declining. But trying asking a wider question – who do I want to take care of my funeral? A much higher percentage expect something of the church. ‘The historic churches are public utilities, and you expect public utilities to be there when you need them.’

‘Religion [is] performed by an active minority — that’s the belongers — but on behalf of a much larger number — that’s the wider population, who implicitly, not only understand but quite clearly approve of what the minority is doing. In other words, there is a relationship between the nominal member and the active member.’

‘Church leaders and churchgoers not only perform ritual on behalf of others, they also believe on behalf of others.’

This explains why newspapers write so much about what bishops believe and what the Church of England synod is up to. They are doing exactly what they also do with sport or politics — telling the crowds of semi-committed non-payers what the committed minority are getting up to.

Among further evidence for contracted-out religion she notes what happens in tragedies (people expect the churches to be open); and the resentment people feel about a parish church being closed (people feel it belongs to them).

Two models of church

Statistics can be misleading because change is happening within denominations as well as in newer denominations. This can hide working models (it does so in the Church of England). The two working models are:

  1. The evangelical, often charismatic church. ‘In every small town and city you will find a relatively successful evangelical church.’ The most successful include a charismatic, experiential element.
  2. The cathedral or city-centre church. ‘You can just go there, you can sit behind your pillar, nobody bothers you, but while you’re there, you experience traditional liturgy — very predictable liturgy, which is clearly important (everybody knows what’s going to happen). You have world-class music, sublime architecture and very good preaching. It’s a very high standard. If you look at cathedrals, they are filling at every level. They are filling with regular members, less regular members, pilgrims and tourists.’

These lead to two models of Christian involvement among Europeans: the convert (the one who joins the evangelical church) and the pilgrim or seeker. ‘Old-fashioned Biblicism, as well as liberal Protestantism, is in trouble … The purely cognitive does not seem to appeal to today’s population. And although you have two completely different patterns, in fact they have a common element. It’s not so much what you learn when you get there; it’s the taking part that is important. It’s the fact that you’re lifted out of yourself that counts. And the big one-off occasions — candlelit carol service or evangelical conventions — are what do the trick’. It’s a mistake to ‘divide Europe into people who practice [the weekly attenders] and people who don’t, because most people are somewhere in the middle.’

Share the gospel or preach good principles?

A randomised trial of religion has surprising results

Fascinating experiment in the Philippines. International Care Ministries (a Christian charity) helps the Philippines’ poorest people with a training course that contains anumber of modules. Some just explain the gospel. Others teach things like financial planning or health. The charity can deliver all the modules, or just some.

So they tried just the gospel portions on one large group of villages. They tried just the life-skills module on another group. Still another group got the full course. And for a control, they looked at villages where they did nothing. It was (reports the Economist, ‘a randomised controlled trial of religion’) 1

The group who got the gospel (6000 households, a large sample) became more religious, a bit gloomier about their prospects, and their incomes ‘had increased by 9.2% compared with the others. ‘

As the Economist points out, ‘For now, anyone recalling nudges from grandma urging wakefulness through tedious sermons should consider that she may have been right.’

God’s technology?

Factory 3Here’s a thing. Technology achieves many of the things Jesus came to do.

‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’[f]

Recovery of sight to the blind? Most blindness today is preventable – by technology. Most blind people today are blind because they are poor, not because they are blind.

Good news to the poor? Set the oppressed free? Some principles that humans have worked out–the rule of law, free trade, mass-production, joint-stock companies– (arguably) seem to lift people out of poverty better than (say)  a career in slash-and-burn farming, or a culture of subsistence agriculture.

I believe that the link between ‘democracy’ and ‘people not starving’ has also been well made, even if you can’t necessary decide in that case which is cause and which is effect. But in this analysis ‘democracy’ would be another technology that works to relieve human suffering.

I would say that technology, understood as both gadgets and ideas, has done more to reduce human misery than almost anything else, and that process continues. Soon, for example, old people will get their mobility back once self-driving cars become popular.

What then is the link between the advance of (some aspects) of the Kingdom of the God and the rise of technology? Is it a coincidence that the Bible starts in a garden but ends in a city? Is anyone writing about this stuff? Would love to hear comments.


Two eyes are better than one (2)

How science can be earthed by contact with friendly theologians

In a recent post I speculated about ways that grasping truth through science can enforce a kind of rigour onto theologians to make them better theologians. Now the reverse question. What can theology do for science? I think plenty.

1. Monomaniacal materialism is not the answer to everything. Science observes and measures, then theorizes, then measures again. (At least on its best days.) This is fantastic for scoping out the material universe, for understanding how things work and how to fix them, for inventing things, for curing cancer. These things matter a lot. But not only are they not everything, they are not even nearly everything. What does it all mean? Do I have significance? What is love? What is a good life? Science can only scrape away at the patina of these questions. On its own, scientific perspective leaves a hole bigger than the Universe unfilled in our hearts. We need help from elsewhere, stories from outside, revelation from the Unknowable.

2. Skulduggery. Theology joins with post-modernism in pointing out that science will be flawed as long as it is carried out by humans — humans who are all prejudiced, all likely to shut our ears to opposing arguments, inevitable in our misuse of academic power and prestige because we abuse every power and gift of God. Scientists are sinners, like the rest of us, held back from our worst, like the rest of us, only by cultural strictures and the grace of God.

3. Science doesn’t do transcendent. It sort of can’t; science would have to un-science itself to do so. But that leads to a lopsided perspective. Science cannot (by definition I think) see beyond cause and effect to an Uncaused Cause. Quantum physics sometimes talks about the quantum vacuum, an eternal, uncaused thing from which universes spring. But that is striking a match in the darkness and hoping to create a Universe of suns. It is too much to ask, I think, for a mere quantum vacuum to somehow lead to consciousness and love and purpose. Only an Uncreated God, ‘source of all being and life’ as the creed says, can do justice to the Universe that science sees and sees but does not comprehend, that it measures and measures but does not know.

Belonging, that life and death thing

all contributions greatly received

TogetherI am trying to learn about some stuff in preparation for a book I might try to  write one day. It goes like this. My book ‘More than Bananas’ tried to show how the gospel is compatible with the world that science describes – physical reality.

Now I’m trying to think about how the gospel can be a good fit with our emotional landscape – ’emotional reality.’

In this, the idea of ‘belonging’ is so haunting and interesting.

  1. Belonging before believing

First:I think I have seen men join our church men’s breakfast group just because they had an overwhelming desire to belong to it. They just wanted to be a part of it. The things we evangelicals worry about (belief, truth, discipleship) came along later.  This is not what our evangelical procedures lead us to expect.

(What’s supposed to happen, according to some orthodoxy that I have yet to find written down, is that people hear the good news that God loves them, put their faith in Jesus, and then sign up.

What actually seems to happen is that some people see something, want it, join it, and then figure out what ‘it’ is.  They are basically the only people who have joined our group over the years. )

2. Dying unwanted

Second: I think I have seen people  die because they don’t belong and nobody wants them, and they don’t seem to be any use any more. They just shut down. Earlier than they need to. Not belonging sets off a kind of self-destruct routine. One old colleague of mine, alone, no-longer needed at work, and not endowed with close friends or family, went into hospital with something not very serious, and just died. Interesting.

3. A root of crime

Third: I work a bit with young people involved in crime. Everyone knows these youth share a lot in common, for example: low educational achievement, poverty, broken homes, ADHD. But now I think about it, isolation, unwantedness, not belonging, is central to these kids’ experience. Nobody loves them. Some were chucked out of their mum’s home at age 16, no longer welcome. Others have lost the last stable person in their life, a grandad say, and fallen off the edge.

4. A source of healing

Fourth: when I was ill and at my most totally infirm and paralyzed, the fact I was loved and mattered to people was the most astonishing tonic. I belonged; I mended.

5. The state doesn’t offer ‘belonging’

Fifth, our country will, with a bit of duct tape, and on a good day, provide an abandoned 16-year-old with shelter, a little cash, some help with jobs and education, and free health care. It will do the same for mentally ill person or the old  (in fairness, the government also pays for initiatives like a day centre, such as the one our church runs).  But belonging to someone?  Mattering to someone? Much more complex.

Preliminary conclusion: not belonging/not being loved is more dangerous than the most aggressive cancer. Belonging is better for you than a superfood salad.

Love to hear comments. Sorry if all this is obvious to you.

London: Pubs closing, churches opening

It’s not a fight but it’s interesting

Wine and beerSince 2001, London has lost 1200 of its 5000 pubs and gained perhaps 1500 new churches.

Pubs: The Economist 1 reports a decline from 4,835 pubs in 2001 to 3,615 in 2016.

Churches: as for churches, Peter Brierley’s London Church Census, the last detailed analysis of London church growth I am aware of, measured 1000 churches opening and 300 closing in the period 2005-2012, a net gain of 100 churches per year; two a week.  More than 700,000 Londoners were in church on a typical Sunday in 2012 compared with 600,000 in 2005. Extrapolating roughly, it’s likely that since the turn of the century, the growth of churches in the capital has at least matched the decline of pubs.

Of course, pubs and churches are not particularly in competition with each other or serving exactly the same clients.  Perhaps the real competition is between getting people to meet together compared with staying home in front of ever more high definition screens.

But I’m more interested in how the facts depart from the “facts”, that “everyone knows” – which are that London’s pubs are teeming, while London’s churches become ever more irrelevant.