A Beginner’s Guide to the Argument from Religious Experience

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Ask virtually anyone, including clergy, whether ‘religion’ is declining in the UK and the answer would be ‘yes’. The 2011 census showed a drop of 12 % in the number of people describing themselves as ‘Christian’ from the 2001 census (71% in 2001 – 59% in 2011). In September 2017 the British Social Attitudes Survey (BSAS) announced that more than half the country considered themselves not religious (47%) and the following year they published further analysis of the same data which showed that Church of England attendance had halved over the previous fifteen years (31% – 14%).

But perhaps all is not what it seems.

Back in 2007, Micklethwait and Wooldridge published God is Back: How the global rise of faith is changing the world? In it, they acknowledged that the British church was not expanding in the way that it was in many other parts of the world, but they also observed that there were even signs of growth in Europe, including the UK. They put this down to the impact of the Alpha Course (an introduction to Christianity created by Nicky Gumbel in 1993), the sharp rise in confirmations, ‘booming’ pilgrimages (their words) and immigration, which, contrary perhaps to common belief actually brings approximately twice as many Christians as Muslims into the UK (currently) each year. Indeed, immigration is one of the key reasons why Christianity is not declining in the UK.

Micklethwait and Wooldridge’s argument is interesting and compelling, but the picture they offer is so at odds with the ongoing stream of data that is coming from authoritative sources such as the National Census and the BSAS that the only rational explanation would seem to be that the authors simply made an error.

Yet, I want to suggest that actually Micklethwait and Wooldridge were not wrong, and that the ‘green shoots’ that they discerned, as well as their analysis of the truth of what was really happening spiritually in the UK, was more reflective of reality than the headline data from the BSAS and Census surveys.

The first point to make is that Atheism is not growing it is declining.

Kaya Burgess of The Times reported in December 2018 that a YouGov poll which they had commissioned showed that those in the UK who said they never went to church declined from 63% in 2016, to 61% in 2017 and to 56% in 2018. Of course, church attendance does not mean automatically that the people attending are Christians: many could be ‘seekers’, or ‘curious’. Or simply coming to attend a special occasion such as a baptism. But what the survey also found was that the number of people who never prayed was also down from 54 to 50% and those who ‘prayed several times a year’ increased from 10 to 13%.

Globally Atheism has been in decline since its high of 20% in 1970 to 12% in 2010 and, according to the highly respected Pew Research Centre, it is projected to be 10% by 2020. This is mainly due to rises in Christianity in Asia and Africa along with the increasing Muslim and Hindu populations.

The second point to make is that we have an unrealistic view of the spiritual life of the Britain in years gone by which clouds our perception of what is happening in the present.

The only other time before 2001 when religious data was taken in the UK was in 1851. It’s methodology was somewhat rough and ready by modern standards for it simply counted the number of people in church on a given Sunday. By that measurement (taken on 30th March), 44% of the population were at church that day. Surprisingly low you might think, but what was even more remarkable about that figure was that it was Easter Sunday.

Further back in history, research by Rodney Stark (subsequently published with Robert Finke in 2000 as Acts of Faith) has shown that church attendance in the Middle Ages may have been even lower than it is today. Indeed, church attendance must have been very bad in the Tudor times because John Lawson records in his Medieval Education and the Reformation (1967) that a law was passed making church attendance and the reading of the Bible compulsory. Something which would have been unnecessary if they were occurring naturally.

Some of this evidence, in one sense, is anecdotal, but taken as a whole, it is strongly suggestive that we have a ‘skewed’ understanding of historical spiritual life in Britain.

The final point to make is that the number of people, as The Times poll indicates, who are in the ‘spiritual but not religious’ grouping has grown exponentially. In fact there are many Christians who will answer that they are ‘not religious’ when asked, not because they are ashamed of what they believe (hopefully), but rather because institutional affiliation has become passé and unfashionable. The natural ‘liberty’ which has birthed the rampant individualism of our culture demands that we show our individuality by refusing to associate ourselves with any group. Studies such as Sparks and Honey’s (2014) have shown that Millennials especially are very interested in ‘causes’ such as climate change, but will not join Greenpeace as a demonstration of that concern. This same dynamic is being reflected in spirituality. Indeed, in spiritual terms it also means that we can pick and choose our spirituality as well without having to adhere to a set of doctrines, many of which will be uncomfortable.

Micklethwait and Wooldridge were not wrong back in 2007 when they observed a growing spirituality coming back into Europe, even the UK. What we have seen since then has confirmed their analysis; the British are as spiritually thirsty as we have ever been, perhaps more so, but at present it seems we want to create ‘bespoke’ faiths. Christianity is not dying in Britain, but ‘the church’ is struggling in an age of spiritual ‘cherry-pickers’.


Sean Oliver-Dee is a researcher and writer on global religious trends and their relationship with public policy in the inter-related fields of counter-extermism, religious networks, identity and citizenship. He is currently a Research Associate of the Oxford Centre for Christianity and Culture, Regents Park College, University of Oxford and has done consulting work with a range of NGOs and the EU.

Further Reading:

John Mickelthwait and Adrian Wooldridge God is back: How the rise of global rise of faith is changing the world. (2009)
David Goodhew (ed) Church Growth in Britain: 1980 to the Present (2012)
Sean Oliver-Dee God’s Unwelcome Recovery: Why the New Establishment wants to proclaim the death of faith (2015)