Why Christianity Went Bust in Britain
How could a whole nation just seem to wake up one morning and simply not believe anymore?
By Craig J. Hazen
“The Death of Christian Britain” is a rather provocative book title. Did Christianity really die in Britain? I read this academic monograph by Callum G. Brown, a professor of social and cultural history at the University of Glasgow, when it first came out in 2001. It was a fascinating and sobering study that painted a rather desperate picture of Christianity’s current state and future in that country.
I followed the book reviews closely, especially those by Brits themselves, thinking that surely someone would complain about the title of the book because a pronouncement of death was a rather serious statement to splash on a book cover. But there were no complaints. It seems that it is a common idea in the U.K. that Christian Britain has died. Brown’s title was not really provocative at all.
Now, he did not mean that Christianity had disappeared in Britain. There are still some lively churches in the isles keeping the true flames of faith burning brightly — but they really are few and far between. The great cathedrals and churches that were center points of urban and rural life are almost all empty now. They are little more than tourist attractions — historical artifacts reminding visitors of a bygone era. What Brown means by “The Death of Christian Britain” is that the British people by and large have stopped identifying themselves with the Christian tradition. With that, it turns out, there is no argument. As one agreeable British reviewer wrote, “He does not claim that we are all atheists now, but asserts that a massive shift in our self-understanding as a nation has occurred, which has reduced Christianity to the status of an eccentric and irrelevant sub-culture in a dynamically plural society.”
There is another part of Brown’s study that is truly provocative. And that is the speed at which he claims this massive shift took place that discarded the national Christian identity. Upon his analysis, and against traditional theories, Brown believes Christianity was lost in a single generation and maybe in as little as a 10- or 20-year time span. His data is quite convincing on the question of the velocity of change. It was a catastrophic and abrupt cultural revolution. Of course, he then tried to paint a picture of how such a thing could happen so rapidly and he offered up a number of factors with special focus on the “feminization of Christianity.” But in his analysis he seemed stymied in one area: How could a whole nation just seem to wake up one morning and simply not believe anymore?
Brown’s training as a social historian, with expertise in counting and measuring people and behaviors, did not serve him well in his attempt to answer the question. But for those of us who study the history of ideas, the question isn’t quite as baffling. Christian beliefs and practices did stop relatively abruptly. But something that was not part of Brown’s study was that the intellectual seeds of Christianity’s demise had been sown for decades prior to this abrupt drop off. And these ideas that seem to render Christianity untrue and irrelevant came to full flower between 1960 and 1975 — a period of time that Brown identifies as the crucial period of demise. Atheist, agnostic, skeptical and pluralistic professors at all the great British universities had been hammering on the faith for years before this — and there were very few defenders in their midst. Indeed, one reason C.S. Lewis was such a standout in Britain in his day is that he was so unusual. There were very, very few believers willing to make an intelligent public case for Christianity — and that is still the situation today.
The great lesson to be learned is one that was taught by Richard Weaver decades ago: that “ideas have consequences.” Once the British people thought there were no good reasons to believe or practice Christianity, they stopped. Indeed, they even abandoned the Christian identity that marked them for more than a millennium. One can only imagine what might have happened if there were hundreds or even thousands of thoughtful Christian ambassadors in Britain like Lewis who were well trained and willing to make the case for Christ in all sectors of British society. I think there is good biblical warrant to think things might have turned out very differently in the U.K.
Our vision in the Christian apologetics program at Biola is to train up several generations of winsome, thoughtful ambassadors for Christ who can fulfill the Apostle Peter’s command to “be prepared always to give an answer, a reason for the hope that we have.” By God’s grace, if we are successful, perhaps no one will ever write a book titled “The Death of Christian America.”