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Is religion fading in Britain?

By Muhammad Abdul Bari | Al Jazeera| 22 Dec 2011

A groundbreaking social survey seems to suggest ‘yes’, but there is still a role for faith in our lives, argues author.

Is religion fading in Britain? According to the latest influential British Social Attitudes Survey (BSA), just released this December, half of us Brits do not belong to any religious grouping or affiliation.

What’s more, more than half (56 per cent) of those who identify themselves as belonging to a religion never attend religious services. The ratio gets worse for the young: 65 per cent of 18-24 year olds do not belong to a religion, compared with 55 per cent of the same age group (18-27) in 1983.

Previous reports had already raised a number of interesting issues for humanists and a number of challenges to faith communities.

Between 1983 and 2009, British attitudes toward religion, Christianity in particular, shifted significantly. For example, those who professed no-religion rose from 31 per cent in 1983 to 51 per cent in 2009. Those who identified as Christian fell from 66 per cent in 1983 to 43 per cent in 2009. And those who identified as belonging to “other” religions rose from two per cent in 1983 to five per cent in 2009. Perhaps less surprising was that women, the old and less educated were more religious compared to men, young and better educated people.

There is no dearth of people who, with gleeful smiles, have long-expected that religion will have a slow but certain demise. The growth of New Atheism has joined a chorus of humanists and secularists advocating that religion should be “countered, criticised and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises”. In 2008, a group of them came up with a £140,000 ($216,972) advertisement campaign in London’s bendy buses and across England, Scotland and Wales, with the message that “there is probably no God… now stop worrying and enjoy your life“. In a tit-for-tat advertisement the Christian Party came up with the rebuttal: “There definitely is a God. So join the Christian Party and enjoy your life”. Ignore the word “probably” and “definitely” from these adverts, and you expose a great divide that splits the population down the middle.

It is true this decline of religion is not only in Britain, but across Western Europe. According to the Centre for the Study on Global Christianity at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, “Every major religion except Islam is declining in Western Europe.”

What we are talking about here is the decline of organised religions that have existed for millennia (not the new religious movements, beliefs, faiths or cults). To be more specific, for Europe, this is about the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – all originating from the same source, Prophet Abraham’s pure monotheism. In spite of some secondary differences on theology and rituals, these three religions have had a phenomenal impact on Europe. As Britain has a predominantly Christian legacy, any shift in social attitude towards religion here is primarily about Christianity. However, as Judaism and Islam are now integral parts of British life, the social trend affects them as well. And in our hurry to distance ourselves from religion’s failings, we ignore its many successes too – particularly in a time of social hurt and economic confusion, when the need for belief and belonging is more crucial than ever. We risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater, if you will.

Take the issue of education. Education is at the heart of human progress. There would be little or no modern education system without the Biblical (New and Old) Testaments, as well as the Quranic injunctions “to learn”. Monasteries, synagogues and mosques have been at the heart of the historical educational infrastructure that has helped shape the learning we have today. The cross-fertilisation of the pedagogy and philosophy of Christian Europe with the Islamic world shaped European Renaissance and Enlightenment. Al-Khwarizmi invented algebra to work out religious inheritance laws, while Isaac Newton wanted to discover and describe the perfect mathematical order of the Creation.

Religion provided the inspiration for their works. Any Muslim with basic Islamic knowledge would be aware that the first revealed word of the Quran was “Read”. Albert Einstein in his speech, “My Credo”, in 1932 said: “To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious.”

No one can deny the fact that religion has been used to create intolerance, not only between people but within the same religious groupings, too. Europe faced this problem in the past; the Inquisition and Spanish Reconquista were blots on its history. The sectarian killings among Muslims in some countries and al-Qaeda’s terrorism in recent times remind us how Islam is constantly in danger of being used in un-Islamic way.

In fact, all religions can be used to foster fanaticism and hatred. While this is unacceptable, we should not accuse religion itself per se. The fact is, throughout human history more killings and cruelty have been carried out for political conquests, economic greed, perverted sense of nationalistic or racial superiority and ideology than for any “religious” notion. Religion is often a convenient scapegoat used by those who wish to cloak their actions in some form of righteousness, by rulers who wish to stir up a populace. The 20th century wars, destruction, banishment of people, ethnic cleansing and other cruelty has surpassed probably all the so-called “religious” atrocities of the past.

As for the question whether God exits or not: This has perturbed the human mind throughout time, including even Abraham’s quest for God. Is there any scientific or empirical evidence to prove or disprove this existence? There is none. Science is not in the business of finding “truth”, let alone finding God. Science is about statistical probabilities based upon the experimental evidence. All scientific experimentation is subject to errors, because of confounding factors and multiple parameters. The “truth” of Newtonian physics was no longer held to be absolute once it was taken over by Einsteinian physics. However, this “truth” of the last century is now being questioned because of the recent experiments in CERN. When a new “truth” comes up, the previous “truth” gives way. There cannot be orthodoxy in science.

The nature of the scientific method – which has undoubtedly led to much technological advancement over the few centuries – is that it cannot answer many questions, let alone the most difficult question of the existence of God. Probability, not truth, is science’s language and jargon. An empirical approach can never answer the question whether or not the universe was created by an external force or whether it emerged from forces within itself. One cannot test this scenario. The most that those who reject the idea of a creator can offer are “theories”.

This is not about rubbishing science and its method: I come from a background in physics. Nor is it to deny the respect for those who try hard to understand the processes that drive the universe and the nature of things – as Newton and Einstein both did in their time. It is about reminding ourselves of the limitations of science and conclusions one can infer from it. To apply science beyond its remit is bound to bring unnecessary disrepute to both itself and its practitioners.

The question is: How does religion know that there is definitely a God? Well, there is no “proof” here either. Religion starts with belief, based on the same message from all the prophets who were known as truthful in their life. Religions, particularly Islam, demand critical autonomy from its adherents in order to see the observable world, the “ayat” or signs in the creation. Prophet Abraham observed these signs, used his critical autonomy, and “discovered” God. The Quran is replete with exhortation to keep an open mind, observe, reflect, contemplate and act for the benefit of all humans and the creation. Religion’s premise is different from that of science. Religion, when properly understood, brings ease of heart and mind and teaches love and care for all.

Religion may be on the decline in Europe, but it is flourishing among some communities and in many other parts of the world. Religion can be a source of tranquil hearts and inspiration for fight against tyranny, inequality and injustice. For argument’s sake, even if there is no God, human beings need one to behave responsibly on Earth.

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is a parenting consultant. He is a founding member of The East London Communities Organisation (TELCO), Chairman of the East London Mosque Trust, and former Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10).



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