Angela Tilby: Rewriting the anti-God script

15 September 2017

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THE latest British Social Attitudes survey, published by the National Centre for Social Research (NCSR), reports that 53 per cent of us have no religion (News, 8 September). There are quibbles about this, of course: some Evangelicals would claim to have no religion but “Christ alone”. But I doubt that this would greatly affect the conclusion; the majority of us are not religious.

The young are the least religious of all. As religious literacy has waned, young people have simply absorbed the anti-religious narrative of our time. In particular, they expect scientists to reject faith, as many of the best known ones do. The script that human life is no more than a cosmic accident, and that we acquire meaning only by choosing to be who and what we wish to be, is now deeply embedded in our culture. Even believers are vulnerable to the underlying message, and tend to resist church teaching that does not bow to the consensus.

None of this is helped by sex-abuse scandals in the Church, and the Church’s equivocation on issues of human sexuality. In spite of that, we should note that commentators on the NCSR research, some of them atheists, are far from sanguine about the passing of a Christian majority, recognising that much of our law and many of our attitudes towards our neighbour, our communities, and the poor rely on a Christian ethic. They are rightly worried about what happens as this ethic is gradually eroded. There may not be much room for compassion in the social fabric once the shrine at which we worship is individual choice.

One thing that might help would be the “coming out” of Christians who already play a part in public life: academics, media people, scientists, even celebrities. Many of these people are nervous of making a commitment to faith in public, fearful, perhaps, that they would lose credibility by doing so. But it is from such, I believe, that a new Christian apologetic could be generated.

In reality, the anti-religious script is less intellectually secure than it seems. It has been shown again and again that it is not really scientific: it distorts history, neglects philosophy, takes no account of religious experience, and is not obviously superior to faith in terms of rationality. While its rhetoric is strident, and even bullying, it steadfastly ignores the ultimate questions of existence.

Good work on apologetics has mostly come in recent years from academic clergy: Alister McGrath, Tom Wright, and others. But lay apologetic speaks in a different way. The effort and the risk involved shows that it matters. We may not be able to produce a C. S. Lewis these days, but there must be some thoughtful, culturally literate lay people who could begin to question the received wisdom, and would relish the challenge. Where are they?

 

The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford.

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