Britain today has become one of the most godless societies on earth. Its principle religious exports today are thinkers who despise religion. From Richard Dawkins, who has compared religion to child abuse, to my friend Christopher Hitchens, who titled his 2007 book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, the British have cornered the market on being anti-God, at least the Christian and Jewish varieties.
While 92% of Americans believe in God, only 35% in Britain do and 43% say they have no religion, according to Britain's National Centre for Social Research. The number of people who affiliate themselves with the Church of England was 23% of the population in 2009 from 40% in 1983. In truth though, if Britain's Christian tradition is dying out, the leaders of the faith have only themselves to blame, for perpetuating the country's highly centralized religious structure.
Europeans are in the habit of making fun of American evangelicals as backward religious knuckle-draggers who believe that Adam and Eve ate apples with a talking snake. But for all this condescension, evangelical Christianity in the United States represents the single largest voting block in the world's sole superpower. One out of five Americans describes themselves as a born-again Christian, something inconceivable in Britain. American evangelicals build mega-churches that draw thousands of worshipers, while British churches are empty enough to land jumbo jets. Leading evangelical pastors like Rick Warren and Joel Osteen enjoy vast cultural influence among millions of Americans, while in Britain no religious figure could hope to excite the youth even fractionally like William and Kate.
One key difference is that in America there is no official state church. There is no Archbishop of Canterbury, no Chief Rabbi, no official defender of the faith or state religion. Religion lives and dies in America like a commercial enterprise, and is therefore highly entrepreneurial. If pastors excite their congregants with a message that is uplifting and relevant, they can be sure that the pews will be filled next week. If they deliver sermons that send would-be worshipers off into deep comas, their churches will be empty the following week.
My British friends argue that the demise of religion is a good thing, proving sophistication in sharp contrast to the religious hobos of America who speak in tongues and talk to dead people. I beg to differ. In his 1997 book A History of the American People, historian Paul Johnson makes the case that the remarkable growth of the U.S., from pioneering backwoodsmen to the most powerful and innovative nation on earth, was largely fueled by religious fervor. From the piety of the pilgrims to the faith-based values of the country's founders, to the belief in manifest destiny and even the marketing of Coca-Cola as "the real thing," Americans tamed the wilderness with the faith that their nation was a new promised land, destined to illuminate the earth with the torch of freedom and the light of human dignity.
British influence in the world has, in contrast, gone off a cliff over the last century. And while there are many factors in this decline, I would argue that the new, militant atheism that is becoming characteristic of Britain is a key reason. Atheism is a philosophy of nihilism in which nothing is sacred and all is an accident. While it has some brief, flashy moments, life is purposeless and meaningless. There is no soul to illuminate and no spirit to enliven -- just dead, decadent flesh. Human love is a prank played by our genes ensuring the sexual propagation of the species, and poetry and faith are shallow distractions masking the inevitability of our certain demise. Men are insemination machines incapable of ever being truly faithful and women are genetically programmed to seek out billionaire hedge-fund managers, so much the better to support their offspring.
This decline of faith and optimism may account for why Britain -- once the most advanced nation on earth, which gave the world parliamentary democracy and its inimitable centers of higher learning -- is today more famous for exporting reality shows like Big Brother and Project Catwalk. For while religion affirms the infinite dignity of the human person, its absence robs life of its sanctity. Exploitation for fame and humiliation and cash are the inevitable outgrowth.
Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 and ended it completely three decades before the U.S., with Christian abolitionists like William Wilberforce taking the lead against the abomination. But a century later Britain is better known for football hooliganism, the gratuitous depictions of women in its most-circulated publications and the demise of the family with one of the highest out-of-wedlock birthrates in the world.
True, America has many of these same problems and a great deal more of its own. But the spiritual underpinnings of the American republic ensure that values are constantly debated in the public arena and soul-searching is a never-ending element of the American public discourse. It just goes to show how important it is to keep one's faith. Were Britain to rediscover its own, it might rediscover a lost sense of mission and a once-glorious sense of purpose.
Rabbi Boteach is the author of Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life (Basic Books, 2010).
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