It is Easter Sunday—the main event in the Christian calendar, despite Christmas having overtaken it in the minds of many. The proportion of those people who regard themselves as Christian has, after decades of decline, stabilised this millennium. This hokds tue despite the drop in church attendance over two years caused by Covid.
Although the Church of England is the more deeply embedded in the establishment, than its Scottish equivalent, acceptance of other beliefs and their tolerance are very similar, such that hostility and enmity between faiths is now a rarity. Tolerance in general has increased. Whereas, fifty years ago, the church’s role in setting and enforcing moral standards was as powerful as it had been in the days of Victorian repression, the sixties and their aftermath rendered their role in civic morals much less evident.
The main media still seeks to acknowledges that it is Easter: a major service is broadcast; biblical sword-and-sandal epics are screened on lesser channels. But coverage of the weekend’s semi-finals, like Liverpool vs. Man City and the Edinburgh derby swamp all else. Far more people attended, watched and got excited by these than all Easter service attendees put together.
It is a basic truth that people do deel a need to believe in something. For centuries, the church was all there was. But, even those who regard themselves as Christians are rarely active and engaged. Even fewer make their church relevant outside their own congregational comfort zone.
This is not to deny there are many good people with civic consciences, who give of themselves outside their own family and friends. But a decreasing proportion of them do so via a church, or even for religious reasons. Although they may follow “Christian morals”, the Church no longer monopolises the moral high ground.
Why is this? Has the Church failed mankind? Has it betrayed itself? Has its activity/inactivity alienated people?
After centuries in an unassailable position at the centre of public life, the Chirch is struggling to retain relevance and resonance in the 21st century. A millennium ago, the Church was all-powerful—not only politically, but in the minds of the vast majority, especially the illiterate masses. The amazing soaring cathedrals; the ornate clothing; the mysterious incantations; its powers of fogiveness and guidance to avoid damnation overawed people into belief and obediance.
But, as civilisation evolved, its flaws became more glaring and counter-productive. Whether it was two popes contesting between Rome and Avignon; disruption of the Reformation; brutality of the Spanish Inquisition; blinkered persecution of “heretics” like Galileo or “witches”—each showed it flawed and therefore fallible and therefore less wothy of belief. The very latest example is Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church providing unstinting support for Putin’s war on Ukraine.
But, more fundamental is the philosophical clash between the teachings of the Church and modern education, especially in science. This started before Hutton’s geologic unconformity blew Archbishop Usher’s calculation that the world was created in 4004 BC right out of the water. As an unashamedly heretical blog, this is not intended to disabuse fervent Christians of their beliefs. But, for those of us who do not share their convictions, to posit alternatives available to atheists.
The generally accepted “Big Bang” theory that created this universe does not answer what happened immediately before—and where all the matter came from. At first, the Christian “God created the Earth and all that is in it” seems to have the inside track… until you ask where God came from, and what was there beforehand.
The idea of blissful heaven up in the sky and a sulphurous hell below has not worn well in the face of astronomy. Details, such as St Peter controlling pearly gates while over 240 people arrive each second for processing, how you stay sane as an angel, faced with an eternity of bliss are awkward. And do you want to be in heaven when all the interesting people are roasting in hell?
It is more than having credulity stretched by transubstantiation—that a wafer becomes flesh and wine becomes blood. It is the idea that any God can hear, watch over and understand all eight billion of us. And that’s a minimum. What if there are many other planets like us? How is it the massive evil we do is “man’s free will” and not prroof of God’s heartlessness, or even helplessness.
Even among Christians, most don’t take the bible literally, which allows for creative papering over of garish implausibilities found in there. Tales of pillars of salt or Red Sea parting, or multiplying fishes & loaves sit awkwardly in an inquisitive and foensic 21st century mind. But, if the bible is the Word of God how can there be room for fiction, without the whole edifice collapsing?
Attempts to make the Church more “relevant” or “modern” have generally come to grief. Rregular attendees may have been comforted by BBC4 insertion of verses from humns into their programmes. But, while “Alleluyah” may offer comforting familiarity to some, its relevamce is lost on most of the rest. On the other hand, those who attend infrequently are baffled by new hymns and mumble through them embarassed by their unfamiliarity. Having day centres, youth clubs, elderly outreach certainly adds to the community cohesion already contributed by the church. But they have little to do with the soul and its salvation.
Which begs the question of the soul’s existence and, therefore, any need for its salvation. What if Dawkins was right and we are simply the result of four billon years of random chemical and biological evolution? Why is that not enough for us? We are past those dark ages when all human life was nasty, brutal and short, when religion was a necessary salve.
Until we find intelligent signals emanating from the Horse Head Nebula, what’s wrong with simply being joyful about being the product of a cosmic Petri dish that got lucky.
Why does a civilisation that put a man on our moon and explained Special Relativity and unravelled the himan genome need an elusive sentient being who offers no proof of existence that would stand up to the simplest scientific proof?
If we could just get the Russians to behave, we could throw away this philosophical crutch that still holds millions in simplistic thrall , as if we were still medieval serfs? Looking back over these 2,000 years, why perrsist in following a belief that has probably caused more war and death than any other single branch of human endeavour.?