Nottingham Secular Society

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On what grounds can we claim to be a Christian country?


By Martin Hatter.

One of the main concerns we have as secularists is the unwarranted influence religion has over public life and the deference given to religion’s often self-appointed leaders. This is particularly true of Christianity, perhaps because, as we often hear, “this is a Christian country.” But is the UK really a Christian country? And, if it is, how Christian is it?

It’s very difficult to establish how many people living in the UK today identify themselves as Christian. The average age of church-goers is rising and church attendance figures are declining, as even the church itself admits, but the recent National Census asked the question “What is your religion?”, which seemed loaded to convince people that they had a religion. It will be interesting to see what results we get from this.

We also hear that many people belong to a certain faith but aren’t “currently practising”. I’m not quite sure how you can “have” a religion yet not actually practise it. Christians often explain that their faith permeates every aspect of their lives and this is certainly cited as the justification when demanding exemption from certain rules and even laws. But surely it’s the practising of religion, along with the holding of certain beliefs, which distinguishes a religious person from a non-religious one?

We’re also often told that it’s important that we understand and respect those beliefs, which is quite reasonable, and so I’d like to ask: what do you have to believe to be a Christian?

You might say that a belief in God is what makes you a Christian. But which God? Saying that there’s only one isn’t enough since Muslims believe there is only one God and you don’t mean theirs. It’s not enough to say simply that you mean the God of the Jews, the God of the Old Testament, because that might mean you are Jewish.

Christianity was founded on the word of Jesus who revealed himself as the son of God, having been born to a virgin mother and who, after his death, rose again and ascended into heaven. This is the fundamental basis of Christianity and, if you don’t believe in it, I don’t quite see how you can consider yourself a Christian because you must be saying that Jesus lied or his disciples lied or that the Bible is untrue.

My view is that there are a significant number of people in the UK who don’t believe all this and yet still seem to be counted by many in the media, along with politicians and, of course, the church itself to be Christians. Perhaps they’re the “Cultural Christians” we hear about?

They could be claimed, and perhaps more convincingly, as “Cultural Atheists” or “Cultural Agnostics” since (just to be clear) we could be talking about someone who doesn’t believe that Jesus was born to a virgin mother or performed miracles or that he came back to life after his death or that he ascended to heaven and someone who, in addition, doesn’t pray, doesn’t read the Bible and doesn’t go to church.

Now, if they’re still considered to be Christians, the obvious question is: on what grounds?

Martin is a member of the Bristol Secular Society.