In the last few weeks God has been in the news a lot. From Christian prayers in council meetings, to statements from the highest echelons of the Royal Family and the government, discussion of the place of God and in particular the role of Christianity in Britain today has been in the news on a daily basis. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s debate with Professor Richard Dawkins in Oxford on God’s existence captured the twittersphere as Dawkins was quoted as being agnostic about belief in God. It seems it is now acceptable to discuss the Christian faith and belief in God in public. From radio studios to the school gate I have enjoyed being a part of this. The role of God in Britain is being discussed up and down the country in government, education, legislation, and community life in a way that I can’t remember in recent history.(1)
While secularism insists that nothing good comes from religion, isn’t it actually the case that it is our Christian heritage that actually provides us with this free and open society—encouraging people to question and reason for themselves? For many, religious faith is a process, a journey of discovery on the basis of evidence, reason, and personal experience. Christianity has provided the foundation in Britain for an open and tolerant society. It was the great Christian leader Augustine who coined the phrase tolerare malus. He claimed that political structure influenced by the Christian faith must tolerate that which it disagreed with and perceived as wrong for the greater good of freedom.
Freedom and tolerance of others arise from a worldview—a set of values and beliefs that are conducive to liberty, they do not come about by random chance. In Britain this foundation or worldview has undeniably been the Christian faith. But this seems to fly in the face of the claims made by leading atheists that belief in God is delusional and oppressive and that people in Britain are not truly religious anyway. Invoking what has come to be known by sociologists as the secularization thesis they tell us that modern countries eventually turn their back on spiritual belief. That as people progress they become less religious.
However, this myth of secularization has plainly not panned out and it has been soundly debunked within academia. The leading sociologist Mary Douglas announced the death of the secularization theory in 1982 in an essay that began with the words, “Events have taken religious studies by surprise.” Even prominent proponents of secularization like sociologist Peter Berger have now abandoned the theory since the world is plainly becoming more religious not less.
Our most profound laws and rights, and the concept of the dignity of the human person expounded in the Magna Carta arise from a Christian vision and assume God’s existence. Our greatest social reform movements from the abolition of the slave trade to the reform of child labor laws, and many other justice movements are the bequest of our Christian heritage as a country. Britain has benefitted so much in our history from Christianity—and this continues today as we see the values of the charitable, tolerant society envisaged by St. Augustine allow for Rowan Williams and Richard Dawkins to debate without fear of reprisals. Does everyone in Britain agree with the central tenets of the Christian faith? No, of course not, but does our Christian heritage make a way for peace, courteous debate, tolerance, inclusion, and freedom? I believe it does.
As people up and down the country discuss belief in God and the newspapers keep running stories about Christianity, it is my hope that we will continue to see a greater openness to speak and inquire about the gospel in Britain.
Amy Orr-Ewing is director of programmes for the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics and UK director for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Oxford, England.
(1) Adapted from an article appearing in Christianity Magazine, March 2012.