If you want to understand British history, you have to investigate Christianity. For many centuries it has shaped our laws and institutions, our language, literature, music, art and even our food. But is it finally slipping out of national life for good? Fewer people attend church regularly and some people are predicting that the Church of England will disappear within twenty years.
The statistics seem to support this prediction. 40% of people called themselves Anglican in 1983. Only 17% do now. Catholicism hasnít declined as sharply Ė 10% then, 8% now Ė but thatís partly due to immigration from Catholic countries like Poland. Christianity is in decline all across Europe and even in the United States. But itís growing in Asia and Africa. Islam is growing everywhere, including Europe.
How will these trends play out in future? Itís impossible to be sure, but Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Britain, suggests that the world will become more religious, not less. He points out that religious people tend to have more children, sometimes a lot more. People without religion donít always think that life has a clear meaning or purpose. They can seek entertainment and pleasure in the passing moment, trying to have fun while their time lasts, because they donít believe in an afterlife. They donít see having children as an essential part of life and they certainly donít want big families.
Itís different if you have a firm belief in God and the afterlife. One of the chief commandments of traditional religion is to be fruitful and multiply. Having lots of children is a sign of faith and obedience. So the religious grow in number and the secular dwindle. But we also have to take into account the advance of technology and the influence that will have on our behaviour. Predicting the future has always been difficult. The trends do seem clear in Britain, however. Traditional forms of Christianity are becoming less influential. Church-goers are getting older and fewer people are choosing to conduct two central rituals Ė marriage and burial Ė in traditional ways.
Marriage marks the beginning of adult life and burial marks the end. What happens next? In the past, people would have had a clear picture of an afterlife. They would have believed in resurrection too, as traditionally preached by the churches. Now more and more people think that death is truly the end. The burial services they choose reflect this lack of belief. More people want celebrants to conduct their funerals, rather than priests or ministers. The popularity of cremation is also part of this trend away from traditional religion. If youíre buried in a sturdy coffin, you may stay in the earth for many years.
Cremation, by contrast, turns your body into ashes that can fit into a small urn. And people often choose to have those ashes scattered at a place that meant something to them during life, like a view over the sea or a fishing-spot. Rain and wind will quickly and gently make those scattered ashes disappear. These preferences are obviously shaped by our religious beliefs and whether we believe in God and an afterlife. Some religious people choose cremation, of course, and some non-religious people want a permanent grave. But the popularity of different forms of burial shifts over time, reflecting changes in the religious outlook of millions of people.
And even religious people can be influenced like secular ideas like the important of personal freedom and personal choice. Automatic obedience to authority was widely expected in the past. Kings and bishops gave orders and expected to be obeyed. Nowadays authority is questioned much more and even religious people often expect to make their own choices in some areas of life. This can include burial and the arrangements they make for their funerals.