Christianity, and the freedom not to believe, in Western civilization

Christmas is a time when many of us who have a religious faith wish that society was not quite so secular.  In reality, though, I am glad I live in a secular society. Our newspapers report year by year a decline in church attendance in most Western countries, and this (for me and others like me) is sad. But it would be so much sadder if people felt pressurised, or even forced, to go to church, or to express religious belief when inside they had none.


That Western society is so secular is one of its most unique characteristics, and is illustrative of the very distinctive trajectory Western history has taken. All previous societies have been deeply religious. In some cases, this has involved multifarious faiths: in pre-modern India, for example, there was a choice between Hinduism (in its different forms), Buddhism, Islam and Sikhism – not to mention the faiths of such communities as Parsees, Jains, Jews and even Christians. Religious persecution was certainly not unknown, but on the whole there was a high degree of tolerance. Nevertheless everyone professed one faith or another; indeed, they had to in order to slot into one community or another and so be a part of the rich melange that was traditional Indian society. 


Much the same was true of pre-modern China, especially if we count Confucianism as a religion – and given that it had temples and had borrowed many elements from Buddhism and Daoism, and indeed ancestor worship, in many respects it was.


In other societies, especially in the world of Islam and of pre-modern Christendom, one religion ruled society, and not to follow it was to not belong to society – and indeed could well be fatal.


For the West to throw off this authoritarian approach to its religion was a difficult thing to do, and involved tremendous upheaval. And yet, such a course was forced upon it by the nature of Christian teaching itself. Inherent in this teaching, especially in the New Testament but also in the Old Testament, if one but looks, is the idea that following the Judaeo-Christian God involves an individual choice: to follow Him, or not to follow Him. No one can make that choice for anyone else; in the final analysis it’s down to individual conscience. 


The historical process whereby individual conscience took centre stage in the thought-world of the West was therefore logical; and with it came the freedom to reject faith entirely. This idea triumphed in the face of the deep-felt instincts of pre-modern society, and in the process helped usher in the modern secular world.


Given this freedom, the rejection of religious belief – or at least, committed religious faith – by the majority of people was perhaps to be expected; indeed, Jesus, speaking into the hyper-religious context of first century Judea, implied that even there only a minority truly believed (Matthew 7, 13-14). 


After all is said and done I am glad that I live in a secular society, where freedom of belief is held so dear. It does mean that Christmas is an essentially secular festival, but it also means that for those for whom it means so much more, it can be celebrated in sincerity and faith, and not as a mere duty.


I wish all our users a very Happy Christmas.


With best wishes,


Peter Britton