Contrary to popular belief, it was not G K Chesterton who said: "When men stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing. They believe in anything." But he should have said it. Chesterton - who is nowadays best remembered, if at all, for his Father Brown stories - viewed atheism with the utmost suspicion. Those who disbelieve in God on supposedly rational grounds, he argued, merely become prey to pseudo-religions and superstitions. His neatest formulation was probably in The Miracle of Moon Crescent when he wrote: "You hard-shelled materialists [are] all balanced on the very edge of belief - of belief in almost anything."
I am a hard-shelled materialist myself, I suppose. But I was reminded of Chesterton last week by a report of a conversation between one of the would-be Islamikaze bombers, Muktar Said-Ibrahim, and a former neighbour of his in Stanmore, the suburb of north London where he grew up. "He asked me," Sarah Scott recalled, "if I was Catholic because I have Irish family, and I said I didn't believe in anything, and he said I should. He told me he was going to have all these virgins when he got to Heaven if he praises Allah. He said if you pray to Allah and if you have been loyal to Allah you would get 80 virgins, or something like that."
Now it is the easiest thing in the world to make fun of the notion, apparently a commonplace among jihadists, that a suicide bomber who successfully blows up a decent number of infidels is rewarded in heaven with 80 virgins. (I personally can think of nothing more terrifying than 80 virgins; I can just picture the belles of St Trinian's running amok.) But is it, I wonder, significantly stranger to believe, like Sarah Scott, in nothing at all?
advertisementMiss Scott's recollected conversation with Said-Ibrahim is fascinating because it illuminates the gulf that now exists in this country between a minority of fanatics and a majority of atheists. "He said," she recalled last week, "people were afraid of religion and people should not be afraid." I am not sure that British people are necessarily afraid of religion, but they are certainly not much interested in it these days. Indeed, the decline of Christianity - not just in Britain but right across Europe - stands out as one of the most remarkable phenomena of our times.
There was a time when Europe would justly refer to itself as "Christendom". Europeans built the continent's loveliest edifices to accommodate their acts of worship. They quarrelled bitterly over the distinction between transubstantiation and consubstantiation. As pilgrims, missionaries and conquistadors, they sailed to the four corners of the earth, intent on converting the heathen to the true faith. Now it is we who are the heathens.
According to the Gallup Millennium Survey of Religious Attitudes, barely 20 per cent of West Europeans attend church services at least once a week, compared with 47 per cent of North Americans and 82 per cent of West Africans. Less than half of western Europeans say God is a "very important" part of their lives, as against 83 per cent of Americans and virtually all West Africans. And fully 15 per cent of western Europeans deny that there is any kind of "spirit, God or life force" - seven times the American figure and 15 times the West African.
The exceptionally low level of British religiosity was perhaps the most striking revelation of a recent ICM poll. One in five Britons claims to "attend an organised religious service regularly", less than half the American figure. Little more than a quarter of us say that we pray regularly, compared with two thirds of Americans and 95 per cent of Nigerians. And barely one in 10 of us would be willing to die for our God or our beliefs, compared with 71 per cent of Americans.
Of course, these surveys make no distinctions between creeds, so they almost certainly understate the decline of British Christianity. Last year, do not forget, it was revealed that, in an average week, more Muslims attend a mosque than Anglicans go to church. Small wonder our talented but frustrated local minister has just announced that he is leaving the Church to become a lawyer: a true sign of the times.
The dechristianisation of Britain is in fact a relatively recent phenomenon. For most of the first half of the 20th century, Anglican Easter Day communicants accounted for around 5 to 6 per cent of the population of England; it was only after 1960 that the proportion slumped to 2 per cent. Figures for the Church of Scotland show a similar trend: steady until 1960, than falling by roughly half. As those figures suggest, British Protestants were not especially observant (compared, for example, with Irish Catholics), but until the late 1950s established church membership, if not attendance, was relatively high and steady.
Prior to 1960, most marriages in England and Wales were solemnised in a church; then the slide began, down to around 40 per cent in the late 1990s. Especially striking is the decline in confirmations as a percentage of children baptised. Fewer than a fifth of those baptised are now confirmed, around half the figure for the period from 1900 to 1960. For the Church of Scotland the decline has been even more precipitous.
Some of the greatest British writers of the 20th century anticipated this decline. Evelyn Waugh knew, once he had finished his wartime Sword of Honour trilogy, that he had written the epitaph of a particular ancient kind of English Catholicism. C S Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters in the hope that mocking the Devil might keep him at bay. Both sensed, understandably enough, that the war posed a grave threat to Christian faith. Yet it was not really until the 1960s that their premonitions of secularisation came true.
Why have the British lost their historic faith? Like so many difficult questions, this seems at first sight to have an easy answer. But before you blame it on "The Sixties" - the Beatles, the Pill and the mini-skirt - remember that the United States had all these earthly delights too, without ceasing to be a Christian country. To be frank, I have no idea what the answer is. But I do know that it matters.
Chesterton feared that, if Christianity declined, "superstition" would "drown all your old rationalism and scepticism". When educated friends tell me that they have invited a shaman to investigate their new house for bad ju-ju, I see what Chesterton meant. Yet it is not the spread of such mumbo-jumbo that concerns me half so much as the moral vacuum our dechristianisation has created. I do not deny that sermons are sometimes dull and that British congregations often sing out of tune. But, if nothing else, a weekly dose of Christian doctrine will help to provide an ethical framework for your life. And I certainly do not know where else you are going to get one.
Over the past few weeks we have all read a great deal about the threat posed to our "way of life" by Muslim extremists like Muktar Said-Ibrahim. But how far has our own loss of religious faith turned this country into a soft target - not so much for the superstition Chesterton feared, but for the fanaticism of others?