Mar 1, 2012

Notes on impressions of religion in the UK on a short trip

  • The British press does not like Richard Dawkins.

  • There's a sense in America that everyone is basically like Dawkins in Europe and in the UK specifically. There's the idea Dawkins represents the standard, acceptable, assumed reality. I.e., that Great Britain is secular, and that this is what secular means. But, in the press the last week of March, Dawkins was dismissed, actually, as too American, as having been "Americanised."

    Which seems to mean a) mean, b) egotistical, and c) aggressively insistent about his own certainty and everyone elses' wrongheadedness (i.e., fundamentalist).

    In an interview with Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams, Williams was given points for being polite, engaged, reasonable and personable. When Dawkins said Williams' idea of evolution doesn't line up with Pope Benedict XVI's -- a silly statement, on the face of it, but probably meant to imply the Archbishop might not be a real Christian -- Williams said he'd ask the Pope about his views "next time I see him." This was praised, as was Williams' joke about his beard.

    The fact that the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science has his name in it was considered to be a prime example of what's wrong with Dawkins.

    In a BBC radio interview with the Rev. Giles Fraser, Fraser was not polite, and was given points for giving Dawkins a taste of his own medicine, essentially. There was considerable delight in the idea of Dawkins being embarrassed. He's seen as a bully being shamed, apparently.

  • There's more observable religious diversity in Edinburgh than in Birmingham, London, or Newcastle.

  • I have no idea if there is more religious diversity, but I saw more in Scotland than England. There was a synagogue near our hotel near the university, with a prominent stone inscription attributed to Hillel, a mosque on a main street, a small spritualist church near the beach, and also a larger variety of Christian churches, including Catholic, Reformed, Baptist and non-denominational.

    The only Christian bookstore I saw was in Edinburgh.

    In Birmingham, London and Newcastle I saw Anglican churches, mostly, with only couple of Catholic churches and a few apparently non-denominational ones. A Christian campus ministry in Newcastle appeared pretty active, if small, with a drum circle near where students walk everyday and a free lunch at a church. A cab driver in Birmingham had Hindu icons in his cab. (Incidentally, it turns out I do not know how to start a conversation about Hinduism in a 7 a.m. cab ride to the airport).

    I don't know what to conclude from this, if anything.

  • I saw three people reading Bibles in public.

  • All of them were minorities on public transportation. One of the Bibles was a huge black floppy Bible -- the size of a laptop computer, though considerably thicker.


  • Visitors to the British library were more interested in the Magna Carta than the historic religious texts.

  • To be fair, they were more interested in the Magna Carta than anything there, actually, be it the notebooks of John Milton and Jane Austen, the pronouncement of the death sentence on Mary Queen of Scotts, or Cuthbert's Bible. So it wasn't disinterest in religion, per se.

    The religious documents were amazing, though: Cuthbert's Bible and the Codex Sinaiticus, in particular.

  • Ash Wednesday's services at St. Paul's Cathedrals were attended by ~150, ~200 people.


  • The midday service and the evening service both, both with the imposition of ashes. This is counting just those who went to the front and took the order of service, said prayers, received communion, etc. There were maybe another ~50 to ~75 people in the back (tourists, people getting out of the rain, others).

    The acoustics served the men and boys choir well. The sermon less so. It would be impossible to be intimate in one's preaching, in that place, and the echos even, at parts, gave the sermon a very ominous, sinister sound.

    The sermon was pretty political, as one might expect from the Church of England cathedral in London, but was not only political. Bishop Richard Chartres spoke against hubris, arguing the solution to social problems starts with awareness of human limitations. His thesis: "The first step to becoming a human being is to refuse to be a little god. We are dust." Francis Fukuyama stood in as representative for the pro-hubris position.

    Charters seemed supportive and sympathetic to the Occupy protestors outside, but one could also cast his politics as in the conservative tradition of Edmund Burke.

    The Occupy protesters outside, incidentally, had just heard they would be evicted. The eviction was not the doing of the church, however. Though "protesters outside" sort of makes it sound as if they were protesting the church, the relationship between the protesters and the cathedral seemed to be positive. None of their signs were directed towards the church, nor towards religion in general.

  • When we told our very talkative bed and breakfast host we'd been to an Ash Wednesday service, he had no idea what that was.

  • Which was the kind of "secularism" I'd expected.

    He described himself as having grown out of religion, but said his brother was very devout.

  • Westminster Abby may be what Americans are thinking of when they say churches in Europe are only museums.

  • It's not like that in what I've seen of south-western Germany. Even when one gets a good number of tourists in a church -- e.g., in Heidelberg -- they're still clearly working churches.

    About half the tourists paused during the hourly prayer read over the loudspeaker at Westminster. The mid-day service was attended by ~40 people, a good number, actually, though they did look a little like first century Christians huddled in the catacombs of monuments to late kings.

    That's often the picture one gets of religion in the UK, though my impression, from my short trip, was that it's more complicated than that.