About Ignatius Insight
  Who We Are
  Ignatius Press
  Ignatius Press catalogs
  Catholic World Report
  Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  IP Novels site
  IP Religious Ed blog
  IP Critical Editions

The Modern Distaste for Religion | Monsignor Ronald Knox | From The Belief of Catholics | Ignatius Insight

Print-friendly version

In a too crowded age -- I refer, not to the multiplication of mortal lives, but to the multiplicity of human interests -- it is an uneasy business to estimate tendencies or to prophesy developments. So many agitators, publicists, and quack physicians, each with his own platform and his own audience, din into our ears the importance of a thousand rival or unconnected movements, so ruled by chance is the sub-editor's preference for this or that head-line, the loyalty of the public towards the catchwords it favoured yesterday, that a wise man might well ask to be excused the task of pronouncing upon the chaos, or of guessing the outcome. Last century, for instance, one thing seemed luminously clear, that Liberalism was advancing, and was bound to advance, in a constant ratio of progress. Does Europe, does England, ratify that opinion now? And if there has been a reaction, is the defeat final or temporary? Which of the modern movements are genuine currents, which the backwash of a flood? Which of our modern evils are symptoms, and which are organic diseases? Which of our modern results are the true offspring of an age, which are sports and freaks of history? Historians of to-morrow, excuse our frantic guess-work in your clearer vision.

Amidst the tangle, one strand seems to define itself -- within the last hundred years, within the last fifty years, within the last twenty-five years, the force of religion, as a factor in English public life, has steadily and visibly declined. I do not mean that a careless and external diagnosis would detect the change. Within the last few years we have seen, perhaps, a greater output of religious discussion in public print than any age since the Reformation. But this itch for religious discussion, which is peculiarly British, is not really an encouraging symptom. Men do not talk about their health when their health is strongest; a nation does not talk about its religion when its religion is flourishing. Statistics, it is true, may be misleading, but they are the thermometer of change. And any statistical comparison I have ever undertaken, or seen undertaken, seems to yield the same result--namely, that the area of lives visibly affected by habits of religion shrinks from decade to decade, and almost from year to year. To take an instance at random -- Trollope, in his "Vicar of Bullhampton" ( published in 1870), writes of a London population "not a fourth of whom attend divine service." Is it not the impression most of us would record, after a Sunday morning spent in the metropolis, that to-day we should have to write "a tenth" instead of "a fourth"?

I was told the other day of a more exact calculation, made in a more particular field, but not, to my mind, less significant. A statistician went through the records of the old boys from one of our greatest public schools, jotting down the number of those who adopted Holy Orders as their vocation in life. His observations began with 1860, and finished, necessarily, in the first decade of the present century. He marked off the period into spaces of five years, and found that in each five years the number of those who were ordained was perceptibly smaller than in the period immediately preceding it. In the first of the periods the ratio of clerical vocations was sixteen per cent.; in the last, it was something over three per cent. In short, within a space of forty-five years the ideal of the Christian ministry had lost four-fifths of its popularity.

It will be said, only among the expensively educated classes. True, the old sources of supply were not the only sources of supply, and it may be all the better for a Church to have a ministry recruited from the people. But the facts in themselves are surely suggestive. It is difficult not to suppose that there has been some change in the atmosphere of England -- a change, perhaps, more easily and more acutely felt in the admirably ventilated dormitories of our public schools than elsewhere. It would be absurd to suppose that the falling-off in clerical vocations is the result of mere accident; uncharitable to suppose that it corresponded to a decrease in the value of clerical incomes, in the prestige of the clerical state. You must consider that the old public schools hand on a tradition of English citizenship, of which English Churchmanship is an integral part; that the appeal of the recruiting sergeant is seldom long absent from their chapel sermons; that clerical heroes are constantly held up to the admiration of these youthful audiences, and clerical ambitions extolled. If, in spite of all this, that clergy which was once the "stupor mundi" now finds it hard to fill up the gaps in its files, can we doubt that there has been a modification in the public attitude towards religion?

Nor is the shortage of clergy unaccompanied by a shortage of laity. A mere glance at the official figures issued by the various religious bodies reveals the nakedness of our church pews. The Church of England, judging from its baptismal register, still numbers some twenty-five millions of nominal members; but its Easter Communions are less than a tenth of this total. Even when we make allowance for children who are not yet of communicant age, it is difficult to suppose that the effective membership of the Anglican Church constitutes one-tenth of the English population. Neither the Church of England nor any Nonconformist body registers any increase of membership which keeps pace with the annual birth-rate; some of them have to register a net loss, not only of ministers, but of chapels and of Sunday scholars. What hopes can be conceived that religion continues to be a real force in a nation which has so feeble a grasp on Church membership as this?

I know it is said that Church membership is one thing, and religion another. Optimists will almost be prepared to claim that it is a healthy sign, this breaking away from the tests and shibboleths of the past; men are more reluctant, they explain, to give in their names to this "-ism" or that, precisely in proportion as their own religious lives are firmly rooted and plentifully nourished. All that is excellently said; and few will dispute that it is possible to be a Theist, and indeed a Christian in the broader, modern sense of the word, without subscribing to a creed or offering your prayers in a church. But can any sensible person delude himself into the idea that a decline of organised religion does not mean, "pro tan" to, a decline of religion altogether? For twenty people who will tell you that they can get all the religion they want without going to the parsons for it, is there one who ever offers a prayer, or consciously makes an act of love to Almighty God? There is a mystical temperament which finds itself best in isolation, but it is a rare and a delicate growth. The ordinary man, being a social animal, is social also in his religious instincts. If he is in earnest about the business of his own spiritual life, he instinctively crowds up against his fellows for warmth; worships in the same building with them, and writes down his name on a common subscription list. He does this the more readily in a country where he has so wide a variety of denominations amongst which he can choose, some of them applying the least exacting of tests even to communicant membership. If we were really growing more religious, should not at least the gleanings of that harvest tell upon the statistics of organised religion? In default of the gleanings, who will convince us of the harvest?

The main causes of this decline, so far as causes need to be adduced for the defection of human wills, are manifest enough. Undoubtedly popular education and the spread of newspaper culture must be credited, in part, with the result: some of us would say that the mass of the people is now growing out of its old superstitions in the light of new knowledge; some of us would see, rather, the effect of reiterated catchwords upon minds trained to read but not trained to think. The industrial development of the country has added its influence, partly by focusing men's thoughts upon their material interests, partly by setting up, in England as elsewhere, a reaction against old faiths and old loyalties, crudely conceived as old-fashioned. Further, the modern facilities for pleasurable enjoyment have killed, in great part, the relish for eternity. I do not know that this influence has been given its proper importance hitherto. Mass production has made luxury cheap; steam travel, motor-cars, and the penny post have brought it to our doors; anesthetics and the other triumphs of medicine have mitigated the penalties which attach to it. And the same causes which have multiplied pleasure have multiplied preoccupation. A rush age cannot be a reflective age.

So much for the pew; meanwhile, what has been happening in the pulpit?

It would not be true, think, to say that dogma is less preached to-day than it was a hundred years ago. The rise of Wesleyanism and the Evangelical Movement had, indeed, put an end by then to the long indifference of the latitudinarian age. But Wesleyanism and Evangelicism were interested only in a handful of dogmas which concerned their own particular scheme of salvation. On the other hand, men did believe in the Bible, not as "given of God to convey to us in many parts and in divers manners the revelation of himself," but as inspired in an intelligible sense. And with the rise of the Oxford Movement this belief in Scripture was fortified by a confident appeal, unsound in its method but sincere in its purpose, to the deposit of Christian tradition. But during the last fifty years and more, the fundamental dogmas of the Christian religion have been subjected, more and more, to criticism, or interpretation, and to restatement. Would a diocesan Bishop have dared in the middle of the nineteenth century, to express in a newspaper article his disbelief in eternal punishment? Would the rector of a much-frequented London church have preached, and afterwards published, a sermon in which he recommended the remarriage of divorced persons? Would the whole Bench of Bishops have been prepared to alter, in the Baptismal Service, the statement that every child is conceived and born in sin? Appraise the tendency as you will; welcome or regret its influence; but only disingenuity can deny that the tendency is there, and is apparently constant. You do not believe what your grandfathers believed, and have no reason to hope that your grandsons will believe what you do.

In the early days of the Tractarian Movement it looked, for a time, as if this decline of dogma might be arrested by force; as if the invading germ of modernism might be expelled from within. Even seventy years back, or little more, in the days of Pusey, Burgon, Mansell, Denison, and Liddon, there was a vigorous outcry whenever countenance was shown to the first whispers of infidelity. Not so long ago, a collection of essays appeared, written by representative High Churchmen, so unguarded in certain points, particularly in its attitude towards Scripture, that any one of the five champions I have just mentioned would certainly have clamoured for its condemnation. It seems as if the modern High Church party were content to insist on the adoption of ceremonies and devotions such as are found in Catholic countries, and no longer concerned themselves with safeguarding, if they can still be safeguarded, the doctrines of Catholic antiquity. Nor do they merely tolerate in others the expression of views which their fathers would have branded as unorthodox; they themselves, more and more, are becoming infected by the contagion of their surroundings, and lose the substance of theology while they embrace its shadow. And still, by a pathetic error, they cherish the dream of reunion, when it must be clear to any prudent mind that the gulf between Rome and Canterbury never stood so wide as it stands to-day.

The ministers of the Free Churches will hardly, I suppose, be concerned to deny that in this matter they are abreast, if not ahead, of their Anglican rivals. Less retarded by the trammels of antiquity, less apprehensive of schism, more accustomed to recognise in religious innovation the influence of the Holy Spirit, they are free to catch the wind of the moment and sink their nets where the fishing seems best. The very titles of their discourses, as you see them pasted up Sunday after Sunday on the chapel notice-boards -- high-flown, literary titles, such as tickle the ear of the passers-by -- contrast strangely with the old, stern message of Baxter and Wesley -- sin, hell, love, grace, faith, and conversion. I have myself seen such a chapel bill which promised first a comfortable seat, then good music, then a hearty welcome, and last of all, as if it were an afterthought, a "Gospel message." It is hardly to be expected that those who approached their prospective audience in so accommodating a spirit should expound much of dogma in their pulpits -- dogma, so much vilified in the newspapers, so little palatable to the man in the street.

It appears, then, that the two processes are going on side by side, the decline of Church membership and the decline of dogma; the evacuation of the pew and the jettisoning of cargo from the pulpit. I have been at pains to adduce instances of the fact, though indeed it was hardly necessary, for the two tendencies are pretty generally admitted; the one openly deplored, the other openly defended. Are the two processes interrelated? And, if so, does the decline of Church membership cause the decline of dogma, or result from it, or is it a parallel symptom? Reflection shows, I think, that there is truth in all three suggestions.

To some extent, the decline of Church membership causes the decline of dogma. Obviously, the grievance of the man in the street against organised religion is partly an intellectual one. Other influences may prevail to keep him away from Church; as, a general unreasoning dislike towards all forms of authority, or absorption in pleasures and in worldly distractions. But the reason he alleges, at any rate, for his nonattendance is commonly his inability to believe "the stuff the parsons preach." What wonder if this attitude makes the preacher reconsider his message? He would blame himself if he allowed souls to lose contact with religion through undue insistence on any doctrine that was not true -- or even not certainly true -- or even not theologically important. Hence comes the impetus to take stock afresh of his own theological position; is he really convinced of the truth, the certainty, the importance of such and such a doctrine? He is bound, indeed, to declare the whole counsel of God. But what is the whole counsel of God? If he could accept the inerrancy of Scripture, like his fathers before him, he would have at least a chart to guide him. But he has no ground for believing in the inerrancy of Scripture, unless it be guaranteed to him by the Church. What Church? His Church? If the Church of England be meant, or "a fortiori" any of the Nonconformist bodies, he can find no help in such a refuge; for a religious connection which claims no infallibility for itself can hardly be justified in investing the Bible with inerrancy! If, on the contrary, he appeals to the Catholic Church, he knows that he is appealing to a tribunal by whose judgments he himself does not abide. Somehow, then, he has to construct his own theology for himself, and to take responsibility for the construction; in doing so, would he be human if he were not influenced a little by the unbelief of those about him, by those unfilled pews which reproach him, Sunday by Sunday, with preaching a message unacceptable to the spirit of the age?

I do not mean to suggest that the desire to meet infidelity half-way is the sole or even the main cause responsible for the loose theology of our time. No preacher would deliberately judge the credibility of his message by the credulity of his audience. But the prevalent irreligion of the age does exercise a continual unconscious pressure upon the pulpit; it makes preachers hesitate to affirm doctrines whose affirmation would be unpopular. And a doctrine which has ceased to be affirmed is doomed, like a disused organ, to atrophy.

That modernism among the clergy and scepticism among the laity are to some extent parallel effects of the same causes, hardly needs demonstration. The confident assertions of the philosopher, the scientist, the historian -- that truth is relative, not absolute; that we can no longer believe in Genesis; that Christianity descends straight from the heathen mystery religions -- will differ in their effect on different minds. One man will say, quite simply, "Then it's no good believing in Christianity any longer"; another will prefer to consider how the abiding truth of Christianity can best be reconciled with these apparently discouraging notions, how best restated in the light of these recent additions to human knowledge. Sometimes it is a matter of training and outlook; A is already looking out for, nay, is almost prepared to welcome, an excuse for abandoning his old religious ideas; B would sooner bid farewell to reason itself than impugn the veracity of the Church which has nourished him. Sometimes it is a matter of temperament; the world may be divided (amongst other convenient dichotomies) into the people who take it or leave it and the people who split the difference. Sometimes there is a real intellectual struggle in one conscientious mind as to whether any accommodation can consistently be made between the new truth and the old tradition.

It must not be supposed that we have finished with materialism. Yesterday, it was the concept of Evolution that was in the air. To one mind, it seemed a disproof of the very basis of religious truth; it had knocked the bottom out of Christianity. To another mind, this same concept of Evolution seemed a convenient solder for patching up the holes in a leaky system; apply its doctrines to the Christian faith, and it would begin to hold water once more. To-day the rage is for psychology; to some minds the new psychology has already destroyed, or is beginning to destroy, the whole notion of free will. Others, within the Christian camp, are beginning to take up the jargon of the new empiricism and apply it to the problems of religion, not less joyfully than their fathers did yesterday. What is one man's poison is another man's drug.

In a sense, then, the decline of Church membership explains the decline of dogma. In a sense, it is a parallel effect of the same causes. But there is a sense, also, in which the decline of dogma explains the decline of Church membership.

Such a suggestion is, of course, clean contrary to the fashionable platitudes of our day. When "the failure of the Churches" is discussed in public print, our well-meaning advisers always insist, with a somewhat wearying reiteration, on the need for a more comprehensive Christianity, which shall get away from forms and ceremonies, from dogmas and creeds, and shall concentrate its attention upon those elementary principles of life and devotion which all Christians have at heart. Each prophet who thus enlightens us makes the curious assumption, apparently, that he is the first person who has ever suggested anything of the kind. As a matter of fact, the brazen lungs of Fleet Street have been shouting these same directions at us for a quarter of a century past. And have "the Churches" taken no notice? On the contrary, as I have suggested above, the pilots of our storm-tossed denominations have lost no opportunity of lightening ship by jettisoning every point of doctrine that seemed questionable, and therefore unessential; hell has been abolished, and sin very nearly; the Old Testament is never alluded to but with a torrent of disclaimers, and miracle with an apologetic grimace. Preachers of the rival sects have exchanged pulpits; "joint services" have been held on occasions of public importance; even the inauguration of a new Anglican cathedral cannot take place nowadays without a fraternisation of the Christianities. In hundreds of churches and chapels everything has been done that could be done to meet this modern latitudinarian demand. And the result?

The result is that as long as a man is a good preacher, a good organiser, or an arresting personality, he can always achieve a certain local following; and among this local following a reputation for broad-mindedness stands him in good stead. But the ordinary man who does not go to church is quite unaffected by the process. He thinks no better of Christianity for its efforts to be undogmatic. It is not that he makes any articulate reply to these overtures; he simply ignores them. Nothing, I believe, has contributed more powerfully to the recent successes of the "Anglo-Catholic" movement than the conviction, gradually borne in upon the clergy, that the latitudinarian appeal, as a matter of experience, does not attract. Dogmas may fly out at the window but congregations do not come in at the door.

So much, as a matter of daily experience, will hardly be gainsaid. What follows is more controversial; indeed, it is a thesis which hardly admits of exact proof. It seems to me that (let us say) seven in ten of our fellow-countrymen, if they give a thought to the matter at all, think the worse, not the better, of our modem leaders for their willingness to throw dogma overboard to the wolves of unbelief. They are scandalised, rather than impressed, by the theological chaos which two generations of controversy have left behind them. It is the common assumption of all these modem prophets, whatever their school, that religious truth is something not yet determined, something which is being gradually established by a slow process of testing and research. They boast of their indecisions; they parade their dissensions; it shows (they say) a healthy spirit of fearless inquiry, this freedom from the incubus of tradition. Such sentiments evoke, I believe, no echo of applause outside their own immediate circles. The uneasy impression is left on the average citizen that "the parsons do not know their own business"; that disagreements between sect and sect are more, not less disedifying when either side hastens to explain that the disagreement is over externals, rather than essentials; that if Christianity is still in process of formulation after twenty centuries, it must be an uncommonly elusive affair. The average citizen expects any religion which makes claims upon him to be a revealed religion; and if the doctrine of Christianity is a revealed doctrine, why all this perennial need of discussion and restatement? Why should a divine structure send in continual bills for alterations and repairs? Moreover, he is a little suspicious of these modern concessions, these attempts to meet him half-way. Is the stock (he asks in his commercial way) really a sound investment, when those who hold it are so anxious to unload it on any terms?

It is not only the theological speculations of the modem Christianities which produce this sense of uneasiness. It is the whole accommodating attitude taken up by the religions of to-day and their professors -- accommodating, and for that reason, not reassuring. It is an infinitely small point, but does the abandonment, total or partial, of the clerical garb by some modem clergymen really make the laity feel more at home with them? Does it not rather create the suspicion that they are ashamed of being what they are? Distrust may even be aroused, sometimes, by the modem sympathy of official Anglicanism for the movement towards democracy; to some minds, it comes too late to be impressive. The gesture made by "the Churches" at the time of the General Strike was, I fully believe, the result of a sincere desire for the national well-being. But this confidence was not everywhere felt; many preferred to think it dictated by panic, rather than by genuine concern. Even in matters of grave and practical moral import, representatives of the Christian bodies have, before now, given forth an uncertain sound, and affirmed the traditional ethics of Christianity with a minority protest. Most outside critics sympathised, no doubt, with the minority; but it is questionable whether they felt much respect for a religion whose spokesmen could differ so fundamentally.

Do the Churches know their own mind, or even their own minds? That is, in effect, the question which bewilders men to-day far more than any strictly theological problem. I do not mean that the ordinary Englishman is for ever worrying about the question; the sad truth is that he lacks the necessary interest in religious matters altogether. You will only catch occasional glimpses of his attitude; but they are, to my mind, unmistakable. "Let the Churches make up their own mind what they believe," he says, "and then come and tell me." Meanwhile, there is no sign that such an event is probable. The present effort to unify belief and practice within the Church of England is the heir to a long line of failures. The Anglo-Catholic party has a solidarity that is only external; it is based on a compromise, and its unity is that of a party, not that of a creed. This generation will die, and the next, before "the Churches" can present the nation with a common programme.

We have no precedent by which to forecast the outcome of the present situation. The pulse of religion has beaten low enough in England before now, but there has never, before this last century, been a time at which so many of our fellow-countrymen made no response to its movements. In the worst of the latitudinarian days the embers of belief were kept alive, not smothered, by the ashes of indifference. The Bible was never so little believed as it is to-day; I doubt if it was ever so little read. The optimism of the religious temperament will continually find new grounds for confidence; will hail local successes, and welcome the suggestion of untried remedies; but there is no sign, yet, of a rally, no distant foot-fall of the Prodigal's return. Organised religion has shrunk, and is still shrinking, at once in the content of its message and in the area of its appeal.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links:

IgnatiusInsight.com Author Page for Monsignor Ronald Knox
The Mind of Knox | David Rooney
The School of Ronald Knox | An Interview with David Rooney
The Monsignor and the Don | An Interview with Fr. Milton Walsh
Monsignor Ronald Knox: Convert, Priest, Apologist | An Interview with Fr. Milton Walsh
Experience, Reason, and Authority in the Apologetics of Ronald Knox | Milton Walsh | From Ronald Knox As Apologist
The Four Marks of the Church | Ronald A. Knox
Review of The Belief of Catholics | Carl E. Olson
Ronald Knox, Apologist | Carl E. Olson
A Lesson Learned From Monsignor Ronald A. Knox | Carl E. Olson
Converts and Saints | An Interview with Joseph Pearce

Monsignor Ronald Knox (1888-1957) was the son of the Anglican Bishop of Manchester and it appeared that he, being both spiritually perceptive and intellectually gifted, would also have a successful life as an Anglican prelate. But while in school in the early 1900s Knox began a long struggle between his love for the Church of England and his growing attraction to the Catholic Church. He converted to Catholicism at the age of twenty-nine, became a priest, and wrote numerous books on spiritual and literary topics, including The Belief of Catholics, Captive Flames: On Selected Saints and Christian Heroes, The Hidden Stream: The Mysteries of the Christian Faith, Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, and many more. Visit Knox's IgnatiusInsight.com author page for more information about his life and work.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


World Wide Web


Place your order toll-free at 1-800-651-1531

Ignatius Press | San Francisco
Web design under direction of Ignatius Press.
Send your comments or web problems to:

Copyright 2018 by Ignatius Press

IgnatiusInsight.com catholic blog books insight scoop weblog ignatius