In the spirit of Advent, Theos has published researchrevealing that 52% of Britons believe that the birth of Christ is significant to them personally and 72% of people think that it remains significant culturally.
It’s hardly a picture of a determinedly secular society, is it? The question is, what exactly does this snapshot reveal about the state of the nation’s religious commitment?
Firstly, the extent of religious belief and uncertainly will undoubtedly surprise some people. Despite what some atheists like to claim, it’s clear that, for many people, religious belief cannot be explained away so easily. The secular narrative often used to describe society is neither accurate nor sufficient for people.
Secondly, the state of religious belief in Britain is less uniform than in the past. Globalisation and migration, as well as the influence of post-modernity, has resulted not only in an increase of other faith commitments but also a tendency amongst people to ‘pick and mix’ between different elements of and within those faiths. It’s striking, for example, that people are more likely to believe in the virgin birth than angels. Only 28% believe the Bible’s account of angels visiting shepherds to announce the birth of Christ actually happened, compared with 32% who think it is fictional.
If people think that the birth of Christ is significant, we are compelled to address a deeper question: How is the birth of Christ significant?
Culturally, people see the birth of Christ, as celebrated as in Christmas, as deeply and profoundly intertwined with our identity. In politics, law, economics, culture, education and health care, Christianity has shaped the society of which we are members. Secularists usually respond by arguing that these cultural ‘gifts’ exist independently of Christ’s birth, but the historical record points in the opposite direction. In his excellent book, The Rise of Christianity the sociologist of religion Rodney Stark observes how early Christianity challenged the status quo and championed the inherent dignity of women, slaves, the disabled and unborn. The birth of Christ, as the lives of William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King illustrate, has encouraged not only personal conversion but extraordinary social activism and reformation.
In personal terms, the birth of Christ is significant because in Christ we see both who God is and what it is to be truly human. The gospel evangelists explain how Christ is ‘Emmanuel’ (meaning, ‘God with us’). In Christ, we have the ultimate revelation of God. If we want to know what God looks like, the gospels invite us to look at Christ. Similarly, in Christ we have the ultimate expression of what it is to be authentically human. If we want to know what it is to be fully human, the gospels invite us to look at Christ.
I’m not pretending that all who think Christ’s birth is significant culturally or personally will necessarily articulate their answer in those terms. But equally we shouldn’t simply dismiss their profession of faith as shallow or disingenuous. In periods of financial uncertainty, when there is concern about losing jobs or homes, perhaps people are more open to thinking about life’s ultimate questions. The Christmas story stands as a compelling response to those questions.