The Modern Distaste for Religion
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"?
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