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A Leap of Atheism?

Growing up Baptist in Secular Britain

A Declaration

My brother disappeared under the water. A tangible hush fell over the crowd, and in that moment, I wonder what he saw behind his eyes, closed in the darkness. Seconds later, he emerged, dripping and smiling.

I wasn’t at the front with our parents. Instead, I was situated about halfway back – for me, a safe distance – between cheerful congregation members and a couple of intrigued but confused looking friends.

I didn’t wait there with outstretched arms, ready to wrap him in a towel and welcome him into this new life, and I wasn’t there to lay hands on him and pray. As people around me rose to their feet and opened their mouths to sing, I craned my neck to observe the new man being hugged and congratulated by his friends and family. There were no big surprises – I’d witnessed similar scenes many times before – all the same, there he was, born again at 23.

Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it - Proverbs 22:6

We grew up in Nairn, a seaside town in the North of Scotland known locally for its disproportionate number of churches and charity shops. It was the Baptist church we called home, and from day one, Christianity was at the centre of our lives. Baptism – the rite of passage which conjures images of priests, babies and holy water – is practised on consenting adults within this denomination of Christianity, and known as Believer’s Baptism.

Two years ago, I watched my brother Owen literally take the plunge, but not at home in the sea, where I’m sure we both at one stage expected to be baptised. Like me, he’d left the church in his teenage years, so it was a surprise when I received an invitation to the event, at Central Church in Edinburgh. I’d lost my faith, but leaving the religion had been a difficult process. I had often felt like I needed not a leap of faith, but a leap of atheism.

'As a young Christian, I felt that the greatest battles were the ones fought in my own heart, mind and body over conflicting messages from religious and secular culture.'

Christianity, the Baptist church included, is in trouble, as the UK moves further away from the Christian country it once was. NatCen’s British Social Attitudes survey found that as of 2014, for the first time, Christians are a minority in the UK, with 48.5 per cent of Britons identifying as non-religious, compared to 43.8 per cent who identified as Christian – and half of those Christians are over 55.

Religion is least popular with younger age groups. The graph below shows the breakdown by age of people in Britain who say they belong to a particular religion. Even in a Christian country such as the USA, church is losing its hold on younger people: this study suggests that 59 per cent of millennials who grew up in church have at some point dropped out.

As Christianity declines and is increasingly viewed with suspicion, it’s often a challenge for young people from Christian backgrounds to navigate both secular and religious circles. Secularism has become the mainstream but many battles are still fought on religious grounds as we toe the tightrope of tolerance and figure out how to best prepare the next generation for life in a multicultural society. As a young Christian, I felt that the greatest battles were the ones fought in my own heart, mind and body over conflicting messages from religious and secular culture.

This project aims to explore the experiences and challenges of being young and Christian in modern Britain by following the journeys of myself and other young people from similar backgrounds. It asks, what factors cause young people to retain or lose their faith? I surveyed a group of young Baptists and ex-Baptists aged 18-35, three of whom shared their stories with me:

I would soon discover that many of the frustrations which caused me to leave the church are shared by young people on the inside. Firstly however, I wanted to look into the origins of the Baptist church in Britain. The sheer number of Christian denominations is staggering – but why, for a declining religion, are these divisions still important in the 21st century?

Who are the Baptists?

The Baptist church is the fifth largest Christian denomination worldwide and data from Christian Research suggests it represents 3.7% of the UK’s Christian population. I met with Mike Lowe, Communications Enabler for the Baptist Union of Great Britain (BUGB), to help me flesh out the details of the Baptists’ past and provide some insight into the workings of the church today.

The BUGB acts as an umbrella for 2000 churches within the UK. Most Scottish Baptist churches operate under the Baptist Union of Scotland and there are many other independent Baptist churches in Britain, not to mention the myriad expressions of the Baptist church outside the country. Baptist churches are autonomously governed. Whilst unions and conventions link churches together, there is no hierarchy and every church has the right to define its own theological beliefs.

Baptist House in Didcot, the Baptist Union of Great Britain HQ

The Baptist Church was born out of the turmoil of the Protestant Reformation, of which Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, published in 1517, are often considered the catalyst. “He wasn’t looking for radical change,” Mike Lowe explains. “He just wanted to reform the Roman Catholic church.” But a tidal wave of change had been set in motion.

Less than 100 years later, the Church of England had split from the authority of the Catholic church, but for one group in Lincolnshire known as the English Separatists, this did not go far enough. Technological change meant that people were beginning to read for themselves, and the Separatists found that the religious practices they were used to didn’t match what they read in the Bible. At the heart of this was the “startling discovery” which helped form one of the central tenets of this new denomination.

“Fundamentally, they went back to the Bible, went right to the start of the Gospels, and saw that Jesus wasn’t baptised as an infant, he was a 30-year-old-man,” Lowe says. “It was about becoming a disciple, making a covenant with God about accepting your relationship as a Christian, and doing that with people surrounding you.”

By this time, the group of dissenters had fled to Amsterdam fearing persecution and death, where they met with other groups of Christians re-interpreting the theology behind baptism. The first Baptist church was founded on Dutch soil in 1609 with John Smyth from Nottinghamshire as its minister, but only three years later, the group returned to England and founded the first British Baptist churches.

“Covenant” was (and is) an important word for the early Baptists, as they would reject many of the rules and laws associated with Catholic and Anglican churches, opting for agreements of trust and self-governance. They did not see baptism as a necessary step for salvation, but as an expression of the covenant they wanted to make with each other and God – and a way to return free will to the people.

The Baptist Union of Great Britain was formed in the late 19th century

The first Baptists in the UK would become known as the General Baptists, and continued to increase in popularity. A separate group, influenced by Calvinism – in which salvation is reserved for an elect – and known as the Particular Baptists, emerged around 1640. It wasn’t until the late-19th century that the two groups came together to form the Baptist Union of Great Britain, which was an achievement, Lowe says, as they were, theologically, on opposite ends of the spectrum. The Declaration of Principle – the statement which forms the basis of the union – was introduced in 1873 and refined in 1904, 1906 and 1938. It contains just three short statements concerning authority, baptism and mission, allowing the General and Particular Baptists to co-exist.

'Theological freedom has been and will always remain very important to us.' Mike Lowe

“The main expressions of Christianity, like Methodism, Anglican and Roman Catholicism have statements of faith – which present their core theological beliefs,” Lowe says. “You will also find they often recite one of the famous creeds like the Nicene or Apostles Creed in their worship. We don’t have a statement of faith and very few Baptist Churches will ever recite a creed. That’s because having theological freedom has been and will always remain very important to us.”

Practically, this means 2000 churches with 2000 points of view, and accounts for the reason many independent Baptist churches are not aligned with the Union – because the Declaration of Principle is too theologically open-ended for what they as a congregation believe. It also means one Union church might maintain that homosexuality is a sin whereas another will happily practice gay marriage. BUGB churches range from the 2000-strong Trinity Church in London, to tiny congregations of only a couple of members.

Early Days

Like most of the young Baptists and ex-Baptists I spoke to, my parents’ influence brought me to church and I enjoyed a largely happy childhood there. They had always been passionate about their faith – people would say they “had the fire of Jesus”.

I could never fathom how, after working full-time jobs and raising two children, they still found time to go to church twice every Sunday, play in the church band with the required weekly practice, attend a series of Bible studies and meetings, set up and run Nairn Baptist Church’s first youth group, bus themselves and us around to various church activities, pray and read the Bible. I was equally impressed and intimidated by their level of energy and commitment.

My church was fairly informal, I had friends and a warm and welcoming family there. The social factor of church can be very important for younger people, and for Baptists, “walking together” and “watching over one another” are integral parts of religious practice. Our church’s youth activities included anything from sports days to pancake parties.

“It took a bit of a while for me to get involved,” Claire Baines says after describing the more formal church experience she had at first. “We moved church when I was 12 or 13; to a more lively church. There were probably about 200 young people there right from babies up to teenagers, which was a much better fit for my sister and I.”

Daniel Hatfield says what helped him engage was the ability to be “free” at church. “I didn’t have to stand up and sing, if I wanted to just sit down and listen then I could. And little things, like we used to play hide and seek after church and I’d hide in the pulpit or under the pews,” he adds with a smile. “There was definitely that freedom to enjoy community and explore that shared space.”

Freedom or formality? One of the many factors which can dictate children's enjoyment of church

I found the early days the easiest. It was so easy to accept the wonderful stories I heard in church and Sunday School, to sing the songs and to believe that a loving God had sent his son to die for my sins. March agrees: “You get brought up in a way of thinking and behaving and doing things, such that it was very easy when I was a teenager to say the right things to the right questions. I was baptised and confirmed in the church as a church member.”

As easy as it was however, it was also necessary to me, because I’d been told what the alternative was. The concept of Hell really terrified me as a child, and personally, I think that fear was a greater motivator than many of the positive messages I’d heard in church. Thankfully not all Christian children take it to heart in the way I did.

“I don’t recall thinking about (heaven and hell) that much, other than: ‘Heaven’s a really nice place and I know that I’m going there because I’m a Christian,’” Hatfield says. “I suppose the concept of hell was one of those uncomfortable ones so I didn’t really think about it other than to know it’s kind of bad, and so I should tell people about Jesus.”

Children and young people can find it difficult to express themselves in traditional church settings – of those I spoke to roughly as many said they enjoyed the worship (singing) and teaching (sermons/preaching) as those who complained of it being long or boring. “I was the one that would be sat at the back of the church at 11-12 years old, fast asleep!” Baines laughs. Hatfield says his childhood assumption of church was that the adults did “the really boring stuff” after the kids and young people went off to their groups, but as he grew older he found himself less engaged with the songs and much more into the “unpacking of the Bible”.

Church life was not always perfect, but it was a place where I genuinely did feel at home. This did not last long however – like me, many young Christians fall by the wayside during adolescence. How do the struggles, doubts and discoveries encountered during this time intertwine, often uncomfortably, with the expectations of the religion? And what are the factors driving young Baptists away from church?

Struggles and Doubts

I can’t remember when or where the cracks in my beliefs started to form, but by my mid-teens it felt as if they were collapsing all around me. As I became increasingly conscious of Christianity’s views on the LGBT community and women’s reproductive rights, it was harder to sit comfortably in church, and it started to feel like a place I didn’t belong.

I could no longer accept that an all-powerful God would allow suffering because it was “part of his plan”. The creation story didn’t make sense. I’d been told in church that I should make relationships with other Christians, but I didn’t want to limit myself. I suffered from an eating disorder and church was no longer the home it had been – even from the most well-meaning members of the congregation I would have preferred privacy over prayers.

My world view had changed – my previous understanding of the order of things, I felt, didn’t stand up to scrutiny. Even then, losing my faith felt like having the carpet pulled from under my feet, and that still didn’t compare to the pain of letting my devout parents down.

“Of course it’s always difficult when it’s something that’s so important in your parents lives,” March says, describing his departure from church. He was baptised at 15, but after just a year, he left the church. “I’ve always been quite a deep thinker, and they gave me one of the proverbs,” he says. “‘(Trust in the LORD with all your heart); trust not in your own wisdom.’ The whole paradox of that was if you can’t trust your own wisdom, how do you trust that you actually believe the things that you say?

“It was more about lots of small things,” he adds. “You just slowly stop connecting with that way of thinking when you grow up and start thinking for yourself a bit more, instead of just following what you’ve been taught.”

A common criticism of the Christian consensus amongst participants was its seeming inability to move with the times. Survey respondents said that church was “calcified in a time warp”, that church could be boring and stuck in its ways and that there was “no space to discuss the legitimacy or credibility of information we were given”. Hatfield says Baptists churches’ failure to keep up with changes in culture has resulted in the loss of younger generations:

Hatfield believes that hypocrisy in certain congregations is what’s putting many young people off. “Everyone follows something in life or has a number 1 priority. For the Christian, that should be Christ,” he says. “For some people who go to church, church has replaced Christ. People who value traditionalism, people who are moralistic … there’s an atmosphere of condemnation and judgement. I don’t think that’s Christianity, that’s what I call Churchianity.”

The natural pressures of growing up can present a dilemma for young Christians, as many churches will advise their youth what not to do, without providing much in the way of an alternative. “You get to 17, 18, and you wanna be out with your friends, be out clubbing, be out pubbing, and some churches don’t really recognise that, they don’t think they have to compete with any of that,” Baines says. “In the church I grew up in there was a lot of, ‘You don’t do this, you don’t do this,’ rather than teaching you how to cope in that situation if you did want to go out and party. What’s a good way to do it? How do you be part of that social circle and still be a Christian within it?”

Baines says that many vulnerable church members also feel the need to conceal issues or difficulties in their lives out of fear of judgment (something I’ve felt myself), but in fact, condemning others goes against Christian doctrine. “It’s not up to us to point a judging finger,” she says. “It’s up to us to have open doors and open hearts. Anything else beyond that is not our responsibility.” She has been particularly frustrated by many churches’ attitudes towards homosexuality:

For each young Baptist who feels out of place in their church, there could be another church, within the same denomination, which realises a different interpretation of the Bible – perhaps one more in-line with their own view – but without prior knowledge of this it can be easy to feel alienated and alone. But despite the manifold push-pull factors which keep young Baptists in or out of their churches, there will always be a that natural drive to challenge, question and distance ourselves from what we are brought up with. There’s no formula – personal circumstances is the major dictator in whether a religious upbringing enriches, or depletes from, the search for a sense of self.

Finding Identity

I’m ashamed to say that for a long time I resented my religious upbringing, because I really was lucky. Estrangement and abuse plague many families divided by religion – I was brought up in a loving family who gave me everything I needed. But I was angry that I had been indoctrinated and couldn’t make a clean break, and it’s been hard to accept that perhaps, I will only ever be 99 per cent sure that there is no higher power, whatever form s/he/it may take. I let that issue create distance between my family and I, and Owen’s baptism was a reminder of just how far apart we had drifted. I might no longer share the rest of my immediate family’s Christian identity, but coming full circle to conduct this project has given me a new-found appreciation for their faith and reminded me that one does not have to be religious to be spiritual.

Baines moved to a new church, and found ministry and worship that she felt was more relevant modern. Hillsong is a Pentecostal church, but she maintains that “as long as it’s a Bible-believing, Jesus teaching church, (the denomination) doesn’t matter.”

March found it easy to leave church but harder to leave the faith altogether. He says that Christianity is no longer necessary in the 21st century, but recognises the community building aspects of church. “We need to find better reasons for forming social cohesion and start worrying about proper ideals to make this world, this life, better, rather than worrying about the next one and whether it’s going to happen or not,” he says. “Religion and the cultures religions produce, do produce things that are worth producing. There’s vast amounts of art…it’s unfortunate that you have to hold those ideas in order to create some of the things.”

He recently joined the British Humanist Association, after looking for a group that was interested in Atheism and activism, but adds that group bonding in non-religious circles come with it’s own difficulties. “You’ve got one very simple belief that there isn’t a God, there’s just us, so what do we want to do with our time?” he says.

“It’s quite an open question and there’s a phrase which (Richard) Dawkins used – it’s ‘like herding cats’ – because everyone’s so different and has come from such different background that it’s very difficult to find one thing that’s shared, other than the rejection of the idea that there’s something bigger out there guiding us.

Hatfield felt a call to Baptist ministry whilst he was at university, studying sports science. Despite his own frustrations with conservative congregations and “Churchianity,” he is “in it to change it,” and Rayleigh Baptist is his third congregation. His passion is building community through church. He says churches need to learn to provide “love without strings.”

There will always be a gap between the religious and the secular culture in Britain, which, if it continues to widen, will put even more pressure on young people from religious backgrounds, trying to find their place. Finding individuals with shared experiences on both sides of the divide has reminded me how much church and wider society can benefit each other, if they operate with respect.

Christianity in Decline

The Baptist church is one of the majority of Christian denominations with a falling population in the UK. Between 2005 and 2015, Briain’s total Christian population decreased 12 per cent, whilst the Baptist population decreased by 8 per cent.

This is not the story for all denominations, however. Pentecostal, Orthodox and New/Fresh Expression churches all saw increases over that time – as large as 27 per cent for a single denomination between 2005 and 2010 (for Pentecostal churches) – an increase which has been attributed in part to an influx of immigrants from Africa. Likewise, immigrants from eastern Europe are said to be responsible for the rise in Orthodox churches. Fresh Expressions churches are described as “forms of churches for our changing culture,” which have developed out of existing denominations, so the increase is likely due to younger Christians defecting from their previous churches or opting for non-denominational worship.

Back at BUGB headquarters, I ask Lowe about the challenges and points of contention for young people in Baptist Union churches. “The influence of multiculturalism and secular society means there’s probably a lot more noise,” he says. “You end up swimming against the tide of secularism at the superficial end and at the dangerous end…It’s then how you maintain some sort of social credibility whilst also saying, ‘That’s not who I am.’

“Being a genuine Christian is not about following rules, which again most Christians have not understood,” he adds, a statement which seems a far cry from my own understanding of the religion, “Jesus gives a far more difficult thing, that you can do whatever you like, but you know that whatever you like has to be done in love, and that’s very difficult.”

'Being a genuine Christian is not about following rules, which again most Christians have not understood.' Mike Lowe

Lowe says that within Christianity itself, calls are being made for a “Trinitarian Revolution,” in which a worldwide shift in Christians’ understanding of God would move away from a Zeus-like, all powerful being to a vulnerable and suffering one. This move away from polarised, dualistic beliefs seems to echo society at large, with its move away from binaries, for example in its understanding of gender and sexuality.

“It’s allowing the mystery; the darkness, to come in. Doubt becomes quite a Western word and certainly within Christian circles a bad word,” Lowe says. “It shows a real maturity of person when you can live in the tensions and contradictions of who you are as a person. Everyone is good and evil.

“Of course when it’s presented to Sunday School type things it becomes this dualistic either or, you’ve got to follow these rules to get your ticket to heaven.”

Within the BUGB, the biggest challenge will always be managing those tensions and different ways of being within separate congregations. But, Lowe says, churches must remember that they should exist as much for the benefit of their non-members as their members – and agrees that Christianity’s decline and aging demographic are a result of Christianity’s failure to adapt.

“That is why secularism took hold in this country, because the Christian church did not budge on so many things,” he says. “From sexuality to theodicy (the study of why God allows suffering) to being about rules, they did not budge, they died and will continue to do so. Unless perceptions about who we are as a people of faith change, we will continue to go down that route.”

Perhaps if this global shift occurs, bringing a more nuanced understanding of Christianity, it will be easier for young Baptists and Christians to find their place in the world – but whether this more progressive form of Christianity can hold up against more conservative forms remains to be seen.

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