6 min read

Revival – really?

Are we moving beyond the secular scepticism of religion?

Abigail is a journalist and editor specialising in religious affairs and the arts. 

A cross held aloft is illumminated by a shaft of light that also reveals hands raised in priase.
Jacob Bentzinger on Unsplash.

Whisper it if you will, but an increasing number of observers are wondering if we are creeping towards some kind of Christian revival. High-profile public figures such as former atheist author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, novelist Paul Kingsnorth, comedian Russell Brand and storyteller Martin Shaw have converted. Articles and podcasts from secular writers and thinkers extolling Christianity’s influence on Western culture, the societal benefits of faith, or a renewed appreciation of the sacred, are becoming a more common sight than those tub-thumping for atheism. 

Among these thinkers is historian Tom Holland, who has argued that Western values, including secularism, socialism, feminism and human rights have their roots in a “Christian seedbed”. Some secular female writers are finding in the sexual revolution much to regret: Mary Harrington, author of Feminism against Progress, and writer Louise Perry, who penned The Case Against The Sexual Revolution, are opposed to casual sex and in favour of marriage. 

Then there’s the Canadian academic and YouTube hit Jordan Peterson, currently on a speaking tour titled, “We who wrestle with God” and offering Bible-based life lessons to his hungry, mainly male, hearers. Even the arch-atheist Richard Dawkins said in a radio interview this Easter that he considers himself a cultural Christian and “I sort of feel at home in the Christian ethos.”  

A term has been coined for someone close to Christianity but just outside it, such as Holland: “Christian-adjacent”. The broadcaster Justin Brierley has devoted a book to this apparent renewed interest, The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God. In it he argues the New Atheism that fed off the horror of the religious extremism behind 9/11 is “a largely spent force” that has splintered into factions. (Sunday Assembly, the gathering for non-religious people, has seen its income plummet from £267,161 in 2016 to just £28,120 in 2022. Its leaders were approached for comment.)  

What does all this amount to? Are we moving beyond the secular scepticism of religion? Does anyone want to return to the judgemental, Anglo-centric Christianity of a previous age? 

I wish to be somebody who goes, ‘But look, come with me, see this, see that. Does that speak to you?’ The whole of my writing is to help people get away from preconceptions.” 

Iain McGilchrist

The author and psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist says of a possible religious revival: “I feel that there is [one], and I feel that there will be. And I think it's important.” Already, he says, “It's much easier to talk about religion and one's religious beliefs … than it would have been 20 years ago [and] a lot of people say that.” Some young people who are not from a religious background have surprised him by finding their way to religion. 

People he knows who have turned to Christianity in mid-life have moved “to the Catholic Church, but most of them to the Orthodox Church, because they see … genuine valid, uninterrupted tradition of the divine and the sacred, of worship of it, of the sense of wonder, the sense of relative humility, not triumphant exaltation, and the sense of a shared oneness that is encaptured in these ancient rituals.” 

McGilchrist believes the route of fulfilment “is oneness with nature, with the Divine and with one another,” and that rediscovering a connection to the Sacred (he refers to the Sacred or Divine rather than religion) would address other pressing issues such as the “poisoning of the oceans”, due to “a proper understanding of our position in the cosmos, not as the exploiter, but as the caretaker.” 

Of his own views, he says: “I genuinely am not sure how to understand what it means to be a Christian really, but I suspect that I am one.” He stresses that he doesn’t want anyone to be put off by their preconceptions of what that might mean. “I wish to be somebody who goes, ‘But look, come with me, see this, see that. Does that speak to you?’ The whole of my writing is to help people get away from preconceptions.” 

“There is an intellectual revival, if you like, because the complacent secularism, which culminated in people like Richard Dawkins, is obviously broke.” 

Andrew Brown

Mark Vernon, a psychotherapist, author and former Church of England priest, also perceives a shift in the conversation around religion, and a new sense of enquiry that did not exist 20 years ago. He believes “a mystical Christianity” would be needed to reach the many people who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”.  

Author of Spiritual Intelligence in Seven Steps, Vernon enjoys the silence of a Buddhist meeting or being out in nature on pilgrimage to holy places, “feeling different energies, different pulses, different rhythms … Being in a place where you just feel there's a different thing going on here, that can be healing. I think a lot of mental health is due to just people being trapped in very narrow worldviews.”  

Dr Vernon, whose faith journey has included atheism, follows what he calls a “commodious” Christianity – “my perspective on the universal story, which I think is ultimately beyond any one expression of it – and focuses on the “Christ [that] lives within me”, in contrast to “more socially driven” or “conversion-driven” Western Christianity.  

For Abby Day, Professor of Race, Faith and Culture at Goldsmiths, University of London, any talk of religious revival is “wishful thinking” but like Vernon she believes that if anything were to speak to the “spiritual but not religious” it would be “within them, or maybe within nature” and “non-institutional”. 

Professor Day is wary of the interest in Christianity from the populist right, as seen in the European elections and US Evangelicals’ support of Trump. They “claim Christianity, but what they're claiming is a national identity, and so we're seeing Christianity be weaponised” to deliver a conservative agenda, she says.  

Day, author of Why Baby Boomers Turned from Religion, takes issue with some of Holland’s arguments, saying: “The Churches have not shown themselves to be exemplary models of equality or human rights.” 

Veteran religious affairs journalist Andrew Brown, co-author of That Was The Church That Was: How the Church of England lost the English people, is less hostile. He says: “There is an intellectual revival, if you like, because the complacent secularism, which culminated in people like Richard Dawkins, is obviously broke.” But he adds: “Most of the stuff that's interesting and new is coming from people who are either Christians or Christian-adjacent.” But, he adds, “It takes a long time for the ideas of the intelligentsia to filter down … “If there is to be anything like [a revival], it has to start locally, and far below the radar of news.” So, for example, what impact has 14 years of austerity had that have led to millions of people attending food banks and warm spaces in churches? (According to 2023 data from Savanta and the National Churches Trust 5 per cent of UK adults visited a church last year to access a food bank (equivalent to around 3.4 million people) and 4 per cent (2.7 million) for a warm space.) “That has to be doing something, but I don’t know what,” he laughs, adding: “There really isn’t enough decent religion reporting because journalism is in crisis.”  

That puts established religion in good company. But the Churches the Boomers rejected may have become humbler during their exile, and alternatives are available that offer different emphases. Vernon notes that the Orthodoxy that has attracted Kingsnorth and Shaw – Vernon’s “favourite convert of this revival” – is comfortable with other faiths and is more about participation through liturgy than converting to safeguard your immortal soul. And one attraction of the silence Vernon enjoys is that it doesn’t give glib answers, including to the profound questions around meaning, purpose and identity that beset nation, Church and individuals alike.  

Putin’s violent ambitions could yet drive people to prayer. For now, at least, the more thinkers publicly take Christianity seriously and rediscover its wonder and mystery, the fairer hearing its stories, values, social benefits and cultural legacy will receive in the rowdy market-place of ideas, offering – at the very least – the cradle agnostic a more informed choice.  

6 min read

The case for taking a holiday

The reasons we need to rest and re-boot.

Natalie produces and narrates The Seen & Unseen Aloud podcast. She's an Anglican minister and a trained actor.

On a beach lounger someone holds a book aloft to read.

Well, here we are, either literally or metaphorically breaking up for the summer. School’s out and the long evenings demand al-fresco dining – even in the UK where it’s far more likely than not to rain. And of course, it is time to Live Our Best Life as we chase the fantasy and book an eye-wateringly expensive holiday – to “get away from it all”.  

In my early adulthood, holidays were unquestionably lying on a sun-drenched beach with a very large pile of novels. It was escapism pure and simple. And sun worshipping. Then I went on a skiing holiday for the first time in my 30s and was amazed how refreshing it was. When you’re concentrating on not dying, hurtling at high speed down a slippery mountain, the regular patterns of thought are left behind; there is simply no headspace to worry about the things that normally occupy the mind. I came back from a week on the snow with my body feeling completely trashed but my mind fresher than ever before.  

But whatever our holiday preference, be it active, sedentary or a cocktail of both, it is short-lived. A fortnight is the average length of a holiday, maybe it’s just a cheeky long weekend. If you’re really pushing the boat out (literally if going on a cruise as many people do these days a) – a luxurious three or even four weeks. But however long it is, it is – by definition – not lifelong. We build up to it – “can’t wait to get away” and there can be huge expectation for all the things we’ve been struggling with to be magically less stressful “when I get back”. We think all the exhaustion we carry, all the frustration or disappointment, the overworking we live with on a daily basis, will disappear. We binge on relaxation and put huge pressure on ourselves to HAVE FUN and – that which has become the sly new marketing strategy – “making great memories”. Which can all turn out to be even harder work than what we’re trying to get away from. 

Last summer, we went to the Lake District. And it rained. A lot. I mean coming in under the doors/through the windows sort of a lot. So we played Monopoly. And watched the Mission Impossible films. We went for walks in the rain and ate picnics quickly between showers. It was rather like we were living through a low budget British 1980s adaptation of an Enid Blyton novel, instead of the big budget Caribbean fantasia of one’s dreams. By any official descriptor, it was a holiday – but I’m not sure it felt like one.  

There is a call for some time to be kept holy, time set apart when we’re not busy being busy, when we remember that we are human and limited and need rest.

So, as I’m keenly interested in the etymology of words, I looked up holiday* to find out whether I had achieved the objective. Holiday = a period of time when you are not at work or school – check; holiday = a period of time spent travelling or resting away from home – hmm, not sure about the resting but we were away; holiday = holy day – hang on, what? 

Most world religions or philosophies have some sort of rhythm or pattern for life which includes times of rest. These often (though not always) coincide with some sort of worship or festival. These are times set apart from the day-to-day occupation of “normal life”. Interestingly, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, rest is baked in right from the beginning. After a six “day” working week, so the beginning of the Creation story tells us, God rested. And just to underline the point, sometime later, that same God gave his people the 10 Commandments, one of which is – take a day off.  

The word “holy” means set apart, sacred and right at the heart of the Jewish and Christian lifestyle there is a call for some time to be kept holy, time set apart when we’re not busy being busy, when we remember that we are human and limited and need rest. When we can get some objectivity on our productivity; when we can see (as God did all those years ago) that what we have done is good and we can enjoy it. 

In our 24/7, I-achieve-therefore-I-am culture, we almost certainly don’t do nothing for a day a week. We are always doing something. Even on our day(s) off, we’re reading or scrolling or running or “making memories”. Where is the rest? Where is the holy?  

We don’t function properly – by which I mean we don’t flourish – if we never switch off. That’s how we were made. 

There is an ironically busy industry that has flourished in recent years around mindfulness and retreats; an industry which highlights the ultimately human need for rest. There are apps which help us breathe, there are gurus who massage us in body and mind. Cynically, some say capitalism has caught on to the ancient necessity of acknowledging and attending to our humanity, our need to stop doing and simply be. I think God would say, hooray! Or as Jesus put it, “Come with me to a quiet place and find some rest.” 

How can we put rest back on the agenda of our own lives? It’s different for each of us. One person’s rest is another person’s nightmare. Whatever it looks like, we need to learn how to have “a period of time not working” (whatever work may occupy us, paid or unpaid, seen or unseen). It’s a well-recognised fact that if your electronic device stops functioning properly, if you turn it off for a bit, it’ll restart happily and we are encouraged to restart our devices regularly. We all know that we’re a bit like that and yet... We don’t function properly – by which I mean we don’t flourish – if we never switch off. That’s how we were made.  

We need those moments when we put a spiritual umbrella in the glass of our life, kick back and look at what has been. We can give space for gratitude; for reconnection with ourselves, with our life and even with the omnipotent God who role models rest. 

So, this summer, we’re going to the South of France. I’m absolutely exhausted already. I’ve been organising a rota of (very kind) people to look after our dog; preparing work so I’m ready for the day after we get back; buying gallons of sun cream (just in case France runs out); booking trips and Googling where the nearest boulangerie is so we can have idyllic, spontaneous visits for life-changingly delicious croissants… Going on holiday is really hard work and I haven’t even gone yet. But this year, as I put on my sunglasses and factor 30, I am determined to make time to put the holy in my holiday. And holy days in my life. 

* (of course, if you’re not British, you might be interested in the etymology of the word vacation = "formal suspension of activity, time in which there is an intermission of usual employment"/state of being unoccupied. Which to my mind is summed up by the old adage, a change is as good as a rest, with which I have always taken issue….)