Edward Leigh has been MP for Gainsborough since 1983, is chairman of the Public Accounts Committee and founded the Cornerstone Group of Conservative MPs. He is co-editor of The Nation that Forgot God, which is to be published next week by the Social Affairs Unit.
I applaud the Archbishop of Canterbury for his recent lecture linking care for the environment to Christian faith. He quotes beautiful passages of scripture – "The earth is the Lord’s" (Psalm 24) – in support of the argument that a proper relationship with the planet we live on can only be established by seeing it as God’s creation. It is refreshing to hear a senior cleric speaking so explicitly about faith itself, rather than parroting the usual secular line about global warming. But at the moment he seems a rarity. This is a symptom of the fact that Britain is the most extreme example of a trend towards secularisation which has, to a greater or lesser extent, affected almost all of Europe.
Next week, I am bringing out a book, The Nation that Forgot God. It has a dozen essays by various authors including myself. There are pieces by, among others, the late Shusha Guppy (a Sufi Muslim), the Rev. Peter Mullen (an occasional columnist for the Daily Telegraph) Roger Scruton, Archbishop Nazir-Ali, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the Abbot of Downside and Bat Ye’or, who coined the term "Eurabia".
The theme of the book is the secularisation of the West and the impact of that on society. Britain is merely the most extreme example of a trend.
These essays trace the effects on ordinary people of being the first post-religious society. Every other society in every part of the world has had at its heart the existence and practice of religion.
But the book is not just a social history. It is also a guide to how we as individuals can change history. We can comment as much as we like on society but we must go on living our lives; we must grow ourselves spiritually, and put our spiritual beliefs into action.
So shall we start with ourselves? Islam in particular has much to teach us. Not the fanaticism of the suicide bomber which dominates the media and informs foreign policy, but the tradition of day-to-day religion for ordinary people. The Muslim prays five times a day. Religion is a fundamental part of his daily life. But although 72% of the population claim to be Christian, most are virtually non-practising (only a tenth of this number goes to church on Sunday).
Islam tells us that religion cannot be an occasional add-on to life; it is fundamental to life. Daily communal worship, meditation and spiritual reading are confined to a tiny proportion of Christians. Yet it was not always so. Once, the Angelus rang out three times every day over the fields, and people stopped working at noon to pray.
Is this a far-fetched notion, that a nation could re-evangelise itself? I do not know.
I do know that daily contact with a quiet period of spiritual reflection immeasurably helps health, calmness, acceptance and putting all things – most of which in reality matter little or nothing – into perspective.
Yet we are a long way from that, for most people. The modern mind craves certainty. But religion based on faith must needs be built on uncertainty. It can never be proved or unproved.
Since Newton and Descartes, Western philosophy has been cursed by the Paradigm of Certainty: if we cannot prove something scientifically, it is not truth. Christians believe in the Paradigm of Truth. That faith is rational. That God is reason. He is the laws of the universe. He can’t suspend a metaphysical law such as 2+2 = 4.
But I think Christian leaders make an extraordinary error in basing so much of their teaching on the assumption that people do believe, when most are mildly agnostic or receptive in a vague sort of way to the likelihood – and no more – of a Supreme Being. I think we should all be what I call "assumists". Assumism accepts that religion is incapable of proof. We should throw ourselves over the precipice of uncertainty and plunge into the waters of belief. Read the Scriptures, practise them and then experience the great unfolding of joy that comes.
Does the decline of religion have an impact on our schools, our social security, our freedom under the law, the cohesion of our family life?
If an established set of rules and a moral code is undermined, is there a result on our behaviour? The answer must surely be yes.
The book also examines the fact that the very freedoms which Muslims, Jews and non-believers enjoy here are based on the Christian tradition of tolerance that underpins our laws and institutions. But there is no reciprocity. Nowhere in the Middle East is it easy or even possible to build churches. Here Muslims are free to practise and build.
Christianity, and the Judaeo-Christian tradition, are the inspiration of our history, our law, our institutions. Forget that tradition and you turn your back on our past, on what made us, on who we are. We do that at our peril; but that is what we are doing. We have been doing it for far too long. It is high time to retrace our steps.
The Third World and the next world
Public statements from bishops in the West tend to concentrate on "issues" such as Third World poverty, homelessness or abortion. These are, of course, vital for Christians, as the Gospels imply. The trouble is that solving the problems of the Third World is not the primary job of the Church. That is to reform the souls of individual men and women.
If modern churchmen spoke more often about the development of a personal spiritual life and the relationship with God – the essence of faith rather than the works that ought to spring from it – there might be less interest in the "New Age" and more in the New Testament.
How to fill the pews again
It is clear that, over the last 40 years, none of the attempts to woo the young with folk Masses, "raves in the nave", and so on have had a significant positive effect on the decline in church-going. To compete with the pull of the modern world – as well as with Islam, which has strong attraction for some – the Church must offer a powerful alternative.
There is of course no perfect or fail-safe formula. Jesus Christ himself was rejected by many he preached to. But one cannot help noticing that his reaction was never to water down his message.
I believe that the nations of the West are ready and waiting for a spiritual revival, but like an ember rapidly burning itself out on being taken from the fire, too many people feel they can find spirituality alone. That is very difficult for most. It is much easier to encounter God within the loving support of a community. And it is easier still if that community has a firm grip on what it believes. I say this although I am myself beset with doubt. What I like about strong evangelical and traditional Catholic churches is that the leaders seem to have confidence in what they believe.
One thing I do know. Bishops must concentrate on what they and they alone can do: proclaim the vital importance of the personal quest for God. There are plenty of politicians and journalists willing and able to ponder the challenges of global warming and Third World poverty. Very, very few of them have the courage to mention the R-word. Bishops will feel I’m being unfair. They preach the Gospel in their cathedrals all the time. But if they are allowed a couple of minutes on the media, they should use that precious commodity and tell people that they cannot do without God, tempting as it is to burnish their caring credentials by talking only about the environment.