By James Eglinton, Meldrum Lecturer in Reformed Theology at the University of Edinburgh

THE results of the recent Scottish Attitudes Survey make plain that for the most part, Scotland is now an irreligious place: at present, 58 per cent do not identify with any particular religion. The survey also demonstrates that this decline is happening differently across religious denominations. In general, Scotland’s faith communities – Catholics and Protestants outside the Church of Scotland (together, 21 per cent), alongside the generic non-Christian “other” (two per cent) – are minority groups whose numbers are relatively stable. The rapid growth in Scottish irreligion is centred on one denomination – the Church of Scotland – which has declined from 35 per cent adherence in 1999 to the present low of 18 per cent. In response, ScotCen – the research body responsible for the survey – has offered the Kirk some advice: if it continues to affirm liberal, progressive social values, the church’s appeal might “broaden somewhat to younger, more socially-liberal Scots”. While this church-growth strategy follows a fairly crude logic (“if the church becomes pro-same sex marriage, liberal Scottish youth might join the church”), it relies on two problematic assumptions.

In the first place, it assumes that a church’s attendance will grow when its beliefs and values converge with those at the heart of mainstream secular culture. Sociologists of religion tend to agree that this is not the case. Rather, they assert the opposite – that attendance goes into numerical decline when a church’s beliefs and values become increasingly indistinct from those of the cultural mainstream. It also seems to be the case that churches shrink (or remain small) when positioned at the periphery of society and take a largely hostile posture towards it. Sociologically, the lack of growth amongst churches at the centre and fringes of Scottish society is no great surprise: as a people, we are not easily won over by religious extremism. Rather, most church growth takes place somewhere between these poles – when churches are active and present within their cultures, but remain clearly identifiable against that backdrop. My colleague Larry Hurtado’s Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (2017) has shown that the Christian faith spread rapidly in the Roman world precisely because of its ability to inhabit Roman culture whilst insisting on beliefs and ethical standards wholly at odds with those of the Empire. This pattern has a long history.

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The ScotCen advice also makes the theological assumption that all churches have the same impulse to win converts. In reality, there are theologians at the far left and the hard right who view the smallness of their churches as virtuous. For the latter, lack of growth can function as a sign of purity, authenticating the faithful in a faithless world. To the former, rapid decline can serve as confirmation of enlightenment and progress rooted in the belief that secular society has come to the right answers long before the church. For such theologians, the church stands in more pressing need of conversion than the irreligious Scots next door. Theologically, the areas of numerical decline and stability in the Scottish religious landscape are also unsurprising.

That most Scots are irreligious is no great revelation to anyone who lives here. More interesting is that in our highly secularised culture, 42 per cent of Scots continue to identify with something as socially disadvantageous as religious belief. The survey’s most significant finding is perhaps not that most Scots are now irreligious, but rather, that the majority of Scottish Christians are no longer found in the mother Kirk.