Church of England battling ‘coolness of atheism’: archbishop

England - Archbishop Rowan Williams says the Church of England is struggling to have it’s voice heard over the trendiness of atheism.

In a public conversation with comedian Frank Skinner at Canterbury Cathedral last Friday, Archbishop Rowan said that while the popularity of atheist authors like Richard Dawkins may be partly to blame for the Church’s declining attendance, it has not necessarily created fewer believers.

“I’d want to know how many atheists [Dawkins'] The God Delusion created. The book sold, but did it make a difference to the number of people who were actually committed one way or the other? . . . I’m not avoiding the point that the coolness of atheism is very much in evidence. I’m just not quite sure that it shifts people’s serious commitments that much in the long run.”

A new poll shows more Briton’s consider themselves spiritual or religious now than before Pope Benedict’s visit in September 2010 (47% now versus 38% a year ago). The poll also shows a small decline in the number of atheists (16% now versus 18% a year ago).

Despite this, the Church is having a hard time reaching the public consciousness and attendance is declining.

“The problem is it becomes a bit of a vicious circle. Atheism is cool, so books about atheism are cool. They get a high profile, and books that say ‘Actually, this, this and this are wrong Richard Dawkins’ don’t get the same kind of publicity because atheism is the new cool thing. It’s the sort of dog-bites-man, man-bites-dog thing. One’s news, the other not so much.

“So it’s difficult to break into that, but plenty of people are trying,” the Archbishop said.

The Church has been looking for new ways reach out to believers who are staying out of the pews, Archbishop Rowan noted.

“One of the things we’ve been trying to do in the last seven or eight years is find the strategy that says we can as a church very often just wait for people to turn up to us; whereas, we ought to be going to where they are.”

The often intangible nature of faith is part of what makes expressing it so difficult for believers when speaking with atheists or scientists — who look for tangible evidence — Archbishop Rowan said.

“What we’re trying to talk about is, of course, what you can’t talk about. You can’t chatter about it because it makes a claim on you — a massive claim on your love, your attention, your self-giving. And you can find a few words that may not be completely silly. And you can find a few images that in many ways are completely silly because you know they are nothing like the reality. And then there’s the silence. And, I think, all of that belongs together. It’s not as if you have a choice between saying nothing and chatting away. The silence and the words move in and out of each other.”

In the end, Archbishop Rowan said, ”what tends to make a difference to people’s sense that faith is real or possible is seeing someone’s life where it works.”

While they dealt with many serious issues of faith and doubt, Archbishop Rowan and Skinner frequently took a lighter tone, including this shot at Dawkins:

Skinner: “I don’t imagine that Richard Dawkins is a laugh-a-minute.”

Archbishop: “Well, I’ve never heard him tell a joke.”

Skinner: “No, but to be fair, he’s still evolving.”