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Sex matters

Agnostics anonymous

Why is Christianity dying out in Britain? In 1970, watching the sea of faith ebbing rapidly, the Church of Scotland thought it had the answer: 'it is the promiscuous girl who is the real problem here' snarled the its Moral Welfare Committee. This accusation is related in Callum G. Brown's influential The Death of Christian Britain (2001); and according to Brown, the Church had the right culprit. The death of Christianity didn't follow a gradual wasting illness, as assumed by most historians, but a sudden violent fever, sexually transmitted by newly-liberated women.

Feminism hit the world like a meteorite in the early 1960s, and overnight the dinosaurs were extinct. As Brown puts it, 'the "moral turn" in female sexuality destroyed the entire house of cards.' A Christian culture reliant on female piety to hold it together collapsed overnight. Brown came more to bury Christianity than to praise it, writing 'I do celebrate the death of Christian Britain,' if defined as 'the dominance of a Christian culture within British society'.

Nevertheless, if I were a Christian I'd be quite keen on this thesis. At least it simplifies things. Who killed cock robin? It was the promiscuous girl with her moral turn. Not the most surprising scapegoat for a religion founded on a young woman blessed with pregnancy without the sin of sex.

Cnut-like Christians have tried to staunch this tide of promiscuity by rolling back abortion rights, opposing sex education and promoting abstinence.  This is a polarising strategy, in that it appeals to many Christians and entirely alienates non-Christians by seeming unsympathetic, outdated, and creepily prurient.

If Christianity were in a position of strength, a frontal assault on the modern Great Harlot might have a chance. You can see it in the Orthodox Church and the Russian government's squashing of Pussy Riot. And Islam's repression of women is surely in response to the disaster for religion that has coincided with the political and social emancipation of western women.

But surely this is a coincidence; female sexual emancipation and spreading secularisation are not cause and effect, but rather two effects of the same, much larger shift in belief and understanding. The ever-deeper knowledge of our universe means that women can be as promiscuous as they want without traditional consequences, and that the old just-so stories about how we came to be no longer have even a filmy sheen of plausibility.  

Perhaps it's easier to blame teenage girls for taking their knickers off than to address the far less palatable possibility that people have stopped believing because… well… it's not true.