Justin Brierley

A Christian revival is under way in Britain

Tom Holland recently invited me to attend a service of Evensong with him at London’s oldest church, St Bartholomew the Great.

Holland, who co-hosts the phenomenally popular The Rest is History podcast, has been a regular congregant for a few years. He began attending while researching Dominion, his bestselling book which outlined the way the 1st-century Christian revolution has irrevocably shaped the 21st-century West’s moral imagination. It also recounts how Holland, a secular liberal westerner who had lost any vestige of faith by his teenage years, came to realise he was still essentially Christian in terms of his beliefs about human rights, equality and freedom.

Christianity is not just a useful lifeboat for stranded intellectuals. If it isn’t literally true, it isn’t valuable

Holland is not alone as an agnostic trying out church again. In contrast to the usual ageing demographic of many Anglican churches, the congregation of St Bart’s seems to mainly consist of young professionals, both male and female. I noticed a famous politician among the gathered faithful, and was told that a well-known melancholy rock star has also been frequenting the church of late.

Despite the fact that ‘smells and bells’ aren’t part of my own church tradition, I found the blend of sacred choral music, candlelit arches and incense-infused worship to be an intoxicating experience. I imagine that many people in the pews are likewise turning up for a mystical encounter as much as the preaching and prayers.

I also believe Holland’s journey reflects a wider turning of the secular tide in the West, a phenomenon I document in my book The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God.

The New Atheists of the early 2000s – led by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett – predicted a utopia founded upon science and reason once we had abandoned religion. But their bestselling books proved to be full of empty promises. All that our post-Christian society has delivered so far is confusion, a mental health crisis in the young and the culture wars. It’s not surprising then that a movement of New Theists has sprung up.

Influencers such as Joe Rogan and Douglas Murray are increasingly talking about the value of Christian faith and the dangers of casting it off. The former new atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been praising the virtues of our Judaeo-Christian heritage, after becoming convinced that secular humanism cannot save the West. The women’s rights campaigner Louise Perry has been advocating for a return to traditional Christian morality since writing her book The Case Against The Sexual Revolution. The evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein often describes religion as ‘metaphorically true’. Secular psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt and John Vervaeke have written extensively about the value of faith in the midst of a ‘meaning crisis’ in the West.

Another significant voice speaking about the value of Christianity is the psychologist Jordan Peterson. In November I attended a lecture by him at the O2 Arena. As he often does, he pointed his vast audience of mainly young men back to the Bible as a source of deep wisdom about the human condition.

It was clear, though, that while Peterson thinks of Christianity as useful, he struggles to believe that it is true. He applies his Jungian eye to the Bible and detects ‘deep patterns of symbolism and meaning’. Yet, as is also the case with Weinstein, Haidt and Vervaeke, such an appraisal of faith still only amounts to regarding religion as a ‘useful fiction’ for making sense of life.

But Christianity is not just a useful lifeboat for stranded intellectuals. If it isn’t literally true, it isn’t valuable. Whether Jesus Christ actually rose from the dead matters. It mattered to St Paul. ‘If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.’ And it should matter to us.

C.S. Lewis wrote: ‘If you read history, you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.’ The impact of Christianity on the West is intrinsically linked to the living faith of those who established its institutions and values. If people hadn’t actually believed in the Christian promise of redemption and if they hadn’t been able to hope in the face of death, they wouldn’t have had the courage to change the world in Jesus’s name.

If conservative-leaning intellectuals only ‘cosplay’ at Christianity (Tom Holland’s phrase) without really believing it, then this ‘New Theist’ movement will inevitably fade away. Co-opting Christianity in the cause of an anti-woke agenda or in order to fend off radical Islam turns it into a useful political tool, but drains it of any life-giving power. A Christian nationalism of the right will become as pallid and pointless as the Christianity of the progressive left that parrots the latest politically correct talking points.

However, they say God moves in mysterious ways. As a believing Christian, I see signs that he is moving in the minds and hearts of secular intellectuals. Many of them are recognising that secular humanism has failed and, against all their expectations, seem to be on the verge of embracing faith instead.

Some have actually become Christians. The author and poet Paul Kingsnorth surprised his readership when he announced his conversion in 2021. Russell Brand is now calling himself a Christian and says he plans to get baptised. Ayaan Hirsi Ali says she has embraced Christianity after realising she was ‘spiritually bankrupt’. The tech pioneer Jordan Hall recently went public about his conversion to Christianity. Significantly, both Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Jordan Hall have mentioned the influence of Tom Holland’s thesis that Christianity is the foundation on which the ethics of the West sits.

Then there’s Holland himself. A few weeks after our church outing, we engaged in a public conversation in which Holland gave the most personal indication yet of his current spiritual trajectory. He related how, while filming a documentary in northern Iraq, he stood horrified at the carnage wrought by Islamic State in a town where men were literally crucified. Seeing crucifixion used for its original purpose opened up an ‘existential abyss’. This was followed by a profound experience in an abandoned church systematically desecrated by Islamic State. Holland says he experienced a ‘thin place’ between heaven and earth as, amongst the rubble, he discovered a smashed picture of the Annunciation – the Virgin Mary being visited by the angel Gabriel.

The historian was tempted to put it down to dehydration and nausea, but couldn’t dismiss it so easily. ‘It was a kind of sweet sense of intoxication,’ Holland told me. ‘Perhaps everything was weird and strange. And the moment you accept that there are angels, then suddenly the world just seems richer and more interesting.’

Holland also spoke candidly for the first time about a cancer diagnosis he received in December 2021, which would have necessitated the removal of part of his digestive system. The news came at a time when hospitals were being overwhelmed by a Covid spike, and a clear picture of the diagnosis was hard to come by. Reeling from the news, Holland attended midnight mass at St Bartholomew the Great, where he prayed a desperate prayer.

Within a couple of weeks, it appeared his prayer had been answered. A set of unusual circumstances led to the diagnosis being reversed. No surgery was needed after all.

Holland freely admits that neither of these examples are likely to sway a hard-headed sceptic. But they’ve affected him. He also admits the answered prayer story won’t fit neatly into every Christian box either.

The lady chapel at St Bart’s commemorates the only place in London where a Marian apparition is purported to have occurred. Holland says that his desperate prayer was directed towards the Virgin Mary. Holland says he was as surprised as anyone that this was the circumstance to persuade him that Christianity might be true. ‘God must have a sense of humour,’ he laughed.

‘The moment you accept that there are angels, then suddenly the world seems richer and more interesting’

Where this movement is headed remains to be seen. The statistics show an overall picture of continued decline of religiosity. Churchgoing in some denominations has been in free fall for decades. Yet one recent piece of research has given me pause for thought. In Finland, church attendance among 18- to 29-year-old men more than doubled between 2011 and 2019. The same uptick applies to their prayer habits and belief in God. The stats might just be a weird anomaly (this hasn’t been recorded in other Nordic countries), or it may be a canary in the coal mine.

As a Christian I believe things that are dead can come back to life. That’s the point of the story after all. As G.K. Chesterton wrote: ‘Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.’

Justin Brierley’s The Surprising Rebirth of Belief In God is also a podcast.

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