LL: Professor Lewis, thank you very much for giving us this posthumous interview. We have tried to promote Lyman Stone’s great report „Promise and Peril“ through our channels, which deals with the decline of religion in America and unearths interesting findings about the irreligiosity of previous generations and the true extend of the current decline in a historic context. You have yourself made a similar observation about the 19th century in Britain, using data from your own field, literary criticism, and the writings Dickens and Scott, for example.
CSL: If we judge the nineteenth century from the books it wrote, the outlook of our grandfathers (with a very few exceptions) was quite as secular as our own. The novels of Meredith, Trollope, and Thackeray are not written either by or for men who see this world as the vestibule of eternity, who regard pride as the greatest of the sins, who desire to be poor in spirit, and look for a supernatural salvation. One way of putting the truth would be that the religion which has declined was not Christianity. It was a vague theism with a strong and virile ethical code, which, far from standing over against the „world,“ was absorbed into the whole fabric of English institutions and sentiment and therefore demanded churchgoing as (at best) a part of loyalty and good manners or (at worst) a proof of respectability.
LL: So in fact you hold that the number of, let us call them „church goers“ was significantly inflated until the early half of the 20th century in Britain and is now closer to the truth, so to speak?
CSL: When no man goes to church except because he seeks Christ the number of actual believers can at last be discovered. It should be added that this new freedom was partly caused by the very conditions which it revealed. If the various anticlerical and antitheistic forces at work in the nineteenth century had had to attack a solid phalanx of radical Christians the story might have been different. But mere „religion“—“morality tinged with emotion,“ „what a man does with his solitude,“ „the religion of all good men“—has little power of resistance. It is not good at saying No.
LL: Indeed. Surely highly interesting for our American readers, where, I dare say, the decline was delayed by a few decades and is now in full force. What would you predict the outcomes to be for society of a decline such as this?
CSL: The decline of „religion“ is no doubt a bad thing for the „world.“ By it all the things that made England a fairly happy country are, I suppose, endangered: the comparative purity of her public life, the comparative humanity of her police, and the possibility of some mutal respect and kindness between political opponents. But…
LL: I must apologize but this is remarkable, remarkable seen in the light of current events. Police brutality, political division… But, I apologize again, Professor, please, please continue!
CSL: But I am not clear that it makes conversions to Christianity rarer or more difficult: rather the reverse. It makes the choice more unescapable. When the Round Table is broken every man must follow either Galahad or Mordred: middle things are gone.
LL: Would you hence expect the concurrence of a revival of public interest in Christianity at all?
CSL: We must remember that a widespread and lively interest in a subject is precisely what we call a fashion. And mutability is the fate of all movements, fashions, intellectual climates, and the like. At first it is welcome to all who have; no special reason for opposing it: at this stage he who is not against it is for it. What men notice is its difference from those aspects of the world which they already dislike. But later on, as the real meaning of the Christian claim becomes apparent, its demand for total surrender, the sheer chasm between Nature and Supernature, men are increasingly „offended.“ Dislike, terror, and finally hatred succeed: none who will not give it what it asks (and it asks all) can endure it: all who are not with it are against it.
LL: And what would follow from such terror and hatred?
CSL: Real opposition. And to be on the Christian side would be costing a man (at the least) his career. But remember, in England the opposition will quite likely be called Christianity (or Christo-democracy, or British Christianity, or something of that kind).
LL: Dr. Lewis we thank you for the time you have granted us and hope that there will be another opportunity to hear from you soon.
All quotes from: „The decline of religion“, Compelling Reason, Harper Collins
by Walter Stoneman
bromide print, 1955
© National Portrait Gallery, London Commons Licence