It is striking how conservative Welsh Nonconformity has become in recent years. This is in sharp contrast with its radical dynamic beginnings in fighting against injustice and its contribution to educating an illiterate population through Sunday schools. In the past it was also supportive of the trade union movement and the radical political parties of Wales – Liberal Labour, and Plaid – in the genesis of their formation through the 19th and 20th Centuries.
However, today’s reality is that the pews are emptying while the shops are filling. Traditional religion does not now have the manpower to muster large-scale support for social justice campaigns. The new Atheists dream of a secular Utopia where all of us will have rational scientific minds like Captain Spock. Yet that has not materialised and never will.
At present we have a society plagued by dissatisfaction, alienation and stress, coupled with a lack of imagination and intelligence from our political leaders. Every day an increasingly privileged elite becomes wealthier, with the wholehearted support of a political class that worships the rich like Gods. The changing of Sunday trading laws to suit the Olympics was an illustration of how far we have come as a society of consumers. We work, eat, consume, and we die.
Is this what we really want as a society? Or is there an alternative that is more fulfilling? Religion does not claim to answer everything, but its function is to teach us what it is to be a fulfilled civilised human being. It teaches us to support the downtrodden, to give to those who need, to display compassion, and be civil. True, it is not a necessary condition to be religious to comply with these values. However, it is a near impossible task to have these values permeating a whole society without religious community, fellowship and support.
Does religion have a place in modern Wales? Or have we placed it on the shelf of our history? Should we just ccept that we are now a post religious society with new icons to worship in our out of town retail parks on Sunday, and celebrity personalities gaining more attention than theology.
Unitarianism is the only religion in modern Wales that is taking the lead on these questions. However, it is ostracised by the main denominations because of its theology. It holds a liberal view that all individuals are welcome. It celebrates that each individual has his or her own mind and journey of spiritual and intellectual enquiry, but understands that we need to share a common fellowship and adhere to a sustainable community in pursuing social justice.
Religion has a place because it challenges the avarice that is a plague of modern times. It teaches acceptance of ourselves as we are and to be tolerant of others. It provides a map that we can follow on life’s journey towards fulfilment. It holds to the doctrine that all human beings are of immense value. It believes that religion is part of our very DNA. It has created supportive communities and created a legacy in music and literature that has enriched our nation.
However, if Nonconformity is to survive it needs to let go of the dogma that there is only one way to such religious values. People can think for themselves and will not blindly accept a doctrine. The way forward is to celebrate diversity and embrace all human beings for who they are. We will then have a civilised society where equality can really have a chance, and where our communities will support social justice.