Is Easter still about religion for most?

Caroline Wyatt
Religious affairs correspondent
@CarolineWyatton Twitter

CrossImage source, Thinkstock

A large, feathery Easter egg stands in the middle of a small street in a shopping area in north London.

Beneath it is an Easter message: "This egg is to remind people to shop at independent retailers."

I had thought that it might be to remind people of the other message of Easter - the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, for example, which churches across the country will be marking on Sunday.

But the message of shopping appears to be the louder one, with the magazine Retail Week announcing the glad tidings that footfall at shopping centres, retail parks and high streets will surge almost 5% over the Easter weekend "as shoppers splurge their payday cash".

It's not clear whether footfall at churches across the country will also surge by the same amount, although Christmas and Easter services continue to attract higher numbers than most weeks.

Some 1.3 million people in the UK attended Easter Church of England services alone in 2013 - compared to 2.5 million for Christmas.

For many years now, leading church figures have bemoaned the fact that in a country that is still officially Christian, with almost 60% of people identifying themselves as such in the 2011 census (although far fewer actually attend church services, or believe in God), the religious message of Easter has been drowned out by the secular festival of chocolate and shopping being celebrated at supermarkets across the country.

Supermarkets accused

This year, some large supermarket chains were accused of being positively "anti-religious", because they refused to stock chocolate Easter eggs with an overtly Christian message - on the grounds that they had not sold well enough in previous years.

One supermarket chain buyer apparently asked the company that supplies the eggs, the Meaningful Chocolate Company, what Easter had to do with the Church.

It was a story that left many church leaders deeply saddened, and agonising over how such a key time in the Christian calendar has apparently lost so much of its religious meaning.

A few years ago, the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, in his Easter Sunday sermon, expressed his regret that nearly a third of British children in one survey said they thought that Easter marked the birth of the Easter bunny, while over half had no idea of its religious significance.

Image source, Thinkstock
Image caption,
Confectionery remains as popular as ever

It wasn't a question that would have puzzled an older generation in the UK, many of whom remember with nostalgia the Easters of their childhood.

Going to church on Easter Sunday might have been seen as a little dull, but it brought many families and communities together.

What was the religious make-up of England and Wales in the 2011 census?

Christian: 33.2 million (59%, down 12% from 2001)

Muslim: 2.7 million (5%, up 2% from 2001)

No religion: 14.1 million (25%, up 10% from 2001)

For the children born during the war, chocolate remained a rare treat - with Easter all the more memorable for it.

The Easter egg hunt remains a highlight for many children today, but in a period of relative plenty for many people in the west, chocolate and new clothes are no longer a "special" treat, but a more frequent indulgence.

Influence of God

And God appears to have little place in the lives of many young adults today.

A YouGov poll on social attitudes among 18-24 year olds in Great Britain in June 2013 found that of the over 900 polled, parents (82%), friends (77%), politicians (38%), brands (32%) and celebrities (21%) were more important influences over them than religious leaders, who came in last with 12%.

Just 25% of those who responded said they believed in God, 19% in a higher spiritual power, while 18% didn't know, and 38% said they didn't believe in any God or higher spiritual power.

Yet the one aspect of Easter that some have begun to embrace with increasing enthusiasm in recent years, even if only anecdotally, is Lent - not so much in its original form of a spiritual fast, or giving up meat, but using the weeks leading up to Easter as the chance to give up chocolate, alcohol or smoking.

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Image caption,
Yoga provides a spiritual outlet for some

Perhaps Lent is now seen by some as a secular opportunity to cleanse the body from daily abundance, if not the soul.

Yet while many of us may be able to sate our hunger for treats more often than in earlier decades, and the majority in the UK are either avowedly not religious or far less religious than in previous decades, there is a hunger that remains.

It is a hunger for some kind of meaning in life, above and beyond the materialistic.

From the growing popularity of humanism and mindfulness, of non-religious "Sunday services" or "kabbalah", and the enduring popularity of yoga, not to mention the growth of some of the non-established churches, and books such as Alain de Botton's 'Religion for Atheists', many in the west are clearly still searching for the answer to the question "why are we here?", even if they no longer believe the answer lies in organised religion.

The new organisations and individuals offering answers could perhaps be seen as the "independent retailers" in this market for higher meaning, as the former established retailers of the Christian Church in the UK lose worshippers, albeit more gradually than the steep decline of previous decades.

However, the only certainty that some families may feel about the meaning of Easter in the coming days is that whatever the question, the answer is not more chocolate.