Various Items 

Hebridean churches losing the culture war

With the prospect of arch-atheist Professor Richard Dawkins due to attend a Hebridean book festival it appears as if those who are fighting to maintain the traditions of the Western Isles are fighting a losing battle.


Dawkins in LewisTHE island chain which lies off the north-west of Scotland has been described as ‘the last bastion of Presbyterian fundamentalism. And certainly it looks as if the secular world – with its various views and values – have been making inroads into the prevailing culture of the archipelago of islands which runs from Lewis in the north to Barra at the southernmost end.

Church or Pub?
Many years ago a young man who was headed for these parts for the first time was forewarned: “You will need to become either a member of the pub or a member of the church”. Encapsulated in this caveat was one of the two main demarcation lines which ran – and still run – through these communities; communities which are otherwise bound together by geography, native language (Gaelic), and the daily struggles of subsisting in what can be a harsh climate and a challenging environment.

Protestant or Catholic
The other social delineation relates to the split which occurred in the Christian church in the 16th-century Reformation. With a cross-over point around Benbecula, the Presbyterian north – in terms of religious affiliations – is markedly different from the Roman Catholic south. The Catholic Bonnie Prince Charlie found refuge and help in the island of Eriskay after his defeat at the Battle of Culloden. But while these religious differences are mainly overcome through the above-mentioned commonalities, it needs to be recognised that in the Catholic tradition and what is and is not permissible on Sundays, there is an important distinction with regards their Presbyterian neighbours.

While, for Roman Catholics, church attendance on Sunday mornings might be de rigueur, the rest of the day is distincly laissez faire. So a Catholic priest might finish off in morning mass only to join in a game of football in the afternoon. Not so his Presbyterian clergyman counterpart. ‘Sabbath’ observance means a day devoid of worldly pursuits. So the battle to keep the 21st-century world at bay largely falls upon the Presbyterian churches – along with those non-religionists who prefer the hushed tranquillity which comes around in these parts every seventh day.

Cultural soil erosion
Up to about the 70s Sundays in the Isles were much as they had always been, but in the past few decades a number of developments have been combining to challenge the non-activity on the weekly day of rest. Improvements in communications and ease of travel have brought the habits and fashions of the outside world crashing onto the Hebridean shorelines of – on the west – sandy beaches, the Atlantic Ocean and North America; and on the east the rugged rocks, the Minch and the Scottish mainland.

But prior to these developments it was fairly easy, on these relatively-remote islands, to live apart from social trends and value-systems in the rest of mainland Britain. It is likely that the 60s mini skirt was well out of fashion before it reached the Hebrides; and even if it wasn’t, few young girls – certainly amongst those in the 'church' camp – would have dared to wear one; in public at least. This ‘disconnect’ with mainstream culture was of marked assistance to clergy in keeping the flock within the pen. (Even as late as the 90s a committed young Christian girl who stormed the heavens with her prayers at a mainland Christian holiday conference, pleaded with the prayer leader not to mention to anyone that she had been there; or, given that she was a female, had spoken in a mixed prayer meeting. )

Culture wars

Losing battles

Most recently however the commercial world and an increase in the number of ‘immigrants’ have, together with ‘locals’ who have no interest in the church and the important tourist trade, increasingly made inroads into the religious traditions. Battles over Sunday ferry sailings, drinks licences and recreational facilities continue to be waged, but increasingly, from a churches perspective, are being lost.

So the prospect of Prof Dawkins arriving on an inbound flight or CalMac ferry is a daunting thought. Meanwhile the scientist will no doubt be contemplating the prospect of being a lion in a den of Daniels.
(He has been accused in the past of ducking a debate with
American academic, William Lane Craig.)
However any apprehensions he might be feeling will be ameliorated by his host and Festival Director’s comment concerning the academic’s coming: “I am not worried about the reception he will receive in Lewis. People here are unfailingly courteous and tolerant.” And indeed these qualities can be very evident; especially in those who lives are more bound to Christ than to mere religion. (The latter has been described as ‘a portrait of God painted by the devil.’)

Let the real Lion roar
While Dawkins may be seen as a significant challenge to those who hold to a 'faith-based' view ', he poses no threat whatsoever to the trinitarian God. The Word of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ will be around long after the Professor has disappeared from this world – unless of course Jesus returns first. Dawkins is a thinker, an intelligent man; and as such he deserves a hearing – even amongst the bastions of Christian commitment.
A spokeswoman for Prof Dawkins said: "The very fact they are making such a fuss about a talk which no-one will be forced to attend betrays their panic at the mere idea of their beliefs not being considered sacrosanct by all."  But robust challenges to those armed with the sword of the Spirit are perhaps best judged as opportunities more than threats?

lion roaringAs it is, the author of ‘The God Delusion’ will not have it all his own way in the festival programme. With him in the line up of speakers will be (d.v.) the theologian and philosopher Professor Keith Ward who will talk about his own book ‘Why There Almost Certainly is a God’ which was written in response to Professor Dawkins’ work.
But the ‘last word’ is God’s Word and regarding the Bible and earlier in the same day there is a presentation of 'The Gospel According to Matthew': the life of Christ with dialogue direct from Scripture.

C H Spurgeon, the famous preacher of yesteryear dismissed opponents of God's word:
“Defend the Bible? Would you defend a lion? Loose him; and let him go!”

In the ultimate sense there is just no contest.

Prof Dawkins is due to speak at the Faclan book festival on 2 November in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. The festival which runs from 30 October - 3 November 2012 is centred on An Lanntair in Stornoway but events will take place elsewhere and a schools' programme will also be part of the whole event.


The impelling drive amongst neo-atheists may have its roots in niggling doubt concerning their unbelief. The following extract is from a poem entitled 'Antigonish' which was written for a play called 'The Psycho-ed':

Yesterday upon the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away

When I came home last night at three
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall
I couldn’t see him there at all!

But of God:
"He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end". (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

Footnote: For a fuller description of Hebridean life see related articles – Sunday Sailings to Lewis. And for Sabbath observance - Pubs 'n' Boats 'n' Planes 'n' Sundays

Christians Together, 07/08/2012

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Christians Together in the Highlands and Islands > Various Items > Hebridean churches losing the culture war