“We are a Christian country and we shouldn’t be afraid to say so.”
Prime Minister David Cameron on the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, December 2011
“We are a Christian country with an established church in England, governed by the Queen.”
Eric Pickles, Conservative Communities Secretary in Coalition Government. February 10. 2012
“My fear today is that a militant secularization is taking hold of our societies.”
Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, Co-Chair of the Conservative Party. February 14. 2012
“The concept of our established Church is occasionally misunderstood and I believe commonly
The Queen, at a gathering of representatives of 11 religious faiths at Lambeth Palace, to mark her diamond jubilee, February 15. 2012
“I am as firmly convinced that religions do harm as I am that they are untrue.”
Bertrand Russell. 1956.
“The so-called Christian state is the imperfect state and the Christian religion serves as a supplement and a sanctification of its imperfection. Religion therefore necessarily becomes a means for the state, and the state is one of hypocrisy….The democratic state, the true state, does not need religion for its political completion. Rather it can abstract from religion, because it realizes the human foundations of religion in a secular manner.”
Karl Marx, December 1843.
One might be forgiven for thinking that there has been something of a coordinated effort of late by high representatives of church and state to persuade us that we are all in danger of losing our hard won right to freedom of worship at the hands of a determined army of “militant secularists”. Religious freedom is supposedly under sustained attack. Fanatical atheists want to prevent us from saying our prayers. Ancient and cherished institutions are under attack; our very identity as a nation is in peril. What has occasioned this panic?
In 2010 a member of the council in the small North Devon town of Bideford objected to the practice of prayers being said at the start of council meetings as part of the formal business agenda. As an atheist he felt embarrassed and offended by it. He failed to persuade members of the council to stop the practice, or at least to exclude it from the formal agenda. His case was taken up by the National Secular Society and a few weeks ago a High Court judge ruled that the practice was indeed illegal. Local authorities had no statutory power under Section III of the Local Government Act, 1972, permitting them to hold prayer meetings as part of their official agendas. The reaction to this ruling in many sections of the media has been little short of hysterical. It is being claimed that Christianity is under threat, for, needless to say the prayer meetings in those council chambers where they occur, are invariably Christian prayers. Voices have been raised in defiance of the legal ruling, pledging to continue the prayer meetings. The mayor of Bideford has promised to conduct prayers before official business, but says that in his view “anyone who does not want to enter the council chamber until the prayers are over is being disrespectful to the mayor.”
The unholy fuss over this is at one with the outraged stance adopted by the tabloid defenders of the faith that periodically pretend there are sinister forces at large who want to “ban Christmas”, because to celebrate it may offend Muslims and members of other faiths. Britain, we are told, is a Christian country, something to be celebrated, not denied. It is worth taking a sober look at this claim. In what sense, if at all, can Britain today be considered a Christian country? No-one doubts that Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan, for example, are Muslim countries due largely to the fact that the great majority of their populations are devout, practicing Muslims. In this sense, Britain is not a Christian country. According to the most recent poll (Ipsos Mori) carried out for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, only 54% of Britons identified themselves as Christians. But, of those, 74% thought religion should not influence public policy: only 12% thought it should. Of the professed Christians, 58% hadn’t attended a church service in the past 12 months; 46% oppose the UK having an official state religion, as opposed to 32% in favour. 74% of those who identified as Christians did so because they were born into a faith rather than because of any belief. Only 32% believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus and one in five do not believe in the resurrection in any form. Interestingly – and rather crucially for the claims of Christian faith – 49% of those who profess to be Christians do not believe that Jesus was the son of God and 1 in 25 don’t believe he existed at all. Ipsos Mori interviewed 2000 people.
Given these results how is it still possible for the Church of England and its political defenders to continue to claim that Britain is a Christian country? At one level it has to do with the defense of entrenched privilege. Twenty six unelected Church of England bishops sit in the House of Lords. The Church of England is the established church in England and the Queen is its “Supreme Governor and Defender of the Faith” though her writ doesn’t run over the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. The established church needs to keep up the pretense that its establishment rests on a solid foundation, so it has always seized on the evidence of earlier polls suggesting that about 72% of the population describe themselves as Christians, to claim that Britain remains a Christian country. But it is now clear that in any meaningful sense, this is nonsense. The findings of the Ipsos Mori poll are not, of course limited to those who describe themselves as CofE. Included must also be evidence about the increase since 2001 in the numbers of Roman Catholics, boosted by EU immigrants. When one also takes into account the far higher church attendance at African and African-Caribbean evangelic churches, it is inescapable that the decline in the numbers identifying as Christians would seem to be most marked in what were more traditional, white, “CofE” sections of the population.
Reluctance among the clergy to accept the hard reality of rapidly dwindling numbers of the Christian flock is understandable, if indefensible. One does not need to question the sincerity with which their beliefs are held. It is evident that very many practicing Christians are actively engaged in selfless work in Britain and worldwide, dedicated to combating inequality and achieving a better world. In this they stand shoulder-to-shoulder with non-Christians, atheists and others who are working in the same cause. But it is inexcusable that those in positions of power and authority in the Christian churches should use their positions to defend their privileges and the privileges associated with “faith”. The proliferation of “faith” schools in the state sector has undermined attempts to reduce inequalities in the provision of comprehensive state education by smuggling in an insidious form of selection. The main beneficiaries are the CofE and Catholic schools, but there is now a growing demand for Islamic schools. All such institutions seek to indoctrinate children into a religious faith with all the exclusivist and sometimes gender-discriminatory and segregationist practices that go with it.
The Church of England used to be described as “the Tory party at prayer”. That description no longer fits. Now the church is more likely to be the butt of sarcastic jibes from the Tories about “bleeding-heart liberals”. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is frequently singled out for this sort of treatment. Nevertheless, deep-rooted social-conservatism thrives in the Christian churches. Engrained hostility to the ordination of women priests and bishops, opposition to gay marriage and homophobia are widespread. Divisions over such matters run deep in both the Anglican and Catholic churches. But the CofE clergy and the Tory ministers speak with one voice when they denounce “militant secularists” who, they claim, want to prevent Christians from practicing their religion. The carefully orchestrated assault actually distorts the meaning of both terms. “Militant” denotes something warlike and combative; “secularism” simply means the separation of church and state, or the belief that religious practice should be separated from the public affairs of state and from state education. The use – or misuse – of terminology is deliberate. Although secularists may well be - and often are – people of religious faith, the terms “secularist” and “atheist” are often conflated and it has become increasingly common, particularly in the attacks on Richard Dawkins, to append the adjectives “aggressive” or “militant” to every reference to atheists or atheism. So secularists are now indistinguishable from atheists. Although the term does not have quite the abusive connotation it does in the United States, it still has a pejorative ring to it in Britain, suggesting that atheists must lack a moral compass.
What is really at stake here is the fear within the religious and political establishment that the call for the disestablishment of the Church of England may gain serious support. Britain is not a secular state and it is increasingly difficult for its supporters to defend the status quo. In view of the now obvious fact that the great majority of the population can in no serious sense be regarded as Christian – indeed no longer regard themselves as Christian - the existing set up is hopelessly anachronistic.
But perhaps the clearest evidence of the terminal weakness of Christian sentiment may be seen in the way in which religious festivals and holy days are celebrated. Muslims and observant Jews fast on Ramadan and Yom Kippur; Eid ul Fitr and Passover are steeped in religious significance. How many people in this supposedly Christian country now have any idea what Lent is about – let alone observe it? What does Easter amount to? The crucifixion (the holiest day in the Christian calendar) and the resurrection of Jesus means – if anything – for most people, Easter eggs and Easter bunnies. And what of Christmas?
If a committee had been established to come up with a way of expunging from this festival any and every hint of religious observance, they could not have come up with anything better than the rampant consumer-fest that it has become. However joyous, Christmas trees and mistletoe are pagan rather than Christian symbols. This not to endorse Scrooge’s charge of “humbug,” Christmas can indeed be a joyous time, despite having been high-jacked by a rapacious commercialism. But whatever is enjoyable about it has nothing to do with the birth of a deity. One cannot but feel a twinge of sympathy for the shrinking minority of true believers who must, at Christmastime, feel rather isolated from the multitudes who celebrate they know not what.