This article is part of a Public Spirit series on the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life
The Commission aims to advise on the place of religion in British public life. My comments on the composition of the panel can be found elsewhere and I will not repeat them here. (To summarise, it was unfortunate that people with religion were given privileged roles in considering whether religion should have a privileged position.) I will turn instead to the peculiar institution of religion.
It is worth underlining the advantages that religion enjoys. Its representatives are accorded special status on Remembrance Sunday, arguably the closest thing Britain has to a national day. Acts of worship are mandatory in schools, along with religious education, and the state pays for thousands of schools run by particular denominations. Charitable status is no longer automatic for religious groups, but there are still few obstacles to obtaining it. Religious organisations are exempt from some equalities regulations. Broadcasters are obliged to give time to religion. The Church of England has inherited enormous wealth from an earlier era. Twenty-six bishops sit in the House of Lords. In the official order of precedence in England and Wales, the Archbishop of Canterbury stands above the Prime Minister and all other officers of state (and follows only the royal family). This list is only partial, but the point should be clear.
Privilege is not necessarily indefensible, but it does need to be justified. The question is how to justify it. Tradition isn’t enough: it would be odd for religion to use the sort of reasons advanced in favour of a hereditary aristocracy, and traditions are only preserved if they serve some purpose. Claims to special virtue don’t work. In 2011 Rowan Williams gave a lecture at the University of Manchester in which he argued that religion has a special status in public life because it is a defender of higher values – and this at a time when the Church of England was standing in the way of equality for women and homosexuals. The usual recourse now is to appeal to democratic principles: the claim is that religion deserves its privileges because it has a special place in people’s hearts and minds.
It is worth doing a thought experiment to put matters in perspective. The average British commitment to football is probably higher than the average commitment to religion. A substantial minority of the population identifies strongly with a particular side. Roughly 1.5 million people attend matches every week, investing considerable amounts of time and money to do so; millions more subscribe to satellite sports channels, and yet more millions watch broadcast highlights programmes and read newspaper coverage of matches. As far as I am aware the Football Association has not demanded any seats in Parliament, nor has it asked the media to become even handed in its treatment of football managers. It does not insist that all children gather each day to participate in collective football practice, nor has incitement to hate Manchester United yet become a crime.
“religious privilege is taken for granted and needs a better justification than is commonly offered”
I am being mischievous, but the point is that religious privilege is taken for granted and needs a better justification than is commonly offered.
Ascribed or chosen?
Among the ‘protected characteristics’ of equalities legislation, religion is unusual in being at least partly a matter of choice. We cannot choose our age, gender, ethnicity, disabilities or sexuality (though some religious extremists disagree on the last point). A woman can choose whether and when to become pregnant, but if society is to continue most women must become so at least a couple of times. Among the other protected characteristics, perhaps only gender reassignment is truly optional, and even there the individuals concerned clearly regard it as a basic need.
I do not hold a naively Protestant view that every individual is an autonomous agent faced with a choice between salvation and perdition. Someone born into a traditional religious family, who is given a name that identifiably belongs to the group and is then raised to believe and practise the religion, has no more choice about religious identity than I do about my nationality. Or rather, he or she has precisely the same choice that I did about my nationality: at one level it can be changed, but in both internal and external perception the original affiliation is always there.
“religious activity is increasingly…a matter of choice rather than obligation…The element of choice is important because it implies that having a religion might come with responsibilities”
The point is rather that religious activity is increasingly, as sociologist Grace Davie puts it, a matter of choice rather than obligation. No one in modern, Western, pluralistic society can be unaware that other avenues are open. Most people will simply settle into inherited patterns of adherence, but the forces of personal commitment, habit, social pressure, and so on are always threatened by worldly enticements to stray. All religious groups have adjusted to this reality: all are constantly vigilant. If they do not work to recruit new members, most will at least work to avoid losing the ones they have. The Chabad (Lubavitch) movement is an example: they do not regard Jewishness per se as a matter of choice, but they go out into streets and airports to bring lapsed Jews back to religious observance. They know that individuals can choose: if not their affiliations, then at least the seriousness with which they take them.
The element of choice is important because it implies that having a religion might come with responsibilities. The commission’s questions for consultation seem to be versions of ‘how privileged should religion be?’ They barely hint at corresponding duties. There is no reference, for example, to the fact that religion features as prominently among the villains as the victims in equalities cases. Nor is there any apparent concern that protection of some conservative religious sensibilities is damaging a number of public goods, including science education and animal welfare (because it is more efficient to provide halal meat for all than to manage separate supplies – though it should be noted that most animals killed for halal meat are now stunned first).
Education provides one of the clearest examples. Churches were pioneers in the provision of general education, and they have retained that position of advantage. As new immigrants have brought their own religions, they have understandably wanted to mimic the native religions in establishing their own schools. The end result, unfortunately, will be what environmentalists label the tragedy of the commons. We are seeing the increasing ethno-religious segregation of young people (and ultimately society) because religious organisations are unwilling to pass up the opportunity to educate their own. The common good is being destroyed by the eager exploitation of religious privilege. At the very least, religious organisations are acting like bankers: the profit is private but the risks are social.
One theme that runs through the consultation document is ‘religious literacy’ (though the term is used only once). Familiarity with the range of religious beliefs and practices is clearly desirable, and promoting understanding is all to the good. Indeed, some years ago I wrote a couple of books to promote Biblical literacy. Of course one might like the general public to know a good deal more about a great many things, and it may not be especially evident why religion should be privileged over maths, science, foreign languages, politics, economics, history, and so on. There are two further points: instruction needs to be sensible, and it should not be ideological. Unfortunately the religious literacy being advocated in Britain does not always meet these criteria.
One of the most widely cited reports is by Adam Dinham and Stephen H. Jones (2010), Religious Literacy Leadership in Higher Education. The Foreword was written by Bhikhu Parekh, one of the four patrons of the commission. As examples of misinformation that act as the main barrier to amicable relations, the authors comment that “people talk about ‘anti-Semitism’ as though Palestinian Muslims were not also Semites, equate the word jihad with terrorism, or write about Shari‘a as though it were a fixed body of law rather than a symbol of God’s will which is subject to formal legal interpretation (fiqh).” If that’s the worst of it, we have little to worry about. Anti-Semitism is the commonly used term in English to refer to hostility to Jews; it’s silly to be over-literal about Semites. Jihad has broad and non-violent meanings within Islam, but the term is widely used by extremists themselves to describe their activities. The problem is the association between Islam and violence, not the vocabulary used to describe it. As for sharia, popular anxiety has nothing to do with its exact status in Islam; the concerns are with its use as a potentially parallel legal system and its perceived deficiencies relative to Western justice.
Despite the unfortunate choice of examples, I remain persuaded that better acquaintance with religions would be socially beneficial. The more serious problem is that Dinham and Jones advance what looks like a normative, not to say ideological, view of religious literacy. They take as their starting point the idea that “Religions deserve to be articulated publicly”. I am not sure what that means, but a little later in the same section (p. 6) they suggest that religious literacy lies “in having the knowledge and skills to recognise religious faith as a legitimate and important area for public attention …” What does the belief that faith warrants public attention have to do with knowledge and skill? Is a scholar in religious studies who happens to believe that religion is a private matter religiously illiterate? My disquiet about their ideological agenda rises again with the conclusion (p. 20) that “Thinking about religion’s public role may therefore demand nothing less than a philosophical shift regarding the status, role and value of religious faith, not just as a public category but as an intellectual one too.”
” In considering the place of religion in British public life, it would be well not to assume what needs to be proved”
The report in the round provides a reasonable description of the challenges facing universities and similar secular institutions, and it is a shame that it is marred by the authors’ somewhat tendentious conception of religious literacy. There is a moral here for the commission. In considering the place of religion in British public life, it would be well not to assume what needs to be proved. Privilege needs to be justified, not taken for granted.
About the author
Professor David Voas is Director of Research and Professor of Population Studies in the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex: https://www.iser.essex.ac.uk/people/voas