This article is part of a Public Spirit series on the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life
The place of religion in public life in Britain and so many other countries has changed remarkably in the last couple of decades. From being a matter that was hardly newsworthy and which some expected to fade away from public life altogether, religious controversies such as those relating to the rights of gay men and lesbian women or women bishops in the Church of England are a regular feature of political debate, media comment and legislative proposals. Moreover, the continuing decline of Christianity is being counter-balanced by a new multi-faith presence, including black-led churches, which often requires adjustment and accommodation not just from Christians but from secular institutions such as the legal system, media, schools, hospitals, universities, prisons and so on. Terrorism too has a religious character and threatens not just security but community cohesion and leads potentially to the scapegoating and fear of minorities, specifically Muslims. This renewed public character of religion rightly makes us think anew about the place of religion in the national life of the country and our sense of national identity in a time of rapid change.
It is in this context that the Woolf Institute at Cambridge created the Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life with the following brief to:
- consider the place and role of religion and belief in contemporary Britain, and the significance of emerging trends and identities
- examine how ideas of Britishness and national identity may be inclusive of a range of religions and beliefs, and may in turn influence people’s self-understanding
- explore how shared understandings of the common good may contribute to greater levels of mutual trust and collective action, and to a more harmonious society
- make recommendations for public life and policy.
It has been in existence for about a year and will report in about a year. In June, 2014 it launched a public consultation, which concludes at the end of October. Public Spirit asked three prominent academics who study religion, and three practitioners who work with religion in the public sphere, to look at some of the questions that the Commission has posed and the general context of where we are today in relation to the phenomenon of religion in public life.[i]
Professor John Milbank sketches the historical and intellectual background of the emergence of European secular states which restricted the public character of religion. While he dismisses the idea that this is an intellectually coherent and just way of dealing with religion and so is sympathetic with those who challenge this imposed restriction, he cautions against an over-reaction. He argues that a balance between the secular and the religious is the Christian position and because it is so, it is Christianity rather than liberal neutrality or an ahistorical multifaithism that provides the most intellectually satisfying vision for our circumstances.
Professor Grace Davie offers a sociological overview of religion in Britain today compared to twenty years ago. The central paradox of decline in belief and worship while simultaneously having a rising public profile may be the headline story but she unpacks it into six factors. She also notes some reversals of previous trends. For example, twenty years ago cities were a beacon for a secular future with religion found mainly in rural areas and suburbia. Now it is often the inner cities and the historic cathedrals where religious activity is to be found, with parts of London being the most religious neighbourhoods in the country, cheek by jowl with the most secularist.
Professor David Voas, also a sociologist, wonders why religion should have a special place in public life when the average Briton’s commitment to football is probably higher than to religion. In the light of this cultural change he argues that the striking fact about religion is the inherited institutional privilege – ‘establishment’ and the funding of faith schools, for instance – which now, without its popular support is taken for granted and needs a better justification than is commonly offered.
The next three contributions are not academic overviews of the landscape but from those who are, so to speak, in the thick of it. Jenny Taylor, a media analyst and consultant, speaks from a position in some ways the flip side of Voas’. While he asks why does religion continue to enjoy residual privileges, her concern is with how a hegemonic secularity – specifically that in the media – can be so ignorant and patronising of simple religious sensibilities that it leads British policymakers and publics to not knowing how to deal with various geo-political crises or to see them coming. Accordingly, she makes a plea for religious literacy and has the experience to know that it can make a difference.
Shenaz Bunglawala as Head of Research at Muslim Engagement and Development is specifically concerned with one kind of harm that the media is doing, and not only in relation to geo-politics. She picks up the newspaper headlines that the Commission itself had used to illustrate contemporary religion, offers a brief typology of them and shows that one of the most pervasive features of religion in the media is the fearful, hostile and stereotyped portrayal of Muslims and Islam. She draws on two major national studies to complement her pressure group experience and asks whether it is wise to leave such Islamophobia unregulated believing it is time to bring the incitement to religious hatred legislation up to the standard of the offence of incitement to racial hatred.
We conclude with a contribution not about national institutions but on how one disadvantaged religious community is finding ways and means to change some of its circumstances. Richard Reddie is an author and researcher who is active in the black majority churches. He describes how many in that community are in low wage work and subject to usury. While black congregations have traditionally been wary of social action as ‘too political’, they have in recent years been developing initiatives on gangs, mental health, unemployment, educational underachievement and black incarceration. He records that the momentum has been growing and now a national leadership is set to encourage black majority churches to step up engagement in social and political action to strengthen communities, promote active citizenship and the common good.
These theoretical and practical perspectives offer an interesting range of positions today – from reaffirming a Christian national heritage to de-privileging religion, from bringing religion to bear on community disadvantage, to making the media more sensitive to religion and outlawing Islamophobia – on religion and belief in public life in Britain today. While no selection can cover all possible positions, the Commission would benefit from listening to these perspectives.
In a further article in response to this series, Dr Edward Kessler, Vice-Chair and Convenor of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life offers his reflections on the above contributions to Public Spirit’s series on the Commission. Arguing that religion and belief is not taken for granted, Dr Kessler suggests we need a nuanced approach to understanding the role of religion.
[i] Dr Prakash Shah, the legal academic at Queen Mary College, University of London was also contributing but was prevented by health from doing so.