Reflections on Responses to the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life

Edward Kessler

This article is part of a Public Spirit series on the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life

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Edward Kessler imageAs Vice-Chair and Convenor of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, I would like to thank Tariq Modood, and the contributors to Public Spirit for their reflections on some of the issues raised by the Commission. I am contributing this article in a personal capacity and not on behalf of the Commission.


There is general agreement that the religious landscape is dramatically changing. What are the implications for British Public Life? It is becoming increasingly important to understand how religion interacts at national and international political levels as well as at the grassroots. It is not by chance that earlier this year (June 2014), Pope Francis I called for “a culture of encounter between society and faith”. Such is their intricate relationship, I would suggest, that religion and society engage in a two-way encounter, influencing each other both for good and for ill.

One of the main reasons I feel strongly that religion needs to be taken seriously in British Public Life is that those who identify themselves as religious do not exist only in religious communities – they live in the real world.  As Jenny Taylor stated, ‘religion is too serious to have only a passing acquaintance with it.’ This means that policy makers and politicians need to explore the means of living together and co-operating, but they also need to better manage tension and conflict. When there is a crisis involving religion, government officials and activists on the ground need to quickly and effectively address the situation, which is hindered by a naïve understanding of religion and producing bland statements such as ‘we are children of Adam’.

David Voas is right to point out the number of people in the UK who do not identify themselves as religious is increasing – from 12% to 25% between 2001 and 2011. As Grace Davie puts it, the secular ‘requires our attention as much as the religious dimensions of society; indeed it is impossible to study one without the other, not to mention the grey area that lies between them…In terms of the public presence of religion…the debate has intensified and includes not only the role of the churches as such but a much wider discussion regarding the place of faith and faith communities in a liberal democracy.’

“Privileging religion and belief is not taken for granted.”

Consequently, questions associated with the secular sit within the remit of the Commission, demonstrated by official Humanist representation and also by a number of Commissioners who identify themselves as secular, not religious. Privileging religion and belief is not taken for granted.

As long ago as 1962, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, a pioneer in inter-religious studies, argued that religion should not be treated as a system, an ‘ism’, a simplistic overly conceptualised, static entity without rootedness in either personal or historical realities. Understanding religion does not lie in religious systems but in persons: “Ask not what religion a person belongs to”, he wrote, “but ask rather what religion belongs to that person”. In other words, understanding the role of religion is about understanding human relations.

In recent decades, formal interfaith dialogue groups, local, national and international, have invested heavily firstly, in exploring the ‘ism’ of religion and secondly, in focusing on what is held in common.  They make regular visits to places of worship, attend talks on each others’ festivals, read each others’ scriptures and so on. Yet knowledge of the ‘other’ has only fostered limited improvement in relations. It had been assumed that those who were more knowledgeable would inevitably become more tolerant. This view is archaic, as the Christian commentator, Peter Colwell has pointed out, because some of the most virulent anti-Muslim commentators are well versed in Islam and anti-Christian and anti-Jewish hatred do not depend upon ignorance of either Christianity or Judaism.

When in 2003, Campbell protested that ‘We don’t do God’, he was mistaken.

We should also note the failure of the traditional models of understanding the relationship between religion and society – secularization – that suggested as societies modernize, they irrevocably grow more secular. Recent history has shown otherwise. All this is summarized by the intervention of Alasdair Campbell, Tony Blair’s ‘spin doctor’ who interrupted an interview in 2003 when the journalist asked the Prime Minister a question about his faith. ‘We don’t do God’, Campbell protested.  In my view, he was mistaken.

The contemporary religious landscape

The contemporary religious landscape is a mosaic of different religions and beliefs, each with multiple strands influencing and being influenced by the society in which it is located.  Understanding the role of religion and belief (including, of course, the freedom not to believe) in British Public Life requires sensitivity to nuance as well as to the specific, often local, context. Religion has seldom operated as a static bloc with set beliefs but rather is adaptable and in flux, shaped by and shaping its surroundings.

Religion is both a unifier and divider. It is tempting but mistaken to depict it either as homogeneous or simply in terms of its potential threat to society. It is far more complicated. There are a number of features which can be identified and each of which has implications for the Commission’s work.

Increasing Religious Pluralism and Diversity

The growth of multi-faith (as well as multi-ethnic and multi-cultural) society in the UK has resulted in the weakening of the previously intrinsic relationship with Christianity, where it is no longer the ‘host’ religion. As John Millbank points out, ‘up till very recently, Western nation states and European civilisation continued to be substantially informed and held together by Christianity.’ Today, however, belonging to a minority is the norm.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Williams, commented that Britain has become a ‘post-Christian society’ (April, 2014). The privileged position of the Church of England as the Established Church is being increasingly questioned.

The Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church no longer hold the kind of authority that they once did, partly because the number of people identifying themselves as Christian has declined from 71% to 59% in ten years (from 2001 to 2011) but also because Christianity is becoming more diverse, with Pentecostal and Orthodox Churches increasing in number as well as in influence. As Grace Davie explained, ‘The growing numbers of Christians from the global South, alongside significant other faith communities, have altered the religious profile of Britain.’

The “suggestion that Christianity could hold ‘the balance between the religious and the secular’ seems unlikely to be a realistic aspiration in the medium term.”

In addition, non-Christian religious communities have grown in terms of numbers and also in confidence. As Peter Colwell has written, more than one generation of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs (Jews have a longer history) have grown up knowing no other place to call home than the UK and do not view themselves as ‘hosted outsiders’. How should they hold together their religious and national identities? John Millbank’s suggestion that Christianity could hold ‘the balance between the religious and the secular’ seems unlikely to be a realistic aspiration in the medium term, even though the Head of the Church of England has expressed a similar view (February 2012).  For the monarch, the Church ‘has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country’, which for many people means that the Church is a kind of umbrella for the UK’s non-Anglican faiths.

Crossing Boundaries

Pluralism and increasing diversity are leading to a crossing of boundaries that divide insider from outsider and a blurring of identity markers that were previously more clearly defined. In the process, boundaries are being remade, redefined, and re-imagined and collective identities of groups change. An example of how an old identity can be redefined is Prince Charles’ suggestion to retain the title ‘Defender of Faith’ (rather than ‘Defender of the Faith’) when he takes his vow as King.

“there are encouraging signs of an incipient British (and European) Islam”

The largest non-Christian minority in the UK (and Europe) is Islam and Europeans will not be able to distance themselves from debates within the Muslim world.  Yet, there are encouraging signs of an incipient British (and European) Islam, not dissimilar to the development of modern European Judaism over 150 years ago, and a more cohesive pluralist society.

On the other hand, social cohesion is facing significant challenges, often of a religious nature. Increasing tension and outbursts of violence, both within and between faith communities, feed antisemitism, Islamophobia and other forms of prejudice. The growth of anti-Christian hatred overseas, notably in the Middle East, is also having an impact on Christian communities in the West who are feeling under increased pressure to support their co-religionists overseas.

In the UK, there was shock at antisemitic chanting and violence of some pro-Palestinian protestors during marches opposing Israeli military action in Gaza in the summer of 2014. Similarly, the rise of radical (often but not only far-right) political groups and the use of religion, particularly anti-Islamic rhetoric, to further their secular ideological goals, are common.

Finally, in response to the 2001 Northern Riots, the Cantle report described what nationally appeared to be a diverse society was in reality a predominately mono- or bi-cultural environment.  In some Northern towns, UK Asian and White citizens lived ‘parallel lives’, without actually encountering one another. There remain significant barriers, which prevent interaction and mutual trust. In these circumstances, it is relatively easy for extremists, of whatever persuasion, to develop myths and misinformation and stir up race and religious hatred.

Religion, Nationhood and Citizenship

Closely connected to increasing pluralism is growing tension between religion, citizenship and the nation state. Citizenship in the modern nation-state consists of membership in a political community that exists over a sovereign territory. The key word in this definition is ‘territory’. Before the rise of the nation state in the 19th century, Jews, Christians and Muslims (and others) defined themselves in terms of their shared laws, values, and beliefs. If and when they had to move, they would take their laws, values, and beliefs with them. It was not so much territory that defined their identity but values and a way of life, a role often played by religion. It was common to move freely between one territory and another, alternating between languages without significantly losing any sense of belonging to the same community. The rise of the modern nation-state changed this by privileging territorial identity and (normally) a single language.

A characteristic of today’s religious landscape is that multiple forms of identity (such as ethnic, cultural and religious) are once again coming to the fore, demonstrated by the demands of minority national groups for separate rights, such as the Scottish Nationalists. Of course, a common national identity does not, in theory, contradict multiple senses of identity, sometimes called a hyphenated identity. There is no reason why a person cannot be Scottish and British; or in terms of religion, Muslim and Welsh, Hindu and English or Scottish and Buddhist.

Demands for greater religious autonomy are noticeable and raising the political temperature. Witness in Europe pressure on minority groups to conform to European customs, for example on dress (Muslims in particular) and restrictions on religious slaughter of animals or circumcision of boys (Muslims and Jews).

Changes in the religious landscape are inherently intertwined with globalization.  Global and local religious identities are linked because globalisation is facilitating not only communication and the movement of ideas but also the movement of religious people from one country to another.  This process is exaggerated by cheap travel and the impact of the social media. Consequently, it is not uncommon for residual conflicts, arbitrary boundaries and ethnic and tribal differences to quickly resurface in different parts of the world. In the UK, for example localised, deep-rooted historical differences in Kashmir re-emerge in the streets of Bradford, damaging communal relations. The growth of the influence of Diaspora communities means the local is truly global.

“Globalisation gives greater influence to ethnic and religious Diasporas, both for good and ill”

Globalisation gives greater influence to ethnic and religious Diasporas, both for good and ill. Two out of the four British suicide bombers of Pakistani origin, Mohammad Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, had previously spent several months in Pakistan where they were in contact with Al-Qaeda and went through extensive training.


“The [Commission] seeks to challenge an historic tendency to focus on ‘rational’ motivators, such as economics and security, which detracts from understanding the complex relationship between society and religion and belief”

The Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life seeks to challenge an historic tendency to focus on ‘rational’ motivators, such as economics and security, which detracts from understanding the complex relationship between society and religion and belief. Religions, because they have good digestion systems and are shaped by their context, epitomise today’s complicated, fragmented and multifaceted world. Religion needs to be studied and as Shenaz Bunglawala pointed out in her study of Birmingham’s schools, ‘what interests me is not how much religion was a part of the curriculum and teaching environment in these schools but how little about religion is in the curriculum and teaching environment’.

It is my expectation that the Commission will address these issues when it reports next autumn and my hope is that its recommendations will be accepted both by the new Government and wider British society.


Dr Edward Kessler MBE is Founder and Executive Director of the Woolf Institute and Fellow of St Edmund’s College, Cambridge. He is also Vice-Chair of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life. He is a leading thinker in interfaith relations, primarily, Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations:

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