Religion in Britain Today and Tomorrow

tariq-00-photo-regularTariq Modood

This is a longer version of a contribution to a set of blogs organised by the London think-tank Theos to coincide with the publication of the second edition of Grace Davie, Religion in Britain.

Get a pdf of this article here.

I would like to comment on three significant changes to religion over the last few decades which I think are going to characterise the next few decades and perhaps beyond. They are to do with demography, identity and the public sphere.

1. Demography

All three changes, but especially this first one, have been driven by immigration – not just the settlement of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs from the 1950s onwards – but also more recently the growth of black-led, especially West African Pentecostalist churches, and the over-crowded Catholic churches as Poles joined their congregations (the Polish inflow of about 600,000 during 2004 – 2008 being the most concentrated single migration from one source into Britain ever). This has altered the religious geography of Britain, making London from one of the least religious areas to one of the most, and making the large towns and cities more religious than the small towns and the countryside – reversing the traditional picture. If we add to this fact that religious people have larger families (the more conservative, the larger), the growth of religion in Britain, after its long decline through most of the twentieth century, looks set to be a fact about twenty-first century Britain, although it may be disproportionately non-white and inner-city. The religious composition will be unprecedented. For example, 12.4% of 5-9 years olds in England and Wales in the 2011 Census are of a non-Christian faith (Muslims being three-quarters)​, thus suggesting that in ten years time around one in eight new adults will be of a minority faith, with the figure for London double the English average.

“the growth of religion in Britain looks set to be a fact about twenty-first century Britain, although it may be disproportionately non-white and inner-city”


2. Identity

The decline of congregational worship amongst Christians, especially Anglicans and the historic Protestant churches such as Baptists, Methodists and so on across the twentieth century has been followed by a decline in belief, or at least doctrine, and also of religion-based social identities in Britain (but not Northern Ireland). On the other hand, post-immigration minority groups are always more conscious, and made more conscious by others, of their ‘difference’, of their identity. While this can take a colour aspect (such as black) or a national origin (such as Indian), for most minorities in Britain religion has assumed a primacy or at least a salience. Moreover, for some religions – perhaps all except Protestantism – the faith and/or identity is expressed not or not only in terms of personal beliefs but also in shared practices. This can take a variety of forms such as diet but the most visible, and currently the most controversial is dress. Christianity has slowly but cumulatively come to say that it is really about beliefs and good work, and you don’t need to dress in a particular kind of way (or eat in a particular kind of way, or can’t eat certain kinds of food) in order to be a Christian. For example, you do not even have to wear a cross. Many, perhaps most religious people in the world do not understand their religion in this way and some of those people are now British. They believe that they have a religious or a religious-ethical duty to dress in a certain way (or to eat or not to eat certain foods). Sikh turbans and Islamic headscarves are now an unexceptional feature of British cities and part of those minority faiths. Indeed, they are part of those minority identities as such dress codes and other practices are observed by community members who may be uncertain of their beliefs. For some the practices and the identity they express can be more solid than personal faith; even where there is decline or vagueness about belief, a sense of belonging may persist.

“Identity assertions usually cause identity reactions, and […] this is partly happening in relation to some white non-believers beginning to describe themselves as (culturally) Christian”

Two points are being made here. Firstly, Britain is seeing a flourishing of religious or ethno-religious or religion-based identities; these are most prominent among post-immigration minorities. Identity assertions usually cause identity reactions, and I would suggest that this is partly happening in relation to some white non-believers beginning to describe themselves as (culturally) Christian (though not as much as in Germany) and perhaps even more asserting a reactive secularist identity (though not on the extreme scale of France).

My second point is that most religions require the observance of rules of piety and Britain is experiencing such practice-based religions re-entering the public space after quite a long period in which such religion has been eroded away or transformed into private belief. I expect both these trends to continue and each has implications for the public sphere, to which I now turn.

3. Public Sphere

Public campaigns for inclusion and equality, conflicts over faith schools, women’s dress and gender more generally, not to mention all the issues to do with the ‘war on terrorism’ and Islamist radicalism, have made religion much more prominent in terms of public affairs (the kinds of things that intellectuals, politicians and current affairs programmes talk about). This is partly simply the stresses and strains of accommodating new or previously marginalised minorities and parallels campaigns in relation to relation to ethno-racial, gender and sexual orientation equality. But as I have just explained in the case of some religious groups this is complicated by the fact that their seeking inclusion and equality entails not just parity with Christians (if there are state-funded Catholic schools why can’t there also be the same for Muslims) but things that exceed Christian requirements (for example, the inclusion of religious dress codes in schools and workplaces). This makes religious minorities have to contend with and negotiate a majoritarian culture in which for many sexuality is deemed public but religion is deemed private. What is undeniable is that some religious minorities are making claims of public recognition and respect which, even when they can be met with modest policy and resource commitments, some people, perhaps a growing number at the moment, are uncomfortable with and believe are over-religionising, specifically over-Islamising the public sphere. Given what I said about demography and identity I suspect this tension will grow.

There are however positive forces at work in limiting these tensions. The Anglican Church has been making a contribution to the (re-emergent) public character of religion, through the ‘social liberalism’ strand of ‘The Faith in the City’ report of 1985 (described as Marxist by some right-wing politicians and media commentators) and campaigns such as ‘Make Poverty History’. But also I think in the way that the Anglican Church, supported by the Queen and the Prince of Wales, has been welcoming and supporting of the minority faiths and their concerns, nudging the country from a post-Christian agnosticism towards a multi-faith inclusion into a broad and moderate secularism. Christians in general have been accommodating of non-Christian faiths, with the Anglicans in particular, given their responsibilities as a national church, making an effort to be inclusive. For example, The Satanic Verses controversy, when in early 1989 Muslims were as friendless as any minority has ever been, the Bishop of Bradford played an important role in getting his city to understand the pain and anger some Muslims felt. We see the same spirit at work in the recent call by Lord Harries, the former Bishop of Oxford, that the next Coronation should not be an exclusively Anglican affair but should be extended to reflect the multi-faith character of Britain today and in the reign of the next monarch.

“to speak of a ‘crisis of secularism’, as some do, does not fit the nature of British state-religion connexions, with their compromises and mutual supports and co-operative spirit.”

Given that Britain, unlike say France, has a moderate, public religion-inclusive secularism, the transition to public multi-faithism can and is happening without the same degree of radical secularist anguish (not that French secularism is all about public exclusions and prohibitions, it includes state-funded cathedrals and state-funded Catholic schools). So, to speak of a ‘crisis of secularism’, as some do, does not fit the nature of British state-religion connexions, with their compromises and mutual supports and co-operative spirit. Nevertheless, some re-thinking and pluralising of this moderate secularism is required and is happening. It is difficult to say what alliances can be sustained in a triangular relationship between a Christian legacy, growing religious minorities and nervous secularists but I think it should be noted that amongst religious communities, including Christians, there is a growing sense that there is not a dominant religion. That all religions are to some extent minorities because if we were to identify some kind of hegemonic ideology in the country, it would not be religious. There is a sense that all religions are minorities and they need to deepen the habit of cooperation or divided they fall.

“There is a sense that all religions are minorities and they need to deepen the habit of cooperation or divided they fall.”



I think that when historians look back at the post-war Commonwealth immigration they will note of course the ethnic transformation that some like Enoch Powell correctly foresaw but wrongfully and dangerously diagnosed as leading to ‘a race war’; but they will also note the religious transformation of this country that no one at the time foresaw. These two transformations are working their effects across so many features of social, economic and political life but one which I think we have been slow to recognise is what it means in terms of the place of religion and belief in British public life. Unfortunately, for too many politicians and others this question is too dominated by issues of extremism, violence and terrorism. Such phenomena are exceptional and it is a great mistake to judge religion, not to mention Muslims and Islam, in such fearful terms. We need to think of not just the harm that some militants can do but about the good that religion has to offer, not just to individuals but to communities and society as a whole; not just about religious minorities as fringe movements but about their place in the mainstream.


Tariq Modood is Professor of Sociology, Politics and Public Policy at the University of Bristol. He is the founding Director of the University of Bristol’s Research Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship, and the author of Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea. He is actively engaged in public policy debates and is currently a member of the Commission on the Place of Religion and Belief in British Public Life. His website is


CORRECTION 17.2.15: Note: an earlier version of this blog wrongly stated that ‘21.5% of 5-9 years olds in England and Wales in the 2011 Census are of a non-Christian faith’. For the figures on this, see ONS:


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