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Elizabeth Oldfield: Religion in Britain. Not dead - but alive in new ways. And a challenge to the political parties.

Oldfield ElizabethElizabeth Oldfield is Director of Theos Think Tank.  Follow Elizabeth on Twitter. 

The religious landscape of the UK has changed and is changing, but not exactly in the ways we expected it to. 15 years ago, the “secularisation thesis” which argued that industrialised societies would also inevitably be increasingly secularised was still, in the public mind at least, credible.

Not so now. Globally, religion has only become more important and more visible. That’s true even in the UK, which continues to see declining attendance figures for mainline Christian denominations. We don’t have an increasingly secularised society, but we do have an increasingly plural one. The headlines from the last census look straightforward – fewer people identifying as Christian (although still 59.3 per cent), more people identifying as no religion (25% per cent), and more people identifying as Muslim (4.8 per cent). The single, dominant religious affiliation is fading, and making way for broader diversity.

Even this doesn’t communicate the complexity though. The census questions are the bluntest of blunt instruments, dealing only with self-identification, not belief or practice. Other research conducted by Theos shows us that only 9 per cent of people are consistent in their complete non-religiosity. The rest occasionally attend a place of worship or believe in one or more ‘supernatural’ things, such as angels, heaven or (like a fifth of the non-religious) the supernatural power of deceased ancestors. Across the whole population, traditional religious belief has declined, but has not been replaced by straightforward materialism. The numbers of people who believe in a personal God have gone down, but those who believe in a spirit or life force have gone up, along with belief in a soul and in life after death. Cathedral attendance is booming and not just among Christians.  Even if we happened to tick the same box, the likelihood of us believing, behaving or belonging in the same way as our neighbours is becoming ever smaller.

Increased religious diversity is accompanied by a louder, shriller and more divisive public conversation about it. In the long shadow of 9/11, it has become more acceptable, even fashionable, to be publicly hostile towards religion, and organisations like the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association have found a new lease of life on the coat tails of Richard Dawkins et al. Groupings of socially-conservative religious believers have also become more visible, more media savvy and certainly more litigious than in previous decades. Although these groups do not constitute a US-style “Religious Right”, their clashes with their secularist counterparts have more and more a whiff of America’s culture wars. Even as numbers of Muslims grow, anti-Muslim feeling, especially following events like the Woolwich attacks, is also on the rise.

Our religious landscape is then both more plural and more fractious. What gets attention are the noisy voices but more interesting things are happening in the middle space. Richard Dawkins put the final, barely needed, nail in the coffin of his own popularity recently when he implied on Twitter that Mehdi Hasan, a Muslim, should not be employed as a serious journalist because of his beliefs. The Twitterati disowned him with one voice, throwing in for good measure that they never really liked him anyway. ‘New new atheism’, the gentler, more open approach as promoted by Alain de Botton is flavour of the month, not least because it allows you to actually have a proper conversation. Similarly, the vast majority of religious people are not members of campaign groups, spending all their time in court, but are more likely to be found working alongside others, religious and secular, doing practical work in their communities.

The rhetoric of the Big Society, exhausted though it now feels, had an impact in emboldening religious groups about their contribution, and encouraging them to get organised. Their increased confidence and willingness is another big shift of the last ten years. There is tension here too, however.  The natural associationalism and volunteerism present in religious communities makes them particularly ready and able to serve. But the religious commitment to the Welfare State, so evident in its founding, means there is ambivalence also. Anguished handwringing from those involved in food banks about how to meet desperate need while not aiding and abetting the withdrawal of state support shows just how different the theo-political landscape here is from the United States. There the dominant Christian political theology is fundamentally suspicious of the state, seeing its God-given role as a minimal, magisterial one. Here, while most religious believers are slightly more socially conservative than the rest of the population (and it is only slightly), they tend on the whole to be left-leaning on issues like the economy and welfare.

So the religious landscape is changing, becoming more fragmented and confusing. Although they’ve never yet been substantial enough to swing an election, the traditional ties between political parties and religious blocs (the Conservatives and Anglicans; the Liberals and nonconformists; Labour and Catholics) are breaking down, making easy majorities for political parties an even fainter prospect. Like the rest of the electorate, religious voters are increasingly less likely to vote according to a comprehensive political worldview passed down by their parents (or their priests), and more swayed by specific issues.

Trying to deal with the increased religious diversity has left recent governments looking confused. Labour gave with one hand, praising the role of faith groups in civil society and extending faith involvement in schools, while also coming to blows over adoption agencies and Alistair Campbell’s infamous avoidance of religion. The coalition looked to take a different approach, launching an early charm offensive, with David Cameron, Baroness Warsi and Eric Pickles all making warm and supportive noises. However, many feel betrayed by the same-sex marriage legislation, and disillusioned faith-based charities, so encouraged by Big Society rhetoric, have tried and failed to win the government contracts that were held out so temptingly.

These approaches reveal the two different ways for political parties to sour its relationship with faith groups. The first is obvious, and thankfully fairly rare, despite the best efforts of some – namely, making people of religious faith feel invalid and alien in the “neutral” public square, and decrying any attempt to put forward the view as “imposing religious morality”. The other is more insidious, and more familiar: the head-patting attempt to co-opt their social capital, encouraging engagement, but only on the terms of the state.

Instead of either of these, political parties should adopt an approach that works not just for the committedly religious, but for the “fuzzy middle” as well. Increasing pluralism makes it impossible to play to any one particular group, as even identifying the groups becomes more difficult. Instead, our common culture needs to get more comfortable with difference, moving past the outdated secular liberalism which banishes deep beliefs and comprehensive doctrines from public conversation.

As David Barclay argues in Making Multiculturalism Work, a Theos report launching this week, diversity impels us to abandon “progressive tests” for participation and instead be prepared to work with and engage with even those with whom we fundamentally disagree. When any one set of voices becomes dominant, whether religious or nonreligious, those who hold contrary positions often feel they cannot be themselves in public. A political party philosophically astute enough to understand this and confident enough to get comfortable with difference could win not just religious people, but everyone else as well. 


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