Religion in a post-Secular post-Christian Britain 12 July 2016

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3 faiths

A summary of the report issued by the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life

A familiar flurry of headlines followed the release of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, particularly due to Barnoness Butler-Sloss’s statement that “Britain is no longer a Christian country”. The debate on whether Britain is a Christian country or not often arises around Christmas times, but in many ways, it misses the point. Britain is a Christian country no doubt for the millions of Christians across the UK, but it isn’t just a Christian country. From the colonial era and up to today, Britain has been a diverse and multireligious place, and this report begins to address some of the questions this diversity poses.

A New Settlement on Religion

One of the main findings from the report suggests a ‘national conversation’ including leaders of faith communities and ethical traditions ‘to create a shared understanding of the fundamental values underlying public life’.

This statement of common values is described as being in the tradition of the “magna carter” by the report – so it certainly has grand ambitions. As many of those involved in faith communities in Britain will perhaps note, much of the groundwork for such a statement will have been done already through the various interfaith projects across the country.

However, a national statement articulating shared common values would provide a basis – a spiritual constitution – upon which a new articulation of Britain’s identity as a country could be founded, and provide stimulus for faith groups to consider how they can as a collective articulate their already substantial contribution to society.

Religious Literacy

The report argued that greater literacy on religion and belief was needed ‘in every section of society, and at all levels’ and called on ‘educational and professional bodies to draw up religion and belief literacy programmes and projects’.

Interestingly, this went beyond simply primary and secondary education, and the report felt it was something needed for adults and those in employment also. They noted that religion was about ‘a) affiliation and identity, b) practice and c) doctrine and ideas’ and that all three needed understanding, and greater unpicking.

Although this particular description of faith is one of many, and there exist many other paradigms for considering the way in which religion, ethnicity, theology and practice interrelate – it nonetheless resists reductive thinking about faith.

The Role of Religion in the Public Sphere

The report argued that the “pluralist character of modern society should be reflected in national and civic events” with suggestions that included representing Britain’s diverse religious groups “national forums such as the House of Lords”.

This is the first time it has been suggested that the Lords Spiritual include not only Bishops, but potentially leaders of other faith groups also, the Royal Commission on the Reform of the House of Lords argued for the same.

Including Britain’s religious diversity in the House of Lords would certainly take Britain forward in terms of representation, and begin addressing some of the issues associated with an unelected House, but consideration would need to be given on how those representatives are chosen. Unlike the Anglican Church, few faiths have an established structure of representation that would allow equivalents to “bishops” to be put forward to the House of Lords.

Consideration was also given to the “faith sector”, arguing that when religious organisations are best placed to deliver services, they ‘should not be disadvantaged when applying for funding’ – a criticism faith groups often make about funding bodies who feel they are viewed with suspisicion simply for holding a religious identity as an organisation. Think-tank Theos published a report “The Problem of Proselytism’ in 2015 that examined to what extent faith groups engaged in trying to proselytism, and to what extent such fears were unfounded.

It’s possible to note the report itself was struggling with a post-Enlightenment understanding of religion, one which demarcated religion as separate from other spheres of life. The report is trying to resituate religion and its role in society in a way which often goes against popular understandings of what religion is and how it works. Creating multifaith civic ceremonies is certainly a positive step forward that takes us towards new understandings between religion and state.

Education

The report also looks at Religious Education in schools, although it doesn’t go as in-depth as other reports on the issue (such as the New Settlement on Religion and Belief in Schools or the RE for Real) but it does argue for a broad national framework and criticised the diversity of local syllabuses in operation, arguing many of them were inadequate. Where good teaching did exist, the report believes, it is often due to skilled teachers who went above and beyond the requirements of the syllabus.

The call then is a for a national curriculum that can begin condensing good practice and ensure all children receive a quality education in religion.

The Media

The report has a number of findings related to the media. It highlights that mainstream media is felt to inadequately cover religion and faith by almost all the respondents who submitted evidence to the commission, thought It recognises the challenges journalists face in trying to cover faith (opening their section on media with two respondents, one who felt that the BBC had an anti-Christian bias, and another, that suggested the BBC was the ‘Christian Broadcasting Commission in all but name’).

It notes that the loss of religion specialists in journalism is partly responsible, and makes the case that journalists could improve their knowledge and understanding of religion through short courses tailored to the needs of the newsroom, as well as including section on world religions as a core element of journalism training.

A particular interesting finding suggests that the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) establish an advisory panel of experts of religion and faith to ensure that coverage meets the highest standards. It stresses such a resolution would ensure that regulation is still self-managed and doesn’t impinge on freedom of expression within journalism.

Religion and Law

A number of the most significant recommendations are around Beth Din and Sharia Tribunals. The two, particularly Sharia Tribunals, have been subject to a considerable attention around the issue of gender equality.

The report suggests the Ministry of Justice issue guidance for religious tribunals, particularly on gender equality. The commission does place emphasis on the role religious tribunals play, and seems to advocate a greater (rather than diminished) interaction between the tribunals and British courts. It highlights a case in which an organisation, the Islamic Sharia Council, worked with the British courts to ensure one of their clients (a Muslim women) received both the civil divorce as well as religious divorce she was seeking from her husband.

Counter-Terrorism

The commission made a number of recommendations with regard to counter-terrorism. It continued, as many others have done so previously, to stress that ‘there is casual or inevitiable link between conservative or orthodox theological and moral views on one hand and the propensity to violent criminal behaviour on the other’ and that there does not exist a ‘simple, one-way causal link between a worldview, ideology or narrative on one hand and specific actions and behaviours on the other’.

The report was largely critical of current counter-terror efforts, recommending that ‘the Government should seek to promote, not limit, freedom of enquiry, speech and expression, and should engage with a wide range of affected groups, including those with which it disagrees, and also with academic research. It should lead public opinion by challenging negative stereotyping and by speaking out in support of groups that may otherwise feel vulnerable and excluded.’

Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life is the latest in which counter-terror strategies are criticised, and it reflects the findings of the September 2015 report by the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation.

The scope of the commission was certainly large. Its findings are perhaps not original, but it has brought together criticisms and suggestions from faith groups and civil society bodies into a single document . Sociologist Jürgen Habermas coined the term post-secularism to describe the loss of confidence in modernity and the associated belief that religion would diminish in importance. And it was former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams who coined “post-Christian” to neatly describe the Christian character and history of Britain, without erasing either the diversity that exists or the increasingly “non-religious”.

This report begins a process of articulating something new, instead of Britain being “post”-something, it can start speaking of being positively something, a multifaith and diverse country.

This article is from Issue 12 of On Religion. To subscribe to On Religion Magazine for £19 a year, follow the link below.
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On Religion's editorial team is made up of postgraduate students and researchers of religion and across the UK.