Review: All Change; Religion and Belief in Britain

For our September meeting we were very pleased to welcome Jeremy Rodell, BHA’s Dialogue Officer, to present a talk titled All Change: Religion and belief in Britain.

“The last twenty-five years have witnessed some of the most significant shifts in religious belief and practice since the Reformation,” according to former government minister Charles Clarke and Lancaster University academic Professor Linda Woodhead in a paper published earlier this year.

Jeremy impressed upon us that there is an important job for humanists to do, as traditional church institutions lose support but religion is not going away.

The UK is now one of the world’s least religious countries. Only China, Japan, Sweden and the Czech Republic have lower percentages of believers. A WIN/Gallop poll published in April found that just 30% of UK citizens consider themselves religious. Over 50% say they are not religious and 12% call themselves convinced atheists.

However, former Times religious affairs correspondent Ruth Gledhill shows that while CofE followers have plummeted, there is a rise in non-denominational, evangelical Christians – now about 12% of the population – and in Muslims to 5%.

Jeremy pointed out that British Muslims are not a homogenous group. They come from many different backgrounds and traditions. Only a minority are Islamists who want their form of Islam to dominate, and even fewer advocate violence.

The future is diverse. Clarke and Woodhead go on: “…traditional forms of religious authority, and uniformities of doctrine and practice, have given way to a much wider and more diverse range of religious and non-religious commitments.”

The challenges of this growing diversity include prejudice against ‘the other’, polarisation as different groups struggle to be heard, and conflict as the institutions and ideas which used to maintain social cohesion are challenged.

Jeremy proposes that solutions lie in:

  1. Promoting and explaining secularism – not privileging any religion, but guaranteeing freedom of belief and expression in a state which is itself neutral.
  2. Ending state funding for faith schools and compulsory ‘collective worship’, providing high quality education about religious & non-religious beliefs, values and ethics, and preparing pupils for life in a tolerant, pluralistic society with respect for human rights.
  3. Seeing others primarily as humans, where faith or belief is just one element of identity; being wary of assumptions and generalisations; seeking dialogue rather than debate (i.e. understanding each other rather than winning the argument) while recognising and being open about areas of disagreement as well as common ground.

Dialogue allows humanists to work towards the BHA’s vision of “a world where everyone lives cooperatively on the basis of shared human values, respect for human rights, and concern for future generations.”

Jeremy ended with a proposal that we aim, not for neat solutions but for a “messy integration” or “interculturalism” where we learn about and do things with each other, as articulated by Professor Ted Cantle: “Interculturalism is about changing mindsets by creating new opportunities across cultures to support intercultural activity and it’s about thinking, planning and acting interculturally. Perhaps, more importantly still, it is about envisioning the world as we want it to be, rather than be determined by our separate past histories.”

Jeremy’s presentation stimulated wide discussion including the role of inequality and unequal distribution of resources, the importance of having philosophies that offer hope, and concern over the level of privilege that Christianity still has in primary schools today. We are very grateful to Jeremy for a lively and informative evening.