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Religion in Britain Today and Tomorrow
17th February 2015
This is the seventh in a series of blogs looking at the future of religion in Britain. To read the others click here
Three significant areas, which have profoundly affected religion in Britain over the last few decades, are likely to inform forthcoming decades. These are to do with demography, identity and the public sphere.
Although all three changes have been driven by immigration, this is especially true of the first. Immigration has altered the religious geography of Britain, turning London from one of the least religious areas to one of the most. 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 decline of congregational worship amongst Christians across the twentieth century has been followed by a decline in belief or 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 high salience. Moreover, for some religions the faith and/or identity is expressed not only in terms of personal beliefs but also in shared practices. Currently the most controversial is dress. Christianity has progressively 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 in order to be a Christian. For example, you do not even have to wear a cross. Those of other religions often do not understand their religion in this way. They believe that they have a religious or a religious-ethical duty to dress in a certain way (or, say, 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.
So, note, firstly, Britain is experiencing 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. Secondly, 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 and perhaps, even more, asserting a reactive secularist identity. I expect both these trends to continue.
3. Public Sphere
The stresses and strains of accommodating new or previously marginalised minorities, paralleling campaigns in relation to ethno-racial, gender and sexual orientation equality, has made religion much more prominent in terms of public affairs. But 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 a majoritarian culture in which for many religion is deemed private. 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, supported by the Queen and the Prince of Wales, has been welcoming and supportive 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. A recent example is the 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.
Given that Britain has a moderate, public religion-inclusive secularism, the transition to public multi-faithism can and is happening without the scale of radical secularist anguish witnessed in France. 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 the 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’s a growing sense that there is not a dominant religion, that all religions are to some extent minorities and need to deepen the habit of cooperation.
The post-war Commonwealth immigration has led to an ethnic transformation but also to a religious transformation that no one at the time foresaw. 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 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 of British public life.
Tariq Modood is founding Director of the University of Bristol’s Research Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship and a Steering Group Commissioner of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life.
A longer version of this article may be read at: http://www.publicspirit.org.uk/religion-in-britain-today-and-tomorrow
Note: an earlier version of this blog wrongly claimed that "21.5% of 5-9 years olds in England and Wales in the 2011 Census are of a non-Christian faith". This has now been corrected.
Image from wikimedia, available in the public domain.