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Can faith help us to find common ground in a changing Britain?

Can faith help us to find common ground in a changing Britain?

Sunder Katwala on the past, present, and future of faith in Britain. 05/06/2023

I grew up as an Irish Catholic, though part of the small mixed race, Indian–Irish branch. My Irish mother had stronger religious convictions than my Indian Dad. Rome often competes tenaciously for the children of mixed relationships. My Dad converted to Catholicism too without ever really giving up his cultural identity as a Hindu as he instead pioneered his own pantheistic mash–up of Ganesh and the Holy Trinity. When his mother visited England, he would take her to make small offerings of coconut on the beach, just under Southend pier as if it was the River Ganges itself.  

I was among a million people who saw the Pope come to Liverpool when I was seven. I was an altar boy too. Yet I fell out of the Church shortly after getting confirmed.  There was emphasis placed on not being a ‘cafeteria Catholic’ with the arrogance to pick and choose. To a teenager with several questions about the historic and contemporary track record of my supposedly infallible Church, it sounded like an invitation to exit. 

Losing my religion seemed rather on trend. Britain was secularising at pace. Two religious parents had a 50–50 chance of passing their faith on, but only 6% of those brought up without a religious faith acquire it.  Yet the broadly held assumption in the 1990s that faith might be fading from public life proved inaccurate.  Successive waves of migration were bringing faith back into British society. After the IRA ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, much of the heat came off the Irish Catholics – and fell considerably more on Britain’s Muslims instead. The recurring question was whether supranational loyalty to a higher power meant divided loyalties. The compatibility of Islam with western societies became the central integration issue across western democracies. I could certainly hear echoes of that long but now fading history of anti–Catholic discrimination in the English suspicion of Islam. Atheism and antisemitism became strikingly prominent public arguments too. 

Both growing faith diversity and the rise of ‘no religion’ saw nominal Christian identification fall to just below half of the population in the 2021 census. With four million Muslims, a million Hindus, half a million Sikhs and over a quarter of a million Jews, Britain has become a country of many faiths and, often, of none. What it now means to be British would instead depend on whether we could work out how to have a common citizenship, a shared identity and to live well together in a society of many faiths and none. My new book How to be a Patriot reflects on how we can do this today. 

Multiculturalism offered one attempt to answer this challenge. That it meant many different things to different people at different times could make it an exercise in talking past each other. British multiculturalism was often, primarily multi–faithism. This arose, in part, simply because Britain’s visible minorities were almost entirely absent from institutions of political, civic and cultural power for the first four post–war decades after the arrival of the Windrush in 1948. But a multiculturalism mediated primarily through faith institutions was for a long time an excessively male affair, paying too little attention to the share of voice – across genders, and also across generations – when seeking to engage with minority perspectives. 

I became sceptical of a ‘community of communities’ multiculturalism. This implied model of a federation of communities could seem too neat and tidy to account for the mixed race, Indian–Irish lapsed Catholic agnostic experience.  How this ‘community of communities’ model conceived of the white majority group was a difficult challenge exacerbated by the scale and pace of the decline of Christian faith practice. The implicit assumption that identity and integration were minorities questions – because the majority had a settled identity – underestimated the extent to which identity will matter across minority and majority groups in times of rapid change.    

Rather than a ‘community of communities’ I think we would better see modern Britain as a community of citizens, where we aspire to realise a shared ideal of fair chances and equal status for citizens of every colour and creed. This requires us to respect, protect and champion both individual freedom of belief and the freedom of group association in our diverse and liberal society. We need to promote a sense of shared identity, and an ethos of connection, care and mutual respect if we are to live well together in our shared home.   

Multiculturalism has fallen somewhat out of political fashion, though Britain now has a multiculturalist King, who does think of Britain as a multi–faith community of communities. So his Coronation renewed the symbolic role of faith in British public life, with a delicate bridging and balancing a thousand years of Christian Coronation tradition with the King’s commitment to recognising the multi–faith pluralism of Britain today.  

Can those symbolic commitments to good relations generate practical commitments to work on realising that vision on the ground? A persistent challenge of interfaith dialogue has been to preach beyond those already converted to its positive value, to reach across generations, and whether it can combine a symbolic commitment to good relations with a confidence to engage with more difficult conversations with sharper edges too. Britain has had strong and sustained traditions of Christian, Jewish and Muslim interfaith relationships. Engagement with Hindu and Sikh groups has been intermittent and patchier. So it is unclear who has the confidence, capacity and relationships to help to navigate inter–minority tensions in a way that reflects the nuanced lived reality of our towns and cities today. Much stronger efforts are needed to mobilise the many bridgers within and across the major faiths to communicate with a reach, agility and pace that has so far come more naturally, particularly online, to those with a simpler goal of reflecting the aspirations, anxieties and grievances within any specific minority group. 

Faith institutions can be important convenors for a shared vision of the common good. There is a public policy interest in encouraging and supporting those central strands of each of the major faith traditions which are strongly committed to the common good over voices more antagonistic to or sceptical about the pluralism of our society. Which ideas about faith dominate can significantly influence the tone of public discourse. 

Yet it may also be time to place less of an excessive expectation on faith leaders in minority communities somehow to be the primary navigators of the rapid shifts between the generations within minority and majority communities today. Britain has become a society where every faith is a minority now. So, strengthening the ties that bind a liberal and diverse society needs to be a shared challenge where a wider range of faith–based and secular institutions – from education, work and civic society – find effective routes to making this a practicable shared goal. 


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Sunder Katwala

Sunder Katwala

Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future and author of How to be a Patriot.

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Posted 5 June 2023

Britain, Faith, Religion


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