The United Kingdom is no longer a Christian country. There are British people who will say that this has been an evident fact for some time; others will consider this to be a statement just short of blasphemy; still others will simply respond with ‘who cares?’ Well, for those who, one way or another, do care, it is instructive to report on the findings of a new study carried out by the National Centre of Social Research.
According to the data researched by the NCSR in 2016, 53% of British people now say they have ‘no religion’. This statistic comes from the results of the NCSR’s highly-respected British Social Attitudes Survey and shows that the figure of those stating that they have ‘no religion’ has risen from 48% in 2015. It was 31% in 1983. It is now at a record high.
In particular, the findings of the BSA survey shows that affiliation to the Church of England – the so-called ‘state church’ – is in decline. Just 15% of respondents called themselves Anglican – half the proportion who said the same thing in 2000. Even more startlingly, only 3% of 18-24 year olds said the same thing. This will have worrying implications for the Anglican hierarchy.
The BSA study suggests a number of speculative conclusions, for example, will tomorrow’s parents have ‘the desire to entrust their children’s education to the church?’ Will the Anglican Church’s schools be ‘an attractive, even acceptable, option for tomorrow’s parents?’ So too, it calls into question ‘the appropriateness and sustainability of the Church of England’s role in running our publicly funded schools’.
It is to be noted that, going forward, the de-sacralization and further secularization of the British population will inevitably have a major effect on other religious denominations and faiths. The findings of the BSA survey are consistent with a recent Scottish Social Attitudes survey which found that 58% of Scots have ‘no religion’.
It is indubitable that Christianity has played a major historical role in shaping the life and times of the British people, but it has been only one influence amongst others. The UK is no longer, however, the homogenous social, cultural and religious nation it may once have been. Indeed, the UK is now one of the most religiously diverse – even non-religious – nations in the world. This is a fact much-lamented by some, but, nevertheless, is unarguable.
Moreover, the fact of the matter is that this massive change has not been recognized by the nation’s political structures. There needs to be a further evolution that significantly advances the secular democracy that the UK has become, a nation where religion and the state are separate.
Earlier this year, I became a member of the National Secular Society. This move to the NSS seemed to me to be natural progression from where I stood as a member of the Sea of Faith movement
Briefly, the Sea of Faith is a movement where belief in God, and all religion that follows from this belief, is a human construct, an invention of the human imagination, or, as Hector Garcia has persuasively argued in his book Alpha God: The Psychology of Religious Violence and Oppression, religion has its genesis in our primate origins. This is a philosophical position called ‘non-realism’ and is the virtual opposite of the ‘realist’ position that asserts that God is an actual being – as believed by most, if not all, of the world’s major religious faiths.
It follows from this that all discussion about religious faith and belief should be unrestricted by religious considerations, as all such discussion is not “divinely” based but is simply an aspect of human cultural and social discourse. This, of course, would seriously imply that all public services and service delivery should be free of religious bias and discrimination of any kind.
In summary, therefore, recent research and surveys have uncovered the dramatic changes in the religion and belief landscape of the UK and, in the view of the National Secular Society, these changes demand a policy response. In being of this view, the NSS goes well beyond where the Sea of Faith movement is presently at.
The NSS recognizes that the UK has an incredible religious diversity and, for the first time, a non-religious majority. These findings should ‘prompt an urgent rethink about religion’s public role and the relationship between church and state. Britain isn’t a Christian nation, and we shouldn’t have a state church. Of course, people should have freedom of religion, but it should end when it infringes on others’ rights and freedoms’.
To set out its vision for a secular Britain, a vision which I share, the NSS recently published a comprehensive report, Rethinking religion and belief in public life: a manifesto for change (http://tinyurl.com/natsecsoc). In the words of the NSS: “This outlines constructive and specific proposals to reform the role of religion in public life…it works towards a society in which all citizens, regardless of religious belief or lack of it, can live together fairly and cohesively”.
In its manifesto, the NSS considers how the state should respond to the fundamental demographic changes as outlined in the above, particularly in our institutions and policy responses. It seeks to make known its message across national and local media, but especially to make its case before the nation’s policy makers. For this purpose, a copy of the NSS manifesto was sent to all MPs at Westminster.
The manifesto sets out proposals to reforms in education, public services, institutions and public ceremonies needed to ensure fairness for all regardless of their religion or belief. It also evaluates the state of the law on human rights and freedom of expression where it concerns religion. It is a manifesto for its time and place – the place is Britain; the time is now!
Now is the ideal time to focus on the nature of the UK as a secular democracy – to celebrate the fact and work towards its further realization.