How should religion fit into British public life?

Commission finds that much greater understanding of religion and belief is needed in every section of society

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A new report, published this week by the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, and made up of the great and the good of the British establishment, challenges the role of faith in contemporary society.

The report questions how best British public life can adapt to a much changed religious landscape, revealed in successive censuses, and growing radicalisation among some religious sub-groups.

As the report explains:

“Religion and belief are driving forces today. Society is not about to return to the past when religion and religious authorities dominated. It is clear, though, that they raise issues that have urgently to be addressed.

“The religious landscape in this country has been transformed in the last few decades and now includes a large proportion of people who identify themselves as not religious, and censuses and surveys suggest this proportion is increasing rapidly.

“At the same time there is a growth in religions other than Christianity, and in branches of Christianity such as the Evangelical and Pentecostal churches. The picture is made more complicated by the growth of fanaticism.”

The coronation of the next monarch and the composition of the House of Lords are challenged, with the Commission calling for these longstanding British institutions to be restructured to reflect modern societal norms.

The Commission, however, falls short of recommending that these medieval institutions be abolished altogether as part of the formation of an updated, secular state.

Chaired by former high court judge Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, the Commission does make some radical proposals, including:

  • A national conversation should be launched across the UK by leaders of faith communities and ethical traditions to create a shared understanding of the fundamental values underlying public life.
  • Much greater religion and belief literacy is needed in every section of society, and at all levels.
  • The pluralist character of modern society should be reflected in national and civic events so that they are more reflective of the UK’s increasing diversity, and in national forums such as the House of Lords, so that they include a wider range of worldviews and religious traditions, and of Christian denominations other than the Church of England.
  • All pupils in state-funded schools should have a statutory entitlement to a curriculum about religion, philosophy and ethics that is relevant to today’s society, and the broad framework of such a curriculum should be nationally agreed. The legal requirement for schools to hold acts of collective worship should be repealed, and replaced by a requirement to hold inclusive times for reflection.
  • Bodies responsible for admissions and employment policies in schools with a religious character (‘faith schools’) should take measures to reduce selection of pupils and staff on grounds of religion.
  • A panel of experts on religion and belief should be established to advise the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) when there are complaints about the media coverage in this field.
  • Relevant public bodies and voluntary organisations should promote opportunities for interreligious and inter-worldview encounter and dialogue.
  • Where a religious organisation is best placed to deliver a social good, it should not be disadvantaged when applying for funding to do so, so long as its services are not aimed at seeking converts.
  • The Ministry of Justice should issue guidance on compliance with UK standards of gender equality and judicial independence by religious and cultural tribunals.
  • The Ministry of Justice should instruct the Law Commission to review the anomalies in how the legal definitions of race, ethnicity and religion interact in practice and make recommendations to ensure all religious traditions are treated equally.
  • In framing counter-terrorism legislation, 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.

Kevin Gulliver is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward and a director of Birmingham-based research charity the Human City Institute and chair of the Centre for Community Research. He writes in a personal capacity

40 Responses to “How should religion fit into British public life?”

  1. JGravelle

    “The picture is made more complicated by the growth of fanaticism.”

    Agreed. And nurturing the seeds of said fanaticism by compulsory exposure to wish-craft within the schools is hardly a panacea.

    “…pupils in state-funded schools should have a statutory entitlement to a curriculum about religion…”

    This approach seems akin to passing around a joint in the elementary schoolroom to keep the children off of heroin…

  2. Dottie

    Any ideology taken to extremes is dangerous. Post modernist ideology can more restricting and patronising to people’s freedoms than offering the ‘good’ community practices mentioned in the Lord’s prayer.

  3. Sid

    The government should actively promote our generally secular Christian based culture.

  4. Panikos

    I have no problem with them putting religious themed tv on, but I expect they will be responding to the diminishing interest in being christian in the UK.
    I suppose strictly speaking they should make some of the religious themed tv about islam. I’m betting that would upset christians even more

  5. Panikos

    I wouldn’t go as far as ‘actively promote’ but they should show some Christian religious tv at Christmas because there lots of Christians who would really like that.

    Like many people I wouldn’t be terribly interested in it, but the BBC can’t just cater to the majority, but have to consider sizeable other groups too.

  6. Sid

    I wrote “secular Christian based culture” not simply Christianity. There is a huge difference.

  7. JackieHolt

    I read somewhere recently that within a few decades the dominant form of Judaism in the UK with be ‘Orthodox’ (i.e. fundamentalist) – another bunch of fanatics to add to the mix. It’s time to grasp the nettle and ban faith schools, all schools should be secular and share the same curriculum. Religion should be taught within the subject of philosophy, as a survey of human thought since the dawn of civilisation: it might then become apparent just how arbitrary believing in the god(s) of religion X is. We’re a secular country, let’s stop filling the minds of our children with irrational ideas.

  8. Frax

    The BBC should consider programs based on viewers religious opinions? Personally, I think that is a ridiculous idea. They do however have show religious based programs all year round, songs of praise for example. Even at Christmas;

    The point is the BBC do cater for the majority. The 2011 census showed that 33.2 million people (59%) identified as Christian. But that stat in itself probably isn’t very accurate. If people actually sat down and thought and talked about religion and its contradictions and/or alternatives, the figure would drop dramatically. In turn making the BBC biased towards Christian ideology.

    Only 14.1 million people (25%) identified as non-religious. Taking the above into consideration, could non-religious people actually be the majority in the UK?

  9. Orion Jones

    “There is a huge difference.”

    Could you give some examples of the types of programming that you think would promote a “secular Christian based culture” as opposed to a simply Christian one.

  10. Panikos

    let me clear up what I mean.

    I’m what some call an aggressive atheist and strongly against any special privileges for religion – any religion. However part of the point of the BBC was that they wouldn’t just cater to the majority as more commercial operations must.

    So they should do some fishing programs even though that’s probably a minority, some classical music even though that’s hardly a majority interest and so on.

    I know about the stats, but yes they are not really telling us who is seriously Christian. You ask people what religion they are and they say “well do I look Muslim/Jewish? Of course I’m Christian”

    The churches are deserted most of the year. Non-Christians use them for some Christian pageantry as they would go to panto. They use them for weddings as they look more solemn than a registry office.

    So Christianity is hardly a real majority any more, but that’s not the point. They should put on some Christian TV because to the remaining devout it is important and they matter too.

    I wince though when some Christians talk about it as a right. They have no more ‘right’ then the people who want fishing shows.

  11. steroflex

    One seriously positive thing about the rise of Islam is the reintroduction of God into public life. People will mock Jesus and the CoE but they are very afraid of doing the same to the Prophet Mohammed of Allah.


    There has always been gods. Men are good inventors. The masses need something to keep them in line something to worship…. This islam though seems to be rather violent like the christians used to be…
    Killing people for something you cannot prove exists is rather strange.

  13. Mike Stallard

    I am not going to argue. Good old Feuerbach! Good old Marx. Good old Hegel. Good old Charles Darwin! Good old Richard Dawkins! All modern thinkers, bang up to date and full of the truth as ever.

  14. madasafish

    Another Freedom of Speech denier.

  15. Maurice Snackbar

    Islam should be removed from British public life, and from British private life too.

    Off to their ancestral homelands with the lot of them.

  16. JackieHolt

    Don’t be silly, you can fill your children’s heads with nonsense on your own time. No-one’s free speech is being denied.

  17. madasafish

    So you agree you want to deny Freedom of SPeech.

    Another lying Leftie.

  18. Intolerant_Liberal

    Secular faith like Political Correctness should also be challenged too. In fact where anyone preaches hatred towards others in any capacity, they should be tackled. But, one man’s (woman’s) unreasonable fanaticism is someone else’s reasonably held views. Who decides on what is fanaticism? And as someone said on here, Christianity and Christian values are being attacked but how many are challenging the worst examples of extremist Islamic views, including intolerance towards gay people, women and the hatred of preachers like Choudary?? I notice few left leaning liberals tackling people like that.

  19. Intolerant_Liberal

    In some kind of way, beyond my limited intellect, this sums up all that is right, and wrong, about the whole political, religious, social, economic and judicial systems in the UK.

  20. JGravelle

    I don’t know that I disagree.

    But given that faith is belief without evidence, I AM left to wonder what “secular faith” might entail…?


    Actually and although I think it a bit daft adults do have a right to worship their chosen poison provided it is peacefull and not in anyone’s face. However it is public funding using essential taxpayers money that should be totally withdrawn.

  22. Dougal Julian Hare

    Christmas for starters !

  23. Dougal Julian Hare

    I think that much of the time, religion is solely defined as being about faith (the ‘new atheists’ are particuarly guilty of this), whereas practice is often the core of religion, in which case it is perfectly reasonably reasonable to talk about secularism and secular practices.

  24. Dougal Julian Hare

    And those foreign Christians too ! Druidism4UK !

  25. Intolerant_Liberal

    Good question! For some Christians, there is the idea that the structure and organisation of faith is actually the reality…the belief in a benevolent or vengeful, or whatever, God is not particularly relevant. They use their professed to control and manipulate others. In the same way, what I mean by ‘secular faith’ is that people believe absolutely in PC and the orthodoxy that surrounds it, even when it is obvious that Political Correctness has now devolved into moot points that few people really care about, and that often those claiming to be ‘tolerant liberals’ and who claim to be open minded, are often the first to call people ‘effing racists, intolerant, Nazi’ etc etc, when anyone in the slightest way disagrees with them!!! SO, it has become like a faith, where heresy or dissent from the orthodox view is not in any way tolerated. I tend to think of PC as a kind legalism that the Bible talks about, and that the worst kind of PC adherents are akin to Pharisees.

    That’s the best explanation I can give.

  26. Intolerant_Liberal

    I don’t disagree with that view, even though I am a practising Christian. But in actual fact, when does the taxpayer in this country ever have a choice in what their taxes are spent on?? How much tax is spent on the wealthy and the wealthier parts of England, and vanity projects for the Tories, and in giving their rich mates juicy contracts?? Tax will always be spent on such things. If it doesn’t go to one lot of undeserving people, it will eventually go to another lot of undeserving people! Such is life…

  27. Intolerant_Liberal

    Who is going to pay for that? The taxpayer?

  28. Maurice Snackbar

    The taxpayer already funds them.
    The taxpayer will save in the long run.

  29. Intolerant_Liberal

    Sometimes, those who follow Islam are going to get nasty if you criticise their prophet. If you go to a CoE church in some rather polite suburb somewhere and criticise Jesus, they’ll probably pretend to agree with you just to be polite, or make you a nice cup of tea. It’s better than Jihad, I suppose.

  30. Mike Stallard

    Let us face it, many – not by any means all – Muslims are desperately insecure. Very early on – by the 10th century a.d. – they had decided to turn backwards towards the Salafi and the Ansari to learn their way of life. Christians, under Thomas Aquinas and the Reformation, turned to reason, not revelation and developed.
    Now the poor old Muslims find they are strangers in a foreign world. Why deny modern capitalism and modern industry and then use modern trucks/cell phones/internet/AK47s?

  31. Intolerant_Liberal

    I’m really not sure. I think if you went to some parts of America, like Alabama, and the poorer parts of the Bible and dismissed their ‘faith’, you might also get a violent reaction. Religion and politics are a very heady and dangerous brew, probably worst in America and the Middle East.
    It seems to me that if you give people, who feel angry and marginalised in some way, not just those in poverty, but those who are educated who feel part of a marginalised culture, they will use whatever they can to justify their hatred and feelings of alienation in a very negative way. I have no axe to grind, their are nutters in every walk of life and every creed and none. It’s obvious to most people that murdering others in the name of whatever faith or God professed is the profession of the lost, not the found.

  32. Mike Stallard

    Well, I have Muslims in my own family and they are certainly not nut cases! What is at stake is their whole way of life – Ramadan, Eid, food, clothing, marriage and relations with the other sex, ceremonies like marriage, funerals and initiations.
    These are becoming more and more difficult to fit into modern life. Hence the insecurity which results in an insistence on banning the small things – eating pork, gambling, alcohol.

  33. Intolerant_Liberal

    I have two good friends who are Muslim blokes and they are certainly not nut cases either!! As I said, there are nutbars in every group of people, and decent people too.

  34. jj

    Most of the west is successful, and was built upon secular Christianity. Its what helped end slavery a century before any Arab state, think back to the enlightenment of the 1800s.

  35. Thanks Tank

    Don’t kill gays, women are equal to men. If we want to create a statue of Mohamed in a tank of Urine, like Piss Christ, then we should be allowed.

  36. Thanks Tank

    That loosely Christian and enlightenment mix that made modern Europe is the most tolerant place on earth.

    European Atheists would also be a product of that mix and usually supporters of it.

  37. Thanks Tank

    You can tell you children that Mohammed flew to heaven on a horse, that he was a perfect man, even though he married a 6 yr old but it is nonsense that should not be taught at School. It is a children’s story believed by 1.6bn people.

    Faith schools need to go and let the Children learn about the real world.

  38. Thanks Tank

    There is no contradiction for a Muslim in using an AK or the internet and being devout.

    The problem is that many of them want an unalterable moral code from the 7thC. to be how we live life rather than what tech is used.

    There is no contradiction in that but there is problems for us in that.

  39. Mike Stallard

    If you are trying to live like the Prophet and also to put the stories (haddiths) about the Ansari and the Salafi into practice today exactly as they were in the 7th century, then, surely, all things that don’t fit into that scenario are wrong?
    For example, gay marriage, elections, secularism and multiculturalism, scientific thought and the appeal to reason are none of them 7th century things. AK47s, utes with machine guns and even the (made in China?) black flags and, above all the sinful internet, which is strictly controlled in Saudi, ought, surely to be abandoned?
    It is not logical to pick what you like and to condemn what you do not like – rock’n’roll, gay sex, godlessness, democracy, Israel.

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