Is Britain a Christian Country? Wrong question.

By Dr Jason Edwards 

The news this past week has carried reports concerning an Ipsos MORI poll commissioned by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. On the face of it, the poll shows a decline in numbers identifying as Christian since the 2001 Census (down from 72% to 54%), and that on a range of indicators of belief and “religious knowledge” we are not quite the Christian country that people sometimes think (figures and press release). Further polling suggests that a substantial majority reject the idea that religion should have a “special influence” on the formation of public policy. On the basis of these figures, Dawkins claims that “Despite the best efforts of church leaders and politicians to convince us that religion is still an important part of our national life, these results demonstrate that it is largely irrelevant, even to those who still label themselves Christian”. Britain, he says, “is a secular society, with secular humane values”.

Dawkins’s poll comes amidst the recent controvery over the High Court’s ruling in an action brought by the National Secular Society that councils have no statutory right to hold prayers as part of formal meetings, Eric Pickles’s hasty overturning of this ruling by means of secondary legislation, and Baroness Warsi’s attack on “militant secularization”. Dawkins and other secularists detect in this series of events a sign of religious impingement on what should be the secular territory of public life, and a promotion of faith in public policy completely out of proportion to the extent of religiosity in contemporary Britain. Warsi and Pickles, in contrast, claim that they are defending religious freedom and countering the marginalization of Christianity by the secularists.

What seems to be at issue here is the question of whether we can call Britain a “Christian country” with the assumption being that if we cannot, then Christian religious beliefs and practices deserve no special place in public life and policy. In contrast, if we can call it Christian then the state should defend and perhaps promote Christian belief and practice.

But the question is wrong. Asking people whether they are Christian and then testing them to see if they really mean it does little to show the significance – or irrelevance – of religion in British public and political life. To be sure, indicators of religiosity in Britain demonstrate that over time attitudes have become more “secular”, at least in the sense that people tend not to invoke theological doctrines when asked if they support or oppose particular pieces of public policy. Church attendance declined substantially over the course of the twentieth century. And Dawkins is right that most people who regard themselves as Christian today are Christian in a loose rather than strict sense. But to recognize that Britain is a more secular society than it was in the past is not, of course, by itself enough to substantiate the claim that Britain is, in some straightforward sense, a “secular society” and that religion is “largely irrelevant”. After all, over half the respondents self-identified as Christian and the poll did not test the numbers of non-Christian identifiers who professed membership of an organized religion.

But even more problematic is the claim that it follows from the fact that 54% of respondents identified as Christian that Britain is a “Christian country”. What could this possibly mean? “Christianity” is not monolithic. There are many different Christian churches and there are very important disagreements between them over doctrine and practice. And we should not assume that there is unity of belief or purpose to be found within particular churches.

The recent history of the Church of England is instructive here. There have been very significant disagreements in the Church over the ordination of women priests, civil partnerships, and in the matter of the acceptance of openly gay priests, a much wider schism in the Anglican Communion. Recent criticisms of the coalition government by senior clergy, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the formation of a ‘Bishop Bloc’ to vote against welfare reform in the House of Lords has also provoked discord.

Somewhat surprisingly, in an exchange with Will Hutton over the weekend, Dawkins describes himself as a “cultural Anglican”. It’s hard to know what to make of this and Hutton rightly points to the contradiction it seems to involve – for Dawkins we can be “cultural Anglicans” without having to accept a religious dimension to our beliefs and practices, but surely that just highlights the absurdity of him regarding himself any kind of “Anglican”. Anglicans are not Anglicans by virtue of their subscription to particular set of theological doctrines (on which there is often disagreement), but rather by fact of their membership of the Church. For a large number of such Anglicans, there is no clear line to be drawn between issues religious, social and indeed, political, and others disagree about where such lines can be drawn.

Dawkins claims that religion is a “private” matter and should not encroach on public life. But the difficultly is precisely with the assumption that religion is fundamentally about private belief, when his use of the idea of a “cultural Anglicanism” tends to say otherwise. The Christian Churches, as well as the other non-Christian religious organizations in contemporary Britain, are no more “private” than secular associations like the National Secular Society. Rather they are civil associations with structures of governance; members must abide by their rules, contest and change them from within, or exit; and they often provide services for their members beyond the simple performance of rite. To think of Christianity in this country as being about what lies solely in people’s heads (or hearts) is to miss out the most important part of the picture.

People who participate in religious organizations in Britain may well do so because of their desire for community and practical support, not because of any strong or well-thought out theological and cosmological beliefs (and Dawkins’s polling provides some support for this supposition: only around a third who said they ticked the “Christian” box in the 2011 Census did so on the grounds of religious belief). When religious organizations raise matters like interest-free banking or act as third party arbiters in civil disputes, they are as much acting out of economic and legal as religious concerns. And in that regard, they look like other kinds of association in civil society concerned with the welfare of their members.

The assessment of the importance of religion then, should be based on the role of religious organizations in public life rather than the measurement of the beliefs of disaggregated individuals. A “secular society”, it seems safe to assume, would be one in which religious organizations played little or no part in public life. But the problem here is how we conceive of the secularization of “public life”. The secularists clearly see it on the Enlightenment model of separation of church and state. Here, the public realm is secularized when the state and government operate independently of the church, the state does not fund religious organizations, and confessional membership is disregarded as a criterion for holding public office. The US and France are often upheld as the paradigm cases.

The problem is, as both Alexis de Tocqueville and Karl Marx recognized, while the American state is secular by virtue of the Constitution, we would balk at the notion that America is a secular society. Indeed, there are some grounds on which to argue that America is a less secular society today, in terms of both individual beliefs and influence of churches on public and political life, than it was when these two were writing in the mid-nineteenth century. On the face of it, France looks more resolutely secular, as its recent ban on the burka would seem to suggest, but it is certainly far from the case that Catholicism and of late Islam, have had no bearing on the character of modern French politics and society. More to the point, very prominent French politicians have in recent years brought the idea of läicité into question.

For different reasons, America and France are not therefore good models of “secular societies”, even if they do have, formally speaking, secular states. To be sure, there’s a good case to make that the impact of religion on public life and politics in these countries, certainly in the US, has been far more profound than in Britain even with its non-secular state. Winning high office in the US without being a practising Christian is rare. Avowed atheists stand virtually no chance. In Britain, our Prime Minister is, at most, a part-time Anglican, and both the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are openly non-believers. Dawkins’s polling evidence is at least important in this regard – it reaffirms that people in Britain in general don’t pay much attention to questions of religious belief and membership when thinking about party politics and who to vote for.

Of course, the real issue that Dawkins is raising is whether religious organizations should play any role in public life and his answer – at least if he stuck consistently to the line he adopts in The God Delusion – is that they should not. We should put our trust in science and reason to deal with questions of public importance, and if people choose to believe in God they should do so in “private”. But the Dawkins survey is silent about the question of whether people think religious organizations are or should be seen as valuable in public life. There is an important difference between saying that an organization like the Church of England should have not have a “special influence” on public policy and saying that it should have no influence over public policy. Presumably members of religious organizations want their voice to be heard publicly without that necessarily implying that they think theirs is the only voice that should be heard.

Like it or not, we can no more confidently call Britain a “secular society” than we can a “Christian country”. Dawkins wants to do so because, he assumes, if we have a secular society then the case for a secular state is unanswerable. The reality is that many British citizens participate in secular and religious organizations at the same time, and the distinction between such organizations is not always clear. But what is more important for a strong civil society is not whether its constituent associations have a religious or a secular character, but that those associations have the freedom to govern themselves while respecting the liberal civil and political rights of their members as protected by law. The Dawkins poll shows that 79% agreed or strongly agreed that governments should not interfere in religion. The Press Release glosses this figure as showing “overwhelming support for religion being a private, not public, matter.” But it is evident that this could equally well express support for the idea of religious freedom, that religious organizations should be independent from the state, rather than the notion that religion should be a “private” matter. So today many Anglicans support the idea of the Church’s autonomy and of it speaking out in a critical way on social and political issues, rather than limiting itself to the counselling of the soul.

There’s one particular point, then, on which we should agree with the secularists. We should disestablish the Church of England. But that’s not because of the baleful influence of the Church on public life. Rather, it’s because it’s the hallmark of the kind of liberal society Dawkins wants to defend that all civil associations, including the Church of England, should be autonomous of the state, free to govern themselves and speak in their own voice. Rowan Williams could then speak truth to power for his congregation without having to worry about what the Queen – or perhaps more importantly, Her Majesty’s Government – thinks.