In the Face of Irrationalism, We Need a Muscular Securalism

In her Easter message the prime minister pledged that her government would stand up for people who of faith and counter those who try to drive religion from public life. Yet her belief that Britain is a Christian country flies in the face of evidence.

According to one study from 2012, Britain will cease to be a Christian country in 2030. This is not as a result of any increase in Islam – Muslims still only make up around 4.4% of the UK Population – but due to the irresistible rise of secularism. The number of people describing themselves as atheists and agnostics is going up annually by around 750,000.

Moreover, if we look at attitudes, we may already be living in a post-religious society. The numbers of people describing themselves as Christian compared to those who regularly attend church highlights this shift. Worshipers who regularly attend the established Anglican Church in the UK now represent around 1.4% of the population. Although the 2011 census claims that almost 60% of people identify as ‘Christian’, a poll in December 2016 show that only 28% actually believe in God or a higher power.  Those who explicitly did not believe were far higher at 38%.

Despite being the only country, other than Iran with clerics in its legislature, modern Britain is marked more by its irreligion than its piety. Maybe it is time we celebrated this. Rather than pretend otherwise as Theresa May did.

Yet faith still maintains a privileged place within our society. We still have an established Church, our head of state is its Supreme Governor, bishops maintain their seats in the House of Lords and faith schools remain the norm rather than the exception.

More worryingly, religion has found supporters on both the left and the right who are seeking to renew the culture wars. Religion will not go quietly so those who support the forces of rationalism must stop this continuing cultural flashpoint.  

With populism on the rise, the far right are using faith as a convenient political football. UKIP and other right-wing organisations regularly complain about western Christian values being under attack from militant Islam, allowing those with sinister motives to target minority faiths.

It is possible for both the populist right and the militant left to be wrong

One report on links between Christianity and the EDL claims that ‘religious references and symbols are deeply intertwined in its rhetoric and insignia’. EDL supporters portray themselves as modern day crusaders, and their cause as a battle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Trump supporters promote and bolster Christianity against Islam, condoning the narrative of conflict and inflaming intercommunal violence. It also takes seriously unsavoury figures who may have regressive views on issues such as abortion and homosexuality.

Those ‘on the left’ are more likely to be atheists or agnostics, but a new wave of leftists – through the trend of ‘identity politics’ and the ‘safe space’ culture – condone irrationality through the back door. It has now become almost impossible to criticise Islam or other minority religions, even those that openly preach hate, without being derided.

This has created a double standard, with many openly mocking establishment Christianity but rushing to the defence of vile views because of its status as a ‘minority faith’. Stephen Fry and Richard Dawkins are amongst those who have come under attack for not adhering to this now established hypocrisy.

Moderate Muslims, in particular, are aware of this problem: Maajid Nawaz openly encourages people to criticise, satirise and even mock religions, including Islam.

It is possible for both the populist right and the militant left to be wrong. The answer is also simple: the state should treat all religions the same.  

THE FREE RIDE WE GIVE TO FAITH MUST STOP

We should start by disestablishing the church, removing the bishops from the House of Lords, abolishing religious schools regardless of faith which includes the ending of collective worship in many of the nominally ‘Anglican’ schools. That will go a long way to levelling the playing field.

At the very least we need to start a conversation -  without knee-jerk reactions - about issues such as banning burqas for those in public-facing roles, and the regulation what is taught in separate religious classes.

The free ride we give to faith must stop. Instead we must openly challenge some of the frankly backwards social attitudes ingrained in many religions.  

A more muscular secularism can only go so far as the primary tool to push back against the irrational forces of left and right. We are heading that way anyway, with or without state help. However, secularism must not promote a vacuum. So the current generation of free thinkers must begin promote a positive alternative, something that can fulfil the social and cultural functions of organised religion, minus the irrational faith.

This is already happening with humanist and philosophy groups springing up all over the country. Scientists have never been so popular and in demand, with public lectures and debates becoming increasingly common. Humanist churches that retain the social and community elements of theism without a belief in the divine are beginning to be established.

Perhaps we are not far away from actually building and constructing the forums and temples to contemplation and reason discussed by Alain de Botton. Our new secular state could have a lasting aesthetic to compete with the great architectural and visual wonders that has undoubtedly come out of organised religion; helping to create a new national culture based on firm physical as well as intellectual foundations.

More about the author

About the author

Stewart holds a PhD in eighteenth century political history from UCL, having previously studied for a BA and MA in history at Royal Holloway, University of London. 

He is currently working as a Part-Time Tutor for Oxford University’s Continuing Education Department as well as helping to create and launch an online historical archive of magazine-style feature articles written by history graduates called The Past.

Follow Stewart on Twitter.

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