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Oldfield ElizabethElizabeth Oldfield is Director of Theos Think Tank.  Follow Elizabeth on Twitter. 

The
religious landscape of the UK
has changed and is changing, but not exactly in the ways we expected it to. 15
years ago, the “secularisation thesis” which argued that industrialised societies
would also inevitably be increasingly secularised was still, in the public mind
at least, credible.

Not so now. Globally, religion has only become more
important and more visible. That’s true even in the UK, which continues to see declining
attendance figures for mainline Christian denominations. We don’t have an increasingly
secularised society, but we do have an increasingly plural one. The headlines
from the last census look straightforward – fewer people identifying as
Christian (although still 59.3 per cent), more people identifying as no religion (25% per cent),
and more people identifying as Muslim (4.8 per cent). The single, dominant religious
affiliation is fading, and making way for broader diversity.

Even
this doesn’t communicate the complexity though. The census questions are the
bluntest of blunt instruments, dealing only with self-identification, not
belief or practice. Other research conducted by Theos shows us that only 9 per cent of people
are consistent in their complete non-religiosity. The rest occasionally attend
a place of worship or believe in one or more ‘supernatural’ things, such as
angels, heaven or (like a fifth of the non-religious) the supernatural power of
deceased ancestors. Across the whole population, traditional religious belief
has declined, but has not been replaced by straightforward materialism. The
numbers of people who believe in a personal God have gone down, but those who
believe in a spirit or life force have gone up, along with belief in a soul and
in life after death. Cathedral attendance is booming and not just among Christians.
 Even if we happened to tick the same
box, the likelihood of us believing, behaving or belonging in the same way as
our neighbours is becoming ever smaller.

Increased religious diversity
is accompanied by a louder, shriller and more divisive public conversation
about it. In the long shadow of 9/11, it has become more acceptable, even
fashionable, to be publicly hostile towards religion, and organisations like
the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association have found a
new lease of life on the coat tails of Richard Dawkins et al. Groupings of
socially-conservative religious believers have also become more visible, more
media savvy and certainly more litigious than in previous decades. Although
these groups do not constitute a US-style “Religious Right”, their clashes with
their secularist counterparts have more and more a whiff of America’s culture wars. Even as
numbers of Muslims grow, anti-Muslim feeling, especially following events like
the Woolwich attacks, is also on the rise.


Our religious landscape is then
both more plural and more fractious. What gets attention are the noisy voices
but more interesting things are happening in the middle space. Richard Dawkins
put the final, barely needed, nail in the coffin of his own popularity recently
when he implied on Twitter that Mehdi Hasan, a Muslim, should not be employed
as a serious journalist because of his beliefs. The Twitterati disowned him
with one voice, throwing in for good measure that they never really liked him
anyway. ‘New new atheism’, the gentler, more open approach as promoted by Alain
de Botton is flavour of the month, not least because it allows you to actually have
a proper conversation. Similarly, the vast majority of religious people are not
members of campaign groups, spending all their time in court, but are more
likely to be found working alongside others, religious and secular, doing
practical work in their communities.

The rhetoric of the Big Society,
exhausted though it now feels, had an impact in emboldening religious groups
about their contribution, and encouraging them to get organised. Their
increased confidence and willingness is another big shift of the last ten years.
There is tension here too, however.  The
natural associationalism and volunteerism present in religious communities
makes them particularly ready and able to serve. But the religious commitment to
the Welfare State, so evident in its founding, means there is ambivalence also.
Anguished handwringing from those involved in food banks about how to meet
desperate need while not aiding and abetting the withdrawal of state support
shows just how different the theo-political landscape here is from the United States.
There the dominant Christian political theology is fundamentally suspicious of
the state, seeing its God-given role as a minimal, magisterial one. Here, while
most religious believers are slightly more socially conservative than the rest
of the population (and it is only slightly), they tend on the whole to be left-leaning on issues like the economy and welfare.

So the religious landscape is
changing, becoming more fragmented and confusing. Although they’ve never yet been
substantial enough to swing an election, the traditional ties between political
parties and religious blocs (the Conservatives and Anglicans; the Liberals and
nonconformists; Labour and Catholics) are breaking down, making easy majorities for political parties
an even fainter prospect. Like the rest of the electorate, religious voters are
increasingly less likely to vote according to a comprehensive political
worldview passed down by their parents (or their priests), and more swayed by
specific issues.

Trying to deal with the increased religious diversity has left
recent governments looking confused. Labour gave with one hand, praising the
role of faith groups in civil society and extending faith involvement in
schools, while also coming to blows over adoption agencies and Alistair
Campbell’s infamous avoidance of religion. The coalition looked to take a
different approach, launching an early charm offensive, with David Cameron, Baroness
Warsi and Eric Pickles all making warm and supportive noises. However, many
feel betrayed by the same-sex marriage legislation, and disillusioned faith-based
charities, so encouraged by Big Society rhetoric, have tried and failed to win
the government contracts that were held out so temptingly.

These approaches reveal the two
different ways for political parties to sour its relationship with faith
groups. The first is obvious, and thankfully fairly rare, despite the best
efforts of some – namely, making people of religious faith feel invalid and alien in the
“neutral” public square, and decrying any attempt to put forward the view as
“imposing religious morality”. The other is more insidious, and more familiar:
the head-patting attempt to co-opt their social capital, encouraging engagement,
but only on the terms of the state.

Instead of either of these,
political parties should adopt an approach that works not just for the committedly
religious, but for the “fuzzy middle” as well. Increasing pluralism makes it
impossible to play to any one particular group, as even identifying the groups
becomes more difficult. Instead, our common culture needs to get more
comfortable with difference, moving past the outdated secular liberalism which
banishes deep beliefs and comprehensive doctrines from public conversation.

As
David Barclay argues in Making
Multiculturalism Work
,
a Theos report launching this week, diversity impels
us to abandon “progressive tests” for participation and instead be prepared to
work with and engage with even those with whom we fundamentally disagree. When
any one set of voices becomes dominant, whether religious or nonreligious,
those who hold contrary positions often feel they cannot be themselves in
public. A political party philosophically astute enough to understand this and
confident enough to get comfortable with difference could win not just
religious people, but everyone else as well. 

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