(This article was published on the Guardian Comment is Free – Belief website on 12 August 2010 under the sub-editor’s title and subheading “The onward march of secularism – The European Union, led by Britain, is abandoning religion. We need to make sure this progress keeps up”)
Claims abound that the ‘secularisation thesis’ (that society would steadily become less religious) has been proved false. The 2001 census reported that over 70% of people were Christian, and faith communities are rarely out of the news. But the Office of National Statistics admits that the census targets mere cultural affiliation: it is enough to have got married in church or to have been baptised as an infant (1) (so why the same question again next year?). Meantime, church attendance remains at an all-time low and figures from Christian Research predict continued decline.
It is claimed that people believe without belonging: rather, people belong without believing. Non-religious parents almost invariably transmit their unbelief to their children, while half the children of believing parents fail to pick up the bug. Knowledge of the key claims of religion is abysmally low for a culturally Christian country. People are overwhelmingly hostile to faith schools (unless they can use them as a middle-class bolthole for their own children) and to religious influence over government.
Yet in an alarming sense the secularisation thesis has indeed proved false. The churches are making a huge comeback in their influence and power over our lives – and they are doing so with the complicity and encouragement of our politicians. It started with the Blair government’s instant acceptance of the Church of England’s 2001 plans to open more schools (and use them to secure the church’s future rather than see them primarily as a public service).
Then came the Home Office collaboration with religious leaders under the title Working Together – ministers explicitly excluded the humanists even from consultation and the resulting report said government departments should heed religious views and recommended, on the excuse that lack of resources rather than of followers was sapping religious influence, a Faith Communities Capacity Building Fund which over two years dished out almost £14 million. (Noone noticed that even the least well off of the six “world” religions has associated charities with combined incomes well over £10 million a year – whereas the humanists, supposedly so influential in secularising society, manage on less than half a million!)
Further huge sums were handed out in misguided response to 9/11, and faith advisors and panels sprang up all over Whitehall. Gaping exceptions were written into anti-discrimination laws to allow religious bodies to discriminate against not just other religions but gays and women too. Worse, under pressure from government, public services began to be contracted out to religious groups, with quite inadequate safeguards from religious discrimination for staff transferred from public employment or for service users.
All the time, however, bishops (2) and politicians have conducted a campaign alleging that they are being sidelined or even persecuted – but persecution in this context is usually being required to respect the human rights of their fellow citizens in the few cases where they have not extracted exemptions.
The new government promises to be even worse. Communities secretary Eric Pickles has bought into the persecution line, saying (3): “Religion is often seen as a problem that needs solving. The new government sees it as part of the solution; the days of the state trying to suppress Christianity and other faiths are over.”
But this is not just a British phenomenon. In the rest of Europe, where religion is equally in decline, assiduous lobbying over fifteen years has won the Vatican and other religions direct access to the top-most levels of the European Union. The Lisbon Treaty requires the EU Commission, Council and Parliament to maintain “an open, transparent and regular dialogue” with the churches and other religions, and they plan to exploit their advantage to the full. In May the Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox bishops jointly submitted their demands to the EU in an unpublished letter: a similar submission in 2002 asked for the presidential level meetings, working sessions with officials and pre-legislative consultation that they have now got, plus a liaison office within the Commission offices “to make use of the forward thinking that religions can offer with regards to policy-making”. The Vatican has a large staff of lobbyists just down the road from the Berlaymont.
And pressure is being brought to bear in backrooms across Europe to put the secularisation process decisively into reverse. Last November the European Court of Human Rights ruled unanimously against the compulsory display of crucifixes on the wall of every Italian state school classroom as the infringement that it plainly is of parents’ rights to bring up their children in the religion or belief of their wish. In a far-reaching judgement the Court drew on impeccable principles of non-discrimination, respect for individual rights and separation of religion and politics, but the Italian right reacted furiously, and Italy launched an appeal to the Grand Chamber of the Court. The final judgement is not expected until the autumn but already Vatican allies are crowing at their coming victory. Gregor Puppinck of the staunchly Catholic European Centre for Law and Justice claims: “Three weeks after the hearing . . . every day it becomes clearer that a truly considerable victory has been achieved against the dynamic of secularization.” (4)
Let us (if you will pardon the expression) pray that he is wrong, for the implications and consequences of such a victory would be dire.
Note 1: This was in a paper to Parliament – original URL http://www.ons.gov.uk/census/2011-census/2011-census-questionnaire-content/recommended-questions—religion.pdf – which appears to have disappeared from the Web.
Note 2: See http://www.employmentcasesupdate.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed5719 at paragraphs 16 sqq.
Note 3: In a letter to the New Statesman, 30 July 2010.
Note 4: These forebodings were justified: in a singularly ill-argued decision the Grand Chamber reversed the original judgement by 15 to 2. NB that the European Centre for Law and Justice, though hand-in-glove with the Vatican, was founded and is funded by the American evangelist Pat Robertson.