What Is It Like to be an Atheist in the United Kingdom?

This is a guest post by John Ferguson. John is a member of the British Humanist Association, and a lifelong atheist. He is an IT professional, living in the UK with his wife and two young children.

When an American proclaims: “This is a Christian country!” he can be quickly corrected. The First Amendment enshrines separation of church and state, affords Americans freedom from religion, and ensures the country is secular. When an Englishman says the same thing… he would be correct. England is a Christian country. It is one of a relatively small number of countries with an official state religion, putting us in such auspicious company as Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Despite this ominous fact, religion plays a much smaller role in public life in the UK than in the United States. People rarely proclaim their beliefs; it is common to work with and be friends with a person for years before you ever get an insight into their beliefs. In fact, asking the question outright is often considered as uncomfortable a question as asking a lady her age. Britons are stereotypically reserved about their emotions, and their spirituality is no different.

When Brits are asked, their responses are confusing and contradictory. A poll in 2005 showed that only 40% definitely believed in God, and 20% definitely did not. Yet in the 2001 census, 72% of the population affiliated themselves with Christianity. This disparity is known as “cultural Christianity” –- describing those who get married in church, have their children christened, and go to carol services, all because “that’s what you do” rather than because of any particular belief. This indifferent, agnostic group make up the mainstream of British society but the historic and cultural ties that prompt them to tick the “Christian” box on a census form remain. Prior to the 2011 census (results not yet released), secular groups launched a campaign to urge the non-religious not to affiliate themselves with a religion on the census. The charge is that the Church of England, the country’s largest denomination, has a disproportionate role in public life because of Cultural Christianity. In fact, only 6 million Britons (10%) attend church regularly.

There is no doubt that being an atheist in the UK is easier than in the United States. Religious influence, where it exists, is more of an annoyance that a genuine issue. Stores in the UK have reduced opening hours on a Sunday and our national anthem is “God Save the Queen” — just some of the many religious legacies. Attempts to remove some of these legacies by atheists generally receive little support from the apathetic majority. The Church of England has none of the scandals of the Catholic Church (there is no celibacy rule), it is generally more liberal than Catholicism on grounds of homosexuality, abortion & ordination of women, and is therefore regarded as being benign and safe. It is often personified by the harmless bumbling vicar and summer fêtes in the village. The church is interwoven into the heart of the traditional image of “middle England,” and attempts to change any of this, regardless of whether people actually believe in God or not, are considered a meddlesome and an unwelcome attack on the status quo.

Despite this, there are few, if any barriers for atheists in public life. There are no issues with atheists taking office; the current deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, and leader of the opposition Ed Miliband, are two atheists in important positions in Parliament. Bringing religion (positively or negatively) into elections is frowned upon and usually backfires; Tony Blair was famously instructed by his “political strategist” Alistair Campbell: “We don’t do God.” The British Humanist Association and National Secular Society are two strong organisations that successfully lobby on secular issues; usually in response to lobbying from religious groups. However, despite all of this, the lack of church/state separation stacks cards in favour of religion; Britain’s upper legislative house, the House of Lords, contains 26 unelected Church of England bishops known as Lords Spiritual. This gives the Church a considerable influence over the passage of legislation.

The Lords Spiritual is a perfect example that, while the population at large is progressive, Britain is not secular, and some crazy contradictions remain. If Prince William decides he is an atheist (there is no evidence he is), he will not be able to take his place on the throne; the monarch is proclaimed “Defender of the Faith” and the head of the Church of England, therefore the right of succession is limited to Protestants. And despite boasting two of the Four Horseman of New Atheism (Hitchens and Dawkins), blasphemy was remarkably only repealed as a crime in 2008! While it is illegal to discriminate on the grounds of religion, one can go to prison for burning the Koran.

Secularism is most certainly part of the Zeitgeist of modern British society. High profile atheist comedians and entertainers such as Stephen Fry, Ricky Gervais, Derren Brown, Jimmy Carr, Eddie Izzard and Dara Ó Briain pull no punches when talking about religion. Scientists such as Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking and David Attenborough command respect when expressing their lack of faith on scientific grounds. And high profile Christians such as Cliff Richard are often lightly mocked about their faith, as was Olympic triple jumper Jonathan Edwards until he eventually turned Agnostic. This unmistakable swing toward secularism has triggered a backlash from the Church. Religious leaders now take every opportunity to warn against “aggressive secularism.” The right-wing conservative newspaper The Daily Mail frequently prints articles of “discriminated Christians” such as Nadia Eweida, a British Airways employee who was told she couldn’t wear a crucifix. The aim is simple; attempt to paint secularism as petty bureaucracy, attacking Middle England and infringing rights. They hope to force the Cultural Christians to wake from their slumber and return to the church — though there is little sign that this is happening. Despite the successes, Secularists in the UK generally recognise that change is a slow process. There is little appetite for major constitutional reform at the moment, and attempts to push the agenda too hard may be counterproductive.

It’s ironic that despite being constitutionally Christian, Britain is actually a fairly comfortable place to live and work as an atheist. While you would have to put up with the occasional Christian traditional hangover, you wouldn’t be discriminated against. I think it’s certainly safe to say that stories such as Damon Fowler’s battle with his community over a graduation prayer would be very unlikely to occur here.

Now if we can just get those national anthem lyrics changed…

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Jake

    Speaking as a Briton, this is pretty much 100% accurate.

  • Steve

    I am also an atheist living in the UK  but I am not a member of any secular or humanist group, that’s the flipside of belonging to a church, as far as I am concerned, my non belief is my own business.  However, I would like to see total separation of church and state, to have non elected bishops have a say in the legal process is an anomaly, what gives them the right? Or the rest of the House of Lords for that matter.

    There will never be true democracy as long as the Church of England has an undue influence on civil affairs. We might mock the US for its religious fervour but at least there is a clear cut sepration of church and state, the US Constitution was NOT founded on Christian ideals. We need such a written constitution here but of course, that is another matter entirely. Suffice to say, religion here is a personal matter, nobody is prevented from expressing their belief or non belief.

    Yes, the National Anthem is a dirge!!!!

    • Mike Higginbottom

      We atheists are very fond of citing the US constitution (it’s founding axioms if you will) as a reason to maintain a secular nation via the wall of separation. It seems disingenuous to then call for the UK’s equivalent foundational axioms to be abandoned in order to OBTAIN such separation. Aren’t you just selectively using the tools available to advance your own agenda here? I think we need to decide which we value more, reason and the Right Thing (TM) or standing by tradition and foundational documents.

  • http://www.quietatheist.com/ Slugsie

    Another life long Atheist and Briton here. Yup, I can get behind everything said in this article. We may be taxed to the hilt, and be saddled with being part of a crumbling Europe, but it’s still a nice place to be an Atheist. :)

  • http://godconfusion.com/ Xanthe Wyse

    plenty of ‘cultural’ christians in New Zealand & Australia too (not surprising with UK historical ties).  

  • Anonymous

    I lived in Britain between 2009 and 2010 and studied for my master’s degree. Britain is a wonderful place to live and brimming with multiculturalism. I felt, at first, afraid and wondered if I would be discriminated against for holding no religious beliefs as Britain is technically a Christian nation. But surprisingly, none of my British classmates seemed to be bothered by it and some also openly said that they didn’t believe in religion, but still went to church because they’ve “been doing it for ages”. I also had a British classmate who was Jewish and gay. And I don’t think he faced any kind of discrimination. I attended sessions by the Atheist Society at our University and also one or two British Humanist Society meetings. The people were very helpful and warm and we talked about differences in religious tolerance in our countries. If I had a choice and if I could work in the UK, I would gladly do so. 
    America on the other hand is a lesson in irony. It is a country free from religious affiliation, but is arrogant and deluded in its belief that it is a Christian Nation, with no place for other faiths. There is no freedom FROM religion. Atheists are hated and treated like vile, despicable creatures. In fact, I would be AFRAID to come clean about my atheism in the USA for fear of persecution, hate, mistrust and bigotry and job security. +1 respect points for Britain and the British for their freethinking scientists, comedians and politicians who make an impact on society.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_HJJXOSNKH2EBOYSF3IPKLD42NE Rick

    We still have a long way to go here isn the good old US of A.  I’m also an IT professional and know full well to keep my beliefs (or lack of) to myself.  I even live in what is considered to be a very liberal state (NH). 

    Rick
    http://nogodsallowed.com

  • Sam

    This is a pretty decent account, but you failed to mention the huge blot on the UK secularism record that is state funded faith schools. As a UK taxpayer I have to pay toward schools that indoctrinate children in a particular faith and can select pupils based on the religion of parents, promoting faith segregation and ignorance of other points of view.
    I don’t really care about the anthem, but this is an issue that concerns me.

    • John F

      I was being a bit facetious about the anthem, but you are right about faith schools. It’s one of the areas where more needs to be done, and I know both the BHA and the NSS are campaigning heavily on this topic.

      In fairness though, I went to a CofE primary school and the indoctrination was so gentle that even at that tender young age it didn’t even dent my sceptical mind. I suspect a Catholic or Muslim school may have been a little different though.

  • Anonymous

    Again, as a life long atheist in Britain, there is no stigna attached to non-belief, and I don’t begrudge the national anthem, it was written a long time ago when people were of frail mind. I have to agree that I still find the typical English village, with it’s village green, the thwack of leather on willow and the sound of church bells to be comfortingly welcoming as I sit in the local pub sipping my pint (Not 330ml) of beer.

    It is every girls dream to get married in a typical church setting, it is the setting, not the religious experience that is the attraction, the traditional wedding, the alternative is a Registry Office wedding, not so attractive, although there is a growing demand for ceremonies at hotels and even some bizarre places such as football grounds!

    Tradition plays a much stronger part in maintaining the status quo than religious fervour, and I have to admit I would be opposed to sweeping away ALL connections with religion, some things are now part of being British rather than being religious.

    • SphericalBunny

      It is every girls dream to get married in a typical church setting

      You might want to be a little careful with the language + generalizations there pete084. I’ve only been to 1 church wedding out of all I’ve been invited to/have been to the receptions of, and that was done for their parents preference. I only expect 1 or 2 more (friends who are nominally Catholic/explicitly Evangelical). The allocation of marriage licenses to pretty much any venue of choice seems to have put the kibosh on a lot of peoples ‘church wedding’ ideals, and like you say, leaves them freer to pick venue by attraction + setting rather than tradition.

      • SphericalBunny

        D’oh…
        I only expect 1 or 2 more (friends who are nominally Catholic/explicitly
        Evangelical) to bother with a church setting

        • Ruf

          Interesting factoids about marriage licences (or to be more specific, licences to marry couples) in the UK, it varies depending which part of the country you’re in.

          In Scotland, the person who is conducting the ceremony is required to have a licence, but there isn’t a venue licence.

          In England, both the person and the venue are required to be licenced. Any venue with a roof can apply, pay the fee and get a licence (not sure why a roof is required).

          Not sure about Wales or Northern Ireland, having never planned or attended a wedding in either, but I’d predict that Wales would be the same as England and Northern Ireland would be completely different again.

    • Donalbain

      The setting in a church is far less important than you make out. You can have the big White wedding in a huge variety of places these days, from your local football club to a hired castle or grand hall.

    • Gribblethemunchkin

      I’m getting hitched next year in the UK in the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry. Take that church wedding!

  • Rich Samuels

    Another brit here :)

    The article does a very good job of summing up being an atheist here. 
    The subject of one’s religion is not often discussed but I find its usually because no one wishes to offend anyone (so British). Whilst sat eating lunch one day someone approached us handing out leaflets for what turned out to be a church event. I was lunching with people I’d known for a year or more and it wasn’t until that point that we collectively realised we all shared the same ‘belief’ which basically boiled down to “religion is bullshit”.

  • http://cannonballjones.wordpress.com/ Paul

    I think a more interesting question would be “What’s it like to be religious in the UK?”, especially if targeted at fundamentalist religion. You see, I can’t help but think that all these census figures are entirely fabricated by the government. I’ve been an atheist as long as I can remember and until I moved to Thailand to teach, suddenly finding myself surrounded by Americans, I only knew one person younger than my grandparents who was in any way religious. Just one, in thirty-three years of living in the UK. Well, maybe us Scots are just more heathen than the rest of the country but really, despite all the official nonsense mentioned above – the anthem, royal family (what a joke anyway), the Lords (may they soon be abolished) – religion is pretty much a dead duck back home. Sure we get a few vicars and priests humming and hawing in the press but that’s it, listen for the voice of religion in the streets – in Edinburgh at least – and all you’ll hear is crickets chirping. Long may it continue!

    • PamBG

      ‘What’s it like being religious in the UK?’  You know, in day-to-day life, I doubt it’s all that much different than being an atheist.  I know that some Christians grouse about ‘discrimination’ against Christianity, but I don’t think that really exists. 

      One reaction that I got in the UK that I have never yet had in the US  ‘You’re a *minister*???!?  Really!!?! But you seem so sensible!’ 

      Sure, there are people who hate religion and need to tell one about that when they find out that one is ordained, but that happens everywhere and I see it as part of the ‘job’.  I represent an ‘institution’ which, in its broadest form, has hurt a lot of people – including me – and I have to expect to be a lightening-rod every now and then; it comes with the territory.

    • http://twitter.com/the_ewan Ewan

      ” maybe us Scots are just more heathen than the rest of the country”

      You’re not; in the religiosity charts Northern Ireland is first, then Scotland, Wales, and England bringing up the rear. Scotland is basically the only part of the mainland to still have Catholic/Protestant sectarian rivalry (though, it’s pretty much bound up with football these days).

      In rural Scotland the Church of Scotland (which for the benefit of the non-UK folks, is very much separate from and not like the Church of England) is still powerful in people’s day to day lives, and there are decent sized pockets of Presbyterianism around. One particularly stark examplar is that Scotland is home to the only Tesco store in the entire country that doesn’t open on a Sunday.

  • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

    It would be interesting if the next British monarch who wanted to abdicate for some personal reason decided to effectively do it by simply declaring that he/she is an atheist and not actually abdicate – then let the inevitable shitstorm develop ending up in being forcibly removed from the throne.  But of course, no member of the royal family would allow that atheist declaration with the resulting drama to happen.  It wouldn’t be British.

    • Erp

      Bit late if the monarch is already crowned.   The only reason an atheist likely couldn’t take the throne is they wouldn’t take the coronation oath (and the coronation oath doesn’t require belief only that one maintain and defend the church).  However that is only once.   The only religious stance barred from the throne is Roman Catholic. 

      • Mihangel apYrs

        1 the heir apparent is the monarch from the moment the previous one stops breathing

        2 Parliament proclaims the lawful monarch – no coronation is necessary, it’s just stuff and flummery

  • Ruf

    Couple of things worth pointing out, the Lords Spiritual (the Archbishops of Cantabury and York and the Bishops of London, Durham and Winchester, plus currently 21 but moving to 7 bishops as selected by the Church) who sit in the House of Lords because of their position in the Church (ex officio members) by convention speak in debates (and generally speaking, speak fairly well) but do not vote.

    There is (currently) a similar anomoly with the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary (the law lords – the most senior judges). Up until 2009 (based on the Constitutional Reform Act 2005) the House of Lords was the highest court in the UK, presided over by the law lords, who were also entitled to speak in debates, but by convention did not vote. Since the establishment of the Supreme Court (2009), the judges who were entitled remained entitled, but new appointees would not be.

    No post on religion in the UK would be complete without the obligatory Eddie Izzard reference “Cake or death”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DFyuhTwi_OE

  • http://twitter.com/AGenuineSkeptic A Genuine Skeptic

    “Britons are stereotypically reserved about their emotions”

    Britons’ apathy and cynicism is often mistaken for reserve, and that stereotype is only really based on middle-class “middle England”. 

    “A poll in 2005 showed that only 40% definitely believed in God”

    I’m very surprised that it’s that high, and that  “(10%) attend church regularly.”  Of course believing in a higher power is different to believing in the literal truth of the Bible. I’m not sure how many members of even the Church of England  fall into the latter category.

    “This indifferent, agnostic group make up the mainstream of British society but the historic and cultural ties that prompt them to tick the “Christian” box on a census form remain.”

    Baffles me why, as I recall the question is clearly phrased to denote actual beliefs rather than culture. I don’t complete census forms, but would certainly indicate no religion if I did. 

    “Stores in the UK have reduced opening hours on a Sunday”

    Many small ‘C’ conservatives advocate the “traditional Sunday” as a time for family life rather than necessarily “Gods’ day” 

    “and our national anthem is “God Save the Queen”

    many use “god save” or “god help” without actually believing in such an entity. I wouldn’t class the retention of a national anthem with that lyric as being an endorsement of religion. 

    “Britain’s upper legislative house, the House of Lords, contains 26 unelected Church of England bishops known as Lords Spiritual. This gives the Church a considerable influence over the passage of legislation.”

    Theoretically,  what practical difference it is making is debatable.

    “high profile Christians such as Cliff Richard are often lightly mocked about their faith” 

    I would say fairly heavily. 

    “conservative newspaper The Daily Mail frequently prints articles of “discriminated Christians” such as Nadia Eweida”

    The Daily Mail is certainly conservative, but does it prosyletise Christianity? In any case campaigning for the right to wear a cross is something which I, a left wing atheist, would support.

    “There is little appetite for major constitutional reform at the moment, and attempts to push the agenda too hard may be counterproductive”

    There is generally little appetite for reform generally in the UK – back to apathy again.

    • Michael

      Incidentally, Scottish supermarkets that open 24/7 don’t close on Sundays either.

  • Littlewoodimp

    Working with children (11-16 years) in a ‘working woodland’ setting where the approach is very much “there’s always another way”, spontaneous conversations about religious beliefs often start up. I am firmly Atheist, my working partner (and very good friend) C of E Christian and our frequent assistant, a Quaker. The children often described themselves as believers or non believers in the truth of the bible, with concerns about hell and eternal damnation only a real issue for pupils from a Catholic school. We had one Muslim during Ramadan – the rest of the group admired that he could refuse to eat all day and voted not to have really tasty smelling food cooked, so as not to torment him. We had one Jewish child and one raised with Pagan beliefs – both of whom sparked open and curious discussion. The Pagan boy was invited to choose the site of a church we were ‘building’ (they were doing thier History lessons with us – Henry VIII) as most children believed that christian holidays and sites had roots in Pagan beliefs.

    It’s always a real pleasure after a day like that to tell the kids about other countries where religious belief is a different issue – leading to restrictions and all sorts of abuses. And to congratulate them on thier open and tolerant approach, judging on the person rather than the religion. Also their expressions of disgust at the idea of ‘religion as an excuse to abuse others’. Which they saw as being against Human Rights, pure and simple.

    More recently, the subject of Muslims ‘taking over’ has had more fire in it and some ‘hate talk’ has come in. This I feel is due to the focus and attitudes of certain popular newspapers. The attitude in general though can still be summed up as “I don’t care what religion someone is, so long as they don’t harm anyone and don’t try to make me the same as them.”

    It makes me proud – especially since many of these children were those described as troubled, difficult and aggressive etc.

    However! Most who said that they didn’t believe in the bible and disapproved of organised  religions & church going – still said they believed in some kind of god, creator of everything. And that seems to be the attitude that they carry through to their 20s, as far as I can tell. The need seeming to be for a power greater than humanity, that cared for everything on earth and dispensed some sort of justice. (Understandable as many of them had suffered abuse of some kind, which did go ‘unpunished’ in most cases)

    In 15 years there has only been once when religion has been raised as a serious issue – during a teacher training event a teacher saw an activity called Tree Spirits (funny faces made from clay & stuck to trees) and immediately went to her vicar insisting that we were encouraging an interest in “Witchcraft and Devil Worship”. Her complaint came to nothing and we changed the name to Tree Faces to avoid future confusion. (We also had a good laugh among ourselves about it.)

    I don’t know what would happen if someone tried our approach in some areas of  the USA, or whether anyone does approach religion as a topic of casual conversation amongst children, with all views having equal weight.

  • Anthonyjwmoss

    “However, I would like to see total separation of church and state, to have non elected bishops have a say in the legal process is an anomaly, what gives them the right? Or the rest of the House of Lords for that matter. ”

    Well the upper House has improved mightily since hereditary peers were excluded.  No longer do you have the tenth generation of married cousins proclaiming law from his (usually his) seat of privilege. 

    I wonder if British secularism is due to the fact that we already lived under the fascist rule of theocracy and we’d quite like that to not be the case again thank you very much, while in the US they never have.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_YX7ASMUKML5PBUZ4AT5ZHBQB7A Moq

    In Denmark religion is usually a non-issue and rarely a topic for heated debate. When you see little evidence for god, nor see any potential evidence for god, and reside in a society where religion isn’t considered a valid argument in itself, then it’s hard to see any point in aggressive atheist self-identification on a regular basis.

    I follow quite a few scientific/atheist blogs, and I sympathise with their fight against the pernicious influence of religious belief, but sometimes it’s difficult to comprehend without the aid of a similar experience/reality.

  • http://garicgymro.wordpress.com garic gymro

    One small additional point: there is a state religion only in some parts of the UK. You are right to say that England has a state religion (the Church of England). And, in fact, Scotland has a different state religion (the Church of Scotland).  Wales and Northern Ireland, however, have no established church.

    One of the more bizarre survivals of the old religious order, which I thought you might mention, is that Catholics (and individuals married to  Catholics) are legally barred from succeeding to the throne.

    • Leila

      Who said grudges don’t last long – Henry the 8th’s grudge against the Vatican seems to have survived a good while.

      • http://garicgymro.wordpress.com garic gymro

        :) Actually this came later. Mary I, Henry’s daughter was Catholic after all,. and Henry VIII always thought of himself as a Catholic (he continued to persecute Protestants), just one that was head of the Church in his own country. It was the Act of Settlement in 1701 (153 years after Henry died) that barred Catholics from the throne. In fact, there are various anachronisms that persist (apart from the ultimate anachronism of having a monarch at all) — like the fact that if the eldest child of the monarch is a girl, she will only inherit the throne if she has no brothers — partly because any change to the law of succession would have to be agreed in all the commonwealth realms in which the British monarch reigns, and there are sixteen of them! No one wants to try to pass a law that has to be debated in sixteen different places.

      • http://garicgymro.wordpress.com garic gymro

        :) Actually this came later. Mary I, Henry’s daughter was Catholic after all,. and Henry VIII always thought of himself as a Catholic (he continued to persecute Protestants), just one that was head of the Church in his own country. It was the Act of Settlement in 1701 (153 years after Henry died) that barred Catholics from the throne. In fact, there are various anachronisms that persist (apart from the ultimate anachronism of having a monarch at all) — like the fact that if the eldest child of the monarch is a girl, she will only inherit the throne if she has no brothers — partly because any change to the law of succession would have to be agreed in all the commonwealth realms in which the British monarch reigns, and there are sixteen of them! No one wants to try to pass a law that has to be debated in sixteen different places.

  • Dorothy

    as a Canadian of English ancestry (grandparents on both sided emigrated from England about 100 years ago), this describes my upbringing to a “tee” as well. Maybe explains a little of why Canada is somewhat less religious than the US.

  • Anonymous

    i have come to the sad conclusion that the american founders got it wrong, and we should’ve had an official state church. why? because nothing makes a religion less interesting in the modern world than having it be official. i love England, i’d move there in a heartbeat if i could. so civilized, so multicultural. and a great place to be an atheist. but i really think our founders here messed up, by giving every tome, dick andd Frothy Mix the right to form a tax-free cult with utterly protected speech. 

  • G-bird

    Hello, another Brit here! Nice to see British atheism summed up quite nicely. I agree with people’s points about faith schools etc. I would like to echo the final points made in the article about not forcing secularism too much. While secular groups have done a huge amount of good work, I think the British reserve has slowly evolved into not getting too fussed about religion all by itself and if anything, the US approach is a good source of refreshing reality of what we could be if we decided to go as over the top as our across-the-pond cousins.

    I feel that the official religion and the monarchy being the defender of the faith is a bit out-dated but it isn’t necessarily damaging to society and is often a way of bringing people of faith and no faith together. The cultural aspect often means that many feel more welcome in their local churches (whether it is for that one off Christmas mass or wedding) than they necessarily would in the States.

    Saying that though, I do feel that the US approach is creeping in in certain areas of UK society. For example, with the Salvation Army and their approach to preaching before giving out food and the current risk of more intense Christian groups bidding for contracts to take over areas normally covered by government-funded charities such as abortion counselling and battered women shelters. This is the unspoken menace that could become a real problem if left unchecked. In addition, the chairman of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission recently came out and said that the EHRC was in the market of protecting believers, even though the recent Equality Act covers those of no belief too.

    I could go on, but the UK certainly isn’t perfect and there are some rather scary potential nightmares on the horizon but thus far, I think we can be proud to still not be as ridiculous about things as the US. However, as with all the US cultural influences that have crept over the Europe over the years, we need to make sure that it stays that way.

  • Bryan

    Maybe the Brits’ lack of religion is the root of their perpetually cloudy skies.  “And God said ‘Let the unbelievers wallow in goddamn depressing weather until the end of the age.’ “

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=750428174 Paddy Reddin

    When an American proclaims: “This is a Christian country!” he can be quickly corrected. 

    Oh, if only it were that simple.

    I have mentioned the “Cultural” thing before, in a discussion that didn’t get posted to the RD site, and in previous comments here.  In Ireland there are so many “Cultural Catholics”, it’s almost silly.  Though I’ve discovered in the U.S. there are too many who believe in Jesus but ignore the whole “do onto others”, “turn the other cheek”, “judge not lest ye be judged” kinda thing.

    • Littlewoodimp

      They also ignore his instruction to pray in private! According to the bible, he had a whole big thing about those who pray conspicuously and publicly.

  • http://www.facebook.com/keithacollyer Keith Collyer

    My recollection is that Edwards was mildly mocked only when he made statements to the effect that he thanked God for helping him get where he was. I don’t think many people realise that the necessary implication of this is that God preferred you over others, so what makes you so special.
    The point about faith schools is particularly telling as it was mainly pushed through by Tony Blair, who, after his experience with the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland, really should have known better.

  • Stetheonlyone

    Can I add that the guy who went Jail for burning  Koran had as much to do with him stealing it from a library as it religious hatred,

  • PamBG

    I am a US and UK citizen who lived in the UK for 21 years – and am hoping to return to the UK.  I would agree with everything said in this blog post.  As an ordained minister in the Methodist Church of Great Britain, can I also point out one thing that I, as a Christian, am often flummoxed by:  the desire of the apathetic minority for Christian rites. 

    I can probably best understand someone’s desire to get married in a pretty 19th, 18th, or even 11th century church.  I can *sort* of understand the desire of a family for a church funeral for a non-believer. 

    What I do NOT understand – and which causes believers a lot of issues – is the desire to ‘christen’ or ‘baptise’ your baby when you tell me that you don’t believe in God or in Christianity. Baptism is a religious initiation rite and, if I were an atheist or agnostic, I wouldn’t want my child initiated into a religion I didn’t believe in.

    The humanist society will be happy to conduct a naming rite for your child.  It can be solemn, dignified and meaningful to *you* (rather than to a religion you don’t believe in) and you can throw a big party and welcome baby.  But please don’t ask me to initiate your baby into a religion you don’t believe in and make a hypocrite of yourself by getting up and promising to raise the child to believe in God and the tenets of Christianity. 

    Oh, and I too would like to see a separation of Church and State in the UK as would many British Methodists who I know.

    • John F

      I am the author of the original article (many thanks to Hemant for kindly publishing it). This comment resonated a lot with me because today we celebrated my second child’s “Naming Day”.

      We had a small gathering at my in-laws where my wife and I read some poems, told some funny stories about him, made a “vow” to him as parents, and played a special song. Everyone commented how beautiful and personal it was. Then we hired a function room to have a party with more guests.

      We’re at the age where all of my friends are having babies, yet despite the overwhelming lack of religion in our group, we are the only couple to forgo a Christening (twice!) in favour of a secular ceremony.

      I’ve been asked in the past to be a godfather, but (very respectfully) refused on grounds of hypocrisy. People don’t really seem to understand though, after all: “it’s got nothing to do with religion… it’s just what you do!”. I am hoping that we can trailblaze secular ceremonies, and I am glad to see that this is welcomed by atheists and theists alike.

      If you just want to have a party in honour of the child, there are better ways than dragging everyone to a church to pay lip-service to a God none of you believe in.

      • PamBG

        I am hoping that we can trailblaze secular ceremonies, and I am glad to see that this is welcomed by atheists and theists alike.

        I’m very much in favour of ‘secular’ ceremonies.  Ceremonies marking rites of passage in life really can give meaning and they are, I believe, performative.  I’m enthusiastic about the British Humanist Society encouraging these ceremonies (in fact, I like almost everything you’re doing aside from the animosity toward religion that is evident to me as a religious person.)

        Best wishes to you and baby as you welcome h** to the world.

        • John F

          Thank you, much appreciated.

          Good luck in your return to the UK.

    • Littlewoodimp

      My atheism is the reason why neither my nephew or neice were christened. It was my sisters first choice, but when she asked me to stand as godmother I told her that I really couldn’t be that hypocritical – not even for her.  It just wasn’t something I could even consider, particularly as one of the promises I would have to make was to ensure they were instructed in the christian faith!!  Since she couldn’t imagine having anyone else as godmother, she decided not to bother at all.  (She knew that should anything happen to her, I would always be there for her children anyway.)

      So I take your point completely – there’s too much of it I think. I’ve even heard women complain that they are expected to attend a church for a period of time if they want to be married in it.  Though I did laugh out loud when a close (pagan) friend of mine (who wanted to be married in the beautiful village church) said she was popping in to see the vicar – to ask if he would wed them without reference to god or christianity.  I wished her all the best of luck on that one!

    • Greg

      Count me up as a third agnostic atheist to politely decline a request to be a godparent! I completely understand how you feel, because I feel something similar from the other end. An oath to me, is something solemn that you are duty bound to uphold. I know a lot of people who have no such scruples.

      The only thing I could say in defence of non-religious folk that ‘christen’ their baby, is that it is so interlinked in our culture (even the phrase ‘Christian name’, for example) that I suspect it’s something they feel has to be done in order to lend their child legitimacy. Yes, you can get naming ceremonies from the humanist societies, but in my experience, very few ‘apatheists’ are even aware that such a thing exists. Hell, whilst I’m aware it exists, I have no connection with it personally, (and not much desire to be either – not my kind of thing), and I’m far better informed on these subjects than almost any other atheist I know!

      Also, there is the cultural Christian phenomenon, where people associate with Christianity despite not believing in a god. My own father is one of them – from many conversations on the subject, I know he considers himself a non-denominational Christian, and yet, if he believes in a god at all, it could only be described as deistic. My experience – at least with him – is that there is no getting through to people like that. They don’t realise how disrespectful they are being to the people of the churches they attend, because they don’t see themselves as not being Christian. They believe the words they agree to are more symbolic than actual commitments, and they don’t see how important those oaths are to other people.

    • Matthew Taylor

      The Christening thing is easy. Its to get the kid into the local CofE primary school as usually these are seen as giving the better education. I know several atheists who have done just that and when I was a regular CofE attender, you could tell which christening where because of the associated school and which were not.

  • Annie

    Thanks for the post.  This is such an interesting thread.  I just started reading “Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers” by Brooke Allen.  Even those that were religious, seemed to be more so in a philosophical sense, and less concerned with doctrine.  I’m early in to it, but already I have the feeling that our founding fathers greatly overestimated the intelligence of their progeny.

  • Sion Philips

    I think you missed a couple of important points. Another thing we have in common with Iran is that the UK has unelected religious members of our government, in the house of lords. Also there is a worrying rise in wealthy evangelical Christians donating money to schools and exerting control over the lessons. A prime example is Reg Carry funding a school in gateshead, the school teaches negative views about evolution and positive views about ID. This is a big school and many of the locals have no choice but to send their children to this state school

  • Keith A.

    Another life-long atheist, BHA member Brit here. I have never in my life been asked if I believe in a god. When the local loonies gather very occasionally in the street to preach their delusions,  the reactions of passers-by vary from indifference to amusement to embarrassment to scorn to anger. 

  • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ gjm

    I don’t think the editors of the Daily Mail really have much interest in Christianity as such. It’s just a useful tool for fomenting fear and hatred of immigrants, which is what they *really* care about.

    • John F

      Aside from immigrants, the biggest bug-bear the Daily Mail and it’s readers have is with “Health and Safety” – the three most hated words in the English language. The Mail, along with the Daily Express, thrive on printing examples of “Health and Safety gone mad”… such as examples of kids being banned from playing with skipping ropes in school. In most cases it boils down to one of two things… the paper completely misinterpretting or sensationalisng a relatively benign statement which bears no relation to the headline, OR an over-zealous council official who subsequently gets blasted by the council, but the damage is already done.

      Secularists have to be careful, because both the Mail and the Express are doing a pretty good job of associating secularist campaigns with Health and Safety gone mad, as the articles generally start with “council officials have banned [x]“.

      Here’s another recent Mail example. Depending on your world-view, this is either a martyr fighting for common sense against over-zealous council officials with their petty beauracratic rules… or an attention seeking bloke who has been coerced by the Christian Legal Centre to make a mountain out of a molehill. You decide.
      http://www.mailonsunday.co.uk/news/article-2020698/Colin-Atkinson-Cross-dashboard-Christians-bosses-bully-him.html

  • Kimpatsu

    There’s another issue with UK “cultural Xians” that you didn’t mention, but which I think is greater than merely being “that’s what you do”; all the people I know who tick “CofE” on their census forms do so because what they really mean to say is that they are ethnically English, as opposed to the Irish (Catholics), Scots (Presbyterians) or recent immigrants from the Indian subcontinent (Muslim). If the census question were rephrased as “What is your ethnicity?” and the religious question asked was “How often do you attend church/mosque/temple?” followed by “What is your religion? (Only answer if you attend services every week)”, that 72% figure would change dramatically.

    • http://twitter.com/gordongoblin Gordon

      A simpler way to make that 72% more accurate would be to include under the list of religions “Spiritual but not Religious”. I bet that’d knock 60%+ off all by itself.

  • Bacopa

    Speaking of national anthems, there has been something of a movement to change the national anthem of the US from “The Star Spangled Banner” to “America the Beautiful”. SSB is a a cool anthem about how we barely avoided being crushed in a dumbass war we started. Excellent message. The lyrics of SSB, though written earlier than ATB, sounds more like current standard American English than the poetic contrivances of ATB. How far into ATB do you have to go to even get to a verb? One has to wade through quite a few prepositional phrases to get to the first verb. And what verb is that? “Shed”! This is lame poetry. And who is doing the shedding? God! and is it even really great that God shed his grace on us? Snakes shed their skin by rubbing on rocks. Bears shed their fur bu scraping on trees. Cats manage their shedding fur by swallowing half of it and pooping it out. Did God shed his grace on America by scraping on our mountains and trees? Did God swallow his grace an poop it out on us? Did God swallow so much grace that he barfed a hairball on America? ATB is a massively stupid song.

  • http://strollinggamely.wordpress.com/ Fiyenyaa

    Quick point about this bit: “It is one of a relatively small number of  countries with an official state religion” – I can only think of two expressly secular countries offhand: France and the United States. Virtually everywhere in the world has either an official or de facto state religion. Lots of places I’d consider idyllic from a social point of view (including the religious angle) have state churches: Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands.

    I’m am in favour of increasing secularism here in the UK, but I don’t think the fact that we have a state religion or a state church is especially uncommon.


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