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…