The Rise of Secularism in the UK


A decade or two ago, the majority view amongst those Britons of no particular religious affiliation seemed to be composed of two main strands. On the one hand, there was the agnostic view that could be summarised as “I have some notion of God but don’t find anything of value in organized in religion”. On the other, loose atheism that defined itself as “I don’t really believe in God and it’s not for me”. Importantly, both views tended to come with the caveat that “it’s alright for those that do believe to go on believing, just don’t trouble us with it”.

An aggressive form of secularism

Increasing, though, that caveat would appear to be disappearing from the equation. An aggressive form of secularism is rapidly supplanting the indifference towards religion that was establishing itself as the norm. The religiously inclined now find themselves painted as a particularly dangerous breed of idiot. Core beliefs are mocked in a way that would have been unthinkable prior to the 1960s and blame for anything that goes wrong is laid squarely at the feet of the evil God botherers.

If we are to point to a pivotal moment in all of this, inevitably we must look to 9/11. The perpetrator’s laughable claims to be Islamic seem to have given rise to a belief that all religion is based on some form of twisted self-righteousness. The moderate voice of British Islam, whether through choice or lack of opportunity, has been notoriously slow in condemning the Bin Ladenites. The general view seems to be that the God botherers did, very much, bother us that day. And people aren’t happy about it.

While all this has been going on, the state church has been busy making a laughing stock of itself by dissolving into petty arguments about the possibility of having women and, Lord forbid, homosexuals amongst its clergy. Given that Britain granted women the vote almost a century ago and that homosexuality only remains an issue amongst members of the extreme right-wing; it is easy to see why the Church of England is doing very little to appeal to younger, more liberally minded Brits. Not having one’s finger on the pulse is one thing, but being a century or so behind the times has hardly proved to be a recipe for putting bums on pews.

There are, of course, many other religions present in Britain but it is no surprise that most attention is attracted to the native Anglicism and the rapidly growing, imported faith of Islam. The Catholic Church – prior to the spread of Islam, the largest immigrant faith – has hardly covered itself in glory either, with a recent crop of stories telling of how the church covered up some truly atrocious acts of child abuse committed by its representatives, it isn’t gaining too many admirers. Hinduism, Sikhism, and Judaism, whilst somewhat more respected, tend to go about their business largely unnoticed.

Religion in the UK, to use the modern corporate parlance, is severely lacking in the PR stakes.

An out-of-touch domestic church and a poorly understood – and poorly self-projecting – imported faith are ever more seen as threats to the laissez-faire existence to which we Brits tend to aspire. It is, perhaps, unsurprising that the genial apathy of the proverbial ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’ towards religion is, all too quickly, being replaced by a belief that religion is, by and large, a bad thing.

Speaking as a true agnostic – a man with a conception of the numinous and innate respect for all faiths – I find myself increasingly isolated in my defense of the faithful. It is, I feel, high time that both the Christian and Islamic establishments came out firmly on the side of their peaceful principles and helped me out a little.

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