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Is There a Future for Religion in Secular Britain?

Imran Mulla, a History undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, discusses where religious freedom fits into Britain’s changing political climate.

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Modern Britain is increasingly irreligious; over half of British adults have no religion at all, leaving traditional religionists of all faiths in Britain in a predicament. They are minorities who hold values that are often alien to those of mainstream society. Whether religionists will be able to maintain their convictions, traditions, and ways of living, or manage to effectively transmit them to future generations is up in the air.


“The result has been an inquisition targeting religious believers suspected of possessing illiberal, but in no way illegal, views.”

Over the last decade, the Conservative government has waged a war on religious liberty, largely through a series of incursions into British Muslim civil society. Muslims are increasing in number across Britain, and, in the context of a secularising society, their culturally and religiously dis- tinct practices have provoked the ire of the British elite, who accuse Muslims of failing to integrate and refusing to embrace the dominant liberalism of modern Britain.


“Multiculturalism has failed,” David Cameron declared in 2011 in one of his first speeches as Prime Minister. This narrative of British Muslims as a troubled and self-segregating community has been consistently disproven by sociological data: Muslims in Britain identify more strongly with being British than the population in general. But it is a notion widely accepted within Westminster, and this has had significant consequences for religious liberty in Britain.


The traditional Lockean conception of liberalism required the state to refrain from imposing any values on the population. This is reflected in the 2010 Equality Act; it out- laws discrimination based on (among other characteristics) gender, sexual orientation, religion, and race, and does not require anyone to adopt a particular ideology. But the situation is changing, arguably due to a tension within liberalism itself. Liberal toleration was never conceived of by its original proponents as an end, but rather as an instrument for facilitating a marketplace of ideas from which liberal values would supposedly emerge triumphant (of course, those values themselves have progressively evolved). Today the government sees traditional religion as an obstacle to the triumph of their favoured iteration of liberalism, which entails support for capitalism, the nation-state, and the social values of the early 2010s. Its response, increasingly, is to intervene in the marketplace of ideas: hence the promotion of a new “muscular liberalism” intended to ensure that the government “does not inadvertently create spaces where intolerance can breed”, as the Chief Inspector of Ofsted, the British state’s education watchdog, pro- claimed in 2018.


Enter Prevent, the government’s “counter-extremism” agenda, which places a legal duty on public sector workers (including in schools, universities, and hospitals) to report people they deem vulnerable to “extremism.” First introduced under the Labour government, it has proven embarrassingly ineffective at stopping violence and results in the harassment of thousands. Muslims are disproportionately targeted and questioned about their religious views, and outward signs of visible “Muslimness” have been rendered suspicious. Prevent has been ramped up in recent years as part of the government’s “muscular liberalism” to target “non-violent extremism”, defined by the government as being vocal or active opposition to “British” values. These values are essentially liberal, the implication being that to be truly British means embracing a government-sanctioned version of liberalism. The result has been an inquisition targeting religious believers suspect- ed of possessing illiberal, but in no way illegal, views.

“The nation is at a crisis point for religious liberty, but its advocates must confront the reality that few people in a largely irreligious Britain actually care.”

Ofsted has deployed inspectors to question Muslim schoolchildren on their religious values and clothing choices, and a primary school’s decision to ban girls from wearing the headscarf was defended by Ofsted’s Chief Inspector. This seems to be an attempt by the state to swap the religious values instilled in children by their parents with liberal ones and the perfect illustration of how Britain’s older liberal settlement is being replaced by a liberalism of a coercive, statist bent.


And the situation seems set to escalate. As the two co-chairs of the “People’s Review of Prevent”, Professor John Holmwood and Dr Layla Aitlhadj, recently told me, leaked reports suggest that the government’s review of Prevent will likely result in a further assault on religious freedom. Although Prevent discriminates, it currently claims to target the far-right as well as “Islamist extremism.” But no longer: the reviewers are pushing for a return to its origins explicitly focus- ing on Muslims. Even more significantly, there are strong signs that the government intends to expand Prevent into the private sphere, making it a legal duty for religious institutions. This would mean no less than the wholesale securitisation of religion. It will no longer be clergy and congregation: it will be clergy, congregation, and MI5.


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The nation is at a crisis point for religious liberty, but its advocates must confront the reality that few people in a largely irreligious Brit- ain actually care. No significant political faction claims adherence to any religious principles; the main ideological opposition to the Conservative government, the progressive left, is mounting no defence of religious freedom. Conservative commentators tend to see both “woke” progressivism and multiculturalism as examples of “identity politics”, but old-school British multiculturalism entails protecting religious liberty for minority communities. By contrast, the so-called “wokeism” currently on the rise reveres aesthetic diversity but struggles with deep ideological differences. It is predicated upon what Sir Roger Scruton termed a “habit of repudiation” and animated by the conviction that “the meaning of culture, in all its forms, is power.” The aim of this form of progressivism, which philosopher John Gray sees as a type of “hyper-liberalism”, is to deconstruct all hierarchies and undermine old belief systems; it is inherently hostile to traditional religion.


This means that religious liberty finds few advocates on either the mainstream left or the mainstream right.


The further the majority’s values depart from traditional religion, the more obviously distinctive religious minorities will become, intensifying the debate over the limits of pluralism. And society is changing fast – should there be another surge of incoming Muslim refugees, for example, social upheaval could occur, rendering questions of integration and assimilation even more urgent.


“The so-called ‘wokeism’ currently on the rise reveres aesthetic diversity but struggles with deep ideological differences.”

Believers who practice modernised, reformed, or liberalised iterations of their religion may not be too troubled by questions of religious freedom since they are already integrated into the zeitgeist. But the future seems uncertain for traditional religionists. Even if they manage to live in communities where their traditions can be maintained, their children may grow up to leave home and will be immersed in mainstream society. Some of them will feel alienated, others will perform a balancing act of integrating while privately maintaining their beliefs, and many will likely assimilate.


Of course, this is hardly inevitable. There could be a religious revival, creating a large base of support for religious freedom. Or perhaps multiculturalism will be rejuvenated, and religious groups left free to follow their traditions. But Britain’s current situation suggests that there are likely significant challenges ahead for traditional religionists. Would this be so bad, people might ask, if it helps us to overcome backwards attitudes and repressive ways of living? Perhaps we should celebrate the march of progress towards full secularisation.


But whether or not one likes the world’s great religions, they are known as great religions for a reason: they have endured and adapted over centuries and have grown significant followings. It may be a mistake to repress them on behalf of only recently popularised ideological convictions – convictions that have not similarly proven their longevity. In the face of skyrocketing depression levels, technological chaos, and increasing social atomisation, the country may ultimately have cause to mourn the decline of traditional religion, and perhaps even reason to consider attempting to save it.


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