According to a poll reported in the Sunday Telegraph, an increasing number of British Christians feel hard done-by: discriminated against at work, bullied, made to feel uncomfortable, even rejected by their own families:
As many as 44 per cent said they had been mocked by friends, neighbours or colleagues for being a Christian, and 19 per cent said they had been ignored or excluded for the same reason.
They also claimed that they are being discriminated against at work, with five per cent saying they had been turned down for promotion due to their faith. The same number said they had been reprimanded or cautioned at work for sharing their faith.
The report links the findings to a number of high-profile cases in which Christians have complained of discrimination or have been disciplined for expressing religious views, "including a teacher who complained that a staff training day was used to promote gay rights". We learn that "nearly three out of four" believed that there was less religious freedom in the UK now that 20 years ago, and a significant minority thought that "persecution" of Christians was worse here than in the rest of Europe.
There's a paradox here. Religion today is prominent in the public debate to an extent that ten or certainly twenty years ago would have seemed bizarre. This isn't entirely a consequence of 9/11, as is often assumed; a more plausible starting-point would be the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Nor is it a simple phenomenon, or one confined to these shores. But for various historical and cultural reasons, which I'll come on to, it is felt here particularly keenly. A decade or more ago Christians weren't being "persecuted" in Britain. They were being ignored. Their voice in public life was heard less often than now, and the most prominent voices were not pressure groups complaining of discrimination but Anglican bishops confident in their own irrelevance. The former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey publicly compared his church to "an elderly lady, muttering to herself in a corner". His predecessor, Robert Runcie, spoke of the C of E as primarily a focus for people's "vague feelings of religiosity". Both seemed to be fairly content with this state of affairs.
There has been a huge change since then. On the one hand, the relatively small minority of practising Christians seem to be doing rather well, politically speaking. Under New Labour, there has been an unprecedented expansion in religion-based schooling. The government has looked to "faith-based" organisations to fulfil some aspects of its social policy. Religious leaders of all persuasions are regularly and respectfully consulted by politicians. Most remarkably of all, the religious - including Christians - have been given novel legal privileges, enshrined in a new law against "religious hatred" and employment regulations that for the first time forbid discrimination on religious grounds. The latest Equality Bill recognises religious orientation as one of a small number of "protected characteristics" giving rise to new rights. Yet Christians aren't celebrating. Far from it.
The new survey is based on a relatively small sample of 512 worshippers, so it perhaps shouldn't be taken too seriously. But it does seem intuitively plausible that they would think so. Some might be speaking from personal experience. More will have read stories in the Daily Mail, along these lines: a British Airways worker forbidden from wearing a cross, Roman Catholic adoption agencies forced to allow gay couples onto their books, religious Christmas displays taken out of shop windows for fear of "upsetting Muslims", a street preacher arrested for proclaiming that Sodomites will burn in hell, Jerry Springer the Opera. And so on. These stories often trace back to test cases brought by a fundamentalist pressure group called the Christian Institute.
To judge by their complaints, Christians feel caught in a pincer movement. On the one hand, an "increasingly secular society" is held to be intolerant of religion in general and traditional religious and moral beliefs in particular. On the other hand, the state is believed to be unduly respectful of Islam, and society as a whole is seen to be compromising both Christian and Western values (including secular ones) out of a desire to be "politically correct", or to avoid being bombed.
I suspect something rather more subtle is going on.
It has long been bad form in England to talk about religion, or to be overtly religious. In Watching The English, social anthropologist Kate Fox notes that the characteristic national apathy has reduced the Church of England to "a sort of default option, a bit like the 'neither agree nor disagree' box on questionnaires". Most English people aren't even interested enough in religion to declare themselves agnostics:
We are not only indifferent but, worse (from the church's point of view) we are politely indifferent, we are tolerantly indifferent, benignly indifferent. We have no actual objection to God. If pushed, we even accept that he might exist, or that something might exist, and we might as well call it God, if only for the sake of peace and quiet. God is all very well, in his place, which is the church....
Our benign indifference remains benign only so long as the religious, of any persuasion, stay in their place and refrain from discomforting the non-practising, spiritually neutral majority with embarrassing or tendentious displays of religious zeal. And any use of the G-word, unless obviously ironic or just a figure of speech counts as such an improper display. Earnestness of any kind makes us squirm; religious earnestness makes us deeply suspicious and decidedly twitchy.
I would go even further. In normal English society, talk about God, like talk about sex, is tantamount to swearing. Stephen Pinker (in The Stuff of Thought) pointed out that swearing is aggressive because it forces a possibly unwelcome thought or image into another person's mind. "Thanks to the automatic nature of speech perception, a taboo word kidnaps our attention and forces us to consider its unpleasant connotations." In the case of religiously-based profanity, he argues that the aggression consists partly in breaching the awe that normally surrounds the sacred, disrupting "the collective mind-control in which one doesn't look at, think about, or talk about a sacred thing casually".
The English taboo on "doing God" doesn't arise from a heightened sensitivity to the divine, however. My guess would be that it arose in reaction to the wars of religion that disfigured much of our Early Modern history. Except in Ireland, religious conflict was something no-one wanted to revisit, and so a national consensus arose to avoid the issue as much as humanly possible. Partly this was achieved by inventing a national state church that was distinctly low-key. The Church of England has often been not so much a religion as an antidote to religion.
But world events have forced religion - ie thoughts about religion - on an unwilling population. This has only served to heighten underlying unease at public displays of religiosity. Natural dislike of God-talk has been reinforced by fear (both of terrorism and of giving offence), embarrassment, an apologetic instinct, and good old British hypocrisy. It's a potent mixture. Partly, hostility towards religion generally is displaced hostility to Islam, which it is not socially acceptable to express (and possibly illegal). It's seen as safe to attack religion only by concentrating one's fire on Christianity, even if Christians aren't the worst offenders.
Moreover, for the minority of committed Christians, the prominence of Islam in the news has led to fears of "not getting their share", and has also sharpened underlying resentment (which has always existed) of the way in which overt (rather than cultural) Christianity has always been marginalised. This has driven them to be more assertive, both in terms of perception (seeing the reaction of others as "Christophobic", where previously they would merely have sighed and shrugged their shoulders) and in terms of aggressive marking out of boundaries. The secular majority feel resentment at being forced to confront a subject that they would prefer to ignore. Also, the state has ventured into more areas of which were previously informal life, creating problems (in terms of rights and duties) which previously did not exist. Social change, too, has left Christians isolated from the non-religious mainstream.
Take, for example, attitudes towards homosexuality. For centuries, religious and non-religious people alike assumed that homosexuality was wrong, at least socially. Even many who didn't mind the fact that gay people existed didn't want to be confronted with the evidence: "consenting adults may do what they like in private" was the code for "please to do not make me think about man-sex" (or one recalls the old story about Queen Victoria refusing to believe that lesbians existed). There were religious objections, of course, that Christians felt in particular: those obscure passages in Leviticus, for example, or tortuous theological justifications based on the self-evident naturalness of heterosexuality. But these were only ever subsidiary considerations. The general feeling that homosexuality was "wrong" - or at least yucky - was refelected in religious doctrine, not derived from it.
The retreat - at least at an official level - of homophobia (indeed, the invention of the concept of "homophobia" itself) has therefore left conservative Christians in something of a bind. The change of status of gay relationships - from being legally penalised to being legally protected - has happened within the space of a few decades. But having buttressed their anti-gay feelings with Biblical arguments, Christians were hardly in a position to flip moralities as easily the non-religious majority, most of whom were able to accept that times had changed. Indeed, acceptance of gay rights has swiftly become the easy, default option, the one that least required actually thinking about the issue.
Because talking about sex, to the British, is almost as embarrassing as talking about religion. So here's this group of people who aren't only breaking the (newly reinforced, but ancient) taboo by going on about God, they're also breaking the sex-talk taboo by boring on about what other people get up to in their bedrooms - thrusting (frequently unpleasant) thoughts about gay sex into the minds of people who would rather not hear about it, thank you very much.
It would be wrong to interpret increased talk of religion in the public sphere to increased interest in the subject. English indifference towards religion is deep-rooted, almost an article of faith, a hard-won achievement which has enabled tolerance to flourish. It is apathy with a purpose. History has given us a natural and healthy suspicion of religious enthusiasm. Recent events have reinforced it. So if Christians are suddenly feeling oppressed, they should not be surprised.