Sunday, 31 May 2009

No God please, we're British

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.

11 comments:

blind steve said...

A well thought out and eloquently argued post, but I will pull you up for this bit :

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." Firstly that ought to read Stephen Pinker ... argued.

Secondly his argument is not only arse wash, but evil arse wash of the kind frequently used by the righteous as a lever for censorship and oppression.

It is, frankly, an argument from weak mindedness and solipsism.

Other than that, smashing.

McDuff said...

Hersiarch

Finally, a post in which I am able to agree with you all the way through. Thank the (nonexistent) Gods!



Blind Steve

Have you read Pinker, or are you criticising the capsule summary?

cabalamat said...

It'[s occurred to me that we'd all be better off if Britsh Muslims had something like a Muslim version of the Churh of England -- as watered down version of Islam that was against blowing things up but pretty laid back about everythning else.

valdemar squelch said...

Cabalamet, I agree. I used to think the CofE was an absurd joke, but I'm now inclined to the view that a mild innoculation of 'faith' is a lot better that leaving people - esp. kids - unvaccinated against the various lethal strains.

H, you are right about the obtrusiveness of religion. This is surely in part because, with militant Islam barging onto the stage, the rest feel a need to up the stakes, shout louder, and generally fib about how faith-based out society is.

Catholics, in particular, seem unable to shut up, even when they are revealed over and over again as members of a despicable outfit. Their constant proclamation of their superiority is a kind of Tourette's with bells 'n' smells - but at least Tourette's patienrs don't claim their obscene outbursts are good for the rest of us.

Does Damian Thompson still read this, I wonder?

Sarka said...

"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."

Otherwise persuasive article, but I am not at all sure about this bit. There continued to be a passionate amount of religious talk, and religion-in-politics, for a very long time after our (one) Civil War in the mid-17th century. Yes, part of the 18th-century elite developed a horror of "enthusiasm" and a lot of English clergy were notoriously worldly in outlook, but quite apart from the religiously serious members of the ruling class, the Oxford Movement etc. you leave out the massive and various Protestant non-conformist part of the population (including Methodists) - up to 40% in one "scare: poll in the late 19th, and believe me, these people "did God" and "talked God" in private and in politics, constantly and without embarrassment...They regarded the upper class as effete and sinful for no doing so...
When I was a kid in the 60s and 70s, people like Canon Collins and Lord Soper were active in progressive politics...and rather more God talk on the Beeb - not just Muggeridge.

You're right that religion by that time was not a big issue (hence, actually the tolerance of non-Christians for identifiably Christian figures in politics/media). There was no serious "anticlerical" movement in Britain, the Left had more exciting fish to fry than blasting at church influence or demanding disestablishment. You're right about some of the reasons why it has come to loom so large now (largely the Islam issue, I think). But your historical perspective is a tad distorted.

Sarka said...

And just a further musing:
Back in those sixties and seventies (even despite the "cultural revolution"), the basically tolerant view of English religion held by most of the more or less unbelieving had a lot to do with seeing it as part of the cultural wallpaper, and as distinctively English. Comic vicars, girl guides ceremonies, Archbishes, hymns at school assembly, BBC religious broadcasting - all SO unlike "fanatical" Catholics of the near and far abroad, let alone those funny US fundie preachers...So our attitude was rather like the attitude of most even lib/left people to the monarchy...fierce anticlericalism seemed as silly to most and as unEnglish as fierce antimonarchism.
So part of the sudden far more irritable attitude to the Church and Christianity in England (apart from all else you mention) is part of the general breakdown of national (unconscious) cultural consensus, and a "globalisation" of issues that leads people to see e.g. the C of E and US fundies as somehow connected or comparable - that would have been a joke even twenty years ago.

asquith said...

The rather casual attitude of the clergy in olden times may well have been caused by the fact that people went into it as a career option (younger sons of aristocrats who didn't feel cut out for military life, ambitious members of the lower orders who saw a clerical career as a way to high income & respectability, etc).

This also explains religion as politics, as those in European countries especially Catholic ones (or medieval England) were shoved into monasteries & brought up to do something they fundamentally didn't want to. A number of them therefore never gave a toss about spiritual life & turned to worldly matters.

I am put in mind of Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus. I wouldn't be at all surprised if this occurs in the Muslim world too. Is it really "religion in politics" or just "politics as carried on by people who have a nominal religious role, the spiritual side of which they flout"?

The Heresiarch said...

Interesting points, Sarka. Nevertheless, while the overwhelming lack of God-talk of English society may well be a postwar (even post-Sixties) phenomenon, in absolute terms, in relative terms I still suspect the "volume level" has always been lower here than in continental Europe, where anticlericalism was a big factor in the Enlightenment and afterwards, or the United States, where Protestant piety has deep roots. It's a matter of degree.

Jeremy Paxman in his book about the English quotes an interview conducted by Henry Mayhew with a C19th costermonger who said "I never was in a church" and an 1851 survey which showed that two thirds of Londoners didn't go to church.

What you say about the cultural aspect is spot on, I think. Cultural Christianity - the King's James Bible, the prayer book, hymn tunes - has been tremendously important in shaping the national landscape. But it doesn't have that much to do with God. When people lament the decline in Christianity, they are often regretting the loss of these things.

Asquith, Dostoevsky described the Church of England as "a religion of the rich, and undisguised at that". I sometimes wonder if it would have made any difference to Darwin's theorising if he had, as originally intended, gone into the Church. I suspect not.

asquith said...

"What you say about the cultural aspect is spot on, I think. Cultural Christianity - the King's James Bible, the prayer book, hymn tunes - has been tremendously important in shaping the national landscape. But it doesn't have that much to do with God. When people lament the decline in Christianity, they are often regretting the loss of these things."

Yes, & there are secularists like me who support the reading & teaching of the English Bible for these reasons, primarily as literature.

I am sure there are secular Muslims who see a similar role for the Koran, given the influence it has had on literature throughout the Islamic world.

All of great interest. Perhaps in 100 years we will set up a museum of religion where youngsters can marvel at what their forefathers believed :)*


*May be too much to hope for.

WeepingCross said...

The only aspect I think you've missed out - understandably so, because it's an observation of mine empirical proof of which I can't point to - is that the narrative of persecution is a terribly comforting one for many modern Christians, and is to a great degree generated by them. It's a way of taking cultural marginalisation and making it a sign that they're getting something right: people don't like the truth, so the more truthful we are about the Gospel, the more disliked we will be. To feel persecuted and shut out is a sign of authenticity, and it increases the missionary sense, that this is a society that needs converting. It isn't just Christianity that exhibits this mindset, of course.

McDuff said...

Weepingcross - I think British evangelicalism suffers greatly from jealousy of its transatlantic counterpart, which kicks up a tremendous fuss about being a poor oppressed minority and also insisting that everyone should do as it says because "America is a Christian nation". Couple that with "fatwa envy" and the general British tendency towards misanthropy and I think you go a long way to explaining how come Christians are suddenly finding themselves so terribly hard done by. They're learning from the pros.