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Secularity in Great Britain

Secularity in Great Britain

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Secularity in Great Britain

Author: David Voas and Abby Day
Secularity in Great Britain

Author: David Voas and Abby Day

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10/07/2013

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8.SecularityinGreatBritain
David Voas and Abby Day 
T
here is probably no common understanding o the term “secular” amongordinary people, or even among scholars. Britain is ormally a religiouscountry in a way that many modern states are not, having (dierent) establishedchurches in England and Scotland. There is also a willingness to countenancereligious involvement in the machinery o government: the Church o Englandis represented by a number o its bishops in the upper house o Parliament,and in 2000 the Royal Commission on the Reorm o the House o Lords evenrecommended that other religions should be represented as well, increasing thenumber o religious seats. The Labour government under Tony Blair did notaccept the proposed extension o religious representation, but neither did itsuggest eliminating the bishops.The links between church and state have very little impact on contemporary lie, however. In some cases they seem to achieve the worst o both worlds,creating an impression that oends one side without beneting the other. Thelaw on blasphemy, or example, seems to Muslims to show that the Englishdeck is stacked in Christianity’s avor, and yet the law is eectively a dead letter;it is almost inconceivable that a case could even be brought today, much lesssuccessully prosecuted.Debates on the issue o establishment are oten curious aairs, with somebishops wanting to “cut the connection”
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and some Muslims seeing the Churchas a bulwark against secularism. In these circumstances the special privileges andduties o the national churches have no necessary bearing on Britain’s characteras religious or secular.The term “secular” might or many people be associated with the mission o the National Secular Society, a lobby group or church-state separation, which isovertly atheistic rather than merely opposed to giving religion a public role. (Forexample, the society maintains that “supernaturalism is based upon ignorance
 
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S
eculariSm
& S
ecularity
and assails it as the historic enemy o progress.”
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)In common usage, though, a contrast is usually apparent between “secularand “secularism.” “Secular” is the opposite o “religious,” and simply indicates anabsence o religious motivation or content (e.g. secular ceremonies, morality, art,etc.). “Secularism” is an ideology that opposes religious privilege and requently religion itsel. Because the British are typically non-religious rather than anti-religious, many people are secular but ar ewer are secularists.Unlike Americans, Britons are accustomed to the idea o state-supportedreligious education, religious broadcasting on network television, bishops in thelegislature, and so on. But unlike many continental Europeans, Britons do nottend to eel that they need protection rom religious institutions.Indeed, the implicit assumption seems to be that a modest dose o religionis good or people—or at least other people. The notion that God’s unction isto make children well-behaved, strangers helpul and shopkeepers honest meansthat outright secularism is less popular in Britain than one might suppose. Butas individuals themselves, having little desire or divine supervision, are mostly secular, the benign acceptance o public religion does little apart rom rustratesecularists and religious leaders impartially.
Social Scientifc Approaches
It has become conventional to ocus on three aspects o religious involvement:belonging, belie, and behavior. There are three distinct though overlapping ways o being secular: not belonging (not aliating), not believing, and notpracticing.None o these concepts is unambiguous. I the rather strict view is takenthat religious people must accept specic articles o aith and know basic churchdoctrine, then only a raction o the population qualiy. But i accepting theexistence o a higher power or an ultimate moral order counts as religious belie,the proportion is much more substantial.Similarly with religious practice, it makes a great deal o dierence whetherthe ocus is on regular attendance at services or i more occasional orms o practice with a strong social dimension (e.g., church weddings and baptismsor participation at Christmas, harvest estivals and the like) can be considered.Private prayer may provide more or less evidence o a religious disposition,depending on its orm, content, and motivation. Although aliation (belonging) is simply what Americans label “religiouspreerence” rather than a measure o commitment, the growth in Britain inthe number o those who say that they have no religion has ironically turnedthe simple willingness to accept a denominational label into an indicator o 
 
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8.S
ecularity
 
in
G
reat
B
ritain
religiosity. Religion is still capable o being an aspect o personal identity thatdoes not depend on active participation, ocial membership, or even agreement with basic doctrine. Precisely because o this subjectivity, though, sel-identication as having or not having a religion is sensitive to the wording andcontext o the inquiry.Beyond all o these denitional and methodological issues, one questionstands out: how much does religion matter to people? Many believe in God, callthemselves Anglican, and appear in church on occasion, but does that suce orthem to be useully regarded as religious rather than secular? I religion makeslittle dierence in their lives and does not seem important to them, or i they describe themselves as not very religious, then there is a case or classiying themas secular.The study o secularity thus raises a double problem: rst to try to measurereligious (non)adherence, and second to decide what the results might mean. At the end o the day, perhaps, identiying with a religion, believing in thesupernatural, or attending religious services should not necessarily disqualiy someone rom being regarded as basically secular. The argument will bedeveloped more ully later, but a ew immediate remarks ollow.To someone in a traditional society, coming rom such-and-such village may be o the utmost importance, while or people in post-industrial society it may bemore or less incidental where they were born or grew up. Likewise with religion:origins may mean a lot or a little. Most Britons are still able to speciy theirreligious background, just as they can name their birthplace, ather’s occupation,and secondary school. But whether these things make any dierence to how they see themselves or the way they are perceived by others is not at all certain.Long ater active religious participation has ceased, people may still wantservices or special occasions; ater even that degree o interest has waned, they may still accept association with their religion o origin. The result is similar toa sel-description as working class by the owner o a large business, or claims toIrishness by Americans who have a grandparent rom Galway. Such personalidentities may be personally meaningul, but the chances o passing themsuccessully to the next generation are slim. In any event, any characteristictends to disappear rom sel-description as it loses its social signicance. Being aMuslim currently seems suciently salient that very ew British Muslims wouldnot describe themselves as such; or relatively ew Christians is the same true. With respect to belie, there is a strong inclination among sociologists toinclude transient supernatural experiences or opinions as “religion,” which iscommonly held to include “the paranormal, ortune telling, ate and destiny,lie ater death, ghosts, spiritual experiences, luck and superstition.”
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