Two Conservative ministers, Eric Pickles and Baroness Warsi, have recently spoken out strongly against what they term ‘militant’ or ‘fundamentalist’ secularism. How justified are their claims? Stuart McAnulla explores the extent to which religion in the UK is under threat and considers the motivations behind the pro-religious rhetoric.
Is religion in the UK under threat? In recent days two Conservative ministers have spoken out strongly against what they view as aggressive forms of secularism. In addressing the Conservative Spring Forum, communities minister Eric Pickles condemned what he termed ‘militant atheism’ which he argued seeks to impose ‘a politically correct intolerance’. Faith and Communities minister Baroness Warsi has criticised ‘secular fundamentalists’ who she claims believe there should be ‘no public space for faith’. Both ministers perceive such groups as a threat to cohesive communities and indeed to Britain’s status as a Christian country. Warsi fears that radical secularist attitudes may both discourage people from openly expressing their religious identity, whilst also undermining the positive contributions that faith-based organisations make to society. But how justified are the ministers in the claim that ‘militant’, or intolerant, ‘fundamentalist’ forms of secularism are indeed influential within the UK?
There are three main groups in the UK who may be considered to promote particularly hardline secularist views, each of which seeks to disestablish the Church of England. These are the National Secular Society (NSS), the British Humanist Association (BHA) and the set of commentators and authors commonly referred to as the ‘new atheists’, such as Richard Dawkins and A.C. Grayling. Although each group seeks to keep politics and religion separate, there are important distinctions between them. The NSS is formally neutral with regard to the claims of religion, and focuses on campaigning for a secular state. The BHA primarily exists to promote humanism, but also lobbies against what it sees as unfair privileges given to religious groups, e.g. the right to establish state-funded faith schools. Specifically anti-religious arguments are associated most strongly with the new atheists, whose best-selling and controversial books have created considerable public discussion over the last ten years.
The arguments of these groups have clashed with the current coalition government’s stated intention to ‘do God’ and to encourage religious groups to play a bigger and more celebrated role in public life. For example, David Cameron has called upon religious organisations to play a ‘leading’ role in creating the ‘Big Society’. The coalition has promoted the creation of new faith schools and taken steps to make it easier for religious groups to potentially manage local public services. However, secularist campaigners consider this to be a backward agenda which risks the state awarding yet further special status to religion at a time when British society itself may be becoming more secular. Such groups often cite declining attendance within the Church of England as evidence that the church is losing its social authority. In turn ministers accuse such secularists of holding intolerant, even bigoted, attitudes towards religion which are not reflected more widely in British society. But do such groups evince intolerance towards religion?
In 2012 the NSS was accused of being intolerant to religious practice when it supported a court case seeking to prevent prayers being held as part of the agenda of Bideford Town Council. The case was won by councillor Clive Bone, who complained that as an atheist he should not be required to attend this practice. The NSS argued that prayers had no place within ‘a secular environment concerned with civic business’. They contended that they were doing nothing to stop people actually saying prayers, but insisted that the prayers should not be part of the council agenda. However, Eric Pickles considered the ruling to be part of an agenda to ‘marginalise and attack faith in public life’. In response he ‘fast-tracked’ the implementation of new ‘competence’ powers to local authorities. These effectively gave local authorities the autonomy to hold prayers as part of council meetings if they wished to do so.
Meantime there is no doubt that the arguments of the ‘new atheists’ are deeply hostile to the claims of monotheistic religion. Moreover, their rhetoric is frequently provocative and often considered offensive. For example, in his book The God Delusion Dawkins describes religious believers as ‘faith-heads’ and argues that religious education can sometimes amount to ‘child abuse’. The new atheists have also been criticised for appearing to be particularly critical of Islam, indeed Dawkins has argued that Islamic schools have been guilty of teaching ‘alien rubbish’. However it is debatable how far the new atheism expresses practical intolerance of religion. New atheists uphold the right of freedom of religion, even if they have little personal respect for many religious beliefs. In common with other campaigning secularists, they argue the rights of minority religious groups are most likely to be protected within a secular constitution in which no religious faith is privileged. Also, it is not clear that the new atheists necessarily believe, as Warsi claims, that there should be ‘no public space for faith’. A.C. Grayling has argued that the influence of the religious institutions on public life ought to become similar to that of other civic groups such as trade unions or the Women’s Institute. In this view a religious organisation’s influence would be proportionate to the strength of its membership, rather than by being inflated by being given a special place in public life through state sponsorship.
An interesting question is to what extent the pro-religious and pro-Christian rhetoric of particular Conservative ministers will be sustained. Some critics suggest this recent emphasis is rather opportunistic, designed to help government exploit the social capital that religious organisations hold in the service of wider anti-statist ideological agenda. In any case, it appears that in ‘secular fundamentalists’, Conservative ministers have constructed themselves a new modern-day folk devil.
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