Screen Shot: The Mail on Sunday.Britain has undergone rapid secularisation in the last 50 years. It is no playground for religious bigots. Northern Ireland is an exception. There are some people who are always ready to die for their religion. In the rest of the country, the clergy’s influence has waned over the years.
In neighbouring Ireland, the Catholic church’s hold on popular imagination has been loosened. This was once considered improbable. The latest referendum results that went against the Government’s faith-driven anti-abortion policy have been interpreted as a public rebuke to the Catholic church.
A fall in the numbers of church-goers and the growing indifference to religion have been going on in Britain for decades. Perhaps the deprived tend to turn to God in desperation. So, when prosperity brought TV sets, washing machines and ample bread with butter and marmalade, the need for God declined in Britain. Commercial success promotes materialism. Poets foresee. More than a century earlier, Matthew Arnold had heard the withdrawing roar of faith!
Even during the interwar era, the trend of religious indifference continued, though religious questions could stir up occasional excitement. Post-war Britain did not witness a religious revival of the kind that gripped the US. American evangelists like Billy Graham came and went but failed to awaken Britons to a religious frenzy.
Britain has taken major strides towards becoming a multi-religious and multi-cultural nation. The children of the British Empire barged in from distant lands and a large number of surviving Western European Jews made Britain their home. Immigration from Pakistan and other countries made Islam the religion of several thousand Britons.
The existence of God and the interface between religion and science are debated vigorously in Britain. The writings of Richard Dawkins helped promote new atheism. The sixties assaulted orthodoxy and left a legacy of New Age religions. As the hold of institutional religion loosened, many young Britons started looking inwards. They found individual ways of fulfilling a kind of spiritual yearning. Many believers started ignoring the God without and heeding the God within. The trend of privatisation of religion picked up.
The swinging sixties further expanded and intensified secular influence despite the traditionalists warning against television, lurid advertising and creeping crass commercialism. Society kept marching towards materialism. Growing affluence led to an increase in crime and vandalism. Rebels against orthodoxy proliferated.
The Eastern mystics saw more devotees coming to their spiritual sessions. Esoteric religious practices aroused interest. Some Christian theologians devised terms such as “Christian Vedanta” which was contested by an Indian scholar!
In a land of multiple choices, God started appearing in different flavours. The traditionalists pooh-poohed it as pick-and-mix approach practised in a spiritual supermarket! One commentator sees it as a mark of mobility, an individually decided preference. He says: “It may be as much as the “cool” of freedom that is being aspired to, as the love of Jesus Christ Our Saviour. If so, Nietzsche may be dead, but God only survives by being available in many exciting flavours.”
In a statement more relevant to America and India, he says: “Annoyingly it may well be that religion is gaining greater traction, not because of its own strength, but because of the weakness of political parties. Politicians are desperate to reach and use pockets of activism, and – with the death of class politics – the most available and vocal belong to religious organisations.” He finds it slightly worrying.
The plurality and diversity of groups within Christianity itself prevented British politics from being dominated by a single, major confrontation between politics and religion. British sociologist James A. Beckford, who makes this comment, could perhaps add collusion to confrontation! He says the British state did not therefore cast politics into a mould which necessarily polarised or amalgamated religion and politics. The fact that all major religious groups drew members from a variety of social classes and cultural backgrounds also helped to prevent religion from becoming a political issue in itself, he says.
Successive Governments took steps to end discrimination against religious and other minorities. Political leaders learnt a lesson from the history of sectarian strife in Britain. They perhaps cared for their nation enough not to light the fires of sectarianism that would have turned it into Disunited Kingdom.
Karen Armstrong on Hinduism
A cynic may say they remembered how promoting sectarian strife harmed the former colonies and benefited the British Empire! The western powers know that the best way to destroy a nation is to damage its social fabric. The British Government created and exacerbated religious strife in the colonies but at home promoted religious harmony and multiculturalism. Writer Karen Armstrong said: “It is ironic that the British who had banished ‘religion’ from the public sphere at home should classify the Indian subcontinent in such tightly religious terms”.
She says the castes there did not see themselves as forming an organised religion. They found themselves lumped together into something that the British called Hinduism. This term was first used by Muslim conquerors. The British used it to give a communal identity to the natives which was alien to their age-old traditions.
Karen Armstrong elaborates further: The British based the Indian electoral system on religious affiliation and in 1871 conducted a census that made these religious communities acutely aware of their numbers and areas of strength in relation to one another. By bringing religion to the fore this way, the British bequeathed a history of communal conflict in South Asia.
In Britain, the clergy saw the clashes between the Catholics and Protestants bringing a bad name to Christianity and moved to arrest the trend. They cared for the way their faith was perceived by the people. Considering how Islam is seen today, they were wise to worry about public perception. The Christian leaders have been trying to turn religion into a positive force instead of becoming an obstacle to progress. Modernity was allowed to seep into their very traditional sphere. That is why Christianity is no longer associated with primitive hysteria, as it was once.
The tragic headlines about religious violence in different parts of the world may have also led many Britons to grow more indifferent to their own religion. Islamic extremism and the rise of British nationalism failed to cause panic in Britain about the erosion of Christianity. The Christian majority has enough self-confidence not to fall prey to any narrow-minded group that may try to instil fear in it by pointing to the growing numbers of the others.
Britain suffered from sectarian conflicts for centuries, but such ugly incidents are now limited to Northern Ireland. It is said that the establishment of the London Stock Exchange brought down the incidence of religious violence. Capitalism and sectarianism or communalism, as it is called in Indian English, do not go together. This is not understood by India’s business tycoons.
Science, law and critical thinking
Apart from the dampening influence of commerce that requires social harmony, two professions have helped check religious frenzy. Britain made significant contributions in the fields of science and law and jurisprudence, producing many eminent scientists and legal luminaries. Both encourage scepticism, argumentation and rational thinking.
The British centres of critical thinking do not come under political attacks unlike what happens in the US and in India. The Republicans of America do not trust universities. India’s ruling party has sought to diminish the influence of universities promoting critical thinking.
The decline in the number of church-goers, the ageing of congregations, and the rise in the number of disused and closed churches continue. Church buildings are reopened and turned into places of worship by other faith communities. The faithful have got used to seeing the churches becoming bankrupt and being sold! Rational Christians accept the reality and never make a hue and cry over the conversion of a church.
Britain is known for football fanatics, not Christian fanatics! Even the pub fights on Friday nights never acquire a religious hue. Jokes about Jesus provoke mirth, not violence. The English trait of not taking things seriously has been accentuated by the media mocking all those who were once revered and respected. They can be turned into objects of scorn. No authority, spiritual or temporal, is safe from cruel hilarity.
The failings of the Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church, as disclosed by sexual and financial scandals, can get magnified! These convey the message that to be a Christian is not something great. No menacing group goes around asking fellow Christians to declare it with pride that they are Christians. In India, the secular Hindus are asked to repeat: Garva se kaho hum Hindu hain!
“God is my business.”
In Britain those looking for “hurt feelings” have to look towards faith groups other than Christians. An official move to slaughter a diseased temple bull might hurt another community and footwear with an artistic image of Lord Ganesh have a similar effect. The host community can’t understand those whose religious sensitivity is hurt.
Christianity in Britain mostly does not resist secularisation. At times, it seems to adapt to it. An Archbishop can preach liberal views or sing along to Beatles’ tunes during the Jubilee Concert! To a politician seeking to use God, an Archbishop might say: “God is my business.”
Modernity, moderation and a new emphasis on civil rights led to the scrapping of legal provisions for discrimination against religious minorities in Britain. Inclusiveness and diversity became more acceptable. Several factors contributed to the evolution of a political culture in which religion plays little part.
Voting intentions have been studied in terms of religious denominations. A section of Catholics tended to favour Labour. The Church of England was once called the Tory Party at prayer! It is now just an interesting saying. Sectarian differences do not dominate the political scene and never lead to a confrontation. No fatwa is issued before any election! A fatwa will not work since the Church of England commands little political influence.
Faith, in any case, does not provoke passion, thanks to the growing indifference towards religion. Nor are political battles fought with great passion, especially since the end of ideology. British politics is not marked by a cut-throat competition. Failure in politics is not dreaded because a political career is not essential for survival. A defeated politician can always migrate to the corporate world and make a decent living.
Britain has a much smaller and less conservative religious base, so a political constituency fails to develop. The relations between the Government and Christian leaders are never so smooth that a politician can think of winning popularity through their endorsement.
Jesus in Britain, unlike Lord Ram in India, does not improve the electoral prospects of a candidate. Thus, there is no political incentive to create social disharmony by fuelling religious hatred. Political leaders in the UK do not try to polarise the voters on sectarian lines. They do not politicise religion. In fact, they fear that an attempt to misuse religion may backfire.
In Britain, political leaders know that hate speech may cost their political career. Indian politicians have no such fear and at times they even violate the law in order to incite religious violence. That is why political discourse has been vulgarised in India.
God, on His part, does not do politics
In the UK, religion has become peripheral to politics. Even devout Christians among British politicians do not do God! God, on His part, does not do politics. God may be an Englishman, but he keeps away from British elections. His messengers bring no political message for the voters. Even the faithful do not consult Him in the polling booth.
God grants no electoral support to British politicians. In India, God does bless selected politicians who invoke His name on the eve of an election!
Britain’s commercial ethos, Christians’ approach towards their faith and the influence of institutions that promote scepticism, critical thinking and dissent – all have shaped a political culture that shuns extremism. Politics in Britain is not afflicted with religion. British democracy, distorted by Mammon, is spared by God!