Star Wars Trumps Culture Wars in Britain

anglican_cathedral.During the run-up to Easter this year, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron had the temerity to assert publicly (and on more than one occasion) that Britain is a Christian country, suggesting also that it is no bad thing that it is. For having publicly espoused such politically incorrect sentiments, fifty-five prominent British humanists came down on him like a ton of bricks, excoriating him for false and divisive statements they claimed that he had made.

On Bank Holiday Easter Monday, which this year happened to coincide with the eighty-eighth birthday of the country’s reigning monarch, who also happens to be Supreme Governor of the Church of England, the country’s established church, the Daily Telegraph published a letter from these same fifty-five humanists under the headline: ‘David Cameron fosters division by calling Britain a “Christian country”’

We respect the Prime Minister’s right to his religious beliefs… However, we object to his characterisation of Britain as a “Christian country” and the negative consequences for politics and society that this engenders.

Apart from in the narrow constitutional sense that we continue to have an established Church, Britain is not a “Christian country”. Repeated surveys, polls and studies show that most of us as individuals are not Christians in our beliefs or our religious identities… We are a plural society with citizens with a range of perspectives, and we are a largely non-religious society.

Constantly to claim otherwise fosters alienation and division in our society. Although it is right to recognise the contribution made by many Christians to social actions… to exceptionalise their contribution when it is equalled by British people of different beliefs… needlessly fuels enervating sectarian debates that are by and large absent from the lives of most British people, who do not want religions or religious identities to be actively prioritised by their elected government.

There are several striking things about this letter. One is that, with the exception of just one of its fifty-five signatories, all are avowed supporters of the British Humanist Association (BHA). This is a national charity established in 1896 which describes itself on its website as:

working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity… We want a world whereeveryone lives cooperatively on the basis of shared human values… We want non-religious people to be confident in living ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity… We campaign for a secular state, challenge religious privilege, and promote equal treatment in law and policy of everyone regardless of religion or belief.

In its lead front-page story about the letter, instead of describing the signatories of the letter as secular humanists, the Telegraph chose to describe them as ‘an alliance of writers, scientists, philosophers and politicians’. The only signatory to the letter whose humanist filiation was mentioned was the BHA’s current president, the Iraqi-born physicist Professor Jim Al-Khalili who was reported as having said of it:

We wrote this letter as a result not just of one recent speech and article, but of a disturbing trend. Politicians have been speaking of our country as a “Christian country” with increasing frequency. Not only is this inaccurate, I think it’s a wrong thing to do in a time when we need to be building a strong shared identity in an increasingly plural and non-religious society.

Despite the fact that all of the other letter’s signatories were supporters of the BHA, the newspaper that carried their letter made no mention of their common humanist affiliation. Nor did the rest of the mainstream British media in reporting it, including the still very influential British Broadcasting Corporation. (Acknowledgements to Ulster Unionist politician, Nelson McCausland for pointing this out.)

Why should this omission matter?

It matters because, by not including this fact about its authors, the letter and media reports about it suggest that its signatories represent a wide range of the country’s non-Christian populace which they do not.

While it is certainly true that, in recent times, the percentage of Britain’s population who identify themselves as religious, let alone as regular church-going Christians, has been in decline, it still remains the case that the overwhelming majority of Britain’s population remain religiously identified and that, of those who do, the vast majority identify themselves as Christian.

Since 2001, the UK ten-yearly Census has carried an optional question inviting respondents to identify their religious affiliations, if any. In 2011, 7 per cent of the population of England and Wales (where by far the largest number of Britain’s populace lives) declined to answer the question. Of the 93 per cent of the population who did answer the question, a quarter of the total reported themselves as having none (up from 14.8 per cent in 2001). Of the 68 per cent of total population who reported as having some religious affiliation, the overwhelming majority (87 per cent) named Christianity as their religious filiation. This did represent a decline in the overall proportion of the population of England and Wales who did from 72 per cent in 2001 to 59 per cent in 2011.

The suggestion of the letter’s signatories that, in terms of demography, Britain can no longer be considered a Christian country is palpably false. That Britain has become a non-religious country in terms of the affiliations of its inhabitants is even more palpably untrue. Indeed, for what it is worth, of the total population of England and Wales of 56 million according to the 2011 Census, just under 33 million identified themselves as Christian and only 15,067 as Humanist.

To gain some sense of proportion as to how truly tiny is the number of self-identifying humanists in England and Wales, one needs to set that figure of just over 15,000 against the 176,000 plus who identified their religious affiliation in the 2011 Census as that of Jedi Knight.

It would seem, mercifully, that in Britain Stars Wars trumps Culture Wars in terms of the population’s preoccupations.

The fact is that it is the British Humanists Association which is the divisive minority element in British society today, not moderate Christians like David Cameron who form the overwhelming majority of the country’s population.

The BHA and its close counter-part, the National Secular Society, campaign for the total evisceration of religion from Britain’s public life. Increasingly, Christians and other religious groups are being denied freedom of expression and association in Britain in the name of a secularism that is as intolerant and divisive as it is effective in passing itself off as only calling for equality and inclusion rather than a cultural and political makeover that would see Britain turned into an atheist’s playground in which it is un-believers who are increasingly calling all the shots.

One area in which they have been setting the pace is over the issue of gay marriage where, notwithstanding his avowed Christian predilections, David Cameron led the campaign to introduce it in law. David Cameron so offended many traditional Conservative voters many believe that, faced as he is with a drubbing at the hands of UKIP in the European Parliament elections next month and with a general election the following year, the Prime Minister has belatedly rediscovered his Christian faith in an attempt to woo them back.

It is extremely unlikely this tactic will work which is not to say that the substance of the Prime Minister’s claims about Britain’s being a Christian country are not sound. Britain remains one and it is good that it does because of the benign and tolerant values long associated with the various forms of Christianity most closely associated with it. Mercifully, what the Cambridge University political scientist Sir Ernest Barker observed of England in 1927 in a lecture entitled ‘Christianity and Nationality’ still holds true of Britain – just about:

[A] nation which draws into itself continuously, and not merely in its first beginnings, the inspiration of a religious faith and a religious purpose will increase its own vitality… Our own nation… has been inspired by a not ignoble notion of national duty to aid the oppressed… and it has been most characteristically national when it has most felt such inspiration… We offend against the essence of the [English] nation if we emphasise its secularity, or regard it as merely an earthly unit for earthly purposes. Its tradition began its life at the breast of Christianity; and its development in time, through the centuries… has not been utterly way from its nursing mother… [I]n England our national tradition has been opposed to the idea of a merely secular society for secular purposes standing over against a separate religious society for religious purposes. Our practice has been in the main that of the single society, which if national is also religious, making public profession of Christianity in its solemn acts, and recognising religious instruction as part of its scheme of education…

It is because Britain’s religious minorities are so well aware that they are safe to practice and inculcate their faith in their children that they have rallied to the defence of David Cameron against the spurious charges of divisiveness levelled against him by the humanists who wrote Monday’s letter. As even that bastion of militant secularism, the BBC was obliged to acknowledge following the reaction to publication of Monday’s letter:

Religious groups have backed Prime Minister David Cameron’s assertion Britain is “a Christian country”. The Hindu Council UK said it was “very comfortable” with the description. The Muslim Council of Britain said the UK was a largely Christian country.

The only reason why Britain’s 300,000-strong Jewish community was not reported as supporting David Cameron is because publication of the letter which criticised him for calling Britain a Christian country coincided with the concluding days of the festival of Passover on which Jews are forbidden from writing or taking to the air-waves. However, that Britain’s Jews have long cherished it being a Christian country goes back to the time they were readmitted there during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. As was observed by a former British Conservative Prime Minister in the House of Commons, albeit before he assumed that office and when he chose to defy his party’s line to support the admission to Parliament of elected Jewish representatives:

What possible object can the Jew have to oppose the Christian Church? Is it not the first business of the Christian Church to make the population whose minds she attempts to form, and whose morals she seeks to guide, acquainted with the history of the Jews? Has not the Church of Christ—the Christian Church, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant—made the history of the Jews the most celebrated history in the world? On every sacred day, you read to the people the exploits of Jewish heroes, the proofs of Jewish devotion, the brilliant annals of past Jewish magnificence. The Christian Church has covered every kingdom with sacred buildings, and over every altar… we find the tables of the Jewish law. Every Sunday—every Lord’s day—if you wish to express feelings of praise and thanksgiving to the Most High, or if you wish to find expressions of solace in grief, you find both in the words of the Jewish poets. It is in the Christian Church… that you must… behold that divine corporation which teaches to all the nations of the civilised world the sublime morality, the beautiful and devotional poetry of the Jew, and the true faith he professes. And I cannot but believe that a man owning all the traditions, all the habits, all the laws of a Jew—a man who wishes to maintain inviolate the religious institutions in every country in which he lives—must ever look upon the Catholic Church, whatever may be its form, with no other feelings than those of the deepest interest, and, as I think, with those of reverent affection.

Who was the former British Conservative Prime Minister who uttered these words?

None other than Benjamin Disraeli, born a Jew but whose father underwent conversion to Christianity along with wife and children when Benjamin was a child but whose Jewish provenance Benjamin never renounced and always remained fiercely proud of. This father of one-nation Conservatism should serve as a permanent reminder to how tolerant and liberal Britain’s form of Christianity has long been, and why all its religious minorities should prefer it to the secular utopia being held out on offer by that small coterie of secular humanists who are as divisive in their aspirations as they are mendacious in their claims.

David Conway

David Conway is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Westminster-based social policy think-tank Civitas: Institute for the Study of Civil Society.

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  1. nobody.really says

    A. Who is “being divisive” here?

    Let’s postulate the following: People differ. And people can choose between behaviors that foreseeably focus attention on differences, behaviors that focus attention on commonalities, and behaviors that avoid either kind of focus. So when we encounter a “divisive” use of language, it may help to ask 1) Does the language focus on people’s differences? And 2) could the speaker have made his or her point using language that did not have this focus?

    B. Cameron chooses repeatedly to refer to Britain as a Christian country:

    I hope we can do more … in our country when it comes to Christianity. And as Eric Pickles said this week, we should be proud of the fact that we are a Christian country, and I am proud of the fact we’re a Christian country and we shouldn’t be ashamed to say so.

    1) Does the language focus on people’s differences? Yes; indeed, Cameron was using the label “Christian” not as some historical referent or cultural marker, but explicitly to acknowledge Christians as distinct from other people in Britain:

    [W]e hold receptions for Eid, for Diwali, we had a Vaisakhi reception and some of Britain’s most prominent members of the Sikh community here just this week. But I’m very proud that we hold a reception for prominent Christians….

    2) Could Cameron have chosen a different way to make his point that avoided this focus on difference? Hard to say; that depends on what Cameron’s point was. If, for example Cameron wanted to say that the 2011 census revealed that the majority of British citizens self-identify as Christians, he could have said, “The 2011 census revealed that the majority of British citizens self-identify as Christians.” I doubt this would have prompted much notice from anyone.

    But instead Cameron chose the phrase “Christian country.” Cameron surely knew the reaction this language would provoke, surely knew other ways to say things – and he chose this language anyway. I can only conclude that Cameron intended to provoke the reaction that he did.

    Indeed, I suspect Cameron draws the same conclusion that David Conway does: Notwithstanding Britain’s current secular reputation, most Britons identify as Christians – and Cameron would like to be publicly associated with defending this group. His entire April 9 speech is just a pander-fest — which is not unusual or especially shameful; politicians make such speeches all the time to all kinds of groups. So in that sense, for the Prime Minister of Britain to declare Britain a Christian country is no more remarkable than the Governor of Massachusetts declaring Massachusetts to be Red Sox Country.

    C. A published letter from humanists focuses attention on Cameron’s remark.

    1) Does the letter focus attention on people’s differences? Yes.

    2) Could the letter writers have chosen a different way to make their point that avoided this focus on difference? I don’t see how.

    D. Of course, in an obvious sense David Conway is right: A majority of the British self-identify as Christians. Does it therefore follow that the Prime Minister saying “We’re a Christian country” is harmless?


    Such a conclusion would ignore status differences. Quite simply, minorities have greater anxieties about majorities than vice versa. (Analogously, antitrust laws treat dominant firms differently than marginal ones.) The West enjoys a long and largely positive history of powerless minority groups rallying to express solidarity and pride – and a long and not-so-positive history of powerful majority groups doing the same. Of course, members of majorities can and do dismiss the concerns of minorities, but only a public speaker who was tone-deaf – or feigning tone deafness — would overlook this dynamic.

    If Conway is really persuaded by his own argument, then I’d challenge him to prove it: Change the title of this post to “David Conway Declares Britain to be a White Country.

    Because this statement is equally true – and equally defensible.

      • Steve Johnson says

        “If Conway is really persuaded by his own argument, then I’d challenge him to prove it: Change the title of this post to “David Conway Declares Britain to be a White Country.

        Because this statement is equally true – and equally defensible.”

        But this is no less than a strawman argument. Strawman arguments, as well as other formal fallacies, are argumentative crutches that reveal a defective intellect such as yours.

        The remainder of your post is just wierd obfusciation leading up to the grand strawman finale.

        Fact: England and Wales are predominantly Christian. most of the culture and values are extensions of Judeau/Christian tradition and tollerance.

        Fact: Very little opression these days is expressed through Christianity and it’s various branches.

  2. gabe says

    “Quite simply, minorities have greater anxieties about majorities than vice versa.”
    Perhaps, it is time to just “get over it” instead of using it as a club to beat a non-threatening majority into submission. again, if you (editorially, of course) want tolerance, you may (and do) get it; if you want celebration of difference, forget it!

    “The West enjoys a long and largely positive history of powerless minority groups rallying to express solidarity and pride – and a long and not-so-positive history of powerful majority groups doing the same.”

    Really! Let us look at the Eastern worlds toleration of minorities (racial, ethnic & religious). Do you honestly wish to assert that it stacks up against the record of the Western world. Give me a break!!!!
    While not without its shortcomings in this regard (perhaps it is a universal shortcoming), the record of the West, especially today, far exceeds that of the East AND in fact is the direct outgrowth of Christian principles and teachings.
    to a very real extent the West is today far too tolerant of differences, no doubt to a self engendered sense of guilt fostered by self abnegating, self loathing leftists who seek to demonstrate their own moral (read: christian whether they will admit to that or not) sensibilities and advantaged by favor and status seeking “minorities.”
    Is one free to practice Christianity in Saudi Arabia? Iran, Nigeria, Somalia, etc etc?
    Do the Brits require the paying of a poll tax? the jeezza (sp?) or other such practices which systematically reduce the “other” to a lower order?
    One is however “freer” to practice or offer public displays of Islam or Gaia-ism or any other such “-ism” in the US than Christianity; of course, this is to encourage diversity – whatever flavor of diversity is in fashion today AND assuming that one actually knows what it means.
    Why is it not “diverse” to display a Crucifix over a War Memorial? Beats the “bejeesus out of me”. Oops, i can’t say that – it is probably religiously offensive.

    As always, the left’s goal is to divide and remind and / or instill grievances in the minds of the citizenry such that minorities are encouraged to disregard the concerns of the cultural majority.

    Quite different than when my grandfather, the son of a brutalized serf, came to this country and asked nothing more than that it let him live and strive for prosperity. He recognized that part of the bargain was that he accept the cultural norms of his new land – obviously, it offered something that his “diversity” qualifying former culture did not. Amazingly, he was welcomed to the extent that he was welcoming.

    Remember, ALL peoples at ONE TIME or another were brutalized and disadvantaged; the trick is to “get over it” using your skills and talents to succeed AND not expecting your hosts to adopt your previously proven unsuccessful norms.

    I would also suggest a little reading on the benefits accruing to the West from Christian philosophy AND science. If ever interested i will offer you a few good suggestions.

    And as for your suggested title, why” White Country” – heck the Brits are not especially fond of French, Irish, Italians (of course in the summer it was hard to tell about my grandfather) – aren’t they white?

    take care

    • gabe says

      Should read: “no doubt DUE to a self…”

      And if I may be so bold as to suggest that once again the left’s faulty logic is revealed to be predicated upon nothing more than an anti-Western bias.
      Consider if you will the underlying premise supporting diversity. Is it not that these cultures have a right to maintain themselves. Indeed it is and indeed they do.

      Yet, if cultural survival is of some value for the in-coming culture, must we not also afford the same degree of legitimacy to the homegrown or majority culture. After all, it is the product of many, many generations of citizens, many of whom have, in fact, come from other parts of the world and been incorporated into the majority culture. As Burke suggested, prescription is the correct remedy – not wholesale abandonment of all that has been successful and beneficial for a millennia in pursuit of some utopian scheme to remake the nation into something that it is manifestly not – nor prepared by history and culture to become!
      If i wish to celebrate American culture, I should probably stay home. If i wish to celebrate that of my ancestors, I should probably retire to Sicily and grow grapes (actually not a bad thought and I will save some for Nobody). However, as my grandfather and millions of his countrymen / women, we chose to accept, no, to embrace American culture.
      Perhaps, others should try this approach. We will welcome you as we welcomed countless millions of others.
      And yet, they still flock to our shores. Welcome them but tell them to leave their problems back home!!!!!!

      Now for some good Merlot or perhaps Syrah – I learned that from my grandfather at a rather young age. Of course, he would probably be hauled to jail now by some self-righteous liberal for endangering the morals of a minor. so i guess we are not as multicultural as we pretend – only when it is consistent with the narrative: “West = Bad; Other = Good!

      take care

      • nobody.really says

        Oh, dear….

        And if I may be so bold as to suggest that once again the left’s faulty logic is revealed to be predicated upon nothing more than an anti-Western bias.

        Uh — ok; you certainly may be so bold. And bold you are. Upon reading this, I can’t help but share the conclusion that reflexive faulty logic is on display here.

        “The West enjoys a long and largely positive history of powerless minority groups rallying to express solidarity and pride – and a long and not-so-positive history of powerful majority groups doing the same.”

        Really! Let us look at the Eastern worlds toleration of minorities (racial, ethnic & religious). Do you honestly wish to assert that it stacks up against the record of the Western world?

        No. You’ve got me there.

        But mostly because I said nothing about the Eastern worlds.

        See, I initially wrote that “The US enjoys a long and largely positive history ….” Then then I surmised that David Conway was not from the US, so I expanded my remarks to say that “The West enjoys a long and largely positive history ….” But I didn’t intend “The West” to be understood as being in opposition to The East. I guess I could have expanded the sentence to “The World” or “People” instead. But if called upon to give examples, I’d likely give examples from US history — simply because that’s what I know something about.

        I should probably retire to Sicily and grow grapes (actually not a bad thought and I will save some for Nobody)./blockquote>

        Wait — out of a whole vineyard, you can’t be bothered to save a few grapes for anyone else? Stingy bastard….

        • gabe says

          Fair enough!

          And i will save a few more grapes for you and will even provide my 11 hour pasta sauce, it is quite good, really – oops, I mean Nobody!!!!

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