The decline of religion in the UK: Religion & the State


Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh
The decline of religion in Britain, according to Fraser Nelson in The Daily Telegraph on March 30 2018, is accompanied by a general acceptance of secularism. To be Christian in Britain today is to float about in the fastest religious changes in the history of the United Kingdom. The ongoing collapse of religiosity in Britain is rubber-stamped by Polls that show that less than a quarter of Britons now profess faith in God or a Spiritual Higher power.
There are no such statistics in Manipur, but secularism can be tested by the complete separation of the state from religious institutions and religious freedom after independence in 1947. Manipur was a kingdom where people had one primordial faith of Sanamahism, endorsed by the king. It was not until the early part of the 18th century (1704), when the mission led by Shantidas Gosai from Sylhet arrived and converted king Charairongba into Hinduism, with its Aesop’s Fable-type mythologies. Soon, his subjects followed suit in dribs and drabs.
The coming of Christianity to the UK is similar to the advent of Hinduism in Manipur. It was associated with the arrival of the mission led by Augustine in 597 CE, from the Pope in Rome to king Ethelbert in Kent, south England. That really set up the future course of Christianity though It remained a minor faith for years, as Pagan beliefs still abounded.
It was unfortunate that recently, N Biren, CM of Manipur, a consummate populist political figure, understated the intensity of passion for Manipuris as distinct evolutionary lineages from the rest of India, which I have been advocating for many years.
For politicians in the UK, one British MP recently said: In the US you have to be religious to be elected; in the UK you have to pretend not to be religious. Religion is not discussed at all in the British Parliament. British prime ministers avoid talking about religion. Only last week, just before the Easter holiday weekend, it was considered odd that Prime Minister Theresa May, daughter of an Anglican priest, who goes to church every Sunday with her husband, and keeps her references to God to a minimum, informed the House of Commons that Easter (rather than Christmas) is the most important event in the Christian Calendar.
Tony Blair, ex- British prime minister, talked about his conversion to Catholicism only after he left office, when he talked freely about religion. He said: “in America you can reference your faith and not an eyelid is batted. But talk about religion in Britain and frankly, people think you are a nutter. That you might very well be about to ‘go off’, sit in the corner and commune with the Man upstairs. Then come back and say: “Right, I’ve been told the answer and that’s it.”
David Cameron, ex-prime minister after Tony Blair, wasn’t as religious as him. He would occasionally go to church midweek, but obeyed the rules and hid his faith. He would blank out space in the diary without explanation so not even his staff knew what he was up to. It’s the simple real politik of religion in British public life.
There are certain unwritten rules governing Christianity in British politics. Rules are mostly concealment. Those who want to reach the top, learn to observe them ie not to talk about God and Religion though things like gay marriage and religion can be discussed. It’s true for many Christians in general, in a fast-secularising Britain: to strip out religious references in conversations, never say: “God bless” or “Oh Jesus”.
What was normal a generation ago has become deeply strange today. Religious people in Britain, who don’t want to be seen as weirdos learn and adapt. The term ‘religion’ normally involves a belief in a Supreme Being and the activities that are connected with this system. It may be doctrinal as in Christianity, or non-doctrinal as in Hinduism.
The relationship between religion and the state has changed dramatically from the middle ages. These days, religion is no longer that fundamental barring exceptions, as evidenced in Pakistan. Nor is it in India. Because the starting points are democracy and the rule of law. Freedom of religion and the principle of equality is the basis of the state. And constitutional discourse overrides religious fundamentalism.
The separation of religious organisations from the nation state is a philosophical and legal concept. That is, conceptually, the term refers to the creation of a secular state. The degree of political separation are determined by the prevalent legal structures and legal views that determine the proper relationship between organised religions and the state.
The relationship between religion and state governments vary widely from state to state. Since 1780s a number of countries have set up specific barriers between the two. In some countries the two institutions remain heavily intercommunicated. For example, in England there is a constitutionally established state religion of Christianity, but other faiths are tolerated. In France, there is strict application of secular principle of laïcití (secularism). In Denmark, they maintain a form of constitutional recognition of an official state religion. In India and Singapore, as mandated by the country’s political constitution, there is total separation, while in the Maldives and Pakistan there is a state religion of Islam.
Singapore is home to people who profess many religions, especially Buddhism by the Chinese, Islam, Hinduism and Christianity. As a result, the Singaporean Government does not give priority to any religion.
In India, though Hinduism is the major religion (80%) and despite the claims of Hindu nationalists, though not without some grains of truth, India is a secular country with no state religion. The Indian Constitution of 1950, defines India a secular State. Secularism by definition, is the separation of the state from religion.
Maldives deserves a special mention here as it is quite unique. The 1997 Constitution of the Maldives dictates that all the citizens must be Muslims. The conversion to any other religion carries a death penalty. There are no atheists. The freedom of religion is non-existent. Government regulations are based on Islamic/Sharia law. Non-Muslim foreigners are prohibited from worshipping publicly. A revision of the Constitution in 2008, Article 9, Section D states that a non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives.
The Maldives islands like the Indian Lakshadweep islands, turned into a Sultanate in 1153 because of Arab travellers, when the last Buddhist king converted to Islam. Before that the Maldives was a Buddhist kingdom, a Hindu kingdom, and before that a matriarchal society. It’s the smallest Asian country with 12,000 islands, out of which only 200 are inhabited. It’s developed as tourist resorts for water sports, with its beautiful deep blue seas and white sands on the beach. It’s situated south of Lakshadweep Islands in the Indian Ocean.
In Pakistan where 95% are Muslims, the original Constitution of Pakistan did not discriminate between Muslims and non-Muslims. Later, in the Islamisation of Pakistan, during the governments of President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, religious intolerance was introduced. The Pakistani government restricts the right to freedom of speech with regard to religion. Speaking or publishing in opposition to Islam are prohibited. There is mandatory death penalty or life in prison for anyone defiling the name of prophet Muhammad. And life imprisonment for desecrating the Quran.
In America, John F Kennedy commented in 1960, that “the separation of church and state is absolute […] where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him, or the people who might elect him […] and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”
In a pluralistic society like the UK, where a lot of people do not believe in a supreme being, there is no religious foundation. All sorts of religions coexist. Even if the government takes into account the wishes of certain religious communities, for example, Muslims in the UK, the reason is not that Islam’s supreme being prescribes a certain measure. It only emphasises the freedom of religion. For years, not without some resistance, Sikhs wearing turbans have been allowed to work in the London Metropolitan Police Force, or ride a motorcycle without the mandatory helmet.
In a secular society, the state government takes a neutral view on religion. It protects freedom to believe. A secular society does not have to be an atheist society. Many religious people are secularists. In fact, a secular state does not privilege atheists beliefs. It only values the kind of freedom that such a society guarantees.
The idea of secularism isn’t new. An Englishman George Holyoake published 122 years ago, in 1896, what he called English Secularism. There, he describes secularism as follows: Secularism is a code of duty pertaining to this life, founded on considerations purely human, and intended mainly for those who find theology indefinite or inadequate, unreliable or unbelievable. Its essential principles are three: (1) The improvement of this life by material means. (2) That science is the available Providence of man. (3) That it is good to do good. Whether there be other good or not, the good of the present life is good, and it is good to seek that good.
(The writer is based in the UK Email:irengbammsingh@gmail.com Website: www, drimsingh.co.uk)

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