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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 36, August 29, 2015

Secularism and Faith in Europe: A Study of Religious Minorities in the United Kingdom

Monday 31 August 2015

by Purusottam Bhattacharya


In the late medieval and early modern era, ties between the government and the Church were strong in Europe. The Church was the predominat force and the government was considered to be almost a department of the Church. For many years religion guided the nations of Europe. While Catholicism predominated in France, Spain, Italy and Ireland; England, Germany and the Netherlands were Protestant and Greece was Orthodox. As the Treaty of Westphalia paved the way for the emergence of the nation-states, the religion of the king still continued to decide the religion of the people of the realm. However, with the onset of Enlightenment in the 16th and 17th centuries with its emphasis on reason, the importance and hold of religion began to erode. Rationalism and scientific approach to life gained a significant hold in society. Leading social scientists of the day all predicted the weakening of religion and its ultimate demise. However, this is not to say that religion completely vanished from civil society. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches continued to exist as entities though their influence and domination which they had exercised earlier declined significantly over large segments of society.

Recent developments, particularly from the 1970s, have compelled social scientists to revisit the secularisation thesis and argue that it was a mistake to believe that modernity necessarily leads to a decline in religion. While it was true that secularisation had made a powerful entry into Europe, there were other areas of the world where religion continued to hold sway. What is particularly significant was that following the end of the Second World War the European colonial empires gradually disinte-grated leading to the emergence of a large number of newly independent states. However, there also started a significant wave of immi-gration from these countries of people who moved to various European countries, including their former colonisers, for settlement. They brought with them their faiths and beliefs in different religions into the secular European states. This led to an encounter between European secularism and these new faiths which often turned confrontational. Consequently, a new social crisis emerged in Europe for which it was not prepared.

It is in this context that this paper proposes to study the position of the religious minorities in the United Kingdom. As the theme of this paper is secularism and faith, the question that immediately arises is whether the UK is a secular state or not. In the UK the monarch continues to head the Church of England which has a huge symbolic significance. Indeed if being a secular state means keeping religion out of public life and out of education then quite clearly Britain is not a secular state.

Since the founding of the English nation Britain has seen itself as a Christian nation and its monarchs have affirmed allegiance to Christ ensuring in the process that the monarchy is still a Christian monarchy. At her coronation the present British monarch affirmed that she will to the utmost of her power maintain in the UK the Protestant Reformed religion as established by law. The fact of the matter is that whatever protestations of secularism leading British intellectuals and civil rights activists might make, the monarch still remains a very important symbol of British Christianity. There are even now practices which make this fact obvious, such as prayers before Parliament, the fact of an established church including senior appointments, church legislation passed by Parliament, senior appointments and exercise of patronage by the Crown and Lord Chancellor; religion still seems to be entwined in British national life. Many civic services are still held by the Anglican Church which is also actively engaged in local life.

The influence of the religious secular divide is particularly reflected in the sphere of education. A quarter of all schools are Church of England schools. A great majority of public schools are Christian foundations. Many secondary schools too have Christian foundations. Education in Britain is thus a great battleground between religion and secularism. Seventytwo per cent of the British population are Christian.

However, the paradox here is that a survey has found that half the population are believers in the secular evolution of life. Nevertheless, theoretically it is possible for such a state to be secular in spite of the religious symbols and practices referred to above. Yet the values of the predominant religion are likely to be reflected in the laws and the national life of that nation. For instance, in the United States and France the influence of Christianity is felt in varying degrees despite the official separation of the Church and the State. The great British historian of the 19th century once said that separation of church and state is the foundation of liberty. While this is not entirely true in the context of Britain, its liberty does not seem to have been affected. As has been argued by secular thinkers for long, religious state will permit injustice and evil with a divine seal of approval. Historically this has happened clearly at times. In recent times US President George Bush and even, to a lesser extent, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair have been accused by their detractors of being driven by religious considera-tions.

There are mounting pressures to make Britain a secular state. However, Britain’s past history of religious persecution of minorities, particularly Roman Catholics, is a fact that cannot be erased. The final opinion on British secularism is yet to be pronounced; yet in the opinion of some scholars, though Britain is strictly a secular state it did not seem to hamper the development of freedom and democracy in the country.


During the decades following decolonisation of the British Empire there took place a radical transformation in the nature of religious minorities in post-War Britain due to steady migration of people from the Indian sub-continent, Africa and the Caribbean in the last six decades. Today’s Britain is a multiethnic, multi-religious and multicultural society. What is specifically to be noted, as mentioned above, is the radical nature of the transformation of the religious minorities the like of which Britain had never faced before. The traditional minorities over several centuries were the Catholics with a philosophy with which the British Protestants were relatively familiar though they did not agree with it. However, the situation faced by the British society lately is very different as it is per force being compelled to deal with a plethora of religions like Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism along with their numerous sects and religious practices.

It is necessary at this point to take a look at the nature of religious freedom in Britain. Till fairly recently such freedom was treated in a rather ad hoc manner in British law. There was hardly any standard mechanism whereby individuals or groups could seek redress in case they felt that their religious liberties were being violated. In 1997 the Labour Government of Tony Blair made the first major effort to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights, adopted in 1950, into British law and especially Article 9 of the Convention which guaranteed religious freedom. Prior to this development a great convulsion had shaken British society about a decade earlier when the Satanic Verses of noted British writer Salman Rushdie was published and raised a storm within the Islamic world. The book was banned in many countries and Rushdie received death threats. Liberals in Britain and elsewhere highlighted the issue of freedom of speech, writing and in other forms of expression. Till date the matter has remained unresolved.

The most notable development that tested the issue of religious freedom in Britain was the long drawn out case of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) at Bhakti Vedanta Manor in the village of Letchmore Heath in southern England. The principal bone of contention was the conversion of a residential building into a public place of worship. As the Manor began to attract a large number of devotees, local residents of the village complained that the peace and tranquillity of the place was being wantonly violated. The local council stepped in and asked the ISKCON to stop using the Manor as a place of public worship. The ISKCON challenged this order in a court of law. The matter got into a long and arduous administrative and legal battle through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s culminating finally in a victory for the ISKCON through a political decision of the government and not a favourable verdict of the courts which included not only the British courts but also the European Court of Human Rights. The ECHR even argued that there was no UK domestic law guaranteeing religious freedom. Throughout the course of litigation the courts considered the issue of religious freedom and came to the conclusion that religious freedom could not get precedence over the collective rights of a local community. Hence the ultimate decision was a political one when the government’s perception was influenced by the impact of the matter on the religious sentiments of the large Hindu community in Britain.

There is a case for the post-War religious minority groups in Britain to be organised and show their issues to be special ones. This is due to the fact that the European Convention has an open-ended wording which leads to the interpretation that freedom of religion was to be judged in the context of the need of democracy thereby putting the minority in the hands of the majority. While the judiciary is to be the primary determinant, in the ultimate analysis the culture of the majority will be a critical factor.

Historically no clear position emerged within the English law vis-a-vis the concept of religious freedom. There was a slow evolution from Anglican hegemony to a pluralistic society. The emergence of a multiethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural society in post-War Britain posed new challenges of religious perspectives and needs. The legal system had to adapt to the cultural and religious pluralism. What was particularly notable was the determination of a religious group to have their way which was demonstrated in the ISKCON case. For British society coping with this new situation was indeed a test case.

The issue of religious discrimination was addressed considerably in the Equality Act of 2010. It gave teeth to three major statutory instruments, namely, protection in employment relating to religion or belief, sexual orientation and age. The act seemed to carry considerable assurance to the religious minorities that the government was alive to their concerns. Another factor that needs to be considered in regard to the religious situation in Britain is the case of radical secularists who are hostile to all religions. They are exasperated that religion had not died out as they had hoped following the arrival of the age of Enlightenment which was expected to establish a rational scientific order.

Western secularism, however, was not in conformity with particularly Islam. Azzim Tamini, Director, Institute of Islamic Political Thought in Britain, pointed out that secularism practised even in its limited way in Turkey was not in conformity with democracy. On the contrary it promoted authoritarianism. Islam simply was not compatible with secular fundamentalism which seems to be a strong trend in contemporary British society as pointed out by Tamini.


It emerges from the analysis presented above that the issue of secularism and faith in Britain today presents a paradox consisting of conflicting trends. The fact remains that in spite of the decline of the influence of Christianity in Britain it remains primarily a Christian country where Christian values are still strong. Religious minorities are not looked upon very favourably specially since 9/11 and 7/7 (the 2005 London bombings). There is significant prejudice against Muslims. A survey revealed that 39 per cent of Britons felt that Muslims enjoyed unfair advantage in Britain while 44 per cent Britons believed that even in ‘milder form’ Islam constituted a serious danger to Western civilisation.

As has been noted already several times, the presence of a large number of religious minorities is a considerable challenge to an increasingly multi-cultural Britain especially in the context of the so-called war on terror. Non-Christian ethnic minority groups are perceived as aliens. Their cultural and religious practices are viewed with suspicion and consternation.

A final question that needs to be asked is whether European secularism has gone too far. A phenomenon witnessed of late is the collision of libertarian and secularist approaches. Has there been a marginalisation of religion and installation of secular elites in Europe? As Martha Nussbaum noted, free exercise of religion is essential as a person’s religion is essential to her/his identity. However, the true secularist approach is that individuals are free to express their religion in the privacy of the homes, churches and temples. There are only restrictions on display of religious symbols in public places which is their justification for burqa ban and minarets on skyline. Numerous litigations have taken place on these issues and a clear position is yet to evolve as of now.

In other words, the problem is between the majority and minority. Both have rights. But as members of a democratic society both also have duties. The danger seems to be that both push their case too hard.


1. Malory Nye, ‘Minority Religious Groups and Religious Freedom in England: The ISKCON Bhakti Vedanta Manor’, The Journal of Church and State, 1998, Vol 40 (2): 411-436.

2. David Phillips, ‘Is Britain a Secular State?’, Cross Way, Summer Issue, 2006, No. 101.

3. Stuart Jeffries, The Guardian, February 26, 2007. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/feb/26/religion.uk

4. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/citizenship/rise_parliament/religiou.html

5. ‘Blasphemy Law in the United Kingdom’, article downloaded and printed from the internet.

Dr Purusottam Bhattacharya is a Professor of International Relations, and former Director, School of International Relations and Strategic Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata. He can be contacted at e-mail: purusottam.bhattacharya@gmail.com