Jesus said that one of the signs of the End and of his return would be that “many will turn away from the faith” (Matt 24:10). Is that beginning to happen today?

Religion “does more harm than good”

The majority of UK citizens now believe that religion does more harm than good. The Huffington Post discovered that only 25% of British people think religion is a force for good. Professor Linda Woodhead (Professor of the Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University) commented “This confirms something I’ve found in my own surveys and which leads me to conclude that religion has become a ‘toxic brand’ in the UK.”

Another survey revealed that only 7% of British people included religion as one of their three main personal values. It was in 11th position after respect for human life, human rights, peace, equality, rule of law, individual freedom, democracy, respect for other cultures, tolerance and self-fulfilment. It is interesting that in the European Union as a whole religion came bottom of the list of values. In most EU countries religion was not seen as an important value (with the exception of Malta and the Republic of Cyprus).

British Social Attitudes (BSA) surveys discovered a large increase in the number of British people who say they have no religion: 31.4% in 1983, 36.8% in 1993, 43.4% in 2003 and 50.6% in 2013. BSA also asked people over a period of 13 years about “Attitudes towards whether being Christian is important for being truly British.” Those who thought it was not very important or not at all important formed a majority of 64.5% in 1995, 64.9% in 2003 and 75.1% in 2008. The percentages saying it was very important were 19.1%, 15.6% and 6.2% respectively.

A study recently published by the UCL Institute of Education found that 54% of men said they were atheists or agnostics and 34% of women.

It is interesting to note that America is becoming less Christian with church membership static or declining. Americans born between 1982 and 2000 are the least religious generation in US history and they are becoming less religious as they get older.

Growing ignorance of the Christian Faith

The Bible Society discovered that:
• 25% of children have never read, seen or heard the story of the Nativity.
• 43% of children have yet to hear, see or read about the Crucifixion.
• 29% of children don’t know that the Nativity story is part of the Bible.
• 30% of secondary school children (aged 12-15) did not know the Nativity story appears in the Bible.

On the other hand, this ignorance can show itself in more creative ways. One firm produced a “British Christmas Jumper” which bears Christmas trees plus symbols of Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Sikh, atheism, Chinese philosophy and also the peace sign. The firm commented: “Britain has never been more multicultural, so we thought we’d create a Christmas jumper with a twist. We think everyone should be able to wear a British Christmas Jumper and celebrate the festive season – however they wish, no matter what their colour, creed or culture.”

Church Decline

Dr Peter Brierley recorded in June 2014 that the number of churchmembers in the UK in 2013 was 4.5% fewer than in 2008. Professor David Voas of the University of Essex wrote: “Two non-religious parents successfully transmit their lack of religion. Two religious parents in Britain have a roughly 50/50 chance of passing on the faith. The generation now in middle age has produced children who are only half as likely as they are to attend church, to identify themselves as belonging to a denomination, or to say that belief is important to them. Institutional religion in Britain has a half-life of one generation, to borrow the terminology of radioactive decay.” In the same year another survey discovered that 69% of the UK population do not trust religious institutions. The church came in 7th position after the NHS, police, social services, local authorities, judiciary and government/parliament. It is, of course, highly probable that the scandals about child sex abuse in a church context have contributed to this.

Secularisation

Assemblies

The National Governors’ Association has called for an end to Christian assemblies in state schools because they are “meaningless” for non-Christian children and because staff are “unable or unwilling” to lead them. The NGA claims that schools are “not places of worship but places of education” ignoring the fact that education should surely include experience of Christian worship which is important in itself and vital to an understanding of British history. The Church of England commented that stopping assemblies would “deny children the opportunity to experience something they wouldn’t experience elsewhere in their lives”.

Faith schools

An Opinium poll for the Observer found that 58% of UK residents believed faith schools should lose state funding or be closed down. Matthew Taylor, chair of the Social Integration Commission said that segregation between people of different classes and ethnic groups is being increased because of the increasing numbers of faith schools. He called on governors to publish regular reports on how pupils are mixing with other groups in society. One of the serious trends in society is that policies with laudable aims can easily lead to unintended damaging consequences. Of course, contact between different faith groups is a good thing but it can easily lead to pressure to avoid appropriately expressing important religious views for fear of causing offence to other groups. This leads to an undermining of religion.

The Church of England responded to Taylor by saying that former Chief Rabbi, Dr. Jonathan Sacks, went to Church of England primary and secondary schools and commented: “We Jews were different and a minority. Yet not once was I insulted for my faith.” In Birmingham some Church of England primary schools have an almost 100% school roll from Muslim families, serving children from local communities in the inner city.

Church Establishment

In April 2014 Yasmin Alibhai Brown wrote in the Independent, calling for an end to the establishment of the Church of England: “Religion is a vital part of a decent, civil society. When archbishops speak up for the poor (and irritate Iain Duncan Smith), when rabbis offer support to asylum-seekers, when Sikh priests give food to the hungry in their temples, when Muslim imams encourage charity, when faith leaders oppose state violence, they are the nation’s conscience. But, bit by bit, religions are demanding special rights and dispensations, and with well-honed piety are emasculating human rights, equality and autonomy. (They actually use the concepts of human rights and equality to get their own fiefdoms, segregation and legal adjustments.)”

However, she concluded: “This column is a song for secular democracy – the only fair, safe and universalising governance system. America, hyper-diverse and the most fiercely Christian nation in the West, is a secular state. Yes, we can be, too. And must be.”

Nick Clegg also called for disestablishment. Arun Arora, director of communications for the Archbishops’ Council responded: “Critics of establishment commonly fail to understand the duties of establishment where priests serve all the people in a parish and not simply their congregations. It certainly provides an identity and spiritual dimension for its own many adherents. But also, gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely. Woven into the fabric of this country, the Church has helped to build a better society – more and more in active co-operation for the common good with those of other faiths.”

It is interesting that Anil Bhanot, managing director of the Hindu Council UK, also responded, saying disestablishment would “weaken British democracy” and undermine the voice given to faith groups by policy makers.

Mary Warnock commented: “I would not like to live in a country that was entirely secular. As long as no one is in a position to tell me how to interpret it, or that I must believe in the literal truth of holy writ, then I like there to be an established church, a repository of a long-shared cultural heritage, with a ceremonial function, and a source of genuine belief for many people, of whom I am not one.”

David Cameron’s controversial commitment to “Christian values”

David Cameron (who, of course, has upset the church with some of his reforms) reiterated his commitment to “Christian values” in his 2014 Christmas message. Earlier in the year he had written in the Church Times: “I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives. … Being more confident about our status as a Christian country does not somehow involve doing down other faiths or passing judgement on those with no faith at all. Many people tell me it is easier to be Jewish or Muslim in Britain than in a secular country precisely because the tolerance that Christianity demands of our society provides greater space for other religious faiths, too.”

In response, various well-known humanists wrote to the press objecting to his saying that Britain is a Christian country: “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 Christian 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 action, it is wrong to try to exceptionalise their contribution when it is equalled by British people of different beliefs. This 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.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury responded to the secularists’ letter by saying: “Judging by the reaction, anyone would think that [David Cameron] had at the same time suggested the return of the Inquisition (complete with comfy chairs for Monty Python fans), compulsory church going and universal tithes.”

There was also controversy over a backbench bill that will enable local councils to have prayers before its meetings. The National Secular Society had taken Bideford Council to court over the matter. Cameron had appointed Eric Pickles as Faith Minister in August 2014 in succession to Baroness Warsi. His job is to work with religious and community leaders “promote faith, religious tolerance and stronger communities within the UK.” He facilitated the progress of the bill.

The Catholic Bishop of Shrewsbury said: “Christianity is the single most important element in England’s history. From our legal system to our constitution, it is at the very foundations of national identity. There is a danger of airbrushing this from our memory and the intolerant secularism that we are seeing expressed does not allow for acknowledgement of that contribution and its importance to our present life.”

Charles Moore summarised the Christian contribution to Britain: “The United Kingdom has been explicitly Christian for more than a thousand years. Its monarchy, Parliament, morality, law and education; its flag, national anthem, key texts, much of its literature, art and architecture; its health care, many of its charities and endowments, public holidays and festivals, the structure of its week and its place-names – all these and many more are Christian in origin.”

Is Britain still a Christian country?

The historian Simon Schama (himself Jewish) believes Britain is becoming more religious. He said recently: “My generation grew up thinking that religion was completely marginal to British life, which, as for the rest of the world, has been proved more and more wrong. We were arrogantly isolated from that, thinking religion was just an ornamental part of Britishness. Now look at the success of the Alpha Evangelicals, how important Christianity has been to the community of West Indians, the huge place of Islam. Britain is becoming a more religious place, not less.” A poll conducted by OnePoll in April 2014 found that 35% of non-religious people in Britain believe in God and 43% of them pray at times. Also 32% want a religious funeral.

In 2013 the European Social Survey published the results of a 2012 survey on the question: “Regardless of whether you belong to a particular religion, how religious would you say you are?” The results were as follows and show more people regarding themselves as ‘highly religious’ in 2012 than in 2002:

Religiosity score  2002  2004  2006  2008  2010 2012
Low (0-3)              39.7   39.9    46.0    45.9    47.1   44.8
Medium (4-6)       36.1    34.6    31.2     30.5   29.9   29.1
High (7-10)           24.2   25.6    22.9     23.6   22.9   26.2

A 2013 Theos survey reported that:
• 61% of non-religious people believe that “there are things in life that we simply cannot explain through science or any other means.”
• 59% of non-religious people believe in the existence of some kind of spiritual being.
• 52% – think spiritual forces have some influence either in the human world or the natural world.
• 51% believe “prayer works, in the sense that it makes you feel more at peace”.
• 30% believe in God “as a universal life force.”
• 30% believe in spirits.
• 25% believe in angels
• 39% believe in the existence of a soul
• 38% think prayer could heal
• 32% believe in life after death
• 26% believe in heaven
• 16% believe in reincarnation
• 13% believe in hell
• Only 25% of the non-religious – agree with the statement “humans are purely material beings with no spiritual element”.
• 17%) of people said that prayer works “in the sense that it can bring about change for the people or situation you are praying for.”
• 13% of people say they prayed “daily or more often”, 8% say they prayed a few times a week and 34% said they prayed occasionally.
The Report went on to comment: “For all that formalised religious belief and institutionalised religious belonging has declined over recent decades, the British have not become a nation of atheists or materialists. On the contrary, a spiritual current runs as, if not more, powerfully through the nation than it once did.”

It is also a fact that a substantial amount of belief in the supernatural is more superstitious than Christian. A survey conducted by OnePoll on the 27 March 2014 found that belief in the supernatural and superstition ran at 55% against 49% believers in a God. The most popular supernatural beliefs were in ghosts (33%), a sixth sense (32%), UFOs (22%), past lives (19%), telepathy (18%), the ability to predict the future (18%), psychic healing (16%), astrology (10%), the Bermuda Triangle (9%), and demons (8%).

60% of people in the UK think of themselves as Christian, which is more than go to football matches. 23% say they are very or fairly religious. 55% say they believe Britain is a Christian country. 58% say they think Britain should be a Christian country and 50% agreed with David Cameron’s comments on the subject. Also, whereas 39% of people in 2011 agreed that “God created the earth and all life on it”, the percentage in 2014 was 41%.

British Religion in Numbers published a helpful survey of polls ranging back to 1965 over opinions as to whether Britain is a Christian country:

On the question: “Is Britain a Christian country?”

% Agency                      Agree   Disagree   Don’t Know
3/1965 NOP                   80          19                 1
12/1989 Gallup               71           21                8
4/2007 YouGov               39          51                9
12/2007 YouGov             43          57                0
11/2010 ComRes            50          47                3
2/2012 YouGov               56           33               11
4/2014 YouGov               55           33               12
4/2014 ICM                    56           30               14

On the question: “Should Britain be a Christian country?”

% Agency                 Agree   Disagree   Don’t Know
1-2/1968 ORC            81         15                   3
3-4/1984 Harris          67         31                   3
6-7/1987 Insight         69         22                   8
2/2012 YouGov          61          22                 18
4/2014 YouGov          58         23                  19
Linda Woodhead said recently: “In culture and institutions Britain is more Christian than not. What is happening is that people are leaving the churches, not faith.”

The Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, commented: “The evidence is overwhelming that most people in this country by a very substantial margin have religious belief in the supernatural or a deity. To that extent atheism doesn’t appear to have made much progress in this country at all …Our state, its ethics and our society are underpinned by Christian values.” He added: “As I go around and look at the way we make laws, and indeed many of the underlying ethics of society are Christian based and the result of 1,500 years of Christian input into our national life. It is not going to disappear overnight. They (the atheists) are deluding themselves.” He also said that he believed people were hesitant to express their religious beliefs because of the “deep intolerance” of religious extremist in British society.

Lord Williams, the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, said: “A Christian nation can sound like a nation of committed believers, and we are not that. Equally, we are not a nation of dedicated secularists. I think we’re a lot less secular than the most optimistic members of the British Humanist Association would think … A Christian country as a nation of believers? No. A Christian country in the sense of still being very much saturated by this vision of the world and shaped by it? Yes.”

Professor David Voas commented: “There is general agreement that young people increasingly do not regard themselves as belonging to a Christian religion, much less practise it. What is still debated is whether they are prone to ‘believing without belonging,’ in the phrase popularised by the sociologist Grace Davie. Many other scholars echo the view that religiosity is being transformed, not eroded. They point to the persistence of supernatural belief and the relative popularity of ‘spirituality.’ Levels of atheism have not grown a great deal in the past 30 years, and stand at under 20% … people are just less likely to associate with, or relate to, a particular religion.”

Conclusion

The serious decline in church attendance in many places is, of course, a cause of real concern. Although it may seem that there is a massive turning away from the Faith (which will happen in the End Times) the reality is more complicated. It is instructive to keep a sense of history in this matter. An 1851 survey showed only 40% of the population were in church or chapel on any one Sunday. In 1881 another survey showed that only about 33% of the population were attending. So organised religion, although much more important in those days was in decline even then. The Faith will not die out. Spiritual renewal will come. But turning away from the Faith will also happen, as Jesus predicted.

 

Jesus said that wars, famines, earthquakes, pestilences etc., were “the beginning of birth-pains” of the Messiah (Matt 24:6-8), i.e. early reminders that he would return to deal with injustices and suffering of the world. Global warming fits into this category of “the beginning of birth-pains” of the Messiah.

Global warming sceptics

There are, of course, people who deny that global warming is happening, for example Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, many members of the US Republican Party and the Wall Street Journal. Nigel Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation also does so. According to press reports in September 2014 the GWPF is secretly funded by the Institute of Economic Affairs which is itself funded by fossil fuel companies which have a vested interest in denying global warming.

On the other hand, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, which have cast doubt on global warming in the past, have now changed their tune and accept that it is happening and human beings play a role in it.

One argument against global warming is the claim that warming has been on pause in the last 15 years. However scientists point out that, whereas global warming has slowed down, there has still been a rise of 0.2℃ over the last 15 years. They also point out that a reason for the slowdown is that excess heat is being stored in the Atlantic and Southern Oceans and that a natural ocean cycle will cause the temperature to rise in around 15 years’ time. The Pacific may also have a similar role. Trade winds help the oceans to absorb heat into an area 100 -300 metres below the surface. These trade winds are likely to drop in some years’ time (probably soon after 2020) which will facilitate the heat being released. Scientists also point out that volcanic eruptions spread particles into the atmosphere which reflect the sun’s heat back into space, thus acting against global warming.

The fact is that the World Meteorological Organisation has reported that 13 of the 14 warmest years have occurred since 2000 and each of the last three decades has been warmer than the previous one, with 2001-2010 the warmest on record.

The WMO also reported that concentrations of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere increased faster in 2012-13 than at any time since 1984. They were 142% of pre-Industrial Revolution levels. Methane was 253% and Nitrous Oxide 121% of pre-industrial levels, both of them greenhouse gases. The seas are becoming more acidic at a greater rate than for 300 years.

The effects of global warming

It would be a mistake to put all the extreme weather and other disasters (floods, hurricanes, drought, heatwaves, etc) down solely to global warming. The world population has doubled since the 1970s and many expanding cities are either built on the coast or on flood plains. Some scientists are considering declaring 1950 to be the start of a new geological age called the Anthropocene which refers to the human domination of the planet. It has been characterised by dramatic population increase and industrial development leading to great pollution and waste. Pollution is said to cause 1 in 8 human deaths. The so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a floating ‘island’ of rubbish – is said to be twice the size of the United States. Forests have been cut down, oceans over-fished and many species becoming almost or actually extinct. This will all be evident in the sediments which will form the rocks and fossils in the future.

However, climate change is predicted to have serious effects:

Extreme weather: Hotter air holds more moisture which will lead to extreme precipitation, and, of course, water expands as it grows warmer which will lead to flooding. This can be linked with melting ice caps. Also the Amazon rainforest, the “lungs of the earth” is drying out making it vulnerable to massive forest fires. In 2005 and 2010 it became a net producer rather than an absorber of Carbon Dioxide.

Hunger: because of reduction in food production and increasing prices.

Heat-related deaths: The Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health points out that “many countries experience annual heat-related and cold-related deaths associated with current weather patterns.” It added that “heat-related deaths would be expected to rise by around 257% by the 2050s.”

Violence: because of growing poverty and hunger and resulting migration. The 2014 IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Report stated: “Throughout the 21st century, climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hot spots of hunger.” It is also obscene that half of the world’s wealth is owned by 1% of the population. The US Center for Naval Analyses Military Advisory Board, described climate change as a “catalyst for conflict.” It claims that it “will aggravate stressors abroad, such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence” as “massive floods, water shortages and famines … are expected to hit and decimate unstable nations.”

Water shortage and flooding: experts are speaking of the 21st century being characterised by “water in the wrong place” – a lack of drinking water in some places and flooding in others. Water tables are falling in every continent. Arctic ice is disappearing much faster than scientists expected. Flooding in Europe is likely to double by 2050. Dame Julia Slingo, chief scientist at the Meteorological Office, said that in early 2014 the UK had seen the “most exceptional period of rainfall in 248 years.”

Ocean acidification: because of absorption of carbon dioxide. This will lead to a shortage of fish for those dependent on it as a food.

Extinction of species: In 2007 the IPCC suggested that 20 to 30% of plant and animal species faced an increased risk of extinction this century if the planet keeps warming. The wildlife population is less than 50% of what it was 40 years ago and valuable habitats are being destroyed.

John Kerry US Secretary of State said in February 2014: “Climate change can now be considered another weapon of mass destruction, perhaps even the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.”

Attempts to combat global warming

Various methods have been suggested, for example:

Reflecting sunlight back into space: This could be done by spraying sulphate particles high in the atmosphere, whitening low clouds by spraying salt water above the oceans, thinning high cirrus clouds to allow more heat to escape from the earth, whitening the ocean surface to reflect more sunlight by generating microbubbles or covering deserts with shiny material. However a study in November 2014 showed that these methods would cause worse floods and droughts for billions of people.

Extracting Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere: This would require burning many plants and trees in power plants and capturing the Carbon Dioxide from them. It would require the planting of huge numbers of trees. This would be very expensive.

Climate Change talks

At the talks in Lima at the end of 2014 every country committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions. There is, however, much more to be done and commitments are not always worked out in practice.

A call to action

As always, when considering events and trends which fit into the category of “the ‘beginning of birth-pains’ of the Messiah” we should seek to do whatever we can to counteract the harm involved. Desmond Tutu, writing in The Observer in September 2014, said: “Never before in history have human beings been called on to act collectively in defence of the Earth. If we don’t limit global warming to two degrees or less we are doomed to a period of unprecedented instability, insecurity and loss of species. The most devastating effects of climate change – deadly storms, heat waves, droughts, rising food prices and the advent of climate refugees – are being visited on the world’s poor. Those who have no involvement in creating the problem are the most affected, while those with the capacity to arrest the slide dither. Africans, who emit far less carbon than the people of any other continent, will pay the steepest price. It is a deep injustice.”

He then went on to call for a boycott of events, sports teams and media programming sponsored by fossil fuel companies; demand that their advertisements carry health warnings; ask our religious communities to speak out on the issue from their various pulpits, etc.

It remains to be seen if global warming becomes the global nightmare it has the potential to be. In the meantime it fits into this category of “the ‘beginning of birth-pains’ of the Messiah” alongside wars, famines, earthquakes and pestilence.

This article contains updates to my main paper “Discrimination against British Christian” which is on our Christian Teaching Resources website at

http://www.christianteaching.org.uk/DiscriminationAgainstBritishChristians.pdf

UPDATE 1 May 30th 2012

The EHRC Human Rights Review 2012

 

It was not until the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) that legislation recognised a general legal right to religious freedom. This allows religious organisations to discriminate over employment and provision of services in specific circumstances. For example, a synagogue can have separate seating for men and women at a reception following a religious service; the Catholic Church can require that a Catholic priest be an unmarried man; and a Muslim faith school can require for a successful applicant for a headship which includes a religious role to, be a Muslim.

 

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) produced its Human Rights Review 2012 entitled “How fair is Britain?” and included comment on Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights “The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”

 

Article 9:2 states that “Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

 

This immediately raises important questions. Who defines the term “morals”? Many Christians would claim that in disapproving of homosexual practice they are protecting morals. Others would strongly disagree.

 

Even more important is when there is a clash of rights and freedoms, who decides which rights and freedoms take precedence? This issue is a main cause of concern to Christians who see their religious rights and freedoms being curtailed because of the rights and freedoms of those who disagree with them.

 

The EHRC Review refers to these issues: “Courts are setting too high a threshold for establishing ‘interference’ with the right to manifest a religion or belief, and are therefore not properly addressing whether limitations on Article 9 rights are justifiable. Indirect discrimination provisions in domestic law covering protection for individual beliefs may not be consistent with Article 9.” It quotes Lord Nicholls comments in the Williamson case (2005): “Religious and other beliefs and convictions are part of the humanity of every individual. They are an integral part of his personality and individuality. In a civilised society individuals respect each other’s beliefs.”

 

The Review accepts that manifestation of religion “can occur through worship, teaching and proselytism, observation by wearing symbols or special clothes, or by eating or avoiding certain foods.”  But it points out that the right to manifest a belief is a qualified, “for example, by uniform policies at work or school, or requirements to work at certain times or carry out certain tasks.”

 

It quoted the British Social Attitudes Survey 2009 which stated that just 2% of religious people in Britain said that they had experienced discrimination or harassment because of their religion or beliefs in the previous 12 months.

 

The Review acknowledges that “the recent lack of success of some claimants who bring cases under Article 9 or the Equality Act (or its predecessor legislation) has prompted some religious groups to argue that the right to manifest religion or belief is treated by the law as a ‘lesser right’ than others. They argue that religious discrimination claims are too readily trumped by the aim of preventing discrimination on other grounds.” But it comments: “This view does not appear to be widely held, however, among the representatives of different religious groups” and that some secular groups believe religious groups enjoy more protection than they do.

 

The Review recorded that “The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief found in 2008 that the UK government had ‘balanced approaches in responding to difficult situations with regard to freedom of religion or belief and the contentious issues involved’ and welcomed the case-by-case approach which allowed each complaint to be judged according to particular circumstances.”

 

The EHRC believes that British courts have taken the appropriate approach in cases balancing competing interests and states: “The Commission believes that an employer may legitimately refuse to accommodate an individual’s religious beliefs where such accommodation would involve discrimination on the basis of other protected characteristics.” However it goes on to state: “The Commission believes that domestic courts are setting too high a threshold for the preliminary question whether there has been an interference with the right to manifest a religion or belief and that, as a result, they are too often failing to consider the question of justification.”

 

The Review records a new approach in the European Court of Human Rights: “That Court has become more ready to accept claims of interference with applicants’ rights to manifest belief, and to focus on the question of justification. This is an approach the Equality and Human Rights Commission welcomes.”

 

The EHRC also refers to indirect discrimination where a rule or practice applicable to everyone has a disproportionate adverse effect on a particular group of people, such as people sharing a specific religious belief. It comments: “The European Court of Human Rights has, until recently, tended to take the view that a practice amounted to the ‘manifestation’ of a religion or belief only if required by the particular religion or philosophical belief. In recent judgments, however, the Court has found that Article 9 protects religious practices not prescribed by a religion, thus suggesting that personal rather than group belief is protected.”

 

Finally, the Commission says that British courts “should comply with the obligation imposed by the Human Rights Act 1998 to interpret equality legislation compatibly with the Convention. The Convention should be followed to ensure that the requirement to demonstrate group disadvantage does not overwhelm an individual right to manifest a belief. The question of justification would still remain for the courts to determine.”

 

This is relevant to a cases like Nadia Eweida, the British Airways employee who was asked to cover up a necklace which included a cross, and Shirley Chaplin, the nurse who was banned from working on hospital wards after she refused to remove a cross from her neck, because wearing a cross is a personal preference, not something required by Christianity.

BBC Director: Christianity treated with less sensitivity

 

Mark Thompson, Director of the BBC, stated in February 2012 that other faiths tend to receive more sensitive treatment by the BBC because they have “very close identity with ethnic minorities.” This seems a valid policy, within reason. However, the BBC does seem to go beyond the line at times and to treat Christianity with contempt. Fair criticism is acceptable but extensive ridicule is not. For example it is rather wearisome that in TV drama clergy are all too often portrayed as hypocrites, weirdos or criminals.

 

He stated that he was a “practising Catholic” and added: “One of the mistakes secularists make is not to understand the character of what blasphemy feels like to someone who is a realist in their religious belief.”

Maleiha Malik, Professor of Law, on Religious Freedom

 

Maleiha Malik is Professor of Law at King’s College, London. In the Westminster faith Debates held in April, she pleads for an approach to religious freedom based on tolerance rather than rights. She said:

 

“I want to suggest that current framings of the issue in relation to the right to religious freedom, or in terms of equality and non-discrimination, have led us into an impasse. The debate collapses into a clash of rights or a clash of equalities – ‘my right to religious freedom or equality versus your right to equality on the grounds of sexual orientation’. My view is that the principle of tolerance does more useful work.

 

“The speech/conduct distinction also becomes crucial. Those with strong religious beliefs about women, gays and lesbians can hold that view or express that view; BUT they cannot act on their belief in ways that constitute discriminatory harassment (via speech) or discriminatory acts (via conduct).”

 

Professor Malik points out that the law already allows religious people “significant exemptions to discriminate against gays and lesbians. As a society, we’ve reached an agreement about the balance between the rights of the religious and equality for women, gays and lesbians enshrined in our recent legislation. If the religious want to rebalance this, then they should join with their fellow citizens for reform of the Equality Act 2010.”

 

She believes the Ladele judgment (theformer registrar, disciplined by Islington Council for refusing to conduct same-sex civil partnership ceremonies) was correct because “it would be a significant step backward if, having won the fight for the right to same-sex civil partnerships, gay and lesbian couples could be shunned by the very people charged by us as a society with solemnizing.” She added: “There should be no accommodation for the religious where the exemption is from a key ‘constitutional’/human rights or equality value. Individuals cannot expect to directly influence the provision of public services to the general public to conform with their personal religious where that accommodation constitutes a breach of the constitutional/human right of another citizen.”

 

However, we repeat the argument outlined above in the main paper: The law helpfully already allows religious organisations to discriminate when they appoint staff whose work clearly requires them to follow a particular religion. Also, churches and similar religious bodies have been given the option of not celebrating civil relationships (the main issue being homosexual civil relationships). It follows that the law also could and should allow registrars the option of not conducting same-sex civil partnership ceremonies (the clients being dealt with by other colleagues happy to do so).

Christian radio station loses legal battle over advert

 

Premier Radio wanted to broadcast an advert asking Christians to report their experiences of marginalisation in the workplace but the courts have supported the Radio Advertising Clearance Centre (RACC) refusing to approve the advert. It is claimed that the advert had a political aim and so was contrary to broadcasting prohibitions on political advertising.

 

Peter Kerridge of Premier Radio claimed that the decision was a direct threat to freedom of speech and is “wholly reminiscent of a totalitarian state.”

Two different views of equality

 

It is obvious that a big issue facing British Christians today is the relationship between Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights about the right to freedom of religious practice and Article 14 about the prohibition of discrimination. Megan Pearson, a doctoral researcher at the London School of Economics specialising in the clash between articles 9 and 14, refers to the clash of two different world views. Pearson says that the modern western mindset is dominated by the Enlightenment concept of the individual; a non-gender-specific, autonomous body with personal rights and freedoms. “But the Christian view is that we are not individuals. We are persons in relationships and as you try to build stable community bodies there is a differentiation of roles.”  Men and women are equal but different and that difference is important to the functioning of our society.

 

Pearson claims that for the secular modern world justice is justice for the individual (and equality the way to achieve that), but for the Christian it is communal and is achieved by fulfilling the needs of others. He suggests that any interference with an individual’s rights should be proportionate to the interests of society. This could be interpreted as balancing justice for the individual against justice for the community.

An unlikely alliance

 

The National Secular Society and the Christian Institute, with others, have formed ‘Reform Section 5’ which is calling on the Home Secretary to amend the Public Order Act, which outlaws ‘insulting words or behaviour’. Section 5 of the Act states:

Harassment, alarm or distress.

1. A person is guilty of an offence if he-
(a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or
(b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.

 

They argue that the word ‘insulting’ is unclear, and allows for controversial arrests. So, for example, Dale McAlpine, a Christian street preacher was arrested simply for saying homosexual practice is a sin and a student was arrested for holding a placard saying “Scientology is a cult”. Christians (and others) could easily be arrested for making reasonable critical comments about other views or behaviour. Keith Porteous of the National Secular Society was surely correct when he said: “Freedom only to say what others find acceptable is no freedom at all.”

Conclusion

 

In the main paper I concluded:

 

  • That recent high profile cases of Christians being penalised for wearing Christian symbols (including in hospitals where people of other faiths are allowed to do the equivalent), for sensitively praying (as a health professional) with or sharing their faith with patients, for refusing (even as professionals) certain involvement with homosexuals should not have happened.

 

  • That the new legislation on equality needs to be reassessed so that religious freedom is not undermined.

 

  • Both judges and employers sadly have accepted the propaganda that Britain is no longer a Christian country in terms of public opinion.

 

  • That some people in the pro-gay lobby are using the gay issue not just to seek respect and equality for homosexuals but to use the issue (quite effectively) as a Trojan horse to marginalize orthodox Christians and the church. It is proving very effective.

 

  • That Christianity is being marginalised in judicial proceedings, employment, as well as in parts of the media.

 

Finally, I wrote: “Are British Christians being “persecuted”? Well …. no, not yet. But some are being discriminated against and oppressed, including by well-meaning but misled people, and the future is likely to be even more difficult for them.”

 

This update shows that:

 

  • The Equality and Human Rights Commission is critiquing the courts’ approach to religious freedom, particularly to manifest a religion or belief, and particularly the rights of the individual in this respect. It clearly thinks the courts have sometimes got this wrong. But the EHRC (and some legal experts) still upholds some of the judgments which I believe are not justified.

 

  • The BBC accepts it discriminates against Christianity because it is not associated with an ethnic minority.

 

  • One of the problems is modern western individualism with its over-emphasis on the rights of the individual (a non-gender-specific, autonomous body with personal rights and freedoms) as opposed to the Christian view which values the individual but also emphasizes community where people are equal but different and that difference is important to the functioning of our society.

 

  • Both Christian and secular groups are working together to remove the very unhelpful use of the word “insulting” in section 5 of the Public Order Act which has been used to curb proper freedom of expression.

 

UPDATE 2 March 10th 2015

 

Oppression of Christian schools

For example, because of an incident of extreme religious views being taught in a British school there is now an emphasis on schools encouraging knowledge of other religions and tolerance – what are called “British values.” This is a good thing but it has led to most unhelpful results. A Christian school has been told it must invite a Muslim imam to take collective worship. The government seems unaware that many Christians would be willing to accept an imam coming to talk about Islam and answer questions but would have conscientious objections to their children being obliged to be led in Muslim worship. The right of a Christian school not to have Muslim worship must be protected (just as a Muslim school must have the right to refuse to have Christian worship). Schools are being required to “promote” other religions. If this means to learn about them, that is acceptable. But if it means a Christian school has to promote another faith as equally true to Christianity, that is a gross infringement of religious freedom.

Oppression of Christian organisations and individuals

A recent survey by the Evangelical Alliance found that 53% of British Christians believed they thought that they could get into trouble for saying what they believe in a work or professional context.