I haven’t normally agreed with Peter Tatchell, the pro-homosexual campaigner, over the years since we appeared together in various TV discussions. But credit where credit is due. Peter has recently written in The Guardian that he has changed his mind about the prosecution of the Christian-run Ashers Bakery in Belfast over its refusal to produce a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan for a gay customer. He commented: “Much as I wish to defend the gay community, I also want to defend freedom of conscience, expression and religion … on reflection the court was wrong to penalise Ashers and I was wrong to endorse its decision.”

He asked: “Should Muslim printers be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed? Or Jewish ones publish the words of a Holocaust denier? Or gay bakers accept orders for cakes with homophobic slurs? If the Ashers verdict stands it could, for example, encourage far-right extremists to demand that bakeries and other service providers facilitate the promotion of anti-migrant and anti-Muslim opinions.”

He concluded: “In my view, it is an infringement of freedom to require businesses to aid the promotion of ideas to which they conscientiously object. Discrimination against people should be unlawful, but not against ideas.”

I agree. The law is an ass for making this decision. But will the legal ‘experts’ and their political colleagues correct it? I’m not holding my breath.

The NT predicts that the “last days” will be characterised by what Jesus called an “increase of wickedness” including selfishness, materialism, arrogance, rebellion, resentment, slander, self-indulgence, violence and treachery. So we should be alert to a decline in standards in society.

Reduced trust

Only 30% of British citizens believe “most people can be trusted” and 70% say you “need to be very careful” about trusting strangers, according to a recent World Values Survey. Trust has declined remarkably in the UK over the years. In the 1950s almost 60% believed strangers could be trusted and in the 1980s the trust level was 40%. The UK lags behind Germany (44%) Australia (57%) Norway (73%) and Sweden (65%).

Priority of Mammon

David Halpern, a senior government adviser, has warned the government that this decline in trust could be very damaging. This concern for society sounds encouraging until it becomes clear that Halpern is worried about the damage to prosperity and economic growth. He said: “Social trust seems to be a powerful predictor of economic growth and a lack of trust can stunt national economic growth rates. This really is super important.” So, Mammon wins again.

Armando Iannucci, writing in The Guardian, said “Politics was once about beliefs and society. Now it’s a worship of money.” He continued: “For the first 70 years or so of the 20th century, politics debated the power and limits of the state: the manifestos of the parties reflected how much or how little each party felt the government should involve itself in the lives of the individual. Everyone accepted there was such a thing as society, and we were given regular chances to define it. Politics was about passion, and imagination, and foresight. Now it’s just accountancy … Education became all about getting us ready for jobs … Health became a mysterious and un-debated obsession to turn our hospitals into market economies.”

In July 2014 the Committee on Standards in Public Life said that many MPs show little interest in the principles drawn up in 1995 after sleaze scandals when John Major was prime minister. It recommended that MPs take an induction course on the seven principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.

Reduced importance for Human Rights

Human rights are no longer a top priority for the British government according to Sir Simon McDonald, Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office. He said that “the need to concentrate on Europe, Eastern Europe and Russia has supplanted it to an extent.”

The Foreign Affairs Select Committee responded: “This is particularly disappointing after the progress made under the previous Foreign Secretaries, including William Hague who promised in 2011 that there would be “no downgrading of human rights”, as “it is not in our character as a nation to have a foreign policy without a conscience, and neither is it in our interests”. We wholeheartedly share the concerns of NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, whose UK director, David Mepham, commented: “This unwillingness to fully champion rights and fundamental freedoms runs counter to the best traditions in this country’s history and weakens the UK’s global standing and influence.”

Allan Hogarth, head of policy and government affairs at Amnesty International, commented: “When much of the Middle East is in flames and a refugee crisis is engulfing Europe, Sir Simon’s comments are as astonishing as they are alarming.”

Association with oppressive regimes

It is interesting that McDonald’s comments came on day 4 of the visit to the UK by Xi Jinping, the president of China.

It has come to light that Britain made a secret deal with Saudi Arabia to ensure that both countries were elected to the UN Human Rights Council. Yet Saudi Arabia has a bad human rights record. It has allowed over 100 beheadings in recent months. Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, commented: “Based on the evidence, we remain deeply concerned that the UK may have contracted to elect the world’s most misogynistic regime as a world judge of human rights.”

Jon Snow interviewed David Cameron on Channel 4 about this deal with Saudi Arabia but Cameron tried to avoid the question. Eventually he said: “We have a relationship with Saudi Arabia and if you want to know why I’ll tell you why. It is because we receive from them important intelligence and security information that keeps us safe.”

We have also been supplying arms to Saudi Arabia which it is using in a very destructive war in Yemen. A recent editorial in The Independent said: “Britain’s policy towards Saudi Arabia is a disgrace. It makes a mockery of our claims to have an ethical approach to bilateral relations with other countries, and it betrays a lickspittle way of dealing with autocratic regimes, which should be a source of embarrassment to people of any political persuasion.” The paper allows that the Saudi regime may be the lesser of two evils because of who might replace them. But it adds that does not mean we should give it “our patronising pat on the head.” Rather we should be holding it to account.

Cuts in welfare payments and inequality

Back in February 2014 the Bishops issued a statement criticising Government welfare reforms: “We must, as a society, face up to the fact that over half of people using food banks have been put in that situation by cut backs to and failures in the benefit system, whether it be payment delays or punitive sanctions … We often hear talk of hard choices. Surely few can be harder than that faced by the tens of thousands of older people who must ‘heat or eat’ each winter…”

In January 2016 a government Briefing Paper outlined that long-term unemployed people will either be required to attend the job centre every day for three months (which is ludicrous for those who don’t live near a job centre) or 30 hours voluntary work a week for six months. Those who don’t comply will face sanctions – losing their Job Seeker Allowance for four weeks in the first instance and for thirteen weeks in the second instance.

A report published by the Church of Scotland, the Church in Wales, the Methodist Church, the Baptist Union of Great Britain, and the United Reformed church, as well as Church Action on Poverty said the government is more concerned
with cutting benefits than helping people back to work, resulting in greater poverty and reliance on foodbanks. Over one million unemployed were subject to sanctions in 2014 – benefits being stopped for a few weeks up to three years. Barry Morgan, the Archbishop of Wales, said “The findings of this report are disturbing. It exposes a system that is harsh in the extreme, penalising the most vulnerable of claimants by the withdrawal of benefits for weeks at a time.” Niall Cooper, Director of Church Action on Poverty commented: “Most people in this country would be shocked if they knew that far from providing a safety net, the benefit sanctions policy is currently making thousands of people destitute. This policy must be reviewed urgently.”

In July 2015 the Chancellor wanted to cut tax credits linked to a national living wage, claiming 90% of families would be better off. The Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies said it was “arithmetically impossible” for the increase in minimum wage to compensate for the loss in tax credits. The proposal was debated in the House of Lords and Baroness Hollis of Heigham said: “We can be supportive of the Government and give them what they did not ask for – financial privilege – or we can be supportive instead of those three million families facing letters at Christmas telling them that on average they will lose up to around £1,300 a year, a letter that will take away 10 per cent of their income on average. That is our choice.” The House of Lords defeated the proposal.

The danger is that in seeking to curb abuse of the benefits system (or simply to save money) genuinely needy people will be penalised. The government should ensure these people are catered for even if it risks others being able to abuse the system.

Inadequate response to the refugee situation

At the beginning of 2016 28 aid agencies and charities wrote to the prime minister: “Last year’s announcement that the UK will resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees over five years was a welcome first step, but given the numbers of people searching for safety across the globe, this response is clearly inadequate: it is too slow, too low and too narrow. The UK can and should be doing much more to ensure that refugees are not compelled to take life-threatening journeys or forced into smugglers’ hands.”

The letter demands safe and legal ways for refugees to reach the EU and travel across it, noting that in 2015 3,770 people died trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean. It added that refugees should have “access to fair and thorough procedures to determine eligibility for international protection.”

It welcomed UK aid to Syria, Greece and the Balkans and agreed that tackling the root causes of the refugee crisis remains a priority. But it continues: “However, in the absence of peace, people will continue to flee. We must provide them with safe, well-managed escape routes and refuge.”

The letter concluded: “Over 64 years ago, soon after the horrors of the second world war, European governments adopted the refugee convention, an instrument of international law which British lawyers helped to draft. As a nation, we made a promise: that never again would refugees be left out in the cold to fend for themselves; that this country would protect them; that here, they would find safe haven.”

At the same time 123 economic experts, including former diplomats and Whitehall officials, wrote to David Cameron saying: “The costs in human wellbeing of the refugee crisis … are so extremely high that it is morally unacceptable for the UK not to play a fuller part in taking in refugees.” One of them, Jonathan Portes, a former chief economist at the Cabinet Office, said: “Integrating refugees into our society and labour market will be, as it has been in the past, challenging. But we have done it before – with enormous benefits, both economic and social, to the UK – and there is absolutely no reason we cannot do it again.”

Conclusion

So in Britain we live in a society where trust has declined significantly, money has become a god, human rights have been somewhat devalued, oppressive regimes have been inappropriately supported, support for the poor has been significantly undermined and care for refugees has been seriously reduced.

It is clear that there is a widespread disinterest in or antagonism towards religion in the western world. A report from the Pew Research Centre conducted in April 2015 showed that just 21% of British people regard religion as very important in their lives. Only some 20% of English people claim to be Church of England nowadays compared with 40% in 1983. China, France, Japan, Russia and South Korea are the only countries less religious than Britain.

However research carried out in 2015 by the Barna Group and ComRes found that 57% of people in England identify as Christians (9% are practising) and 43% of people believe in the resurrection.

A 2015 YouGov survey discovered that in Britain 14% of men and 6% of women believe they are destined for Hell. 48% believed they would go to heaven.

In the United States 23% of the population are unaffiliated religiously compared with 16% in 2007. 89% believe in God. 53% say religion is very important to them and 50% attend worship at least monthly.

It is interesting that Jonathan Freedland, Executive Editor of The Guardian, wrote an article in September 2015 in which he said that people like Aldous Huxley, Jules Verne and H G Wells would not have anticipated that religion would still be very much around in the 21st century. He added that their “prediction of the future proved wrong: faith is still here, apparently stronger than ever. For that reason alone, for the role it plays in shaping our world, religion has to be taken seriously – more seriously than Dawkins-ite atheists, who dismiss it with talk of ‘fairies at the bottom of the garden’ or ‘sky-pixies’ will allow … It cannot be explained or justified in the clear, stainless-steel language of pure reason. Some of it is absurd and bizarre. But you might as well ask a man why he supports this football team rather than that one. Ask a woman why she loves this man rather than that one. Reason is what separates us from the animals. But it does not account for all that makes us human.”

Non-religious spirituality

Many people now call themselves “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR). Science doesn’t satisfy the way many people feel about the universe. They experience awe, wonder and mystery, perhaps inspired by a beautiful sunset or moving music. They are not able to express these feelings in words. Professor Michael King of University College, London says about 20% of people in the UK are spiritual but not religious. In the West our enhanced physical quality of life has created spiritual hunger. Since the 1990s do-it-yourself spiritualities (“New Spiritualities”) have come to the fore, emphasising personal transformation and therapeutic healing. In terms of spiritual activity, spiritual but not religious people may be involved in meditation, focusing on nature or becoming deeply moved by music

So the picture is certainly not simply one of secularisation. Spirituality is alive and well alongside religion.

Britain no longer a Christian country?

David Cameron is clear that Britain remains a Christian country. In his 2015 Christmas message he said “we celebrate the birth of God’s only son, Jesus Christ – the Prince of Peace. As a Christian country, we must remember what his birth represents: peace, mercy, goodwill and, above all, hope. I believe that we should also reflect on the fact that it is because of these important religious roots and Christian values that Britain has been such a successful home to people of all faiths and none.”

However in 2015 the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, convened by the Woolf Institute and chaired by Baroness Butler-Sloss, published a report “Living with Difference: Community, Diversity and the Common Good.” It concluded that the UK is no longer a Christian country and that public life should therefore become more pluralist (multi-faith). The next Coronation should be multi-faith and some of the bishops in the House of Lords should be replaced by leaders of other religions. Schools should no longer be required to have collective worship.

The demise of the Church of England?

In October 2015 Simon Jenkins wrote an article entitled “England’s churches can survive – but the religion will have to go.” He referred to a report that over 25% of churches have less than 20 worshippers on a Sunday. He added: “Like millions of people, I don’t go to church, but I do go to churches -85% of the public visits a church every year. We regard them as the community’s ritual forum, its museum, its art gallery, its concert hall, its occasional retreat for peace, consolation and meditation.” This, of course, is additional evidence for spirituality in society.

Jenkins believes that churches should be handed over to local councils to be used for various purposes (village shops, farmers markets, Wi-Fi cafes, sub-post offices) and “The chancels could be allotted to local worshippers of all faiths.”

He concludes: “The secularisation of churches has been a long time coming. The reason is because the nationalised Church of England, so avid to reform others, is so averse to reforming itself. It wants public money for its upkeep yet closes its doors to other faiths.” (For the record the C of E does not receive any public money. Also some congregations, including small congregations, are growing).

Religious views can be ignored

In September 2015 the British parliament discussed a bill to allow Assisted Dying. Before the debate an editorial in The Independent stated that the debate should “be conducted on purely secular and not religious terms, drawing on the considered advice of the medical profession and of others directly involved in caring for the very ill. If the clergy want to weigh in again, so be it, but that does not mean MPs should attribute any particular force to their views.”

I am aware that in a democracy the majority opinion rules and that majority may be secular. But it is a sad evidence of the decline in Christian belief that such a statement should be made. As it happens the bill was rejected by 330 to 118 votes.

Religious education challenges

In November 2015 Mr Justice Warby said that the Education Secretary made an ‘error of law’ when she stated that the GCSE due to come into effect in September 2016 would “fulfil the entirety of the state’s RE [religious education] duties”. Three families supported by the British Humanist Association had taken the issue to court saying that teaching atheism must be included in RE.

The judge said: “It is not of itself unlawful to permit an RS GCSE to be created which is wholly devoted to the study of religion.” But the assertion that the new GCSE “will fulfil the entirety of the state’s RE duties” was incorrect.

The Education Secretary sidestepped this judgment and produced a document which said RE should “reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are, in the main, Christian” and that “there is no obligation on any school to cover the teaching of non-religious views.”

The government also said that “Schools should promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.” But “It is not necessary for schools or individuals to ‘promote’ teachings, beliefs or opinions that conflict with their own, but nor is it acceptable for schools to promote discrimination against people or groups on the basis of their belief, opinion or background.”

However, Andrew Brown, writing in The Guardian makes an interesting point. He says: “Humanism gains its strength in Britain today because it is not taught. Instead it is simply assumed to be the only rational ground on which decisions could possibly be made. The tenets of humanism are taken to be facts, while other moral or metaphysical positions are simply beliefs. Humanism is approached in a completely ahistorical way, much as devout Muslims approach the Qur’an, as if it had no roots and could never be superseded by any other belief system. Teaching humanism as a belief system alongside Christianity, Islam or Hinduism is the first step towards getting people to notice that this is what they actually believe (and so are free to disbelieve).”

I certainly believe schools should teach that humanism is a belief system, as Brown says, rather than the only rational ground of thought.

BBC Cuts to religion

The BBC is making significant cuts to its religious broadcasting and has been criticised for side-lining faith at a time of massive global upheaval. The Bishop of Norwich criticised it for doing this at a time when we “need – as everyone acknowledges – more religious literacy in the nation.”

Sunday Trading

The government is in favour of giving local authorities freedom to extend working hours on a Sunday which is another sign of secularism as well as the tendency to put economic advantage above more important considerations. 64% of local authority executives in England and Wales favoured such extension. However the Union of Shop, Distributive, and Allied Workers (USDAW) revealed that 91% of retail staff in large stores are opposed to longer opening hours on Sunday, primarily because of the potential detrimental effect on their family life.