The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. I have read through the lengthy documents outlining the British Governments Counter Extremism Policy and related publications. Clearly there is a need for such a policy in view of the alarming number of people who have been radicalised by Islamic extremists in this country. Clearly the government has good intentions. But it is not its motives which are the concern. Rather it is the fact that it is trespassing into areas in which it is ignorant, such as theology. It is a cause of concern that already the government’s inspectors and other representatives have shown a certain amount of serious incompetence in this area. Then there is the danger of drift whereby well-intentioned legislation could drift into an abuse of people’s (especially religious people’s) human rights and freedom of speech.

The government wanted to scrap the Human Rights Act of the European Convention on Human Rights. This convention, has nothing to do with the European Union, but membership is a condition of being in the EU. It protects numerous rights including right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, right to freedom of expression, right to freedom of assembly and association. The government wanted to replace it with our own British Bill of Rights so that they have ultimate control of decisions.

Government reassurances

The government has published documents about its counter extremism policy which contain numerous reassuring statements. In its Counter-Extremism Strategy document it states: “All people living in Britain are free to practise a faith or to decide not to follow any faith at all” (para 2). “It is not government’s role to regulate faith leaders, but government does have a responsibility to ensure that those working in the public sector are suitably trained. The Government will therefore work in partnership with faith groups to review the training provided to those who work as faith leaders in public institutions” (para 87). “The powers will not be able to be used against privately held views or people expressing their religious beliefs. They will not curtail the democratic right to protest nor will they close down debate or limit free speech: these are rights we will always protect” (para 113).

In its Prevent Strategy document it states: “The ideology of extremism and terrorism is the problem; legitimate religious belief emphatically is not” (Foreword). “We remain absolutely committed to protecting freedom of speech in this country” (para 3:10). Prevent “must not seem to pass judgment on faith or to suggest only a particular kind of faith is appropriate or acceptable” (para 3:26). “The holding of extremist views is protected by Article 10 of European Convention on Human Rights and cannot be addressed through criminal law” (para 6:18). This latter quotation is not too reassuring however in that, as we have noted, the government is seeking to scrap the Human Rights Act of the European Convention on Human Rights. “It must not appear to pass judgment on faith in general or to suggest only a particular kind of faith is appropriate or acceptable” (para 8:1). It refers to “the difficulty of the Government taking a position on matters of theology” (para 8:36). It refers to the idea “that Government is taking upon itself the role of theological arbiter” as a misconception. It adds: “We will not want to engage in matters of theology but we recognise the imperative for theologians, academics and communities to do so. We will support their efforts by providing information on the texts which are being used to radicalise people in this country; we want to ensure that counter-narrative work is widely circulated and in a form that reaches as many people as possible” (para 8:56).

Weaknesses in the government’s position

We should take these reassurances seriously and avoid cynicism and paranoia. However we should also avoid naivety. A lot depends on how the people who activate the policy (OFSTED, police, etc) understand the policy and define extremism. We should also take seriously the growing ignorance of the Christian faith in society which could lead to fundamental beliefs coming to be regarded as extreme. In addition, whereas we shouldn’t “see demons everywhere” we would be naïve if we ignore the satanic opposition to the Christian faith. Jesus recognised this opposition and so should we. The devil won’t miss a trick in opposing the Gospel. What a great opportunity he has to use the necessary policy of counteracting actual or potential violent extremism to undermine the truth that Jesus is the only way of salvation and other religions are mistaken. Given human failings, this is no unrealistic threat.

I have been fair in quoting the government’s reassurances at some length. But there are other statements which cause concern. A lot depends on the definitions of certain key words. The Counter-Extremism Strategy document states: “there are concerns that some supplementary schools may be teaching children views which run contrary to our shared values, encouraging hatred of other religions” (para 73). But what is hatred of other religions. If a Christian believes other religions are false and influenced by satanic deceit is that hatred of other religions? Besides, it is one thing to “hate” what another person believes and quite another to hate the person themselves. A Christian may legitimately hate beliefs that undermine the Christian Gospel and hinder people coming to eternal salvation. But to hate the person who holds those beliefs is quite wrong. It is hatred of people which matters not hatred of beliefs. Here we see the government, in its ignorance, publishing confused statements.

Having said that, I add that a Christian must be careful to avoid unnecessary offence in how he speaks of such differences of belief. The Counter-Extremism Strategy document refers to a video which “shows a speaker at an anti-Muslim rally in Newcastle describing Islam as a ‘disgusting, backward, savage, barbarian, supremacist ideology masquerading as a religion’” (para 11). That sort of grossly offensive terminology should be avoided.

The document continues: “In assessing drivers of and pathways to radicalisation, the line between extremism and terrorism is often blurred. Terrorist groups of all kinds very often draw upon ideologies which have been developed, disseminated and popularised by extremist organisations that appear to be non-violent (such as groups which neither use violence nor specifically and openly endorse its use by others)” (para 5:34). In July 2015 David Cameron made a speech about countering extremism is which he said: “As we counter this ideology, a key part of our strategy must be to tackle both parts of the creed – the non-violent and violent. This means confronting groups and organisations that may not advocate violence – but which do promote other parts of the extremist narrative.” Yes, but could that be understood (or become understood) to include Christianity which does not teach violence but regards other religions to be false and influenced by satanic deceit?

Brendan O’Neill, who is an atheist, described David Cameron’s comments that the Government will “tackle” all those who “may not advocate violence” but who do promote “other parts of the extremist narrative” as a “step too far.” He said that non-violent extremism could even cover Christians who do not support same-sex marriage, because this could be seen as not having “respect for minorities”. He concluded: “What May and Cameron view as the pesky distinction between action and speech, between violent and non-violent extremism, is actually the foundation stone of all free, enlightened societies: we police criminal behaviour, but not thoughts, ideas, words.”

The Prevent Strategy document quotes the Public Order Act 1986 which “makes it an offence, amongst other things, to say or do something or to possess or display written material which is threatening, abusive or insulting and which is intended to stir up racial hatred or make it likely that racial hatred will be stirred up.” It also quotes the Public Order Act 1986 (amended in 2006 and 2008) which “makes it an offence to use threatening words or behaviour, or to display any written material which is threatening, if it is intended to encourage religious hatred ….” In the past such legislation would not have seemed relevant to orthodox Christianity. Admittedly both quotations refer to the intention to stir up racial or religious hatred. But experience teaches that such intention can easily be assumed (for example, it tends to be assumed that holding traditional views of sexuality is to be antagonistic to homosexuals). I certainly don’t favour “roasting people over Hell” but could a sensitive and compassionate reference to the reality of judgment and hell come to be regarded as “threatening”?

The document continues that independent schools must “promote tolerance and harmony between different cultural traditions” (para 10:14). It continues: “There is further evidence that some schools – and some supplementary schools – have used teaching materials which may encourage intolerance” (para 10:44). But what is the definition of tolerance and harmony? Does it require a view that all religions are legitimate ways to God – a view I believe to be incompatible with Christianity?

In 2015 it was revealed that the government intended to “require all faiths to maintain a national register of faith leaders” and that the Government would “set out the minimum level for training and checks” before faith leaders could go on the register. Haras Rafiq, director of the counter-extremism think tank Quilliam, described the proposal as “Orwellian and totalitarian.” Fortunately, the government appears to have gone back on this policy. However it shows the extremes to which the government was prepared to go.

Jonathan Dimbleby gave the 2015 Prix Italia lecture in Turin in September. He criticised the Public Order Act which criminalised using threatening or abusive language with the intention of causing “alarm or distress” or inciting “hatred.” He pointed out the crucial distinction between causing “distress” which may be a crime and causing “offence” which may not. He commented: “The distinction is not easy for the layman to define, and the two are only too easy to elide.”

He went on to quote Salman Rushdie as saying the law meant that, instead of being supported over The Satanic Verses he would have been accused of “insulting an ethnic and cultural minority.” He added: “We are living in the darkest time I have ever known.”

Dimbleby went on to express dismay that the Home Secretary had been considering “pre-transmission regulatory regime” for radio and television which he believed would muzzle them in the hope of stamping out extremism.

Whilst avoiding paranoia these facts are a cause of real concern. At the very least, the questions I have raised need to be borne in mind because. As I said, “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

It was interesting to read a recent article by Sandi Dunn who claimed she was radicalised at her Catholic school. She quoted Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted, who said his inspectors have found “appalling misogynistic, homophobic and anti-Semite teaching material” in textbooks being used by unqualified teachers in private schools. Now I’m certainly against misogynistic, homophobic and anti-Semitic attitudes. But how does OFSTED define them? Do they regard someone who opposes the appointment of women priests misogynistic? Do they regard someone upholding traditional views of sexuality homophobic (which is normally defined as against homosexuals themselves)? If so, they are mistaken. Such views can be held without any wrong attitudes to people.

Dunn went on the say that the school’s teaching about Hell meant she was radicalised. She added: “Abrahamic faiths in particular hold that women are inferior, teach homophobia, and often discourage marrying out of the community or ‘mixing’ in their most conservative forms. This anti-‘mixing’ ideology has to be seen for what it is: institutional racism.” That sweeping statement is based upon ignorance and prejudice. True Christianity does not teach women are inferior or legitimise antagonism to homosexuals or discourage mixing with non-Christians. The issue of a committed Christian marrying a non-Christian is a more complex issue. It means the couple cannot share in the most fundamental aspects of the life of the Christian partner, which is not good for the marriage.

Dunn goes on to say that she aims to petition UNICEF: “for a rethink of their Convention of the Rights of the Child (ratified by 194 countries). My request will be that all children, up to the age of 18, should have the right not to be given religious instruction under any guise, including in the home. The indoctrination of young minds, driven by the fear of Hell, is something that has to be cut off at the source if we want to avoid further radicalisation. Religious teaching is not proper education – it’s old-fashioned brainwashing. And having been exposed to that myself, I know how important it is to root it out and stop it becoming extremism before it’s too late.”

Dunn may seem extreme at present but recent developments in our increasingly secularised society suggest her views may not remain so. Things which at one time would have seemed impossible now happen.

For example, at one time it would have been unthinkable that a Christian bakery which refused to bake a cake which included captions promoting gay marriage would be successfully sued. But it has happened. This is an example of the increasing radicalisation of our secularised society. The judge said: “The defendants have unlawfully discriminated against the plaintiff on grounds of sexual discrimination. This is direct discrimination for which there can be no justification.” A YouGov poll in November 2014 found 56% of people thought the bakery was justified. 65% disapproved of legal action being taken against them.

Similarly, it would have been unthinkable that cinema chains would ban a Christmas church advert containing the Lord’s Prayer. It shows that the danger of our society oppressing Christians needs to be taken seriously. Even Richard Dawkins condemned this action: “I … strongly object to suppressing the ads on the grounds that they might ‘offend’ people. If anybody is ‘offended’ by something so trivial as a prayer, they deserve to be offended.” The assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, said he was “flabbergasted that anyone would find this prayer offensive to anybody, including people of no particular religious belief”.

Fortunately the banning will be investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The chief executive said: “We strongly disagree with the decision not to show the adverts on the grounds they might ‘offend’ people. There is no right not to be offended in the UK; what is offensive is very subjective and this is a slippery slope towards increasing censorship. We also understand why people were confused that a commercial Christmas can be advertised but the central Christian prayer cannot. We will therefore examine the issues raised by this case as part of our major review into the law protecting freedom of religion or belief, and publish our findings in the new year.”

Should we trust the government?

The Rev Dr Mike Ovey is a theologian and former lawyer. He was a parliamentary draftsman in the 1980s when anti-terror legislation to deal with the IRA threat was being framed. He expressed deep concern over the government’s anti-terror policy and said it would be easy to argue that there was a “clear trajectory” between, for example, teaching mainstream Christian ideas about subjects such as abortion and the actions of violent anti-abortion groups. He added: “They are going to say this is far-fetched and will never happen. That is essentially a government saying trust us with your civil liberties. I would say frankly human experience tells us the last thing you ever want to do is trust a government with your civil liberties. The Government is going around saying it is all a time of national emergency. I think I want to say we have been there before and got the T-shirt. It doesn’t work.”

I said recently that, although I have serious problems with Islamic belief, I will publish significant positive news about Muslims when it arises. It is part of loving our Muslim neighbour. I want nothing to do with hateful attitudes towards Muslims. The same is true with respect to homosexuals. Although I accept the Bible teaching on homosexual practice, I will publish significant positive news about homosexuals when it arises. It is part of loving our homosexual neighbour. I want nothing to do with hateful attitudes towards homosexuals. With that in mind, I want to share the following news item.

Jesse Bartholomew, a homosexual pastry chef, wrote on Facebook: “I cannot tell you how disgusted I am with my fellow gay and lesbian community that they would stoop so low to force someone to bake a cake for them who simply doesn’t agree with them. They don’t have to bake a cake for you. You are forcing someone. You are being a Nazi and forcing someone to bake a wedding cake for you when there are hundreds of other gay and lesbians that would gladly have your business. Shame on you.”

When Tim Farron was a candidate for leadership of the UK Liberal Democrat Party, he was criticised for bias because he is a committed Christian. He responded: “Surely you wouldn’t … run a campaign against somebody standing for leader if they were a secular humanist, or Jewish or Muslim. And if you wouldn’t do that, then don’t do this.” Quite! We can see the way things are going in the UK.

There are some very significant serious things happening in the world today regarding persecution of Christians etc. Persecution is a sign of the End Times:

1. Christians ridiculed and oppressed in modern Britain

Michael Gove, former UK Education Secretary said that British Christians are ‘openly derided’ and ‘coolly dismissed.’ British culture belittles Christianity on a daily basis. He added that “To call yourself a Christian in contemporary Britain is to invite pity, condescension or cool dismissal. In a culture that prizes sophistication, non-judgmentalism, irony and detachment, it is to declare yourself intolerant, naive, superstitious and backward.

“Far from enlarging someone’s sympathy or providing a frame for ethical reflection, Christianity is seen as a mind-narrowing doctrine. Where once politicians who were considering matters of life and death might have been thought to be helped in their decision-making by Christian thinking — by reflecting on the tradition of Augustine and Aquinas, by applying the subtle tests of just-war doctrine — now Christianity means the banal morality of the fairy tale and genuflection before a sky pixie’s simplicities.

“The suspicion was that Christians helped others because they wanted to look good in the eyes of their deity and earn the religious equivalent of Clubcard points securing entry to Heaven. Or they interfered in the lives of the less fortunate because they were moral imperialists — getting off on the thrill and power of controlling someone else’s life and impulses. Or, most disturbingly of all, they were looking to recruit individuals — especially in our schools — to affirm the arid simplicities and narrow certainties of their faith.

“This prejudice that Christian belief demeans the integrity of an action is remarkably pervasive. And on occasion singularly vehement.

“One of the saddest moments during my time as Education Secretary was the day I took a call from a wonderfully generous philanthropist who had devoted limitless time and money to helping educate disadvantaged children in some of the most challenging areas of Britain but who now felt he had no option but to step away from his commitments because his evangelical Christianity meant that he, and his generosity, were under constant attack.

“I suspect that one of the reasons why any suggestion of religious belief — let alone motivation — on the part of people in public life excites suspicion and antipathy is the assumption that those with faith consider their acts somehow sanctified and superior compared with others. ”

Andrew Brown, writing in the Guardian, agrees with Gove and asks why this has happened over Christianity. He puts some blame on militant atheists but adds: “But the real problem is the slow drift of religion into a category separate from the rest of life and thought. Religions that work have nothing to do with faith: they are about habit and practice, and the things that everybody knows. Gove quotes the Book of Common Prayer, which I also was brought up on, and love deeply. But it’s gone now. It will never again be a book of common prayer. The more that any religion becomes distinct from the culture around it, the weaker and weirder it becomes. Of course it can flourish as an embattled and angry sect. But Christianity in England has not been like that for at least 1,000 years. Seventy years ago, TS Eliot could write that dogs and horses were part of English religion, as much as bishops were part of English culture. That’s now very much less true, and it’s hard to imagine a conservatism that could ever bring it back. ”

More recently Victoria Wasteney, a senior NHS occupational therapist, was suspended for nine months for trying to convert a Muslim colleague, Enya Nawaz. Victoria offered to pray for her Enya who spoke of her health problems. Enya agreed and Victoria prayed for her with the laying on of hands. She also gave her a book about a Muslim woman who converted to Christianity. Then Enya complained to their employer. A disciplinary panel accused Victoria of “bullying and harassment.” The case was taken to an employment tribunal which upheld the panel’s verdict.

Don Horrocks, Head of Public Affairs at the Evangelical Alliance, commented on similar cases: “There remains a clear reluctance to tackle infringement of freedom of conscience and the emergent hierarchy of human rights, which has left people of faith firmly at the bottom and often wondering whether in practice religion and belief is a protected right at all. There is a long way to go to achieve parity and equality on a fair playing field with other rights. When rights conflict, the test of equality legislation is whether it results in genuinely fair outcomes for everyone. If one group of protected rights is consistently trumped by others then equality is not working. Equality is important, but unless it is expressed fairly in the context of recognised diversity then it can become oppressive and end up being wielded as a blunt weapon to silence those we disagree with.”

2. The level of persecution of Christians is higher than ever, much of it by Muslims.

There continues to be an increase in the persecution of Christians worldwide and it is becoming more intense in more countries of the world.

According to Open Doors (an international ministry serving persecuted Christians and churches worldwide) “Overwhelmingly the main engine driving persecution of Christians in 36 of the top 50 countries in Open Doors World Watch List is Islamic extremism. The most violent region is the states of the African Sahel belt where a fifth of the world’s Christians meet one seventh of the world’s Muslims in perilous proximity.”

Open Doors continues: “In 80 per cent of the 50 countries in the [Open Doors] World Watch List, Islamic extremism is a key persecution engine. Islamic extremism has two global centres of gravity: one in the Arab Middle East and the other in sub-Saharan Africa.”

We are all aware of the evil activities of extreme Islamists, Isis, Boko Haram etc. But Open Doors makes the following important statement: “The most violent persecutor of Christians in Northern Nigeria in recent years is the Islamic terrorist group, Boko Haram, who have bombed churches and shot pastors. It’s an unsubtle attempt to smash the church. But in fact, for most Christians, the greatest threat comes from a creeping cultural Islamisation which has been stealthily progressing since the 1980’s, until Christians suddenly realise they are second class citizens in a culture that was once hospitable to them, and is now hostile to them. This ‘squeeze’ is as much a denial of freedom of religion and belief but cannot be tracked by monitoring specific incidents.”

Christians have faced increasing levels of persecution in the Muslim world. Muslim nations in which Christian populations have suffered acute discrimination, persecution and in some cases death include the following according to Emily Fuentes, communications director at Open Doors USA:
• Countries with extreme persecution: Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Iran, Pakistan, Eritrea, Nigeria, Maldives.
• Countries with severe persecution: Saudi Arabia, Libya, Yemen, Uzbekistan, Qatar, Kenya, Turkmenistan, Egypt, Djibouti.
• Countries with moderate persecution: Palestine, Brunei, Jordan, Comoros, Tanzania, Algeria, Tunisia, Malaysia, Oman.
• Countries with sparse persecution: Mali, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Bangladesh, Tajikistan, Mauritania, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Morocco, Niger, Bahrain, Chad.

It was disturbing to read a Sky News “British Muslims Poll” dated 20th March 2015 which found that 39.8% of British Muslims (and 46% of women) did not believe it was the responsibility of Muslims to condemn terrorist acts carried out in the name of Islam, while 28% of all Muslims (including 33% of women and 32% of under-35s) said that they had a lot or some sympathy with young Muslims who had left the UK to join fighters in Syria.

In the TV programme “Killing Christians” Nadine, a 13 year old Iraqi girl said very movingly (with obvious depth and sincerity): “The Christian religion is about love and peace. I feel very sad because the devil has taken Islamic State over. I will pray to God to enlighten their minds. Whatever happens, we will not give up our religion. We will not abandon Christianity, never.”

3. Islam is projected to be the largest religion in the world by 2100.

The Pew Research Center, an American think tank which provides information on social issues, public opinion, and demographic trends, has recently published the first formal demographic predictions about “The Future of World Religions.” Together with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, it has gathered data from more than 2,500 censuses, surveys and population registers, which has taken six years to complete.

It reports that, at present rates, Islam will grow faster than any other religion (twice as fast as the world population), partly due to fertility rates, and by 2050 will nearly equal the number of Christians in the world. Muslims, which numbered 1.6 billion in 2010, will then number 2.8 billion, or 30% of the population, and Christians 2.9 billion, or 31% of the population. In Europe, where 5.9% of the population are Muslim currently, 10.2% of the population will be Muslim by 2050. By 2070 the number of Muslims will equal the number of Christians (32% of the world population). By 2100 1% more of the world’s population would be Muslim than would be Christian

Between now and 2050, according to present rates, 40 million will convert to Christianity but 106 million will leave Christianity, most of them joining the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated. For example, in the United States, Christians will decline from more than three-quarters of the population in 2010 to two-thirds in 2050. The population of Europe is projected to decline and the number of Christians is expected to decline from 553 million (three quarters of the population) to 454 million (two thirds of the population).

However elsewhere in the world the number of Christians is expected to grow, although as a percentage of the population the number will decline except in Asia and the Pacific.

So Islam will grow increasingly dominant in the world, doubling in numbers by 2070 and becoming the biggest religious community in the world. Muslims will almost double in number in Europe too. Christianity will continue to grow but a massive 106 million are projected to leave Christianity by 2050. Incidentally, this is hardly the love of most [Christians] growing cold (Matt 24:12) but it is a massive turning away from the faith.

4. We must remember that Islam is an antichrist (alternative Christ) religion.

I know I’m on sensitive ground. I’m not agreeing with those who resent Muslims being here or having equal rights and equal respect. Such attitudes are wrong. I am concerned about the implications of the spiritual dominance of Islam.

I always want to show respect to people of other religions and, where possible, to show respect for what they believe. Nevertheless I do believe it is right to make necessary criticisms of their beliefs too. This is the case with Islam. My most serious criticism of Islam is that it is an antichrist religion (“anti” in the original meaning of “in place of”):
• It has a false view of Jesus (Isa): he is not divine, did not die on the cross and so did not rise from the dead.
• But this Jesus will return to kill the Antichrist (as viewed by Muslims) and to set up a short period of peace and justice before dying.
• This Jesus will be a committed Muslim. Christians and Jews will join him in the Islamic faith. All religion other than Islam will be wiped out.
This Jesus is antichrist, i.e. an “alternative” Christ who ends up opposing the true church.

5. Israel under Netanyahu is likely to provoke very strong reactions from around the world isolating her.

Another significant factor in the current situation is the political situation in Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu has been re-elected as Prime Minister of Israel. Just before the election he stated that if he was elected there would be no Palestinian state. His subsequent attempt to back off from that position is not seen as convincing by many people. He has also seriously upset President Obama and the US government. It seems clear that Israel is going to suffer much more political pressure and to become more isolated in the world. The Palestinians are likely to take Israel to the International Court of justice for alleged war crimes. In view of the bleak prospects over the peace process it is also inevitable that violence from some Muslim sources will erupt. Anti-Semitism is growing. The re-establishment of the State of Israel is itself a sign of the End Times but the prospect, prophesied in Scripture, of the nations eventually turning against Israel is, to say the least, increasingly credible. However, one must be aware that one (but only one) factor is Israel’s current political intransigence over Palestine.

6. Conclusion

So we have a situation where:
• Christians are being ridiculed and oppressed in Britain.
• The worldwide level of persecution of Christians is higher than ever, most of it by Muslims.
• Islam, the fastest growing religion, is projected be the largest and most dominant religion in the world by 2100.
• Islam is an antichrist religion.
• The re-established State of Israel is being increasingly isolated, pressurised and in danger of violent attack.

It seems obvious to me that all this mainly recent news has relevance to what the NT predicts about the Signs of the End.

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.

 

Persecution is one of the signs of the End Jesus speaks of in Matthew 24

PERSECUTION – THE PRESENT SITUATION

80% of all acts of religious discrimination are against Christians according to the International Society for Human Rights (a secular group).

Christians are persecuted in 139 nations (about 75% of the world) according to the Pew Research Center (compared with Muslims in 90 countries and Jews in 68 countries).

Open Doors, which supports persecuted Christians around the world, said in 2013 it had documented 2,123 “martyr” killings, compared with 1,201 in 2012 but that there were probably more. Other Christian groups say the figure may be up to 8,000. (One group claims there are 100,000 a year but this figure has been disputed).

Lord Sacks, former Chief Rabbi, said in the House of Lords that attempts to wipe out Christianity in parts of the Middle East and the killing of Christians across much of Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia amount to the “religious equivalent of ethnic cleansing” and is a crime against humanity.

Pope Francis said “I am convinced that the persecution against Christians today is stronger than in the first centuries of the Church.”

In April 2014 David Cameron said: “It is the case that Christians are now the most persecuted religion around the world. We should stand up against persecution of Christians and other faith groups wherever and whenever we can.”

In the Middle East there is very widespread and terrible persecution of Christians. The so-called Arab Spring has become a Christian Winter. Christians are worse off in Iraq than under Saddam and in Syria than under Assad (before the war). Some of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East have been destroyed. In August 2014 Christians fled from Mosul, the largest Christian town in Iraq, when Isis conquered it. It had a population of 60,000 Christians.

Open Doors now ranks Iraq as No 4 on the list of 50 countries where Christians are under greatest pressure. It commented: “Christians in Iraq are on the verge of extinction. Large numbers of persecuted Christians have fled abroad or to the (until recently) safer Kurdish region, where they face unemployment and inadequate schooling, medical care and housing. The church faces many challenges – members being killed or abducted, and a lack of capable leaders.”

In October 2013 the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning violence and persecution against Christians in Syria, Pakistan and Iran.

In China, Wang Zuoan, director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, says (hypocritically) “Over the past decades, the Protestant churches in China have developed very quickly with the implementation of the country’s religious policy. In the future, we will continue to boost the development of Christianity in China. The construction of Chinese Christian theology should adapt to China’s national condition and integrate with Chinese culture.” The truth is that China is alarmed by the growth of Christianity in some areas and, as usual, wants to suppress or control it.

OPPRESSION

The church in the West is not experiencing persecution but there are disturbing trends. It is important to remember that sometimes actions taken for good motives can have seriously bad effects.

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. Many Christians do not regard other religions as equally true to Christianity. They regard Jesus as the divine Son of God and only Saviour. Their right to that belief must be protected. At the same time they should promote understanding of and tolerance for other religions. Tolerance does not mean agreement but respect for those with whom one disagrees. For many Christians, to tolerate another religion means disagreeing with it in various important matters but nevertheless showing respect for its adherents.

To threaten Christian schools with downgrading or even closure because they do not actively promote other religions, including inviting leaders of other faiths to take assemblies, is oppression.

Oppression of Christian organisations and individuals

From time to time reports emerge of Christian organisations in universities being stripped of recognition because they will not open their leadership to non-Christian students. This means they lose free use of university meeting rooms and university funding. Currently this is happening at California State University but it has also happened in the UK. To require Christian organisations to be open to being led by non-Christians is not only ludicrous but intolerant and oppressive.

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.

The danger in all this is that the time could come when Christians are effectively forbidden to express and act upon very important aspects of their faith.