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You are in: Suffolk > Faith > Features > Belief in a secular society

The Golden Compass

Nicole Kidman in The Golden Compass

Belief in a secular society

More people have been going to church in Suffolk, but the diocese has concerns that it may be a blip in the face of long-term decline. However, Muslims say they're buoyant in the county, as do the humanists who don't have any faith in a god.

We're constantly hearing that religion, particularly the Christian Church of England, is in decline with fewer bums-on-pews. At the same time there's been the dramatic success of books such as Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion and claims that popular films/books such as Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass, or even Harry Potter, are spreading an anti-religious message.

That said, the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich's figures for church attendance bucked the national trend. Average Sunday church attendance for Suffolk (not including Lowestoft) climbed by 800 to 19,000 in 2006.

Nationally, the figure was down 1% to just under one million each Sunday1. Some in the Church expect that decline to continue.

Of the other major religions in Suffolk, Islam is the second largest. It's estimated there are between 8-10,000 Muslims in the county and while there aren't precise figures, it's thought that figure is increasing due to immigration and conversions from other faiths - including white English Muslims.

Mojlum Khan is a writer from Ipswich who also lectures on Islam for the Suffolk Inter Faith Resource Centre. He said there are Muslims who've left the faith: "Probably not as many as some other faiths, because it's a way of life as well.

"In this country apostasy [rejection of the faith you're brought up in] isn't an issue. People can choose whatever faith they want and it's a central principle in Islam.

"There's a verse in the Koran which says there is no compulsion in religion - it has to come from the heart. You can't force people.

"The elders who immigrated here came with their cultural baggage. The younger generations are looking at scripture and the British culture they've been brought up in and are trying to reconcile the two."

A canon's broadside

The Canon Theologian for St Edmundsbury Cathedral Chris Burden said he's not worried by the prominence of Dawkins: "I think it's thoroughly healthy, although I believe Dawkins to be wrong. We might have got a bit intellectually lazy about defending our faith.

"He's putting us on our mettle. He's looking, as a fine and eloquent scientist, for explanations of what can be observable.

Richard Dawkins at BBC Oxford

Richard Dawkins at BBC Oxford

"Faith doesn't begin from that starting point. While it's not saying science is wrong, it's attending to the underlying energies in the material universe. Faith, theology and scriptures are using the language of imagination.

"The fundamental disagreement is over his [Dawkins'] claim that what can be empirically verified is necessary to explain the whole of reality. All religious believers would disagree with him - we all believe in something that can be called 'spirit' or 'god' or 'ultimate reality'.

"This can never fall within the scientists' investigation as such, but it's worth pointing out that there are many scientists who are advocates of religious faith.

"We have to give thoughtful intelligent accounts for what we believe without suggesting anyone who doesn't share that belief is an idiot or illogical.

"In some institutional ways the Church is under threat. I don't think we should try to retain the strong established presence it [the Church of England] had in the past.

"Our faith is ultimately in God, not in buildings, in clergymen or even in the Bible. It's in the reality and excitement of a way of life which is built around following Jesus, and I don't think that is under threat.

"I'm not particularly worried about numbers, but I can understand why the Church as an institution is, because in a secular and materialistic society that's what success is measured by. Funds will go down as will the ability to employ more clergy.

"The presence of the Church on the High Street may decline, but there have been times in the early history of the Church when numbers were minute, but nevertheless they made a considerable impact on the world.

"It's very good to hear that there were more people going to church in Suffolk, but that's not the heart of the matter."


Humanists don't believe in a god or higher being. They believe this life and world are all we have, but alongside their atheism, they believe we have a responsibility to live a moral life, but one that is rooted in our humanity rather than belief in a religion.

Margaret Nelson, Suffolk Humanists

Margaret Nelson, Suffolk Humanists

The Suffolk Humanists group carries out non-religious celebrations for births, marriages and deaths. Its co-ordinator is Margaret Nelson: "The main concern we have is to ensure that British society remains secular and that organised religion isn't allowed to encroach any further into public life.

"It's important that everybody is treated equally and if you give unelected religious organisations a channel to government it gives them an unfair advantage."

A moral grounding

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins devotes chapters to the argument that most religions don't actually provide a basis for morality. In fact, he claims much that is in the Bible is not what most people would see as 'modern' morality.

Margaret Nelson also disagrees that we need religion for morality: "Those sort of things make me extremely angry because it's insulting to the millions of people who do live good, decent, honest lives without religion.

"People basically know the difference between right and wrong - they're grown-ups. To suggest that you have to have religion to tell you these things is like being in a perpetual state of childhood.

"If you're worried the whole time about the Day of Judgement, or some other punishment for having done wrong, or having to have religious incentives to do good, then I would suggest you're not being good for the right reasons.

"Atheism is only a good thing if people have something to replace it with - a positive approach to life, a value system that they can apply to their life.

"I go into schools and find a lot of young people do have concerns and worry about things like climate change or battery chickens for example. People get a very negative impression about young people - sex & drugs & rock & roll etc. - and it's just not true.

"The important thing about humanism is that we haven't got a set of rules like a Bible or a Koran. It's about working things out for yourself and being aware of the consequences of your actions.

"It's taking responsibility for yourself and not being told what to do by an external authority."

It's a view that Canon Chris Burden has some sympathy with: "Religion isn't absolutely necessary for that. In fact, there's a strong tradition of atheists or humanists who are fine moral philosphers or ethicists.

"What Christian faith does is give a shape and a purpose and person (ie. Jesus) which doesn't straight away provide all the moral answers to, say, abortion or capital punishment, but it does give you a direction within which we have to do our own moral thinking and decision-making in conjunction with non-religious people.

"However, ultimately what we believe we're called to do by God or conscience is higher than the state, but the law of the state, which Christians through Parliament have a large part in formulating, is vital if we're going to live in reasonable peace with our neighbours.

St Edmund Statue

St Edmund statue - pic by Ian Hulland

"We can try and seek compromise over issues. But if we can't do that, then the calling is for believers to face some kind of, to use a dramatic term, martyrdom - simply witness for their beliefs.

"They may be mistaken, but that is a risk that we may increasingly have to be taking. What we can't do is say by virtue of our religious beliefs, we can't impose those beliefs on the rest of society.

"We need to be infinitely tolerant of other people, but if we believe something is wrong we have a duty to say so. Christianity shouldn't be submissive and staying at home reciting prayers.

"It is about living a way of life in the world and taking action and standing up against the dominant culture.

"Whether we like it or not, that is something that will be happening increasingly in the future."

From the Muslim perspective, Mojlum Khan said morality is subjective: "Richard Dawkins will probably disagree, but other thinkers will say morality, if it's anchored in a concept of divinity, gives a stability. It has a central role to play.

"You don't necessarily have to believe in a god to be morally upright, but does your morality change with every shift in society or culture or does it have a steadiness or stability? I believe a faith in God gives you this stability upon which you can build your ethical framework and practises."

Church and state in Britain

Britain has many religions and religious freedom, but one branch of Christianity is directly tied to the state - the Church of England. The monarch is the head of the Church and it's this formal link that many feel prevents us becoming a fully secularised society, as well as allowing other religions to make claims to be formally included within the state.

However, Canon Chris Burden says it might not be this way forever: "I think that could depend on who the next monarch is. We do still have these residual elements like prayers in the Houses of Parliament and blessings for judges.

"If in the church we handle it sensitively in collaboration with other churches and faiths it can be an entirely good thing.

"Religion is a private matter, but it's a way of life that's embodied in the world. That's why we have churches or synagogues or mosques and these traditions go right back to the Bible.

"Although state faith schools are funded by government, it's no more so than other state schools and the basic operations of the parish church are funded by people putting money on the plate of envelope every week. We're not really being subsidised by the state."

Margaret Nelson feels it's vital that state and religion are separated: "I'm in favour of disestablishment. Ideally, we wouldn't want faith schools and certainly not any faith schools with any public money."

And Margaret Nelson said that would include not having state-funded schools for other religions such as Islam: "Following the riots in Burnley and Oldham in 2001, studies showed that children wanted integrated schools so that they could all learn about each other.

Burnley riots, 2001

Burnley, 2001

"You can't have social cohesion, which the government's always rabbiting on about these days, without integrated schools.

"As for faith in [other] schools, children need to learn about religion, but they could learn about it in history, geography, English or across the whole curriculum. Although I'm a member of SACRE (Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education), I would like to see Religious Education scrapped as a subject.

"It would be much better if we substituted it for 'philosophical enquiry' so that children are taught to think rather than to believe."


Margaret Nelson continued: "I think things are changing and it's alarming quite a few people who would like things to stay as they are. It's not the end of the world if people don't go to church anymore.

"There are a lot of developments that make me believe people are thinking more about ethical issues such as battery chickens or climate change. These are nothing to do with religion, people just do it because they know it's the right thing."

Canon Chris Burden says religion certainly won't disappear: "The number of churches or priests might decline. The relationship between the church and state might alter quite a lot. But I see that as no reason for despondency or for defensiveness.

"As Christians we have a faith and a way of life that works and that we're happy to proclaim and we need not fear about that. The numbers aren't the end of the story."

Source: 1 Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich.

Note: Mojlum Khan has published a new book called The Muslim 100: The Life, Thought and Achievement of the Most Influential Muslims in History (Kube Publishing, 2008).

last updated: 03/07/2008 at 12:22
created: 01/07/2008

Have Your Say

Comment on the issues raised in this feature.

The BBC reserves the right to edit comments submitted.

Richard Abbott
The sooner we see Religion become a purely private thing in England the better. I remember the years I sent in primary school, forced to sing hymns and pray everyday and I thought I was actually doing some good to myself, I didn't know what atheism was because nobody wanted us, the student body, to question our religious brain washing.

Paul Wilkinson
Religious 'education' is miseducation, it's misleading and harmful in that it encourages children to accept what they are told rather than discriminating between the credible and the incredible. No wonder so many are exploited by the sellers of crystals, tarot, holistic 'medicines' and other nonsense.

Rob A
The humanist, Margaret Nelson, calls for 'philosophical enquiry' to replace RE. I wonder what the other contributors think of that? Wouldn't it undermine religious indoctrination?

Robert Ede
I absolutely agree with Maragrets comments. Faith schools are leading us down a dangerous road to divided communities and should be scrapped.

John Palmer
Canon Chris Burden says that religion is a private matter, yet the article talks about an established church, faith schools, prayers in Parliament and blessings for judges. It's precisely this involvement of religion in public matters that secularists object to.

You are in: Suffolk > Faith > Features > Belief in a secular society

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