The Church of England is the established church of this country and its authority has been intertwined with the state's for five centuries. Although its influence has steadily declined with the decline of religious belief, 26 seats in the House of Lords are still reserved for its Bishops and the Queen is Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Recent years have seen an influx of people with other faiths and, not surprisingly, they want a share of these privileges. This competition for influence has caused a reaction. A study for the Church of England Moral but no Compass claimed that government ministers focus "intently" on Muslim organisations and pay only "lip service" to Christianity; it even calls for a new "minister for religion". The government has encouraged the expansion of religious schools and relies increasingly on religious and other "third-sector" groups to help it deliver social services; the Minister for Welfare Reform, Jim Murphy, says "I want to see a greater role for faith based groups in UK welfare delivery". The government has encouraged the creation of local faith forums to ease the way for religious faiths to influence local government. Religious groups such as faithnetsouthwest are taking full advantage of funding available to the third sector (faithnetsouthwest, funded by the government's changeup programme, recently advertised for a CEO at £36,000–£40,000p.a.). The various faith groups are pushing at an open door so that it is more important than ever for the non-religious to make themselves heard.
The 2001 census is frequently quoted to support the suggestion that a majority of the population have a religious faith, predominantly Christian. However, the answers given to questions about religious belief are very dependent on the wording of the question. A more recent survey by the Office of National Statistics Social trends 38: 2008 edition found that 38% believed in god and that religious meetings or services were attended once a week or more by 13% of men and 15% women (see p190). These figures are slightly higher than those reported by a Christian organisation, the Tearfund Report, which estimated that 15% attended monthly and 10% weekly while Christian Research reported 6.3% average Christian church congregations in 2005. Interestingly, Tearfund reports that while 67% of people in Britain today say that they believe in god, only 26% believe in a personal god, emphasising the sensitivity of the answers to the exact wording of the question.
Religion is not a major factor in most peoples' lives: the 2001 Home Office Citizenship Survey Religion in England and Wales found that "Overall, one-fifth of the respondents considered religion to be an important part of their self-identity after family, work, age/life stage and their interests"; a European survey found that religion came 12th in a list of personal values (full report 2.6MB pdf). See Religion and Belief – some surveys and statistics for more surveys. The report Religion in Britain: Neither Believing nor Belonging found that, "the number of people who have a real faith is now smaller than the number of people who passively "belong" to a religion" (Guardian 16/08/2005). From personal observation, many who attend and support their local church appear to do so for social reasons and not because they have a religious faith.
There are two ways in which we can try to adapt our social organisation to a multi-faith society. We can extend the privileges of the established church to all religions (but what about the non-religious?), or we can aim for a secular society. Do we allocate seats in the House of Lords to all religions? Do we pay for a plethora of faith schools thereby increasing social divisions? How do we cope with the disparate requirements of each religion in our laws? What about the majority with no religious belief? The only way to be fair to all is to take religion out of government all together so that nobody is discriminated against on grounds of religious belief or lack of belief. The case for secularism has been eloquently made by the Humanist Philosopher's Group in booklets available from the The British Humanist Association and by BHA campaign documents:
Organisations with a religious ethos are exempt from important provisions of equality and human rights legislation that apply to public authorities (eg in the employment of staff and selection of pupils by faith schools). The BHA report "Quality and Equality: Human Rights, Public Services and Religious Organisations" (471kB pdf) draws attention to many examples of such discrimination and to other problems arising from the use of religious organisations to provide public services. Legislation should be strengthened so that any organisation, without exception, involved in the supply and delivery of public services:
Devon Humanists is one of the few organisations representing the views of the non-religious majority in this county. To get these views heard, it is important that we are represented on as many local government forums as possible. At present we are represented on:
Faith is believing what you know ain't so.
Mark Twain 1897