By Ken Perrott 10/12/2015

A new report from The Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life recommends changes which challenge the current traditional role and power of religion in the UK.

Among its recommendations are:

National and civic events should reflect the pluralist character of modern society and “national forums such as the House of Lords, [should] include a wider range of worldviews and religious traditions, and of Christian denominations other than the Church of England.”

Repeal of the legal requirement for schools to hold acts of collective worship and its replacement by a requirement to hold inclusive times for reflection.

All pupils in state-funded schools should have a statutory entitlement to a curriculum about religion, philosophy and ethics that is relevant to today’s society – that is education about religions and beliefs – not religious instruction.

More relevant coverage of religion and belief by the BBC. “The BBC Charter renewal should mandate the Corporation to reflect the range of religion and belief of modern society, for example by extending contributions to Radio 4’s daily religious flagship Thought for the Day to include speakers from non-religious perspectives such as humanists.”

Fairer treatment of complaints about media coverage of religion and belief with the establishment of a panel of experts on religion and belief to advise the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO).

So far these are still only recommendations. Government action will be required to enact required changes and you can bet the recommendations will face stiff opposition from the establishment.

Religious and belief landscape transformed beyond recognition

The commission’s work shows clearly that the current treatment of diversity, of religion and belief is not suitable for modern society. The existing arrangements and traditions must change to take account of the changes that have occurred in recent years. The report says:

“Over the past half century, Britain’s landscape in terms of religion and belief has been transformed beyond recognition. There are three striking trends:
• The first is the increase in the number of people with non-religious beliefs and identities. Almost a half of the population today describes itself as non-religious, as compared with an eighth in  England and a third in Scotland in 2001.
• The second is the general decline in Christian affiliation, belief and practice. Thirty years ago, two-thirds of the population would have identified as Christians. Today, that figure is four in ten, and at the same time there has been a shift away from mainstream denominations and a growth in evangelical and Pentecostal churches.
• The third is the increased diversity amongst people who have a religious faith. Fifty years ago Judaism – at one in 150 – was the largest non-Christian tradition in the UK. Now it is the fourth largest behind Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism. Although still comprising less than one in ten of the population, faith traditions other than Christian have younger age profiles and are therefore growing faster.”

The Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life was convened by the Woolf Institute, Cambridge, to consider the place and role of religion and belief in contemporary Britain. Membership of the commission is representative of the diversity of beliefs in the UK and it surveyed opinion throughout the UK with local hearings and submissions.

Some idea of its history and activity is given in this video

The final report is fittingly entitled “LIVING WITH DIFFERENCE
community, diversity and the common good.” It can be downloaded from here.

Relevance for New Zealand

I think we need something like this in New Zealand – specifically to make recommendations to government, educational and policing bodies and local authorities. So far, such approaches to New Zealand diversity have been rather wishy-washy and have not produced recommendations requiring legal or by-law changes.

However, there always seems to be a problem in such considerations in that non-religious representation tends to be token. Inherent in the situation is that there are a large number of religions and sects, many with small memberships. On the other hand, the non-religious, while comprising about 50% of the population, has very few organisations to represent their interests.

Often the majority of participants in such consultations and deliberations assume the issue is religious diversity, rather than belief diversity, and consider only methods of accommodating religious differences.

In such situation the non-religious participants can be ignored or not properly listened too, despite their large constituency.

Still – I would love to see some of the recommendations from the British commission about education, parliament, constitutional relationships and national and civic events discussed here.


Image credit: “Americans Turning Away From Organized Religion in Record Numbers

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