The strong support for a role for religion in UK public life shown in a recent BBC poll should in some ways at least come as no surprise.
The sort of aggressive atheism promoted by figures prominent in culture and intellectual life is very much a minority sport, though it colours overall perceptions of the issue.
There is, too, undoubtedly a feeling of fearfulness regarding the present economic and social climate. There is a sense that our political establishment has failed us; it has lacked the strong values which ought to have led it to put the brakes on the culture of greed and short-termism which has landed us in the mess we’re in. Returning to a more overt acknowledgment of the role of religion might strengthen what remains.
However, it is even more complicated than that. Muslims and Hindus supported a strong role for religion in public life, because they feel threatened and offended by the secularists. But some of the white British respondents who agreed that ‘Our laws should respect and be influenced by UK religious values’ undoubtedly had these very people in their sights.
In many ways, the survey yields its most interesting results when it’s broken down by age. Those in the 35-44 age group are less likely to want our laws to be influenced by UK religious values and more actively hostile to this notion than any other age group. The same holds for the statement, ‘Religion has an important role to play in public life.’ There is a noticeable bulge on the graph at this point which might repay closer analysis.
What the survey does not attempt to do, of course, is ask exactly what role religion ought to play, which ‘values’ exactly are envisaged, which laws they might influence and how exactly that might make a difference to people’s lived experience.
These are not small questions; indeed, they are crying out to be addressed by the Church today. Whether there is anything the Free Church tradition has to offer to this debate remains to be seen.
Rev. Mark Woods is editor of Britain’s Baptist Times, where this column first appeared.