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British Christianity is no longer bad news

I think we are going to have problems because Britain is no longer a Christian country, writes Daniel Finkelstein.

    (Getty)

    I don’t mean to be a bore, I really don’t. And we all feel a little ground down — don’t we — by antisemitism, the challenge from the left on social media, the challenge from the right at Charlottesville. So I don’t want to add to the whole thing. But — well — I’m going to.

    Actually, let me be a little more precise. I don’t so much want to add to fears of antisemitism as to explain where I think a new threat to Jews might come from, in fact is already coming from. And that’s a subtly different thing.

    I think we are going to have problems because Britain is no longer a Christian country.

    This obviously appears an odd claim. So let me explain.

    Data released this week by the National Centre for Social Research shows that 53 per cent of British people regard themselves as having no religion and only 15 per cent describe themselves as “Church of England”. OK but, as the saying goes, is this good or bad news for the Jews?

    The argument that says it is good news is a pretty obvious one. If Britain is a Christian country, what is the status of Jews? And for most of history the answer to this has been excluded and denied basic civil rights. If most people think Christ is the saviour, it makes our failure to accept this an exposed position.

    And it very often has been so exposed. Reading David Cesarani’s book on Disraeli and his Judaism gives one a strong sense of the discrimination against Jews in political life in the Victorian era. And that has taken a very long time indeed to die out.

    So it may seem contrary that I believe that it is more bad news than good.

    In a Christian country we are, of course, a minority religion with all the issues that come with that. But in a country that has moved beyond Christianity, religion itself is in a minority. Instead of making it easier to have a particular faith, it may make it more difficult to have faith at all.

    Jews benefit from a general sense that faith has social value and is worthy of respect. What may seem odd teaching or unusual traditions are made more familiar and understandable by the fact that odd teaching and unusual traditions are common place. Soon they may be relative rarities.

    The need to accommodate Jewish religious practice in public and social life may, counter intuitively, be reduced by the decline in the need to accommodate Christian teaching. Instead of achieving religious equality by ensuring that space is made for Jews, because it has to be made for others, the conclusion may be that no space needs be made for anyone. That’s equality, right?

    And this isn’t a theoretical question either. Let’s take schooling. The right for parents to raise children in accordance with their own faith becomes less politically important the fewer people of faith there are.

    We can see already that people who are concerned that Muslims should not be educated separately, make the same argument about Jews in order to satisfy concerns about equality. This rather falls apart when one points out how many children go to Christian faith schools. Yet it isn’t hard to imagine the entire idea of faith schools losing political support.

    Let’s take another topic — ritual slaughter. For all the strong animal welfare arguments on the kosher side about shechita, there is no doubt that its legal status depends to a large degree on respect for faith groups and their rights.

    It is widely agreed that the practices of faith groups should be given latitude and that this must be weighed in the balance when making decisions.

    But what happens if this presumption disappears?

    Now it is be hoped that liberal sensibility alone might be enough to stop this happening. In other words, people without religious faith will accept that others have it and recognise its value and the space it needs. But I think this is quite optimistic.

    In a country which doesn’t take its own established religion seriously, it may be more difficult for us to get people to take our unestablished religion seriously. Mightn’t it?

    Daniel Finkelstein is associate editor of The Times

     

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