Anyone who believes that religion has been marginalised in Britain should consider the extraordinary events of past few weeks in the Premier League, where two seriously ill footballers elicited a nationwide summons to prayer. However many of the supporters and the wider public actually heeded the calls to pray for Fabrice Muamba and Stilian Petrov, these scenes raise fresh questions about the public face of faith and its relationship with the secular world.
The emergence of a kulturkampf between a coalition of faith and the forces of so-called militant secularism is a regrettable fabrication. The imagined “threat” of secularism is a phenomenon that can be measured only in the indifference of the non-religious to religion – it is exists only as passivity. Religion, by contrast, is very much active.
This, in itself, is nothing of note, but vociferous groups and individuals are attempting to create a narrative through which they can portray themselves as victims, turn rights into privileges and create conflict where there was none.
It may or may not be a coincidence that the return to power of the Conservatives has seen an increase in this rhetoric. Baroness Warsi’s recent trip to the Vatican confirmed that a reactionary alliance was forming against a secularism that was not merely described as militant, but as “intolerant”. Intolerant?
This year’s ruling against public prayer as an official element of council meetings in Devon is not intolerance. It is a decision designed to protect those without faith – enforced through the same laws that protect the rights of the religious. Here is the myth of militant secularism, a fantasy to suit the persecution complexes of people who feel out of step with mainstream culture.
Even if the Tories are (tentatively) pushing a pro-religion stance to shore up voters with conservative social values it has not stopped some in Labour, David Lammy for one, pursuing the same line. What David Cameron thinks about all this is anyone’s guess, though one would suspect any unease he may feel – the campaigning of Nadine Dorries MP may give him sleepless nights – is outweighed by the thought of all those religious voters.
The disproportionate influence of faith schools, which make up one third of state funded schools in England, is another manifestation of religiosity that makes a mockery of these claims. Faith schools are regularly the best in their area because they are often able to cherry-pick children from better-off families. Hardly the province of the persecuted.
Although it is virtually impossible to assess the accuracy of Cameron’s proclamation that Britain is a Christian country, the fact the he feels he can say it is evidence that 1) it is at least partly true and 2) this is a country that does not discriminate against Christians. Religious people have rights, but a minority confuse those rights with privileges. The irony is that secular laws exist to protect the rights of the religious. Religious laws, where they exist, tend to work in the opposite way. The judge who upheld the complaint of the gay couple who were refused a booking at a Cornwall B&B because of the owners’ religious beliefs put it succinctly. “I do not consider that the appellants face any difficulty in manifesting their religious beliefs. They are merely prohibited from so doing in the commercial context they have chosen.” It is these people’s views that are discriminatory, not the law.
As well as specific examples of militant faith, a sense that religion is valuable and relevant – in public and in private – is creeping back into national life. Much was made of the positivity and good will of those involved in football after the dramatic and upsetting collapse of Bolton’s Muamba, followed a week later by the news that Aston Villa’s Petrov has leukaemia. The initial shock and sadness over Muamba’s condition was dignified and decent. But in the week that followed, ostentatious public concern – with a conspicuously religious element – became a national obsession.
There is something novel about so many British people openly accepting that prayer would contribute to the wellbeing of another person. Millions of tweets calling for prayer, thousands of tributes left outside the Reebok Stadium doing the same and days of quasi-obituaries with pictures reflected the latent soft-core religiosity of the public. “Pray” is not merely a synonym for “hope he gets better”. If there was any doubt that pray was meant literally the Sun ran the words of Muamba’s fiancee as its splash headline the same week: God is in control.
Despite its reputation for debauchery, football is chock-full of the faithful – mainly Catholic and charismatic Christians who genuflect and cross themselves on the pitch – and when they urged fans to pray they meant it. The nation’s favourite sport, with its most influential names, became the locus of a mass religious experience.
What football has shown us is that there is an untapped reservoir of faith envy. It is likely that most of those called to prayer to heal the sick were without faith, and yet they embraced the opportunity like lost pilgrims. It is also likely that the uneasy coalition of prosthelytising Christians and Muslims is aware of this potential.
If Christians (or Muslims or anyone else) are a minority in modern Britain they should have their rights protected. But hang on – they already do. Plus there are bishops in the Lords, churches in every town and village, priests on Radio 2 and religious iconography everywhere you look. This is not the landscape of a victimised and marginalised sect. There is nothing inherently wrong about the presence of religious expression and thought in public life, but after an Easter weekend of watching The King of Kings and The Passion from Port Talbot let us not pretend they are voices crying in the wilderness.