Religious Notes from a Small Island (Part 1)

Brantley Gasaway

This semester I have had the pleasure of taking a break from my normal teaching on campus in order to lead my university's London-based study abroad program. Although I have previously taught courses on American religious pluralism, our campus's rural setting in central Pennsylvania prevents me from providing students first-hand exposure to minority religious communities. Field trips to places of worship such as mosques, Hindu temples, or Sikh gurdwaras are simply not feasible. Thus I was excited to design a course--"Global Religions and the Politics of Pluralism--that would be based in one of the world's most multicultural cities and include numerous site visits.

As we are almost halfway through the course, I wanted to discuss briefly what I and my students have learned thus far. I plan to post another reflection at the end of the spring semester. Ultimately, I hope that comparing issues of religious pluralism in Britain to those in America will sharpen our understanding of both.

In order to contextualize our analyses of contemporary religious pluralism, the first several weeks of the course comprised a general survey of the history of religions in Britain: from early pagan forms of worship, to the relative dominance of Catholic Christianity for a millennium, to the ascendancy of Protestant Christianities beginning in the sixteenth century, to the development of an increasingly secular and pluralist society over the past half-century. Site visits for this introductory section included trips to Stonehenge, Bath, Canterbury Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, and St. Paul's Cathedral.

Queen Elizabeth II, 
Supreme Governor of the Church of England
More than anything, what students found most surprising and memorable during this historical overview were the close connections--and often profound overlap--between Christianity and the state in British history. Anyone who has wandered through Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's knows that these are shrines not only to Christian faith but also to British history, culture, and nationalism. Like most Americans, my students take the principle of religious disestablishment as an unquestionable ideal. Thus they struggled to understand not only the historical convictions that justified the entwining of religion, political power, and nationalism, but also the continued symbolic and practical establishment of the Church of England.

But does this history of Christian dominance and the ongoing privilege of the Church of England make Britain a "Christian nation"? How pluralistic can contemporary Britain be in light of these phenomena?

We ended the introductory section by reading excerpts from Callum G. Brown's The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation, 1800-2000. Brown argues that Britain rapidly became a post-Christian society after the 1960s, pointing to significantly declining rates of church membership, attendance, affirmations of traditional doctrines, and traditional moral indices. Indeed, different recent surveys suggest that only between 6.3% and 10% of the population attend church weekly. While Brown made this argument at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the 2011 census seemed to confirm this trend. As the Daily Mail summarized:

Christianity has declined sharply over the past decade, according to the census returns. Numbers who choose to call themselves Christians fell by more than four million.

The collapse in belief in the religion which has been central to the history of the country for 1,500 years means that fewer than six out of ten, or 59 per cent, now describe themselves as Christian. A decade ago nearly three quarters, 72 per cent, did so.

The diminishing number of Christians is mirrored by a rapid growth in those who profess no religious affiliation. A quarter of the population, 14.1 million, now say they have no religion, nearly double the 7.7 million who said the same thing in the 2001 census.

Brown's book led to engaging discussions regarding how (if at all) we can measure or otherwise determine if a society or nation is "Christian"--a question, of course, that remains important and controversial to many in the United States.

We then began the second section of the course, which is dedicated to analyzing the current religious diversity within London. I have paired readings and discussions of major religious traditions--Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Sikhism, Buddhism--with visits to one of their local places of worship and discussions with leaders within these traditions. Beyond teaching the basic beliefs and practices of each religion under study, I am challenging students to assess the extent to which these minority non-Christian religious communities have been able and willing to acculturate to a British, urban, and predominantly post-Christian context.

In our first examination, we covered the history of Judaism in Britain that includes medieval massacres of Jewish communities; their expulsion in 1290; legal return in the seventeenth century; eventual gain of equal rights by 1890; waves of fin-de-siecle immigration; debates over the Balfour Declaration; and significant integration of most Jews in British society by the end of the twentieth century. Today, just under 300,000 Jews live in Britain--only 0.5% of the population. (Although Jews represent just under 2% of the American population, most of us were still surprised at this even more minuscule number of British Jews.) Nearly 60% of Jews live in London, and Orthodox communities are the largest by far.

After visiting the Jewish Museum, our class was fortunate to host a Reform Jewish leader who shared her experiences and perspectives on contemporary British Judaism. Unlike her more theologically and culturally conservative co-religionists, this leader's appearance and broadly liberal disposition allows her to navigate easily and to participate in virtually all aspects of British culture. Nevertheless, she described how she often feels that her religious identity still makes her an "outsider" in Britain. She cited examples not only of latent and explicit anti-Semitism but also of ongoing Christian privilege in social, educational, and political contexts. In addition, she reminded us that the multiculturalism within London does not characterize most of England, where many smaller cities and villages have no Jewish presence at all. Ultimately, she rejected the conclusion that Britain was "post-Christian." While we recognized that this leader's perspective is not necessarily representative of all British Jews, it forced us to think carefully about how minority religious communities may use different criteria than scholars or Christians themselves to judge the status of Christianity in a nation or society.

Our class then examined Islam in Britain, which has been profoundly influenced by the history of British colonialism in several predominantly Muslim nations. Although scattered Muslim communities first appeared in the nineteenth century, primarily in seaports, the immigration of Muslim workers into London and industrial regions in the mid-twentieth century particularly spurred the growth of British Islam. Establishing mosques and other institutions, Muslim communities through the 1960s and 1970s wrestled with how and how much to integrate into the broader culture. The Salman Rushdie affair--in which Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death fatwa against the novelist for the ostensibly blasphemous publication of his book, The Satanic Verses--not only galvanized the collective identity of British Muslims qua Muslims (despite their distinct ethnic identities), but also reinforced their sense that the British government (by allowing the publication of The Satanic Verses) would refuse to protect or even to take seriously their interests. The acts of Muslim extremists on 9/11, in the London bombings of 2005, and in the murder of a British soldier in London just last year has continued to make many British citizens suspicious of all Muslims--especially as the 2011 census revealed that the Muslim population had nearly doubled over the previous century to nearly 5% of the total population.

We had the privilege of visiting one of Europe's largest mosques, the East London Mosque and London Muslim Centre, where we were graciously hosted for over two hours. Our guide explained how the mosque sponsors a wide array of religious, educational, social, economic, and other opportunities that attract over 23,000 Muslims each week. In addition, the mosque's leaders work with local authorities and other groups in broader community development programs. Although condemning the violent acts of radical Muslims, the East London mosque remains relatively conservative. Our guide explained that he was a Muslim first and only then British, and that he viewed sharia law as objectively superior to what he described as the morally vacuous secular liberalism of British society. Appearing to anticipate possible objections, he defended without prompting traditional Islamic views on women and homosexuals. Overall, we gained a deeper appreciation for the embattled mindset of many British Muslims that stems from both internal religious factors and external social and political forces. My students identified this site visit as one of the most significant learning experiences that they have had in college.

I look forward to reporting on the rest of the semester in a subsequent post, and I will attempt to formulate even more conclusions about distinctive features of American religion based upon our studies of religious history and pluralism in Britain.


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