As Christmas approaches, I am left wondering — has the decline of faith and religious devotion served Britain well?
Islamist-inspired terrorist attacks have accelerated secularisation in the UK
There is no doubt that much evil is done in the world in the name of religion. On the grounds of “defending” and “protecting” their faith, terrorists all over the world have have killed, maimed and tortured. Looking to assert their dominance in their respective nation-states, militant fundamentalists itch to curtail the rights of religious minorities. Radical ideologues relish peddling narratives of “group superiority” over those of different religious affiliations.
It is no surprise that robust secularist thought and a general public scepticism of religion’s value have developed in the UK. A series of devastating, Islamist-inspired terrorist attacks — including the 7/7 London bombings — have only served to accelerate this process in the social mainstream.
The overall decline of religious faith in the UK — driven by the consistently downward trajectory in the level of Anglican devotion in recent decades — has not led to a fundamental breakdown in public order. Most British people continue with their everyday lives in relative peace and prosperity when compared with the rest of the world. On the surface, it does not seem to have done Britain much harm — and ardent secularists may well say, “we can do without religion.”
Being a British man of Bangladeshi Muslim origin who works in community cohesion and counter-extremism, I fully acknowledge the threat posed to social solidarity by religious fundamentalists who sow the seeds of division in our liberal democratic society. It is worth injecting a degree of balance in the debate on the value of faith in modern-day Britain, however. The Covid-19 pandemic has been extremely challenging for many families and communities across the country. We ought to recognise the reality that one’s faith can bolster much-needed forms of determination and resilience when presented with testing circumstances. In times of seemingly never-ending difficulty, faith can provide a sense of optimism — a hope that better times are around the corner and the belief that present-day perseverance will reap rewards to be enjoyed in the future.
Belonging to the old-fashioned traditionalist Left, I believe that faith can provide an individual with a positive sense of purpose and form the basis for healthy community interactions. Many of Britain’s traditional migrant communities — at varying degrees of affluence — are deeply family-oriented and intergenerationally cohesive. Civic associations within such communities continue to flourish, with places of worship providing a spiritually-uplifting sense of belonging.
Many of these traditionally Labour-voting communities are increasingly being left behind by a modern British Left which is more likely to draw inspiration from Marxism over Methodism. While it may be an inconvenient truth for godless leftists who sneer at those of faith, the Labour Party is an institution with a rich Christian social-democrat tradition. Although Christianity is often associated with conservativism, Christian social democracy is a well-established ideological strand in British politics. And I suspect that a good number of non-Christian, Labour-voting traditionalists would welcome the reinvigoration of this potentially wholesome political creed over the divisiveness of tribal identity politics and the emptiness of hyper-liberal secularism — two viruses which have undermined the Left’s heritage of social solidarity and family-oriented traditionalism.
Living in a market-based society obsessed with macroeconomic metrics such as gross domestic product (GDP), important “human” measures such as life satisfaction are left by the wayside. How satisfied are our fellow citizens with their own lives? What drives life satisfaction in the society we all live in?
A robust religious identity is not automatically a socially undesirable trait
Having a robust religious identity has its advantages — it should not be automatically viewed as a socially undesirable trait. My own research, based on January 2021 nationally-representative polling by ICM Unlimited, found a strong link between the personal importance of religious identity and life satisfaction. The survey revealed that 42 per cent of British adults were satisfied with their own life, with three in ten being dissatisfied. For those who reported that their religious identity was “very important” to them, the figure for reporting life satisfaction rose to 58 per cent. For those who said their religious identity was “not important at all” to them, this figure shoots down to just 30 per cent. For the subset that said their religious identity is very important to them, fewer than one in four reported being dissatisfied with their own life. This jumps to over 40 per cent for those who say their religious identity is not important to them at all.
It is worth noting that in regression models controlling for a range of socio-demographic characteristics (such as gender, age, ethnicity, educational level and social class), personal importance of religious identity is significantly positively associated with self-reported life satisfaction. This is very much in keeping with previous research which shows that individuals who highly value religion and cultural traditions, tend to report higher rates of life satisfaction.
The widening disconnect between the modern British left and traditional religious minorities means that there is an opening for the centre-right to show its appreciation for collectivistic cultures which emphasise family unity, civic duty and social rootedness. This of course would require modern-day conservatives to confront some uncomfortable truths. The materialistic individualism and rampant consumerism associated with Anglo-Saxon capitalism can alienate traditional minorities of faith that are anxious about perceived trends towards cultural decadence and moral decay.
The Conservative Party has its fair share of institutional and cultural problems. The Tories, recently charged with “anti-Muslim sentiment”, continue to perform badly with British Muslim voters — even though the vast majority hail from robust family units, have a strong sense of community, and are appreciative of the religious freedoms afforded under their liberal democracy. Metropolitan social liberalism appears to be quite a force to be reckoned with at 10 Downing Street and in notable elements of the parliamentary party. We are not even close to having an authentically traditional centre-right party which understands the immense value of stable family units and broader collectivistic mindsets in modern-day British life.
As it stands, resilient family-oriented minorities of faith are not particularly well represented by any mainstream British political party — but I remain hopeful that will soon change.
Dr Rakib Ehsan is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society.
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