The claim

“My fear today is that a militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies. We see it in any number of things: when signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings; and where religion is sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere.”
Baroness Warsi, 14 February 2012

The background

Sayeeda Warsi called for Europe to be “more confident in its Christianity” in an official visit to the Vatican today.

In a Telegraph article, she warned of the rise of “militant secularisation” across the continent.

Is there evidence that aggressive secularisation is taking hold in the UK?

How religious are the British?

In the 2005 Eurobarometer poll only 38 per cent of people in the United Kingdom said they “believe there is a God”, although a slightly higher proportion (40 per cent) agreed with the statement “I believe there is some sort of spirit or life force”.

On the other hand, in the last published census in 2001, 70 per cent of the population identified themselves as Christian.

But the British Humanist Association disagrees with the way the question was phrased in the census (“What is your religion?”).

In a 2011 YouGov poll for BHA, 53 per cent of people who answered the same census question said they were Christian, but only 29 per cent answered “yes” to the follow-up question “Are you religious?”, and 65 per cent said “no”.

The National Centre for Social Research’s annual British Social Attitudes survey found that 50 per cent of people said they had no religion, compared to 31 per cent in 1983.

And only 20 per cent of people said they were affiliated to the Church of England in 2010, compared to 40 per cent in 1983.

The proportion of people who considered themselves Catholics has remained steady while the number of non-Christians has risen from 2 per cent to 6 per cent since 1983.

That rise – presumably connected to immigration – may be why the proportion of people who attend a religious ceremony of some kind has remained stable (14 per cent in 2010 compared to 12 per cent in 1990) while attendance in the Church of England has dropped.

What about Baroness Warsi’s claim that religion is being “sidelined, marginalised and downgraded” in the public sphere?

The law

Unlike in France, British schoolchildren are not banned from wearing religious clothing and symbols.

And unlike in Spain, there’s no blanket ban on public sector workers wearing crucifixes or other religious insignia in the workplace.

It’s up to individual schools and private companies to decide their own dress codes, but everyone has the right to go to court if they think they are being discriminated against.

Andrew Williams, director of the Christian Legal Centre, insisted that Christians face increasing discrimination, with employers more flexible in accommodating other faiths, and the courts more likely to uphold the rights of homosexuals in disputes with Christians.

That doesn’t prove that the law is inherently biased against Christians. And it’s important to note that the recent High Court ruling banning prayers at council meetins doesn’t signify a change in the law.

The High Court ruled that the atheist town councillor who complained about prayers being included in council business was not discriminated against, and his human rights were not infringed. The judges simply said the council had no powers to hold prayers under the existing law.

Faith schools

England has a high number of faith schools paid for by the taxpayer – 6,814 schools, or 34 per cent of the maintained sector, according to the latest Department for Education figures. About 67 per cent are CofE and 29 per cent are Catholic.

And it’s a matter of government policy, as set out in the Coalition Agreement, that ministers want to enable more faith schools to spring up.

All state schools have to hold a daily collective worship, which must be “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”.

Comparisons with other countries are tricky, due to very different arrangements over funding, but Britain appears to be among the countries with the highest direct state subsidy for religious schools, along with Belgium and Ireland.

Other examples of public money being spent on religious institutions include Christian chaplains in the military, which cost the taxpayer £22m a year, and NHS chaplains, funded by the state to the tune of £29m a year, according to Freedom of Information requests.

State religion

The UK is one of only four EU member states to have an established church covering part of its population – the Church of England. The others are Denmark, Malta and Greece.

Other European countries to retain an official state religion include Monaco, Liechtenstein, Iceland and Norway.

But the symbolic retention of an established religion doesn’t tell the whole story about relations between church and state. In France, a country often held up as an example of secularism, the upkeep of all churches built before 1904 is paid for by the state, whereas there’s no state funding in the UK.

Finally, Britain is one of a very few countries where non-elected clergy form part of the legislature in the form of the 25 bishops who sit in the House of Lords.

David Pollock from the British Humanist Association claims that Iran is the only country in the world where non-elected clerics play a comparable role in the business of government.

The verdict

Numerous polls and surveys suggest that the number of people who hold religious beliefs in general, and attend Christian church services in particular, is falling.

Other research suggests that the number of people who consider themselves devotees of other religions is rising.

The British Social Attitudes survey puts the proportion of those who regularly attend services at 14 per cent. That puts Britain about halfway up various European league tables of religious observance.

But curiously, the secularisation of the state is much more advanced in many other European countries.

And in some areas of British civic life like faith schools and the awarding of government contracts to groups like the Salvation Army, the separation of religion and state appears to be in reverse.

Terry Sanderson from the National Secular Society told FactCheck: “Religion is definitely on the back foot in this country. That doesn’t mean to say that it doesn’t have an awful lot of influence.”