Last week, Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech in Germany in which he explained that multiculturalism has “encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream”. Cameron told his audience that he believes Britain should strive to create a stronger national identity (and a greater sense of local pride) in order to prevent religious extremism from preying on the most vulnerable people in society.
A multicultural society implies differing religious or cultural groups living alongside one another whilst retaining their specific group identities, but is this how we should define British society? How exactly should we define our national identity in religious and cultural terms? Is it even possible to do so? One term which is sometimes used – and which I studied in a module of my Theology degree entitled The Christianisation and De-Christianisation of 20th Century Britain – is “post-Christian”. This is a post-modern term used to describe a society which in longer collectively follows the majority of traditional Christian principle and, key to the application of Cameron’s scrutiny of contemporary Britain, it is usually seen in relationship with the notion of a ‘multicultural’ society. Consequently, a “post-Christian society” can be defined as a society has ceased to identify itself with Christianity as its main cultural and moral, as well as religious, governing force. However, it is important to note that the term “post-Christian” can be misleading as it appears to imply that the Christian religion is either redundant or completely non-existent within the society in question, which is often far from the real situation: in Britain’s case, this can be seen from the fact that the Church of England remains the official state church (including a state monarch who is head of this church).
Since the winds of change – more rights, disposable incomes, leisure activities, scientific advances (i.e. the pill) – which led to greater freedoms during the 1960s, several gradual changes in British cultural practices have caught the attention of historians and theologians alike. Firstly, there has been an enhancement in religion which mostly involves people creating a mix-and-match religion to suit their particular needs even if it is no longer a usual version of Christianity (e.g. Christians who meditate, practice yoga, have faith in crystal healings, etc.) – i.e. taking spiritual practices from other religions and the incorporating them into Christian lifestyles. This sort-of ‘mix-and-match’ approach to religion, occurring due to the spread and influence of new ideas in our now multicultural society, is known as “syncretism”. People have also started to explore new ways of expressing their religious beliefs: more focus is now placed upon leading a moral life, and individual spirituality is often now seen as more beneficial than participating in the communal type of religious experience which occurs in churches.
However, there has been a rise in the number of people claiming to have no religion or who belong to non-Christian religions or ‘alternative’ spiritualities (e.g. New Age, Neo-Paganism). This is often said to be due to immigration, conversion, the spread of religious ideas, and more freedom of religious expression and beliefs due to greater emphasis on the importance of tolerance. Some historians believe this occurred due to the growth of pluralism, whilst others such as Grace Davie claim that it is due to the rise of secularism, which leads people to “believe without belonging”.
In today’s Britain, most people would still label themselves as ‘Christian’ when asked about their religion: 41 million people said they were Christian in the 2001 National Census (more than 72% of the total population) whilst only just over 5% said that they belonged to a non-Christian religious group. However, it should be remembered that calling yourself a Christian and actually practising the religion are two different things and the census question was optional so not everyone will actually have answered it.
For the majority of people currently living in the UK, it would be hard to describe Britain’s religious map accurately without making reference to how Christianity is ingrained into the country’s subconscious. It could be argued that as Britain’s values and perception of itself are deeply rooted in its Christian heritage, renouncing its culture to “post-Christianity” would be as if to reject the very thing which formed the country’s sense of national identity and community morals to begin with; but labelling Britain as a Christian country would be a mistake. Being able to identify the historical British identity as an Anglican Christian country is important because, as Lord Sacks (Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth) says, multiculturalism’s mission to dissolve national identity and shared values “makes it impossible for groups to integrate because there is nothing to integrate into”.
In my humble opinion, different areas of Britain vary greatly in how well different religions and cultures integrate with one another (e.g. cities are areas where there are more chances to meet people from different walks of life, but more rural areas tend to be places where people will talk to one another more), but we should be aiming to become a “cross-cultural” society. This would mean living in a society that would see different religious and cultural groups not just living together, but also learning about their similarities and differences as well as sharing information and ideas. The Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz described this phenomenon of merging cultures as “transculturation”.