Page last updated at 09:11 GMT, Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Faith Diary

By Robert Pigott
Religious Affairs correspondent

There's been a rising chorus of alarm from church leaders at what they regard as the "aggressive secularism" marginalising Christianity, the religion whose precepts - such as "do as you would be done by", and upholding the sanctity of human life - once underpinned British laws.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the leader of Catholics in England and Wales
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor has praised Jade Goody for her bravery

A few years ago, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, warned that "Christianity had been all but vanquished in Britain" as the underpinning for the nation's moral life.

The Church complains that recent legislation - such as the laws guaranteeing equal treatment for gay people that forced Catholic adoption agencies to place children with homosexual couples - seek to control people's morals as well as their behaviour.

At the same time, ordinary people seem to be voting with their feet.

Baptisms, church weddings and attendance at Sunday services have declined.

Religious Alliance

But today's poll for the launch of the BBC Faith Diary suggests that people don't want a secularist wipeout of religion in Britain.

Almost two-thirds of those questioned said the law "should respect and be influenced by UK religious values", and a similar proportion agreed that "religion has an important role to play in public life".


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A significantly greater proportion of the Muslims and Hindus polled (albeit in relatively small numbers) supported a strong role in public life for the UK's essentially Christian traditional religious values.

The findings illustrate the growing alliance between people of different faith groups against the rolling back of religion in general in the public arena.

Traditionalist Muslims and Christians have united in a number of debates - resisting any loosening of the restrictions on abortion or euthanasia for example.

(Traditionalists in both religions have also united over issues such as gay-equality laws against liberals in their own religions.)

Snapping at their heels are newly-assertive atheists, carrying their plea to people to release themselves from the yoke of religious organisations with advertisements on bendy buses - "There is probably no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life".

( Click here to see our filmed debate between atheist Ariane Sherine and conservative Christian David Larlham.)

Jade Goody
The cardinal says that Jade Goody can teach us something in the last months of her life

However, our poll tallies with other research findings - that the proportion of people identifying themselves as atheists has not grown from its low base.

The churches often remind us that 72% told the last census that they were "Christian", but Professor David Voas of the Cathie Marsh Centre for Census and Survey Research in Manchester questions what that means.

He insists that a full half of the population of Britain qualify only as "fuzzy faithful".

He says "this group has only a vaguely defined notion of a 'divine entity', and says it makes little difference to their lives".

His research suggests that many continue to pray but have relinquished specific Christian beliefs such as Jesus being the Son of God.

They tend to believe in a "higher power" rather than a personal God, and go to church only for the main festivals or life's rites of passage.

They are more likely to think of "pancake day" than "Shrove Tuesday" (when Christians traditionally seek to confess their sins and be "shriven" or forgiven for them), and the whole concept of penitence (the purpose of Ash Wednesday marking the beginning of Lent) is deeply unfashionable.

Fuzzy religions

Although the Churches continue to promote traditional doctrine (the Archbishops of Canterbury and York will appear on these pages tomorrow to call for a day of Ash Wednesday fasting and giving to the people of Zimbabwe), increasingly they seek models that appeal to the secular mindset.

Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor praised Jade Goody for her bravery in facing up to her terminal illness, as well as her decision to baptise her children and marry in church.

The cardinal said: "A lot of people might say 'well it's better if she did everything in quiet'.

It's faith that's linked to the imagination - the power of taking a leap - rather than it being faith in a strictly conventional religious sense
Danny Boyle

"But I think she's made a decision that she wants the last months of her life to teach people something."

As the number of people - especially young people - attending church services declines, clergy are having to think of more inventive ways of reaching out to them.

The 12th Century Malmesbury Abbey was turned into a skateboard park for the school half-term holidays and attracted hundreds of teenagers.

The vicar, Neill Archer, did not accept that the Church was ready to scale down its goals for Christian participation to activities like skateboarding, but he agreed that there was a big gap between bringing teenagers back into the building, and getting them to pray.

Mr Archer said it was the start of a "long conversation".

A study just published by the Quilliam Foundation suggests that mosques may not be in as good a position to respond to a changing, more sceptical, society.

In a survey of 512 mosques, it found that 97% of imams had come from overseas, even though most of their congregations were born in the UK.

Bus with atheist advert
Going my way? Research shows that the number of atheists hasn't risen

As many as 44% of mosques present the lecture before Friday prayers in a language other than English, making it harder for younger Muslims to benefit from the guidance it contains.

Quilliam concludes from its study - the findings of which broadly replicate a survey by BBC News 18 months ago - that "foreign imams, poorly paid and with limited proficiency in English, are ill-equipped to navigate Britain's complex, liberal and multi-faith society."

Islam faces similar pressure to adapt to modern life in Britain as does Christianity.

The "fuzzy faith" could yet emerge among Muslims as it has in the Christian population, potentially setting up strains within the community.

The Quilliam Foundation perceives the need for "a British Islam informed by British values", and doubts that enough imams are equipped to foster it.

Slumdog Morality

The more "fuzzy" that religions such as Christianity become, the more they are falling outside the scope of formal religious organisations.

Authors, artists, film directors, may take a far more prominent role in interpreting and developing the "vaguely defined notions" of future faith.

Danny Boyle - the Oscar-winning director of Slumdog Millionaire - could be one of them.

Boyle, brought up by a strictly Roman Catholic mother, describes all his films as "very moral".

Morality - as atheists and humanists loudly proclaim - does not have to be religious.

In Boyle's case, it is inspired only partly by the iconography of his Catholic background and brought to the screen through imagination rather than the Catholic doctrine.

Boyle described the religious devotion of one of the characters in his film "Millions", Damian, a boy who speaks to saints.

He said: "It's about whether you believe… it's not like he's a religious figure.

"It's faith that's linked to the imagination - the power of taking a leap - rather than it being faith in a strictly conventional religious sense."

The poll was carried out by ComRes for the BBC. A random selection of 1,045 people was interviewed by telephone on 18-19 February, and the results weighted to reflect the make-up of the UK population.

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