Does Britain Need a State Religion?

nativity scene

By Steven Kettell

This blog first appeared at the Crick Centre, University of Sheffield on the 18th December, 2014.

Those pesky illiberal secularists are at it again. This time it’s the nightmare scenario of children having the option of being taught about Humanism as part of their GCSE in Religious Education that has attracted the kind of apoplexy that is usually reserved for the Daily Mail’s treatment of benefit-scrounging foreigners. Clearly the very idea of ensuring that our kids ‘adopt an enquiring, critical and reflective approach to the study of religion’ should never include anything as dangerously subversive and antithetical to all reason as ‘Humanism’. Before you know it they’ll be demanding equal marriage rights. It’s political correctness gone mad!

And so it’s a jolly good job that Britain still has the bulwark of state religion, via the established churches of England and Scotland, to keep those aggressive, intolerant, militant scoundrels at bay.

Except, of course, that it’s by no means clear that having a state religion is actually a good thing in any way at all.

Halesowen Church 1 (3248930020)
By Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (Halesowen Church 1Uploaded by Magnus Manske) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

My own research into the matter, for instance, has shown that, as a general species, countries with a state religion are far less likely to have democratic systems of government, and possess significantly lower levels of civil liberties, political rights and human freedoms (including religious freedoms) than countries without a state religion. Or, to put the same point another way, countries that are politically secular are more likely to be democratic, and to enjoy greater civil liberties and human rights that those which are not.

Now this is not to suggest that the Church of England is a tyrannical bastion of theocratic repression and intolerance. Yet the anachronistic nature of persisting to uphold a formal link to an institution devised solely to help a dead king with his nuptials can nevertheless be seen in a number of ways. For one, public opinion surveys persistently show that the process of secularisation is continuing with relentless verve, that this rings true across every single measure of religiosity, and that indications of a change in the form of religion in terms of a shift towards informal, ‘fuzzy’ and ‘spiritual’ religious practices is insufficient to make up the shortfall. The latest survey for British Social Attitudes (Table A.2, pg.133, to be precise) has found that a straight majority of people in Britain (50.4%) now identify themselves as ‘non religious’.

The point is backed-up by an opinion poll conducted by Ipsos-MORI for the Richard Dawkins Foundation. This found that more than half of those people self-identifying as Christian in the last (2011) census had not (apart from special ceremonies such as weddings and funerals) attended any sort of church service linked to Christianity at all during the last twelve months, that a greater proportion of them (46% to 32%) did not agree that Britain should have an official state religion, and that a large majority (74%) thought that religion should be a private matter with no special influence on public policy.

Arguments in favour of the status quo typically try to gloss over these troublesome facts by centring on the ostensibly ethic qualities of religion, claiming that it provides a force for good in the world and that the high profile brand of the Church of England allows it to attract attention to valuable social causes (the Church’s recent intervention on the proliferation of food banks being a case in point). David Cameron, when he’s in the mood, agrees. But the point is one that also cuts both ways. The Church’s power to highlight social issues of its choosing can also be a reactionary force for ill, whether it’s opposing the legalisation of same-sex marriage, opposing key features of equality legislation, resisting advances in medical technology, seeking to use government policy to promote a greater role for itself in the public sphere or actively campaigning on behalf of a self-serving, discriminatory and choice-stifling system of faith schools.

Examples such as these – not to mention the fact that the Church has consistently found itself far behind the general public on a range of social and ‘ethical’ issues – should be more than enough to put paid to the automatic and wholly fallacious assumption of an inseparable link between ‘religion’ and ‘morality’ that still, for some inexplicable reason, pervades much of our social and political discourse. But in case they are not, the findings from Ipsos-MORI are also instructive here, with just 10% of people identifying as Christian claiming to get their sense of right and wrong from religious teachings and beliefs. Religion and morality then? Not so much.

And so, when the central pillar justifying the continuation of a state religion falls away, what is there that remains?

In light of the above one may be tempted to conclude that, in typically British fashion, the principal reason why an established church continues to exist in these isles is . . . well, for no better reason than it happens to exist; that the ingrained sclerosis of Britain’s political system stacks the odds against any far-reaching change right from the outset. But to put the absurdity of continuing with a state religion that few believe in and even less want, consider it this way: At what point in the twenty-first century, if we in Britain did not already have a state religion, would we consider it a good idea to get one?

Dr Steven Kettell
Dr Steven Kettell


Steven Kettell is an Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies, at the University of Warwick. His main research interests are centred on the relationship between politics and religion. He is currently engaged in research projects analysing the politics of atheism and the politics of Christianity in the UK. He is also a co-founder and executive editor of British Politics.


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