Why Secularists should be wary of disestablishment

The activists at the National Secular Society (NSS) may well have cheered when hearing of the Anglican Church’s recent warning that legalising gay marriage may lead to its eventual disestablishment. After all, the NSS supports marriage equality and sees the strict separation of church and state as one of its primary goals. Furthermore, others have started to call for disestablishment, frustrated by the Church’s bizarre objections to the gay marriage bill. These include former the editor of The Times Simon Jenkins and Observer columnist Nick Cohen.  The logic here is perfectly valid: the church’s objections to gay marriage constitutes religious interference in politics, especially given that no one is proposing to force them to recognise gay marriage. They are claiming an unjustified monopoly on the right to define what marriage is. Secularist principles dictate that we should kick the church out of politics. Religion belongs in the private sphere, not something to be imposed upon others.

This debate however is often simplified. There are good reasons for a secularist to be wary of disestablishment. The secularist case against disestablishment is made – somewhat unwittingly – by free market fundamentalist and Tory MP Douglas Carswell. He actually supports disestablishment but his reasons are instructive. Like all libertarians, Carswell idealises American society; comparing the Church of England to a 1970s nationalised monopoly, he argues that disestablishment amounts to Thatcherite privatisation. This would make our religious ‘market’ as ‘efficient’ as the United States, where the churches are much better at ‘winning customers’ because they ‘compete for their congregations’. Carswell, like the NSS, idealise the American constitution with its strict separation of church and state. Yet, while the American constitution may be strictly secular, its politics are anything but. We may be frustrated at the church’s anachronistic attitude towards women priests, but at least they believe in evolution. Lord Carey’s comment that gay marriage would be ‘cultural abomination’ is absurd but at least, unlike the late American preacher Jerry Fallwell, he doesn’t believe terrorist attacks are God’s vengeance on a society that allows ‘abortionists, feminists and Gays’. If the American example represents a cowboy free market in religious ‘services’, then perhaps the Church of England is a very welcome form of state regulation.

There is a wider issue here and that is the basis on which groups like the NSS support a strict separation of church and state. The NSS cite their support for disestablishment on the ‘massive and continuing reduction’ in belief. The notion is that faith will ultimately become a small minority interest or even disappear.  The problem with this secularisation theory is that it’s only really prevalent here in Europe. So it’s far from obvious that religion is going to disappear in the modern age. Furthermore, even in Britain, and this is according to a poll commissioned by the Dawkins foundation, 54% of British people still profess Christianity. If we take a different approach to the NSS and assume religion is not going to disappear and become completely irrelevant anytime soon, even in a country as secular as ours, then the pertinent question becomes what sort of religion the state should be encouraging.

In considering this new question, two key points become relevant. Firstly, institutionalised religion with an official orthodoxy can be a moderating factor on faith. It is not a coincidence that fundamentalism is rife in parts of the Muslim world and the United States where there is no overarching religious institution, such as the Anglican Church, and anyone can become a preacher or imam. In the absence of an official orthodoxy, the tendency is to towards literalist fundamentalist readings of scripture.  If we disestablish the church and throw it open to competition, religion in Britain may lose this overarching institutional buffer from fundamentalism. It’s worth noting that while France’s constitution is robustly secular, 51% of its population are Catholic. In this regard, the French state effectively free rides on the institutionalisation provided by the Vatican.

Secondly, in a magisterial study of religion and state in over 175 countries, Jonathon Fox found that state religious monopolies actually reduce religious participation. This could be because states that monopolise religion then incorporate religious symbols and dialogue in their activities – on state occasions for example. In other words, when religion is embedded in the state and in public life, people have less of a need to look for it in their private life. The implication here for disestablishment is clear.

There is no better summary of this article then the following graph, showing the relationship between a country’s wealth and its religiosity. As secularists would predict, religiosity falls as wealth gets higher. The only exception to this rule is the US, which is to the author’s knowledge, the only state with a strictly secular constitution that isn’t majority catholic. Religion is completely free from the state and any other source of institutionalisation or regulation. And paradoxically, the outcome is precisely what groups like the NSS are trying to avoid.


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