Religion and Belief in the UK, with an emphasis on Darlington in North-East England.

Now let’s engage with some realities about religion and belief in contemporary Britain. Without engaging with such realities, posts on the blog run the risk of being no better than much of the nonsense about religion and belief that currently clogs up the internet.

According to the 2011 UK census, 67.2% of British citizens have a religious commitment, 25.7% do not subscribe to a religion and 7.1% did not state whether they had a religion or not. The same census suggests that 59.5% of UK citizens are Christian, 4.5% are Muslim, 1.3% are Hindu, 0.7% are Sikh, 0.4% are Jewish and 0.4% are Buddhist. 0.4% subscribe to “other religion”, but a breakdown by faith for this group does not exist (however, we can assume that the number of people subscribing to each faith in this group is very small). This means that about 37.5 million UK citizens are meant to be Christian, 2.7 million are meant to be Muslim, 835,000 are meant to be Hindu, 432,000 are meant to be Sikh, 269,000 are meant to be Jewish and 261,000 are meant to be Buddhist. I say are “meant to be” Christian, etc. because statistics about religious affiliation are known to be extremely unreliable. As a general rule, such statistics significantly exaggerate the true level of faith commitment.

The discrepancy between the level of religious affiliation as revealed in censuses (and in smaller surveys not national in scope) on the one hand and the reality about religious affiliation on the other is perhaps most obvious in terms of how many UK citizens engage in regular attendance at a house of worship (not that attendance at a house of worship, regular or otherwise, is the only way to measure commitment to religious belief, although statisticians and academics accept that it is one of the more reliable such measures). Every week, about 5 million Christians attend a church, about 2 million Muslims attend a mosque, about half a million Hindus attend a mandir, about 300,000 Sikhs attend a gurdwara, about 150,000 Jews attend a synagogue and about 150,000 Buddhists attend a temple, a monastery or a centre where devotional practices can be undertaken. But what of the other faith groups in the UK, small though they are numerically? For example, what of the Bahais or people who subscribe to faiths such as Chinese Religion (a complex fusion of Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism which is sometimes called Buddhism for the sake of simplicity), Rastafarianism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Shintoism or Animism (which assumes many forms, especially in parts of Africa and Asia)? And what of people who subscribe to the various forms of faith known collectively as Paganism? In fact, North-East England has a number of well-known pagan “centres” such as Allenheads and parts of North Northumberland. Note, also, that a leading follower of Paganism lives in Newton Aycliffe. She has campaigned to have Paganism taught alongside the other religions which maintained schools in England and Wales must teach to pupils and students (Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism).

Surveys and censuses suggest that religious commitment is higher than attendance at houses of worship because:

  • attendance at houses of worship is not the only way that commitment to religion manifests itself;
  • many people say that they have a religious commitment because they have been baptised in a church or married in a house of worship, or because they occasionally attend an act of worship, perhaps during a major festival such as Easter, Christmas, Wesak, Divali, Eid-ul-Fitr, Pesach or Baisakhi;
  • although most people seem to retain a belief in God/gods/supernatural forces creating/shaping the cosmos, etc., they may not feel that organised religion shares the same ideas that they have about the divine/spiritual, or that organised religion pays homage to the divine/spiritual in an appropriate manner;
  • many people lie about their religious affiliation.

Surveys and censuses may exaggerate the true level of religious commitment in the UK – we are said to be among the most godless of societies, but still some way behind our Scandinavian neighbours who are acknowledged to be among the most atheistic peoples on the planet (North Korea, which is even more godless than the Scandinavian nation states, is a special case, of course, in that it is technically an atheist state in which religion is discouraged, sometimes brutally. There is evidence that a very small number of courageous North Koreans subscribe to Korean Shamanism, Chondoism, Buddhism and Christianity, but the great majority of North Koreans define themselves as atheist or agnostic. Only Chondoism has official status in the nation state) – but religion is still a potent force. Note, for example, that:

  • the Anglican Church is still the established church;
  • the monarch must be a practising member of the Anglican Church;
  • legislation passed through the Parliament a few years ago making it unlawful to discriminate against people on the grounds of their religion or belief;
  • it still counts in many parts of the UK if you have a faith commitment (c.f. the persistence of sectarianism in Northern Ireland, Western Scotland, Glasgow, Liverpool and even some parts of North-East England. Thankfully, sectarianism is less of a problem now than it was even ten years ago);
  • there are approximately 7,000 faith schools in the UK (out of a total of nearly 21,000);
  • a third of all maintained schools are faith schools (the vast majority of such schools are Anglican or Roman Catholic, but a small number are Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Greek Orthodox, Seventh Day Adventist or belong to the Religious Society of Friends/the Quakers, etc.);
  • about 600 faith schools are secondary schools (again, almost all such schools are Anglican or Roman Catholic);
  • of all the academies now open, a third have a faith designation;
  • when a moral or ethical issue is debated, the opinion is always sought of those who have a faith commitment;
  • some faith groups are very competent when campaigning for causes dear to their hearts and know how to ensure that their points of view are listened to/heard;
  • in some schools across the country, creationism is taught as fact;
  • in maintained schools, RE must be offered to all pupils and students from Reception to age 16 or 18 (but parents can withdraw their children from RE);
  • in maintained schools, a daily act of collective worship must be provided to all pupils and students. According to the law, the act of collective worship must be “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character” (parents can withdraw their children from acts of collective worship, as can sixth form students. But, according to the law, schools should provide withdrawn children with an alternative act of collective worship which isn’t “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”).

Earlier, we learned that there are many different religions represented in the UK today. However, it is important to realise that, within each religion, there may be divisions/schisms/denominations that should be acknowledged. Take, for example, Christianity. Even in Darlington, a borough of about only 100,000 people, we have:

Anglicans, Assembly of God Pentecostalists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Eastern Orthodox Christians (c.f. St. Cedd’s Eastern Orthodox Chapel, West Auckland Road), the Religious Society of Friends/the Quakers, Methodists, Plymouth Brethren, Roman Catholics, Salvationists, United Reformed Christians, etc.

But on the margins of Christianity we also have:

Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Latter-day Saints people (the latter two in numbers that are statistically significant locally).


Darlington, United Kingdom

If we were discussing Newcastle-upon-Tyne we would also draw attention to Greek Orthodox, Ethiopian/Coptic Christian, Seventh Day Adventist and Lutheran communities.


Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

Within some denominations there are divisions that make co-operation problematic. There is a world of difference, especially in terms of practice, between, say, services in St. Cuthbert’s in Darlington’s town centre (a traditional “mainstream” Anglican church. Such churches are sometimes dubbed the home of the “frozen chosen”), St. James the Great (a Forward in Faith church more Roman Catholic than the Roman Catholic Church) and an Anglican church where charismatic elements of worship prevail (such churches are sometimes dubbed the home of the “happy clappers”). A few years ago, the congregation at St. James the Great split (relatively amicably) and about half the congregation eventually relocated to a church in Gainford as part of the Personal Ordinariate of our Lady of Walsingham, which was established in 2011 by Pope Benedict XVI to allow Anglicans to enter full communion with the Roman Catholic Church while retaining much of their heritage and many of their traditions (the Ordinariate has appealed to Anglicans, but in numbers smaller than originally anticipated, worried that the Church of England would eventually ordain women as bishops, which it eventually did, of course). But differences in belief persist, even among the remaining Anglicans. For example, some Anglican congregations remain opposed to the ordination of women (because of biblical example and/or tradition) and to homosexuality (because of how they interpret scripture), while other Anglican congregations are energetically supportive of the former and cannot understand why there is such a fuss about the latter.

Similar divisions/schisms/schools may exist in other faiths. Thus:

within Judaism there are Haredi Jews (sometimes called Ultra-Orthodox Jews. C.f. Gateshead), Hassidic Jews (Hassidism is a product of Jewish mysticism dating back to the medieval period, but, today, in their belief and practice, Hassidic Jews are not far removed from Haredi Jews), Modern Orthodox Jews, Reform Jews and Liberal Jews, and

within Islam there are Sunni, Shia, Sufi and Ishmaeli Muslims.

Especially in Islam, you encounter within some sects/schisms a range of views/approaches to life not dissimilar to the range of views/approaches to life within a Christian denomination. Sunni Islam is a good example of this. The great majority of Sunni Muslims incline toward a pragmatic live and let live outlook on life in general, which means that they are not dogmatic and tolerate diversity. But a minority of Sunni Muslims have been influenced by the austere Wahhabi ideology of Saudi Arabia with its inflexible outlook on life shaped by a literalist interpretation of the Qur’an. Wahhabism has strongly influenced groups such as the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and we all know what Taliban rule did for individual and civil rights generally, and women’s rights more specifically, when the movement held power in most of Afghanistan.

Jewish Burial Plot, Carmel Road North Cemetery, Darlington

Jewish Burial Plot, Carmel Road North Cemetery, Darlington, United Kingdom

Darlington may be a fairly small town, but its population is ethnically mixed and, as a result, its faith diversity is perhaps greater than many people imagine. Beside having a multiplicity of Christian denominations, and various groups on the fringes of Christianity which increasingly prefer to be defined as distinct religions (this is especially the case with Jehovah’s Witnesses and Latter-day Saints), we have Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and followers of various manifestations of Paganism (c.f. in particular Druidry). The Atisha Buddhist Centre, the Sikh gurdwara and the mosque all welcome visits from groups/individuals in the wider community and regularly engage in events designed to foster mutual understanding. Sadly, our synagogue on Bloomfield Road very rarely opens – the Jewish community is in terminal decline – but a visit to the beautiful cemetery on Carmel Road North reveals not one but two burial plots for the town’s Jewish dead, thereby confirming that Darlington once had a significant Jewish presence. All the town’s small number of Hindu families have a shrine in the home in front of which they can engage in ritual worship/puja twice or more often a day, but, if they wish to worship in a mandir assisted by a pandit, they must travel to Middlesbrough or Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

By the way: an interesting statistic from across the UK. Today, well over 2,000 churches have predominantly black or non-white congregations. Yes: Christianity, the religion intimately associated with the UK for the last 1,400 years, is increasingly sustained by people who originate from nation states in Africa, Asia or the Caribbean. White people in growing numbers are turning their backs on organised religion or joining one of the religions which have been brought into the UK by migrant communities. Sheffield has been identified as the city where whites are most likely to convert to Islam, and a group such as ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness, perhaps better known as the Hare Krishna Group) is almost wholly dependent on white converts to sustain its membership/public profile. Moreover, although the Bahai faith has its origins in modern Iran and reached our shores in significant numbers only in the early 1980s when persecuted Iranian Bahais fled their homeland following the Islamic revolution led by Khomeini, the great majority of UK Bahais are white converts. North-East England has emerged as an important area for the Bahai faith nationally.

ISKCON Centre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

ISKCON Centre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

P.S. If anyone wishes to write about the rich diversity of religion and belief that exists in their home town/locality/region/nation state, by all means do so and send me the result: it may be worth uploading to the blog. Alternatively, if someone wishes to write a post devoted to explaining what their religion or belief is all about (perhaps in terms of beliefs, practices, approaches to moral decision-making, sources of authority, etc., etc.), by all means do so! Such posts will, if nothing else, contribute to mutual understanding – but, where appropriate, please support what you say with reference to scripture, key texts, reputable research, historical evidence, etc., etc.

P.P.S. Yes, I know we are lucky to have a lively humanist presence in North-East England. My links with the humanists are mostly via North-East Humanists itself, but I also know some members of the British Humanist Association. A post about Humanism would be welcome at some point! It’s a belief system which does not get the exposure it deserves (but humanists frequently engage with interfaith endeavours in a highly constructive manner).


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