I’ve become a bit of a socialite lately. Not so much that I will ever feature in ‘Post People’ but enough that I have gotten into various conversations with a whole host of new and exciting people. I say that without tongue being placed firmly in cheek, I hasten to add.
Having achieved this socialite status, I have found a great new way to kill a conversation. When somebody asks what it is you do for a living, you reply: “I teach religious studies”. The conversation dies as quick as the contestants on this year’s Big Brother have…!!!
Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself – you’ll be amazed at how rapid the eyes glaze over as they try to work out exactly what religion you might be: Christian, maybe Jewish, or possibly even Muslim especially as I’ve got a beard. Then as soon as that process is over, the sheer horror begins to show in their eyes as they fear you might even want to ‘convert’ them.
What then could be worse then being stuck in a conversation with a ‘religious’ person?
It is as Alistair Campbell famously told Mr Blair: “We don’t do religion”.
Interestingly, people forget that you can teach religious studies from a totally objective perspective and that unlike theology, religious studies has traditionally always been non-denominational and non-sectarian (in other words, it doesn’t have a particular religion underpinning it). Because of this, I’m neither looking to convert nor wax lyrical about religion. I’m just responding to the question – and being polite.
But why is it that we ‘don’t do religion’?
It’s surprising given that we have a deep religious – largely Christian – heritage in the UK. Well most people can muster at least some of the words to ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ or – despite the seasonal un-timeliness of the example – ‘Silent Night’. The teaching of poor children to read and write by the churches was a precursor to the establishing of schools for the great unwashed. And even Premiership football clubs like Everton evolved out of Sunday school classes. In Birmingham, the Wesleyan Assurance is an institution that emerged out of a particular religious movement.
All this without even mentioning the fact that all our holidays are scheduled around Christian festivals, the Church of England is integral to our political institutions, and don’t forget that the Queen is the ‘Defender of the Faith’. And of course, we’re an increasingly diverse multi-faith society.
But maybe the answer to why we ‘don’t do religion’ is much less complex to understand. Despite the fact that the 2001 Census told us that around 70% of the population described themselves as being ‘Christian’ and that 3% were ‘Muslim’ – and let’s not forget the 390,127 Jedis – those that described themselves as having ‘No religion’ was just under 15% of the population. Add in the near 8% that didn’t answer and you have the reality that no matter how much we focus on those that do identify themselves with a religion, those that don’t remain the second largest group in the UK. In all, approximately 1 in 5 people sit outside the six major (and Jedi) religious traditions. Those who ‘don’t do religion’ therefore are a significant – and somewhat overlooked – proportion of today’s society: something that probably irks and irritates in equal measure.
The solution…? Talk about this year’s Big Brother. It’s less hassle…