Religion occupied

Updated Tuesday 8th November 2011

Maria Nita reports from an 'Occupy Bath' tent on how religion and protest have interacted over the centuries.

St Paul's occupation Creative commons image Icon By christopher a tittle via Flickr under Creative Commons license under Creative-Commons license 2011 'occupation' of St Paul's Cathedral ' I am kneeling inside the ‘Occupy Bath’ information tent in Queens Square, Bath and stacking up books on a small TV stand. Two days earlier on 5th November, protestors in London had attempted to march onto the Houses of Parliament wearing Guy Fawkes masks, now a universal symbol for political subversion.

"There’s no TV!" an activist tells me with a wink. "But we’ll soon have a stream from St. Pauls’. I'd arrived early and asked if there was anything that needed doing. I know enough about the life of a protest camp to anticipate that people may be busy cleaning, fixing, recycling, putting up tents and taking them down, and I don’t want to waste my hosts’ time.

To my right there’s a political map of the world that urges in black marker: ‘Occupy the world!’ Little green pins, signifying ‘more than 2,000 occupied locations’ form a swarm across Europe and the US, but a few pins have been stuck in some rather surprising places: on small islands or the edges of the African continent, the internet undoubtedly making this remote solidarity possible.

The protesters want to exchange ideas, to have a forum, to re-think what democracy is, to get people talking about their rights, about global poverty and consumerism, about corporate greed, education and funding, public spending cuts, and whatever else there may be on their mind. This is a protest movement with an open agenda and some political commentators find in the open end of their demands a lack of political focus.

In Bath the protestors are camped in a public square, but in London the support and cooperation with St Paul’s cathedral have come as a surprise to many people. However, religion and protest are not such unlikely companions as it may seem. Christianity has its own subversive roots and Jesus’s ‘cleansing of the temple’ is a story that can easily be summoned when talking about the moral guidance and responsibility religion may have to offer and uphold, particularly in relation to  financial justice.

Yet sandwiched between protestors and the ‘general public’, between Guy Fawkes’ night and Remembrance Sunday, St. Paul’s cathedral appears somewhat torn between its historical role to provide sanctuary, to protect the poor and the disadvantaged, and its more formal duties, towards the nation state, as a maintainer of tradition and continuity. Remembrance Sunday unites the country in silence, and so it threatens to dissolve its pockets of subversion and its international allegiances, by invoking instead mainstream and national loyalties. 

The separation between church and state, which took place under various guises in Western democracies after the 19th century, meant that religion had to officially step down from its former leading political role. The 20th century saw religion dwindle and decline even further, with some scholars predicting its imminent demise in the face of scientific progress. Yet throughout history, distant as well as recent, religion has been actively involved in political reform.

Conversely politics and socio-economic factors often played a crucial role in religious reform. For example the Protestant Reformation, the 16th century schism in Western Christianity, had strong economical or material precedents, such as the success of the printing press or the slowly reverberating ill-effects of the Black Death.

As an example of the extraordinary social capital religion may have, even in situations of extreme power inequality, in my native Romania the fall of the Communist regime in the winter of 1989 was precipitated by one Hungarian priest who refused to move out of his parish church.

In Britain, religion, having survived the apparent misdiagnosis of secularisation, is starting to become aware of its own social capital and thus beginning to articulate a political voice. It is an emerging political voice that is no longer solely and inaudibly preaching from a pulpit, but streaming and twittering. St Paul’s cathedral has become in the space of a week an equally sought-after supporter for both protesters and the government, being expected to both raise its voice and keep silent.   

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

The Dates of the Buddha article icon

History & The Arts 

The Dates of the Buddha

How accurately can we put a date on the life of the Buddha, and why is it so hard to pinpoint when he lived?

Article
Day 15 - Icelandic Christmas Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission article icon

History & The Arts 

Day 15 - Icelandic Christmas

Melanie Wright describes the 26 days of Christmas celebration in Iceland.

Article
The Life of Saint George Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Public domain article icon

History & The Arts 

The Life of Saint George

This extract from Alban Butler's 18th Century work on the lives of the saints tells the story of England's patron saint.

Article
Would all religions benefit from having women leaders? Creative commons image Icon Art History Images (Holly Hayes) under CC BY-NC 2.0 licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

Would all religions benefit from having women leaders?

Does history show us that the greater participation by women as leaders could enrich some or all religions? 

Article
The Life of Saint David Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Public domain article icon

History & The Arts 

The Life of Saint David

This extract from Alban Butler's 18th Century work on the lives of the saints tells the story of Wales' patron saint.

Article
Who was Mary Magdalene? Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Artemisia Gentileschi article icon

History & The Arts 

Who was Mary Magdalene?

She appears in all the gospels, but we're still not entirely sure who Mary Magdalene was.

Article
The Life of Saint Patrick Creative commons image Icon Sirican under Creative Commons BY 4.0 license article icon

History & The Arts 

The Life of Saint Patrick

This extract from Alban Butler's 18th Century work on the lives of the saints tells the story of Ireland's patron saint.

Article
Religion today: Themes and issues Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 3 icon

History & The Arts 

Religion today: Themes and issues

There is a widespread perception in the West that we live in a secular age, an age in which religion is at best an optional extra, if not a false delusion completely out of place. However, religion still arouses passion and causes controversy; it controls and transforms lives. An informed understanding of the contemporary world thus requires an appreciation of the role of religion in shaping ideas, world-views and actions that have an impact on the social as well as on the personal life of the individual. This free course, Religion today: Themes and issues, gives you a glimpse into this fascinating area.

Free course
15 hrs
Video Interview: Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University video icon

History & The Arts 

Video Interview: Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris

Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris talks to the Open University's Graham Harvey 

Video
10 mins