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Religious diversity: rethinking religion
Religious diversity: rethinking religion

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1.2 What is secularism?

What secularism means has been interpreted differently in different national and legal contexts. For example, in France, the development of secularism (called laïcité) has led to the ownership of all religious buildings being transferred to civic authorities. Thus the state directly subsidises the upkeep of historical religious buildings.

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Figure 4 The motto of the secular French republic ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’ inscribed on the arch of a church door to show that this church building is owned by the state. Photo: © Graham Harvey

Since the 1960s, in particular, many individuals within European cultures have questioned established authorities and institutions. Adherence to church doctrine and moral or ethical expectations and attendance at Christian services fell in most of Europe (Brown, 2009 and McLeod, 2007). There is considerable disagreement amongst some scholars about how long and why Christianity has been in decline in Britain. Some have traced a decline in Christianity throughout the nineteenth century. However the 1960s do seem to have been a key decade, from which secularism appeared to be in the ascendant.

Still, most of the world, and a significant minority of people in Britain continue to be deeply religious. In any large British city, many will have backgrounds from around the world. Many immigrants have brought their faiths with them and these often continue among second and subsequent generations.

The numbers of any single minority religion are small relative to the general population. But a religion does not need many members to attract controversy. For many reasons, Muslims in Britain often find themselves discussed in the press. Yet in 2011, Muslims made up less than 5% of the population (White, 2012). However in some areas concentrations of minority religions are much higher; for example, Muslims make up 38% of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets (Tower Hamlets, 2015).

British law enshrines a respect for religious freedom, balanced with other rights and restrictions. Increasingly, religious diversity impacts on employment practices and decisions about local buildings and community centres.