Terrorism, Belonging & the Role of Civil Religion

Religion in Britain has a complicated and often controversial history. Callum Brown in his influential book The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation 1800-2000 suggested that the Christian character of Britain in those times was somewhat overstated, with what had often been defined as an predominantly Christian character to the nation being instead more of a Christian veneer on top of older folk spiritualities and beliefs.

Edit: I was out for an evening walk after posting this article, I came across an example of civil religion in practice as a result of the events in Manchester last week, the gallery is at the bottom of this page.

There has been in recent decades a greater awareness of other religions other than Christianity, thanks to significant immigration since the 1960s and the greater acceptance of other spiritual beliefs such as Wicca, Paganism and other folk or naturalistic religions. However, an often understated form of religion in society is the role of civil religion.

Civil religion is not based around the belief of a deity or of a uniform spiritual belief system, but rather as religion that grows from the cultural norms and commonalities within society. The term, religion, of course can be controversial. Someone who identifies as being atheist may, with good reason, not wish to be identified with any use of the term religion, civil or otherwise. At the very least the term carries a certain amount of baggage from a linguistic and metaphysical perspective that can colour, for both good and bad, how the term is understood in common use. The term is less important than the role that it plays.

Common examples of civil religion include secular or semi-secular acts of remembrance based around remembering the fallen of military conflicts. These may include an element of traditional religion within them, for example a contribution of prayers or readings from a religious tradition, although these are not relevant to whether something is considered to be civil religion. Acts of civil religion may be wholly or partly secular in nature. Other examples include the Palio di Senia, a biannual horse race held in Siena, Italy, representing the city wards (areas) in enthusiastic competition that brings the entire city together in one event.

Another, more recent, example is the communal acts of remembrance as a result of the bombing at the Manchester Arena on the 22nd May 2017, after the end of an Ariana Grande concert, leading to the deaths of 22 individuals. These acts include the laying of flowers and the communal gardens as a central focus for civil religious acts that these became in Manchester, Liverpool and other cities. The signings of books of remembrance throughout the world widen the communal area in which grief, shock and solidarity are shared and such locations take a symbolic role in people feeling connected to the location (in this case Manchester) that is the prime area of focus. Such books of remembrance and condolence were for example a common civil religious act after the death of Princess Diana in 1997, and civil religion in Britain is often related to significant national events.

On Sunday 4th June 2017, less than two weeks after the bombing in Manchester, a benefit concert led by Ariana Grande,  and including a wide roster of international musical stars, will take place at Lancashire Cricket Ground, a few miles from the location of the bombing. Such events, and its national broadcast on British television, provide another example of civil religion at work.

Here the diverse community of Manchester joins together and is joined by communities around the world represented by those attending the concert, and those worldwide watching the event. This is civil religion at its best, a communal, loving response to violent events, and the violent agenda of those who would seek to terrorise. The aim of Islamic State is to separate and divide communities, specifically in Britain to divide Muslim communities from the rest of the local community by planting the idea that others are to be afraid of Muslims and that they should removed from Britain, creating a greater opportunity for Islamic State, which is struggling in its strongholds, to radicalise a new set of followers.

The best response to such actions and agenda is to join together in acts of civil religion that remind the world that there is much that unites us and little that divides us . Acts of civil religion, of communal gathering, uniting and sharing are one of, if not the strongest, response to the attempts to divide local communities and the nation as a whole through acts of terror and violence.

Finally, remember the many individual acts that took place in the days after the bombing: people opening their homes so concert-goers could use a landline to phone home, Muslims arriving at hospitals to give food and drink to the emergency services, taxi drivers making repeat journeys to and from Manchester so that people could get home safely. These are the acts of a grieving but united community in action.

The following gallery shows an example of civil religion in practice as a result of the Manchester bombing, as the war memorial in Moreton (Wirral, Merseyside), 40 miles from Manchester, becomes a local focus for thoughts and remembrance

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