In yet another paradox of public attitudes to religion, 55% of Britons agree that local councils should be allowed to hold prayers as part of formal council meetings, even though an identical proportion personally believe that councils should not hold such prayers, according to new research by YouGov and posted at:
The online survey, in which 1,828 adults aged 18 and over were interviewed on 14-15 February 2012, was conducted in the aftermath of the recent (10 February) High Court judgment against Bideford Town Council that prayers held as part of its official business are not permitted under the Local Government Act 1972. The Council has voted to appeal the decision.
Meanwhile, Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, has fast-tracked an Order under the Localism Act 2011 which will effectively nullify the High Court ban by authorizing councils to exercise a ‘general power of competence’. The National Secular Society, which was a party in bringing the action against Bideford, is consulting its lawyers and apparently contemplating a fresh legal challenge.
Asked whether councils should hold prayers during their formal meetings, only 26% of YouGov’s respondents were in favour, 55% against, and 20% uncertain. Support for prayers was strongest among the very/fairly religious (52%), Christians (46%), the over-60s (40%), those considering that Britain should be a Christian country (40%), and Conservatives (34%).
However, irrespective of their personal view about whether councils should hold prayers, 55% thought that they should definitely be allowed to hold them, rising to 78% of Christians, 76% of the very/fairly religious, 72% of those wanting Britain to be a Christian country, 67% of over-60s, and 66% of Conservatives. Just 34% argued that councils should not be allowed to have prayers, with 11% expressing no opinion.
Another seeming contradiction surfaced in the poll was that, although only 24% of the sample described themselves as very or fairly religious and 43% regarded themselves as belonging to a religion, 56% agreed that Britain is a Christian country and 61% that it should be a Christian country.
Endorsement of the proposition that Britain should be a Christian country was highest among professing Christians (88%), the very or fairly religious (79%), over-60s (79%), and Conservative voters (77%). Dissentients numbered 22%, with 18% undecided.
What was especially interesting was that even 37% of those who considered themselves as not at all religious and 44% of those having no religion wanted Britain to be a Christian country. 41% and 43% respectively agreed that it already is such a country. 36% and 40% also thought that councils should be permitted to hold prayers before their formal meetings.
The irreligious, it therefore seems, can be just as equivocal about their ‘belief’ as the many self-identifying Christians whose lack of commitment to the faith was exposed in the Ipsos MORI poll for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (UK), and published last Tuesday.
As the proponents of faith on the one hand and secularism and rationalism on the other assume increasingly entrenched positions about the place of religion in national life, perhaps all parties need to understand that the great British public do not see things in quite such black and white terms.
The reality of public opinion is that religious beliefs and attitudes can be messy, fuzzy and – sometimes – contradictory, as they probably have been for generations past. The simplistic rhetoric of much current ‘debate’ may be in danger of obscuring this empirical complexity.