Secular Right | Reality & Reason



No Religion, Please — We’re English

[T]he common people are without definite religious belief, and have been so for centuries. The Anglican Church never had a real hold on them, it was simply a preserve of the landed gentry, and the Nonconformist sects only influenced minorities. And yet they have retained a deep tinge of Christian feeling, while almost forgetting the name of Christ.

                                                — George Orwell, “England, Your England

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  • Susan · March 1, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    I wonder if Orwell is suggesting that England was a more religious country when it was a Roman Catholic country? Don’t know–I don’t want to read more into the passge than is actually there.

    You could draw a parallel, I suppose, between the Anglican Church in England (a preserve of the landed gentry and the aristocracy) and the Episcopal Church in the U.S., which has also–at least in the northeast and south–tended to be a preserve of bluebloods and those wanting to be taken for bluebloods. Is it about spiritualy or social status?

  • Author comment by Bradlaugh · March 1, 2009 at 8:14 pm

    There’s an RC narrative to the effect that the ructions of Henry VIII’s reign were all against the popular will, disturbing and distressing a solidly RC nation. Eamon Duffy’s THE STRIPPING OF THE ALTARS makes plain that the situation was much more complex, with dogged loyalty to Rome in some regions (esp. the North), but fed-up-ness and desire for reform in others (prob. more). There were pitched street battles between reformers and traditionalists — even in the early stages, when the Crown was still traditionalist.

    Overall: (1) There’s no doubt that late-medieval England (to 1500) was as pious as any other part of Christendom, though with eruptions of proto-Reformation dissent, notably of course the Lollards, gathering quite wide support, though very regionally biased. (2) The Marian restoration (1550s) was more popular than later Anglican propaganda painted it. (“Foxe’s accounts of communal solidarity with the victims of the Marian burnings certainly cannot be taken at face value” — Duffy.) Again, though, there was much regional variation. (3) The comparatively tolerant and compromising spirit of Elizabeth was greeted with general relief; but (4) By 1600 all the ructions of the century had decisively broken the back of medieval piety and left the generality of Englishmen cynical towards all claims of churchly authority.

    There were surely many Vicars of Bray and people noticed. The religion that made English history in the 17C was private & anticlerical — Puritan, but that was always a minority taste. I’d guess that by the Civil War (1640s), Orwell’s observation was a true one.

  • Susan · March 2, 2009 at 8:00 am

    It’s interesting, too, that Ireland (Roman Catholic) and Scotland (Calvinist/Presbyterian/some Roman Catholic holdouts) remained much more yoked to religion after the Renaissance and Reformation. I wonder how much that had to do with them both being clan-based societies?

  • Mark in Spokane · March 2, 2009 at 7:00 pm


    I think in those cases the majority of the population still believed in their religions in the face of English efforts to impose the Anglican compromise on them after the Reformation. As a result, for both the Irish and the Scots, there was a “true faith” that could be contrasted and opposed to the “established church” that was perceived to be based on a cynical effort to discern not the a true faith but a lowest common denominator Christianity. In such a situation, add in the identification of the “true faith” with ethnic identity (Catholicism with the Irish, Presbyterianism with the lowland Scots and Catholicism with the highland Scots), and it isn’t difficult to see why Ireland and Scotland remained more religiously devout than England.

  • Author comment by Bradlaugh · March 2, 2009 at 7:14 pm

    Well, let’s not forget Wales, a very pious country — more so than England, anyway — until quite recently. The main export of Wales is schoolmasters. I was educated by several. They had all sung in (Methodist) chapel choirs, and each knew his fach (category of singing voice) to precision.

    Now the chapels of Wales are empty and derelict, where they have not been bought up or demolished. In 2001 they were closing at the rate of one per week.

    Welsh piety must have been a fairly recent thing, though. Methodism’s less than 300 yrs old. I don’t know how things went in the early-modern period. George Borrow, traveling round Wales in 1854, claims to find Methodism only in the poorest places. Borrow was a religious bigot, though (Anglican), and not altogether trustworthy.

  • Susan · March 3, 2009 at 8:01 am

    Thanks, Mark, that’s very interesting. It may complement what I said. Anyway, I do think that the influence of religion–sometimes an extremely pernicious influence, as in the case of Wahhabism–may be stronger in tribal cultures. A point of clan identification?

    For what it’s worth, many years ago when I was living in Edinburgh, I accompanied a visiting relative to an Easter service at St. Giles. The cathedral was nearly empty–just a few pews semi-filled with what looked like tourists. The minister, who by the way appeared to be about nineteen years old, gave a sermon about Job’s boils. No mention of what day it was. This may be a story without a point, but I always remembered the relative emptiness of the church.

    Bradlaugh,I didn’t forget Wales; I just never spent enough time there to get any sense of how religious (or not) the Welsh are/were.

  • harry flashman · March 4, 2009 at 6:06 pm

    Anecdotally – I have lived in Great Britain, been married to a C of E member, have reltives that I’ve often visited in Scotland and have been in and out of the country since 1968 on a regular basis.

    As far as I can tell, the only “religion” strictly adhered to by the proleteriat is adherence to the dole and the fiddle.

    For all the fulminations of the Archbishops of Canterbury and the saints, going back to Thomas More, Columba and Bede, the end result seems to be a total lack of any morals in the general population of Great Britain.

    Sharia Law has more sway in Britain today than Rowan Williams and 1500 years of death penalty enforced inculcation of Christian morals and values.

  • Carter · March 5, 2009 at 1:29 pm

    Why no new posts? My theory is the Secular Rightists have been smote and now have emerods in their secret parts.

  • Drew · March 5, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    I second Carter’s post even though I know nothing of emerods. Has this place gone the way of Culture 11?

  • Author comment by Walter Olson · March 5, 2009 at 6:04 pm

    I suppose one explanation is that we’ve been devastated by our inability to refute the objections raised to our views in the comments section, and have retreated to lick our wounds. A different potential explanation is that we have deadlines. With possibly one or two exceptions, I think all the bloggers here are working writers.

  • Mr. F. Le Mur · March 5, 2009 at 9:13 pm

    “Why no new posts?”

    Most of the previous posts didn’t really seem to deal with conservatism, just atheism and general philosophy. Atheism is a limited and very boring subject, and the “meaning of life” philosophical discussions probably belong somewhere else.



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