Research study suggests little “unfair treatment” of faith groups

The Michaelmas Term Newsletter from Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education reports on the findings of a study by a team led by Paul Weller at the University of Derby into religious discrimination, published in June, which indicate that “institutions are making progress but that reports of unfair treatment from people of different religions or beliefs continue”. The report, Religion and Belief, Discrimination and Equality in England and Wales: A Decade of Continuity and Change,

covers the ten years since the 2003 Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations came into law; for the first time making it illegal in England and Wales to discriminate on the grounds of religion or belief. It was followed by the 2006 Incitement to Racial and Racial Hatred Act, and the 2006 and 2010 Equalities Acts”.

The project team has also produced brief Summary Findings and a Policy Brief.

The two-year project builds upon earlier research, in particular that conducted for the Home Office in 1999-2001, Religious Discrimination in England and Wales, and is based upon responses from almost 500 religious organisations, and interviews and focus-group discussions with 270 people, of various faiths and none, in Cardiff, Blackburn, Leicester, Newham, Norwich, Derby, London, Manchester and Oxford.

Among the principal findings are these:

  • there was a general feeling among respondents that better public education, and greater collaboration between different religions and communities, were now the best ways to continue to combat unfair treatment based on religion or belief;
  • substantial reporting of unfair treatment on the basis of religion or belief did continue across key areas of people’s lives but changes in the law had contributed to a reduction in the reported experience of unfair treatment on the basis of religion or belief; this was the case particularly among certain religious groups such as Muslims, Pagans and new religious movements, where unfair treatment continued to arise in key aspects of people’s lives such as work, education and encounters with the media;
  • Christians in the study cited unfair treatment concerning wearing crosses, pressure to work Sundays by employers and a sense of their religion being marginalised whilst other faiths received fairer treatment; while in contrast,
  • some “non-religious people” in the project’s focus-groups highlighted a sense that “Christianity and religion in general is privileged in ways that are structurally embedded in the society”  and that Christians appeared to receive privileged treatment, especially around matters of education and governance.

Comment

A critical analysis of the report was produced by Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society when it was first published which concluded: “Can we please stop wasting money on these endless surveys that just tell us what we already know?”

We are not entirely sure that all this is, in fact, “what we already know”. On the contrary, there has been much talk about “persecuted Christians” which seems to us to be more hurt feelings than anything else – to the extent that Rowan Williams has suggested that the whole issue is becoming mildly ridiculous and that Christians in the UK who feel “persecuted” really need to get a life.

The Derby team’s policy brief argues that

“It is vitally important for the future of religion and society to understand the nature and extent of such discrimination and the adequacy of equality policies, practices and laws designed to tackle it”.

To which the obvious rejoinder might be, “Well they would say that, wouldn’t they”. But issues of “equality” are often as much about individual perceptions as about actual inequalities of treatment. The only cure for misconceptions is empirical data – and that goes as much for non-religious people who feel that religion is unduly privileged as for religious people who feel that they are subjected to “discrimination”.

The scale of the investigation and the comparison with comparable earlier work makes a valuable contribution to the understanding of these issues, although we would have welcomed a greater legal analysis of the issues raised by the changes in the law and its interpretation by the courts.

The project’s Summary Findings document and Policy Brief are available here and here, respectively, with further background information here. A book by the authors, Religion or Belief, Discrimination and Equality: Britain in Global Contexts is to be published this month by Bloomsbury/Continuum (London, New Delhi, New York, and Sydney).

As a footnote, readers might be interested in Gillan’s latest post, Is a muscular defence of our national Judaeo-Christian heritage needed? over at God & Politics UK in which he considers “[the] opinion on the state of Christianity in our country” of “a few more political types”: Nigel Farage, Baroness Warsi, Richard Dawkins, Polly Toynbee et al.

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