Britain is a nation of 65 million people, dozens of religions and countless other beliefs. Without mutual respect and tolerance, this could spell conflict. But should we tolerate all views?
Tolerance of what, exactly?
The Government defines this value as “mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”. This refers to people’s religious orientation (or lack thereof), as well as other principles like veganism and pacifism. The idea is that you should not discriminate against others simply because they do not share your views or culture.
So all beliefs are OK?
Not quite. As the Government’s guidelines make clear, faiths and beliefs that contradict British values should not be encouraged. For example, extremist groups which promote criminal activity have no place in the country. In fact, fear that hardline Islamists were trying to influence schools in Birmingham is what spurred the Government to promote British values in the first place.
Is intolerance illegal or just frowned upon?
Under the Human Rights Act, all Britons have the right to believe what they want. Generally, they are also allowed to “manifest” their faith: talk about it, worship, dress according to its teachings. But there are exceptions if their actions threaten public safety or the rights of others. The Government must regulate all religions equally.
But are all faiths really equal if England is a Christian country?
It’s true that England has an official state religion: the Church of England. The church is involved in major state ceremonies (such as a coronation), and the monarch is its governor (ironically, this means that he or she alone cannot choose his or her religion). But this has no bearing on the rights of Anglicans and non-Anglicans in society.
Have religions always been equal?
No. Britain, like pretty much every nation, has a history of religious intolerance. The Catholics who governed in the Middle Ages cracked down on other beliefs — even on those who wanted to translate the Bible from Latin. After Henry VIII established the Church of England, Catholics were persecuted in turn. This kind of official discrimination gradually died out, although blasphemy was technically a crime until 2008.
Is Britain especially tolerant now?
First, it is worth pointing out that freedom of belief is an international idea. The Human Rights Act is derived from the European Convention on Human Rights and, as of this year, pupils in OECD nations will be tested on their level of tolerance as part of the annual PISA study.
Britain is often described as one of the most tolerant societies in the world. The biannual Eurobarometer poll consistently shows that, compared to most EU nations, it is open to diversity. The far-Right has historically been weak, and policies which control people’s self-expression — like the burqa ban — are relatively rare.
I sense a “but”...
Sadly, bigotry is still not uncommon: beginning in schools, people are sometimes insulted because of their beliefs and culture. The question of how to balance tolerance of all groups often comes up too. For example, in 2015 a Church of England advert was banned from cinemas in case it “caused offence” to non-Christians. Many were outraged by what they saw as censorship.
Has Brexit changed things?
In the aftermath of the referendum, there was a widely reported spike in hate crimes across the nation. Many Britons were dismayed by xenophobic rhetoric used by some Leave campaigners, and the media was awash with headlines about “rising intolerance”.
The rate of hate crimes soon fell again, and it may be too early to tell whether the events surrounding Brexit have permanently shifted attitudes toward minorities and foreigners. According to recent Eurobarometer figures, at least, they have not.
- What is the difference between respect and tolerance?
- Find someone who has a different faith or belief system to your own. Interview him or her about it, asking them how most people view it in Britain.
- Influence schools
- In 2014, the media was shown a letter that apparently detailed a plot by hardline Muslims to “Islamise” schools in Birmingham. The letter turned out to be a hoax, but not before it had triggered a huge national debate about Islam’s influence on classrooms. Ofsted even carried out emergency investigations into 21 schools.
- Church of England
- In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the state and the church are separate.
- Adherents of the Church of England (or one of its spin-off churches around the world).
- The blasphemy laws only protected Christianity from criticism. In practice, they had not been used for a long time before 2008.
- The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. It has 35 member states, mostly developed nations, and its aim is to promote trade and democracy.
- Programme for International Student Assessment. A set of regular international tests for 15-year-olds, through which nations are ranked for academic competence.