There was an excellent Radio 4 documentary on yesterday in which Sarfraz Manzoor interviewed a group of people you don’t hear much about – ex-Muslims.

Like all good radio documentaries, it left me wanting to know more about the individuals involved, feeling more confused about the world, and with mixed feelings too. On the one hand I can understand that Dover Beach sadness of people falling away from religion, and why the parents of those interviewed would feel devastated by that loss.

On the other hand, the ex-Muslims are right. They’re right to question the beliefs they were brought up with, and they’re right to see the inconsistencies and those aspects where Islam’s morality clashes with theirs, and to follow what they think to be right.

It’s also good for the society around them; the irony is that ex-Muslims have embraced the British dream like no others by adopting the mainstream British mode of belief, that is unbelief and scepticism, and yet society not only does not welcomes this, it almost discourages it, is embarrassed by it.

One of the assumptions about immigration was that people from other religions would eventually start to believe as much as Anglicans do, or just leave the faith; yet at the same time the British establishment and state has and continues to protect minority faiths from the sorts of criticism and ridicule that would aide this process. Partly this is out of politeness, or to prevent social disorder, or confusion about race, or part of a political strategy played out both by Labour and Conservatives, secularists and Christians.

Both secularists and Christians have promoted multiculturalism in order to build a society that suited them more, and at the moment I note that New Humanist magazine and the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales are at one on diversity and immigration, although for different reasons, and at least one of them is sure to be disappointed (maybe both). Labour has promoted the mosques for their own ends, but our current government is trying to make itself more ‘pro-faith’, whatever that means, both pro-church and pro-mosque, as if all religions were just a variation of colourful outfits, rather than belief systems that inherently clash surely as secular ideologies do.

In reality the ideal for British social cohesion would be for lots of Muslims (and Hindus and Sikhs) to become atheists, agnostics or very wishy-washy Anglicans. That we can’t admit this is at the heart of the integration problem facing an unbelieving society.

Religion used to be the way to join the tribe. In the 19th century a second or third generation immigrant could put away his ethnicity by one single act – joining the Church of England. One could still be a Catholic or Jewish Englishmen, just as one can be Muslim and British today, but taking that sacrament was an expression of total immersion, almost a baptism of identity, and one far more powerful than answering a set of questions about how many weeks benefit we’re entitled to or what proportion of the UK population is addicted to smack. The issue of assimilation is more important today than it was in the 19th century because minority religions are far larger, and they’re growing. PEW estimate that the percentage of the UK population that is Muslim will pass the 8 per cent mark in the 2020s. And yet the apostasy rate is incredibly small – just 0.5 per cent of Pakistani-Britons described themselves as having no religion in the last census.

So how does one become British now? Sitting in a pub talking about how there is no God seems pretty close to me. How typically perfidious and hypocritical that British society does not acknowledge or welcome this.

Tags: atheism, Britain, Church of England, identity, Islam, Religion