I don't believe that Britain is turning against religion, despite the recent survey that claims that most of us consider religion to be a force for bad. In other surveys well over half of us call ourselves Christian (some 72 per cent in the census of 2001). The nation is not repudiating its vague religious allegiance in favour of militant secularism. Yuletide is a good test of this. It seems to me that the vast majority are happy for Christmas to retain its semi-Christian character. Only a few oddballs wanted carols banned.
Yet something is happening, I think: people are becoming more critical of the involvement of religious institutions in public life. This involvement should not be overstated: for many decades the power of the churches has been very limited. The point is that most people want it to stay that way: they do not want an ecclesiastical comeback. And so they are opposed to an increase in the numbers of faith schools, for example.
So I think that we are seeing a rise in secular consciousness. But it is crucial that we do not confuse this with a hostility to religion. It is a hostility to the power of religious institutions. The word "secularism" must be handled with great care: it is fatally ambiguous. It can either mean opposition to religion in general, or it can mean opposition to the state's empowerment of religious institutions. There is all the difference in the world between these two senses of the word.
Yet the current debate conspires to confuse the two meanings of secularism. Part of the blame lies with militant atheists, who assume that all religious believers want politically strong churches, and that all religious belief is therefore politically dangerous. But most of the blame lies with the churches. It is in the bishops' interest to deny the distinction; to deny that a Christian might want more secularism (in the political sense). For church leaders want to associate authentic religion with their own institutions. They cannot imagine that a Christian might be opposed to politically strong churches.
I am such a Christian. I side with the secularists against the bishops on every issue of religion's role in society. I want an explicitly secular state. I pray for the withering away of faith schools. I believe that religious institutions are fundamentally hostile to cultural freedom. The churches cannot help trying to control their surrounding culture; at root they think they own it. This attitude is usually buried under layers of warm, progressive rhetoric, but it's still there. Churches are possessed by nostalgia for Christendom. Right-on clergy are complicit - including those who display their homophilia at every opportunity, as if this proves that the violence of religious institutionalism only affects other clergy.
So my hope for 2007 is that a new sort of Christian culture emerges: one that is critical of religious institutionalism and one that affirms secular freedom. There can be no renewal of Christian culture on the old church model. For the average liberal-minded person rightly sees that this model is morally and politically dubious. Many will wonder how a new, post-institutional Christian culture is possible. Isn't religion necessarily organised, and therefore institutional? What form would a new, anarchic Christian movement take? If these questions are asked in earnest, answers will emerge.
Theo Hobson is a writer and theologian. He also writes for The Guardian‚Äôs Comment-is-Free.