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Is religion in Exeter dying out?

By This is Exeter  |  Posted: January 16, 2013

The European Court of Human Rights rejected the discrimination cases of three of the four Christians who took their fight to Strasbourg

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The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled a Christian nurse from Exeter did not suffer religious discrimination at work after being told she could no longer wear a cross.

Shirley Chaplin took her case to the Strasbourg court in September last year after being told in 2009, after a 30-year career on the wards at the Royal Devon & Exeter Hospital, she could no longer wear a crucifix around her neck.

She was told the necklace for the cross breached health and safety guidelines.

Ms Chaplin was one of four Christians who claimed they lost their jobs as a result of discrimination against their beliefs, and subsequently took their cases to the ECHR.

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The Court yesterday ruled only one of the four Christians - Nadia Eweida, a Pentecostal Christian from Twickenham who was sent home by her employer British Airways in 2006 after refusing to remove a necklace with a cross - “suffered discrimination at work over religious beliefs”.

Ms Chaplin says she plans to appeal.

The verdict has been dubbed a loss for the Christian lobby, and is arguably the latest in a long line of blows to established religion locally.

In February last year an atheist councillor saw Bideford Town Council meeting prayers ruled unlawful, while the 2011 Census revealed the number of people professing to be Christian in Devon and Cornwall had fallen dramatically compared to figures recorded 10 years ago.

Last year the Bishop of Exeter warned of a bid to drive out religion from the public eye, and the humanist movement in Devon is said to be gaining momentum.

So with official data pointing to fewer Christians in Exeter and alternative belief systems attracting growing numbers, we ask – is religion in Exeter dying out?

Keith Denby, chair of Devon Humanists, thinks so: “Religion is dying out and the way it’s dying out it the majority of people born after 1980 just don’t care, it does not come up on their radar,” he said.

“But there are people who worry that we get our morals from religion, so where are we getting them from now? That’s very positive. People get their ideas from places that are not traditionally religious.

“Many conclude treating the world with rationality and putting yourself in other people’s shoes is a good guideline for ethical behaviour. Then they later come across the written works on humanism.

“Lots and lots of people are looking for a moral and ethical guidance system because they realise they need one. Being empathic is how we have evolved as human beings.”

And Exeter is at the heart of the Devon Humanists movement, Mr Denby explained. The body originated in Exeter and regional groups - East, South and North Devon as well as Plymouth – were later established. Each group has around 100 members and the number has “quadrupled in the last five years”.

This, Mr Denby maintains, is just the tip of the iceberg. Many more from across Devon interact with the group’s social media pages and the Devon Humanists webpage, but don’t travel to the meetings, he said.

Skeptics in the Pub meetings are held once a month at locations across Exeter and Plymouth. There, speakers explore false claims and counter them with rationality.

And in February each year the Devon Humanists in Plymouth and North Devon celebrate Charles Darwin’s birthday at an Indian restaurant.

Mr Denby, who has been Chair of Devon Humanists for three years and a member for eight, hopes the Exeter branch will soon host a similar event in the city.

“In any other aspect of life if you went around saying you had an invisible friend you would get sectioned. But religious people are given special rights to be discriminatory. Many humanists ask ‘why?’, it’s not logical or rational,” he said.

“Many religious people jump up and down and say they are being discriminated against, but in fact they are being discriminatory and we are not letting them. The courts have been supportive of this.”

Mr Denby’s suggestion religion in Exeter is in decline is to some extent supported by official figures.

The latest census data shows the number of people professing to be Christian in Devon and Cornwall has fallen dramatically compared to figures recorded 10 years ago, and in Exeter 34.7 per cent of the population declared themselves to be of ‘no religion’ – the highest in Devon.

Exeter also has the lowest population percentage - 53.9 per cent - registered as Christian in Devon. This compares to 62.8 per cent in Torridge; 58.1 per cent in Plymouth; 63.3 per cent in Torbay; 61.5 per cent in Devon County and 59.8 per cent in Cornwall.

And the figures were higher 10 years earlier. The share of the Torbay population stating they were Christian in 2001 was 76.2 per cent (meaning the 2011 figure is down 12.9 percentage points); Devon 74.8 per cent (a fall of 13.3 percentage points); Cornwall 74.3 per cent (tumbling 14.5 percentage points) and Plymouth 73.5 per cent (a dip of 15.4 percentage points).

Dr Kevin Dixon, the Devon Humanists press officer, told This is Exeter: “The last 10 years have seen a one per cent per year decrease in the Christian population of Exeter. Since the Census was taken in 2011, it is likely that 51.9 per cent of Exeter's population is now Christian.

“Exeter will, therefore, have a minority Christian population by 2015 - the first part of Devon to be post-Christian.”

Mr Denby claims a decline in religion is being seen outside Exeter also: “We have noticed a big shift in the Zeitgeist in the past few years,” he said.

“There was a period where stand-up comedians would take swipes at established religion because it got laughs, but even that has gone because that’s yesterday’s problem, people are not shocked. People say ‘that’s what we think, so what?’”

He added: “More marriages are being carried out by humanists, and more want a secular celebration of their life [at funerals].

“Hymns are often optional, and many don’t want the ‘eternal life’ stuff, but to focus on the life of the person that has died and give a speech to remember him or her.”

For atheist councillor Clive Bone, who last year saw council meeting prayers ruled unlawful, this shift is to be celebrated. He maintains adherence to religious practices is putting off young talent from joining the council.

“It’s hastening the decline of the local authority,” he said. “It’s irritating for people who don’t want to sit there and listen to it.”

Mr Bone, who until last year sat on Bideford Town Council, added: “It’s not a private club, the local authority belongs to everyone. People who are not church-goers tend to get put off by that sort of thing.

“It irked me sitting there listening to it knowing that people were being put off. We have the right to freedom from religion.”

Mr Bone said religious individuals do not have “a licence to impose religion on others where it’s not wanted”.

The ruling prompted Rt Rev Michael Langrish, the Bishop of Exeter, to warn of a bid to drive religion out of the public eye.

But the Bishop maintains despite the Census data, many in Exeter have a faith. Last month he told the Western Morning News: "It's very interesting to consider the question of religion and faith.

"I meet a lot of people who say they do not follow a religion but they have faith.

"Had the question (on the Census) been about faith I think we would have got a different answer."

He also attributed the decline in the number of people professing to be Christian in Devon and Cornwall to changes in society. He said: "A lot of people see religion as an organisation and a lot of people have lost faith with large organisations including political parties and trade unions, so it's all part of a broader change in our society I feel.

"However, the Church of England in Devon has seen figures (church attendance) going gently up over the past five years."

This sentiment was echoed by the Very Rev'd Dr Jonathan Draper, the Dean of Exeter. Asked whether religion in Exeter was in decline, he said: “Certainly not. When you poke around to the other churches around here you will find they are very much alive and kicking, and having a very important role in the city.”

Reflecting upon the Census data, the Dean added: “I think when you look at these figures you have to understand the vast majority of people in this country still consider themselves to be Christians.”

The Dean also said modern day life was impacting upon people’s religious practices: “There’s a lot of pressure on Sundays and often people are not going to church,” he said. “We need to do much more about it and offer people other ways in.

“It’s about thinking differently – meeting at other times and going out to where people are, such as café churches. You’ll see different expressions of faith, that’s what’s interesting”.

Some 20,000 people attended Christmas services and concerts at Exeter Cathedral last year. “It was a very considerable increase on the last year,” said the Dean.

“When you think that’s over a 20-day period, that’s a lot of people coming in through the door.

“Christmas is always a very full time in the life of the Cathedral, but we have consistently good congregations here. That is one of the areas of real growth over the years.”

The Skeptics and the University of Exeter atheist society are meeting at the Bike Shed, Exeter at 7.30p on Thursday. Members of the public are welcome to attend.

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Do you think religion in Exeter is dying out?

Yes, dramatically: 50%

50% of the vote

Yes, slightly: 19%

19% of the vote

No: 18%

18% of the vote

Don't know: 11%

11% of the vote

No, but it may do in the near future: 3%

3% of the vote

Poll is closed

216 people have voted.