Government anti-secularism should concern us all

I’ve blogged at Huffington Post about the ongoing anti-secularism of the Government:

To call Britain a ‘Christian country’ is only marginally more sensible than calling Italy a ‘Roman country’ and it was appropriate that Baroness Warsi made her most recent rallying cry against secularism amongst all the archaic pomp of the Vatican state. As a simple factual statement the ‘Christian country’ line is of course demonstrably false (the most recent British Social Attitudes Survey published at the end of last year put the proportion of Christians at 40% and falling) and as a historical claim it omits as much of our cultural past as it includes. But on this occasion it was not so much Christianity the Baroness had come to praise but secularism she had come to attack.

But it is not overweening secularism that is the UK’s problem – it is continuing and entrenched privilege for Christianity and Christian churches, and the consequent efforts by other religious groups for privileges of their own.

It was especially surreal of the Baroness to accuse secularism of being ‘intolerant’ and ‘illiberal’. It is not secular schools in England that are allowed by law to discriminate against children on the basis of their parents’ religious beliefs: it’s the thousands of state-funded Christian schools and the handful of those run by other religions. It is not secular agencies that reserve employment opportunities for staff according to their beliefs, but the many Christian and other religious agencies who are increasingly having public services contracted to them by the state. It is not non-religious organisations which lobby for and have received special exemptions from laws – like equality laws – that should affect everyone equally. It’s not the British Humanist Association that has unelected representatives as of right in our national legislature – it’s the 26 bishops of the Church of England who are there.

These and many many other examples of religious privilege and continued official discrimination on grounds of religion or belief give the lie to Lady Warsi’s oft-repeated smears. It would be good if we could dismiss her as just a minority of one but – at least in her views on this issue – she is far from isolated. Eric Pickles just last week jumped into the row about local councils not being able to include prayer on their formal agendas with the same anti-secularist gusto he has displayed on previous occasions. At the end of last year, David Cameron made his own extraordinary speech on Britain’s status as a Christian country, a speech which provoked more astonished bemusement than outrage, with its self-evidently ahistorical and bizarre statements, and its improbable calls on us all to be confident in our Christian nature.

When they are so palpably out of kilter with reality, why do present day politicians keep saying these things?

The most hopeful political reading is that they don’t really mean it and are just attempting to pacify the small but increasingly strident minority of Christian lobby groups who are seeking yet great influence in our public life and greater privilege for those with Christian beliefs. It would be a shame that politicians had bought into the crazy narrative of ‘christianophobia’ that these lobby groups promote, but at least we could rest assured that it would just be political rhetoric and no practical harm would come of it.

More alarming is if Warsi, Pickles and Cameron are serious in their message. A government that tried to make Christianity and Christian beliefs the foundation of British values or a social morality would be building on seriously unstable and unshared foundations. Secularism is essentially a political strategy that says, in the context of a diverse society, the state should not discriminate in favour of or against any person because of their religious or non-religious beliefs. For a government to set itself against that principle is concerning, and the expansion of state-funded religious schools, contracting out of public services to religious groups, and official guarantees of Christian privilege in public life give increasing plausibility to this second interpretation of the politicians’ words.

If the latter interpretation is the correct one, then politicians should remember that their approach is far from popular. In a 2006 IpsosMori poll, ‘religious groups and leaders’ actually topped the list of domestic groups that people said had too much influence on government. In the research released yesterday by the Richard Dawkins foundation, over 90% of self-described Christians said they did not think religion should have special place in public policy. A majority of the public surveyed – including a majority of Christians – repeatedly say they are against new religious schools. Policies that pursue religious exceptionalism in defiance of demographic reality and public opinion can only cause division and dissent.

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