27th February 2012

‘Militant secularisation’ has not gone far enough

Greater separation between religion and the state will give people of faith more religious freedom, not less, writes Catriona Watson

Baroness Warsi’s recently-expressed fear that religion is under threat from a campaign of ‘militant secularisation’ is wildly overstated. From the hundreds of thousands of children across the country educated in faith schools, to the disproportionate number of bishops in the House of Lords; religion, the Church of England in particular, continues to play a huge role in British public life.

Even if Warsi were right, the departure from religion in public life should be seen as good news for everyone, religious or otherwise. Considering the proliferation of a multitude of religious faiths in the UK, to give them all an equal share of the public platform would be utterly impossible. By virtue of tradition, Christianity currently dominates the media and parliament. But despite David Cameron’s protestations that “Britain is a Christian country”, and “we should not be afraid to say so”, this over-representation is outdated and unfair. The only practical way for the state to avoid favouring one religion over another is to ignore them all.

Instead of trying to redress the balance, tipped so heavily in favour of the Anglican Church, the Prime Minister has made no secret of his desire for a “return to Christian values”. Cameron attributes the fact that secular countries like France are often accused of more religious intolerance than the UK to “the tolerance that Christianity demands of our society”. Baroness Warsi’s comments serve to reignite the debate over the role of religion in public life, and to what extent the decline in religious belief has played a part in the alleged moral collapse of our society which has seen us descend into ‘Broken Britain’. Yet it seems unlikely that giving religion any more space in the public sphere than it already has will solve any of these problems – and a government that focuses on what divides us, rather than what we have in common, is going to find it difficult to combat intolerance.

A more secular society does not mean a more intolerant one. Separating the state from matters of religion can only give religion (and religious people) more freedom, and will only impact negatively on the privileged position that the Church of England occupies in UK politics; for all other religious groups, this is surely good news. The very fact that it was the removal of Christian prayers from an official council agenda, rather than a call for the banning of faith schools, the burka or religious symbolism in public life suggests to me that, on the contrary, these so-called militant secularists are not being militant enough.

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