Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Secular Britain

As long ago as 2004, a survey of the religious beliefs of 10,000 people in ten countries showed that the UK was among the most secular nations of the world. More recent polls have confirmed this, with the UK coming sixth, being exceeded in godlessness only by Sweden, Japan, Estonia, South Korea and the Czech Republic.

So not a lot has changed in the last few years. David Cameron apparently believes that nothing much has changed since the Reformation, except that our society has had a moral collapse this century, which could be put right if we reverted to the application of Christian values.

This month's British Humanist Association's newsletter comments on Cameron's idiotic pronouncement:   

This week, in a speech celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible,the Prime Minister described Britain as 'a Christian country'. He claimed that Christian values could reverse British society's 'moral collapse', stated that he disagreed with the arguments of secularists, and argued that Britain is only welcoming of other religions because of its Christian heritage. We believe the Prime Minister is mistaken.

As a simple factual statement, what the Prime Minister said is incorrect. Only a minority of people in Britain are practising Christians, and we know from last week's British Social Attitudes survey that over half of the population sees itself as non-religious. Although Christianity has undoubtedly had a sometimes positive influence on the cultural and social development of Britain, it is far from being the only influence. Many pre-Christian, non-Christian, and post-Christian forces have shaped our society for the better, and Christianity has often had ill effects. So, on the factual level the Prime Minister’s remarks are simply bizarre. 

We see two interpretations of the Prime Minister's remarks. The most hopeful reading is that Mr Cameron doesn’t really mean it. His statements may be intended as a way to pacify the increasingly strident lobbying of a minority of Christians for more influence in our public life. This interpretation is supported by the fact that the Prime Minister repeated the myth that those of non-Christian religions are best off in a Christian society – a claim unsupported by history and logic, but one of the favourite arguments of activist Christian groups against a secular state.

If this is indeed the motivation behind the speech, it would at least give us less reason to fear any future policy initiatives shaped by these destructive ideas. But the far more concerning possibility is that the Prime Minister is serious. 

A politician and 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 foundations. All the evidence shows that religion makes no difference to a person’s social and moral behaviour – the same percentage of religious as non-religious people do volunteer work, for example. And people certainly don’t want to see it have more influence in government – in a 2006 Ipsos Mori poll, ‘religious groups and leaders’ actually topped the list of domestic groups that people said had too much influence on government. 

However you look at it, whether as a sop to appease increasingly aggressive Christian lobbies, or as a serious proposition to change public policy, his remarks are deeply concerning. We value reason and evidence in public policy, and fairness and secularism in our political life. The Prime Minister's remarks show why our work is so important.


No comments: