By Chris Hammond
It’s the morning of Baroness Warsi’s visit to the Vatican and the radio buzzes with arguments on whether religion has any place to play in the governance of the United Kingdom. Sayeeda Warsi, is set to make a speech on her visit in which she’ll argue that the UK’s increased secularisation is damaging, both to those who practice religion, and the country as a whole.
This comes shortly after David Cameron claimed that Britain was a “Christian country and should not be afraid to say so.”
Two issues need to be addressed here. Firstly is Britain really a Christian country and secondly even if it is, should Christianity or any other religion play any part in public life?
Determining the extent to which the UK is a Christian country is a near impossible task. Recent surveys suggest that as few as 15% of people in the country attend church once a month or more. Yet you’d be hard pushed to find anyone who would believe less than a quarter of the UK practice a form of Christianity.
Yet international polls place the UK closer to the atheist end than the Christian end on the list of nations. A Eurostat survey suggests that British citizens are far less likely to believe in God than Italians, Greeks, Germans and the Irish. However we have nowhere near the level of atheism found in nations such as France, Estonia, Sweden and the Czech Republic.
Conservative estimates suggest that about 20% of the country is atheist while under 40% believe in a God. The rest? Well the rest either aren’t sure what to believe, or don’t want to align themselves with any particular religion.
Survey by survey, recent and old, they all point to the fact that the majority of people in the UK are not practicing Christians. Therefore why even consider bringing a belief system with little or no bearing on the general population back to the fore of public life? Why upscale the value of, or give increased credence to, something which does not need to be intrinsically linked with who we are or how we’re governed?
There is no reason.
In February, Devon Town Council was forced to stop holding prayers during meetings. Non-Christian members of the Council had expressed discomfort with the practice and the National Secular Society (NSS) moved to support them and lobbied to have the practice stopped. The same organisation is now targeting Edinburgh council, one of the few councils in Scotland to hold prayers before their monthly meetings.
And why shouldn’t they move to stop the practice? What relevance does a prayer have when discussing bin collections and road works? Blatantly none; just as it wouldn’t have any bearing on the UK Government’s policy discussions.
While there are no suggestions that David Cameron and co will be holding a quick prayer before getting down to cabinet business, the very suggestion that they might try to strengthen the church-state link is one that should be discouraged (and discouraged vigorously) where possible.
Yet shortly after the legal move to ban the prayers Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles defied the High Court and acted to give the power to pray back to English Councils.
So what are the arguments for halting or decreasing secularisation the UK Government would like? Well according to Warsi, she thinks Britain needs to be strong in its religious beliefs so that we’re better able to attack overseas persecution. She has also said that religion can be the key to bridging divides.
Religion can also be the barrier to union as we have seen both at home and abroad on numerous occasions. And as for non-secular nations having a better record of battling the ills of the world? It’s difficult to find any evidence for this.
Warsi’s position seems to be that the UK is a better and stronger country when the church has an influence. But is this really the case?
The fact Britain is a considered a Christian country seems more of a historical concept than actual fact. Indeed if you look at church attendances today and compare them with even twenty years ago it’s clear that practiced Christianity is in decline. With this fact in mind it seems nonsensical to start increasing the church’s influence rather than decreasing it.
Surely it’s time we all accepted that you don’t need to be a Christian to have morals and values? We should be proud of our religious diversity, but we should not connect any belief systems with our forms of government. No God made David Cameron head of the Coalition Government, the voters did. Surely it’s their interests he should be protecting rather than those of a particular deities’ followers?