UK: A New Year when secularism must stand up for itself or be overwhelmed by religious power-seeking

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society

The signs have been there for some considerable time – religion around the world is reviving, and it is not the benign, let’s-be-good-to-each-other kind of religion that the propagandists would have us believe.

It is the old-time, ambitious, politicised, militant and controlling religion. The kind that wants to dictate what you are doing at every minute of every day.

In Britain, the statistics seem to show that interest in organised religion is in continuing decline. This, by those who hold the reins of power, appears to be a signal to help spark its revival.

And so we have politicians telling us that we must return to religious values, bring religion more into the public arena and involve the churches and mosques more and more in our everyday lives.

Mr Cameron’s recent speech has paved the way for a new confidence, particularly among Christians, who are now assuming that they can return to their glory days when the whole of society was under their control. Let us not forget that it is only a few generations ago that the Anglican Church held this country in an iron grip. If you were not an Anglican, many doors were closed to you. You could not become a member of Parliament, you could not go to university and, at one period, if you did not go to church on Sunday you could be fined.

Now the Church of England, a fatally declining institution by any measure, has set its sights on taking over even more of the education system, perhaps even all of it eventually. We are receiving almost daily complaints from parents whose children have been subjected to heavy-duty religious proselytising in their school (most of which are community schools). A whole array of evangelistic groups are worming their way into schools, without parental knowledge or consent, to foist all kinds of absurd ideas onto children, who are, of course, a captive audience.

Over Christmas and New Year, we have seen the establishment assuring us that they are still firmly in charge. The Queen’s Christmas message was one of the most overtly religious yet, with her talk of ‘Jesus as the saviour’ and the ‘messages of the angels’. The Archbishop of Canterbury tried to latch on to the summer riots as a means of assuring us that society is disintegrating and unless we listen to God we’re all on our way to hell in a handcart.

The riots that happened last year have provided much fodder for the religious opportunists. The disturbances were used as evidence by many who think we need a “spiritual” dimension to prop up their otherwise unconvincing message.

Inconveniently for such arguments, Government papers released in from 1982 showed that similar riots had happened then, in the midst of the reign of Margaret Thatcher, and described as the most serious civil disturbances ever seen in peacetime Britain. Even then they had despaired of finding a solution and no doubt the Archbishop at the time was on hand to tell us that unless we went back to church we’d all be dog meat within a generation.

In fact, the riots in Tottenham and elsewhere last year are not unique. They are part of a long British tradition.

No, Armageddon has not arrived, whatever the Pope or the bishops try to tell us.

Such expressions of frustration break out at regular intervals – and have done for centuries. (See here and here for example) and quite often in the past the churches have had a hand in the perpetuating the iniquities that were being protested about.

Mr Cameron’s speech about bringing “Christian values” back to the centre of British life was eagerly embraced by those who long once more for control. In an article in the Daily Telegraph, the right-wing former bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, wrote “Much of what Mr Cameron said is music to my ears.” Well, it would be. (Read the whole article). Nazir Ali, like so many other conservatives, longs to drag us back to some ghastly, non-existent “Golden Age” when Christianity ruled the world.

As is usual over Christmas, the newspapers were full of religious propaganda. All balance is tossed out of the window by the editors and commentators. From the Daily Mail and Telegraph we expect it, but even the Guardianstarts a constant bark of religious apology. In its Christmas editorial, the paper said: “In the new century’s age of uncertainty, the Christian tradition must not be allowed to become the preserve either of fundamentalists or of the right. But that requires progressives who are also atheists to turn down the volume and acknowledge the contribution of Christian thinking. Peace on earth, goodwill to all.”

The Guardian often publishes these kinds of articles that seek to make a case for the value of Christianity and the case danger of non-belief. (See here and here and here.) But they do not sit well with the readers. When comments are invited, the below the line sections are full of angry rebuttals. Why does the Guardian continue to run these features when they so obviously infuriate so many of its readers?

The upshot of all this may be nothing more than an outburst of right-wing press crowing about the renewed power its hateful philosophy has attained. Or it might be a significant sign that authoritarianism and a reduction of civil liberties will shortly follow.

National Secular Society | Terry Sanderson | 3rd January 2011

6 Responses to UK: A New Year when secularism must stand up for itself or be overwhelmed by religious power-seeking

  1. Ron Wild

    So very well said. I have noticed a lot of proselytising in supposedly secular community schools. This really must be brought to an abrupt halt before we end up with the crazy, deluded, mysoginistic, homophobic and anti-science lunatics currently awash in American politics.

  2. Nathan Godfrey

    For those of us who DO believe, how much must we hate non-believers to NOT proselytise? I love the people around me and want them to know the good news.

  3. Grace

    David Cameron is correct. Christian values of respect, care for others, selflessness, forgiveness, helping other people, honesty, not covetting/being jealous, etc, are fantastic for society.
    If there is no God, and we are simply atoms, these concepts make no sense. If everyone lives by the logical outworkings of atheism, society will collapse. And if we’re all simply atoms, it doesn’t matter. What do you think?

  4. Grace

    I ‘ve just seen Nathan’s comment. I second it : )

  5. Peter

    Those are shared human values, Grace. To call them Christian is both insulting to those who subscribe to other belief systems, and also shows ignorance of the values actually displayed by Christian institutions throughout history. In fact did Christian values not encourage the banking crisis? “Matthew 6: 34 Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. ” You see, you can spin Christianity many ways.
    These shared human values make sense as evolved responses that help individuals and societies to make the best of their lives. They make perfect sense. I have no idea why you think atheism will result in societal collapse. Atheism is perfectly consistent with a high moral outlook, for example through humanism.
    That’s what I think.

  6. Grace

    “Matthew 6: 34 Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. ” is in no way related to the banking crisis. It was said by Jesus in a society completely different from ours (ie, not one where the was so much money and property as we have), and refers to our trusting God, rather than allowing excessive worrying to hinder our day-to-day living. Jesus was not advocating being unwise with money, nor the selfishness which drove the banking crisis. Though he was God, Jesus lived in relative poverty, working to teach and heal people, before dying for our sins.
    I was not suggesting that other belief systems do not advocate caring for others. But if each individual in society is atheist, then of course it will collapse, since everyone believes that everyone else is only cells, and that there is no ultimate judge beyond this life. Where do you suppose our human value to care for others comes from, in terms of the protein molecules that create the human brain? In order for altruism to have “evolved”, it must be coded for by a specific sequence of amino acids, that just so happen to fold up into a particular protein molecule that just so happens to bind to a protein molecule that acts as a receptor, stimulating a biochemical process that somehow, ultimately, creates a sensation of being concerned about other human beings. It all seems a bit unlikely to me. And once one understands that those other human beings are merely atoms, why go out of your way to abide by that sensation? It isn’t logical.
    Anyhoo, that’s what I think.

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