David Cameron's comments seem to have irritated some high-profile atheists, but no imams

Today is the Queen’s birthday, or to give her one of her fuller titles, “Queen Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, Queen of this Realm and of Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith”.

Most of us, however, would rather keep the full spiritual element of the royal family to one side, British people being famously reticent about matters of religion, as they are about any public displays of belief.

That is what has always struck me about campaigning atheists, who seem filled with a rather un-English enthusiasm (as people used to say) about religion, or in this case against it. Today a group of them have a letter in the Telegraph condemning David Cameron for calling Britain a “Christian country”.

They write:

We respect the Prime Minister’s right to his religious beliefs and the fact that they necessarily affect his own life as a politician. However, we object to his characterisation of Britain as a “Christian country” and the negative consequences for politics and society that this engenders.

Apart from in the narrow constitutional sense that we continue to have an established Church, Britain is not a “Christian country”. Repeated surveys, polls and studies show that most of us as individuals are not Christian in our beliefs or our religious identities.

At a social level, Britain has been shaped for the better by many pre-Christian, non-Christian, and post-Christian forces. We are a plural society with citizens with a range of perspectives, and we are a largely non-religious society.

Constantly to claim otherwise fosters alienation and division in our society. Although it is right to recognise the contribution made by many Christians to social action, it is wrong to try to exceptionalise their contribution when it is equalled by British people of different beliefs. This needlessly fuels enervating sectarian debates that are by and large absent from the lives of most British people, who do not want religions or religious identities to be actively prioritised by their elected government.

The Prime Minister had made what struck me as some fairly innocuous references to his religion in the run-up to Easter. Most people I imagine thought little of this; Cameron’s comments are about as far as anyone in Britain wants to go in regard to discussing religion in public before it gets too awkward.

Britain is one of the least religious countries on earth, but culturally, historically and socially Christianity plays a major part. A relatively small minority regularly go to Church, but a majority identify as Christians; that is, they are happy with the basic moral structure and atmosphere of Christianity, even if they are not actual believers. They might even agree with Prof Richard Dawkins that moderate religions such as Anglicanism act as a vaccine against more extreme faiths.

Outright atheists, just like active churchgoers, are at one end of a bell curve in which fellow travellers are the plurality in the centre. It is hardly divisive to identify with this middle ground.

And what’s notable about the list of signatories is who is absent; firstly, Conservatives. Although there seem to be plenty of names from the Protest the Pope crowd, and several high profile Labour, Lib Dem and Green Party members, wouldn’t it have strengthened the letter to have some Tories? Otherwise what it looks like they’re saying is “as people who will never vote Conservative we’re disgusted by the behaviour of the Conservative prime minister”. That’s hardly going to worry No.10.

More significant though is that there are no representatives from other religions. If the Prime Minister’s words were really fuelling sectarianism then surely some other religious leaders could have been found to criticise that? An imam would have really made an impact. Yet among the many ironies of our pluralist society is that religious minorities generally feel more comfortable with Britain being a Christian country than an atheist one.

Another is that both secularist and church leaders like the idea of “diversity” because they hope that it will favour their side in the culture war, even though at least one of them will be disappointed. The signatories talk of Britain being a “plural” country but warn that talk of religion is “divisive”, even though these are two differently-charged words for the same concept.

Demography is the chief factor when it comes to sectarianism; Britain is now about 5 per cent Muslim and among the youngest cohort the figure is roughly double that, and those numbers are not evenly-spread around the land. Religious-based controversy is going to be an issue in 21st century England in the way it hasn’t been since the 18th, and yet over the cause – immigration – Britain’s prominent secularists have been almost totally silent. As have Church leaders, hoping that they can recruit migrants to do the praying Brits won’t do (even though the decline in religious attendance among second-generation Christian immigrants is equivalent to native English levels, making it something of a Ponzi scheme).

Why is that? Evolutionary psychologists suggest that religions arose because such unity of belief and worldview within a group promoted inclusive fitness; most people, most of the time, are loathe to say anything that goes against the moral structure of their friends and contemporaries; look at poor Richard Dawkins, who has been given an auto-da-fé for daring to say mean things about Islam.

Or perhaps people genuinely believe that sectarianism can be avoided by aggressively driving God out of the public sphere, including schools, despite the noticeable failures of other secular regimes to do so. It seems more likely a middle-ground sort of Christianity, with the Queen at the centre, would prove stronger at holding together such a plural and fractured society.




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