Our esteemed Prime Minister David Cameron caused a bit of a hoo-ha last month with his comments that we ought to be “more confident about our status as a Christian country” and more evangelical about our faith. A large group of atheists and humanists responded to his comments in a letter to the Telegraph objecting.
As I am more or less an atheist it is probably not surprising that I mostly agree with the latter, but if you have read my previous blogs it will also come as no surprise that I do have some mixed views on it too.
Firstly my stance on religion, if I haven’t already bored you with it before: in short, I am against it.
I described myself above as “more or less an atheist” because although rationally I believe that the universe is a vast and wonderful place that can ultimately be explained by science, there is a small corner of my heart and mind that can find room for the concept of some kind of deity.
Or, perhaps more accurately, I can conceive of some kind of unifying force in the universe which may have deity-like properties, but if we were smart enough, science could probably still understand and explain it.
What I really don’t get is the concept of organised religion.
Every religion is corrupt. You don’t have to scratch very far beneath the surface of any religion to find clear evidence that its dogma has in the past been manipulated to further the ambitions of some powerful person or to make some political point.
Even if I were to give the benefit of the doubt and accept that the holy scriptures were passed down to man by some supreme being, in the intervening centuries they have been so corrupted that surely little of the original meaning is retained.
Anyway, all of that aside, it cannot be contested that for much of the past 2000 years the UK has indeed been a Christian country. Christian principles run through it like letters through a stick of rock: our festivals are all based around Christianity and our laws and morals are formed around its teachings.
But wait a minute; I have a problem with that last bit.
Undoubtedly in the past people have looked to the Bible and its parables and commandments and used those as the basis of our laws and morals; but are we saying that without religion we wouldn’t have come up with those same set of laws and morals anyway?
Are we saying that without the Bible we would not think that it was wrong to kill someone? That we would not conceive of the concept of treating others as you would like to be treated yourself?
Christians would say that the Bible contains the words of Christ which shape our morals. I would suggest that, in fact, the Bible was written by man who codified a set of rules based on an existing human set of morals.
To say that we cannot identify our own morals without the Bible is patently false. The bible codifies a set of morals that made sense 2000 years ago, but some of these morals haven’t aged well. In the meanwhile, therefore, we have moderated our morals and ignored those bits of the Bible that we don’t like any more: those bits about keeping slaves or stoning adulterers for instance.
If anything, religious dogma holds us back because the established church is slow to adapt to more modern moral values: equality of women and gays being a prime example.
Britain is increasingly becoming less Christian: partly because as we become more multicultural there are a great deal of other faiths vying for attention, and partly because far more people who would almost certainly have been Christian by default just a generation or two ago are now choosing to opt out of religion.
I have some sympathy with those who claim that, as the UK is a Christian country, immigrants have to like it or lump it. That, after all, is surely what would happen if Christians were to emigrate to their countries. I also share the concern that as our Christian faith diminishes there is the danger that other more devoutly held faiths will fill the void. The media is already full of scare stories of Sharia law raising its ugly head in places. Clearly we shouldn’t allow one set of outdated rules be replaced by another, even less enlightened set.
I have less sympathy with those who claim that, because the UK is a Christian country, we are far more tolerant of other faiths than if it were secular. The history of Christianity doesn’t tend to support assertions of tolerance.
There must come a point when we say that Christianity is such a minority that the rest of us aren’t going to put up with having them tell us what to do any more. This doesn’t mean that our laws have to change. It doesn’t mean that we are no longer allowed to celebrate Christmas. What it should mean is a firm and genuine separation of religion and the state (although that doesn’t seem to have worked out so well in the US!).
It should mean a law which enshrines every individual’s right to believe in whatever gods they want to or none, without danger of persecution, provided that right does not infringe on the rights of others.
I don’t care what your religion says, you cannot harm another person because it is against our laws. I don’t care what your religion says, you cannot discriminate against another person because it is against our laws.
The laws in this country, at their best, are common law, decided by the courts based on precedent. These should not need religion to underpin them.
How hard can it be…