Believe it or not, secularism is not what it used to be

  • @peterpopham

Britain is in the thick of an acrimonious debate about secularism and religion. Religious belief and church attendance have been shrinking for decades, yet religion continues to play an important part in our national life. Prayers before council meetings may have been banned last week by a judge and an increasing number of our city churches have sad, decapitated spires and are put to sound secular use as indoor ski slopes or apartments. But there are still bishops in the House of Lords, prayers are said at the Cenotaph, the communal celebrations of Christmas and Easter are yet to become taboo.

In the 2001 census, 71 per cent ticked the Christian box. But according to a poll published by Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science this week, half of those who say they are Christian rarely go to church and nearly 60 per cent do not read the Bible.

The findings throw into doubt, Professor Dawkins said, the justification for such important Christian vestiges as bishops in the House of Lords and faith schools.

There was something deeply ironical about Britain's first Muslim cabinet minister, Baroness Warsi, announcing, in the context of her trip to the Vatican this week, that "We stand side by side with the Pope in fighting for faith."

The woolly notion that religious faith is somehow indivisible and that all those of faith should stand united against "a rising tide of militant secularism", would find few backers in the Roman Curia. Pope Benedict may have said kind words to Lady Warsi, but he has never had any doubt about it: Christianity in Europe is fighting for its life, not only against atheism but also against Islam.

Of course, this being Britain, much of the secularist campaigning has been good-natured and eminently reasonable: why should believers have a lock on Radio 4's Thought for the Day when there are plenty of non-believers with ethical points to make? And the Atheist Bus campaign delivered a gentle shock to those who may have long since ceased to believe but who are still in the grip of irrational guilt.

What is staggering about the secularists is their arrogance and the shortness of their memories. The secularists never tire of pointing out that religious belief has led to the committing of atrocious crimes.

In that sense both believers and secularists are in the dock of history. But stripped of fanaticism and self-righteousness, faith can do what secularism cannot: open doors to compassion, altruism, serenity, even enlightenment, which have no meaning for the secularists. The statement "there are no atheists in foxholes" may be a canard, but genuinely non-egoistical behaviour is much more likely from those for whom the ego and its grasping needs do not define ultimate reality. Towards the end, even the diehard secularists sometimes begin to get the idea. In one of the columns he wrote for Vanity Fair after he was diagnosed with cancer, Christopher Hitchens wrote about all the Leonard Cohen albums well-wishers were sending him. And he singled out for quotation one of the old groaner's most powerful songs.

"If it be your will," it goes, "that I speak no more, I shall abide until I am spoken for, If it be your will that a voice be true, from this broken hill I will sing for you..." What on earth was Cohen on about? Nothing that is known of in Professor Dawkins's philosophy, that's for sure.