No secularism please, we're British

Arguments about the role of religion in national life have recently acquired a new urgency. Peter Popham reports on a modern version of an old debate

This is what always happens with religion: it is meant to make people behave better, but when they get too serious about it, it ends up making them behave much, much worse. 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 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, and the communal celebrations of Christmas and Easter have yet to become completely taboo.

These are the visible signs of a still substantial power in the land, one which retains huge influence in framing our laws, regulating our behaviour, and even justifying, in a subliminal way, the actions of our governments every time they go to war. Tony Blair's religious motivation for prosecuting the invasion of Iraq was highly atypical: no other recent British prime minister has been so strongly influenced by his faith. Yet the underlying moral justification is always there: to be the Good Samaritan, to go the extra mile, to treat your neighbour as yourself; failing to help the Bosnians was our "un-finest hour" precisely because (it was said) it went against the tenets of religion.

The secularists argue that religion no longer has any business retaining such a privileged place in the commanding heights of the nation, because fewer and fewer people actually believe. Traditionalist pundits – and headline-writers – have responded vigorously. In recent days we have been told that Christianity is "on the rack"; that it has been "pushed to the margins", "assaulted" and "attacked"; that it faces a campaign to "rip it limb from limb"; and that it is time "for Christians to fight back".

What are the facts? In the 2001 census, 71 per cent ticked the Christian box. But, according to a poll published by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science this week, box-ticking was precisely what it was: half of those who say they are Christian rarely go to church, the poll found, and nearly 60 per cent admit that they 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.

The structure of religious power still stands, but, as more and more believers defect, its foundations are slowly subsiding. In our comfortable land of compromise and tolerance, this process, which began with the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, might have continued indefinitely before the building actually collapsed. But the emergence of militant Islam made the whole question suddenly very urgent.

The fanaticism of the Islamists brought home a fact which our own gentle muddle goes out of its way to obscure: that all religions are intrinsically exclusive because each offers what it insists is an exclusively true account of the universe and our place in it.

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".

It was Prince Charles who introduced the notion that, when he became king, he would prefer to be regarded not as "defender of the faith" but "defender of faith". Yet 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 XVI may have ventured into a mosque and a synagogue but it was he himself who, observing the annual inter-faith meeting in Assisi as his predecessor Pope John Paul II prayed alongside Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists, commented, "This cannot be the way". 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.

This is why the inter-faith dialogue beloved of Lady Warsi only makes sense to people who don't think too hard about it. For a razor-sharp theologian like Pope Benedict, the common ground to be found between a religion which regards Jesus just as a prophet, and one which regards him as the Son of God, is minimal: when you get down to it, there is really not much to talk about. For the eagle-eyed zealots, from Islamists to Jehovah's Witnesses, religion is a zero-sum game. If God is on our side, by definition he cannot be on the other's, too.

But the fanaticism of the Islamists has provoked an equally intolerant and intemperate reaction from secular and other quarters, with the ban on headscarves in France and on mosque-building in Switzerland and the rabid anti-Islam rhetoric in the Netherlands; while in Britain it has produced a sudden lurch of opinion among our noisiest public intellectuals against any and all religion. All religions are wrong, goes the argument, everyone knows they are wrong, and their time has expired. As Dawkins put it at the Jaipur Literature Festival last month, faith is "a virus"; he looked forward, he said, to the "complete death of organised religion" in his lifetime.

The problem is, as (atheistical) Buddhists would understand, that actions have consequences, and that once the karmic spiral of aggression has been set in motion it becomes very hard to stop. What Professor Dawkins says in his mild, avuncular way may make perfect sense to many; but there is an edge of fanaticism to his tone horribly reminiscent of the materialist utopians who created hell on earth in many nations during the 20th century.

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 fear and guilt.

But one does not escape from the logic of religion merely by ceasing to believe. As the English philosopher John Gray put it in his book Straw Dogs, secularism is the bastard child of monotheistic religion. "Unbelief is a move in a game whose rules are set by believers," he wrote. "To deny the existence of God is to accept the categories of monotheism... Atheists say they want a secular world, but a world defined by the absence of the Christians' God is still a Christian world. Secularism is like chastity, a condition defined by what it denies."

What is staggering about the secularists is their arrogance and the shortness of their memories. The materialist utopianism of the Communists and Nazis is to blame for all the worst atrocities of the past century. Dawkins may appear to make sense, but it is incredible that we should be ready to pay serious attention to a prophet whose message is the same as those whose schemes led straight to the hells of the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Mao's Cultural Revolution and the Khmer Rouge.

The secularists never tire of pointing out that religious belief has led to the committing of atrocious crimes, from the Inquisition to the Irish Troubles and on to the Twin Towers. In that sense both believers and secularists are in the dock of history. But, stripped of fanaticism and self-righteousness, religious faith can do what secularism cannot: open doors on to areas of human experience – 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.

Of course there are those in the secularist camp who would maintain that their own world view, with God firmly shut outside, does not exclude the higher and deeper experiences of what one has to fall back on calling "the soul". Perhaps that was what Christopher Hitchens was hinting at in one of the columns he wrote for Vanity Fair after he was diagnosed with cancer. He wrote about all the Leonard Cohen albums well-wishers were sending him, singling 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..."

Who is the "you" that Cohen is addressing? Certainly not the God of convention – "old Nobodaddy Aloft" as William Blake called him. But there was something there.

Baroness Warsi; Minister Without Portfolio

"My fear today is that a militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies... At its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant"

AC Grayling; Philosopher

"The hold of religion is weakening, definitely, and diminishing in numbers. The reason why there's such a furore about it is that the cornered animal, the loser, starts making a big noise..."

Richard Dawkins; Scientist and author

"It is clear that faith is a spent force in the UK, and it is time our policymakers woke up to that reality and stopped trying to impose beliefs that society itself has largely rejected"

George Carey; Former Archbishop of Canterbury

"It looks as though the Christian voice is being silenced and I am worried by the dangers of a creeping secularism"

Lord Sacks; Chief Rabbi

"There has to be a division... Religion loves power and it should always be denied power"

Eric Pickles; Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

"Christianity plays an important part in the culture, heritage and fabric of our nation..."

Simon Calvert; Christian Institute

"Our Christian heritage is a core part of our national identity... But there are those who zealously believe that Christianity can be pushed out of the heart of our civic life, without losing the very values that shaped our nation"

Chris Bryant; Labour MP and former vicar

"I'm about as secular a former vicar and heterodox a Christian as you can get but there are times when the secularists just make themselves look silly"

Keith Porteous Wood; National Secular Society

"There is no longer a respectable argument that Britain is a solely Christian nation"

John Gray; Author and philosopher

"Secularism is like chastity, a condition defined by what it denies"

Andrew Copson; British Humanist Association

"It is surreal to hear secularism condemned as intolerant; it is not secular organisations that lobby to maintain privilege and have exemption from laws – like equality laws – which should affect everyone equally"

Ariane Sherine; Writer, comedian and founder of the Atheist Bus Campaign (slogan):

"There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life"

The Rev Giles Fraser; Former Canon Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral

"We should not be purging religion from the public square"

*Mark Steel: If religion is 'marginal', I'm the Pope

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