Joan Smith: I am an atheist. Should I wear a big flashing sign on my forehead?

The Government has been sending warm signals to religious groups

Share
Related Topics

It's really not clear to me, in the midst of this heated debate about veils, crosses and so on, why I should give a damn about anyone else's religion. Does it help me to have a more enjoyable flight if I know that the woman on the BA check-in desk is a committed Christian? Does it enhance my shopping experience, to use the current jargon, if I can tell that the woman who serves me in Boots is a strict Muslim? Neither of them would know, on such casual acquaintance, that I'm an atheist - and why should they?

Now, of course, stung by the confidence displayed by political Islam, we have vicars and bishops up in arms over the right to display prominent Christian symbols. They've been assisted in this project by BA, which has tried to ban staff from wearing the crucifix while allowing Muslim employees to wear the hijab. I'm not sure whether this idiocy is down to muddled thinking or a judgement that the latter are more likely to kick up a fuss, but it's clearly unsustainable.

I can't resist pointing out that I predicted these events in this column ages ago when the French government took the eminently sensible step of banning prominent religious symbols from state schools. At the time, I was assured that the French debate couldn't possibly be repeated here - not in tolerant, multicultural Britain. But it has, and I can't think why anyone is surprised. Ever since it took office in 1997, Tony Blair's government has been sending warm signals to religious groups, inviting them to consult with ministers, influence new legislation and run state schools in return for a paltry financial contribution.

What a modern, genuinely reforming government should have done is disestablish the Church of England and remove Anglican bishops from the House of Lords. Instead, it's unleashed a tide of irrationality - only a couple of weeks ago, I heard Professor Steve Jones say there has been an alarming increase in the proportion of biology students who believe in Creationism - along with a hilarious contest between competing religions. Devout Muslim women (who have nothing in common with my secular Muslim friends) demand the right to wear more and more preposterous forms of dress, prompting Anglican bishops to insist they're entitled to wear really big crosses. What next? Atheists with flashing signs on our heads?

In a secular society, where people have a variety of religious beliefs or none at all, the only thing that works is an agreement not to bring flamboyant demonstrations of religious affiliation into everyday life. That's what we used to have in this country, alongside a wishy-washy sort of Anglicanism, until a combination of short-sighted politicians and religious zealots crossed the line. This, I think, rather than racism or so-called Islamophobia, is what's prompted the uproar of the last couple of weeks: it's clear that most of us, and that includes the Prime Minister, think that people like Aishah Azmi, the teaching assistant who lost her discrimination case last week, have taken religious zeal a step too far.

I'd argue that the veil is a special case; it offends me not just as a religious symbol but because it represents a misogynist ideology. And, by the way, you don't improve the lot of Muslim women by encouraging self-imposed isolation from mainstream culture. ButI'm not alone in thinking religion has made too many intrusions into public life: opinion polls show a healthy majority of the population against government-funded "faith" schools. A culture that defends the right to private religious belief while insisting on secular public space is the only sensible option. Let's hear it for Enlightenment II.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Manager (infrastructure, upgrades, rollouts)

£38000 - £45000 Per Annum + excellent benefits package: Clearwater People Solu...

MI Analyst and SQL Developer (SQL, SSAS, SSRS)

£28000 - £32500 Per Annum + 28 days holiday, pension, discounts and more: Clea...

Creative Content Executive (writer, social media, website)

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum + 25 days holiday and bonus: Clearwater People Solut...

Reception Teachers needed for September 2014

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Re...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

August catch-up: second languages, the secret of love and is it all right to call someone stupid?

John Rentoul
High and mighty: Edinburgh Castle and city skyline  

i Editor's Letter: We're coming to Edinburgh

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?