Final thoughts on our Christian country: why did they say it?

Here is the video of The Big Questions yesterday where Richard Dawkins, Jonathan Bartley and I defended secularism and argued this is not a Christian country. Here also is a video from earlier last week with me and Anne Atkins discussing the same issues on the BBC.

Looking back on the week I think there is one really important unanswered question: why have politicians from Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles to Baroness Warsi to the Prime Minister seen it as important and legitimate policy to declare that Britain is a Christian country and secularism is illiberal and intolerant?

I can think of three possibilities but welcome suggestions of any others:

1 It is an attempt to develop a Christian right that will be a future security for the Conservative party as the religious right is in the US. There are already Christian lobby groups in the UK which behave like those in the US and advance the same range of concerns (anti-choice, against assisted dying for terminally ill people, against comprehensive sex and relationship education for young people etc) which have been working with individual Conservative politicians.

2 They think that this message plays well to their already existing support base. (I know that, when we were last recruiting Conservative members of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, many potential members were concerned that their own local parties would not like them to join, so certainly the perception that such bases are Christian by inclination if not by religion is strong).

3 They really believe it. They just can’t understand that most people in the UK don’t rely on religion generally or Christianity in particular for their values and do just fine. So, when they are searching for some unifying values to promote, in response to what they see as a values deficit in society, they can only resort to Christianity. I think this is the scariest interpretation as it means they really mean what they say rather than it just being tactical, and the threat of actual public policies based on their false beliefs is much greater.

Any other interpretations?

9 comments

  1. Jack Worlidge

    I think that people like the PM and Baroness Warsi really do mean what they say about Britain being a Christian country, but not because they believe that most people in Britain are devout Christians who turn to the Bible at every moral dilemma.

    I think it’s mainly a problem of definition – if they look at the stats there’s just no way they can continue to claim that Britain is a Christian country based on the numbers of Christians in Britain. Defining ‘Christian’ is very difficult anyway, especially as most of those who defined themselves as Christian in the 2001 census clearly did not adhere to the Christian faith in any meaningful way – definitely not sufficient to use those stats to justify the kinds of policy that we have seen. I think that people like the PM are obsessed with defining Britain as a Christian country for reasons as trivial as our having Christianity (or a form of it) as our state religion, even though they may not admit this. They have probably been through most of their lives thinking of Britain as a Christian country purely on the basis of the existence of an established Church, and the lack of separation of Church and State. This has caused the idea of Britain being a Christian country to be so ingrained in their minds that they’re simply unwilling, or unable, to relinquish it in the face of statistics.

  2. Andrew jones

    I disagree that 3 is the scariest. Watching American politics, the thought of flag and faith politics being imported is terrifying. You only have to look at the bigotry that rick santorum is making a seemingly popular case out of to be the leader of the free world. At least if the Tories hold it as a sincere belief then it isn’t the first step to changing politics to a competition in piety.

  3. At my most cynical I might wonder if they know that their economic policies are effecting many people badly, and that they may be inclined to blame ordinary peoples problems on a lack of faith rather than poor governance.

  4. Andrew Jones

    The cynic in me would suggest that this is a useful can of worms for them to open to deflect headlines away from the government pushing through the NHS reform bill

  5. Andrew
    Author

    Blaise, that is really interesting.

    Andrew Jones, yes that’s true if they actually manage to develop a religious right. But could they really do it in Britain?

  6. Andrew jones

    Andrew, the worrying thing from the last week for me has been how many in the mainstream media have been defending the faith with the sort of aggression and intolerance one normally only expects from us secularists. 🙂
    I don’t think we are as credulous as the US in that respect but this week has felt like a government dipping its toe in the water.

  7. Clare Delderfield

    Andrew

    Perhaps they are simply afraid of change and of what they thought was solid ground shifting under their feet. 🙄

    I agree with Andrew about the number of mainstream people who have jumped on the ‘agressive secular or agressive atheist’ bandwagon (often confusing the 2 terms.

    I think it has definitely got under their skin, and that’s not a bad thing, if it raises the issue of secularism and challenging the norm into people’s minds.

  8. Josh Kutchinsnky

    What is the political agenda behind the barrage of anti-secularist vitriol? Notwithstanding Warsi’s ethnic identity I suspect a strong element of covert racism to deflect criticism of the ruling elite. The best cover for scapegoating is often to find a ‘goat’ to lead the ‘sheep’! Excellent way to define an out-group is to make plain that they are welcome if they behave themselves. Secularists refuse to accept that it is right for any ticked religious identification box to accord privilege.
    What do I mean by racism? There is, of course, no evidence for any real biological meaning to racial divisions. There are however, evidently, distinctive variations in physical characteristics such as height, skin, hair, eye colour, etc. Physical traits become signifiers for other qualities, class, caste, beauty, strength, reliability, etc. The notion of there being an indigenous British type, or race, is, in my opinion, still strongly embedded in the thinking of many people. It is, of course, nonsense, but gives rise to beliefs in British character traits. People deemed to share certain characteristics are then considered to be genuinely British. They become the primary owners of these characteristics and of Britishness. Two significant notional British groupings are the ‘honest’ working class and the ruling class. Both are credited with qualities e.g. tolerance, reserve, sense of fair play etc. Outsiders also acknowledge negative qualities; perfidiousness, hypocrisy, sense of superiority, insularity etc.The ruling elite is additionally credited with somehow knowing what is best for the country and how best to control unruly elements. This is done by sticks and carrots (religion being thought a useful tool in this regard) with the subtext being to avoid damage to property, violence to ‘worthy’ people and any risk of revolution. It is commonly believed that people are sinful and have to be prevented from being selfish, boorish and criminal. Being British and being brought up ‘properly’ are ways of avoiding the behaviour or of acquiring the ability not to be found out!
    Warsi I a sure has no hope, maybe no wish, to be ‘pukka’ British, being used as a totem is maybe as good as it gets.

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