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The Sunday Times

February 19th, 2012

Rise up, tolerant secularists and drive faith from public life

It takes only a small spark to relight a smouldering fire. Such a spark was struck recently in Bideford town hall in north Devon: a few days ago a High Court judge ruled that it was unlawful for local councils to include Christian prayers in their formal meetings. This was in response to a legal challenge from a former councillor and atheist, Clive Bone, in association with the campaigning National Secular Society. Bone had objected to the intrusion of Christianity into the corridors of power, humble though they might seem in Bideford.

This unimportant ruling was enough to rekindle the embers of Britain’s faith wars. Eric Pickles, secretary of state for local government, blustered on the radio about this country’s Christian heritage and how illiberal and intolerant this was and how the government would soon be changing it all.

Bishops and archbishops protested, predictably. Baroness Warsi, a Muslim, during a quasi official visit to the Pope, called on British society to resist the rising tide of “militant secularism” and to fight for faith to have a place in public life. Quoting the Pope’s fears regarding “the increasing marginalisation of religion”, she urged us to feel stronger in our religious identities, not least in Christianity.

The prime minister made his usual pro-faith noises. As the crackling of the fire grew louder, the Queen herself spoke out at Lambeth Palace in defence of all faiths, which would have surprised her forebear Henry VIII. She also said — with what anguish one can imagine — that Anglicanism has been commonly underappreciated and occasionally misunderstood.

Not only occasionally, according to Britain’s most famous militant secularist, Richard Dawkins, who appeared again on the field of battle, or rather on the Today programme, arguing that most people who think they’re Christians are wrong. Of those questioned in his Ipsos Mori poll, 54% said they considered themselves to be Christian but, when asked why, fewer than three in 10 said it was because they believed in the teachings of Christianity. Rather than personal belief, the reasons of 72% were much more likely to be social, to do with the customs of their tribe — not that the poll used that phrase — surrounding birth, marriage, death and charity. Most hadn’t looked at the Bible for a year or more and never prayed outside church at all.

Predictably this caused an uproar. You get the impression, as usual, that Dawkins and the militant secularists all enjoy it hugely, although he himself was infuriated to be wrong-footed on air about the full title of Darwin’s The Origin of Species.

All this is nasty and alarming. For generations in this tolerant country people of Christian background who are themselves unbelievers have not usually found it necessary, or polite, to trash Christianity aggressively in the inflammatory way of Dawkins and his supporters. I sense something mean-spirited in the extremes of his attacks, even though I agree with his views: he lacks something important that most people have or at least understand in others; 19th-century phrenologists would have called it the bump of religiosity.

A sense of the numinous, a longing for ceremony, a love of the religious punctuation of the year, a need for a regular time to examine one’s conscience, a passion for church music — these are all things that appeal to Anglican unbelievers such as me and to unbelievers of all traditions. That is what lies behind Alain de Botton’s grand schemes of cathedrals for the faithless, impossibly rational though they are.

Lord Rees, the astronomer royal, once expressed these feelings particularly well. An unbeliever who nonetheless goes to church, he said in an interview: “I share with religious people a concept of the mystery and wonder of the universe and even more of human life and therefore participate in religious services. Of course those I participate in are, as it were, the ‘customs of my tribe’ which happens to be the Church of England.”

It is my tribe, too, and in many ways I have loved it, fearful of real religious faith though I am. Anglicanism is the tribe from which the highest ideals of modern, secular morality have evolved. So until recently I have been strongly against aggressive secularists in spirit, although I largely share their opinions. But things have changed rapidly. The terms of the conflict are quite different now. It is hardly an exaggeration to speak of faith wars.

It is a mystery to me why so many people in public life keep saying that faith is a good thing and we’d all be better off if we had more of it. That seems to me a very flabby-minded and sentimental assumption, arising from the limp-wristed Anglican tradition in which faith rarely amounted to anything remotely challenging to anyone.

Faith is not necessarily a good thing. Some faiths hold views that are repellent to most people and certainly to the indigenous Christian tribe. More importantly, faith itself is the problem. No one can argue with faith. If God or scripture says gays are wicked, or if someone believes her faith insists on a chador (even if she is mistaken), that is that.

Most faiths in Britain are actively competing for an acknowledged place in the public arena within the Establishment. If Anglicanism is an established part of the state, if this country is technically speaking a theocracy, why in the name of equality should not all other religions have a piece of the action too? That’s the urgent but unspoken question. It is hard, however much one might fear the tenets of certain other faiths here, to think of any good reason why not.

That is what we are seeing. The growing number of sharia courts in this country is alarming. Yet the Archbishop of Canterbury has defended them. I can’t help suspecting his reason is that he is so anxious to insist that faith has a place in public life and so aware of the unfairness to other faiths of the status quo, that in logic he cannot help himself. Understandably this enrages the secularists and also the more moderate observers, who are alarmed by the incontrovertible tenets of certain faiths.

That is why, however obtuse and unattractive they may seem, the militant secularists are on the right side in the faith wars. It is why, however reluctantly, the polite and tolerant secularists will have to join them and win the war. There can be no place for faith anywhere at all within the political establishment, no privileged space within the public arena.

minette.marrin@sunday-times.co.uk