Recent events have called into question the involvement of religion in our political system, the most significant of which being the ruling of prayers at council meetings as unlawful after a complaint from an atheist councillor. Fervent opponents to the decision are calling it the ‘marginalisation of Christianity’ and an ‘attempt to secularise society’; I call it the natural progression of a country that’s steadily moving away from its religious roots.
Shortly after the ruling, Baroness Warsi, co-chairman of The Conservative Party, gave a speech on the need for Europe to feel “more confident and more comfortable in its Christianity”, but the latest census figures show that we’re just not that Christian anymore. The amount of people self-defining as Christian has dropped by 17% in the last ten years to just 55%, putting the number of Christians at just 10% higher than the number of atheists and followers of other religions. On top of this, only 20% of people now claim to believe in God. With this in mind, can it legitimately be claimed that we need to embrace a doctrine that doesn’t seem to hold relevance for many people anymore?
The various humanist and atheist movements that celebrate the declaration of prayers at council meetings as unlawful are often described as “militant secularists”, however aren’t these groups merely advocating that our political system more accurately reflect the beliefs of the people? They aren’t out to eradicate religion in the hope that everyone will become atheist – 40% of the population and rising have already done that for themselves.
Just recently, the Archbishop of York caused uproar when he publicly condemned gay marriage. Unelected and largely unaccountable, his views will still have political clout because of his position in the Church. Does that sit well in a democracy?
Of course, the right to practise religion should not be encroached upon, and an individual’s private will to live according to a particular belief should be fully accepted. What is not tolerable is the Church’s continued claim to influence over politics in a society that’s becoming more diverse and more secular in its attitude.
Since the Enlightenment, the role of religion has been a contentious one, with many thinkers of the age questioning its place in society and its jurisdiction over the individual. It seems absurd that we still haven’t struck the right balance in the 21st century, and that we continue to allow religion a place in our governmental structure. Surely it can only be an affront to democracy that bishops sit in the House of Lords, without any qualification other than their claim to represent the Christian interests of the country. A recent Cambridge study shows that 78% of Britons disagree and see religion as having no place in politics, statistics that politicians such as David Cameron choose to ignore when they claim “we’re a Christian country and should not be afraid to say so”.
Arguably, in a society that no longer claims to practice one dominant religion, Christianity cannot continue to hold a place in our governmental institutions. With such diversity of beliefs and lifestyles in Britain today, surely we should be governed by the values that unite us, not the doctrines that set us apart.