The Daily Telegraph for 2014-04-23 contains a letter signed by Professor Roger Scruton and eight other signatories which attempts to serve as a riposte to a letter sent three days earlier by Professor Professor Jim Al-Khalili and fifty-four other academics and prominent members of the British Humanist Association who objected to David Cameron's characterization of Britain as a “Christian country”.
I reproduce the new letter in full below:
SIR – Professor Al-Khalili and his co-signatories are quite correct to describe British society as plural and to say that it has benefited from the contributions of many non-Christians.
Nevertheless, in important ways Britain remains a Christian country, as the Prime Minister has rightly claimed. The establishment of the Church of England enshrines Christian humanism as a public orthodoxy, which continues to inform a good many of our laws, institutions and public rituals.
This Anglican establishment is liberal, imposing no civil penalties on non-Anglicans, which is why so many non-Anglican Christians and non-Christian believers support it. More broadly, the fact that most Britons continue to tell pollsters that they are religious is presumably one reason why this religious “establishment-lite” persists. According to the 2010 British Social Attitudes survey, 67 per cent of us described ourselves as either “religious” or “fuzzy faithful” and only 33 per cent as “unreligious”.
It is understandable that convinced atheists will find this situation irritating. But a public orthodoxy of some kind is inevitable, and some citizens are bound to find themselves on the wrong side of it and required to exercise liberal tolerance toward it. It remains open to them, of course, to persuade their fellow citizens that there is a better alternative.
- Professor Nigel Biggar
- Professor Brenda Almond
- Professor Stephen R L Clark
- Dr David Conway
- Professor John Haldane
- Professor Jeremy Jennings
- Professor Roger Scruton
- Dr Edward Skidelsky
Quite where the signatories got the idea from that the Anglican establishment imposes "no civil penalties on non-Anglicans" from I am unsure. In fact the Anglican establishment imposes many civil penalties on non-Anglicans, Chancel repair liability and exclusion from employment in or attendance at state funded schools under the control of the Anglican Church being two notable examples.
The letter goes on to quote from the "2010 British Social Attitudes survey" and to conflate being religious with being Christian and being Christian with being Anglican. In fact, the figures from the same survey for 2012 are available and clearly show that fewer than fifty percent of the British population are Christians (of any type) and fewer than twenty percent are Anglican Christians.
Atheists do not find the situation where many people are religious "irritating". What we find irritating is, for example, that even though barely twenty percent of the population are Anglicans and far fewer are practising Anglicans (soon to be, if not already, outnumbered by practising Muslims) twenty-six unelected Church of England bishops sit in the House of Lords as of right. No other churches have this right. What are we to do when they begin demanding similar representation?
There is a better alternative: a secular constitution (like that of the USA - a far more religious country than the UK) under which people of all faiths (and none) enjoy equal rights under the law and in civil society.
The current insistence on maintaining privileges for a declining minority faith and encoding those privileges in law is sectarian in the short term and untenable in the longer term. False claims and dodgy statistics may obscure this truth for a while, but sooner or later we are going to have to face up to the imperative that, in a pluralistic society, religion and state have to be clearly demarcated.