With only 50 days until a UK General Election I’m running out of parties to vote for. On solely economic concerns I’d likely vote centre-right Tory, but Cameron’s government has been giving full rein to evangelical Christians such as Local-Government Minister Eric Pickles, who seem to regard the non-religious as second-class citizens whose feelings don’t matter.
The Conservatives’ whole pitch is aimed at UKIP-voting Christians with no sign that they want the vote of the non-religious. They rejected humanist marriages, which would cost them nothing, just because they see it as a minority concern. Behaving to type, they are pushing through a bill enabling Christians to impose prayers on Local Council meetings, even though 55% of the public don’t want such prayers, with only 26% in favour.
Labour are little better of course. They could readily sink the council-prayer bill if they wanted to. And in 13 years of office up until 2010 they did much to promote and entrench “faith” schools. With Opus-Dei-member Ruth Kelly as Education Secretary, they renewed the legislation that compels school children to worship the Christian god, while their flagship legislation, the 2010 Equality Act, contained a specific exemption allowing state-funded schools to continue to discriminate over religion.
I did have higher hopes of the Liberal Democrats, who now oppose compulsory prayer in schools. And of course their leader, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, is an atheist himself. But when he was pushing for reform of the House of Lords, Clegg wanted to retain automatic places for unelected Church of England Bishops, and he personally benefits from the “faith” school system for his own kids, and there has not been a peep out of the Lib Dems over the council-prayer bill.
All three parties seem to be calculating that they would lose Christian votes if they adopt secular policies, whereas they think secularly-minded people won’t care enough to let it affect their vote. It is unclear, though, whether their calculation is correct, given that a recent poll for The Times revealed that being an atheist tends to improve a politician’s standing with voters whereas overt Christianity has little effect.
Now, sadly, Nick Clegg has joined the ranks of those telling secularists to shut up. Sometimes I find it hard to believe I am actually writing this in a 21st-Century Britain where fully half the nation is non-religious. We have laws requiring school-kids to worship the Christian god, we have automatic places in the legislature for unelected bishops, and we have state schools legally allowed to turn away pupils because they don’t go to church on a Sunday; and yet anyone who advocates for a more secular society is told they’re being “militant” and that they should shut up — and they’re even told this by many non-believers!
Clegg’s remarks came in an interview with Premier Christian Radio, where he said:
“I’ve never had that much time for what I call vociferous secularism. I’m always a bit sceptical of anyone who acts with raging certainty about anything. I suppose in that sense I’m liberal to my fingertips. I’m constantly questioning.”
So anyone who advocates secularism is not a liberal and is not questioning? Presumably they are illiberal and unthinking dogmatists? And what’s that about “raging certainty”? Does advocating a policy imply “raging certainty”? The Liberal Democrats will put forward many policies in their election manifesto, presumably after much internal discussion. Would they all have “raging certainty” about every one of them?
It is bizarre to suggest that, unless you have “raging certainty” about the non-existence of gods, you should keep silent if you think it divisive to start Council meetings with Christian prayers. The counter, that anyone advocating for secularism must be an illiberal dogmatist operating with raging certainty, is equally bizarre.
That is not an idea applied to campaigners for any other cause, yet it is routinely trotted out against atheist and secularists. It is, quite simply, a way of dismissing their concerns and telling them to be silent. Atheists are quite used to it. The feeling that religion should be privileged and protected from the critical scrutiny that all other ideas get is still strong.
Thus reasonable and fair atheist voices get labelled “strident”, “militant” and “dogmatic”. Those arguing that the UK government should treat non-religious citizens as fully equal to religious citizens are called “aggressive secularists” and get compared with “violent extremists”.
My personal response is that I’m withholding my vote from any politician or party that talks like this, even if I broadly agree with them on other matters, and even if this does leave me with no-one to vote for in the coming election.