Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg joins those trying to silence secularists

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.

Nick Clegg radio interview

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.

10 thoughts on “Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg joins those trying to silence secularists

  1. Tom Stewart


    I consider myself a huge advocate of democracy, and yet my non-voting record is second-to-none. In the 40 years since I first got the vote I’ve made it to the booths all of twice. The problem is…once you have a vote then what do you do with it?

    The world’s biggest bullshitter and professional barrel-scraper Russell Brand has been castigated, quite rightly, for calling for non-voting. I never, ever agree with Brand and in this issue I don’t either, because we have different reasons.

    Political parties exist, or should exist, as vehicles for the promotion of political ideologies, notwithstanding that adherence is at a personal level, a matter of degree. However, it seems more and more that their main raison d’être is simply their own survival. A bit like religion, really. This blog post is just one more example of that.

    All voting systems have some flaw or another. However, we did have the opportunity to make a mild change by a referendum to introduce a more proportional system in 2011. I was first to the polling booth that day, but the measure failed, in large part, because of narrow party interests.

    Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats felt that they stood to gain the most from this measure, and that is probably true. So, once again, they might not have been making this appeal for the right reasons. But it would have been a small step in the right direction.

    Reform of voting and the adoption of an American-style constitution would certainly make me think again, come election time. In the meantime, anybody who called for the reduction or elimination of religious privilege, especially in education, would get me to do the same.

  2. Marvin Edwards

    Holy crap! Hey, in the UK is there any constitutional protection against the establishment or support of a religion? If there is, then I would think that no law could be passed that could override the High Court. In America it would take a constitutional amendment to override a decision of the Supreme Court. It occurs to me though that you guys once had a state church, which the U.S. never had, and your case may be different.

    About the non-voting thing, though, you gotta at least try to win the battles you can win, and it is better to have someone in Parliament who shares most of your values. Apathy is not going to win anything. It just lets the other voters make the call.

    1. Coel Post author

      Hey, in the UK is there any constitutional protection against the establishment or support of a religion?

      No, there isn’t! Indeed in England we have an Established Church, namely the Church of England, and it has many privileges.

  3. Paul Braterman

    In Scotland, you could vote Green. I have heard complains about the English Greens (telling shocking lies about fracking, for instance), but the Scottish Greens are a different party.

  4. Alex SL

    Because I usually agree with you on most things (except whether mathematics is an empirical science) I am a bit puzzled about this sentence: “On solely economic concerns I’d likely vote centre-right Tory”. Implicitly it seems to contain the following two assumptions. First, that contemporary Anglo-saxon conservative parties understand anything about how the economy works, which would be interesting because their actual economic model seems to boil down to the belief that lower taxes, cuts to services, austerity, deregulation, and privatisation are preferable under any macroeconomic circumstances and regardless of any empirical evidence demonstrating unfavourable outcomes of those policies in this or that specific case; and second, that contemporary Anglo-saxon conservative parties could still reach the political centre even with a ten foot pole, especially on economic matters.

    Would you mind elaborating a bit, or have you perhaps written on this elsewhere?

    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Alex, what you’re describing is ideological-right rather than a more pragmatic centre-right. For pragmatic reasons, both Tory governments and Labour governments end up implementing policies that are more centrist than their respective rhetorics. The programme that the current Coalition has actually implemented has been sufficiently centrist that the Lib Dems have gone along with it. Indeed, various commentators have pointed out that Osborne’s latest budget contained a lot of policies that Labour had been advocating. By position is that one needs a balance in all these things, and thus an undiluted ideological right would not be good, but that a centrist-right policy is about the right balance.

      I don’t know so much about politics in Australia, but it’s worth pointing out that “centre-right” in UK terms would mean “left” in USA terms.

    2. Alex SL

      Of course a cynic might argue that the last budget before an election is not the first one you would look into to gauge a politician’s true agenda. As Paul Krugman often points out, there is evidence that most swing voters do not vote based on whether they are better off than before the last election but based on whether they are better off than a few months ago, so it could be a viable strategy to cut budgets and depress the economy for three years and then hand out a few presents in the fourth, rinse and repeat. The first one after an election thus seems the place to start looking.

      One might also want to contemplate the potential effects of a political movement that, after all, does have ideological goals being emboldened through victories and a longer time in power. It is just my perception that, in contrast to much of continental Europe for example, most Anglo-Saxon countries currently seem to have one major centre-right and one major far right party as far as economic and fiscal policy is concerned, and that the Overton Window could arguably use a bit of movement in the other direction. But well, I am not living in Britain, so my opinion has little weight, and I guess we will just have to disagree on this.

  5. Philosopher Eric

    Hi Coel,

    Along with the distinction of being an old and great country, you must also suffer the distinction of being an old and great country. My wife fled it for California (fortunately for me!), so I do know England reasonably well. When we go back we mostly hear about the dominant media interests manipulating your people like pawns on a board. Yes it is sad when a reasonably secular country becomes so beholden to big interests that its children “are forced to pray.” Over here I think that Ronald Regan tried and failed in this regard when I was a kid. Fortunately our much newer country does separate church and state reasonably well, but there’s always going to be something to worry about. I’ll let you know when the NRA has my boy praying to guns!

  6. oogenhand

    Reblogged this on oogenhand and commented:
    “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.”

    Yes, and the religious complain that a handful of secular fanatics are able to impose their ideas about abortion and homosexuality. The most dedicated always win.


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