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Better apart ...

IT IS Easter Sunday, arguably the most holy day in the Christian calendar, and if Britain really were a "Christian country" as David Cameron declared last week, then one would expect a great many of us would be at church.

By making his Easter statements, David Cameron opened a whole Pandora's box of questions about the role of religion in contemporary Britain
By making his Easter statements, David Cameron opened a whole Pandora's box of questions about the role of religion in contemporary Britain

But, of course, most of us are not. Even on the biggest church-going day of the year, Christmas, only 33% of the UK population attend a service. The celebration of the resurrection doesn't bring out quite such numbers, though this year, courtesy of Cameron, it has brought plenty of debate.

The Prime Minister has said a great many things about "his" and "our" Christianity in the last week. In his YouTube Easter message, he reminded us of "what Christianity brings to Britain". In an article in The Church Times he urged us to be "more confident about our status as a Christian country", and encouraged believers to be more "evangelical". He also declared that Jesus "invented the Big Society" and on the radio he talked about how his children do understand that Easter is not just about chocolate eggs.

Some commentators have wondered what exactly this fuzzy Christianity is that he is talking about, how it relates to his government's austerity policies and if his comments are any more than a desperate sop to the churches and a bid to get his religious critics on side. Whatever his reasons, the fact is that Cameron just "did God". He did it in a way that no British leader has done in decades - not even man-of-faith Tony Blair, back in the days when his chief spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, declared that "we don't do God".

Caroline Lynch, former chair of the Scottish Secular Society, describes Cameron's statement as "wishful thinking". Britain is not, she argues, "a Christian country", nor has it been for some time. In Scotland, she says, there are equal numbers of Christians and non-Christians, "and given that many believers are not Christian, but of some other faith, I would say that calling Britain a Christian country is quite offensive to many. There are slightly more Christians in Scotland than there are in England but the trend is the same in both countries". A poll published last week revealed findings that little more than one-third of people in Britain believe that religion has a positive role to play in our lives, compared to a global average of 59%, while one-quarter believe it has a negative impact.

By making his Easter statements, Cameron opened a whole Pandora's box of questions about the role of religion in contemporary Britain: from what it could possibly mean to call ourselves a Christian country when such a dwindling fraction are believers, to whether it's now finally time to rid the House of Lords of its unelected Anglican bishops. By being vague and a little woolly about his faith, Cameron also courted mockery. As secular philosopher Julian Baggini says: "Cameron once said his faith was like reception of Magic FM in the Cotswolds - it kind of comes and goes. It seems his understanding of faith is like Magic FM too - light, airy and undemanding. His view really was that Christianity is important for him and the country, but also that people of other faiths and none at all are just as admirable as Christians, which rather undercuts the first claim."

Nevertheless, we might want to pay attention to this debate here in Scotland as we try to redefine our own approach to religion in the run-up to the referendum. The question of what kind of Scotland we want, how secular or faith-embracing, is a pertinent one in these times when a draft constitution is being written. Earlier this month, Scottish faith leaders called for a recognition of religions to be written into any future constitution. Are religions to be overtly acknowledged, or kept diligently out?

Dave Thompson MSP, who is also convener of Christians For Independence, believes that it is very important for people of faith that any written constitution recognises "religious freedom and the right to express our religion. I think this should be explicit. It [the constitution] needs to explicitly make it clear that people can have religious beliefs and express them".

However, secularists like Caroline Lynch, believe faiths need no more protection than might be afforded by a constitutional article on the right to freedom of conscience and expression. For many religious people this is insufficient because they don't want just the freedom to believe. They also want the freedom to, as Ronnie Convery, communications director of the Catholic Archdiocese of Glasgow, puts it, "act on their religious belief for the common good of society as they see it".

Nevertheless, even for those who are religious themselves, there is good reason to advocate a secular society of sorts. Political secularism, after all, is in part what protects religions, particularly minority religions. One of the most culturally religious countries in the world, the United States, is also a constitutionally secular one, which from its very beginnings kept a wall between state and religion. "Allowing the free expression and discussion of religion," writes the Julian Baggini, "is as much a non-negotiable tenet of secularism as maintaining the neutrality of the core institutions of civil society."

In a recent essay, A Plea For A Secular Scotland, Richard Holloway charts the development of secularism. It was, he writes, GJ Holyoake's coinage of the word in 1850 that created its definition as "a system whereby the state itself would operate only on the basis of principles derived from the human world, while not seeking to interfere with the private practices of those who wished to run their lives on the basis of principles derived from sacred texts".

Holloway argues that this policy of non-interference in private practice enabled the emergence of plurality in European societies, and, ultimately, tolerance. "Voltaire said that if you have two religions in your land, they will cut each other's throats," he writes, "but if you have 30 religions, they will dwell in peace. Our experience in Scotland could be seen as justifying Voltaire's point. While we still suffer from the ugly residue of sectarianism, especially in the west, the increasingly plural nature of Scottish society is slowly draining the poison from these old wounds."

Contemporary versions of the secular state are startlingly diverse. We can look to America and see a constitutional secularism in which politicians very clearly "do God", where there has never been an overtly atheist president, where Obama talks openly about his prayer habits, and yet where it is not permitted to create any law "respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof".

And we can look to France and find a political secularism - known as the laicite and dating from a 1905 law separating church and state - that bans religion from the public sphere, whether that be the wearing of headscarves in schools or any form of religiously biased teaching. One former US ambassador, John Hanford, described the difference between these two cultures: "In France, wearing a hijab is considered anti-French. In America it would be considered anti-American to force someone to take it off."

Each of these different secular cultures reflects a different history, and a different relationship to religion: one borne in the United States, a new country of multiple sects, of settlers seeking freedom of worship and freedom from imposed religion; the other, in France, the reaction to an "ancien regime" in which corrupt religion had over-exerted its power. We can never exactly follow either of these models. We have neither America's thriving religious culture, nor France's historically intense, anticlerical suspicion. We have our own history, bound up with a historic Union, and we need to think now of the ways in which we might develop it.

Many people of faith don't like the word "secularism". It has, after all, gained multiple connotations. In recent years there has been talk of "militant secularisation" (Baroness Warsi used the term to describe the way religion was being "sidelined and downgraded in the public sphere") or "aggressive secularism" (we can thank Pope Benedict for that). There has been the rise of the new atheists, who blame much that is wrong in the world on religion. All this has coloured the public view. A belief has developed that secularism is itself just another dominant belief system, that it represents a takeover by atheism. Yet really all it is, at its heart, is a system of tolerance.

Indeed, often it seems that what religious groups are asking for in Scotland is constitutional secularism. They may shun the word itself, but what they desire - the acceptance of multiple belief systems - sounds very much like it. Kieran Turner, public policy officer of the Evangelical Alliance, says that the "main thing we advocate is that we want Scotland to be a plural society and for it, whatever the referendum, to have a plural constitution rather than a secular constitution."

But what is the difference between their plural society and a tolerant secular one? Very little it seems. However, faith groups want a little bit more than pluralism. And that is the real difference. They want religions to be recognised and acknowledged as assets to society. Turner says: "We feel that if there is no reference to church or faith in the constitution that would set a bad precedent and doesn't reflect Scottish society. We would be looking for something that validates the role churches and faith groups have in society."

Christians, and other faith groups, say they don't want to be made into a special case, that they simply want the contribution of their faith both historically and now, acknowledged. But to do so would make them a special case. It would be to lend approval to their beliefs.

In effect, David Cameron's words last week also made Christianity into a special case. In his Easter message he gave a warm, Government validation to Christianity. By encouraging Christians to be more evangelical, he effectively gave the faith a state approval.

We, in Scotland, would do well to avoid this bias. We should be resolute in cleaving to a politically secular approach. "As the pace of social change quickens in Scotland," writes Richard Holloway, "we must reassert the founding principle of the secular state and claim it anew for our nation. In the name of that principle we will continue to extend toleration towards institutions that are themselves intolerant; but we will not permit them to export their institutional prejudices into the secular sphere. They may continue to discriminate against women and gays in the sanctuary; but we will not permit them to do so in the public square."

Easter, said David Cameron, is "not just a time for Christians across our country to reflect, but a time for our whole country to reflect on what Christianity brings to Britain". Reading that statement many people will reflect in different ways. Some will think of the millions that Christians give to charity (though per person, Muslims give more). Some will think of the beautiful buildings echoing with choral singing. Some will think of people running food banks out of churches and community centres. Some will think of the pro-life groups and the anti-gay-marriage campaigners.

A constitutionally secular Scotland wouldn't be one in which there was any less of these. But it would be a good starting place from which to create a country with tolerance at its heart.

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