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A timely reminder of the blight of intolerance

Huge efforts have been made in recent years to rid Scotland of the long-standing scourge of Protestant-Catholic sectarianism, so it is worrying to hear warnings about the potential for a new type of sectarianism.

The Edinburgh University report, Faith and Belief in Scotland, essentially highlights the risk of mistrust developing between religious and non-religious people.

Some 59% of respondents in the study felt their beliefs were misunderstood by the wider community, with three-quarters believing others should learn more about their world view.

Poor understanding between people of religious faith and people of none was allied with polarised views between the two, both on social matters and also on the issue of how much of a role religion should play in society. It is in this context that the report raises the prospect of a "new sectarianism" developing.

The concern appears to be that misunderstanding of others with a different belief system has the potential to breed suspicion and fear and, where there is suspicion and fear, bigotry thrives.

While that is undoubtedly true, there is cause for optimism in the report, too, since a majority of both people with religious beliefs and those who adhere to a non-religious philosophy such as secularism, said they wanted to know more about the beliefs of others. What is more, a majority recognised Scotland as being a nation of many religions and beliefs, as opposed to a Christian or a secular nation (though they believed some belief systems were favoured more than others).

There is no reason to be alarmed by the report, then, but it does bring to light differences between religious and non-religious people that, if left unchecked, could become seriously problematic. It comes against a backdrop of falling Christian adherence and controversy about the role of religious belief in conflict. The status of churches in society has come under pressure. At the same time, the high-profile behaviour of a small number of extremist Islamists, and, over previous decades, religious sectarianism both in Northern Ireland and in the west of Scotland, have led to an assumption among some that religion breeds division. Dialogue to promote mutual understanding is essential to prevent mistrust developing, which is why there is a lot to be said for the prospect of a national advisory board being set up, bringing together people of religion and belief alongside government to talk about matters of mutual interest and concern.

Such a forum, allied to broad-based religious and moral education in schools to promote understanding of others with different beliefs, can help prevent unhealthy divisiveness from developing. A truly inclusive society does not ridicule or marginalise those who are of minority beliefs. This report is a timely reminder that communities, individuals and central and local government, must be vigilant about making those of all religious beliefs and none feel like equal citizens.

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