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Sectarianism debate needs light, not heat

THE poet John Donne was right: no man is an island entire of itself.

We are what we are, fashioned by our history, by our past experiences and our sincerely held beliefs and, yes, also by our prejudices. That means dealing with the many facets of the history that helped to shape us and make us what we are today – in Scotland that also entails taking on and confronting some pretty unpleasant, unpalatable facts that still have the power to hurt or disfigure.

At times, too, we have to find the courage to examine some of the shadier recesses of that shared past and shine light on them, the better that they might be illuminated and understood.

Perhaps no other dark place is darker than that which is occupied by bigotry, especially bigotry of the religious kind. We have all come across it in its various guises and while Scotland is becoming an increasingly secular society – attendances at Christian churches have declined dramatically in the past half-century – it would be facile to pretend that sectarianism is longer a factor in contemporary Scottish life.

Just how a powerful factor is, however, open to debate.

It would no longer be possible, for instance, to argue convincingly that Catholics are debarred from the most powerful jobs in Scotland.

That is not to say that the problem has been solved, but there are laws which make acts of sectarianism punishable and there is political will to stamp it out even in those places where it is most obvious, including certain football stadiums.

Last week saw a heightening of the tensions that always surround sectarianism when Peter Kearney, spokesman for the Scottish Catholic Church, made the unhelpful suggestion that it was possible to make a comparison between the position of Catholics in present-day Scotland and the predicament facing black Americans during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Mr Kearney also claimed that the Scottish Catholic Church was under constant assault by so-called "secularists" – presumably those who object to the same church's position on contraception and its stance and policies towards homosexuality.

Efforts to redefine sectarianism to include criticism of the church's beliefs and political and moral statements are not helpful.

It is perfectly possible to find bigotry repugnant but to argue against the Catholic Church's stance on, for instance, gay marriage. That's not sectarianism, it is open debate.

There was a time in Scotland's recent past when anti-Catholic prejudice was a fact of life. We should be ashamed of that and determined to wipe out any traces of that stain. But using the sins of the past to score political points on modern day issues such as same-sex marriage is not the way to proceed.

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