THERE are accusations of McCarthyism and Trojan-horse tactics which make this clash over the role of church and state sound straight out of the American Culture Wars.

But while it is not on the scale of the fight between atheists and fundamentalists in the USA, tensions between secularists and faith ­leaders are rising fast in Scotland.

At the heart of the fight are ­challenges being raised over the role of religion in the country's education system.

Loading article content

In recent months campaigns have called for a ban on teaching creationism in science classes, for children to have to opt-in to ­religious observance in schools and for religious bodies to no longer take a lead role in sex education in denominational schools.

Attempts to stop councils having to appoint religious representatives to local education committees have also been made - and thwarted.

Independent MSP John Finnie recently dropped plans for a bill after a public consultation on the issue produced a flurry of negative responses - many of which were highly similar 'pro-forma' letters.

The Rev David Robertson, who becomes the Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland next May, is the most vocal clerical critic of what he sees as a rise in secularist attacks on faith.

Last week, he claimed secularists were raising issues using Trojan horse-like tactics to fuel their "anti-religious agenda".

He has also spoken of "sustained attacks" on Christianity by "militant atheists" under the cover of promoting secularism.

But Garry Otton, secretary of the Scottish Secular Society (SSS), described the accusations as beyond ridiculous and emphasised the society is not an atheist organisation.

He said: "I don't like the way secularism is being misinterpreted like this - it does enormous damage.

"There is a new kind of sectarianism afoot - which is between faith and non-faith. I am worried that divide could turn nasty."

Otton pointed to the controversy over the repeal of the Section 28 law in 2000, which pitted gay rights advocates and religious groups against each other.

"That was almost like a starting point, where the religious started to get nasty," he said. "And with their demands for religious privilege comes another side, the atheists - which can be just as nasty.

"This divide is dangerous and it isn't helped by the marginalising of secularism, which is not about religious hatred, it is about establishing fairness."

Dr Elliot Bulmer, a member of the SSS board and the society's adviser on constitutional affairs, said one difficulty was that the word atheism in the US had become tinged with an anti-patriotic feeling and coun­ter- culture meaning - so some atheists used the word secularist instead.

"That language is picked up on this side of the Atlantic as well, but I think it is quite misleading," he said. "The term secularism as we at the Scottish Secular Society use it is really about a legal and constitutional position, which advocates the neutrality of the state in relation to religious affairs … While not wishing to diminish the right of religious voices to make themselves heard in a public square, our position is we simply don't wish for them to have a privileged institutional position."

He added: "If you look at the campaigns that the Scottish Secular Society has engaged in over recent years, none of them are about closing down the rights of religious people - in fact, we would hold those rights as being fundamental."

But Robertson, also director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity, argued the petition to keep creationism out of science lessons was an example of a bid by campaigners to "stir up panic" and attack religion.

"They are trying to introduce an American-style culture war that in my view doesn't exist in Scotland and shouldn't exist," he said.

"They are trying to find conspiracies everywhere and creationists everywhere. I think they are stirring up a panic, I think it is hysterical language they are using and I am just fed up of it.

"My view is somebody has got to stand up and say: 'Look, this is a handful of people who are creating a fuss about nothing, trying to create a division between faith and science which is not there.'"

He added: "The whole notion of what they are trying to do is to create this notion of 'watch out religion is bad and coming to get you and we need to exclude this bad thing'.

"To me the SSS are maybe the Ukip of secularism - just a little bit eccentric and shaking things up, but don't take them too seriously."

Robertson also accused the SSS of "McCarthyism" after it last week raised concerns over a response to its petition on creationism submitted by the body representing secondary teachers.

Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland (SLS), criticised the call to ban creationism being taught in schools as "dangerous" and said it was not a serious issue for schools, despite "inflammatory rhetoric" used by petitioners. However, Cunningham, it turned out, is a religious elder. The SSS raised concerns over the connections of his church with the Free Church of Scotland.

Cunningham - who insisted the letter represented the official position of SLS - is an elder at Cartsbridge Evangelical Church, near Glasgow, where Robertson has delivered sermons.

Robertson said: "It is McCarthyite, it is reds under the bed - except this time it is Christians under the bed."

Jonny Scaramanga, who campaigns against Christian fundamentalism after growing up in the movement, said he believed ­questions about creationism should be discussed in the classroom, but only in the context of making clear that creationism and intelligent design have no scientific validity.

He added: "It is a bit bizarre as creationism is quite a fringe thing and most mainstream denominations accept evolution. To pretend that this is an attack on faith misrepresents the situation."

The Humanist Society ­Scotland (HSS) has also been angered by Robertson's criticism of an academic study it is funding to investigate religious privilege in Scots law and whether churches have undue influence on legislation.

Douglas McLellan, chief executive of the HSS, said: "We believe in taking an evidence-based approach to our policy making, which is why we have funded this study - I would advise Mr Robertson that it might be more appropriate to actually read the results of the completed study before criticising it."

He said Robertson often criticised humanists for representing a tiny minority, but membership of the HSS in Scotland had now reached nearly 10,000.

"In fact, according to official statistics, last year we married over 3000 couples compared to the Wee Frees' 91," he said.

"Dealing as we do everyday, with representatives from across Scotland's diverse faith and belief communities, I am confident Mr Robertson doesn't represent the views of the vast majority of religious people and is himself a vocal minority."

Scotland's main churches may be less outspoken than Robertson, but there are signs of tension.

The HSS recently launched a campaign urging the Scottish Government to stop religious institutions taking a lead role in sex education in denominational schools.

But a spokesman for the ­Catholic Church said: "While same-sex marriage is now a legal reality, individuals, including teachers and other public employees, should be free to recognise this without necessarily endorsing it … moves to restrict freedom of conscience and impose standardised beliefs on anyone should be resisted by all democratic societies."

The Church of Scotland signalled it is not happy with campaigning by some secular groups.

A Church of Scotland spokesman said: "People of faith have an important place in the public sphere and rightly so. We would resist the exclusion of faith perspectives from the public sphere."

However, he added that "not all [secular] groups" had that on their agenda.