By Dr James Eglinton, Meldrum Lecturer in Reformed Theology, New College, University of Edinburgh

LAST week, Police Scotland, the Scottish Government and One Scotland – a governmental initiative intended to foster a spirit of equality across Scotland – joined forces in a blunt new ad campaign against religious bigotry. One poster reads: “Dear bigots, you can’t spread your religious hate here. End of sermon. Yours, Scotland.”

Scotland is no stranger to social discord caused by a myriad of factors, religion included. Many Scottish communities are blighted by a tribalism that refuses to practice “love thy neighbour” if that neighbour has a different religious identity. In view of this real problem, the response of Police Scotland and the Scottish Government is socially irresponsible. Rather than promoting equality and peace, this particular advert will sow further division, suspicion, and inequality.

This lack of mutual trust, however, will not grow between different religious groups – Scotland’s Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists or Jews. Rather, it will increase between non-religious and religious Scots. In place of an older set of inter-religious tribal battles, this poster fosters a more zeitgeisty alternative: secular citizens set against their religious neighbours. Why does this poster run this risk? There are two reasons.

The first concerns the poster’s failure to define either of its key terms: bigot and religious. It would not be unreasonable for someone to read the poster’s ambiguous terms and unguarded flow of reasoning, and conclude that bigotry is produced exclusively by religion, that bigoted people are religious people, or that one social group should carry the blame for intolerance: the religious.

The poster makes no distinctions as to whether any single religious community might be particularly prone to bigotry, or whether all stand equally guilty in the eyes of our Government and Police. The poster’s message has no explicit interest in distinctions between (or within) religions. Indeed, to name and shame any specific group—itself an unhelpful alternative—would presumably go against One Scotland’s policy on religious discrimination. Because of this, the poster has ended up as a hard punch aimed at no-one in particular. This means that its vague, extremely serious implication concerns all religious Scots as those who have been tarred, for one reason or another, by the same broad brush.

Whether intentionally or not, Police Scotland and the Scottish Government’s careless generalisation has given non-religious Scots a public suggestion that they should be suspicious of their religious neighbours.

The second reason flows directly from this. In its effort to promote peaceful relations between Scotland’s religious communities, the poster implies that those religious communities are not able to solve their own problems. Practitioners of interfaith peacebuilding often emphasise that the most effective voices in combating religious bigotry are drawn from the faith communities in question. Those native voices draw on their respective traditions in demonstrating why their followers should think and live differently. In that model, the peacebuilding assumes that a community can draw on its own resources in search of peace—an act of trust that is socially empowering and inclusive for religious adherents.

In this poster at least, our Government and police have not extended that trust to Scotland’s faith communities. Rather, their approach has centred the task of identifying and solving the religious problem entirely outside of our religious communities. The poster’s implied speaker is not a Scottish Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, etc. The poster’s speaker, quite explicitly, is progressive secular Scotland. It is the voice of the non-religious, non-bigoted Scot. And as such, the poster is not a call for better dialogue between religious Scots. It is, rather, a call for non-religious Scots to pity their backward neighbours. End of sermon. Yours, a Christian Scot.