Shropshire MPs make me so proud. Not, this time, my own (Saudi-loving) MP Daniel Kawczynski, but Mark Pritchard, MP for neighbouring constituency The Wrekin. This week, he published a barking press release with attached debate in Westminster Hall. Apparently, Christianity is under threat in the UK. Now, I know every year, Fox News and the Daily Mail share a common cause in uncovering the “War on Christmas” in their respective countries, but it is a sad development for one of our legislators to take up this perennial bonanza of bollocks, and try to dress it up in more plausible terms.
Still, to turn to the kernel of substance in what he says, he argued that:
It is important for the Government and public agencies to recognise, acknowledge, and be reminded of the roots of Christianity in this nation
A recent survey in The Sunday Telegraph revealed that fewer and fewer schools are staging traditional Christmas nativity plays, supposedly through fear of offending people of other faiths and those with no faith.
The last bit is simply his assertion, and a straw man. The point is not offence, it is that, if schools perform nativity plays, particularly in areas where most of their pupils are not from Christian backgrounds, then there is a good argument that they also ought to go out of their way to celebrate equally important holidays of other religions. If they don’t want to do this, then why should they do it for Christians? And would atheists be allowed to invent their own “Holy Days” to celebrate, perhaps Hume’s birthday, or the anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species? To be inconsistent on this matter, in state schools, is to imply an endorsement of Christianity by the state.
But then, why would we be surprised to find that? We have plenty of explicit evidence for it already. For instance, the legal requirements for daily collective worship in schools (which is so obviously stupid that three quarters of schools flout the law in this regard). Just take a look at the “Religion and Education” section of the Wikipedia article “Religion in the United Kingdom“:
Religion is still heavily involved in education in the UK. 7,000 (30%) of the 24,000 state funded schools in the UK are faith schools. The vast majority, 6,955 (99%), are Christian. 6,400 (92%) of these are primary schools. These Christian state funded schools are mainly either of Church Of England or Roman Catholic denomination. There are also 36 Jewish, seven Muslim and two Sikh faith schools. Faith schools follow the same national curriculum as state schools with the added ethos of the host religion. In Scotland, the majority of schools are non-denominational, but by legislation separate Roman Catholic schools, with an element of control by the Roman Catholic Church, are provided by the state system. Northern Ireland has a highly segregated education system, with 95% of pupils attending either a maintained (Catholic) school or a controlled school (mostly Protestant). However, controlled schools are open to children of all faiths and none, mirroring the stance taken by many Church Of England schools.
Until 1944 there was no requirement for state schools in England and Wales to provide religious education or worship, although most did so. The Education Act 1944 introduced a requirement for a daily act of collective worship and for religious education but did not define what was allowable under these terms. The act contained provisions to allow parents to withdraw their children from these activities and for teachers to refuse to participate. The Education Reform Act 1988 introduced a further requirement that the majority of collective worship be “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”. In recent years schools have increasingly failed to comply with the collective worship rules – in 2004 David Bell, the Chief Inspector of Schools said that “at present more than three-quarters of schools fail to meet this requirement.” Religious studies is still an obligatory subject in the curriculum, but tends to aim at providing an understanding of the main faiths of the world than at instilling a strictly Christian viewpoint.
Given such a favourable climate toward not just religion generally but specifically Christianity in law (and remember, Christianity is the only religion specifically protected from blasphemy by law, as Mr. Boyce pointed out on Question Time tonight), how can any sidelining of Christianity be seen as anything other than a failure of Christians to make enough noise on behalf of their religion?
Personally, I think that the legislation this country has passed is far too deferential to religion. No special protection for religions or religious people should be required; free speech laws and the laws governing our interactions in general should be quite enough. No state money should be allowed to go toward any overtly religious event or institution, unless they are performing some public function (like adoption agencies). Faith schools should certainly not be state funded. I realise that’s a marginal view in this country – funnily enough, I suspect it would be considered less so in the USA, normally a country where we consider religion to be such a massive thing.
Separation of church and state is a big issue, and one that the UK really hasn’t done enough on. If eejits like Pritchard want to start a fight on this subject, fine. But they shouldn’t expect the largely secular public to come to the conclusion that, since public money goes to other religions, we need to bed Christianity down in our national life once more. The answer I think we are much more likely to reach, and the one which is the right answer, is that the state has no business associating itself with any particular faith. This is not “Christianophobia”, any more than a refusal to make special arrangements for school kids to go on the Hajj is Islamophobia. Nobody is being prevented from practicing their religion. Clear thinking progressives must be confident and proactive in rejecting calls, from all religions, not just Christianity, for special treatment by the state.