Diversity and Equality

Posted by on 1 January, 2016 | 0 comments

David Cameron’s 2015 Christmas message contained an interesting double view of The UK.

“As a Christian country, we must remember what (Christ’s) birth represents: peace, mercy, goodwill and, above all, hope. I believe that we should also reflect on the fact that it is because of these important religious roots and Christian values that Britain has been such a successful home to people of all faiths and none.”


For the benefit of Christian voters, it’s a Christian country. For the benefit of non-Christian voters, it’s a home to people of all faiths and none. Such carefully wrought diplomatic counterpoint, playing one tune for one audience and a contrasting tune for another, is not unusual in political recitals, but there is notable audacity here in the way Cameron attempts to derive the second tune from the first, or at least to give an impression of derivation. He claims that Britain has succeeded as a nation of Christians and non-Christians BECAUSE it is Christian.

Like many audacious manoeuvres, this is risky, and for three reasons.

Firstly, it is highly disputable. Sceptics could point out that if tolerance for cultural diversity were the product of a strong Christian tradition, we might expect the degree of the tolerance to correlate with the strength of that tradition, but such a correlation does not leap at our eyes from the pages of history. In today’s UK, where the churchgoing population increasingly resemble an endangered species, there is still much heat generated by difference of belief, but it no longer emanates from the bodies of Christians tied to stakes by Christians of another persuasion, as it did in far more church-guided centuries than ours.

Secondly, Cameron’s suggestion that many belief traditions can flourish in a country because one particular belief tradition has prevailed above others could be seen as a patronising appraisal of the others as inferior, even as he tries to make their adherents feel included. Christianity is cast as a property owner demonstrating the virtue of hospitality to the guest traditions it so graciously allows house-room. There is not a trace of the historic back-story, in which a young, ambitious Christianity turns up on the doorstep of a Pagan home, is allowed in, and proceeds to talk its
elderly host into handing over the deeds. That might be seen as an even greater hospitality than the Christian tradition has dispensed, and not one that all Christians are keen to emulate in turn.

Thirdly, if Cameron is correct that Christianity breeds the tolerance which breeds diversity, Christians cannot avoid the possibility that their religion is jeopardising its own career as dominant cultural in influence, as the diverse range of belief traditions our “Christian country” is praised for accommodating become its rivals: atheism being chief among them. As these rival traditions become proportionately more popular and Christianity’s majority status looks increasingly fragile, it becomes ever clearer that the hot issue is not tolerance of diversity, which is now largely taken  for granted, but tolerance of equality. It is no longer enough for other traditions to get house-room: they also want equal status in the property that all the residents help to maintain (for, if they are indeed guests at all, they have always been working and paying guests). In responding to calls for equality, Christians have three options.

1. They can try to maintain their historic privileges while denying these to others, but even if they succeed, which seems increasingly unlikely, they risk losing their reputation for tolerance, which is now defined by equality as well as diversity.

2. They can allow some other groups to share their privileges, such as seats in The Lords, seats on education committees, and funding for belief promotion in state schools. The problem is that, once the sharing of privilege starts, it might never end. As more groups get a share, any groups still left out will feel their exclusion more keenly and be more vocal in demanding equal treatment. This could produce daunting logistic challenges. Only so many chairs can be put round a committee table before the room starts to feel a little crowded. Only so many specialist belief-group schools can be built and maintained before the public coffers are empty or taxes must be increased.
3. To avoid the problems that beset 1 and 2, they might agree to renounce all privileges, removing any justification for other groups to pursue them and consequently any need to tolerate pursuits of equality.

While The Scottish Secular Society favour option 3 as the only one that is both truly egalitarian and practical, any suggestion that privileges be sacrifced altogether is regarded with alarmed indignation by some Christian commentators, who see it as an attempt to “marginalise” Christianity and drive it from public life but do not seem to have asked themselves whether, according to their terms, other belief groups are already marginalised and excluded from public life by their lack of such privileges.
General acceptance of this most logical and least problematic solution seems as yet a distant prospect, but in the meantime we are starting to see an abandonment of 1 as no longer permanently defensible, and a move towards 2 as a lesser threat to civilisation than 3. In December 2015 The Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life recommended that The Church of England give up a few of its reserved parliamentary seats to representatives of other religions, though The Church of England, far from wishing to celebrate diversity quite as enthusiastically as
that, dismissed the report as characterised by an “old-fashioned view” that “traditional religion” was declining in importance. (Note that The Church of England’s religion is “traditional”, like its privileges, whereas any claim that it’s no longer the force it has traditionally been is “old-fashioned”, however strongly supported by the latest surveys.)

Later that month in Scotland, Peter Kearney of The Catholic media Office stated he would not oppose state funding for atheist schools: a stance quickly seconded by David Robertson, moderator of The Free Kirk. Both men, having unsuccessfully opposed same-sex marriage in Scotland, used their statements to pose as champions of diversity:


“… isn’t it time we expanded faith schools, so our education system truly reflects our plural society? Why, for example, should tax-paying parents who follow a secular humanist belief system be denied the opportunity to have their children educated in accordance with their beliefs?”
(“Agenda: Education system should reflect diversity” by Peter Kearney in The Herald, 29th Dec 2015)

” I agree entirely with the Roman Catholic Church’s Peter Kearney, who recently called for a more diverse system and an increase in the number of faith schools. I don’t have a problem with the secularists having an atheistic secular education system for their children.”

(“Free Kirk moderator backs more schools for Christians — and for atheists” in The Courier, 31st Dec 2015)

The diversity that Kearney and Robertson advocate, however, is a diversity of mono-cultural schools, each catering specifically for one belief group and likely to attract pupils primarily from that group rather than a diversity of pupils. It is true that some faith schools attract pupils from other faiths, but this is only due to a lack of schools specifically catering to those other faiths. If Kearney and Robertson had their way and the education system grew more diverse, supplying schools for all major faiths and atheist families, cultural mixing within schools would be severely decreased. Thus the more diversity between schools is encouraged, the less diversity we are likely to find within them.

In contrast to Kearney and Robertson, The Scottish Secular Society support diversity within schools rather than between them, holding that culturally comprehensive schools give children a valuable opportunity to learn about diversity by living in it. This is one reason we believe all state schools should be neutral towards both religion and atheism, for if no one belief group within a school is elevated above others as possessing the truth, it is easier both to attract a broad cultural mix of pupils and to arrange their education with a minimum of ideological conflict and opting out of lessons. Moreover, children attending such schools are seeing equality in action as well as diversity,
and thus being accustomed to life in a (mostly) egalitarian society as well as a diverse one.

Secularism, far from conflicting with ideological diversity, is essential if factions in that diversity are to be accommodated on an egalitarian basis. It does not compel factions to be silent about their beliefs but merely refrains from giving any one of them control of the stage or ownership of the microphone. In some secular situations, such as a maths lesson, expressions of belief might be out of place. In another, such as a class debate, they should be encouraged in all their diversity. This is also the case outside the world of education. Parliament should be neutral on religion, yet there is no need for any rule against politicians expressing religious beliefs or atheist positions in the
debating chamber. Likewise, it should be possible to hold a secular national remembrance ceremony in which faith groups and atheists can lay their wreaths side by side, allowing expression to all a affiliations without the ceremony itself being defined by any one of them. Dividing church from state (or mosque, synagogue and temple from state) does not divide the religious or their beliefs from the public square, but it prevents the favouritism which has so often, throughout history, and sometimes with tragic consequences, divided people from each other.
Robert Canning, 2016 (Vice-chair of the Scottish Secular Society).

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