Letters II: More secular society means we are happier

Posted by on 7 July, 2017 | 0 comments

Originally appeared at The National 24th June, 2017.


Scotland is changing. Over the last two decades we have become a considerably more liberal and secular society, while our population is more diverse. Long established structures, institutions and traditions are openly being questioned and, frankly, this is a good and healthy development. This can be seen through the emergence into public discourse of a host of issues surrounding the role of religion in public life and in particular, in education. For example, arrangements such as the presence of unelected representatives of certain Christian churches on Local Education Committees perhaps made more sense in an earlier, more religious and more authoritarian Scotland. Today, they are rightly viewed by many as a bizarre anachronism.


Unfortunately, some voices in Scotland don’t see this change as desirable. These reactionaries seem to long for a return to an imagined past in which their preferred type of religion found a more ready audience, and in which conservative Christian ideas about human life were considerably more influential. Writing in the National (21st June), Kevin McKenna took aim at what he interprets as a persecution of conservative Christian viewpoints in public life. He is one of several commentators who refuse to accept that the role of Christianity – indeed all religions – in Scottish society has changed, and that this is a positive development. They see the erosion of religious privilege (such as preferential treatment of churches and their followers) as a sign of some kind of persecution. They interpret moves towards greater equality and pluralism of belief as a direct attack on their theological worldviews, and by extension, their own identities.


Contrary to claims towards the general public’s ignorance on the theological underpinnings of such archaic decisions as denial of equal marriage rights and abortion rights, the social changes we are witnessing are due precisely to the fact that after generations of religious control and privilege, we do indeed understand these theological worldviews. The public see them as regressive and frightening, and rightly fear their gaining influence on the state. They read of the roll-back of progressive healthcare and LGBT rights in conservative America, and of the horror stories involving the denial of abortion to women in the Republic of Ireland. These illustrate what can happen when ideas about ‘sin’ and sexuality move beyond the realm of religious opinion and are allowed to inform secular policy making.


Freedoms regarding sexualities, gender, medical services, and family dynamics are just a few of the recently highlighted issues in which conservative Christian and liberal secular viewpoints come into conflict. The high profile resignation of Tim Farron as leader of the Liberal Democrats followed from concern that his personal view of the sinfulness of homosexuality would spill over into policy-making. The issue here was not his own beliefs, but, crucially, his willingness to impose those beliefs on others. Scotland repealed Section 2A over a decade ago, recognised same-sex marriage almost 5 years ago, offers free healthcare fertility services to women, free contraception for all, and our society has continually been better for this. Conservative religious voices regularly threaten the loss of a moral code to guide our society, as their own conservative control weakens with the public. However, teaching students not to hate based on sexual orientation, gender, or faith affiliation, and to accept one another as respected fellow human beings is a far superior moral education than one grounded in niche religious fundamentalism.


It is ironic that Mr. McKenna and those of his ilk complain that they are victims of intolerance. What has in fact happened is that due to the secularization of society, and the emergence of a more compassionate and human rights orientated outlook, religions are no longer given the support of the state to impose their own intolerance upon others, for example, over same-sex marriage.


Finally, we note that with approval that Mr. McKenna says that he ‘does not seek to impose his Christian beliefs upon anyone else, and asks merely to be left to struggle with them in peace.’ We are glad that he evidently shares our conviction that faith is a matter of free choice and should not be imposed upon others. Might this mean that he and his allies share our concern with the plight of atheist children and their parents who are at present ‘othered’ even in non-denominational schools? Or might he support the Scottish Secular Society in their current bid to remove the unelected Church representatives currently imposed by law on Scotland’s Education Committees?


Yours etc.

Megan Crawford (Chair)

Charlie Lynch (Secretary)

Paul Braterman (Science Adviser)

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