When atheism gets confused with secularism and Christians confuse challenge with persecution

It’s been another fun week with a bun fight between Richard Dawkins and Giles Fraser on Radio 4 and Baroness Warsi making herself look a bit silly again (deciding to tell the Pope what he already believes!).

It started with Richard Dawkins’ survey of people who had identified as Christian in the last census. The findings of this research can be read in a few different ways. I first came across it in this article which stated:

Richard Dawkins survey shows almost a quarter of UK population believe Jesus is the Son of God the Saviour of Mankind

A friend pointed out that the data also showed that less than a fifth of those who said they were Christian believed Jesus is the Son of God. So, swings and roundabouts!

Dawkins seems to think that his interviews with these people that ticked the Christian box on the census somehow prove that Christianity now has no place in modern society. That seems a massive leap to make. Giles Fraser responded hilariously on Radio 4 to Dawkins’ comment that lots of people couldn’t name the first book of the New Testament by asking him if he could name the full title of On the origin of species – he couldn’t:

Later, Baroness Warsi came out with this statement:

“My fear today is that a militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies… At its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant”

I think sometimes people of faith like the idea that they’re being attacked – it’s more interesting than being simply ignored (which is the normal attitude towards religion). I don’t think using terms like ‘militant’ really helps and as Julian Baggini points out in his excellent article:

Secularism, in the political sense, is not a comprehensive project to sweep religion out of public life altogether…Rather it is – or should be – a beautifully simple way of bringing people of all faiths and none together, not a means of pitting them against each other.

It seems as well that lots of people are confusing secularism with atheism when they’re definitely not the same thing, as Nick Baines pointed out in his reflections on this debate.

One of the things I have been thinking about in relation to this whole debate is the importance of culture, context and our national identity. Issues of religion in public life are different in every country. Our country has a terrible history of trying to sort out problems to do with religion and politics. The Church of England was established (not by Henry VIII) but really properly by Elizabeth I in an attempt to keep both sides happy – the famous Anglican Via Media – middle way. Then later on, following the civil war we needed to find a way to not continue to kill each other. Giles Fraser wrote about this eloquently this week:

The lessons of the 17th century are that religious differences can tear a society apart, and that a live and let live philosophy, backed up by equality before the law, is the best way to scale down acrimonious internal division. It’s all there, at the end of the 17th century. And now is not the time to forget the basis on which Britain’s political life was built.

The second important point to make is that of culture. Our culture in Britain is absolutely unique – it is very different from the culture in America, for example. Linda Woodhead has been doing some fascinating research into religion in society and wrote this week about how her research relates to this debate:

Britain is neither a religious country nor a secular one, but an interesting mix of both. That doesn’t make us muddled, or woolly, or confused – it just makes us British.

We have always been instinctively wary of the bright-eyed, fanatical enthusiast, of whatever hue. We don’t really do big ideologies or revolutions – and when we do, we never see them through to their conclusion. We prefer modest proposals, pragmatic solutions, and a bit of muddle – so long as it works. As Kate Fox rightly observes in Watching the English, our natural response to anyone who believes in their own propaganda too much is: “Oh come off it.”

Probably because of our chequered past, we don’t like people who espouse extreme religious belief in public, we all find it a bit embarrassing. It’s just not a culturally British thing to do.

I think Christianity has a rightful place in the life of our nation. I think that our country is a far more tolerant place to be because of its Christian heritage, a point made well by the Queen this week in a speech:

the Queen said the Church of England had “gently and assuredly” created an environment for other faith communities and people of no faith to live freely.

“Woven into the fabric of this country, the Church has helped to build a better society – more and more in active co-operation for the common good with those of other faiths.”

What annoys me is when Christians react to challenges about our privileged (I do think the CofE is tremendously privileged to have bishops in the House of Lords) position in British society as if we are being persecuted or driven out. Go somewhere like Nigeria or Sudan if you want to know what real persecution of the church looks like. I just get frustrated with my Christian brothers and sisters who seem to expend a lot of energy complaining about ‘rampant secularism’ instead of focusing on sharing the gospel of love and challenging true injustices in our society.

So, in conclusion, I think these things need to be remembered in these debates:

  • Atheism is not the same thing as secularism
  • We want the freedom to practise our religion – that’s not the same thing as privileging one religion or belief system above others
  • Being atheist is not a neutral position – as Dawkins seems to think it is
  • Challenge is not the same thing as persecution
  • You can’t divorce these arguments from both our country’s history and its culture
Finally, I would say that I’m quite glad that people still want to tick the ‘Christian’ box on the census form. They’re obviously identifying with something they’d like to aspire to – even if they don’t believe or practice in all of the religion’s teachings. I’m reminded of Rowan Williams’ wise comment :
“I don’t believe we are living in a secular society and I don’t believe we are living in a deeply religiously divided society. I believe we are living in a country that is uncomfortably haunted by the memory of religion and doesn’t quite know what to do with it … a society which is religiously plural and confused and therefore not necessarily hostile.”
The census results prove this.


  1. The comparison is unfair. Evolution is not religion and On the Origin of Species is not God’s words, and so people who believe in evolution do not have to read the book or remember its full title.


    • Giles Fraser’s point was that these people identified as Christian so who is Dawkins or anyone else to decide who’s a ‘proper’ Christian? He used the example of naming the title of Origin of Species to illustrate that you equally can’t tell if someone’s a ‘proper’ evolutionist if they can’t name the title of the book – but if they call themselves an evolutionist that’s fine.


    • But if one hasn’t read the defining book on evolution how can one say that she/he “believes” on it, as you put it. Why should the type of “authorship” determine whether “believers” should read it or not. So, why is this different from someone who has heard about a religion (and believes in it) from parents, friends, peers e.t.c.?


    • My point is that everyone has a worldview that colours their opinions – whether they’re a person of faith or an atheist. There’s no such thing as a neutral position.


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