According to government minister Baroness Warsi, Britain is threatened by a tide of militant secularism, though I’ve yet to hear anyone singing ‘onward atheist soldiers, marching as to war’. The latest evidence for this ‘threat’ is a court ruling that those who don’t believe in god Jehovah shouldn’t feel obliged to be present while those who do are communicating with him. Not a huge advance in military terms, you might think, in a nation whose head of state is also head of a Christian church, and where Church officials have a guaranteed role in the legislature.
For myself, I’ve never minded people around me saying prayers, having been accustomed to attending religious ceremonies at school and singing hymns which have some excellent tunes. Indeed, I can see that religion has often been a force for good, setting standards as to how we should treat each other, and requiring secular leaders to acknowledge some authority higher than their own. It’s not difficult to find modern examples of religion bringing both comfort and practical help to people in need, while creating a sense of belonging in communities. Look beneath the surface rhetoric of some Muslim organisations, branded as terrorist by the West, and you find them winning popular support by providing better social services than secular governments.
But that sense of belonging and community can prompt discrimination against the outsider, a fear of those with different beliefs because of the challenge they present. We’re currently seeing turmoil in the Muslim world because an ancient dispute leads one branch of Islam to resent another more than external powers who are manipulating them both. At worst, the most fervent adherents of all religions sometimes feel impelled to impose their beliefs on others through violence, destroying whatever seems to deny the truth they’ve found in their god. So, while moderate believers may condemn extremism, they ought to recognise that every assertion of a god’s existence also validates the faith of those less tolerant than themselves. And that a secular society is our best hope of peaceful co-existence between competing religions.