Religion in the age of Secularism…

Dan Walsh 

© Image Sean Elliot

The recent court cases of four Christians, claiming workplace discrimination has brought religious beliefs and human rights into sharp focus. The reaction from Christians seems to be one of despair, given that only one claimant was successful. Their pessimistic outlook shaped by the reality that the UK is increasingly becoming an ever more secular society, as religion becomes increasingly marginalised and antiquated. The Christian outlook is perhaps also shaped by the case of the Christian guest house owners who refused a married gay couple a double bed. Contrarily, the reaction of others has been the opposite to that of Christians, with human rights group Liberty, describing the cases where the claimants lost as ‘equal treatment, religious freedom and common sense‘.

The concerns of Christians or for that matter those of other faiths, that these various rulings spell the end of religious freedom, are understandable and indeed the cases are another indication that religion is no longer the overriding factor in the eyes of many. Put bluntly, many people now regard religion as an almost backward view that is no longer terribly relevant at least in law. The recent rejection of women bishops only exacerbates the view that the church is an outdated institution disaffected from the modern world. And there is an almost ‘us and them’ situation developing in society at times with Christians frequently dismissed as terribly ‘other’.

What one has to consider is do these rulings prevent those of faith from believing what they want to believe? The answer is undoubtedly no in all cases. No-one is preventing anyone from going to church or praying and it is worth noting that in the case won by the British Airways worker banned from wearing her cross necklace, the rules were actually changed long ago. In the case of the nurse barred from wearing her necklace over the top of her clothing, attempts were reportedly made to find a compromise but were refused. The principle of being allowed to wear religious jewelry is an example of religious freedom and the nurse was only refused on the legitimate grounds of health and safety. Perhaps the nurse’s angry reaction and view that the real reason for the refusal was the NHS having a problem with religion being displayed, is indicative of the struggle for those of devout faith to grasp that religion no longer overrides considerations such as health and safety or human rights. Religion is to put it slightly crudely, a viewpoint and not some mythical overriding space immune from law.

The two cases centered around homosexuality are even starker evidence of this last point. Modern thinking has it that one’s sexual preference is as inherent as race or gender and therefore discrimination against it overrides a religious stance. In the cases of the counsellor who opined he would not want to give sexual advice to homosexual couples and the marriage registrar who refused to conduct civil partnerships, the ruling was clear. There was no intention to deny someone the right to a religious belief but refusing to grant their public service to a homosexual couple was the equivalent of refusing the service on the grounds of race or disability. Responses from Christian organisations was outrage that their views on marriage appeared marginalised but the National Secular Society described the situation as ‘religious people who feel elements of their job go against their conscience can always find employment that better matches their needs’ and that attitude is somewhat indicative of much of society.

As overwhelmingly anti-religion as it sounds, one could almost say that as a nation we feel we have ‘got over’ religion. In the way we used to think the earth was flat or that women shouldn’t have the vote, we no longer buy religion. It is not, as many atheists like to put it, the root of all evils in the world. The church as a community tool is undoubtedly very valuable and for many it remains a focus in life; a desperately needed meaning and stability in life that is actually highly enviable. Likewise, those who fight wars over religion have merely chosen religion as their weapon. If it were not religion it would be something else and a negative use of a construct is not necessarily proof that the construct is inherently wrong. To dismiss all Christians as nerdy, socially inadequate ‘God botherers’ utterly unable to engage in any kind of discussion over non-evangelical views is as wrong as to dismiss all Muslims as misogynistic terrorists, but to experience the benefits of the very positive approach to the church outlined above requires believing in it. And sadly for the church, and the archaic views of those in positions of power within it have not helped matters, fewer and fewer people seem to believe.


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