BHA fringe event at Conservative conference
The British Humanist Association (BHA) held a packed fringe event at the Conservative Party conference Wednesday, on the theme of ‘Is Britain a Christian Country?’ The speakers were BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson, Chair of the Conservative Muslim Forum Lord Sheikh, and the broadcaster, journalist and novelist Anne Atkins. The event was chaired by Colourful Radio owner and broadcaster Henry Bonsu.
Speaking first, BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson argued that Britain is not a Christian country. He questioned what is meant by the claim that Britain is a Christian nation – does this mean that a majority of British people are Christian, or that there is a Christian culture in the UK? Mr Copson pointed out that only a minority of British people now identify themselves as Christian, and that 90% of people do not attend a church service in an average week. He said that 70% of people do not believe that Jesus is the son of God, and that only 28% of marriages are Christian ones. He recognised that there is some truth in the claim that Christianity has influenced Britain. However, he argued there are also other influences which are pre-Christian, and others (such as democracy and the scientific method) which are post-Christian. He also said that some ethical principles, such as altruism, transcend individual religions.
In contrast, Lord Sheikh argued that Britain is a Christian country, because of the Queen’s position as both head of state and head of the church. Lord Sheikh is a practising Muslim who came to the UK in the 1972, after his family was persecuted in Uganda. He said that Britain is religiously diverse and tolerant, and that people of other religions should not be regarded as less British. However, he also argued that British society has been shaped by Christian values. He accepted that church attendance is in decline, but argued that this is not a true measure of faith. He said that expressions of faith can be seen in public acts and in charitable giving.
Anne Atkins argued that it is not possible for any nation to be defined as a Christian country, because this concept is contradictory. She said that people in the Bible often failed to be God’s people, that they often wanted to create their own laws above those of God, and that Jesus then founded a new people with a new set of rules. She said that in any nation, not everyone will be Christian because you can’t impose a religion on the population, and that Christians should celebrate difference. However, she also claimed that both liberal democracy and universal education were created by Christians.
The speeches were followed by a question and answer session. In reply to a question on the place of religion in Parliament, Ms Atkins argued against the idea that there should be privileges for religious people, and said that faith schools should not be allowed to discriminate on the basis of religion. Lord Sheikh then claimed that faith schools can provide better discipline and educational standards. Mr Copson pointed out that universal education is not a Christian idea, and that it was opposed by both the Protestant and Catholic churches in Britain. He also said that, in a secular society, the law which requires compulsory acts of worship in schools should be abolished. In reply to a question on what is ending the Christian nature of Britain, Mr Copson said that Humanists did a lot of charity work, and that volunteering is as high among non-religious people as among Christians.