I am a UK atheist but I celebrate Christmas albeit in a relatively secular way. Christmas tree, family gatherings and presents. Despite having a family involved in the church I don’t do any of the religious bits. However I don’t feel threatened by that religious element as it has no effect on me.
For that reason I sympathise with Pat Condell’s view in his latest video. I live in a country with a state religion, where our Head of State is also head of the church and “Defender of the Faith”, and where clergy are automatically appointed to our upper house of government.
Despite living in what is, by definition, a Christian country it has little impact in an area of my life. I work for the government and am known at work as an atheist but don’t know that any of my colleagues have any strong religious views. I have stood for political office before and the question of my faith didn’t arise. Any politician who used their strong faith as a reason to get elected would probably be laughed at in our elections! I have worked with various community groups and there the need for inclusion rules out expressing any faith views.
Even David Cameron’s recent views about the UK being a Christian country were best viewed as a cultural defence. That culture being framework for all faiths with that faith “neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for morality.” A country with Christianity at its core that facilitates all faiths or none at all. Only 15% of Britons are regular church goers and 21% are atheist.
All I read about US society and politics suggests almost the opposite state of affairs. The constitution sets an absolute division between religion and the various parts of government but Christianity pervades every aspect of society. Very few of my elected representatives mentioned their religion and many were clearly atheist; in the States it seems the right invisible friend id a prerequisite for office.
Reading the feedback to Pat’s video seems to indicate that atheists in the US are fighting to keep every vaguely Christian element away from public spaces and publicly funded proceedings. Non-believers in the UK just get on with enjoying the wider celebrations.
I would never go to school carol services but not because I thought they were a threat to my beliefs or society. Certainly I didn’t see them as unconstitutional because we are lucky not to have such a document! I didn’t go because the sight of all those cute kids, smiling and singing out of tune made me want to vomit.
In the UK churches, whether the CofE or otherwise, receive no direct state funding. Almost all are charities and so avoid paying business or property taxes. They can also recover “gift aid” so in some cases get 20% of donations matched from tax- this applies to all charities and many other similar organisations whether religious or not.
The CofE gets three-quarters of its money directly from congregations and local fund-raising. On top of this the Church Commissioners have a £5bn property portfolio to utilise. The Catholic church also has substantial property wealth. Other religious groups depend more on their members and some of those with smaller catchments have a greater need for tithing or the equivalent.
In terms of the threat from this state church, or any religious groupings, I am comfortable. This autumn a member of the ruling party tabled legislation to make independent counselling before abortions compulsory. Her proposal was defeated, she became a figure of fun among even those in her party and she received death threats for daring to propose such restrictions on women’s rights. I would suggest this is radically different to how she would be regarded in the States.
I don’t criticise the American Constitution but am satisfied with the separately written plethora of checks and balances that keep our government and constitutions in their place. For all some bemoan the influence of European institutions on British legislation there is no doubt that the Europe prompted Human Right Act has made it so much more difficult to place restrictions on individuals. All over the continent similar legislation has restricted the power of religion on people and has added freedom including those around abortion and questions of health.