Religion: Why do we still give a damn?

In one of the world's most secular societies, ministers tremble at an archbishop's words and give cl

Europe is a godless quarter of the globe and Britain the most atheistic part of it. Last year, the God-fearing Italians and Irish lost the fight to include reference to our Christian heritage in the preamble to the European constitution. Instead we will vote on our shared heritage of "humanism, equality of persons, freedom and respect for reason". Europe, that seems to say, has shrugged off the age of superstition.

True, more than 72 per cent of Britons ticked the Christianity box in the 2001 census, but fewer than half who did so had attended a church service, an astonishing feat given churches' continued popularity as venues for weddings and funerals. As Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, admitted in September 2001: "In Britain, Christianity as a backdrop to people's lives and moral decisions has now almost been vanquished."

Yet, despite the onward march of secularism, we remain strangely in thrall to the idea of religious belief, showering clerics with respect and encouraging religious spokesmen to air irrational beliefs in the media. We treat the political pronouncements of non-elected religious leaders as Delphic wisdom, taking great care not to offend the sensibilities of those whom we think are wrong-headed, sometimes harmlessly, but often dangerously so.

Atheists and agnostics, needless to say, get no such respect for their non-belief. I can demand in-flight meals for almost any religion but none that caters for my secular belief in fair trade. If I oppose religious practices that abuse women or discriminate against homosexuals I risk being accused of racism or cultural insensitivity.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury - religious head of the established Church of England (followers in Britain: fewer than one in 30 of us) - expressed, tortuously, mundane views on the conflict in Iraq his words made front-page news and much chattering on the airwaves. His objection to a war based on government deception (unsurprising, given the ten commandments of his god) was seen as awesome wisdom that should make Tony Blair tremble. Blair might well feel privately rebuked by his spiritual leader. But, as Prime Minister, he would surely be wiser to worry about the anti-war millions who have already made plain their views and whose votes he may one day need.

In a culture not characterised by respect and courtesy (the royal family, politicians and celebrities routinely suffer public ridicule for their physical appearance, clothes, sex lives and even sexual performance), we are strangely reluctant to criticise irrational beliefs. No one suggests that the Prime Minister's belief in life after death might obscure his judgement of the here and now - might even echo in a minor way the irrational belief of suicide bombers that they are on their way to paradise.

Poking fun at religious beliefs is still taboo. BBC3 has just reportedly shelved a cartoon called Popetown, which makes light of the Vatican and features the voices of Ruby Wax as a peevish Pope and Jerry Hall as a fame-obsessed nun. Even without a showing, the BBC received some 6,000 letters of complaint.

Last year, an immigration scam was uncovered when hundreds of Chinese asylum-seekers were found to have been coached in the beliefs of the Falun Gong sect in order to claim religious persecution and thereby gain the right to stay in Britain. Until the similarity of all their stories raised suspicions, the claims were successful. A lawyer who frequently presents applications for asylum-seekers told me that he, too, had made use of official reluctance to challenge an applicant's religious beliefs. Whatever the actual reason for seeking entry (often genuine political persecution), it was always a safer bet to present a case based on religious persecution, he said.

The government is anxious to keep God onside. At the end of March the Home Office announced that it would consult religious groups on future policies. "A large majority of people in this country have some religious faith," declared the Prime Minister (inaccurately). "Faith community" leaders were to be consulted by civil servants who would receive "faith awareness training". Minority religions (Sufis, Zoroastrians) would also be consulted when appropriate, as would "secularists" (a lack-of-faith community, perhaps). Atheists and agnostics are unlikely to feel reassured. Historically, "faith groups" from the Spanish Inquisition through Cromwell's Roundheads to the Iranian ayatollahs and the Taliban have not exercised political power with a light touch.

The National Secular Society opposes the proposals, as logic dictates, but even believers should baulk at the idea of being spiritually represented by non-elected "faith leaders". How many women, of any faith or none, want a pious group of male clerics having influence over, say, human fertilisation issues or divorce law? It is a preposterous anachronism in the 21st century and raises serious questions about this government's notion of democracy. Who chooses the leaders? (In the case of the Church of England, the Prime Minister does.) Does the undeniably popular Abu Hamza get a seat at the Whitehall tea party?

Perhaps the initiative is a gimmick and clerics will have no real influence. But the secular majority would be right to worry about this proposal in the Home Office report: "Most faiths have views on reparation and redemption; faith perspectives may therefore provide insights on how to create a community-based sentencing regime that is rehabilitative as well as challenging." An eye for an eye at the local village hall, then?

Religion is also a baleful presence in education where, against the general trend of declining church attendance, its influence is growing. The Daily Telegraph recently reported that increasing numbers of secondary schools were seeking to nestle under the wing of the Church of England in response to parental demand. There are more than 200 C of E and 394 Catholic secondary schools, accounting for between 16 and 17 per cent of all state-maintained secondary schools. The majority of parents "demanding" church schools are not churchgoers seeking religious instruction for their children. They simply note that church schools have more children from middle-class homes and achieve better exam results - largely because they have more freedom to select their pupils than non-faith schools. Most of us know examples where "parental choice" of a nice (probably all-white) little church school has led to a cynical spate of family attendance at church and even the adoption of a false address. How ironic that the desire for a sanctified education should lead parents to such venality.

In the primary sector the church holds even greater sway: 4,715, or 25 per cent, of state-maintained primary schools are C of E or Church of Wales schools, while the Catholic Church has another 1,817 or 10 per cent. Muslims and other minority religious groups quite reasonably ask why they shouldn't have state funding for their schools. This raises the awful possibility of racially segregated education. Yet so ingrained is the belief that we must preserve religious schools even in a secular society that almost no politician will suggest the obvious: that we withdraw state funding from Church of England and Catholic schools.

If the parents of Maria and Mark want their children to learn about Baby Jesus it should be done out of school hours, which is also when Rashid and Leila should read the Koran, and Ben and Rachel the Torah (as nearly all Jewish children in Britain have happily done for generations, without any apparent weakening of the community and its culture). State education should be non-denominational as it is in France and in the United States, where the state, and therefore state schools, are forbidden from either promoting or inhibiting religion.

Late in April, a representative poll of MPs revealed that 57 per cent would like to see the Church of England disestablished: the Queen should cease to be head of the Church of England; the Prime Minister should no longer appoint bishops. Pessimistically, only 37 per cent believed this would happen in the next ten years.

It would certainly be a healthy development. It is difficult to respect a church that can live off the state and its property portfolio rather than have to earn the respect of its followers.

Liberals tend to think of faith as a private matter, a kind of muse sitting on the shoulders of believers, prompting them to behave well. But religions have not usually been content with the role of unobtrusive adviser to the soul. They have a habit of wanting to impose their belief systems on others.

Bob Hale, professor of metaphysical philosophy at Glasgow University, describes our reluctance to challenge such daft or dangerous beliefs as creeping relativism. "There's a tendency", he says, "to assent too readily to the idea that when people disagree about religion or morals there are no objective facts; that there are only facts from this or that perspective or cultural framework, or truths-for-us and truths-for-them. So we treat such disagreements as non-negotiable and think we have to let people hang on to their beliefs. But I don't think it makes sense to treat truth as relative in that way."

If we are going to live peaceably in a multi-faith society, then tolerance of the beliefs of others will take us only so far. We have also to strengthen the secular framework of the state and ensure that no one is obliged to live according to the religious beliefs of others.

A recent BBC survey, which ranked Britain as being among the least religious of all nations, found that more than a quarter of Britons thought the world would be a safer place if no one believed in God. Very few people in other countries assented to the statement. It is a strange distinguishing characteristic but perhaps we should be proud of it.