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Johann Hari

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The Slow, Whining Death of British Christianity

Posted: 08/10/10 07:42 AM ET

And now congregation, put your hands together and give thanks, for I come bearing Good News. My country, Britain, is now the most irreligious country on earth. This island has shed superstition faster and more completely than anywhere else. Some 63 percent of us are non-believers, according to a 2006 Guardian/ICM poll, while 82 percent say religion is a cause of harmful division. Now, let us stand and sing our new national hymn: Jerusalem was dismantled here/ in England's green and pleasant land.

How did it happen? For centuries, religion was insulated from criticism in Britain. First its opponents were burned, then jailed, then shunned. But once there was a free marketplace of ideas, once people could finally hear both the religious arguments and the rationalist criticisms of them, the religious lost the British people. Their case was too weak, their opposition to divorce and abortion and gay people too cruel, their evidence for their claims non-existent. Once they had to rely on persuasion rather than intimidation, the story of British Christianity came to an end.

Now that only six percent of British people regularly attend a religious service, it's only natural that we should dismantle the massive amounts of tax money and state power that are automatically given to the religious to wield over the rest of us. It's a necessary process of building a secular state, where all citizens are free to make up their own minds. Yet the opposition to this sensible shift -- the separation of church and state Americans have known for centuries -- is becoming increasingly unhinged. The Church of England, bewildered by the British people choosing to leave their pews, has only one explanation: Christians are being "persecuted" and "bullied" by a movement motivated by "Christophobia." George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, says Christians are now "second class citizens" and it is only "a small step" to "a religious bar on any employment by Christians".

Really? Let's list some of the ways in which Christians, and other religious groups, are given special privileges every day in Britain. Start with the educational system. Every school in Britain is required by law to make its pupils engage every day in "an act of collective worship of a wholly or mainly Christian nature". Yes: Britain is still a nation with enforced prayer. The religious are then handed total control of 36 percent of our state-funded schools, in which to indoctrinate children into their faith alone.

These religious schools, paid for by the taxpayer, are disfiguring Britain. I know one reason I grew up without the prejudices of some of my older relatives was because I went to school with kids from every conceivable ethnic and religious group, and I could see they were just like me. A five-year-old will make friends with anyone, and he'll be much less likely to believe smears against those friends for the rest of their lives. But in Britain today, that mixing is happening less and less. Increasingly, the children of Christians are sent to one side, Jews to another, Muslims to another still, and they never see each other except from the window of their parents' cars. After the race riots in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley in 2001, the official investigations found that faith schools were a major cause.

So why keep them? Their defenders say these schools perform better in exams -- and at first glance, it seems to be true. On average, they get higher grades. But look again. A number of studies, including by the conservative think thank Civitas, have blown a hole in this claim. They have proven that faith schools systematically screen out children who will be harder to teach: children from poor families, and less bright children. Once you look at how much a school improves the pupils it actually admits, the only real measure of a school's success, it turns out faith schools do less well than other schools - which isn't surprising given they waste so much time teaching them crazy nonsense like Virgin births and Noah's Ark. The British people instinctively know all this: 64 percent want every state school to be neutral when it comes to religion.

Special rights for the religious don't stop at the school gates. They automatically get 26 unelected bishops in the House of Lords. Public broadcasters are required by law to give them large amounts of money and time to screen religious propaganda. Jews and Muslims are allowed to ignore the laws on animal cruelty and engage in the barbaric practice of slitting the throats of live animals without numbing them in order to create kosher and halal meat.

And it seems that, in crucial cases, religious figures are virtually exempted from the law. There is now overwhelming evidence that Joseph Ratzinger, the Pope, was involved for over twenty years in an international criminal conspiracy to cover up the rape of children by priests in his Church. (Check out the superb edition of the BBC's Panorama, 'Sex Crimes and the Vatican', for the evidence.) But when he arrives in Britain in September, our politicians will fawn over him, rather than dialing 999.

Given all this unearned privilege, how can Christians claim they are in fact being "persecuted"? Here are the cases they offer as "proof". A nurse called Shirley Chaplin turned up to work wearing a crucifix around her neck. Her hospital told her that they were worried the elderly and confused patients she worked with could grab at it, so they said she could pin the crucifix to her uniform instead if she liked. That's it. That's their cause celebre. Oh, and a woman called Theresa Davies who worked in a registry office, but refused to perform civil partnerships for gay couples, so... she was moved to working on reception.

In response, Carey and the CofE demand Christians be allowed to break the law requiring them to treat gay people equally when providing a service to the general public -- and that any case where a Christian feels discriminated against should be judged by a special court of "sensitive" Christians. If we started allowing religious people to break basic anti-discrimination laws, where would we stop? Until 1975, the Mormon Church said black people didn't have souls. (They only changed their mind the day the Supreme Court ruled this was illegal, and God niftily appeared to their leader that morning and announced blacks were ensouled after all.) Would we let a Mormon registrar refuse to marry black people? Would it be "Mormonophobia" to object?

When Lord Chief Justice Laws, who is a Christian himself, ruled the exemptions demanded by Carey would be "irrational, divisive, and arbitrary", he threw an extraordinary tantrum and said Christians might begin to engage in "civil unrest". When I saw Carey make these threats on television, red-faced and rageful, it made me think of a nasty child in the playground who had been beating up the gay kids and spitting at the girls for years and is finally told to stop - only to start bawling that he's the one who is being picked on.

As their dusty Churches crumble because nobody wants to go there, the few remaining Christians in Britain will only become more angry and uncomprehending. Let them. We can't stop this hysterical toy-tossing stop us from turning our country into a secular democracy where everyone has the same rights, and nobody is granted special rights just because they claim their ideas come from an invisible supernatural being. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a Holy Lamb of God to carve into kebabs - it's our new national dish. Amen, and hallelujah.


This article appeared in GQ magazine, where I write a monthly column. To get these articles a month in advance of this website, you can subscribe to GQ

 

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