Allan Armstrong (RCN), 30.9.13
Two interesting articles were published last week. The first one in The Herald (27.9.13) highlighted the recent Scottish census, which pointed out that, for the first time, those professing no religion had emerged as the largest and fastest growing group in Scotland (37%). The second article in the Sunday Herald (22.9.13) highlighted the growing penetration of Protestant fundamentalist church activity in Scotland’s ‘non-denominational’ schools.
The best way to understand and deal with such issues is to take a secular approach. Twenty years ago, most people, especially on the Left, would have been quite clear what secularism meant. Secularism is the complete separation of religion from the state. People’s choice of religion or of no religion is a private matter.
However, there has been an organised conservative religious counter-offensive, which tries to equate secularism with the promotion of atheism. Yet, in the western world, the origins of secularism lay amongst Christians and Deists, who wanted to overcome the bitter post-Reformation sectarian legacy. Some states, e.g. the Netherlands, had already moved to a situation where, although they had an established state religion or denomination, others were tolerated. However, when the USA became independent it adopted a secular constitution, which ended any form of religious establishment, and prevented the state giving backing to any religion, whilst at the same time allowing citizens the right to practice the religion of their choice. France took this secularism a step further during the Revolution.
Such a view of secularism is still understood today by liberal Christians, Jews and some people of other religions, as well as by many atheists and agnostics. A good example of a Christian who understands the importance of secularism is Richard Holloway, recently Episcopalian Bishop of Edinburgh, who has just published the pamphlet, A Plea for Secular Scotland.
So where does Scotland lie on the established religion/secular spectrum? Since Scotland, at present, remains part of the UK, you can only understand the current situation in this wider context.
If secularism is understood solely as a social phenomenon - a decreased hold of religious authority over the lives of people - then the nations and regions of the UK (with one significant exception) are a pretty secular societies, where even many of those still adhering to specific religions, do not necessarily act according to the instructions or advice of their religious leaders.
England is probably the most socially secular society in the UK, but both Scotland and Wales are not far behind. Northern Ireland is the exception to this pattern. In Europe, probably only the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands are more socially secular than Britain. West European countries, including those such as Italy and Spain, recently considered to be Catholic, are much more socially secular than the USA, despite it having a more secular political constitution.
However, when you look at the position of secularism in the UK from a political, rather than a social point of view, the situation is very different. Official state-backed religion continues to have a conservative and sometimes reactionary role in society, and indeed also plays a significant part in holding the UK state together.
First of all there is the established Church of England, which has 26 bishops sitting in the House of Lords (itself a reactionary institution). The monarch is the head of the Church of England and is constitutionally unable to marry a Catholic. These features highlight the state’s support for a wider Protestantism, which has historical origins dating from political conflicts between the sixteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
In Scotland, the Church of Scotland is recognised as the ‘national church’, although only supported by 32% of Scottish people and having declined by 400,000 since the last census. The General Assembly is arranged so that behind the presiding Moderator, there is a throne gallery, where the monarch is entitled to sit. The monarch is also a member of the Church of Scotland – a nice if limited example of ecumenicism! In practice, she is represented by the Lord High Commissioner (LHC). He addresses the General Assembly on behalf of the queen. The current LHC is Tom Murray, whose Google entry states that he “has years of experience of giving landowners and familiar advice on the complexities in tax and succession planning”!
However, the Church of Scotland, with the backing of the UK state in Scotland, extends its role into parts of society, where others are denied, particularly the so-called ‘non-denominational’ schools provided by the state. Since the 1980’s, Scottish schools have been forced to provide religious observance (many had ceased to do so, in the relatively liberal post-1968 years). Parents do have the right to withdraw their children from this. However, particularly, at primary level, children would not necessarily understand why they were being separated from their schoolmates.
In practice ‘non-denominational’ religious observance is left to Church of Scotland ministers (never Catholics, Muslims, Jews or Humanists), or to individual teachers with strong (Protestant) religious convictions. This has allowed some particularly worrying developments to occur. In Kirktonholme Primary in East Kilbride, a US pro-creationist sect was invited in, whilst in Dean Park Primary in Balerno, Edinburgh, another evangelical sect provides residential trips for pupils. Today (30.9.13), The Herald has highlighted a case where a physics teacher is alleged to have promoted a creationist view in a science class in Lasswade High.
Getting back to wider society, although the longstanding and continuing social secularisation of ‘Britain’ means there would probably be widespread support for ending the ban on monarchs not being able to marry Catholics, this would not be so well received amongst Loyalists and Unionists in Northern Ireland. This ensures that the British establishment and mainstream political parties are very reluctant to introduce such a measure, which could call into question continuing British rule over Northern Ireland.
Ulster Unionists and Loyalists can not conceive of ‘Britishness’ in any form other than being Protestant, and in this they are able to draw support from the existing UK constitution. Toleration of Catholics represents Unionism’s (small) ‘liberal’ wing, whilst strong enmity represents the still strident Loyalist wing. This Loyalism is currently making its political weight felt on the streets of Northern Ireland. Whereas there have been Protestant Nationalist and Republican politicians, there have never been any Catholic Unionist politicians in Northern Ireland.
Much of what is termed anti-Catholic ‘sectarianism’ in Scotland is the knock on effect of anti-Irish racism in Northern Ireland in the Central Belt. It is strongly promoted by specific organisations such as the Orange Order and various Loyalist groups.
Indeed, when you look at Scotland, if the historical context of the time is considered, you will see that, whilst being strongly Presbyterian, religious repression was not in the same league as say Catholic Spain (the Inquisition) and France (the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and the repression following the Revocation of the Edict Of Nantes), or the 40 Catholic martyrs in England. The Catholic John Ogilvie was martyred in Scotland in 1615; but the official Catholic Church in Scotland martyred the Protestant Patrick Hamilton in 1528, whilst the atheist, Thomas Aikenhead, was executed by the official Church of Scotland in 1697. However, these are single events. None of this is to deny the highly discriminatory Scottish state and Church of Scotland practice towards Catholics (and after 1690 towards Episcopalians), just to see it in the wider context of the times, where such practices were widespread, and did not mark out Scotland as an extreme case of sectarianism and bigotry.
Of course, when you look at the activities of Scottish Presbyterian settlers in Ireland from the seventeenth century, you will certainly see much persecution and barbarity, but the real aim of all this was not to enforce religious conversion, which would have been counter-productive, since what was wanted was Irish land. And again, such barbarity was hardly unique at the time to Scottish Presbyterians, as the role of the Spanish state and Catholic Church and the British colonists and most Protestant denominations towards the Native Americans highlights.
By the early nineteenth century, despite some undoubted continuing reactionary Presbyterian opposition, Scottish Catholics were increasingly confident that their social and political position was improving, particularly after the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829. Certainly this advance was limited, but when compared to say the position of Protestants in many official Catholic states at the time, Scotland still did not lie on the most repressive end of the religious spectrum in its treatment of religious minorities.
That, however, very much changed with the mass immigration of Irish Catholics after The Famine. This allowed a renewed Presbyterian sectarianism and intense bigotry to emerge, certainly within the Church of Scotland (and other Presbyterian denominations), but even more so in the Orange Order and the Conservative Party.
As recently as the twentieth century, a notorious incident was the publication of a report by the Church of Scotland’s Church and Nation Committee in 1923. It was entitled The Menace of the Irish Race to Our Scottish Nationality. It was presented by the Moderator, John White, who was a Tory. However, when you read this report, what strikes you is not its religiously bigoted anti-Catholicism (indeed it supports Scottish Catholics), but its strident anti-Irish racism, highlighted by its title. Of course, many Loyalists did not make this distinction, and would attack any Catholic symbol, as well as the Catholic of Irish origin living in Scotland. But, even they knew who their ‘enemy’ was – ‘Fenians’, a non-religious term for the Irish.
To this day, there are many who decry ‘Scotland’s Shame’, putting it down to an engrained Scottish anti-Catholicism, when what should really be examined now is the continued anti-Irish racism still found here. By all social indicators, the position of Catholics in Scotland has steadily improved, especially since the 1960’s. By 2001 Catholics enjoyed a position of occupational parity with other Scots. Denominational inter-marriage has also continued to increase.
Quite clearly, though, a political tension still exists in Scotland. What is the nature of this tension? This has less to do with any remaining Scottish Presbyterian anti-Catholicism, but mainly reflects the knock-on effect of the situation in Northern Ireland, where the UK state constitutionally underpins a so-called ‘sectarian’ division. Behind the sectarian labels ‘Protestant and Catholic’ there are more accurate political labels - ‘Unionist and Nationalist’ - and national labels - ‘British and Irish’.
This is why, despite the continued economic and social progress of Catholics in Scotland, we still see worrying political conflicts, which appear to take the form of ‘Protestant’ versus ‘Catholic’. These conflicts are likely to come to the fore, now that a Scottish independence referendum further threatens the UK set-up, frightening not only the British unionist establishment, but the Orange Order; Loyalists, BNP and SDL. The real issue has relatively little to do with religion and a lot more to do with the political nature of the UK and national identity. Somebody who has written a good book on anti-Irish racism in Scotland is Phil Mac Giolla Bhain. Minority Reporter, Modern Scotland’s Bad attitude Towards Her Own Irish.
Apart from the political and media focus on Protestant/Catholic or Rangers/Celtic antipathies, the other arena in which the issue of religious division comes up is the existence of state-funded Catholic schools.
Protestant fundamentalists, and even some liberals, claim that Catholic schools are the cause of social division in Scotland. Given the nature of Scottish society (as part of the UK state and British Empire), in the later nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, it is not at all surprising that the majority of Irish descended Catholics in Scotland then gave their support to the hierarchy’s call for separate school provision. By 1918, when this was achieved, Scottish society would need to have changed far more, before the majority of (Irish) Catholics would have had any confidence that they would be treated equally here. Therefore, widespread Catholic support for such schooling is wholly understandable.
However, Scottish society has changed and is changing. The main battle lines are now being drawn around the maintenance of the existing UK state (where Northern Ireland plays a particular role in Scotland’s debates) and bringing about more social equality, particularly for women and gays.
Socialists need to be at the forefront of these political and social struggles, and in the process of helping to change society, and put forward a secular vision, which seeks to educate children together. There is no Presbyterian geometry, Catholic algebra, Muslim arithmetic, or Atheist geography. We oppose segregated housing provision (e.g. present day Belfast behind the ‘Peace Walls’) and job provision (Clyde shipyards in the past).
We want to maximise social interaction, whilst giving scope for people to practice their own individuality, whether expressed in the religion (or non-religion) and culture of their choice. And support for this should be demonstrated. When the Muslim mosque in Annandale Street was firebombed in 2003, socialists, atheists and people of other religions attended the solidarity event organised there. Many would do the same if a synagogue or Catholic church was attacked.
Although most socialists would like to see the end of separate schooling provision on religious grounds, the best way to achieve this is to end all political and social inequality in society – including the ending of the ban on the royals marrying Catholics, but better still moving towards a republic without any established religion. Protestant fundamentalists, who oppose separate Catholic schooling provision, are strongly opposed to any such political and social change in the UK, and indeed want to preserve the official Protestant nature of the state. Liberal opponents of state-funded Catholic schools ignore this constitutionally entrenched Protestant supremacism.
In its defence of separate religious schooling, the Catholic hierarchy claims that Scottish society is so deeply anti-Catholic there will always be a need for such provision. This ignores the considerable economic and social advances already achieved by Catholics in Scotland, whilst showing a highly pessimistic view of Scotland's political future. Such a stance though has its own political purpose. It is designed to protect the privileged position of a Catholic hierarchy, which is increasingly being questioned by many lay Catholics.
Tom Gallagher has recently written a book Divided Scotland – Ethnic Friction and Christian Crisis, which whilst being somewhat ambiguous in its proposals, sees new political lines being drawn. He thinks that much of the current opposition to Catholicism (more accurately, to the reactionary politics of the Catholic hierarchy) in Scotland today draws not upon traditional Presbyterian anti-Catholicism, but is part of a wider secular opposition to all religious interference in the state and wider society. Such opposition also includes a marked hostility to the claims of Protestant fundamentalists. There have also been new alliances between some Catholic and Protestant groups when it comes to opposing women’s (especially over abortion) and gay (especially over marriage) rights.
The political effect of promoting socially conservative Catholic values (not necessarily held by all or even the majority of Catholics) can be demonstrated in the case of the Scottish composer, James Macmillan. He is somebody who very much believes in the "Scotland's Shame" - or its congenital anti-Catholicism. However, his own support for socially conservative values led him to vote Tory in the last Westminster election. The Tories were in an electoral alliance with the anti-Catholic Ulster Unionist Party! Upholding social conservatism takes priority over opposing anti-Catholic sectarianism.
Getting back to the issue of separate schooling provision, there is now another issue. If job and social discrimination against Catholics in Scotland has largely been overcome, another group of migrants, Muslims, still very much face the discrimination and vilification, which Catholics once experienced. Some Muslims have raised the demand for separate Muslim schooling provision.
There are two roads one could take in relation to this. The first is to accept the claim that it is impossible to change the racist or sectarian nature of Scottish society, and therefore separate Catholic schools should always exist and new Muslim schools should be added to the mix. Given that it is unlikely that any Holyrood government will admit that it allows racism and sectarianism to persist, then such provision is likely to take the form of the right of any religion to get state backing for its own schools – Church of Scotland, Free Presbyterian, Sikh, Jewish, etc. This would not be a socially progressive move, and would strongly reinforce the hold of various religious figures and officials over children, often reinforcing reactionary stances in particular towards women, gays and wider sexuality.
Socialists should uphold a secular vision. First, this means fighting against the political and social divisions in which racism and sectarianism flourish. Challenging the UK set-up is central to this. The provision of fully secular schooling follows from this. However, the so-called ‘non-denominational’ schools should be fully secular today. There should be no religious observance in such schools. That it goes on in so-called ‘non-denominational’ schools should be of considerable concern, especially given the nature of some of the reactionary views being pushed. What can be supported is religious and moral education, which informs pupils of various beliefs and non-belief.
However, the census statistics show that just over 50% of people in Scotland still claim to adhere to some Christian denomination. Amongst those, there will be people who remain more committed religious practitioners. How can secular schools provide for them? First, there should be a number of days allotted to each pupil/student, in which s/he can withdraw from school on days of particular religious significance. It should be possible for religious and non-religious clubs or societies to form in schools, with attendance on a voluntary basis. Whilst parents might choose to place their children in particular religious societies, there should also be provision that when a pupil/student is old enough to make her/his own choice, they make it themselves.
Now, since we are discussing the issue of secularism in its contemporary political context, including the challenge of the Scottish independence referendum, there is another issue. The independence march last weekend was dominated by the nationalists’ saltires (or St. Andrew’s cross). This is a medieval and specifically Christian symbol, which seems inappropriate in today’s multi and non-faith Scottish society. If you go to Ireland, where they have long dropped the Irish unionist and Christian St. Patrick’s cross, people have the choice of the ancient Irish Harp, the republican Tricolour, or the socialist republican Starry Plough. Even England has a little-known republican tricolour (blue, white and green) designed by the Chartist, William Linton. It’s about time for Scotland to catch up.
This was followed by a discussion to which Alister, Andy, Bob, Iain, Ian, Jim, Pat and Sophia contributed. Ali, whose son was at Dean Park Primary, outlined the role of the Evangelical church in Balerno, where it enjoyed considerable local support. In the process it was promoting some fairly reactionary attitudes, which had caused some alarm. It will be interesting to see how the head deals with the allegations about its role in the school.
Iain said it was important that the RIC was able to raise such wider issues that were ignored in the mainstream independence debate. The debate should cover all the issues that effected people’s lives.
Andy and Jim supported the continued need for Catholic schools in Scotland. Andy highlighted his experience of less than a decade ago in North Lanarkshire, where inter-school hostility remained, with stones being thrown by students from ‘non-denominational’ and Catholic schools. However, he also highlighted the negative experience of being a gay student in a Catholic school, where anti-gay attitudes were promoted by some of the staff. Jim pointed to the historical role of Catholic schools in enabling students to get the education, which had allowed them to overcome earlier discrimination. He thought that secularism was widely equated to atheism. He also pointed out that many Muslims preferred to send their children to Catholic rather than ‘non-denominational’ schools.
Bob pointed out the negative role of the USSR, which had contributed to the false view that secularism was the same as atheism. Atheism was the ‘established church’ of the USSR. Furthermore, non-religious socialists had sometimes adopted a colourless vision, whilst we needed to promote our own vision of non-religious human spirituality.
Pat did not think that socialists’ vision lacked colour. However, she pointed out that a great deal of human culture had been expressed in religious terms, and this was an important part of humanity’s legacy. She appreciated the Christian stories she was told at school, because these helped her to understand a lot of wider literature and culture. However, she was also appalled by the highly charged emotional techniques used by fundamentalist sects to recruit adherents, particularly when used on children.
Sophia, who is from Greece, highlighted the problems when religion had been part of a culture of resistance, but later changed its role, as had occurred in Ireland. The Orthodox Church had opposed the oppression of the Latins and the Ottomans in Greece. This legacy was still deeply engrained in Greek culture. However, today, the Orthodox Church plays a reactionary role in Greek society. But you could only understand much of Greek culture, including painting and song, by appreciating its earlier past role.
Ian, who comes from Aberdeen, said that a great deal of what was considered ‘sectarian’ conflict centred on the Central Belt and Western Isles. Outside of these areas, particularly in the north east, the levels of those professing no religion in the recent census was higher. He also pointed out that the composer, James Macmillan, had also given his strong support to the UK, whilst attacking the National Collective as Mussolini’s cheerleaders.