by Gary McLelland
A new Cross-Party Group has been established in The Scottish Parliament to promote ‘religious freedom’. Several MSPs have joined the Group; Dave Thompson (SNP), Chair of Christians for Independence, and a prominent campaigner against Equal Marriage, has been named as the Group’s Convener; Michael McMahon (Lab) and Anne McTaggart (Lab) have been jointly named the Group’s Co-convener; with Murdo Fraser (Con) and John Mason (SNP) also listed as members.
In a recent podcast David Andrew Robertson, Director of SOLAS, one of the founding members of this Group, explained that the establishment of the Group is a direct response to ‘atheistic secularists’.
It’s also worth noting that four of the five MSP members opposed Equal Marriage, and three of the five members recently supported a motion in The Scottish Parliament that said that “…some people believe that God created the world in six days […] none of these positions can be proved or disproved by science and all are valid beliefs for people to hold…”.
The first problem with this new Group is the fact that it raises one particular world-view, the religious one, above all others. There is not doubt that religious people face persecution in many parts of the world, although this is invariably of a sectarian nature, rather than anti-religious bigotry. However, by specifically focussing on ‘religious freedom’, rather than ‘freedom of religion and belief’, this group has alienated around 1-in-2 people in Scotland, who according to the latest Scottish Household Attitudes Survey.
There are other reasons to be concerned about this new group, looking at some of the organisations listed as members, there are a new interesting thing which emerge:
- Aid to the Church in Need UK: Which describes its mission as “…supporting the Catholic faithful and other Christians where they are persecuted…”. It also describes its aim to heal the “…wounds inflicted by atheism”.
- SOLAS Centre for Public Christianity: This is a conservative evangelical organisation based in Dundee, its Director David Andrew Robertson is also Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland. A SOLAS spokesperson, Al Smith, said in a recent podcast that ‘there is no such thing as the right to be free from religion’, he also goes on to say that Christians are being excluded from the public sphere.
- CARE UK (Christian Action Research and Education): Another evangelical Christian organisation which lobbied against Equal Marriage, and whose Parliamentary Officer, Gordon McDonald, wrote a lengthy paper condemning same-sex marriages. CARE UK has been mired by controversy in the past for suggesting that gay people can be ‘cured’.
There are 18 organisations which have signed up as members of the group, 15 are Christian, one Jewish, one Muslim and one Interfaith. Despite around half of people in Scotland having no religion, there was no attempt to contact Humanist Society Scotland which has over 14,000 members.
One theme which emerges from many of the organisations involved with this new group is the erroneous trope that Christians in the UK are being persecuted, or ‘excluded’ from the public sphere.
The truth is that Christian groups, and other religious groups, continue to enjoy significant legal, cultural and political privileges in Scotland and the UK. Take for example the recent comments by former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond when he said that he ‘prefers people of faith’.
There is also the many privileges that religious groups enjoy in the state-funded education system, such as free seats on local authority education committees, the legal right to discriminate in staff recruitment and pupil selection, not to mention the over-representation of religious people in the Scottish Parliament’s Time for Reflection slots.
Clearly any group which is serious about promoting the vitally important rights to freedom of religion, belief and conscience needs to look out beyond its own narrow religious horizons.
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