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Independent Scotland could not be a secular utopia

This article was published in The Scotsman on Friday 6th September 2013.

IF SCOTLAND were to become independent then should our new constitution specifically be a secular one, ignoring any connection between Christianity and the state?

If Scotland stays in the United Kingdom, a kingdom united on the basis of Christianity, should we be rejoicing as the tide of secularism pushes the last vestiges of that public Christianity into the background? Secularism is a good thing. It must be. Everyone decent says so. And look at the alternative. Do we really want a religious state run by a Presbyterian theocratic Taleban or a priestly Catholic mafia? Everyone knows that religion is the primary cause of wars, child abuse, bad schooling, sexual repression and Scottish dourness.

As the National Secular Society helpfully tells us, “Secularism is a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.” Who would not want that? Society run on the basic principles of justice, equality, fairness and tolerance with the churches being free to run themselves just like knitting clubs or Star Trek societies. This progressive vision sounds like a secular nirvana.

The trouble is that it is just a Utopian dream, without any backing in historical fact or present day reality.

For centuries, European liberals have been doing their best to bring this secular nirvana into existence. John Gray’s stimulating and depressing book Black Mass points out how this search for a secular utopia has been even more damaging in the 20th century, than any previous religious attempt.

But what is the secularists’ realistic alternative? Sweden? Andrew Brown’s marvellous book Fishing in Utopia shows us that whilst Sweden is not the dysfunctional society of Scandinavian crime fiction, neither is it the liberal paradise so beloved of British and American liberals. It is a deeply conservative country, founded upon Christian principles, governed by a liberal metro-elite. The trouble is that having rejected the roots of their Christian democracy, the Swedes are beginning to see the fruits of that Christianity wither. Who would have believed that this summer we would have had rioting in Utopia?

We want a society based on law. But whose law? Secularists speak as though human rights were obvious and self-evident. That is dangerous unthinking fundamentalism. Words like tolerance, fairness and equality are just words. They need to have some definition and meaning. Who determines the meaning? Who does the defining? The rich and powerful? We already have a society in which the government has told us it has the power and right to redefine marriage. Why can’t they redefine whatever they want? There is a danger that we could be sleep walking into a system that is run only by the wealthy, powerful and influential.

Our concern is that humanity has not done too well when it replaces God with the state. So does that mean we are left with the impossible dream of the secular utopia where things can only get better, or the threat of religious theocracy? Not at all. There is another way – a secular society based upon Christian principles. Secular, in that the church does not run the government and the government does not run the church. But Christian, in that the values of the society are based upon the word of God and the traditional Christian values of tolerance, equality and education for all. The bottom line is that secular democracies cease to be democracies without the foundation and cement of Christianity.

Secularists do not like being called militant or fundamentalist (neither do Christians). But until they provide some substance to their vision and stop speaking of those who disagree with them as some kind of backward regressives, they have earned the label. There is no-one more fundamentalist than a person who thinks that their beliefs are so self-evidently right, that they have ceased to be beliefs and are just facts. It would benefit the new Scotland if the secular elites learned to question their own fundamental beliefs and started to think about what a post-secular Scotland would really look like.

• Rev David Robertson is director of Solas Centre for Public Christianity,


  1. No I have not misundertsood your article. While you rightly condemn the church of chrst, you also refer to “secularists” and “witch hunts”. Parents at the school, including Paul. Whom I’ve now met, are genuinely worried about what their kids are being taught in the name of religion. There are various opinions among the parents regarding the role of religion in schools and that should be respected. We are talking about Their children after all! Maybe if churches concentrated on teaching the basic message which is supposed to be about love, instead of preaching hatred against those with different beliefs, parents and others would be more willing to accept churches.

    1. Of course they are genuinely worried – just as those who burned witches were genuinely worried! Paul Sanderson saw this as an opportunity to further his own anti-religion agenda by stirring up such fear and mob rule. He succeeded. For a well meaning but wrong action, there two heads have been suspended. This is the new tolerance of the militant secularists.

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