Stop stereotyping secularists, Archbishop Sentamu is asked

By staff writers
December 21, 2006

The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, has been taken to task by the British Humanist Association for his attacks on what he calls “aggressive secularists”, notably in the claims and counter claims about the Christmas holidays.

Writing today’s Independent newspaper (21 December 2006), Hanne Stinson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA), declares: “All the secularists I know - and the British Humanist Association is the largest UK organisation representing atheists and secularists - respect religious freedoms and the rights of the religious to worship.”

She continues: “All we seek is a society which respects the rights of the religious and non-religious alike, and where no one particular set of beliefs is privileged, for example, with bishops in the House of Lords.”

The British Humanist Association works with religious groups on a number of issues, including the Christian think tank Ekklesia on the problem of creationism creeping into school science teaching.

Ms Stinson adds in her letter that: “Dr Sentamu really must stop quoting Sir John Mortimer on Shakespeare and our ‘Christian culture’. Sir John's view of ‘the great writers, Chekhov, Dickens, Shakespeare’ is that ‘they are great because they celebrate that moment of living ... if you think that life is just another testing ground for eternity, a batting practice, it trivialises everything’.”

Earlier this month the Archbishop of York accused secularists and atheists of undermining "Britain's cultural traditions" as he reflected the growing fury of some Christians over reports of companies banning Christmas decorations and schools leaving Jesus out of nativity plays – many of which have since been contested or clarified.

Dr Sentamu declared: “This aggressive brand of secularism is trying to undermine the cultural traditions of this country by using flawed arguments about 'multi-faith, multi-culturalism' whilst at the same time trying to negate faith groups altogether.”

But writing on the Guardian’s Comment-is-Free website today, Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow says that the war about Christmas is “festive foolishness”which does little credit to any of those involved – whether they are promoting “God, greed or Richard Dawkins.”

He adds: “[However we in] the churches proudly announce that it's all about the Christ-child, while pretty comprehensively ignoring most of what he said or did as an adult.”

Continues Barrow: “Fussing around a baby is one thing. Dealing with the irruptions in his name is another. Jesus showed no great interest in organised religion. He blessed peacemakers and advocated love of enemies. He broke popular taboos against people regarded as disgraceful or ‘unclean’. He praised prostitutes as being way ahead of the pious. He ate and drank with ‘the worst of them’… [but] very little of this stacks up with what most people find when they go to their local church - at Christmas, or at any other time.”

But journalist and broadcaster Rod Liddle is among those to point out that there can be zealotry and intolerance in the secular camp too. And campaigning atheist Richard Dawkins has been accused of leaving the rules of fair investigation aside in his increasingly strident attacks on all religion.

The British Humanist Association (BHA) represents “the interests of the large and growing population of ethically concerned but non-religious people in the UK ... Committed to human rights, democracy, equality and mutual respect, the BHA works for an open and inclusive society with freedom of belief and speech, and for an end to the privileged position of religion.”

[Also on Ekklesia: Turning God into a disaster area - why Richard Dawkins is right to attack facile God-talk, but wrong to portray all religion as ignorant and dangerous On Guardian Comment-is-Free: Difference based on friendship - Simon Barrow: The antagonism between organised religion and hard-line secularism is unproductive and excluding]

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.