The Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, claims that Britain is suffering from atheistic fundamentalism – schools referring to a ‘Winterval’ rather than Christmas holidays is cited as an example in this BBC article. This announcement comes on the same day as news that Tony Blair has converted to catholicism (more on Blair and religion from Anthony Seldon in The Guardian), and a few days after Nick Clegg has caused controversy by stating he does not believe in god. We also have a current PM who background is steeped in religion, and this Labour government has (shamefully in my view) presided over an unprecedented increase in the number of state funded religious schools, meaning the Church of England runs 1/3 secondary schools.
So how do we cut through all of this hubris? Let me state this clearly: I’m as committed an atheist as you can find, but I have no problem whatsoever with referring to Christmas holidays. We have to face up to it: the UK has a history as a christian country, Christmas is part of that, we get days off work, so why are we so wimpish about referring to it by name? On the other hand, I do wonder why the word used to refer to a Christmas holiday has provoked a backlash, when the rise in religious schools has developed without any stern counter-reaction? In short, I don’t feel I have seen any atheistic fundamentalism in British society. OK, Richard Dawkins’s book was a best seller, but beyond that…? ‘Winterval’ is perhaps due to cowardliness, maybe an ill-judged fear of offending people, maybe ‘political correctness’ (although I loathe that term). But there’s no plot, indeed I cannot imagine a country in Europe whose government is so beholden to religious ideology as the British one is.
I’m quite OK with school kids in nativity plays (one of the additional fears of Barry Morgan is that these don’t happen any more), but it’s also vital that UK school children celebrate all kinds of other religious festivals too, plus non-religious events. It is possible to be an ethical, upstanding atheist and be tolerant of others’ religious beliefs at the same time and that view has to be stated. While Barry Morgan has a rant and gets coverage with the BBC, the chair of the National Secular Society is measured, warm and reasonable, and does not get a mention – have a read of his mid winter message here. He even wishes people Happy Christmas.