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Politics and religion: does faith have a role to play in a secular society?

Politics and religion: does faith have a role to play in a secular society?

The 1st Buckie Company Boys’ Brigade is obviously doing something right. At a time when the UK-wide organisation, which remains wedded to the strong Christian values of its Victorian founder, is seeing membership plummet, this local group is bucking the trend. Close to 200 boys and a 40-strong roster of staff attend on a weekly basis and, though the town has a population of less than 10,000, its boys are regularly awarded more Queen’s Badges – the highest BB accolade – than the Aberdeen and District companies combined. Last year 1st Buckie moved into new premises on an industrial estate on the eastern edge of town, the series of halls kitted out with equipment donated by local businesses grateful for the work the organisation does in keeping adolescent boys occupied and off the streets on a Friday night. 

At the helm of the operation is company captain Alan McIntosh, a no-nonsense former schoolteacher who has led the group for over 40 years and who believes firmly in the BB mission of “advancing Christ’s kingdom among boys”. When I come to meet him he is waiting for me on the steps of the shiny new hall, sipping coffee and looking out to sea, the outline of Sutherland just visible in the distance on the other side of the Moray Firth. As we chat across a large boardroom table, McIntosh tells me about the work the company does with the local boys. Crafts, gymnastics, singing and alcohol-awareness lessons are all on the itinerary. Everything is shot through with a hefty dose of religion.

Alan McIntosh, 1st Buckie Boys' Brigade company captain. Picture: Daniel Forsyth/Grampian Online

Though he is long-retired, the years of teaching, initially in a physics class but latterly in a deputy-head role, have left their mark on McIntosh, who is clearly a strict disciplinarian. Every BB meeting begins and ends with a short religious service and the older boys are expected to attend Bible class every week. Around 80 were going on a regular basis at the last count. Though the Church of Scotland is in well-documented decline, I assume he must be supplying the local churches with a steady stream of new recruits. But no, McIntosh says that as soon as the boys are finished with school they are finished with the BBs and when they are finished with the BBs, they are finished with church too. “We never see them again,” he says. Whatever it is that keeps those boys coming back week after week, it does not appear to be God.  

Like most towns and villages along this stretch of the Moray coast, Buckie and its inhabitants have traditionally had very deep relationships with God and religion – that much is clear from the cluster of church buildings on and around the town square and the fact the name of the long main drag cutting through its centre changes from East Church Street to West Church Street to St Peter’s Street. Local historian Allan Fraser, a sprightly 93-year-old who has baked empire biscuits and fruit loaf for me coming round, says that, like the area around the town, Buckie started off steeped in Catholicism but has been home to all kinds of Christian denominations since. There’s been the Church of Scotland, Salvation Army and Free Kirk, the Episcopal and Baptist Churches and the Brethren – open and closed – as well as Methodists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s largely because of the sea, Fraser says, with fishermen, who “take their lives in their hands” every time they take their boats out, traditionally putting their faith in both superstitions and a higher power to keep them safe. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Boys’ Brigade – whose motto, 'Sure and Steadfast', and trademark hymn, We Have An Anchor, have strong nautical themes – has done so well in the town.

Buckie, a traditional fishing town along the Moray coast, is served by numerous churches

It’s not just the BBs whose interest in God is waning, though. I meet with plenty of people in Buckie who have a very deep religious faith. There’s retired midwife Ann McAllister, who was brought up Methodist, converted to Catholicism when she got married and is convinced God saved her when she was in a serious car accident two years ago. “An articulated lorry pulled across my path, but I was saved,” she tells me. “It was like someone was guiding my car through, like a wind pushed me across the road. It was an amazing feeling.” And there’s Willie Aitken, the pastor of Portgordon Community Church, an independent religious group that is loosely affiliated with the American Church of Christ, a movement that abides solely by the teachings of the Bible. “I take the Bible literally,” Aitken says. But they know they are in a minority.

Aitken, who was raised in the Brethren but became a Methodist after moving from the central belt to the Moray coast, started the community church when the Methodists decided to cease meeting almost a decade ago. He says there are around 60 people on the group’s roll, but only a handful come to meetings from week to week. “Because we’re so relaxed, I don’t say you need to be there every week,” he says. “From this week to next we could have two different congregations because folk have busy lives, but there are about 60 who are connected to the church.”   

McAllister, who is a member of St Peter’s, a twin-towered chapel known locally as Buckie Cathedral, says she goes to church “as often as I can”, but that the once-huge congregation she is part of has dwindled away. “When I first moved to Buckie you could hardly find a seat,” she says. “The church can hold 800 but last week there were only 17. The congregation got old, and the youngsters moved away. We’re now a mission church – we have two Nigerian priests. We couldn’t exist as a church without people coming from abroad whereas before it was us sending people abroad.”

Rev Dr Jaco Boonzaaier moved from South Africa to Scotland to take up a role within the Church of Scotland ministry. Picture: Daniel Forsyth/Grampian Online
I head to Buckie North Church to meet with Rev Dr Jaco Boonzaaier, a towering South African with a grey moustache, a blue Scotland rain jacket and a deeply intellectual understanding of theology. His ancestors on his mother’s side hail from Beauly and he decided to move his family here from South Africa after hearing about the problems the Church of Scotland was having attracting ministers; he is, in effect, here as a missionary. The church he presides over is in a state of flux, though, with moves afoot to merge North Church, which is already joined with Rathven Parish Church, with Buckie South and West – itself the product of an earlier amalgamation – as part of the Church of Scotland’s Radical Action Plan for survival. In total, the plan envisages that around 400 churches will close their doors by 2025.

There is much consternation about the changes Buckie faces – everyone I speak to has a view; nobody shares the same view – but for Boonzaaier it is inevitable because the Church of Scotland “is an 18th century institution that is desperately trying to survive in the 21st century”. That manifests itself in the church trying to morph its ideals to fit with the zeitgeist, the most recent example being its commitment to “re-examine” its long-held opposition to assisted dying just a week after its moderator joined other faith leaders in raising objections about a proposed Holyrood bill on the matter. That may catch the eye of some non-believers, but it is unlikely to fully turn any heads. Members, meanwhile, do not like such apparent watering down of the faith and moves like that will, Boonzaaier believes, be the ultimate undoing of the Church of Scotland. 

“People are looking for very clear indications of who we are and what we stand for,” he says. “The Free Church is doing well because of that, and the Pentecostal Church. Places where there’s a very strict line, churches are growing – you are either in or you are out. The death of the [established] Church was liberal theology.” 

Buckie North Church is earmarked for amalgamation as part of the Church of Scotland’s Radical Action Plan for survival

No one knows for sure what the religious make-up of Scotland is right now. The Scottish Government chose to delay the census it was supposed to carry out along with the rest of the UK in 2021 and, while it is known that the proportion of people in England and Wales who have no religious affinity increased by 48 per cent between 2011 and 2021, National Records of Scotland will not reveal the Scottish figures until next spring. It is a fair assumption that the picture in Buckie is not unique, though. A YouGov study carried out for the Humanist Society Scotland last year found that 56 per cent of Scots now have no religious allegiance and a crude extrapolation of the census data published on England and Wales suggests a similar theme. Indeed, while the proportion of people claiming no religion south of the border increased from 25 per cent to 37 per cent between 2011 and 2021, the proportion of Scots without a religion already stood at 37 per cent at the time the 2011 census was taken. Assuming that cohort has grown at a similar rate to the one down south in the intervening years, it is likely that the Scottish census will show around 55 per cent of people eschewing religion completely on census day last year.

But while that suggests that Scotland is a country that is swiftly falling out of love with religion, the actual picture is far more nuanced. Indeed, when I visit the Scottish Jewish Cultural Centre in Glasgow’s Garnethill my guide, Trevor Schuster Davis, a retired solicitor who describes himself as a liberal orthodox Jew, tells me that the number of people ticking the Jewish box on the census will have reduced, not because people have moved away from the religion but because the community has moved away from Scotland. Garnethill Synagogue, now a Category A-listed building full of stained glass, decorative tiles and a beautifully ornate Torah Ark, had been purpose-built in the 1870s to house the city’s rapidly expanding Jewish community, but that community has since dispersed. In the middle of the last century there were 15,000 Jews across Scotland as a whole, now there are thought to be fewer than 5,000, with younger generations settling elsewhere after leaving to study or work and older generations following them. The synagogue is still in use, but the last time it was full was when members of 10 different religions gathered for an interfaith service during COP26.

Garnethill Synagogue in Glasgow was purpose-built in the 1870s. Picture: Sequoia Hearne/Arrow Images

Yet across the city, Glasgow Central Mosque is flourishing. Just as happened in the 19th century, when Scotland’s Jewish community grew as waves of the European diaspora arrived, the Muslim community has expanded in recent years due to an influx of migrants. As he leads me into the mosque’s prayer hall, which in 2018 was fitted with a thick, green carpet so plush that the floor had to be reinforced to take its weight, Omar Afzal of the Scottish Association of Mosques reflects on that growth. “There have been waves of migration and those migrants have become second and third generation Scottish Muslims,” he says. “Waves are still happening. In the early 2000s there were Iraqi Kurds then there were people from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan. More recently it’s been from Afghanistan and Syria. The Muslim community is still young – about 50 per cent are under 30 [and they are going on to have families of their own]. There are probably about 110,000 Muslims in Scotland now, when it was about 70,000 before [at the time of the 2011 census there were 76,737 Muslims in Scotland].” With families worshipping together several times a day, the faith is particularly strong.

Up and down the country Pentecostal churches are thriving, too. Though Christianity per se may be in decline, King’s Church in Aberdeen is a prime example of how newer incarnations of the faith have taken hold, particularly among the young. Housed in the city’s vast former exhibition centre, weekly services at King’s are packed, the 1,000-plus congregation made up mainly of younger believers, many of them newcomers to the city. It is easy to see the appeal. Pastor Iain Duthie, a former GP who gave up medical practice almost 20 years ago, preaches from a stage done up as if a pop star is about to burst on. The church’s website boasts a Spotify playlist of religious rock songs the faithful sing on Sundays – “these are here to help you in your personal times of worship, whether that’s at home, in the car or when you are exercising!,” the site cheerfully suggests – and King’s also has a YouTube channel featuring slick video recordings of all its services. A recent one starring guest pastor Sophia Barrett of Manchester-based Audacious Church feels like a recording of an Edinburgh Fringe show. Barrett, a quick-firing Australian in a fashionable denim boilersuit and dark-framed cat’s eye glasses, riffs on life for a full eight minutes before the religion finally kicks in. When it does, the warmed-up congregation really comes to life, hollering and cheering along as she details what the church and its Lord are going to achieve.

Sophia Barrett of Manchester-based Audacious Church addresses the congregation in Aberdeen. Source: King's Church/YouTube
Census or no census, it seems clear that while a small majority of the Scottish population is now assuredly irreligious, there is an almost equally sized chunk of people who do not just have a religious affinity but are resolutely committed to their faith. 

Religion became a huge issue earlier this year when, during the SNP leadership contest, contender Kate Forbes, who has never tried to hide her Christian faith, was questioned about her beliefs on the first day of campaigning. When pressed, she told interviewers that she would have voted against the 2014 Marriage and Civil Partnership Act had she been an MSP at the time (she was not elected to Holyrood until 2016) and confirmed that, as a pro-lifer, she would never countenance having an abortion and nor would she consider having a child out of wedlock. It was as if the sky had fallen in. Many of Forbes’s initial backers – a slew of ministers among them – withdrew their support, SNP deputy Westminster leader Mhairi Black told Twitter that Forbes was using religion to try to “deny me my basic human rights” on equal marriage, and then Deputy First Minister John Swinney implied on Good Morning Scotland that Forbes was simply bigoted, not religious. “Kate is perfectly entitled to express her views, but party members are equally entitled to decide if someone who holds those views would be an appropriate individual to be SNP leader and first minister,” Swinney said.

Former business secretary Kate Forbes came in for criticism after airing her religious views during the SNP leadership race. Picture: Anna Moffat

The dust has largely settled by the time I travel to Dingwall to meet Forbes during summer recess and, while she admits to having been slightly rattled by the reaction her comments received, she says she understands where people were coming from because “Scotland is a secular country”. Certainly much of the backlash against Forbes was focused on the idea that religion has no place in a parliament that should operate with complete autonomy from any church; that politicians should make policy on citizens’ behalf without any reference to faith or religious belief. But while Forbes accepts that some of her own beliefs are completely out of step with the mainstream – that her Bible-based one man, one woman opposition to equal marriage reads to many as straight-up homophobia – she maintains that it makes for better policy-making if all viewpoints can at least be aired. “If some arguments are deemed to be beyond the pale then you can’t even debate them,” she says. “It’s far better to hear bad ideas aired so you can dispute them, disagree with them and shatter them than to push them into the darkness and fringes of society where they are allowed to fester.”

A majority of MSPs would appear to agree. In exclusive polling carried out for this magazine, while just 55 per cent of the parliamentarians who responded say they follow a particular religion and only 23 per cent say religion is very important in their life, a much larger proportion – 78 per cent – feel religion should have some kind of place in the public square. They are not necessarily in agreement on what that means in practice, though. Respondents that are supportive of religious views being heard in parliament say variously that “politics must be respectful of faith, even if it is not observed by politicians”, “faith should be allowed to be expressed in a free way” and “being tolerant of other people's views, whether religious or otherwise, would make Scotland a better place”. Yet another person taking part in the poll is firm that they are “strongly against religion and faith having any place in politics” and that those with religious views “should be able to look beyond these for the benefit of their constituents”. 

For Pam Gosal, a non-practising (she cuts her hair) but religious Sikh who was elected to Holyrood on the West of Scotland list two years ago, it is not as simple as that. One of the poll’s respondents says their religion “influences my beliefs in social justice and fairness and it is these I try my best to live by in practice”. Gosal believes that will be true for most people in parliament, with anyone who has had any kind of religious upbringing – 77 per cent of the MSPs responding to the poll say they did – likely to have been shaped by that whether they are aware of it or not. “Your culture comes from your religion and your upbringing,” she says.

Constituents are shaped in the same way, she contends, and in order to represent them properly members of parliament have a duty to at least consider opinions that are based on faith. “The core beliefs of what you stand for and what your constituents stand for, you can’t forget that,” she says. “A lot of politicians see religion as controversial – we should make policies and not consider religion – but we do have to consult properly. Our job in parliament is not to be the dictator but to listen to people. People voice religious concerns to me a lot – I get so many phone calls – and when I go into parliament I have to try to speak for everybody. I also have to listen to everybody.”

Tory MSP Pam Gosal says constituents regularly contact her with religious concerns. Picture: Alamy

When I sit down with Forbes she makes the point that there is a general confusion about the role religion could or should play in public life because, she believes, there is “a complete illiteracy about faith and religion and what it means for someone who believes”. People think that because she is pro-life and does not believe in same-sex marriage she would avoid acting on behalf of LGBTQ constituents or attempt to roll back legislation that is already in place on marriage rights or abortion care. She would not on either count, she says. Tory MSP Jeremy Balfour, who was a Baptist minister prior to entering Holyrood and who tells me he tries to base his entire life on following Jesus, takes a similar stance. “I represent people who have no beliefs at all but that doesn’t mean we can’t work together,” he says. “I’ve worked with people who have needed to get help with abortions. I personally don’t believe in abortion, but if a constituent comes to me for help with something that’s within the law, then I will absolutely help them.”

‘Within the law’ was a key sticking point for some of Forbes’s detractors, with the fact that MSPs are responsible for passing legislation being seen as the very reason why religion and politics should never mix. But does that mean that religious views should not even be heard as part of the law-making process? Or should, as Forbes suggests, they be given an airing and “shattered” if found to be wanting? Half the MSPs responding to the Holyrood poll say that constituents bring up religious issues with them a few times a year, with just over a third (34 per cent) saying the people they represent are concerned that religious beliefs are not being represented in policy-making. SNP MSP John Mason, who is known for being outspoken about his opposition to both abortion and the introduction of protest-free buffer zones around abortion clinics, says he knows he is in a minority on some of the issues he supports, but feels he has a responsibility to ensure those minority views are heard. A diverse parliament should be able to handle that, he says.

SNP MSP John Mason says a range of views – religious or otherwise – should be heard in a diverse parliament. Picture: Anna Moffat

“People who have a faith, any faith, deserve to have their voices heard in parliament,” he says. “The healthy thing about democracy is that when you put 129 MSPs together you get a wide range of age, experience et cetera. I don’t want 129 evangelical Christians, but neither do I want 129 humanists. If you take me and Kate Forbes and Murdo Fraser and Jeremy Balfour, who would probably all be happy with the label evangelical, there are four of us. Out of 129, I think that’s a reasonable representation. On buffer zones, I have a feeling that if I don’t speak up no one will. I feel that pressure, but there do need to be alternative views put forward. If you get to the stage where a view is not even heard, then there’s something wrong.”

Jim Wallace takes a similar view. The former Scottish LibDem leader, who has served as both an MP and an MSP, is a member of the House of Lords, and was moderator of the Church of Scotland between 2021 and 2022, describes himself as a committed Christian. When we chat over coffee and croissants in an Edinburgh café he says that, like him, many people are driven into politics because of their religious backgrounds; to bar them from expressing faith-based views once elected makes no sense.

“I do strongly believe that there’s a place for people with religious views in politics – it would be all the poorer if there wasn’t,” he says. “When I was being interviewed to become moderator one of the things I said was that Jesus said ‘I came to give life and people should have life in abundance’. There are many ways to interpret that, but if you don’t have good health, are not educated, don’t have a stable roof over your head, don’t know where to get your next meal then you don’t have life in abundance. Those things are all political. One of my reasons for going into politics was a belief that people should have life in abundance.”

St Giles' Cathedral in Edinburgh is used on state occasions and hosted services of thankgiving for the late Queen and her successor, King Charles. Picture: Alamy

In early September I come to St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh to meet with Robert Marshall, a senior civil servant who, in his role as head of Connected Communities at the Scottish Government, last year oversaw the drafting of the administration’s Faith and Belief Engagement Strategy. The August crowds have long dispersed from Edinburgh’s streets, and it is a quiet Monday morning as I make my way up the Royal Mile to the city’s historic high kirk. Still, as Marshall and I head inside, the church, which recently hosted services of thanksgiving for both Queen Elizabeth and her successor, King Charles, is thronging with tourists, some of whom sit down for the 15-minute service that begins at midday, some of whom content themselves with taking photos.

Despite the pomp surrounding the royal ceremonies – and the fact the leaders of all but the Scottish Greens felt compelled to attend – there has been a clear separation between the established church and the state in Scotland since the late 16th century. Unlike in England, where the King is both the head of state and the supreme governor of the Church, he is just an ordinary member of the Church of Scotland. And while that church may be established in as much as it is recognised as an official institution, the 1707 Treaty of Union and 1921 Church of Scotland Act guarantee its independence. The Scottish Government cannot interfere in how the Church is run – as confirmed by a 2021 court case brought after the Holyrood administration forced all public buildings to close over Covid – and equally the Church cannot interfere in how the country is run. Scotland is, in that sense, fully secular.

But what do people mean when they use that word? Is it simply that the dominant religious group cannot exert any influence in the political sphere? Or is, as would seem apparent by the reaction to those Forbes interviews, a secular country a place where religious opinion and faith-based views of any kind must be silenced in public debate? Confused, I ask Marshall how he would define it and he admits he isn’t really sure either– “secularism means different things to different people” – but stresses that, given the role that faith groups play in society, the government has an obligation to at least listen to their concerns. “There’s a massively powerful thing to say about faith in Scotland,” he says. “Faith groups do so much community work and so much to support people in times of need – they are supporting the displaced and the anxious and the elderly and the lonely. It’s the maturity of the conversation about that that the [Faith and Belief Engagement Strategy] is trying to improve.”

First Minister Humza Yousaf, seen during the service of thanksgiving for King Charles held in St Giles, has said he is likely to oppose assisted dying legislation. Picture: Alamy

A lot of the time members’ religious leanings will have no overt bearing on how they behave in parliament – there are unlikely to be any particularly strong doctrinal angles when it comes to voting on visitor levy laws or the regulation of the legal profession. Sometimes there will be, though. One of the other stories about religion that emerged during the SNP leadership contest was that ultimate victor Humza Yousaf may or may not have arranged to be absent during the 2014 vote on equal marriage, which despite being a free vote was supported by the SNP en masse. Yousaf has never shied away from talking about his Muslim faith – he was campaigning for the leadership during Ramadan and one of the first images released after he was sworn in as first minister was of him and his family breaking their fast in Bute House. It was a hugely symbolic picture, and at the mosque Afzal tells me how important it feels to have a Muslim leading the country; how it shows Scotland to be a progressive nation that embraces diversity of thought. Yet the Scottish Association of Mosques made it clear during the contest that it wants a Muslim leader to stand up for Muslim values too, noting that many of the beliefs Forbes was criticised for are “beliefs that Muslims also share” and saying it is “refreshing to hear a political leader talk about their religious values and principles, in an open and transparent way”. “This can only help to build trust with the public who so often feel distant from, or alienated by, political discourse,” it said.

This will come into sharper focus as and when a proposed assisted dying bill drafted by Liberal Democrat justice spokesman Liam McArthur comes before parliament. Leaders from the Church of Scotland, the Catholic Church and the Scottish Association of Mosques came together to voice their concerns about the proposal earlier this year. They were opposed, they said, because assisted dying “inevitably undermines the dignity of the human person”, although a recent poll for the Humanist Society found that  64 per cent of people who identify with a particular religion support legalising assisted dying for those with a terminal illness and the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly, which heard a range of views on the subject when it met in May, has agreed to re-examine its stance. Both Yousaf and health secretary Michael Matheson – a devout Catholic – have indicated they would vote against the legislation should it progress to that stage. Matheson said he has come to the decision as a matter of “personal conscience” and that he doesn’t apply his religious beliefs to his political views “at all”. Views on the subject are clearly nuanced and the bill will require nuanced debate if good legislation is to be made. Up in Buckie, retired midwife McAllister is sceptical that that can be achieved. “I’d prefer to hear honest voices,” she says. “I don’t feel my views are represented. It would be nice to have our voices heard without us being made to feel wrong or prejudiced.”

The Scottish Association of Mosques has made it clear it wants to hear religious views voiced in parliament

When I first met Marshall at the start of summer, he recommended I read A Little History of Religion by former Bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway. It would, he suggested, give me a good grounding in the beliefs that shape the people I was planning to meet. He was right, but what struck me most on reading the book were the similarities between the different religions of the world; of the common ground they share in spite of their obvious differences. One passage in particular, which explains how those differences are rationalised and respected by followers of Indian Jainism, has stayed with me. Relaying a story about six blind men being asked to describe an elephant by each touching a different part of its body, Holloway notes how they formed totally different views of the animal despite all being presented with the same reality.

The moral, Holloway writes, is that people can only see things from a certain angle, which is fine so long as they don’t claim their view is the whole picture and try to force others to see things the same way. The point, says Marshall, is that the religious part of Scotland’s population is made up of different faith groups who have varying sets of beliefs – just like the non-religious part. Taking a multi-faith approach to politics rather than trying to stick to some kind of secular ideal helps policymakers see that fuller picture, he says; it enables politicians to “improve their listening ear”. Far from being irreligious, secular societies contain a multitude of views. It is the duty of parliamentarians to reflect that.

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