'Winterval' message from the NSS President

Terry Sanderson, NSS President

I’ve been doing the usual seasonal rounds of radio programmes about the supposed “War on Christmas” that Christian activists fantasise we are waging. In order to guilt-trip reluctant citizens into going to church, we are told that “the secularists” (or the PC local authorities or the Muslims or the Hindus) are trying to destroy traditional Christmas and make it into some kind of multicultural mish-mash.

The untruths that this mythology is based on are explored in an excellent pamphlet by Kevin Arscott, available here. This essay once more confirms my theory that the conservative Christians who assiduously promote these myths are unable to make a convincing case without resorting to lies.

Even the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, repeated the Winterval mantra recently when he apparently told local authorities that they must “put Christianity back into Christmas”. He knows very well that they never took it out – and that the “Winterval” rubbish is just that. By repeating this tosh, Mr Pickles is either an uninformed dupe who’ll believe anything anyone tells him if it’s about religion or he’s a fibber with a religious agenda to promote.

I think my favourite radio encounter on this topic so far this year was on BBC Bristol. The producers of the show had done a vox pop of children in a local “faith school”, asking them what they thought Christmas meant.

The first five kids interviewed concentrated on presents (giving as well as receiving) and having a holiday and nice things to eat. Only the sixth mentioned Jesus and said (rapidly returning to presents): “Three wise men brought Jesus gifts of Gold, Frankenstein and Mirth”. (Honestly, I’m not making this up!)

I then went on BBC Sussex and Surrey and they, too, had done interviews with people in the local shopping centre (adults this time), asking the same question: “What does Christmas mean to you?” The answers all involved family, food, presents, time off work and television. Not one of them mentioned Jesus. So it seems the battle to get people back into church is going to be an uphill one.

This year the campaign to rescue Christmas from the heathens, run by ChurchAds.net, involves a poster featuring a sonogram image of a foetus in the womb - with a vague halo round its head.

My first thought when shown the poster was “Oh, they’ve gone for an anti-abortion message this year”. The baby-in-the-womb imagery is a favourite of the anti-abortionist movement, of course. And indeed, the leading anti-abortion charity, SPUC, confirmed that they were very pleased with the subliminal message this image would give.

The tagline “He’s on His Way” reminded me of something similar that was used to promote the 1976 horror film The Omen, in which the antichrist is born in the shape of a little boy.

But discussing this advertising campaign with its proponents inevitably led on to the wider issue of Christmas being “de-Christianised”. All the usual complaints about “Winterval” and political correctness gone mad and claims that nativity plays had been “banned” were wheeled out (all comprehensively debunked here.

But I wanted to know – who exactly is stopping people going to church at Christmas – or any other time come to that? Is someone actively discouraging them from attending services? Perhaps members of the NSS are standing outside St Aloysius’ with menacing shillelaghs threatening the kiddies with a head banging if they go in to the carol service?

Or could it be – don’t even mention it – that people have made their own minds up that church is not relevant to them and that they aren’t interested in the religious elements of Christmas?

People thinking for themselves? It must be stopped!

This certainly seems to be the opinion of Lord Carey, who has thrown in his lot with the mad zealots at Christian Concern. Carey seems to imagine that some kind of coercion is needed to make sure people acknowledge his beliefs as being supreme and all-important.

Of course, such coercion does exist - in schools. Children up and down the country will be ushered into churches by their teachers (“Get your coat on, Beryl, you’re going whether you want to or not!”). And, for most of them, that is the last time they’ll ever darken the doors of such an institution. Most kids find church dreary, boring, dark, dismal and full of musty old books that they can’t make head or tail of. (My favourite line in an old episode of the sitcom Roseanne summed it up, when her daughter was asked to accompany the family to church: “Church?” says the bewildered girl, “Is that the creepy building with the pointy roof?”)

Why do these Christian activists get so angry that so many of us have lost interest in what they think is essential? What arrogance propels their insistence that the country is going to the dogs because we don’t believe what they believe?

Britain is not the nasty, amoral, hedonistic wasteland that the clerics would have us believe. Britain is a place where most people are honest, compassionate and good natured. In the main, they love their granny and they want the best for their kids.

Yes, there are problems – how could sixty million people live together on a small island without a few of them being villains and anti-socials? But given the density of our population and its diversity, we get along surprisingly well. It is safe to walk in our streets most of the time, if you smile at people, they’ll generally smile back.

Christians like to think that it is because of their religion that the British people are generally so benign and easy-going. Far from it. The British people spent centuries fighting religious wars in order to get the nasty, authoritarian, controlling, parasitical churches off their backs. Having been disempowered, religious bodies now whinge unconvincingly that people simply won’t do what is good for them any more (ie what “faith leaders” tell them is good for them).

But we shouldn’t feel guilty about that. When the terrible floods in Pakistan devastated that country earlier this year, the British people gave vast amounts of money to help. So much, in fact, that the United Nations congratulated us for being such a generous people.

And yet, at the same time, we are one of the most secular nations in the world. Hardly anyone goes to church and few get their values from religious sources, whatever religious leaders claim. This mass turning away from religion has not harmed the nation. Indeed, it could be convincingly argued that we have become increasingly mature, compassionate and caring as we’ve distanced ourselves from religion and its attendant bigotry.

Few NSS members will care what religious groups say, or be convinced about their inflated claims to be the source of everything that’s good and the enemy of everything that’s bad (the Catholic Church’s placing of its own interests before those of little children has given lie to that one!).

But for others, there is a lingering feeling, probably inculcated in them as children at school, that the church is important as a moral backstop. They still cling to the idea that religion=morals. Yet, at the same time, the way religion has behaved recently, has caused many to question the relationships between what religious leaders say and what their followers do. (Imam says Islam is a religion of peace. Al-Qaeda insists Islam is a religion of war.)

I’m all for freedom to choose. If people want to have faith and worship and gain comfort from their gods, then that is of no concern to me. But if they organise their beliefs and then feel that they have a divine duty to force other people to observe them, through the law, then that is when the NSS will step in.

We are secularists, and it is our duty to ensure that no religion becomes so powerful that it can create disadvantage for those of other religions or those of no religion. This is the argument in which we are engaged. Our purpose is not to destroy religion, simply to ensure that it never again has the temporal power that, throughout its history, has corrupted it and made it dangerous.

So, our message is not anti-faith, but anti-religious organisations that try to impose themselves in politics and the law. Christian folk of goodwill have nothing to fear from the NSS – we’re not out to get your faith or spoil your festivals. Just try to keep your more aggressive spokespeople on a tighter rein.

Have a great holiday, however you celebrate it, and be prepared for another year of struggle as we try to hold back the tide of religious power-seeking that is a threat to us all.

Terry Sanderson