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Religious toleration has been in the press again recently, with the Advertising Standards Authority banning the claim that "God heals", the Cornish hoteliers losing their appeal against a fine for discrimination, and pre-council meeting prayers being banned.  Many of these discussions seem to me to arise from an error so early and deep in the way people think about these matters that it is not even noticed: we have come to assume that religious toleration is about how religions are tolerated.

If we start from this assumption, and then deploy standard British ideas about impartial treatment before the law, we get the following kind of result: if we are to act fairly, impartially and consistently, then whatever principle we apply to the toleration of, say, witch-doctor practices and beliefs must also be applied to Anglican practices and beliefs.  So if we want to say that witch-doctors should be forbidden from claiming they can cure your cancer by reciting some incantation unless they have scientific evidence of the efficacy of their incantations, then Christians should be forbidden from claiming that God's healing can come if you pray for it unless there is scientific evidence of that.  Or, again, if we want to avoid having the start of council meetings being delayed by Wiccan spell-recitings or councillors deterred from attending meetings by being subjected to blood-curdling threats disguised as pseudo-Islamic prayers, we have to say that council meetings should not commence with prayers.


That's just the wrong way to think about religious toleration.  Here's how it should (indeed does) work.  We pick a religion as our approved religion. Then we establish some standards of toleration of other religions and practices.  Then if a practice comes before us, the first question is whether this is a practice of the approved religion.  If it is, then the question of toleration of this practice does not arise – if you belong to the approved religion, you are the tolerater, not the tolerated.  If the practice does not belong to the approved religion, we consider whether it is a practice we, the secular representatives of the approved religion, want to tolerate or have previously established that we tolerate – bearing in mind, inter alia, the views of the ministers of the approved religion.  (Matters could be slightly more complex than this, in that there might be a second rank of groups that are not parts of the approved religion, but have a special status – e.g. non-conformists in a Protestant Christian state, or Jews and Christians in a Muslim state – but let's not over-complicate.)

What happens when we assume that the issue of religious toleration is whether religions should be tolerated is that we make (or reflect having made) irreligion (atheism, agnosticism, nihilism) our state religion.  When in the past we might have asked to what extent atheism should be tolerated, that question no longer appears to arise in Britain.  It is simply assumed that atheism or other irreligion is acceptable; indeed, the question of whether atheism should be religiously tolerated by the law begins to sound rather odd.  Irreligion is where we begin; Irreligion is what tolerates – it isn't what is legally tolerated.  We struggle even to imagine what the question would be if one were to ask whether to tolerate irreligion.

That, indeed, is what seems to me to be the problem with Anglicanism being Established.  Not that there should not be an Established Church or that Christianity should not be our state religion – that would be a fine thing, were it so (or indeed still feasible).  But it isn't so – not merely not so practically a day-to-day basis, but not so legally in the sense that our law does not begin from the assumption that Anglican Christian practice must be legal and then ask what else should be tolerated.  A number of legal judgements have stated quite explicitly that there is no principle in English law that the living out in practice of orthodox Christian belief is by definition legal.

So Anglican Christianity is not our state religion.  But this fact is obscured by Bishops being in the House of Lords and the Monarch being anointed and Crowned by an Anglican Archbishop.  It's hard to state precisely when we ceased to have Christianity as our state religion, because abandoning it as such was never announced and we never had any debate as to whether we really wanted to abandon it and what might best replace it.  Why assume that irreligion is the correct replacement?  Why not Judaism, or the Baha'i?  (The numbers practicing is of no real relevance – virtually no-one is an atheist, yet that doesn't seem to be a bar to atheism being the state religion.)

Christians have drifted into accepting the idea that Christianity should have no privilege before the law – that somehow if it did that would be illiberal or intolerant.  That's just wrong.  Liberalism is a specifically Protestant Christian political doctrine.  And tolerating is something religions do, not by definition something done of religion.  If Christianity is not to be the tolerating religion, we should have a proper public debate about what state religion we want instead.

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