My last post about the inappropriateness of the new Chief Constable of the PSNI defining himself as a committed Christian resulted in quite a few comments and quite a few emails. Most were supportive – although Mark Devenport was a little dismissive when he suggested that, “It’s a fair debating point, although given the level of church attendance here I can’t see too many people rushing to the barricades on this one.”
With respect to Mark, (and I have a great deal of respect for him), the stats don’t really back up his argument.
In Northern Ireland there is an accepted wisdom that it is perfectly OK for politicians, senior civil servants, anyone in public office, to spout off about their various religious beliefs. The defence is that because we are a church-going society it’s somehow OK that people feel compelled to tell us about their bizarre world-views borne out of religious conviction. Well, I beg to differ.
The majority of Northern Ireland’s adult population does, in fact, NOT attend church on a regular basis. Church-going here is more popular than in other parts of the UK – but research by the Tear Fund shows that only 45% of people here attend church on a regular basis. This, presumably, means that the majority of adults here are not regular attenders. Indeed some 44% of NI respondents in the tear fund survey are either “de-churched” or “non-churched”. In short, in Northern Ireland, there are as many people here who have little if any contact with any church as those who attend a church regularly. Close to 1 in every 5 people here have no religion at all and are either Atheist or Agnostic.
Therefore, if as many people here don’t attend church as do, and one in every 5 people of voting age have no faith, it’s surely appropriate to expect that our elected representatives should keep their personal views about religion out of the public domain.
That’s not to say that politicians or civil servants or senior policemen should not have views – or even moral dimensions – based on religious faith. However, it is to say that they should not voice those views in a professional context. They have a contractual responsibility – in representing all of society – to base their decisions on rationality and NOT doctrine or religious definitions of morality.
Religion is a personal matter. As Richard Dawkins said at last year’s Conservative Party conference, religion should be like stamp collecting or knitting – best done at home.