A decade of division

The Scottish Church is fighting radical secular interests

Irish despondency about the possibility that militant secularists will impose a harmful set of values on society thanks to their increasing dominance in institutions of state and popular culture is very real. But it might recede if there is a glance in the direction of contemporary Scotland.

There the Churches played a powerful role in the drive for home rule, obtained in 1999. But they have since been elbowed aside by secular-minded forces in the public administration, academia and much of the media.  A new humanist establishment insists that Scotland cannot complete its journey to modernity unless religion is banished to a firmly private sphere.

Iain MacWhirter, is Scotland’s top political journalist. Ex-Marxist, ex-BBC, he recently published an  absorbing book on contemporary Scotland called The Road to Referendum(Luath Press 2013) in which he reserves his deepest scorn not for Margaret Thatcher and the Tories but for the Presbyterian Church. He celebrated the arrival, nearly 50 years ago, of the counter-culture in Scotland arguing that, not before time, it eroded the authority of what is the established Church in Scotland.


Recent upheavals at the top of the Catholic Church in Scotland came just too late for MacWhirter to pass judgment. But already Scotland’s influential humanists and secularists are gearing up to try and snatch the Catholic Church’s sole outpost of influence in national life: the state-financed Catholic school system.

The curriculum’s emphasis on a moral dimension equips many pupils with a sense of citizenship and a willingness to look beyond their own material ambitions in order to empathise with the less fortunate, even far beyond Scotland.

Many of these schools have encouraged upward mobility among pupils from lower-income groups and new ethnic minorities. But, nearly a century old, they continue to be distrusted by a population that is growing increasingly post-Christian in outlook.

The state is also increasingly superseding the role of the family in the care of children. This was shown by the Children and Young People Bill tabled by the ruling Scottish national party (SNP) and which passed into law on 19 February 2014.

It plans to give every child a state guardian from birth. This state-appointed overseer will be a specific, named individual, and every child will have one, from birth. The responsibility for creating this named guardian will fall on the heads of the health boards for the first five years of a child’s life, before being transferred to councils.

Aidan O’Neill QC has remarked it is “startling” that the proposal “appears to be predicated on the idea that the proper primary relationship that children will have for their well-being and development, nurturing and education is with the state rather than within their families and with their parents”.

One-ideology state

This Bill came hard on the heels of one legalising same-sex marriage. A public consultation produced massive negative feedback. But a number of amendments to the Bill, designed to protect Churches and other religious institutions from potential legal action or discrimination, were all rejected by Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs). Protection for charities and registrars was also omitted.

Devolved Scotland had become a one-ideology state even before reaching its 10th birthday. Autonomy, equality and rights are the intellectual foundations of the new order. 

Scotland’s senior bureaucrats and many of its academics and social experts are committed to a planned society based on scientific and expert reasoning. They are increasingly impatient with moral reasoning based on religion or anything else that is un-scientific. It is a form of positivism, the French doctrine meant to create balance and order after the French revolution.

But in practice, it allows a lot of room for disorder in those large parts of Scottish society where its improving values have been rudely rebuffed or only half-heartedly applied. 

Middle-class women have arguably been its greatest beneficiaries of a new order extolling equality and individualism. Unlike them, growing numbers of girls and younger women from working-class backgrounds have been unable to handle the new freedoms.

They often made bad lifestyle choices. So did plenty of Scotland’s men, encouraged by a consumer and entertainment culture that extolled edgy and sometimes self-destructive behaviour.

Vision of society

For a big proportion of Scotland’s men, there is simply no meaningful role in society. De-industrialisation is one explanation. But so is the lack of any secure anchor in family, education or faith.    

The Churches do plenty of good work at local level in helping some of Scotland’s social casualties. But arguably they have failed to offer their own vision of the good society; abortion and the state’s brusque re-ordering of the institution of marriage have been Catholic concerns, but there is still no coherent vision for a just and well-tempered society based on recognisable Christian values.

Numerous Scottish Labour MPs of Catholic background have made it to the House of Lords in part because of caving in to middle-class activists promoting an agenda of lifestyle liberalism that many  working-class Catholics still  recoil from. 

There has been no shortage of middle-class Catholics who have embraced the priorities of the secular state.  A Catholic fireman in Glasgow got a belated apology and damages from the Strathclyde fire service in 2009 after his boss  (also from a Catholic background) had penalised him and eight colleagues for refusing to take part in a gay pride march in which Christianity was openly ridiculed.

In the spring of 2013, Frank Mulholland, the Catholic who is Scotland’s chief law officer in the SNP government, promised to introduce tough sanctions against those who strenuously oppose the redefinition of marriage.


Last November I attended a weekend conference meant to find common ground between faith groups and humanists in the spheres of values and ethics. It was organised by the Xaverian religious order which from its headquarters in Coatbridge, central Scotland has become a hub for the government’s attempt to engage with the religious world very much on its own terms.

My conclusions, after numerous conversions with humanists, was that they lacked the desire to intervene to improve society based on any secular version of Gospel values. They were far too detached from the problems of alienated communities and social groups faring badly. They were primarily concerned with delegitimising faith organisations and curtail what remained of their influence in the public realm.

The SNP pays lip-service to the retention of faith schools but is keen to micro-manage society, especially because it has no real answers for Scotland’s economic problems. It is a patronage-driven party that at times puts Irish practitioners of pork barrel politics in the shade.


Seven months from a referendum on Scottish independence, it is busy extending its influence over a Church still coming to terms with the forced resignation of Cardinal Keith O’Brien after an admission of sexual impropriety.

New figures are rising to positions of influence, such as the new Bishop of Paisley John Keenan. He seems well aware that the Church has the fight of its life on its hands in preventing a complete takeover of national life by the forces of civic atheism. It is a battle which those in Ireland who are keen to avoid a similar outcome are well-advised to pay further attention to. 

Divided Scotland: Ethnic Friction and Christian Crisis, by Prof. Tom Gallagher (Argyll Publishing 288pps hardback £15.99)