What is the role of religion in modern Scotland?

Faith and politics:

RELIGIONS NEWS AGENCY (REDNA) – Religion is dominating much of Scottish public life today. The furore around Kate Forbes and her biblical opposition to gay marriage has captured the nation’s attention due to the SNP leadership contest, but religion is also at the heart of Scotland’s most polarising and toxic debates, from trans rights and sex education in schools, to the discussion around assisted dying and buffer zones at abortion clinics.

Yet Scotland is a pretty godless country. Recent polling shows most Scots are non-religious. So, what do Scotland’s atheists make of the role religion is playing in society? The atheist voice isn’t often heard in Scotland.

Fraser Sutherland is the chief executive of the Humanist Society Scotland. It campaigns for a “secular, rational and socially just country”, and just as churches and their lobbyists give a voice to believers, the Humanist Society gives a voice to non-believers.

To underscore just how secular Scotland is today, Sutherland explains that there are more humanist marriages now than all the marriages from all the various Christian churches combined. In 2020, humanists ceremonies made up 23 per cent of all Scottish marriages, while Christian marriages accounted for 22%.

There were 5,879 humanist marriages, 5,812 Christian marriages and 1,409 marriages from other religions. The rest where in registry offices.

When humanist ceremonies were first legally permitted in 2005, there were just 82 marriages, compared to 14,564 Christian marriages. “Scotland is legitimately the world leader when it comes to humanist weddings,” Sutherland explains. “It’s quite amazing. We’re very proud of that.”


Sutherland believes that the increasing loudness of religious voices in public debate is down to the fact that faith is waning. “It’s a reaction to the dominant place that religion, and Christianity in particular, had in society. Go back to the 1950s and Scotland was by far the most Christian part of Britain. Then there was this real decline since the 1960s. There’s always been a group of people who saw this as something wrong that needed corrected.”

He highlights the role of organisations like Care – Christian Action, Research and Education – in what he calls “politicised evangelism”. Care began in 1971 as the Nationwide Festival of Light, a Christian organisation set up by the morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse to counter the so-called “permissive society”.

Sutherland says this illustrates “the longitudinal influence of people who see Britain awash in moral pollution and in need of Christ coming back into society. It’s always been there. Go back to the 1980s and Section 28 [which prohibited promotion of homosexuality in schools], the Aids epidemic and the backlash against the LGBT community, and the ‘Satanic Panic’. It’s never gone away. It jumps from issue to issue depending on what can be shoehorned into giving religion an influence on politics”.

However, Sutherland notes that in the last decade religious campaigners have been “playing down their religious credentials. Opponents of issues like assisted dying or LGBT equality very much don’t foreground their religion”.

Gay marriage

Sutherland thinks this is the result of the social shift that came in 2014 with the passing of Scotland’s equal marriage legislation. Previously, “opposition was very much about religion, and protecting religion”.

After losing the equal marriage battle, he says “religious groups and lobbyists recognised that using the ‘defend Christianity’ argument wasn’t a winner with politicians any more”, adding: “So they had to find a different way, though they’re still motivated by their faith and want to change policy.”

Sutherland points to religious opposition to the Children (Equal Protection from Assault) (Scotland) Bill – dubbed the anti-smacking bill. Religious campaigners opposed to the law mostly focused on the rights of parents, not bible teachings. The Book of Proverbs says: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son.”

Some pressure groups set up to oppose “progressive legislation” like the smacking ban can be linked to religious organisations, Sutherland says. Be Reasonable, which opposed anti-smacking laws, is supported by Simon Calvert, a senior figure at The Christian Institute.

The institute says on its website “the historic Christian faith has always affirmed biblical teaching that homosexual acts are always wrong”, and “the public promotion of homosexuality is damaging to our society”.

Be Reasonable was backed by The Family Education Trust, which campaigned against the named person scheme, the promotion of same-sex marriage, sex education, and the morning-after pill.

Be Reasonable received funds from The Christian Institute and The Family Education Trust. The organisation Care Not Killing, which opposes assisted dying legislation, has former Care CEO Nola Leach as chair.


The public, says Sutherland, are often unaware of such connections. “The same people move in many circles.” There are crossovers between membership of anti-assisted dying groups and anti-gay marriage groups. There is also a lack of clarity on funding for some socially conservative lobby groups, Sutherland claims, raising suspicions of money coming from American Christian organisations.

Other funding is more transparent. Scottish tycoon Brian Souter, founder of Stagecoach and a “committed Christian”, was a prominent leader of the Keep the Clause Campaign, which sought to prevent the abolition of Section 28. He spent £1 million on a postal referendum for his campaign. Souter was also an SNP donor.

His charitable trust pledged nearly £90,000 to Care Not Killing, and £50,000 to the anti-abortion group Right to Life.

“I don’t think people of faith who campaign on issues are sinister. They should be able to campaign on anything they want,” says Sutherland. “What’s questionable is opaqueness, lack of transparency, hiding who’s involved and why they’re involved.”

Kate Forbes’s first job in the Scottish Parliament was funded by Care through the internship scheme it runs at Holyrood. Sutherland says Forbes’s recent controversial comments show that her faith “isn’t only an important part of her identity but also how she makes public decisions”.

Forbes wouldn’t have voted, she said, for equal marriage.

Sutherland adds: “She’s a member of the Free Church of Scotland and there’s no requirement for them to carry out same-sex marriages.

The decisions that parliamentarians make must be for society as a whole, not just their church.”

Sutherland also questioned Forbes’s claim that she would, in her words: “Defend to the hilt the right of everybody … to live and love.”

Clearly, he says, if voting on equal marriage had accorded with Forbes’s own intentions, then gay marriage wouldn’t currently be legal.


Nor is the matter of equal marriage “settled”, Sutherland adds. A future parliament could overturn legislation.

“We saw that in America with Roe v Wade and abortion. The idea these matters are set in stone, I don’t accept at all. I find it remarkable that many Christians say love is a core tenet of their faith, yet they also make clear that the love of same-sex couples is somehow less than everyone else and that society should go out of its way to not recognise that love legally.”

Certainly, Sutherland doesn’t think Forbes’s beliefs “preclude her” from office. “That would be absolutely wrong.” He criticised SNP members who said Forbes “shouldn’t even be an MSP”, adding: “We need to stand by freedom and the democratic process. I have too many colleagues who are humanists, in other countries where they don’t have democracy, and the restrictions on their lives are horrendous.”

He was, however, taken aback by those in the SNP who claimed “to be surprised by Forbes’s views”. He adds: “ I’ve met her and it was abundantly clear what her views were. I find their claims astonishing.” He also questioned why those in the SNP condemning Forbes didn’t ask more “searching questions” about her opinions when selecting her.


Sutherland was struck, though, by the “pushback to the criticism” Forbes received over statements which included that sex before marriage and children outside of wedlock are wrong.

“The pushback was ‘you shouldn’t have a go at her for her faith’. Why is faith different to any other ideology? She was very much foregrounding that her faith influences her as a policymaker so absolutely it should be open to question because she’s a political representative, she may be a political leader. We should be able to question it.

“It’s also fair for SNP members to say ‘we’re happy and will elect her as our leader’. That’s democracy. To claim you can’t criticise is almost like some quasi-blasphemy law – that you can’t question someone due to religion. The whole point of free expression is we should be allowed to criticise religion, and religious people are allowed to criticise humanism.”

Sutherland adds: “The church still has a more significant role in society than other groups with bigger membership.”

The STUC represents over 540,000 members, the Church of Scotland has around 300,000. Bishops sit in the House of Lords, Sutherland notes, and in Scotland the law requires that each council reserves three unelected seats for church leaders on education committees.

“Why have we got someone unelected making decisions about how schools are run and maybe saying we shouldn’t be having LGBT inclusive sex education simply because of their religion?” Sutherland asks.

“Churches and religious organisations should only have the same voice as other civil society organisations, in the same way the RSPB can influence government on the environment.

“They should be part of the debate but the idea that they should be distinct from the rest of society, when society has changed so much, isn’t right.”


Recent research shows around 70% of young Scottish people don’t identity as religious, indicating that faith will sharply decline in the future. “We’re past the tipping point. Of course, there will always be people who identity as Christian but it’s a smaller and ever-decreasing number.”

The Scottish census in 2011 showed 54% identified as Christian, down from 65% in 2001. Opinion polling in 2018 showed 59% identified as non-religious. “There’s continual decline in the number of people who are religious,” Sutherland adds.

He is astonished at the exceptionalism of some Scottish Christian groups that claim that criticism of their beliefs is somehow “persecution”, adding: “Anyone would condemn threats, but criticism isn’t persecution. That kind of claim does a disservice to the Christians persecuted in their millions in other countries where there’s no freedom of religion.

“It’s somewhat disappointing that some are saying ‘because I was criticised for standing outside an abortion clinic with a sign saying babies are murdered here that I’m being persecuted’. It’s very thin-skinned.

“Atheists also face persecution, and even execution, in very religious societies. The mere accusation of blasphemy in somewhere like Pakistan can amount to a death sentence and being lynched by a mob. It’s terrifying for people who have to be secret about the fact they don’t believe in Islam. In some places in Africa, humanists face accusations of witchcraft. They can get murdered.”


While Sutherland is regularly abused for his atheism, he won’t talk about it as he doesn’t want to “plead victimhood”. Instead, he mentions his close friend, Mubarak Bala, president of Nigeria’s Humanist Society, currently serving 24 years for blasphemy after questioning God’s existence.

“He’s got a wife and family like me and it’s just devastating what’s happened to him.”

Sutherland does, though, outline how other Scottish atheists are called “groomers”, “perverts” and “paedophiles” for supporting trans rights and sex education, or “murderers” for supporting assisted dying. “That’s not unique to us, however, as anyone backing those positions gets that kind of abuse. They want to destroy their opponents, silence them, have them lose their jobs.”

Fraser Sutherland

Sutherland, and other liberal campaigners, feel that the West is in a “snapback” moment today. The forward march of equal rights reached a high point with gay marriage legislation, and the religious right became organised and internationalised. Some on the American religious right have talked about targeting trans rights as a “wedge issue” in order to halt any more progress.

“The same themes cropped up in the trans debate that we saw during Section 28 and equal marriage: that ‘these people’ are inherently a risk. As we know, after the repeal of Section 28 and the passing of equal marriage laws, the sky didn’t fall in.”


The 40 Days For Life anti-abortion campaign which demonstrates outside Scottish clinics is an American importation, Sutherland notes. Like many liberal campaigners, he sees Donald Trump’s presidential election as a catalyst for a religious backlash.

Trump’s comments “gave permission” to extreme forms of conservatism, including some from the far right who hijack Christian “causes” to push ethno-nationalism and white supremacy –ideas, Sutherland says, “that all decent Christians abhor. It’s the other side of the coin to Islamic extremism and attitudes Muslims abhor”.

It’s a matter of fact, not speculation, he adds, that the far right exploit “morality” issues in order to inveigle themselves into wider debate. “That in no way means everyone protesting these issues is far right – far from it. But the far right are involved.”

He feels it is inevitable and justified that in Western nations secular criticism focuses more on Christianity than other religions. “Christianity is the dominant faith that’s shaped our societies. The head of state in the UK is also the head of the Church of England. That’s not to say there aren’t questions about other religions like Islam, Judaism, Buddhism or Hinduism.”

Sutherland expects the next big intervention from the religious lobby will come over Scotland’s assisted dying legislation. He questions how notions of a supernatural God’s power over life and death can override any human’s right to decide what happens to their own body when dying of cancer.

“That’s a real challenge to people who don’t believe in a God that controls when someone lives or dies.”

The current proposed legislation only applies to those who are terminally ill, Sutherland adds. Dying patients will have to administer their own life-ending drugs, he explains, following a waiting period and a clear expression of their settled will. “It’s difficult to understand how anyone can think it’s more humane to allow others to suffer terrible deaths,” he adds.

“It’s cruel. We can see in other jurisdictions that it works safely.

“Humans are naturally empathetic, but when you hear some of the things religious groups push it’s divorced from the instinct to be empathetic. I find it interesting as they claim they’re the vanguard of ethics and morals but actually what they often put forward is that we absolutely shouldn’t consider how other people feel, whether they’re gay, or dying, or a child who has the right not to be hit, or a woman seeking an abortion.”

Religion should be kept out of sex education, he says. The anti-abortion group Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) has carried out dozens of school visits in Scotland over recent years.

“It’s fair and right that children learn about religion and different worldviews including different views on abortion from a professional teacher, but to have anti-abortion groups effectively giving health lessons is deeply disturbing.”

SPUC has also made statements such as “widespread use of contraception does not reduce abortion rates”. Sutherland says anything apart from professional sexual health education puts children at risk.

“It’s dangerous, potentially lethal,” he adds. On the campaign against sex education in schools, he says: “Where are young people going to learn about these issues, and matters like consent, if not in a professional environment? From misogynistic online pornography?”

Clearly, he points out, not all parents – particularly some who are religious – will talk intimate matters over with children.


Hardline religious beliefs also hold back women’s rights, Sutherland feels. Kate Forbes once wrote that women shouldn’t be church ministers. “That whole ‘a women’s place is in the home’ nonsense is absolutely driven by a fundamentalist religious view. The same kind of people who would have years ago said that women shouldn’t get the vote are the same people who Kate Forbes is on side with now saying they shouldn’t be ministers. So her position is pretty bemusing.”

Sutherland rejects the “aggressive atheism” of people like Richard Dawkins.

But he firmly preempts what he says will be the inevitable attack lines which religious groups will deploy against him for his comments.

“They say we’re closed-minded. Which is just bizarre. Humanists base our worldview on science, free thinking, and where we don’t know something we accept that. It’s not us with a defined view of the world saying ‘this is how the world was created, God made you in his image’.

“We reject religion as we believe in critical thinking and standing on your own two feet, not on the words in one text. We’re here to balance out the domination of religion’s influence in society.

“I’m very glad Scotland remains a progressive nation today.”

Source: The Herald


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