Leslie Mitchell: A time of change we can all celebrate and share in

EASTER, like Christmas and marriage, belongs to us all. It isn’t the exclusive property of Christianity or of any other religion.

Most of us with no belief in the supernatural will be enjoying Easter this weekend with our friends and families – and with it, everything it has to offer. This suits me very well as both Humanist and a chocolate addict. I can anticipate at least one Easter egg with a clear conscience – apart from the guilt about my waistline.

Modern Easter has a cultural significance quite separate from the religious meaning. A celebration of a new spring after a cold and dark winter is a notion you don’t need a god to appreciate.

In celebrating Easter, I’ll be more than happy for those who have religious beliefs to practise them, to celebrate the most significant date in the Christian year and to enjoy their own faith.

So, far from being curmudgeons looking to drive any trace of religion or faith from human society, not to mention Scottish society, we secularists positively revel and rejoice in the diversity of belief and practice. We promote equality of esteem for all and the right of each and every individual to think, to believe and to act for themselves.

Yet we have recently been castigated and criticised by the Pope, Cardinals and others for “militant” or “aggressive” secularism.

I’m at a loss to understand how simply putting up one’s hand to gently request that more than two million Scots who live their lives without a religious belief should be treated equally – with their opinions sought and respected by all our institutions and authorities – should be portrayed as antagonistic.

This goes for matters of education, marriage, health and any other area of life that is of daily significance to everyone’s happiness and wellbeing. Is it really so militant to insist that there should be no special treatment and privilege solely on the basis of the tradition and patronage of the religious elite?

Unelected and unresponsive, unanswerable at any ballot box, such elites still seek to impose their views not only on public policy but on private lives. Yet these same institutions in the debate about equal marriage legislation claim ownership of the institution itself; how it is defined and how marriage should be legally enacted and between whom.

If ever there was a wilful misreading (militant and aggressive perhaps?) of the situation then this is it. But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? The leaders of the church should be free to make their views known. I’m happy for them to do so as long as they don’t claim special privilege and assert their views are more important than my own. This cannot lead to parity of esteem nor equality in any debate.

Free and equal debate has never been more important than now and nowhere more so than in Scotland. Deeply held views on our country’s future will be debated in the coming months and years. Yet the referendum itself might be rather less momentous than the opportunity it gives us to think clearly about what we want Scotland’s future to be. For the moment the signs are good. They indicate that the debate may be a real one, centred not simply on the form of government we vote for, but more importantly on the kind of country we want Scotland to be. What are our values and aspirations? How should we relate to the global community which surrounds us?

The great thing about Easter is that it is the harbinger of spring, rebirth and growth; of opportunities and glimpses into a future yet to be.

What really excites me right now as a Humanist is that history really might repeat itself. In the 1750s, Scotland led the world in a humanist-based enlightenment of science, culture, literacy and thinking. This outpouring benefited not only the nation itself but, without any exaggeration, could be said to have made a profound contribution to the world beyond its shores.

So my fellow Humanists, I will be celebrating a Happy Easter, eggs and all. But more importantly, as spring bursts, we’ll be looking forward to a good debate about the future of a good, robust and equal Scotland. In our view this is a secular Scotland, by which I mean one in which ethics, ideas and institutions are based on sound humanitarian principles of equality and parity of esteem for all, religious and secular – a New Enlightenment perhaps?

• Leslie Mitchell is chair of the Humanist Society Scotland