Opinion: Secular society is another media myth

Reactions to the Pope's remarks on Islam last week have been telling in more ways than one.

I'm not just talking about the protests that erupted in the wake of his controversial lecture in Bavaria - or the mixed reactions of Muslim leaders across the world to his rather guarded apology - but the way in which the media covered the story.

I was struck in particular by an editorial in Monday's Independent in which the leader writer pointed out that: ‘Our nation and the circles we move in are predominantly secular.' The writer went on to claim: ‘We tend not to interpret the words of the Pope… as having force beyond the theological context in which they are uttered.'

I'm not sure who exactly constitutes this collective ‘we', but this seems to be a massive generalisation that conveys far more about the journalist's own prejudices than those of either Muslims or Benedict XVI.

Even the most blinkered of atheists must have noticed that in the past five years, faith has become a major issue for a considerable number of citizens in today's multi-cultural Britain. According to the last census, only 15 per cent of the population claimed not to have a religion.

Rife materialism may appear to have swept aside spiritual concerns, but scratch the surface and you begin to find belief.  They may not all attend Church, but in the last census, 72 per cent of Britons claimed to be Christian; 2.8 per cent of the population said they were Muslim; one per cent declared themselves Hindu; while Sikhs and Jews were around 0.5 per cent.

But as shown by the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London last year, issues relating to faith extend far beyond adherents in today's society. 

Too many young journalists have trouble reconciling their self-image as cynical hacks, with faith. Indeed, some Christian journalists, particularly practising ones, would not dare admit to their religion to colleagues, only perpetuating the myth that media are a faith-free zone.

Yet there are many influential senior media figures who are open about their beliefs. Take just a couple of examples from broadcasting: BBC world affairs editor John Simpson is an Anglican, while two of the most powerful figures at the corporation, Mark Thompson and Mark Byford, are Catholics. Meanwhile, Al Jazeera's Ragi Omar, a former BBC news man, is a Muslim with a deep interest in the influence of faith. And in case you haven't noticed, for nearly a decade the country has been run by a devout Christian.

As the reaction to the Pope's ill-advised ‘soundbite' has once again illustrated, any commentator or communicator who believes that faith is not a factor in modern society is, frankly, deluded.

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