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UK is a plural society, PM told
David Cameron's controversial claim that Britain is a "Christian country" risks sowing "alienation and division" in society, a group of leading public figures has warned.
More than 50 writers, scientists, broadcasters and academics have signed an open letter expressing concern at the "negative consequences" of the Prime Minister's assertion in a country where most people do not describe themselves as Christian.
Signatories of the letter, published in The Daily Telegraph, include the authors Philip Pullman and Sir Terry Pratchett; broadcasters Dan Snow and Nick Ross, the philosopher AC Grayling; and the human rights activist Peter Tatchell.
It follows the article last week for the Church Times by Mr Cameron - who in the past has been reluctant to discuss religious matters - in which he wrote of his own faith and his desire to infuse politics with Christian ideals and values.
While the letter acknowledges that the Prime Minister is entitled to his religious beliefs, his comments do not reflect the country as it is today.
"We wish to object to his repeated mischaracterising of our country as a 'Christian country' and the negative consequences for our politics and society that this view engenders," the letter states.
"Repeated surveys, polls, and studies show most of us as individuals are not Christian in our beliefs or our religious identities and at a social level, Britain has been shaped for the better by many pre-Christian, non-Christian, and post-Christian forces.
"We are a plural society with citizens with a range of perspectives and a largely non-religious society. To constantly claim otherwise fosters alienation and division in our society."
The letter said that Mr Cameron was wrong to "exceptionalise" the contributions made to society by Christians when they are equalled by those of people with different beliefs.
"It needlessly fuels enervating sectarian debates that are by and large absent from the lives of most British people, who - as polls show - do not want religions or religious identities to be actively prioritised by their elected government."
Professor Jim Al-Khalili, the theoretical physicist and science broadcaster and President of the British Humanist Association, who organised the letter said Mr Cameron's comments were part of a "disturbing trend".
"Politicians have been speaking of our country as 'a Christian country' with increasing frequency in the last few years," he said.
"Not only is this inaccurate, I think it's a wrong thing to do in a time when we need to be building a strong shared identity in an increasingly plural and non-religious society."
Downing Street said that Mr Cameron had made clear as far back as December 2011, in a speech to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, that he believed the UK was a Christian country "and should not be afraid to say so".
"He also added that this was not to say in any way that to have another faith - or no faith - was somehow wrong," a spokeswoman said.
"He has said on many occasions that he is incredibly proud that Britain is home to many different faith communities, who do so much to make the UK a stronger country."