Christians are increasingly reluctant to express their religious views because they are being âturned offâ by the âdisturbingâ and âvery damagingâ rise of religious fundamentalism, the Attorney General has said.
Dominic Grieve said that atheists who claim that Britain is no longer a Christian nation are âdeluding themselvesâ and must accept that faith has shaped this countryâs laws and ethics.
He said that 1,500 years of Christian values are ânot going to disappear overnightâ and said that many people remain believers even if they choose not to go to Church.
However, he warned people are being discouraged from openly declaring their beliefs because of the âdeep intoleranceâ of religious extremists of all faiths, including Islam and Christianity.
He told The Telegraph: âI do think that there has been a rise of an assertiveness of religious groups across the spectrum. That is why those with softer religious views find it disturbing and say they donât want anything to do with it.â
His made the comments after David Cameron faced criticism for openly talking about his beliefs and declaring Britain to be a âChristian countryâ.
In a letter to The Telegraph, more than 50 celebrities, scientists and academics accused the Prime Minister of sowing âalienation and divisionâ and fuelling âsectarian dividesâ.
Mr Grieve was one of two senior cabinet ministers who on Tuesday defended Mr Cameronâs comments and criticised the letter's signatories.
Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, joined Mr Grieve in his criticism on Tuesday and said those denying Britain is a Christian country are âabsurdâ and âignoring both historical and constitutional reality".
He said: âThe idea that his comments have alienated those of other faiths is questionable given the range of religious leaders from other denominations who have welcomed them.
âIt is arguably our Christian heritage, with its innate tolerance and inclusivity, that has ensured the freedom of all voices â religious or non-religious â to be heard and to be valued.â
Mr Grieve said that âatheism hasnât made much progressâ in Britain and that âour state, its ethics and our society are underpinned by Christian valuesâ.
He said that the âbasic premiseâ of the people who signed the letter, who included the authors Philip Pullman and Sir Terry Pratchett and the TV presenter Nick Ross, is âwrongâ.
Mr Grieve said: âAs I go around and look at the way we make laws, and indeed many of the underlying ethics of society are Christian based and the result of 1500 years of Christian input into our national life. It is not going to disappear overnight. They [the atheists] are deluding themselves.â
The 2011 census showed that 59 per cent of people in England and Wales â or 33.2 million people â identified themselves with Christianity.
But that proportion plunged from 72 per cent a decade earlier and those reporting âno religionâ almost doubled from just under 15 per cent to more than 25 per cent.
Mr Grieve said: âI do think that the rise of religious fundamentalism is a major deterrent to people. It is a big turn off away from religion generally, and it's very damaging in that context.
âIt encourages people to say I'm not interested, [it encourages] an unwillingness to express commitment.
âThe evidence in this country is overwhelming that most people in this country by a very substantial margin have religious belief in the supernatural or a deity.
âTo that extent atheism doesn't appear to have made much progress in this country at all, which is probably why the people that wrote this letter are so exercised about it.â
The Church of England hit back on Tuesday, accusing the secular and humanist campaigners of a âshamefulâ and even âdishonestâ attempt to âeradicateâ recognition of faith in shaping British culture.
The Very Rev Dr John Hall, the Dean of Westminster, whose position places him at the juncture of church and state, said: âWhat is clear to me is that Christian values have formed our nation and are fundamental to who we are and how we are.
âThere is a sense in which those things have disappeared into what we regard as our own values in a broader sense but they owe themselves to our Christian heritage and beliefs.
âTo reconnect values to the beliefs that gave rise to them, I think is extremely important, and that is not in any sense offensive to people of other faiths and traditions and is about the particular character of our nation.â