SCOTLAND’S Catholic schools are a “thorn in the flesh” that “legitimise religious apartheid in Scotland”. These words could have been spoken by any number of Scotland’s worthy, broadsheet-reading secular middle class. But they weren’t. Instead, these are the words of the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland, who now have six Labour/Tory councillors in Scotland, each of whom can influence local education policy on issues like funding for Catholic schools.

This should cause us to revisit the question: what motivates Scottish opposition to Catholic schools? And why are Scotland’s liberals often so keen on forced integration?

I went to a Catholic school, as did many socialists I know in Scotland. Most of us are against compulsory assimilation into mainstream schools, and, by contrast, most socialists who want Catholic schools banned are from non-Catholic backgrounds. Perhaps that’s not too surprising. We tend to normalise what we grow up with. I don’t question anyone’s right to criticise Catholic schools, and I don’t believe that querying what they teach or whether they deserve taxpayer funding makes you a bigot.

However, for me, left-wing opponents of Catholic schools often misconceive this debate as being about “backward superstitions”. Catholic schools, in their mind, are Medievalist hothouses of blood and saints that cause embitterment and resentment on both sides.

Get rid of them, educate kids together, and tolerance will thrive, sectarianism will vanish and right-wing resentment will evaporate.

Of course, factually I could question this view of modern Catholic schools as archaic. I could point to the many people from non-Catholic backgrounds who attend them. And I could point to the Protestant religious teachings in supposedly secular Scottish schools.

But I won’t. Because there’s a more fundamental problem here, and unless we understand it, this whole debate is being conducted on the wrong terms.

The problem is this: what we call Scotland’s “sectarian divide” isn’t about religion at all. Instead, it’s the story of how mainstream Scottish institutions from the Kirk to our largest firms used fear of Irish (and Polish, Italian and Lithuanian) immigration to divide and conquer the Labour movement. Scotland is a majority Protestant country; most of its immigrants, historically, have been Catholics. Ultimately, their Catholicism was a convenient way of grouping together Scotland’s fears about job shortages and economic change.

Top Scottish banks, newspapers and industries barred Catholics from jobs. “No Catholic need apply” was written on job adverts in shop windows. Cartoons portrayed Irish immigrants as drunks, and feckless, and Scotland’s church leaders infamously called for their forced repatriation to Ireland.

It’s important to get this context right. Many well-meaning cultural nationalists like to believe that Scotland has been a racism-free utopia, albeit marred by a unique religious problem of “sectarianism”. Sadly, this worthy sentiment is utterly false. Scotland has a racism problem that’s formally identical to racism in every Western country. The only difference is that Scotland’s immigrants were historically more easily grouped together by their Catholic faith than by the colour of their skin.

Scotland’s “Catholic” incomers reacted like any immigrant community faced with discrimination and dehumanising stereotypes. They formed their own institutions. They built defensive networks. They sought to preserve their culture. And, through intermediaries like John Wheatley, they voluntarily joined the Labour movement to build a culture of working-class solidarity that transcended the bigotry surrounding them.

The issue of Catholic schools in Scotland has historical roots in social questions of immigration and racism. Regardless of whether we support their continued existence, we’ve got to acknowledge this fact, or we can’t debate the issue at all.

To see how the left gets these questions wrong, look at France, where unconditional, uncritical secularism has been used to beat and bludgeon largely Muslim immigrants. Often, it’s the left leading the way, lecturing from the pulpit about the high ideals of state-sanctioned secular humanism. However, generations of left-wing hectoring haven’t created the conditions for the brotherhood of man, or, indeed, for the sisterhood of women; instead they’ve laid the groundwork for Marine Le Pen.

France is a more extreme case than Scotland, but the error has the same roots. French secularists saw religious traditions as a legacy of the rural backwardness of peasant immigrants. However, the ice-cold bath of French enlightenment would swiftly disabuse them of Medieval superstitions and turn them into honest citoyens. When Islamic tradition didn’t fade away, and actually seemed to grow, panic set in. Hate preachers in Mosques were to blame. The answer was to turn secularism into the world’s biggest bullhorn and blast it in their face. As we know, that strategy failed – monstrously.

The lesson should be: think twice, think three times before sanctimoniously lecturing immigrant communities about the evils of their religion. Usually, this high-handed tactic has the opposite of its intended effect. When immigrants have faced a history of prejudice, they get defensive about their traditions; the more they’re lectured, the more they cling to them.

Thankfully, Scotland’s immigrant communities haven’t faced a French fate. Yes, we still face problems. But we’ve been allowed to tell our own story, to build our own institutions in Scotland in peace. In economic terms, thanks to our public sector, we’ve mostly caught up.

The Scottish Catholic vote for independence in 2014 was a sign of being comfortable with a Scottish identity. That’s a new thing.

Our right to Catholic schools has been part of this story. We’ve become Scottish in our own way, and we’ve made our own contribution. Mostly, we’ve “assimilated” out of choice while preserving other identities.

And yes, I’ll freely admit that as a feminist and an atheist I’m uncomfortable with some Catholic teaching. However, I’m able to have those debates from inside the community, just as black and Muslim women do inside theirs. That’s how progressive values take root. The bullhorn doesn’t work.

Some people feel uncomfortable raising this issue. Maybe they fear that Catholics will “take offence”. But I’ve found the opposite. When I tell left-leaning secularists that I support Catholic schools in Scotland, they look frightened, aghast and personally offended. By contrast, mainstream Scottish Catholics are usually happy to debate the issue on its merits.

I’d love to see a world without religion. But remember, atheists are a global minority, making up just 16 per cent of humanity, mostly centred in the world’s richest communities. Sadly, in an era where democracy has become a tool for the rich, the working class still turn to religion, and, saddest of all, Pope Francis is the only world leader who’s addressing poverty.

Religion remains the heart of a heartless world. If atheists want to educate people in a common humanity, let’s take the Pope’s example and fight poverty and injustice wherever we find it.