It is as difficult for Conservative MPs to admit they are atheist as it is for gay people to be open about their sexuality, a veteran Tory has said.
James Arbuthnot, who has served as a the chair of the defence committee as well as a defence minister and Chief Whip in his time in parliament, told the Commons on Friday that he had kept secret the fact he was not religious for almost thirty years.
The North East Hampshire MP is stepping down from parliament at the election, having served in the Commons since 1987. He said it was only now he was leaving Westminster he felt he was able to reveal he was not actually Christian. "I am not in the least religious," he said. "I was christened and confirmed, but since then I have lost those beliefs and faith I once had. And I am perfectly comfortable with that."
He revealed: "This is the first time I have ever actually acknowledged that in public."
"The pressure on a Conservative politician particularly of keeping quiet about not being religious is very smiler to the pressure that there has been about keeping quiet about being gay.
"For the avoidance of doubt, I'm not gay either. But I wanted to say it is telling that it has taken me 28-years in this House, and frankly the knowledge I wont be standing at the e next election to make this point."
Arbuthnot said his decision to reveal he was not religious would disappoint many of his constituents as well as some of his family who were "strongly religious".
David Cameron has said he is "evangelical" about his Christian faith. However Nick Clegg is an atheist. Ed Miliband has also said he does not believe in god.
A spokesman for the National Secular Society praised Arbuthnot for "standing up for secular principles and challenging religious privilege".
"It’s a sad reflection of British politics that Mr Arbuthnot felt unable to publicly declare his atheism for so long. The ‘Christian Country’ narrative being peddled by prime minister and secretary of state for communities only serves to marginalise non-Christians, when what we should be doing is promoting a secular, pluralistic society in which people of all faiths and none are given equal standing," he added.
Communities secretary Eric Pickles caused a stir last year when he said Britain was a "Christian nation" and militant atheists should "get over it".