Why the faithful need secularism

Jeremy Rodell discusses the meaning of ‘secularism,’ among other things. Note: this article first appeared on Sarah Ager’s Interfaith Ramadan blog.

Hundreds rally for the March for a Secular Europe

Hundreds rally for the March for a Secular Europe

What is Secularism?

Let’s start with what secularism means to secularists.

The British Humanist Association (BHA) defines secularism as ‘the principle that, in a plural, open society where people follow many different religious and non-religious ways of life, the communal institutions that we share (and together pay for) should provide a neutral public space where we can all meet on equal terms. State Secularism, where… the state is neutral on matters of religion or belief, guarantees the maximum freedom for all, including religious believers.’

The UK’s National Secular Society (NSS) adds that it’s ‘not about curtailing religious freedoms; it is about ensuring that the freedoms of thought and conscience apply equally to all believers and non-believers alike.’

So a secular state does not mean denying the role of Christianity and other religions – for both good and ill – in history and culture. It does not mean that religious people must forego their principles if they enter public life. Perhaps most important of all, it does not mean a society lacking in values. There’s a fairly clear set of liberal, human values shared by the majority in the UK and most other western countries, including freedom of speech, thought and belief; respect for democracy and the rule of law; equality of gender, age and sexual orientation and the view that fairness and compassion are virtues. Many of these values are enshrined in law.

The BHA and the NSS really ought to know what they’re talking about here. Unfortunately, many people, usually people who are not themselves secularists, use ‘secularism’ interchangeably with ‘atheism’ or ‘Humanism’.  The previous Pope even talked of “militant Secularism”, meaning “militant Atheism” (despite the fact that the weapons used by ‘militants’ like Richard Dawkins are writing books and giving lectures, not planting bombs). But you can be religious and secularist. In fact the unequivocally Muslim, anti-Islamist campaigner, Maajid Nawaz, has just become an Honorary Associate of the NSS.

The reason for this confusion is that western countries have only become secular – to varying degrees – after many centuries in which the Church was a major power in society and there were constraints on freedom of thought and expression. Much of that power has been eroded since the Enlightenment, but battles are still going on. For example, 26 unelected bishops remain sitting as of right in the British Parliament, and many state-funded schools can discriminate in their admissions simply on the basis of parental belief. It’s no surprise that the protagonists in these battles are usually churches on one side, and humanists and other atheists on the other. If you’re on the side of the churches, it probably feels that secularism and atheism are the same thing – The Enemy.

That’s a mistake. Not only does it ignore the common ground between Christians and humanists, but it focusses on loss of religious privilege and influence, ignoring the fact that Secularism also guarantees freedom of religion and belief, and the freedom of thought and expression that goes with it. That’s important, given the realities of faith and belief in much of the modern world.

Growth of pluralism

According to the 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey, 51% of the British population are now “Nones” – people who do not consider themselves as belonging to any religion. It was 31% in 1983. Only 16% are now Anglicans, the Established Church (40% in 1983), 12% non-denominational Christians, such as African Pentecostal (3% in 1983), 9% Catholics (10% in 1983) and 5% Muslims (0.6% in 1983), with Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Buddhists and other types of Christians making up most of the balance (all under 2%). Within each of these groups there is a lot of diversity: at least 10 different sects comprise the 5% Muslims, and the 0.5% British Jews range from ultra-Orthodox to Liberal. So we’re seeing both a big decline in religiosity and an increase in pluralism. It’s hard to imagine a more plural global city than London.

In many non-western countries, the inter-connectedness of the modern world, and wider awareness of differing beliefs – including Atheism – is also tending to increase pluralism, or at least the desire for pluralism. At the same time, it is increasingly under threat, often because of war and the active spread of an intolerant Wahhabi strain of Islam.

Secularism versus oppression

Secularism is as necessary to protect believers from other believers as it is to protect atheists.

You can currently be put to death simply for the ‘crime’ of atheism in 13 countries, according to the International Humanist andEthical Union’s 2013 Freedom of Thought Report. Saudi Arabia has now passed a law declaring atheists to be terrorists. In Mosul, in northern Iraq, there has been a Christian community for around 1600 years. In 2003 there were 70,000 Christians living there. Now ISIS have taken over and they have all fled. In Burma the government seems to be doing little or nothing to stop extremist nationalist Buddhist groups from massacring Rohinga Muslims. In Pakistan there’s growing evidence of ethnic cleansing of Shia Muslims by Sunni terrorist groups – the word ‘genocide’ is appearing – and it is illegal for Ahmadiyya Muslims to claim to be Muslim. Often they are simply killed. In Malaysia, Christians have been legally forbidden to use the word “Allah” to refer to God, even though they have been doing so for hundreds of years. In Iran there is institutionalised persecution of Baha’is .

Sadly, there are many other examples where the response to pluralism is oppression. Often it’s entwined with political power, driven by fear of losing power – or simply of change – and lack of confidence that the favoured belief will succeed in a plural environment.

Secularism is the alternative response to pluralism. Ideally it’s complemented by the type of mature democracy that avoids “winner takes all” outcomes such as we saw in Egypt under President Morsi.

The faithful need secularism because it guarantees their freedom, and in some cases their survival. It is the only alternative to oppression in a fast-changing, inter-connected plural world.


Jeremy Rodell is the chair of South West London Humanists, which he co-founded in 2007, a local partner group of the British Humanist Association. He’s a speaker on Humanism, the humanist representative on two local interfaith forums, a schools speaker for the interfaith charity 3FF (formerly the Three Faiths Forum) and has recently become a member of the International Association for Religious Freedom. He is also the humanist convenor of a local Roman Catholic-humanist dialogue group. Aside from these activities, and a business background, he works with the charity Age UK and is chair of Trustees of Eastside Educational Trust, which provides arts education to young people across London. 

 

‘Militant atheism’

Blogger Christian Franz shares his strongly-worded, individual perspective on charges of ‘militant atheism’ in Britain and elsewhere, and more besides.

Is there really such a thing as militant atheism? Photo: Ashley Basil

Is there really such a thing as militant atheism? Photo: Ashley Basil

If you believe what some politicians would tell you, the UK is developing a new problem; a social evil so menacing that it threatens to eclipse ‘Islamophobia’ any day now: militant atheism.

There is a certain progression to be observed: first come accusations of ‘special rights’, then we hear dire warnings of a slippery slope, invariably ending in persecution of religious people and death camps for believers, run by – you guessed it – militant atheists.

This calls for some explanation – on more than one account: by and large, ‘militant atheists’ are about as threatening as ‘fundamental hippies’. Coining the phrase is demonstrably an attempt to tarnish a term of non-description (‘atheist’) by combining it with a word evocative of conflict, violence, automatic weapons, scimitars, and death: ‘militant’. And yet, this attempt is about as successful in suggesting lethality as the term ‘combat doe’.

The most ‘militant’ of atheists was Christopher Hitchens. He earned that distinction by publicly assailing men of the cloth with remarks as cutting as ‘you are an idiot!’

The world’s second most ‘militant’ atheist would be Professor Richard Dawkins. Soft-spoken and infuriatingly polite, he’s known for book signings where, on occasion, he brings along a sharp pen.

So it’s not by their actions that militant atheists have gained the ‘militant’ epithet; there is a decided lack of streets overflowing with blood, no posters yelling ‘massacre those who insult atheism’, and to my knowledge no atheist has yet blown up a church on the grounds of advancing atheism.

So, for better understanding, we need to turn to the source. Recently, a number of British exponents have complained about the exploits of militant atheism:

In a highly publicized BBC-produced episode of The Big Questions (and a same-day publication on their web page), Voice For Justice UK speaker Lynda Rose raised awareness about the alarming fact that militant atheism is the reason why Christians are now persecuted in the UK.

A few days later, UK Minister of Faith (an office I have difficulty mentioning while keeping a straight face  it’s way too Phythonesque) Baroness Warsi voiced similar sentiments.

Shortly thereafter, Prime Minister David Cameron went on record saying that living in a religious country was easier for people of competing faiths than in a country run by (presumably militant) secularists.

And just a few days after that, former MP Anne Widdecombe  in a strangely pre-emptive evocation of Godwin’s Law bemoaned the fact that today Christians have it more difficult to live in the UK than Nazis.

What is going on here? From a rational thinker’s point of view it surely seems as if they left a lot of lead in the pipes feeding the drinking fountains of Westminster Palace. Let’s take a closer look.

VFJUK’s Lynda Rose complained:[i]

But now, apparently, the newly claimed sexual rights of a minority are being prioritised over all other traditional rights, to the extent that ‘religious’ rights are now being assigned a separate, and seemingly subsidiary, category.

It’s a bit disconcerting that Lynda – who is a lawyer – makes this mistake: there are no ‘rights of a minority’. She was referring to a couple in the UK who had their existing right to their sexuality enforced. Lynda not only makes it sound as if a sexual minority (gay people) have special rights; she then asserts that there is something called ‘traditional rights’. First, of course, there are no special rights, and in fact, everyone has the same rights. And further to this, no civilized country in the world recognizes ‘traditional rights’. After all, once it is determined that something is unethical (such as slavery, or the right to discipline your disobedient wife), it is done away with, all ‘tradition’ be damned. ‘Traditional’ never trumps ‘just’. Most importantly, though, there scarcely any special rights attained only through adherence to a particular religion in the UK, restrictions on ascending to the throne notwithstanding. Today it is one law for all. Or at least it should be, anyway.

What we do see here – and we’ll see this again – is the feeling of entitlement: people are loath to give up privileges that they used to have. In this case, it is the privilege of imposing one’s own view of sexuality on others, something which Christianity has enjoyed for over two millennia, but has now been curtailed.

We next turn our attention to Minister of Faith, Baroness Warsi. In trying to make sharia law more acceptable in the UK, Warsi first remarked that[ii]

There is no doubt that the word ‘sharia’ carries huge challenges in relation to public relations. If you talk about anything [related to] ‘sharia’, the first vision people get is chopping off of people’s hands, having four wives and all sorts of unusual practices which, in today’s world, are not compatible with the values which we live by.

Above is an astute observation. The word ‘sharia’ does have a bad reputation: much like the words ‘apartheid’ and ‘Spanish Inquisition’. Personally, I believe that this is well deserved, on all accounts.

Now, Warsi, for reasons fully understood, complains that acceptance of ill-reputed Sharia law into UK’s courts is impeded by secular fundamentalists[iii]:

The most aggressive post I get is [sic] from people who are secular fundamentalists.

Of course atheists are vehemently opposed to these ideas, ideas that would introduce superstition and medieval morals into present-day jurisdiction – but I would submit that vehement opposition is to be expected not only from ‘militant atheists’, but from everyone who can count to eleven without having to remove a sock.

Warsi’s efforts to impose her preferred version of law are frustrated by people who do not share her ideology. She believes that she is entitled to bring Sharia law into UK’s courts, and spots the enemy among what she believes to be militant atheists – those people who publish so many ‘aggressive post[s]‘.

Not being outdone by amateurs, David Cameron enters the fray asserting that[iv]

it is easier to be Jewish or Muslim in Britain than in a secular country.

The reason? Militant atheists, of course. He goes on to extol the virtues of a religious society  blithely ignoring that each and every social advance of the past two hundred years has come at the cost of lives among humanists, and in the face of strong opposition from the Church. To me it seems as if Cameron is building up a straw man and defending religion for one reason only: because the devout in his constituency are starting to grumble that their privileges are being taken away, that they can no longer tell the gays what to do.

More frighteningly, though, Cameron concludes his speech with this:

Greater confidence in our Christianity can also inspire a stronger belief that we can get out there and actually change people’s lives, and improve both the spiritual, physical, and moral state of our country, and even the world.

I guess it does take a pesky militant atheist to point out that if you replace ‘Christianity’ with ‘Islam’, Cameron would be saying exactly what the Taliban and Boko Haram are saying: they, too, believe that by stronger adherence to belief, that by following scripture more closely, this world will become a better place. The Taliban in particular are quite explicit about this; they state that their intent is to improve this world by changing the way people behave: by making them stronger believers.

Changing people’s lives based on faith is a terrible idea. Ask any woman in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. When we talk about ‘improvements’ based on religion, we almost always talk about restrictions: no gay marriages, no abortions, no women’s education, no blaspheming, no work on the holy day, etc. The more confidence people have in their religion, the more likely they are to impose their religious ideology on others. Ironically, there is only one group who can’t do that: (militant) atheists – who, by definition, don’t have a religion.

Ann Widdecombe’s rant takes the cake, though[v]:

Christians now have quite a lot of problems, whether it’s that you can’t display even very discreet small symbols of your faith at work, that you can’t say ‘God bless you’, you can’t offer to pray for somebody, if it’s an even bigger stance on conscience that you’re taking, some of the equality laws can actually bring you to the attention of the police themselves.

So I think it is a very difficult country now, unlike when I was growing up, in which to be a Christian, an active Christian at any rate.

A former MP, Ann has unfortunately developed a distinct habit of being economical with the truth. She did so when during the ‘Intelligence Squared’ debate she claimed that everyone who joined the Waffen-SS had to sign away their religion. The exact opposite is a documented, fact. People who joined the SS had to sign a paper stating that they were gottgläubig  believers in God  and affirmed that they were not atheists.

Widdecombe does it again here when she claims people can no longer wear religiously-themed jewelry, say endearing well-wishes, or promise piety to other people.

In reality Ann is angry at another fact: she has lost the privilege of an automatic religious bonus. People now openly scoff when someone offers prayer as ‘help’, and do not look impressed when someone openly wears a crucifix, crescent, or Star of David. Her importance and status as an openly devout believer have diminished – which is what irks her. In short, she’s angry that she’s become unpopular, and wants to assign blame.

That, in short, is what ‘militant atheism’ is all about: a scapegoat for one’s own misgivings and shortcomings, a scapegoat for the perceived injustice of privileges revoked, a scapegoat for being called upon one’s own moral failings.

Well, at least the believers are staying true to form – if there ever was an Abrahamic ritual, it’s the scapegoat.

Is it really that simple? Are politicians really trying to shift the blame from them to a minority? After all, much of what was said is monumentally stupid. Wouldn’t the political elite be more careful to avoid putting their foot into their collective mouth? Obviously, no. The reason for that, though, can be explained:

As we know, any sufficiently advanced stupidity is virtually indistinguishable from religion. That is what is tripping up politicians: they are increasingly coming down on the wrong side when they try to decide: ‘Is this still stupid or already religion?’

And then they do something ‘militantly’ stupid.

Notes

[i] “Human vs. Religious Rights“, No Blogs, No Glory 

[ii] “Sharia-conform blood diamonds“, No Blogs, No Glory 

[iii] “Sharia’s bad rap“, No Blogs, No Glory 

[iv] “Come on, Cameron!“, No Blogs, No Glory 

[v] “MP’s race to IQ bottom“, No Blogs, No Glory 


Christian Franz is a secular blogger and the author of No Gods, No Glory – Unpreaching the Choir. You can also visit his blog , No Blog, No Glory – further unpreachings.

Ten facts about ‘faith’ schools

One third of state-funded schools in England are legally designated with a religious character. Here are ten facts about what that means.

1. Most don’t have to teach about other religions in Religious Education

The majority of ‘faith’ schools are required to teach religious education ‘in accordance with the tenets of the religion or religious denomination’ of the school. In other words, it’s up to the religious body as to what is taught (or not taught) in RE and if a school just wanted to teach about one religion only then it can legally do so. This is compounded by the fact that ‘faith’ schools have an exemption from the Equality Act 2010 when it comes to the curriculum and also the fact that their RE provision is not directly inspected by Ofsted (see no 4 below).

To be more specific, there are two ‘models’ of ‘faith’ school – the voluntary aided model and the voluntary controlled model.  Religious Voluntary Aided schools, Free Schools and sponsored Academies follow the voluntary aided model while religious Voluntary Controlled and Foundation schools follow the voluntary controlled model. Religious converter Academies stick to the model they followed prior to conversion.

Over three fifths of ‘faith’ schools follow the voluntary aided model (including all Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh schools and about 45% of Church of England primaries and 70% of Church of England secondaries). Only some Church of England, Methodist and generically Christian schools follow the voluntary controlled model.

Schools with no religious character and those religious schools following the voluntary controlled model must follow an RE syllabus that ‘reflect[s] the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain.’ But as we said at the start, schools following the voluntary aided model can teach faith-based RE.

In our experience most ‘faith’ schools do teach about other religions – although we do occasionally see exceptions. And non-Anglican/Methodist ‘faith’ schools do often offer GCSEs that only include modules on their particular faith, for example a Catholic theology GCSE or a GCSE only studying Islam.

2. When they do teach about other religions, they often don’t teach about them properly

Following on from the previous point, there is no requirements attached to how exactly RE is taught. Recent Government guidelines on RE such as the 2004 subject framework and the 2010 guidance are non-statutory but at any rate are targeted at schools with no religious character and those following the voluntary controlled model not the voluntary aided model. The RE Council’s 2013 curriculum framework does say that ‘all types of school need to recognise the diversity of the UK and the importance of learning about its religions and worldviews, including those with a significant local presence’ – but again this is non-statutory and the guidance is primarily not for schools following the voluntary aided model.

Instead what ‘faith’ schools following the voluntary aided model can do is teach that the faith of the school is literally true and that all other beliefs are false. Indeed, the 2013 framework says that ‘The REC recognises that in schools with a religious character, there is likely to be an aspiration that RE (and other aspects of school life) will contribute to pupils’ faith development.’

Furthermore, in its policy document Christ at the Centre the Catholic Education Service says ‘The first key reason why Catholic schools are established, then, is to be part of the Church’s mission in education, to place Christ and the teaching of the Catholic Church at the centre of people’s lives. “Education is integral to the mission of the Church to proclaim the Good News. First and foremost every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth.”[Pope Benedict XVI, 2008] This evangelising mission is  exercised  through  the  diverse  interaction  of  Catholic  schools  with  their  local  parishes, families, societies and cultures they serve.’

And the Church of England has produced two major reports on its schools this century – the Dearing Report and the Chadwick Report. The 2001 Dearing Report says that ‘The Church today still wishes to offer education for its own sake as a reflection of God’s love for humanity. But the justification for retaining and aspiring to extend its provision, as recommended in this report, cannot be simply this, when the state is willing to provide as never before and when there are so many calls on the Church’s limited resources. It is, and must be, because that engagement with children and young people in schools will, in the words of the late Lord Runcie when he was Archbishop of Canterbury, enable the Church to: “Nourish those of the faith; Encourage those of other faiths; Challenge those who have no faith.”’

Meanwhile the 2012 Chadwick Report cites as a ‘key premise that appl[ies] equally to children of the faith, of other faiths and of no faith’ to ‘Work towards every child and young person having a life-enhancing encounter with the Christian faith and the person of Jesus Christ’.

3. They don’t have to teach about non-religious people and beliefs

Following on from the fact that schools following the voluntary aided model don’t have to teach about other religions, similarly they don’t have to teach about non-religious beliefs either.

Actually many schools with no religious character don’t do this either. We think that equality and human rights legislation means that the legal requirement for RE syllabuses to include Christianity and ‘other principal religions’ also means that the syllabuses should include non-religious worldviews as well. This is increasingly common and the 2013 RE curriculum framework put non-religious worldviews on an equal footing to the principal religions. When such a high proportion of young people are not religious, this inclusion is vital. But at the same time, some areas such as Birmingham refuse to include any teaching about non-religious beliefs in their syllabus (other, perhaps, than purely to act as critiques of religions).

Turning to ‘faith’ schools, our experience is that many Church of England schools do include non-religious worldviews – particularly where those schools decide to teach the same RE syllabus as is taught in local schools with no religious character, for example in the Diocese of Wakefield.

But a number of CofE schools and many others too do not include teaching about non-religious worldviews in their own right, perhaps only including them as challenges to religion(s) or not including them at all. We have already quoted the Church of England’s Dearing Report setting out Anglican schools’ aim to ‘challenge those who have no faith’. Against this backdrop it is hard to argue that such schools teach about non-religious beliefs properly.

4. Their RE teaching isn’t even inspected by Ofsted. The religious bodies inspect it themselves

Schools are inspected under section 5 of the Education Act 2005. But this says that ‘An inspection which is required under this section must not extend to— (a) denominational education, or (b) the content of collective worship which falls to be inspected under section 48.’

In other words, faith-based education of the sort given in schools following the voluntary aided model is not inspected by Ofsted. Instead, as section 48 of the Act specifies, it is inspected by ‘a person chosen… by the governing body’. In practice this means dioceses for Church of England, Roman Catholic and Methodist schools, and for other faiths it is typically the relevant national religious organisation. What is more, the state pays the religious body to carry out these inspections.

For Anglican and Methodist schools, the inspection is carried out under the ‘SIAMS’ framework. One question asked is ‘How effective is the Religious Education? Within the context of a distinctively Christian character’. This does include a grade descriptor asking ‘To what extent does RE promote community cohesion through an understanding of and respect for diverse faith communities?’ But non-religious beliefs are not included and another grade descriptor asks ‘To what extent does RE promote the distinctive Christian character of the school?’

When Ofsted inspects ‘faith’ schools following the voluntary aided model it will sometimes look at RE lessons as part of its overall assessment of teaching and learning – so in this sense the subject can be indirectly looked at. But it does not inspect or report on the subject specifically (indeed such schools were explicitly excluded from the last subject-specific report on the basis that ‘separate inspection arrangements exist’) and would not mark a school down for teaching from a faith-based perspective or failing to include non-religious beliefs.

5. ‘Faith’ schools do not have to provide much in the way of sex education and can choose to only teach abstinence until marriage

There are very few requirements on any schools in terms of what they must teach about sex education. Maintained schools (i.e. state schools other than Academies and Free Schools) have to follow the national curriculum, which in Science includes puberty and the biological aspects of reproduction. Maintained secondary schools also have to, at a minimum, teach sex education that includes education about sexually transmitted infections, HIV and AIDS. But beyond that there are only requirements to have regard to guidance on the matter and to publish policies.

And Academies and Free Schools only have to have regard to guidance.

This means that a school could, if it wishes, choose to take an approach of only teaching an abstinence until marriage, instead of providing full and comprehensive sex and relationships education that includes teaching about relationships, consent, the advantages of waiting for sex, contraception, abortion and issues related to sexual health other than STIs. The evidence shows that full and comprehensive SRE is what leads to the best outcomes in terms of ensuring that relationships are consensual, preventing unwanted pregnancies, preventing abortions and preventing STIs. So taking an abstinence only approach is unhelpful.

We regularly hear from people who say that they were taught through an abstinence only approach. We also occasionally see issues with respect to religious schools’ approach to teaching about abortion, contraception, sexual orientation and same-sex marriage.

6. Some religious schools have extremely complex admissions policies

The School Admissions Code says that schools must not ‘give priority to children on the basis of any practical or financial support parents may give to the school or any associated organisation, including any religious authority’ or ‘prioritise children on the basis of their own or their parents’ past or current hobbies or activities’. However many high profile ‘faith’ schools have this year been forced to change their admissions policies after taking into account activities such as ‘Bell ringing’, ‘Flower arranging at church’, ‘Assisting with collection/counting money’, ‘Tea & coffee Rota’, ‘Church cleaning’, ‘Church maintenance’, ‘Parish Magazine Editor’ and ‘Technical support’.

In fact the Catholic Diocese of Brentwood’s priest’s reference form asks parents, ‘If you or your child participate or contribute to parish activities, you may wish to indicate below.’ In other words, every Catholic school in the diocese is currently gathering examples of this kind of activity. This breaks the Code either because it is being taken into account or because it is being asked about needlessly.

Furthermore, since the London Oratory School was told to remove its ‘Catholic service criterion’ (where parents could get two points towards entry for three years of activities such as flower arranging) there has been a looming threat that the school will judicially review the decision.

Meanwhile, one Jewish girls’ school in Hackney specifies that ‘Charedi homes do not have TV or other inappropriate media, and parents will ensure that their children will not have access to the Internet and any other media which do not meet the stringent moral criteria of the Charedi community. Families will also dress at all times in accordance with the strictest standards of Tznius (modesty) as laid down by the Rabbinate of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations.’ – before giving priority in entry to ‘Charedi Jewish girls who meet the Charedi criteria as prescribed by the Rabbinate of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations.’  This doesn’t seem to us to be a sensible basis on which to decide who does and does not gain entry to a state funded school.

7. They can turn down children whose parents don’t share the school’s religion, no matter where they live

‘Faith’ schools that are voluntary aided, foundation, Academy or Free Schools set their own admissions policies, whereas voluntary controlled schools have their admissions policies set by their local authority.  Again they have an exemption from the Equality Act 2010 when it comes to discrimination in school admissions. The result is that many schools can – and do – give preference to those of a particular faith over others in their admissions. They can only do this if sufficiently oversubscribed, Free Schools can only do so for up to half of places, and only about a quarter of local authorities allow some of their Voluntary Controlled schools to select.

Last year the Fair Admissions Campaign looked at the admissions policies of every religious secondary school in England. In total it found that 99.8% of places at Catholic schools, 100% of places at Jewish schools and 94.9% of places at Muslim schools were subject to religious selection criteria. At Church of England schools only 49.7% of places were subject to such criteria – but if you only focus on CofE schools that are in no way selected in terms of how much they can select (for example because they are VC schools) then the figure rises to 68%.

In total the Campaign estimated that some 1.2 million places are subject to religious selection criteria. This is a quarter more than the number of places in grammar, private and single-sex schools combined.

The problem is particularly acute in some parts of the country. For example, in Kensington and Chelsea, some 60% of secondary places are religiously selected. In Liverpool it’s around half.

8. Priority is often given to other religions over the non-religious

In our experience, a typical Catholic school priority list goes:

1. Catholic
2. Other Christian
3. Other faith
4. Distance from school – which, of course, means non-religious people.

That schools are allowed to prioritise those of other faiths over others is justified on the basis that ‘It would, for example, allow a Church of England school to allocate some places to children from Hindu or Muslim families if it wanted to ensure a mixed intake reflecting the diversity of the local population.’ However, this kind of admissions policy is extremely rare in practice. Much more common is putting those of no religion below those of religions other than that of the school. Voluntary aided model Church of England schools also frequently engage in this practice.

9. Most ‘faith’ schools can require every single teacher to share the faith of the school

The Equality Act 2010 has provisions that prevent discrimination by employers against employees. But there is an exemption from the Act to allow ‘faith’ schools, uniquely, to discriminate much more widely. In the case of those three-fifths following the voluntary aided model, this means that every single teacher can legally be required to share the faith of the school. For the rest it means for up to a fifth of staff.

How much does this happen in practice? Catholic schools are an interesting case in point. The Catholic Education Service’s stats show that not every teacher in a Catholic school is a Catholic. But their standard teacher application form asks applicants to give their ‘Religious Denomination / Faith’, adding ‘Schools/Colleges of a Religious Character are permitted, where recruiting for Teaching posts, to give preference to applicants who are practising Catholics and, therefore, one [referee] should be your Parish Priest/the Priest of the Parish where you regularly worship.’

And in their policy document, the CES says that ‘Preferential consideration should… be given to practising Catholics for all teaching posts and for non-teaching posts where there is a specific religious occupational requirement, i.e., chaplaincy post. In England and Wales statutory provision allows for such preferences to be made.’ In other words, the advice is that Catholic schools should only hire non-Catholics for teaching roles if a Catholic cannot be found. This could be for maths teachers, PE teachers, science teachers or any other role.

(Incidentally, ‘faith’ schools’ broad ability to discriminate in this way is possibly a breach of the European Employment Directive, which limits the extent to which schools can discriminate to where it can be said that there is a genuine occupational requirement (GOR). An example of a GOR is requiring a priest to share the faith of his or her church. There cannot possibly be said to be a GOR on every teacher at a school. For this reason, in 2010 we complained to the European Commission and said that UK law is in breach of European law in allowing such widespread discrimination. In 2012 the Commission took this up as a formal investigation.)

10. Until recently, if a science exam question conflicted with a religious belief, the question could be removed

Last year a state-funded and one independent Charedi Jewish school were found to have been blacking out exam questions on evolution in its GCSE science exams. The state school claimed that the practice of censoring questions had ‘successfully been in place within the Charedi schools throughout England for many years’. Most worryingly, when this came to light, Ofqual and the exam boards initially decided to support the practice.

However, after public pressure, Ofqual and the exam boards thankfully decided to reverse their previous decision and the practice is now banned.

More generally we do occasionally see concerns about the teaching of evolution or creationism in state schools – and the problem is widespread in private schools, many of which are getting state funding through their nurseries.

How are the schools funded?

Voluntary Aided schools have 100% of their running costs and 90% of their building costs met by the state, with the remaining 10% building costs being paid for by the religious organisation. But this comes to about 1-2% of the schools’ total budget and so is typically fundraised off the parents in much the same way that all schools fundraise. Furthermore it is waived for big building projects (through both the Building Schools for the Future and Priority School Building Programme schemes). And other types of ‘faith’ school do not have to pay a penny – including Academies which have converted from being Voluntary Aided.

Conclusion

In sum, these religious schools are virtually 100% funded by taxpayers, even though 58% think they should not be and 70% think we shouldn’t be funding the promotion of religion in schools at all.

Not all religious schools discriminate in all of the ways we have set out. But the fact that some of them do so must surely be of grave concern. We think it’s wrong that schools segregate children on the basis of their parents’ religion, can similarly discriminate against teachers and can also teach a curriculum that comes from a perspective that is narrow and unshared by those of other faiths or those of none.

Instead we would like all state schools to be equally inclusive of those of all religious and non-religious beliefs. It is only if this is the case that we can pass on to future generations a tolerant, harmonious and cohesive society in which everyone is treated fairly and equally.

What can social psychology tell us about ‘teaching British values’?

by Graham Walker

Is pursuing 'British values' the best way to go about pursuing social cohesion? (Flag by Nicolas Raymond. Handshake by Aidan Jones.)

Is pursuing ‘British values’ the best way to go about pursuing social cohesion? (Flag by Nicolas Raymond. Handshake by Aidan Jones.)

Many will already know something of the so-called Operation Trojan Horse: the apparently organised attempt to change the leadership of a number of Birmingham schools. The letter was purported to be evidence of a plot by hardline Islamists to replace school leadership in Birmingham schools with a high proportion of attendees from Muslim backgrounds, in order to instil a much more religiously conservative ethos and curricula. Though the letter is now widely suspected to be as a hoax, it triggered several investigations into 21 schools different schools in Birmingham. Long before the letter, the British Humanist Association already forwarded concerns raised by whistleblowers about narrow nurricula at the school to the Department for Education, before notions of political ‘extremism’ caught the media’s eye.  In the end, Ofsted found evidence of poor practice in six schools in Birmingham, with allegations that members of school leadership had been ‘marginalised or forced out of their jobs’. All of this, and more has unsurprisingly sparked strong reactions in Westminster. One reaction, made by the Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove, stated that schools in England should start teaching ‘British values’. For me, this is an absurd and unhelpful knee-jerk reaction without necessary thought for implications and consequences. What are ‘British values’? How does one teach these? How will people react to this idea and these teachings?

England is a complex multicultural society. There is more religious, political and cultural pluralism than ever before in Britain and these factors absolutely need addressing to ensure the beneficial flourishing of all members of the population. I am not blind to the heinous crimes dictated by certain antiquated, but still followed doctrines. But, a doctrine of promoting nationalist values would be ultimately divisive; it would lead to unhelpful comparisons between apparently incompatible sets of values; and to resentment towards a prescribed syllabus which would difficult to rationally defend.

Looking through the annals of history, creating an ‘us and them’, ‘your values, our values’ belief system has never led to peaceful co-habitation. A brief glance at the literature in social psychology and this is further confirmed with the psychologist Muzafer Sherif showing, almost 50 years ago now, that in-group favouritism and prejudice towards out-groups can be created by grouping people in such trivial ways as, for example, one which favours one artist and a second group which favours another. When these artificially created groups were given goals that pitted the groups against one another, it led to instant intergroup competition and conflict.

Such studies have been shown to scale up to an international scale, as well, and go a long way to suggesting that overemphasis of ‘differences’ widens in-group favouritism and out-group prejudice. What does this suggest about Gove’s idea of teaching ‘British values’? For me, it will needlessly divide people in to ‘my values/ your values’ groups. But also, as value systems inherently determine a person or group’s goals, it could well lead to split focus on conflicting goals in our society. This could well lead to the sorts of competition and conflict seen in the social psychology studies.

Having said this, addressing values in schools is not though an inherently poor idea. The question remains: how can this be done effectively?

One way is to teach young to think critically, to critically engage with what they believe in and about what they are told to do, or to believe, by their peers and elders; and to think logically and compassionately. A ‘British person’ (whatever that is) may then see the value in acting with neighbourly love expecting nothing in return; something seen much more in Eastern collectivist societies and not in individualised Western societies. Others may see the value in treating both men and women with total equality and fairness; a fair wage for all, no violence towards women based on unscrutinised texts that breech basic human rights, and so on. Such things have been intimated by Ofsted as occurring at the Birmingham schools.

Interestingly, psychology offers insight in to the impact of this. The founder of ‘positive psychology’, the study of wellbeing and flourishing, hails the teaching of ‘character strengths’ to children in schools. These character strengths include curiosity, forgiveness, perseverance and compassion. The research suggests that not only can these strengths be measured in children and adults but lessons in character strengths can lead to measurable improvements. Reflecting on these strengths one might notice that they reflect universal character strengths, but also that they are also founded on basic human rights, without any hint of nationalist agenda.

Social psychology literature suggests that to minimise differences between groups, and to create goals which everyone would benefit from achieving, and which can only be achieved through teamwork, leads to group cohesion and inter-group harmony. The teaching of values which do not sew division between social groupings, and which create goals based on shared benefit to humanity, would hopefully therefore lead to the kind of cohesion and harmony which some of these experiments suggest could be achieved.

So what lesson does Mr Gove need to learn? I say it’s this: Take the good parts of all cultures, and build something based on basic human rights, and fair and equitable treatment for all. If the primary goal of an individual is to ensure its own wellbeing and flourishing, shouldn’t society’s be to ensure just that for society as a whole? Teaching values which adhere loosely to an idea of a country which may or may not even exist, and perhaps may have never existed, will not achieve this. But setting aside differences, and finding common ground – with listening and change on all sides – is the template that history and psychology has shown us we should follow and aspire to achieve.


Graham Walker is a student and blogger. Graham has studied psychology and cognitive behavioural therapy, and is currently studying for an MSc in occupational therapy. He blogs on various issues that he feels are important. You can follow him on Twitter at @think_damn_it.

See Martin Seligman’s website ‘Authentic Happiness’ for a huge amount of information on Positive Psychology: https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/home

Lessons from the Birmingham affair

Several lessons can be drawn from the so-called ‘Trojan Horse’ affair, including

  1. that religious extremism is completely different from terrorism and that politicians who used the Birmingham schools story for political ends have a lot to answer for
  2. that we need to watch for hijacking of schools by religious (or any other) extremists for their own religious ends, and
  3. that the activities condemned in these non-faith schools are exactly what are praised in faith schools

…which must raise questions about faith schools: what is so different about a narrow Jewish or Catholic ethos and curriculum from what devout Muslim governors were trying (admittedly unlawfully) to impose on their Birmingham schools?Politicians like Liam Byrne use this last point to argue that maybe these schools should be converted to faith schools so as to legitimise what they are doing: one moment what Park View school does is deplorable, the next it is spot on.  But this reminds us that the whole debate about faith schools is marked with dishonesty by their defenders.

The research is clear - 'faith' schools do in fact operate harmful admissions biases. Pictured: the Fair Admissions Campaign website.

The research is clear – ‘faith’ schools are more socio-economically compared to the local average. Pictured: the Fair Admissions Campaign website.

When the Fair Admissions Campaign shows indisputably that religious schools discriminate in their admissions against poorer families (as measured by eligibility for free school meals), the Catholic Education Service uses phony stats to fend off the criticism.  When the BHA tweets that if people are worried about the intense religiosity of the Birmingham schools, they should pay attention also to faith schools, the Church of England’s PR man the Rev Arun Arora treats this one tweet as the sum of BHA policy and writes a column ridiculing us, whereupon friendly columnists echo him in their own names.

The Church of England in public defends its schools with a pretence of selfless service to the general interest while in private  pursuing an aggressively expansionist policy as its last hope for survival, using the bait of places in its schools to induce parents into church.

But these sponsors of religious schools paid for from the public purse and the politicians who defend them are guilty also on another count: their refusal to engage with the arguments of principle in favour of reform.

In this they differ from many proponents of Jewish or Islamic schools – before learning to be more circumspect, Ibrahim Lawson said on Radio 4 that the purpose of his Nottingham school was indoctrination. The churches do not admit that their real aim is to recruit a new generation to join their congregations. That they enjoy limited success, that some Anglican schools are largely full of pupils from Muslim families, that they often provide a good education, that their version of indoctrination is subtle and muted – these are mitigations but not answers to the principled objection to faith schools that they do not respect the autonomy of children and their own rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

Defenders quote against this the European Convention on Human Rights that ‘the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religions and philosophical convictions” —  and this is indeed a necessary defence against an over-mighty state imposing a totalitarian education on everyone.  But the Convention does not help them: it protects the private or joint endeavours of parents but it does not require the general public to finance churches in their self-promotion.

Nor do the churches face up to the implications of public finance for denominational schools in an age of human rights and non-discrimination.  If Catholic schools, why not Muslim and Hindu?  If Anglican, why not Buddhist and Sikh?  or Seventh Day Adventist? or schools to propagate the teachings of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi?  Or indeed Steiner schools based on their founder’s racist and anti-science writings?  All these now feature in the publicly funded school system.  Supporters of Church of England schools now have to defend also these more dubious enterprises.

But our arguments of principle go beyond objecting to indoctrination of children. These schools are inevitably divisive, and they increasingly balkanise the population.  They are a relic of the sort of divisive multiculturalism that was such a mistake of the Blair government.  Time and again it has been shown that it is necessary only to divide people into groups for them to form loyalties and hostilities, and when the divisions are based on rival religious claims they are all the more dangerous.  It is no answer that these divisive schools have occasional visits to each other – children need to be educated alongside each other every day, to learn about and from each other, not to be thrown into occasional artificial encounters.

But do not expect the churches to provide a defence on principle of religious schools any time soon.

Why the situation in Birmingham means we must address faith in schools

somewordsofreply

On Monday, when the documents related to the Ofsted and Education Funding Agency investigations in Birmingham were published and Michael Gove made a statement in the House of Commons about it, we tweeted approvingly when Crispin Blunt MP raised the issue of ‘faith’ schools more generally:

Arun Arora, Director of Communications for the Church of England, took this single comment and spun it into a baseless article alleging that the British Humanist Association had tried to turn the whole situation in Birmingham into a debate about ‘faith’ schools and attacking the notion that it lends itself to wider comments of this nature. He pointed out that none of the schools involved in Birmingham are legally designated as religious, and that Church of England schools do not face similar issues.

This response completely misrepresents the reason why ‘faith’ schools are relevant to this debate. We never said any of the schools in Birmingham are religious and in fact we have continually drawn attention to the fact that they are not.

The reason why all ‘faith’ schools are relevant to this debate is not because Church of England schools foster extremism – they clearly don’t, and for Arun to base a whole article on the idea that we think they do is bizarre. There have been articles across from publications across the political spectrum discussing the place of ‘faith’ schools in response to the situation in Birmingham. Even the Secretary of State himself, in his response to Crispin Blunt, said that ‘In the light of what has been revealed, it is important to have a debate about the proper place of faith in education’. The Shadow Secretary of State has made similar comments; it is clear that such a discussion has relevance and that to endorse that claim is not to imply in anyway that any of the schools in Birmingham recently investigated were religious ones.

What the existence of Church of England schools plainly does is support the mentality that some state schools are for Anglicans, some are for Catholics, some are for Jews… and of course, given this mentality, we are going to arrive at a situation where some Muslims start seeing certain schools as ‘Muslim schools’, whether those schools are legally designated as Islamic or not. We can only prevent the type of problem we saw in Birmingham from occurring and spreading – and stop segregation between different schools – if we work to get away from the whole notion that different state-funded schools belong to different religious communities.

If we do not do this then we will continue down the path we are on of further segregation between schools along both socio-economic and ethnic grounds. Ted Cantle wrote the main reports into the 2001 race riots, and identified segregated schools as a cause of those riots. The fact that he believes this country’s schools are far more segregated now than they were when the 2001 race riots occurred is shocking.

We welcome any public debate around the place of religion in education that has been happening since Monday. It is right that the public asks questions about the fact that most of the one third of state-funded schools that are religious – including many Church of England schools – are allowed to turn children away who live across the road but whose parents are of the wrong religion or no religion; are allowed to pick the staff they hire on the basis not of their teaching ability but of their faith; and are allowed to teach a curriculum that proselytises a certain religion and dismisses all other worldviews. Surveys show that all of these practices are hugely unpopular with the public at large.

That official representatives of the Church of England wish to stifle that debate seems self-interested at the very least.

The cost of failing to address the place of religion in our schools

At last Ofsted and the Education Funding Agency have published their investigations into the ethos and curriculum of a number of Birmingham community schools. For the last few years many organisations, including the British Humanist Association (BHA), have been receiving reports from staff and parents at one or other of these schools outlining their concerns. These allegations have included gender discrimination, homophobia, creationism, discrimination in employment and disciplinary practices, bullying, and an unbalanced and closed curriculum, many of which have now been validated.

When we received them at the BHA and had permission, we passed them on to the Department for Education (DfE) and Ofsted, but it is questionable whether these legitimate concerns would ever have been taken seriously had it not been for the appearance of the ‘Operation Trojan Horse’ letter in March. This letter, now widely considered to be a hoax, gave rise both to investigations of a conspiracy to advance Islamic extremism and to a vicious public debate.

I think focusing on conspiracy and on violent or political extremism are distractions. What many of those who first blew the whistle in the various schools were reacting to was not these claims but to the teaching and ethos of community state schools being gradually changed to reflect a distinctive and narrow religious position, with a closing down of alternative ways of looking at the world, in a way that made the school an extension of the most religious home and denied the pupils alternative views. The most important issue within the situation in Birmingham remains that children in state schools were given an education that may have prepared them well for exams and formal academic achievement but did not open their horizons, develop their freedom of belief, and equip them as informed and critical citizens of modern society to the extent that we should expect.

The specific findings of unbalanced religious teaching and worship and narrow curricula in a number of disciplines in these cases are deeply shocking, but they are a symptom of underlying problems in a school system based on a general religious bias which is increasingly in tension with our more secular and plural society and where the antique provisions embedding religion in the nature even of our non-religious schools are giving rise to a range of perverse outcomes. The situation in Birmingham is symptomatic of our failure to face up to the consequences of these issues still being governed by a basic framework that is now seventy years old and this is a failure of successive governments, none of which have had an overarching strategy or a principled vision of how the state education system should deal with religion or belief.

The last serious attempt to look at all the issues holistically was in 2002 when the BHA published A Better Way Forward. It was the product of policy work and consultation with a range of religious groups as well as educationists and although its proposals may now look dated in a heavily reformed school system, the issues it engaged with are the same. The message was, and still is, simple: all state schools should be equally inclusive of all pupils and staff, with no one group being given special privileges. Schools should not proselytise or discriminate against anyone on the basis of their religion or belief, in admissions, employment, curriculum, ethos, or assemblies.

There are a number of ways in which our law and practice falls short of this: it allows religious discrimination in admissions and employment; it mandates daily acts of religious worship in all schools; it allows unbalanced confessional RE in many schools and makes minimal national prescription in relation to RE in most others, leaving decisions up to schools; beyond bare bones equality law, it fails to lay out any clear template for how schools can or should be made inclusive of children from different religious or belief backgrounds. When you look at them as a package, these facts are astonishing. Not only do they put our school system’s relation to religion way outside of clear international standards and the norms of other liberal democracies, they fail to respect the human rights of children to a horizon-widening education and they fail to recognise the necessity of inclusive civic institutions in a plural society. When combined with the increasingly consumerist approach to public services and our assumption that in schools it is the parent who is the consumer and not the developing child, the fact that the place of religion is so prominent in our school system can lead to people implementing outrageous policies while thinking them entirely acceptable and in keeping with our national provision.

If so many state schools continue to be allowed by law to select the children of Christians, of course Muslim parents and groups will make demands for theirs too. Few people are such policy nerds that they really understand different legal school types, so of course this desire will inevitably translate into influence over schools with no religious character but where most pupils are from Muslim backgrounds. Why shouldn’t a state school with a majority of Muslim parents have compulsory Muslim worship every day?  The law of the land encourages and allows it. And why should alternative activities be provided for children whose parents opt them out? They aren’t in the many schools where the worship is Christian and the potential opters-out are Muslim (or Hindu, or Jewish, or humanist…)

Why shouldn’t a school with children whose parents are mostly Muslim have imams coming in to talk regularly? Schools where most of the parents are Christians (and many where they aren’t) have vicars visiting frequently. Why shouldn’t RE lessons in schools with mostly Muslim parents be mostly about Islam and exclude non-religious beliefs? There’s nothing in the law to rule it out and in many other schools the lessons are mostly about Christianity, even confessionally so, and don’t include teaching about non-religious beliefs at all.

To me the answer is clear – it is because children have the right to a broad and open education tailored to their development as a whole person. No school should be prioritising religious identities over the need for inclusion in our civic institutions. If you agree with me, then surely you would extend the same principle to all state schools. And if so, surely the fact that these principles don’t currently extend in all these ways is the real issue underlying the present problems?

If this is the issue, that what is it that governments have been doing that has allowed this situation to continue? Haven’t they done anything to try to address it?

The Labour governments of 1997-2010 were culpable of engineering the biggest expansion of religious state schools in British history and in legislating to remove employment rights from many staff in these schools. But successive secretaries of state did work to address some of the issues of religion in the system in a more helpful direction – though always stopping short of complete reform. Charles Clarke introduced a national framework for a more balanced subject of RE in all schools – but he failed to make it compulsory. Alan Johnson introduced a duty to promote community cohesion on all schools, including in relation to religion – but failed to change the law allowing religious discrimination in admissions to many schools. Ed Balls introduced new guidance on RE and new resources for school assemblies that effectively replaced compulsory worship in many schools – but he didn’t change the underlying law on RE, he didn’t seek to remove the right of many schools to teach single religious instruction, and he left the law requiring worship on the statute books where it remained in force.

The current coalition government also has a mixed report card, and has similarly failed to treat issues of religion in our education system holistically. It has introduced a quota of pupils from different belief backgrounds in most new religious selective state schools – but it still allows such selection in other schools and has abolished the inspection of community cohesion. It has made provisions for no new school to be able to have pseudoscientific teaching, but has attenuated the regime of accountability to the extent that this is hard to enforce. It has given support to an inclusive new framework for RE but failed to make it compulsory. It has removed many inclusive provisions from subjects such as History, Citizenship, and others, and diluted the applicability of the national curriculum in any case. In its ‘freeing up’ of academies and free schools it has singularly failed to free them of the requirement to hold daily religious worship, which remains in force for all of them.

To seek to address the issue of religion and belief in our schools holistically is not to attempt to hijack the current debate – it is to debate what the real underlying issue is. In the Commons debate on Monday, Michael Gove did not see it this way. He preferred to focus on Britishness and inspection regime reforms – but the shadow education secretary did open up the issue. Perhaps like Labour secretaries of state before him, he might engage more seriously with it. Perhaps he might go further and address it in a genuinely holistic way. Surely he, or our current minister, or some future minister, must do so. We need a serious and inclusive national conversation at a policy level about this issue in the round, and the need is urgent.


Andrew Copson is the Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association. This article was first published on politics.co.uk.

Cameron’s Christian country and Church history

In what sense is Britain a 'Christian country', asks Emma Williams? Photo: echiner1.

Emma Williams takes a look into the past, at when Britain was perhaps more of a ‘Christian country’. Photo: echiner1.

The statement was inappropriately personal, the thinking disordered. In a formal address at Downing Street, the Prime Minister aligned himself with Eric Pickles – a move tantamount to career suicide in my opinion – as he re-stated and elaborated upon the notion that Britain is ‘a Christian country.’

Since Cameron’s remarks and the letter of objection issued by the BHA there has been endless discussion in the media. Most Christian writers seem astonished and bewildered by the BHA’s response, and cite our country’s history over the last two millennia as definitive proof of the Cameron-Pickles vision. Cameron stated confidently that we should be ‘proud’ of our Christian heritage, and cited his own faith as a driving force in his life and his work. As our PM warmed to his theme, Conservative values and the work of the Church seemed to merge into one; he even credited the son of God with a prototype version of his own ‘Big Society’ – praise indeed for the Messiah.

Since Church history seems to be so important to our leader, since he feels it’s something to be proud of, I thought we should take a look at it. Leaving aside the game of selectively quoting some less-than-pleasant extracts from the Bible (too easy) and the ignoble squabbling that dominates the very early history of the Church (we haven’t got time), let’s focus on the Church in England, which ultimately became the Church of England, and which Cameron praised in the Church Times this April for its ‘openness, beauty, social action and pastoral care.’

Let’s look back a few centuries to the good old days when the Church’s power was at its height and when society might perhaps be described as ‘Christian.’ Those will be the days when the poor worked for free on Church land and paid 10% of what little they produced on their own smallholdings in tithes; if they didn’t do this, they were told, they would go to hell. In the good old days, the Church advocated not only the death penalty but ritual torture; robbing a church or petty vandalism could lead to an unexpected encounter with your own entrails, and Church fathers from St. Thomas Aquinas to the 20th century Bishops in the House of Lords have argued the case for capital punishment. To quote George Holyoake, who coined the term ‘secularism’:

‘In a Christian country, such as England was, a death penalty devoid of religious sanction could not have survived. It was an issue over which the church could have exercised a moral hegemony and failed to do so.’

In the good old days of the 16th and 17th century, teenage girls and unmarried eccentrics were tried for witchcraft and dealing with the devil. Tortured for days until they confessed to whatever they were accused of, these wretched souls were then triumphantly executed before a hysterical crowd. Fast forward to the 19th century and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts is profiting from slave plantations and branding its serfs for the love of Christ, something for which it has recently apologised.

Is this what we should be proud of? In times when the Church wielded greater power in England, I see no moral utopia. The liberal and tolerant society that Cameron seems to claim is at one with Christian principles has in fact been shaped by secular reasoning, by a philosophical process unhindered by dogma and guided only by a belief in human decency. If, as Cameron wrote in the Church Times in April, ‘Christian values … are shared by people of every faith and none,’ then how are they Christian values?

As I write, the Church is the only organisation still exempt from equality laws in this country. Thanks to this unique immunity, it is still debating the radical notion of allowing women into its senior leadership roles, and it still refuses to facilitate equal marriage.

Perhaps when you’re running the country, the good old days of Church control seem attractive. To quote a verse generally omitted these days from everyone’s favourite hymn, ‘the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate: God made them high and lowly and ordered their estate.’ No inconvenient questions about expenses, no crass jokes about boarding schools and privilege; the country must have been an easier place to run, especially if you’re on the fiddle or an ex-Etonian.

Yet I credit Cameron with considerably more liberalism than he appears to credit himself. The man seems confused, and is no doubt suffering from the strange condition of double-think that is common to many liberal Christians. The inescapable truth is that our country, with its strange and diverse and inglorious history, can no longer be described as Christian. Based on the history of the Church, it seems that is something to be grateful for.

Humanism in Europe

The European Parliament in Brussels

The European Parliament in Strasbourg

The year’s Easter period has been an important time for humanists of all varieties. A national debate on the nature of secularism and religion in politics has dominated the political landscape. David Cameron’s article calling for Christians to be ‘evangelical’ in their faith, and describing the UK as a ‘Christian country’ began a conversation that was escalated exponentially by the BHA-organised open letter to the Telegraph. Signed by 55 writers, scientists, broadcasters and academics, the letter challenged the Prime Ministers assertion, and expressed some concern at the exclusionary consequences of such a statement. The debate has a variety of offshoots, has featured a range of senior figures from both politics and religion, and is far from over yet. These voices of course come from a wide array of sources, and represent a multitude of different opinions, experiences and worldviews. That said, when taken as a whole, these voices unite to underpin one vitally important point: the role of religion in politics is fundamentally contested.

Given this national platform, humanists, atheists, and freethinkers from all walks of life have come forward and contributed powerful messages to this debate, seizing the opportunity to argue for what they believe in. This has been a fantastic response proving an inspiration to many who share humanist values without explicit knowledge of the BHA. It has also illustrated the importance of religion and politics on a national scale, as well as the symbiotic relationship between the two. We must combine this enthusiasm and quality of voice with a proper desire, passion and commitment to fight for these values at all available opportunities; and it is crucial that we do not limit this argument to national boundaries. This is an argument to be exercised internationally. Across the globe, atheists are being persecuted and discriminated against in huge numbers. Freedom of thought, religion, and belief is an inalienable human right, and one that many take for granted in a pluralist society.

One platform in which these issues really matter is on the European stage. The need for a strong humanist stance in Europe is paramount. Trends of radical populism and reactionary conservatism are rising in many member states. The financial crises’ impact has had a huge role exacerbating these illiberal social tensions. The rise of homophobia, xenophobia, and political violence threatens to undermine the values of Humanism in Europe. European politics is also home to powerful religious lobbies, working to advance their cause in great numbers. We need a coherent, active humanist voice in Europe to challenge this rising tide.

The power of the religious lobby in Europe was brought into sharp focus at the end of last year. A report calling for universal access to sexual and reproductive health services, and decent Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) for all young people, was blocked in the European parliament. The Estrela Report (named after its author, Portuguese MEP Edite Estrela) covered issues such as: access to safe and legal abortion services, education on negative LGBTI stereotypes, and teaching on the prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infections – among other important measures. In the build up to the 10 December vote, MEPs received up to 80,000 communications from minority religious groups to vote against the measure, some including threats. The bill was eventually defeated by 7 votes in the European parliament; a defeat the fell on Human Rights day, adding insult to injury.

Another example of the organisation of the religious right is the ‘One of Us’ campaign. This is a European Citizen’s Initiative movement which intends to prohibit any actions that involve the destruction of human embryos. This would not only have a momentous impact on women’s rights and the power over their own bodies, it would have devastating consequences for women’s health. If this campaign succeeds, some estimates suggest that up to 800 women would die a day, as the European Commission would cut all funding for organisations which provide abortions or abortion-related services. In addition to these grave consequences, it would also scrap funding for all research on human embryonic stem cells. There needs to be a concerted campaign to oppose this well-funded, highly active religious lobby. A direct way that humanists can challenge these lobbies is through the election of politicians with humanist values.

These are just two examples of the challenges facing the humanist cause in Europe today, but they serves to illustrate the need for a united humanist response to the excessive religious influence undermining the European democratic process. These pockets of intolerance are intent on holding back the advances in human rights and personal freedoms that have been hard fought for in Europe in recent decades, and humanists must remain organised and active to oppose them. It is only a European wide opposition in defence of secular and humanist values that can counter these lobbies, and showing candidates for the upcoming elections the importance of this movement to constituents will serve to contribute to this aim.

We must not let the passion and enthusiasm evidenced this week be lost on the broader debate. We must not insulate our humanist views into a theological or a cultural sphere – this week has proved that the views we share are deeply political opinions, with deeply political consequences. The religious lobbies functioning against secularist values are as well funded as they are vocal. There is a danger of complacency among secularists to think that the important battles have been won. It is now more than ever those secularists must speak with the loudest voice, of reason, rationale and human rights.

The last few years have shown that some freedoms we take for granted are far from sacrosanct. Use the passion, energy and momentum from the debate on ‘Christian Britain’, and bring it to bear on the European stage. It is for this reason that we have set up a hustings specifically related to humanism; for the opportunity to here European election candidates debate these issues. The European elections are on 22 May and our humanist hustings on 6 May represent the best opportunity for humanists to have their views listened to by MEP candidates from six major parties.

humanist hustings ebulliten 2 (updated)

The event details and a link to register your attendance can be found here: www.humanism.org.uk/humanisthustings.


Thomas Smith is a recent graduate working in policy and public affairs. He is currently a volunteer for the British Humanist Association, UCATT, and the Labour Party.

Infographic: Is Britain a ‘Christian country’?

Last Monday the British Humanist Association coordinated an open letter, signed by more than 50 public figures, including authors, scientists, broadcasters, campaigners and comedians, who wrote to the Prime Minister to challenge his statement that Britain was a Christian country.

The story dominated the news agenda for the past week, and today the BHA has released an infographic which compiles statistics on the current state of religious identity, belief, and values in contemporary Britain. You can view the graphic below:

2014 04 28 LW v5 Infographic Christian Country