When it comes to tackling segregation, ending ‘faith’ schools is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet

2015 07 23 Davd Cameron 2 CREDIT The Prime Minister's Office

David Cameron is looking right at the problem, but choosing to ignore it. Photo credit: The Prime Minister’s Office/Creative Commons license.

The Prime Minister’s speech on extremism on Monday has received a mixed reaction; unsurprising given the sensitivity and complexity of the issue.  However, as is so often the case, the mixed reaction was also at least in part a result of mixed messages. Specifically, the praise that should have been provoked by Cameron’s admirable emphasis on the need to tackle segregation in our education system was tempered by his contradictory reaffirmation of support for ‘faith’ schools.

The response of successive Governments to the increasing religious and ethnic diversity of the UK has been to provide more ‘faith’ schools, of more kinds, to cater for these different groups. In 1998 there were 24 state-funded Jewish schools, and no Muslim, Sikh or Hindu schools. In 2015, there are now 48 Jewish, 21 Muslim, 10 Sikh and 5 Hindu state schools, and growing. More children of all religions are being educated in ‘faith’ schools now than ever before.

There are many, the British Humanist Association among them, who are absolutely convinced that this approach to building a multicultural society will be remembered as one of the most ruinous and damaging to the fabric of our communities and our society that has ever been pursued. It is an approach which is impossible to fathom.

Presented with the challenge of integrating a complex mix of religions, beliefs, ethnicities, and social backgrounds into one cohesive society, we have two options. The first option is to continue with an education system which divides children in almost all imaginable ways. ‘Faith’ schools segregate along religious lines, along socio-economic lines, and along ethnic lines – the evidence for this is clear. This first option therefore involves accepting this sorry starting point and then working round the clock to think of ways to get these different groups to interact with and understand one another (Shared facilities and integrated teaching being the Government’s latest proposals).

The second option is simple. We make all schools inclusive, we bring all children together, we ensure that it is their similarities that are celebrated and which become ingrained in them, rather than their differences, and then we sit back and watch while all our work is done for us.

Regrettably, this is not the option that has been taken.

In his speech, the Prime Minister referred to the policy introduced under the Coalition Government of only allowing new ‘faith’ academies and free schools to allocate half their places on the basis of faith. That development was to be welcomed, but it didn’t go nearly far enough. More than a third of state-funded schools in England and Wales – over 7,000 schools – are religious schools and only a small proportion of these are free schools.  Clearly no religious selection at all would be preferable, but it is equally important to remember that discussions about religious selection should not detract from the fact that whether religiously selective or not, ’faith’ schools are inherently exclusive.

That is why Cameron’s expression of hope that ‘our young people can be the key to bringing our country together’, immediately preceded by a promise that he will not seek to ‘dismantle faith schools’, was so disheartening.

One has to ask, how we can expect our children to create the inclusive, integrated and cohesive society that we have thus far been unable to achieve, if we continue to define them and divide them by the religions and beliefs of their parents?

When it comes to tackling segregation and promoting integration, there is clearly no silver bullet. The process is difficult and there’s a long way to go. You can be absolutely sure, though, that an end to ‘faith’ schools and an end to the division they foster, is the closest thing to that silver bullet we have. If only our Prime Minister wasn’t so gun shy.

Polls consistently show we’re not a religious country. So why don’t our politicians get it?

The numbers are in (and have been for a while). Can politicians really keep insisting this is a 'Christian country'? Photo: Chris Combe.

The numbers are in (and have been for a while). Can politicians really keep insisting this is a ‘Christian country’? Photo: Chris Combe.

Elected officials to this day continue to cite the Census to make the point that Britain is a ‘Christian country’ or a country made up principally of Christians. The Census statistic of 59% is used to justify all sorts of privileges granted to the religious in Britain today, including the widespread handing over of public services and schools to religious control and the place of unelected bishops in our legislature, not to mention the recurrent exceptionalising of Christian contributions to our shared cultural life. But is that statistic true? Is it any good?

The likely answer is no, and any demographer can tell you why. By asking the leading question  ‘What is your religion?’ in the context of a series of questions about ethnicity and cultural background, the Census leads to higher numbers of people identifying themselves with their family or cultural religious background, and for the most part not with that they actually believe, feel they belong to, or practise.

The Census statistic is used to justify all sorts of privileges granted to the religious in Britain today. But is it any good?

Most other rigorous surveys will tell you a different story – the story of a very diverse Britain united for the most part by common values which straddle the ‘religious divide’. The most recent of these surveys was by YouGov this April, and it found that around two thirds of Britons, when asked, would say they are ‘not religious’.

The April poll, commissioned by the Sunday Times, asked the question ‘Would you describe yourself as being a practicing [sic] member of a religion?’ and found that 62% of the general public said ‘no’. Christianity polled as the second most popular option, accounting for 33% of the public. And it’s by no means a one-off. Most polls of the last decade have given very similar results.

This majority ‘not religious’ figure has been found repeatedly in recent years. A recent example of this trend is the Survation poll last November, which asked ‘Do you consider yourself religious or not religious?’ and found that 60.5% of Brits are the latter. These figures are in turn consistent with year-on-year polling from the British Social Attitudes Survey, which finds that around or slightly over half of the population is in fact non-religious (and that 42% Brits identify as Christian) when it asked ‘1. Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion? 2: If yes: which?’. A YouGov poll in April 2014 also found that 50% of Brits were non-religious, and that three quarters of the population were ‘not religious or not very religious’. Very similar results in 2011 and 2012, and numerous others, overwhelmingly reinforce the pattern.

We can say with some confidence that half of Brits are non-religious

Equally, the one third figure for believing Christians has been found time and time again. A YouGov poll for the Times in February this year found that only 55% of British Christians ‘believed in God,’ bringing the total proportion down from 49% of Britons who say they are Christian to around 23% for ‘Christians who believe in God’.  A 2013 YouGov poll which asked how many people in Britain believed in the central tenet of Christianity – that Jesus of the Nazareth was the son of God – found a figure of 30%. It’s that same figure again – around a third

In most aspects of their jobs, politicians look closely at these sorts of surveys when making policy decisions, or when attempting to win over new voters with popular initiatives. They know, and statisticians can tell you why, that the margin of error on these things is usually around 1-3%. So I feel we can say with some confidence that half of Brits are non-religious (only 4% of ‘nones’, according to the Times/YouGov 2015 poll, ‘believe in a god’) and that beyond that, two thirds are ‘not religious’ – in the sense of not seeing religion as very important or not practising. It’s a widespread trend: only 30% of Brits are believing Christians, and only 6% or fewer Brits go to church on a given Sunday.

Much more importantly, three quarters of Brits say they are opposed to public policy decisions being influenced by religion

The Census result would suggest that three quarters or more of Brits, cutting across the religious divide, would cite some sort of Christian cultural background, but this is a broad group indeed – both Justin Welby and Professor Richard Dawkins would say they are culturally Christian! Much more importantly, three quarters of Brits say they are opposed to public policy decisions being influenced by religion – with 92% of Christians agreeing that the law should apply equally regardless of religion.

Politicians trotting out the old Census figure to justify handouts or, engaged in cynical vote-grabbing, should remember that most of us want to be treated equally and want a level playing field – including by opposing ingrained religious privilege, such as by opposing  ‘faith’ schools and bishops in the House of Lords. Of course, politicians are not won over by opinion polls alone, and most are wary of the power of religious institutions, whose views tends to be a bit more traditional than those of their flocks. But change is inevitable, and on the way – the fact that the next generation rising through the ranks is overwhelmingly non-religious could well promise to erode the power of churches over our elected representatives.

Is it appropriate to use churches as polling stations?

The 2015 general election on 7 May looks closer than ever and contentious issues around religion are clear political skirmishing grounds. In light of this, should churches still house ballot boxes? The research suggests not, argues Adam Coomer.

Polling station by Christopher Brown EDITED bw bad weather

Both location and weather can alter voting intention, say researchers. Photo: Christopher Brown.

Bunting hung and the airwaves crowded with opinion, prediction, and analysis. Television schedules adjusted. Bus-loads of young men and women wearing tribal colours. If you’re reading this post from an archive then you might think that I’m referring to the World Cup, but I’m actually referring to the 2015 general election campaign.

Many of us will by now have received polling cards advising those of us not making use of postal voting of where we need to attend on 7 May. Many of these locations will be churches. (The first draft of this post actually read ‘places of worship’, although I was unable to find any examples of non-Christian facilities being used). As issues to do with how religion should intersect with public life become more relevant to politicians and to the electorate, it may be time to reconsider whether houses of faith are suitable for this purpose.

In the life of the current Parliament, major debates have taken place regarding same-sex marriage, immigration, and the future of the House of Lords, where to do this day 26 Church of England bishops hold reserves seats by right of being clergy. In February, a collection of influential Anglican figures published an open letter proclaiming it to be ‘the duty of every Christian adult to vote’. This will not represent the view of every Anglican (let alone every Christian) any more than will the declaration by controversial Muslim cleric Anjem Choudary that voting is ‘sinful’ under Islamic law (accompanied by frigidly uncreative hashtag #StayMuslimDontVote). The clear point is that both religious issues and groups are significantly in play as polling day approaches. It can hardly assist those in disagreement with Choudary that some undecided Muslim voters will inevitably receive, as I did last week, polling cards instructing them to attend a local Christian church. This less speaks than mumbles of inclusive democracy.

Polling in religious buildings potentially risks alienating those of other faiths (and none), but this is only one aspect. A second and better examined question is whether polling location can actually influence how a voter marks their ballot. Social scientists and marketers well understand that human behaviour, choice and attitude can be influenced by the unconscious influence of the environment: a phenomenon known as priming. This occurs because the stimuli in question act on the subconscious and promote the access of closely associate memories and, as such, the effects tend to be unpredictable and unique to each individual. In the constitutionally secular United States, there has been a renewed enthusiasm for investigating these influences on voting decisions since the controversially close Presidential election of 2000.

Election outcomes have been shown to be influenced by a wide range of subtle factors, from the design of the ballot paper to the weather conditions on polling day. The first set of studies to look specifically at the influence of polling location were published by Stanford University researchers in 2006. These showed that those voting in schools were more likely to support a tax increase to fund education. Further studies specific to churches were published in 2010 and 2014. The first study suggested that voting in churches may be ‘advantageous to politically conservative candidates and to supporters of conservative positions on abortion, same-sex marriage, and other relevant issues’. However, the latter paper found the inverse, with those voting in churches more likely to support a proposition on same-sex marriage, which the researchers speculatively suggest may be due to negative campaigning on the issue by religious groups. Intriguingly, those voting in schools were also more likely to support marriage equality, whilst voters using municipal buildings (fire and police stations, community halls, and the like) were least in favour. The original Stanford researchers concluded that: ‘The magnitude of the influence of polling location on voting found here would be more than enough to change the outcome of a close election,’ a finding endorsed throughout the literature.

Objection to the use of churches as polling stations need not be based on anti-religious sentiment, but sensibly motivated by a desire for unbiased elections. Evidently, it is not even pre-determined in what manner the church environment might influence the undecided voter, but that there is some effect seems plain. If it is the case that mainly Christian facilities are used – and it seems likely that this is so – then what message does this send to non-Christians? Few are likely to further investigate the topic or understand that the officers selecting such buildings have a broad discretion, rather than compulsion.

As elections become closer and the traditional ‘Westminster henhouse’ becomes more colourful and claustrophobic, we can scarcely afford to be ignorant towards any unconscious influence inherent to the very mechanics of the process. While the perfect polling-day voter is balanced, well researched and pre-decided, they are extremely rare for the same reasons. Many people will attend on 7 May without a clear plan of how to vote – people protected from last-minute influence by exclusions placed on campaigners or materials in the vicinity of the polling station, and by a general prohibition on party-political clothing or paraphernalia on site. All of these rules are seem to be ignorant of that fact that the very room in which the process takes place may have the final say.

Under the parliamentary election rules, acting returning officers have broad discretion over the location of polling venues, with the right to use without charge any premises paid for (partly or fully) out of rates. These include schools and council premises – themselves fraught with problems. Beyond this there seem to be few rules and little guidance. Perhaps, in the circumstances, this should be reconsidered.

Adam Coomer is a member of the BHA’s Young Humanists and postgraduate student with University College London, with particular interests in law, religion and economics. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamMCoomer.



Berger, J.; Meredith, M. & Wheeler, S.C., ‘Can Where People Vote Influence How They Vote?  The Influence of Polling Location Type on Voting Behavior’ (2006), Stanford GSB Research Paper No. 1926 (DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.890660).

Berger, J.; Meredith, M. & Wheeler, C.S., ‘Contextual Priming: Where People Vote Affects How They Vote’ (2008) Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105 (26), 8846-8849.

Blumenthal, J.A. & Turnipseed, T.L., ‘Is Voting in Churches (or Anywhere Else) Unconstitutional?: The Polling Place Priming (PPP) Effect’ (2010), Boston University Law Review, Vol. 91, 2011.

Pryor, B.; Morehouse Mendez, J. & Herrick, R. ‘Let’s Be Fair: Do Polling Locations Prime Votes?’ (2014) J Pol Sci Pub Aff 2:126.; (DOI: 10.4172/2332-0761.1000126).

Rutchick, A.M., ‘Deus Ex Machina: The Influence of Polling Place on Voting Behavior’ (2010), Political Psychology, Vol. 31, No. 2, 2010 (DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9221.2009.00749.x)

Are younger people apathetic?

Top half YH

Are young people really becoming more apathetic? The rapid growth of Young Humanists shows they aren’t, says Alice Fuller.

At an excellent event run by Sheffield University students I was recently asked what we could do to conquer apathy amongst younger people. They don’t even care about the issues directly affecting their lives, the attendee said. So why would they care about Humanism?

A look at voter turnout might seem to validate this statement: three quarters of 18-34s voted in the 1964 general election (at roughly the same rate as other age groups), compared to just 55% in 2010. So fewer younger people are voting, which is a problem in its own right, but is this because they’re apathetic about issues or about politicians?

Polls show that while younger people are more bored with politics and politicians than older people, 18-24s have an average of 49 political discussions per year, rising to 75 per year amongst 25-34s. There’s a big difference between having a dim view of the political establishment and not caring about the big issues. From how should my local community be run to how do we address climate change, younger people have vibrant views on a range of questions.

That over 50 volunteers have come forward to build our fledgling section of the British Humanist Association, Young Humanists, should tell us the problem is not apathy, but creating spaces where younger people feel able to play a part in thrashing out the issues and finding the solutions. Young Humanists aims to to do just this.

I would like to extend an invitation to all young humanists to come along to our launch party in London on 27 March for a night of drinks and comedy. As our poster says, Young Humanists might not have all the answers…. but we’ll give it a bloody good go.

Lower half YH

Why Humanism and feminism go hand in hand

For International Women’s Day (8 March 2015), Cordelia Tucker O’Sullivan explores the profound unity of Humanism and feminism.

Supporters of feminist, anticlerical activist band Pussy Riot outside the Russian embassy in London. Photo: Sean Comiskey.

Supporters of feminist, anticlerical activist band Pussy Riot outside the Russian embassy in London. Photo: Sean Comiskey.

‘Why feminism and not just humanism?’ is a question often invoked by closet misogynists attempting to highlight some imagined incoherence or hypocrisy embedded in the feminist ethical perspective. It is a question which lacks the intended effect, given that it incorrectly defines both Humanism and feminism, but does actually provoke some deeper questions about the historical and philosophical relationship between the two. So, even though the questioner is at best ignorant and at worst bigoted, there is a silver lining.

So what is the difference? Feminism is defined most commonly (and I believe most accurately) as ‘the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of equality of the sexes’, whereas a humanist believes in the authority of the scientific method in understanding the world, rejecting the supernatural (including a belief in god), and in seeking to live an ethically fulfilling life on the basis of common reason and humanity, challenging religious privilege in the public sphere. Not only does the inquirer demonstrably rely on ill-defined terms for their criticism of modern feminism, they clearly have not done their research – the overlap between feminist and humanist beliefs and goals is deep and significant.

To start, the suffragette movement in both the UK and the US was against a background of voracious defence of male privilege by the church, an idea found in bountiful supply in the Bible (among other religious texts). The claim was that god created women as inferior to men, and it is part of god’s plan that it remains that way. Jesus, the earthly incarnation of god, was also a bloke – if he existed at all. We of course can’t relegate this archaic attitude to the past, as the Church of England consecrated its first female bishop in January this year. It therefore seems natural, or even obvious, that there would be a significant overlap between humanist and feminist objectives and beliefs.

In fact, two out of three leaders of the suffragette movement in the US were explicit ‘free thinkers’ (a term used to denote those who reach ‘unorthodox’ conclusions about religion), who criticised the church for their institutionalisation of discrimination against women. The British Humanist Association (BHA) holds an emphatically pro-choice position on the issue of abortion, and actively campaigns for reproductive rights for all women. Diane Munday, the feminist campaigner who lobbied successfully for the passing of the Abortion Act 1967, numbers among their patrons. The BHA and other humanist organisations actively campaign for the provision of human rights to all, and support progress in the direction of women’s substantive emancipation worldwide. Evidently, these are both issues which feminists typically support (I would be slightly confused if I came across a feminist who was ‘pro-life’, let alone who thought that women’s emancipation was no big deal!).

So what exactly is responsible for this extensive common ground amongst feminists and humanists? At first glance, it looks like it might be mere coincidence that those of both ethical stripes pursue similar political goals. Humanists criticise the abortion prohibition because it is grounded in religious exceptionalism, as such the non-religious ought not to be compelled to comply, whereas feminists are more concerned with the woman’s right to choose, and the rights she enjoys over her own body. This is superficial. To get a more coherent and profound analysis of humanism and feminism, we must look to the moral bases of each, which, as it turns out, they have in common. Humanism grounds morality in the welfare of humans and other sentient beings, seeking moral guidance on the basis of our common reason and humanity. As such, the right to autonomy is of paramount importance, as it is a central feature of living a good human life – whatever that entails for the individual (that’s the point). Therefore, a humanist considers the legalisation of abortion a moral imperative not just because it respects the beliefs of the non-religious, but because it is a matter of respecting one’s right to self-determination. Similarly, coherent feminists are not misandrists, they seek equal rights for men and women on the basis that both sexes have the ability and the right to lead self-determining lives for which control and ownership over one’s body is a necessary component.

So, in response to ‘why feminism, and not just Humanism’ I say this: the only real difference between the two is an explicit denial of the existence of a deity for humanists. What these philosophies share is a deep commitment to equal rights, non-discrimination, and the right to self-determination and autonomy, and that is what is really important.

Cordelia Tucker O’Sullivan is a master’s student in political theory at the London School of Economics and a public affairs volunteer at the British Humanist Association.

Religion should not dominate in our schools

Graham Walker reflects on the latest controversy at the Durham Free School, and reflects on the need for inclusive schools across the state sector.

The beautiful city of Durham, where the latest scandal of religion in education arose. Photo: Flickr/mrgarethm

The beautiful city of Durham, where the latest scandal of religion in education arose. Photo: Flickr/mrgarethm

Many will remember the education scandal associated with the so-called ‘Operation Trojan Horse’ in 2014. A letter was given to the authorities which purported to be evidence of a plot by hardline Islamists to replace 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 was widely suspected to be as a hoax, it triggered several investigations into 21 different schools in Birmingham.

This triggered at-the-time Education Minister, Michael Gove to demand that we must start teaching ‘British values’. There was much controversy at the time of what constituted British values, and for some these questions have not been satisfactorily answered. In its response to Mr Gove’s consultation, while remaining generally positive towards the proposed requirements, the British Humanist Association (BHA) pointed out that ‘none of the values listed are uniquely British’. It is interesting to reflect with this that David Cameron, also in 2014, called England a ‘Christian country’, which many saw as an archaic view of the country not acknowledging the cultural diversity of the UK, nor the fact that 48% (later that year revised to 51%) of the British population identified as having ‘no religion’.

These points raise serious questions about the role of religion in school. In a multicultural and pluralistic British society, can we identify the country as having one religion? Is it worth stating a religious identity at all? And either way, what does this mean for our education system?

These questions and others like it have become a lot more difficult to answer with Ofsted delivering, on 19 January, one of its worst ever reports to ‘The Durham Free School’: a school with a strong ‘Christian ethos’. The school received inadequate (the worst rating) in all areas covered in the inspection. Many of the inspector’s comments give significant cause for alarm, in relation to schooling generally but also in relation to the role that religion played within the school. In the report we find comments such as:

‘Reviewing the curriculum so that there are appropriate opportunities to teach students about sex and relationships and to promote respect for different faiths, beliefs and values so that they are fully ready to function as young citizens of modern Britain’

‘Governors place too much emphasis on religious credentials when they are recruiting key staff and not enough on seeking candidates with excellent leadership and teaching skills’

‘The religious studies curriculum was too narrow and did not give students enough opportunities to learn about different faiths and beliefs. Consequently, students’ understanding of different faiths and beliefs is sketchy with some holding prejudiced views which are not challenged.’

It is clear that the school’s management and teaching staff, and the governors have all, to some extent, allowed their own personal religious beliefs to negatively impact on the opportunity for the pupils of this school to receive an adequate education; a very sad state of affairs.

With two serious incidents in education from schools where religious values are put before teaching the role of religious schools within Britain has to be called in to question.

Hardly anyone should be saying that schools should be wholly secular, with no religious education; this is not a way to foster understanding and compassion for people and their beliefs. The BHA, which was pivotal in supporting whistleblowers to blow the lid on what was going on at the school at the centre of the ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal, argues for a comprehensive, broad-based religious education system which teaches about religious and non-religious views such as Humanism side-by-side. Religion should not, however, dominate the school’s management structure, nor should it compromise the quality of education in things like sex education and biology.

America has always believed, constitutionally, in the firm separation of church and state, and while Britain has never enjoyed this same state secularism, there has always been a healthy scepticism from the public at attempts to politicise religion, or crusade politically on a religious basis. Schools are a bedrock of any healthy society, and so reasonably they should fall under the same dictum that religion does not have a place within the governance of our schooling systems.

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.

Please don’t bash our media freedoms: one humanist’s plea for careful language

Tony Charlesworth is alarmed by what he sees as crude generalisations about ‘the media’ at the recent ‘Common Ground’ event between humanists and Muslims at Conway Hall.

Alom Shaha chaired four Muslim panellists in front of a mainly humanist audience.

Alom Shaha chaired four Muslim panellists in front of a mainly humanist audience.

People are not punchbags. Mutual comprehension is always preferable to conflict. ‘Jaw, jaw’, said Winston Churchill, is always better than ‘war, war’. So the recent ‘Common Ground Dialogue’ at Conway Hall between a panel of four moderate Muslims, chaired by BHA trustee Alom Shaha, and an audience largely made up of humanists was to be welcomed. And it proved worthwhile. The panel was composed of intelligent, reasoning people with interesting things to say.

Any initiative that says we should listen in a reasoned way to people with opposing ideas, rather than shouting at each other, is always to be welcomed. The organisers and the panelists are to be congratulated. And certainly it was useful to hear about the spectrum of ideas that exist within Islam.

The speakers asked probing questions about their own Muslim faith. They spoke about the treatment of women; the deep-rooted sectarianism within Islam; and about the problems that flow from literal interpretations of holy texts. Questions from the audience shed light on matters to do with ‘faith’ schools; homosexuality; and links between Islam and violence.

Given the issues that the panel members experienced with their own faith, it was a pity that they weren’t pressed more on what it is they continue to get out of this faith themselves and what it means to them as individuals. That was an opportunity missed.

And while we’re at it, we also need to be honest and acknowledge that very many humanists don’t feel quite so sanguine about this kind of ‘interfaith’ dialogue. I should stress that I am not one of them. But as a member of the BHA, I’m acutely aware that many of my fellow atheists feel that religion must be directly addressed rather than tolerated. They would argue that it’s a highly problematic circle to square: both to live harmoniously alongside the religious, whilst also being strongly opposed to religion. But that’s a big separate discussion for another time.

Loose language

So now let me come to the one major aspect of this Conway Hall event that troubled me greatly. And it’s a matter thrown sharply onto centre-stage by the recent freedom of expression discussions in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo affair.

The panel’s niceness and reasonableness (together with the niceness and reasonableness of the humanist event organisers) flew out of the window when it came to one important group: the media. As far as the media was concerned, instead of reasoned thought, we heard worryingly loose language from the panel and organisers, as well as lazy thinking, unquestioned assumptions, and sweeping generalisations. All things I would say are unforgivable for a humanist meeting.

This isn’t merely a peripheral matter. It was precisely those kind of sweeping unthinking generalisations about groups of people that this event was intended to tackle!

Let me start with the recent article in HumanistLife which reported on this event, written by Jeremy Rodell, one of the organisers.It was headlined: ‘Common Ground dialogue: how can humanists and Muslims live and work together in 21st century London?’ (Jeremy, by the way, is a friend of mine and he already knows my views.)

Jeremy’s opening introductory paragraph says that the purpose of the event was to ‘get behind the media stereotypes’ and ‘beyond the black-and-white “isn’t Islam terrible” rhetoric.’  But exactly what ‘media’, and which ‘stereotypes’ and what ‘rhetoric’ was he referring to? We’re not told.

He goes on to say that the purpose of the event was to ‘start to understand what real Muslims think’. But what actually is a ‘real Muslim’?  What would an ‘unreal Muslim’ look like?

By simply lumping together ‘the media’ as if it were a single monolithic entity, Jeremy and his fellow humanist event organisers, together with the panelists, fell straight into the intellectual beartrap of precisely the kind of undifferentiating generalisation that they criticize others for when they lump together people as:  ‘the Muslims’, ‘the Christians’, ‘the Jews’, and ‘the humanists’!

Lack of evidence

I’ve spent my entire career working as a journalist and TV producer for the BBC, Reuters, and the Associated Press. They differ markedly as organisations. Yet depressingly, this phenomenon of referring airily in general to ‘the media’ is something one comes across a great deal. When Jeremy and the panelists refer to ‘the media’ (and actually ‘the media’ are people too!), whom and what do they have in mind?  Is it:  the Financial Times?  Playboy?  Channel Four News? The Daily Mail?  Al-Jazeera?  The Sun?  Charlie Hebdo? The Chinese Peoples’ Daily?  Have I Got News For You?  The Guardian?  I could go on.

It was certainly striking that the humanist event organisers, the Muslim panelists and Alom Shaha as chair all tacitly indicated that for them ‘the media’ was a hostile force. Underlying this entire discussion was an unquestioned and untested assumption that ‘the media’ is to blame (partly or even perhaps wholly) for at least some of the current difficulties that Muslims find themselves in. A further unquestioned and for me objectionable underlying assumption throughout was that the work of ‘the media’ is somehow morally reprehensible.

At one point, one of the panelists spoke about the influence of ‘the global media empire’. I don’t recognize such an ‘empire’. It doesn’t exist. Such a phrase belongs to the most absurd kind of paranoid delusion. Yet nobody questioned it.

The evidence of reprehensible media influence adduced by the panel was pitifully weak and highly selective. The examples produced were: one interview with a radical cleric on BBC Radio’s Today programme; an opinion piece in the Spectator; unspecified headlines in the Daily Mail. We also had some fanciful speculation about how the Dr Harold Shipman case might have been reported had he been a Muslim. And a propos of nothing at all, a panelist spoke about disliking ‘wall to wall satellite news images of Muslim fighters in Chechnya’. Another panelist baldly asserted: ‘the headlines are always grabbed by the Muslims’. Really? Are they?

Thinking humanists (and thinking moderate Muslims) really need to do a lot better than this.

If none of this amounted to any kind of coherent case against ‘the media’ as a whole, perhaps most depressingly of all there was also no recognition at all given to the fair, objective job of reporting Muslim issues that professional, responsible, serious media organisations undertake in free societies.

At one point in the proceedings it was mentioned that one of the speakers had written several articles for various British newspapers. No details were given, but presumably she had been given a platform to present her views. Isn’t therefore generalized denigration of ‘the media’ a case of biting the hand that feeds?

The point is that ‘the media’ is a spectrum as varied and as diverse as any other social grouping, be it religious, political or whatever. But ‘the media’ became a convenient punchbag (a scapegoat even?) at this event. Let’s please be careful about crude simplifications!

The messenger is not the message

Media organisations in free societies in all their complex, highly varied pluralistic aspects communicate about, reflect on and report on the, often extremely shocking, events that are happening in our world.  But media organisations are not the people who are actually carrying out what is happening in our world. The messenger who carries messages to and fro is not the same  person as the person who is carrying out the actual events about which the messages are being communicated. Media organisations undertake communication of messages; they are not the people who decide the manner in which those messages are then received by an audience or how those messages should subsequently be interpreted by that audience. 

Furthermore, it is also self-evident that, as well as reporting on world events, media organisations in free societies do a huge amount to facilitate and provide a platform for precisely the kind of open debate and discussion on current issues and problems that is needed in our world. Yet the organisers of this event and the event speakers simply chose to ignore all of this.

Just like democratic politics, the fact that we have free uncensored media is something that has been hard-won and shouldn’t be easily taken for granted. Moreover, much media reporting in authoritarian unfree places (such as we see in parts of the Muslim world), where it exists at all, is often undertaken by journalists at no small personal danger and risk. But once again, none of any of this was ever remotely acknowledged by either the event organisers or the panellists.

Shining a spotlight

I can entirely understand that moderate Muslims may feel extremely sensitive and feel under (real or imagined) threat when it appears to them that a glaring media spotlight is being shone on them personally because of the activities of extremist Muslims. Likewise, ordinary Jews, for example, may also feel extremely uncomfortable about the hostility (real or imagined) directed towards themselves because of the activities of the current Israeli government with regard to Gaza. I personally felt extremely uncomfortable when some of my French friends said that British people were war criminals because our government had approved the invasion of Iraq.

But the fact that people are made to feel uncomfortable about what they see, read and hear from media organisations should never in a free and open society be any reason whatsoever for the often very unpalatable and disturbing things that are going on in the world not to be reported fully, unflinchingly and unsparingly by media organisations. Nor should it be any reason to suppress the publication of what some might regard as unwelcome opinions.

Free expression, the mark of open democratic societies, needs pluralistic, vigorous, robust, questioning, often insolent, hard-nosed media organisations to hold people accountable and to shine a bright spotlight on what is happening in our world. It is precisely the mark of authoritarian, unfree societies that everything there is presented as officially rosy, no one is made to feel uncomfortable, and nothing is questioned or brought to light.

Hard-won privileges

I’m not saying that media organisations are beyond criticism. Far from it. Appalling criminal activities, for instance, like the phone hacking and entrapment that have been practiced for so long by the Rupert Murdoch-owned press must be punished hard.

And I certainly support the British Humanist Association (BHA)’s recent call to Ofcom for the BBC to carry more humanist and specifically non-religious content.

‘We just want to be allowed to get on with our lives,’ pleaded one of the panellists. But actually where is the evidence that in Britain today, Muslim people are not being allowed to do just exactly that?  A sense of victimhood can become an identity.

No one should ever be racially abused. But racial hatred is now covered by British laws – unlike in the past, as Alom described it, when people were abused in the street and called ‘Paki’. There are also defamation laws that protect attacks on personal reputation. So while we’re at it, let’s also give two cheers (three’s probably too many!) for a legal system which we (unlike certain other countries in the world I can think of) are also fortunate to possess.

It’s very easy to take our media freedoms for granted. Just like we can take our democratic political institutions for granted. But these are precious, hard-won things. Much of the world doesn’t have any of our privileges. We should be celebrating these things, not denigrating them. And as humanists especially we always have the clear duty to beware of loose language, unquestioned assumptions and sweeping generalisations wherever they are found.

Tony Charlesworth is a former journalist and television producer on the staffs of the BBC, Reuters and Associated Press.  He runs Tony Charlesworth Associates, a television and communications agency, and is a member of the BHA.


Support for humanist marriage is broad and overwhelming – so why is the Government delaying?

As the Government continues to delay reporting on the legalisation of humanist marriages, we are seeing increased expressions of the political consensus in favour of it. Two dozen members of the House of Commons today have signed an Early Day Motion to urge the Government to move towards legalisation. They already include MPs from Labour, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, Green, Conservative, and even SNP making a rare venture into English and Welsh matters. They include Christians as well as humanists, and there are more signatories to come.


This is a follow-up to a triple cross-party strike from a Labour, a Liberal Democrat, and Conservative MP on 11 November, who pressed the justice minister from three corners of the chamber as to what was taking the Government (which had originally told the British Humanist Association that the whole issue might be taken care of by about eight months ago!) quite so long:


And on 4 December the Labour front bench, who were forced to compromise on humanist marriage at the time of the Marriage Bill last year when the Government threatened to delay same-sex marriage if the case for humanist marriage was taken to a vote, were showing their frustration:


And it’s not just in the Commons. Last week, on 1 December, there was a mini-debate in the House of Lords in which there was not a single voice raised against humanist marriage and in which, again, there was cross-party support from Labour, Conservative, and Liberal Democrat, as well as independent peers. Again, support crossed belief lines with Christians such as cross-bencher Baroness Butler-Sloss also urging the Government to get on with legalisation. She and Baroness Thornton got pretty much as forthrightly critical of the Government as it is possible to be in the polite atmosphere of the Lords:


Unfortunately, it does seem that the Government is just not listening. Even when the subject was raised directly with the Prime Minister by an MP of his own party at Prime Minister’s Questions on 19 November, there was no answer forthcoming on the substantive matter of humanist marriage, just the same ‘wait and see’ response, while Parliamentary time between now and the next general election bleeds away:


When the Marriage Act was going through Parliament, it was clear that there was majority support for the legalisation of humanist marriages in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The British Humanist Association, though obviously much much smaller and poorer than the wealthier and more powerful lobbies against humanist marriages, at least was able to make its arguments and expose the disingenuous ones of critics in the light of day. Now that the matter is being considered behind closed doors, there is no such opportunity.

All that can be done is to state yet again the case for legal recognition, against which no coherent or just case has ever to this date been made.

In England and Wales, members of literally dozens of religions from Scientology to Methodism and from all the denominations of Judaism to the Spiritualists and the Aetherius Society (Yes – honestly!) can all have a legal marriage in the place most special to them, conducted by one who shares their beliefs, and in the form that embodies their most deeply held beliefs and values. Those with humanist, non-religious beliefs and values don’t have the same choice.

In Scotland, where humanist marriages are legal, they have proved hugely popular – so popular that they have contributed to a growth in marriages overall. Giving legal recognition to them in the whole of Britain would be fair, inexpensive, easy, uncontroversial, and beneficial for both individuals, wider society, and the economy. What can possibly be being discussed behind closed doors that weighs against all that?

Our commitment to challenging faith-based homophobia

Cutting Edge Consortium founder Maria Exall writes about the impact of faith-based homophobia on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in this country and around the world. 

Human rights activist Peter Tatchell at London Gay Pride, highlighting the role religion plays in propagating homophobia around the world.

Human rights activist Peter Tatchell at London Gay Pride, highlighting the role religion plays in propagating homophobia around the world.

For lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people of faith, official Church teaching on sexuality and gender identity is cruel. Despite the welcome tolerant stance of Pope Francis at the recent Synod on the Family in Rome and the increasingly warm words from Archbishop Justin Welby, there is a long way to go before the diversity of sexuality and gender is promoted by religious leaders as a positive aspect of human life.

Despite the development of a progressive consensus on LGBT rights over the past two decades in the UK, the leadership of the vast majority of the Churches are islands of continuing prejudice, with some honourable exceptions including the Quakers and Unitarians. Such positions are not, of course, the sole prerogative of Christian leaderships. They are often reflected in the kind of violent statements and actions which have emanated from some Muslim and Orthodox Jewish leaders and organisations, but the situation in the Christian Churches is a source of continuing concern.

Church leaders in the UK could speak out in their worldwide communions for more tolerance, but they have remained quiet when anti-homosexual legislation was introduced in Nigeria, Uganda, and Russia, and they fail to stand up for LGBT asylum seekers when they are treated disgracefully by the UK Border Authority. And it should not be forgotten that the leadership of the Anglican Churches, the Roman Catholic Church, the Evangelical Alliance, and many other Christian organizations opposed at every stage the comprehensive equality legislation on sexual orientation and gender identity brought in by UK Governments over the past two decades.

Now however there appears to be a heeding of the ‘sign of the times’. There is a real possibility of a shift towards a pastoral approach that embraces the principle of the dignity of the human person in both the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches, the most numerous Christian denominations in the UK. But that very possibility has fired up the increasingly desperate opposition. In an attempt to stem the liberal tide they are now focused on disciplining their clergy and theologians.

The situation of Jeremy Pemberton, the Anglican priest denied a license to practice as a hospital chaplain by his Bishop because he is married to another man, is the most recent sign of this. And there is no evidence this paranoia will end in the near future with the withdrawal of Reform, the inappropriately named conservative grouping, from the internal Anglican talks on homosexuality.

In the Roman Catholic Church, the theologian Tina Beattie has been banned from speaking in church premises by the Diocese of Edinburgh due to her support for the right of Catholics to vote for same-sex marriage legislation.

But the homophobic and transphobic stance of these Church leaders is not supported by the majority of lay Christians — the faithful have moved on. As the work of Linda Woodhead and others has shown, Christians in the UK overwhelmingly accept the diversity of human sexuality and gender identity in our society with the views of older churchgoers and those with conservative evangelical theologies the only significant variance.

LGBT people of faith deserve the blessing of their churches for their loving relationships and their rainbow families. The eventual acceptance of LGBT equality by the Christian Churches will be a step change in fighting homophobia and transphobia in the UK and will help in the struggle for LGBT rights worldwide. This fight for tolerance within religion is a fight we all have to win.

Maria Exall is founder member of the Cutting Edge Consortium, an alliance of LGBT faith groups, humanists, trade unionists, and community activists all campaigning against faith-based homophobia and transphobia.

Register now for the Cutting Edge Consortium Conference 2014 at Conway Hall on 1 November by visiting the website. Speakers include humanists Andrew Copson, Peter Tatchell, and Lord Michael Cashman,

Last year your donations bought all this…

The British Humanist Association is once again fundraising for the salary of its Faith Schools Campaigner, Richy Thompson, at JustGiving.com/nofaithschools. We very much want Richy to continue his work in 2015 and keep making real headway in the fight against ‘faith’ schools and on education policy more broadly – because all schools should welcome pupils, parents and staff of all faiths and none, and because all young people are entitled to broad and balanced education.

2014 10 07 LW v3 Richy text heavy fundraiser memo


Please donate at www.JustGiving.com/nofaithschools so this campaign can continue at full steam in 2015.