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 out 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.

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

Is it a full moon tonight?

Earlier this year, in another role, I was surveying the residents of Bosworth on local issues. Amongst the questions I was asking them was this impartial gem: ‘Given that David Tredinnick has spent hundreds of pounds of taxpayers’ money on astrology software to aid him in his constituency duties, how does this affect your likelihood of voting for him in future?’ Mr Tredinnick has also advised surgeons not to operate when there is a full moon, and is a keen supporter of homeopathy. Many of his questions raised in the House of Commons have concerned the virtues of alternative medicine.

David Vázquez.

Does the moon really cause people to behave differently? No. That was easy. (Photo: David Vázquez.)

His constituents were stunned. There were a few of course who stood staunchly by him, the colour of his politics being to their liking. But many interrupted me with guffaws of ‘what the?!’ and a fabulous selection of expletives. That many members of the British public cannot name their MP sadly comes as no surprise. However, how many of us constituents know what our own MP gets up to in Parliament? What causes they put their weight behind? The audience they command to voice their own idiosyncrasies?

David Tredinnick is Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Integrated Healthcare. He is on the health committee and science committee. He is not in those capacities as a medical professional or scientist, but he does hold a great deal of sway. He has the power to shape policy driven by his own opinions, not research or fact. He is putting his trust in mere sorcery, over established medical practice, and innovative medical and scientific research. He has spoken out recently in support of astrology within healthcare, citing 20 years of research.

On the one hand, his comments are quite amusing. Politics loves vivid characters, and this survey produced hysteric giggles in my office, and much joking for weeks afterwards about our astrological compatibility in the workplace. The other viewpoint is dismay and disgust. This is not funny. This is an MP who puts superstition on a pedestal and takes it into the heart of Government. His position on the APPG influences policy. There are fewer important areas of policy, with the potential to touch us all, than healthcare.

People in office are powerful – their mere opinions can have great consequences. Their opinions. Not research, or results, or proven processes. Governments need to be held to account. The BHA, its members, and the voting public have a duty to hold MPs to account. We may disagree on key issues, my local MP might not be from my favourite party, however when an MP voices support for a matter as trivial as astrology, I as a constituent would be gravely concerned.

Horoscopes are fun. Superstition, mostly harmless. Years ago in the police force, my colleagues and I would observe, ‘it’s a full moon tonight,’ expecting a troublesome night ahead. But no one could seriously justify extra staff on a lunar monthly basis, without clear evidential proof correlating a rise in crime with the phases of the moon. It’s madness. Some alternative therapies can yield results. Several provide comfort. If a new treatment could demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt its medicinal effect, it deserves recognition.  Research and results are the only dependable source. The bizarre homeopathy David Tredinnick champions, and his reliance on astrology, are not things the taxpayer should be footing the bill for. Mr Tredinnick is welcome to consult his horoscope in the daily papers, but he is foolish if he wishes to take it into work with him. Especially when that work is in Government.

In April, the BHA published three whistleblowers’ allegations about Park View School. How many of them are now proven?

Here Joe Moss and Richy Thompson compare and contrast what was alleged about Park View School in January and what was found to be the case this week…

Peter Clarke’s extensive report for the Department for Education into the ‘Trojan Horse’ allegations was released on Tuesday, and found ‘co-ordinated, deliberate and sustained action, carried out by a number of associated individuals, to introduce an intolerant and aggressive Islamic ethos into a few schools in Birmingham.’ The report highlights the role of the British Humanist Association (BHA) in January facilitating three whistleblowers to make complaints to the Department of Education, regarding standards and the state of staff and student welfare in Park View School, over a month before the ‘Trojan Horse’ letter was mentioned in the press. In April we published most of their claims, which we summarised as ‘inequality and gender discrimination, homophobia, alleged extremist views, creationism, bullying, and unfair employment and disciplinary practices’. The majority of these issues had not been publicly aired at the time; today we can see which allegations have been confirmed in the Clarke Report.

  • Creationism within Science

Our whistleblowers claimed that ‘Creationism and intelligent design have been taught in science lessons by at least one science teacher.’ The Clarke Report says that ‘Evolution is mentioned only briefly and students are simply directed to the page in the textbook. A teacher who did this went on to tell students that they were looking at the textbook merely to comply with the syllabus but that “that was not what they believed”… Staff have said that creationism has been taught as fact in science lessons and in assemblies at Park View School. A member of staff at Park View reported that pupils had said: “I’m made of clay[…]There is no evolution. I’m made of clay because that is what Mr Hussain [the acting headteacher] told us in assemblies”.’

  • Sex education worksheet about consent within marriage

Our whistleblowers claimed that ‘There have been rumours that in sex and relationships education (SRE) lessons given by the same teacher that boys were told that “girls must obey their husbands” and that ‘”wives are not allowed to say ‘no’”. A worksheet was handed out to year 11 boys with a section “The Wife Obeying Her Husband”, which says ‘A woman must obey her husband as long as he does not tell her to perform any haraam (unlawful) acts…’

The school strenuously denied that this worksheet ever existed, but Clarke found that ‘[SRE] lessons for boys centred on the rights of men and women within marriage. On the lesson worksheets it was written that if a woman said ‘No’ to sex with her husband, the Angel Gabriel would strike her down and condemn her to an eternity of hell. Following these lessons, there was commotion in the corridors, with boys telling girls that they couldn’t refuse them and saying “We have been told this”. An assembly following the lessons was supposed to put right the SRE teaching but again the boys were in effect told that “this is what it says in Islam but it is different in the eyes of British society”. Staff reported that one of the teachers who gave the lessons said: “Luckily we were able to hide all the controversial worksheets very, very quickly and managed to get rid of all of them between the two Ofsted inspections”.’

  • Students demonstrating positive views regarding 9/11 and 7/7, and no soldiers visiting the school

Clarke’s report makes no mention of 9/11 or 7/7 but does note some teachers claiming that the Boston bombings and the murder of Lee Rigby were ‘hoaxes’ in social media conversations between different staff.  There is also a conversation where several teachers disparage the British armed forces, including the charity Help for Heroes.

  • ‘Homework’ to convert non-Muslim staff

Our sources alleged that ‘In RE, pupils were given a list of non-Muslim members of staff and set homework to try and convert them.’ This hasn’t been found, although our own research pointed to a number of concerning aspects of the RE syllabus, which seemed to be taught from an Islamic perspective, and the report found that ‘Only modules in Islam are studied from Years 9 to 11.’

  • Compulsory prayers

Our whistleblowers alleged that ‘The school has legally determined to have Islamic instead of Christian collective worship, with students sitting segregated side-by-side based on gender. It has also encouraged students to pray by putting posters up in school corridors. Some of these read ‘If you do not pray you are worse than a Kafir’ (i.e. non-Muslim). There is a call to prayer every lunch time.’

The Clarke Report pointed out that it has been alleged that ‘an assembly where pupils were told that if they did not pray they were worse than a kaffir (a derogatory term for non-Muslims), supported by a poster with the same message’, and ‘We have been told by staff at Park View that a tannoy to broadcast the ‘adhan’, the Muslim call to prayer, was installed. It could not only be heard across the whole school site, but also by residents in the local community, and was used every day to call students and staff to prayer. However, it was switched off immediately before Ofsted visited the school and also on the days when the Department for Education and Education Funding Agency officials visited. I was informed that a member of staff at Park View used a microphone from a high window to shout at students who were in the playground, not attending prayer. Some girls were embarrassed when attention was drawn to them because girls who are menstruating are not allowed to attend prayer. But still, the teacher called to them.’

  • Segregation by gender

It was alleged that ‘Certain male teachers expect boys to be at the front of the class and girls at the back, and ignore girls when they want to answer a question.’ Indeed, Clarke found that ‘In Park View maths lessons, where all the teachers are men, the girls were separated at the sides and back of the classroom, while the boys sat in the centre, towards the front. In many other subjects, students sat on different tables with boys and girls segregated. Single sex classes exist across the entire age range in PE, RE and PSHE at Park View.’

With regard to PE, it was alleged that ‘Girls are not allowed to take part in PE or sport activities with boys, even non-contact sports or where a male coach is present, the reason given for this being it makes male Muslims feel uncomfortable.’ The Clarke Report found that ‘The Park View girls’ tennis team was taken to a local schools’ tournament by PE staff after school. When they arrived they found men present. The teacher had to return the girls to school and was suspended by governors until she had written a letter of apology. When interviewed, Mr Hussain explained to me that the girls had to return to the school because it was tennis “coaching”, where there would inevitably be physical contact between the male coaches and the female pupils.’ The Council’s report also cited ‘curtains being fitted in the sports hall for girls’ PE lessons’.

  • Other discrimination against women

It was also alleged that ‘Members of staff have shown prejudice against girls not wearing a headscarf, with some girls being forced by staff to do so. If a boy and girl are seen together more than once parents are called in.’ Clarke found that ‘At the recent Year 11 Prom, staff report that they were surprised to see the girls arriving with their heads uncovered. They expected them to be covered, as they had been at school, and realised that this was really their normal way of dressing. Girls at Park View complained to staff that their parents are too readily contacted if they are seen speaking to a boy. They also say that conclusions are drawn about conversations which are completely unfounded. They feel that they are being harassed.’ He also said that prefects are allegedly expected to ‘report to the headteacher the names of staff and students who exhibit behaviours which are deemed unacceptable by conservative Muslims. These include behaviours such as boys and girls talking to each other or touching each other; boyfriend and girlfriend relationships’. And he included instant messages between teachers discussing how to better segregate pupils.

Finally, it was alleged that ‘Female members of staff and pupils are often treated as inferior by male Muslim staff members. Complaints about this behaviour are not taken seriously.’ Clarke found that ‘Inequalities for female staff include lack of progression and promotion, lack of opportunities for training, attacks on their manner of dress and being ignored or disrespectfully treated by senior male staff and governors. Female pupils also suffer inequalities.’

  • Unchallenged homophobic views

It was alleged that ‘Many pupils have expressed homophobic views and these are not challenged… teachers who have wanted to try and address the homophobia have been told they are not allowed to.’ Clarke reports on Park View governors expressing ‘Openly homophobic views’ at meetings whilst social media messages between teachers at the school were both unchallenged and derogatory, referring to those supporting same sex marriage as ‘animals’ with ‘satanic ways’ and seeing the acceptance of LGBT couples as ‘a sign of the end times.’ ’Senior staff have been shouted at in governing body meetings when they attempted to discuss the LGBT agenda. Male and female staff have reported that they have to hide their sexuality. Students say that their teachers do not talk to them about such matters.’

  • Sexual health

It was alleged that ‘The school nurse is not allowed to discuss sexual health issues with pupils.’ Clarke did not report on this matter. But below you can see two posters – one provided by the Department for Education for schools to use to advertise their nursing services, and one from Park View School in 2012. It’s not hard to spot the difference.

School-Nurse-publicity-YP-version-PRESS-final-21st-of-aug-page-001 2014-05-16 18.55.49 (1)

  • ‘Cheating’ during Ofsted inspections

The original allegations made claim to the fact that schools were cheating in Ofsted inspections by ‘telling children answers in Urdu’ which they would then repeat in English to the inspector, or deliberately teaching about religions other than Islam whilst inspectors were in the school. Clarke’s report does not cite these examples but does make reference to other allegations for example about the SRE worksheets being hidden, the call to prayer tannoy being switched off, and that at Golden Hillock ‘Staff state that senior leaders checked their classrooms and removed Islamic display materials before the Department for Education visited.’

  • Improper handling of staff recruitment and issues

In April, our original allegations included the promotion of friends and relatives of governors and the appointment of male Muslim teachers with extreme views, with jobs not advertised to other interested staff or the general public as a whole. Further, staff who complained or had issues with the school had investigations brought against them leading to resignations. Clarke’s report extensively corroborates all of these issues, making note that there was evidence of staff harassment and bullying, as well as certain positions being unfairly filled by people who knew the governors and by people with certain views.

Conclusion

These are distressing allegations. Clarke’s report largely confirms the initial claims made by our whistleblowers, with conservative Muslim practices being taken to an extreme within Park View School, creating a volatile environment for both staff and students in which science, RE and sex education are improperly taught and a culture of harassment and bullying exists. In such a climate, the initial whistleblowers who brought this issue to the attention of the BHA who passed it on to the DfE, and Ofsted, and who subsequently worked with us to speak out across the media to the wider public, should be commended for the bravery of their actions, especially given the risks to their careers and reputations they faced in bringing the scandal to light. Their actions have led to a widespread inquiry into the nature of teaching and management in Britain’s state school sector, and will have a lasting impact on the sector for years to come.

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.