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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

New award for Sophie in ’t Veld

Dutch MEP Sophie in ’t Veld, The NSS’s 2011 Secularist of the Year and winner of the International Humanist Award.

The NSS’s 2011 Secularist of the Year, Dutch MEP Sophie in ’t Veld, has gone on to win another prize. The International Humanist Award was presented to her inOsloat the recent conference held there by the International Humanist and Ethical Union, to which the NSS is affiliated.

Ms In ’t Veld, a member of the democrat party D66, was awarded the prize for her fight for gay and women’s rights, as well as for creating the European Parliament Platform for Secularism in Politics, on which she takes a stance for a clear separation between church and state.

Sophie In ‘t Veld said that after half a century, the European Union increasingly finds itself debating ethical issues such as abortion, stem cell research and gay rights. “It is exactly in this type of fierce debate that the secular point of view needs a clear voice. The problem is that secular citizens are hardly organised, while conservative religious groups are quite successful in focusing media attention on their ideas.”

This is an excerpt from Sophie’s speech at the 2011 World Humanist Congress on 13 August 2011:

One of the important aims is reducing poverty, and supporting economic development. The Millennium Development Goals, MDGs, are a key instrument in reducing poverty. It is telling that the fifth one, Maternal health, is the MDG that is most behind schedule of all MDGs. There is a direct link with ethical views here. Views on sexual and reproductive health rights and on women’s rights are in most cases determined by religious doctrine, instead of what is best for those women. Women in the countries concerned are rarely allowed any sexual and reproductive autonomy.

They are not seen as individuals with the freedom to make their own choices, but they are subject to the rules and traditions of the community. Women have no control over their own bodies, they cannot freely do their own family planning, they cannot choose their own partners, or whether and when to have children, and how many. As a result, millions of women around the world suffer from debilitating diseases and injuries relating to pregnancy and giving birth. Today still, worldwide 360,000 women die in childbirth each year, almost exclusively in developing countries. That is approximately one woman dying in childbirth each minute and a half.

These deaths are entirely preventable, as are most of the health problems relating to sexuality, pregnancy and giving birth. This disgraceful waste of human lives and health is an unacceptable destruction of human potential. A country needs a healthy, fit work force for economic development. Equal rights for women, and empowering women, is not only a moral imperative, but it is essential for achieving the goal of poverty reduction.

This means that in addition to providing funds and health services for women, EU policies must also explicitly promote an approach based on individual rights and freedoms, and self determination, much like the humanist principles. So far EU policies have been fairly sensible, but there have been consistent calls from the increasingly self-confident European “Moral Majority”, to introduce an EU “Global gag rule”, withholding funding from NGOs whose activities include promoting or practicing abortion. This disastrousUSpolicy was fortunately rescinded by the Obama administration. But both in Europe and theUSthere is still a very vocal and well organized minority advocating sexual and reproductive health policies based on very conservative religious doctrine, even if this is demonstrably counterproductive. (I vividly remember a heated debate in the European Parliament on an amendment of mine, condemning the Pope’s ban on condoms inAfrica).

Another important strand of conflict prevention strategies is the promotion and protection of human rights. I would like to look in particular at freedom of religion.

Europeattaches great importance to this. The European External Action Service has appointed a special official for freedom of religion.

Freedom of religion is one of the key freedoms: the freedom of every person to hold their own thoughts and beliefs is a corner stone of any democratic society. Like other fundamental rights, freedom of religion is an individual right. However, in practice it is often interpreted as a collective right of a religious group to get certain exceptions and exemptions from the law. People are defined as member of a (religious) group, not as an individual citizen of the state. The whole concept of the UN “Alliance of Civilizations” is based on this notion, as is the EU “Intercultural dialogue”. Society is organized as a permanent trade-off of collective interests and privileges, rather than a community of individual citizens and their individual rights, protected by state institutions. But in a society built on collective, rather than individual interests, there is greater potential for conflict between groups.

Defending and promoting freedom of religion in EU external policies, most often is about protecting religious minorities against persecution, rather than promoting humanist or secular values. Protection of minorities is certainly essential, let there be no mistake. But the focus should be first and foremost on promoting a secular democracy, based on individual citizens’ rights, as the best guarantee for freedom of religion (as well as freedom from religion) for all.

In this regard it is essential that the EU insists particularly on gender equality in the new [Arab Spring] democracies. Without full participation of all citizens, men and women, a democracy is not complete. Strengthening the position of women in society is not a luxury extra, it is fundamental. It is part and parcel of democracy and good governance.

At this point I would like to react to some of yesterday’s speakers, who stated that we should not seek to “impose” our “western values”. They considered that some sort of ethical imperialism. I disagree. First of all we do not seek to impose anything, but we do actively promote our values. And then: if we do not stand up for the values we believe in, then what do we stand up for?!

I note with some concern that conservative religious lobbies are strengthening their presence and growing more influential within the EU institutions, like a European version of the “Moral Majority” in the US. This is partly a consequence of the fact that the European Union is moving into policy areas where ethical aspects and values play a key role, and religious lobbies quickly responded to the changing agenda.

In addition to the changing EU agenda, another reason is that the current leaders of the three main EU institutions, Barroso, Van Rompuy and Buzek, all have strong interest in establishing close working relations with church leaders, and much less with secular groups and even liberal strands of religion.

Amidst the growing conservative religious presence, we have to step up efforts to ensure a much stronger humanist and secularist involvement with EU policy making.

We tell countries inNorth Africato create secular democracies and protect fundamental rights for all. But at the same time, in many European countries we witness the erosion of fundamental rights and equality, as conservative Christian forces tighten their grip on politics at the expense of more liberal, humanist, secular forces. Oppression and discrimination of women, institutionalised homophobia, sexual and reproductive health and rights threatened, discrimination of religious minorities, freedom of speech restricted by new blasphemy laws, scientific research banned by law, the media gagged by a religious majority: surely this is not the model we would want countries outside the EU to follow?

This continent has had more tribal and sectarian conflict and violence than any other part of the world. But we have also learned how to make peace and avoid conflict for the future. Humanist values are key to peace and stability.

It is therefore urgent and imperative that humanists and secularists get organised and make themselves heard in the European political debate. Other forces are well organised, and not reticent to make their voice heard and to actively seek political power and influence. It is time we became less timid as humanists. It is time for more assertive, more “militant” humanism. It is crucial not only for our own European citizens, but for the effectiveness of Europe’s soft power in the world.

Published Fri, 26 Aug 2011