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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Terry & Keith make waves in San Marino

When the Council of Europe announced that it was hosting a conference with the title “The Religious Dimension in intercultural Dialogue” the ever-vigilant ears of the NSS perked up. Was this yet another bid for the Vatican to get a major European institution under its belt, just as it had the European Union and the United Nations?

There was talk of “an open and transparent dialogue”. This had distinct echoes of the notorious article 52 of the (at present) defunct constitution of the European Union, which we feared would give religious voices, especially the Vatican, very special privileges in the EU. Now something similar was being proposed at the Council of Europe. (The Council of Europe is an older pan-European body concerned with the promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. It has many more member states, including Russia.)

We couldn’t stand by and watch this happen again without some kind of protest, so we raised our concerns with the International Humanist and Ethical Union. The NSS is affiliated to IHEU which has NGO (Non Governmental Organisation) status at the Council of Europe.

IHEU asked Terry Sanderson, president of the NSS and Keith Porteous Wood, its director, to represent it at the conference and try to stop the religious bodies gaining for themselves the special rights of consultation that they have in the EU. Work that Keith had undertaken earlier with the Council of Europe, both in meetings and behind the scenes, made us ideally placed for this demanding task. (Keith had run a session on blasphemy and freedom of speech for them in Paris last year and more recently had spoken in a Colloquy on Questions related to State and Religion in Strasbourg.)

The conference was held in the tiny independent republic of San Marino in the mountains of Italy, as it is the current holder of the revolving presidency of the Council of Europe. There were 100-200 delegates, mainly representatives of religions and member states (although, curiously, there was none from the UK). There were also experts and representatives of non-Governmental Organisations. The small but distinguished “audience”, those who make the decisions, consisted of Council of Europe parliamentarians from European countries.

It soon became apparent that most speakers were from religious bodies. IHEU delegates Keith and Terry were the only ones there specifically representing the non-religious. Their first impression of the Conference was that the religious representatives of all stripes were gathering from all corners of Europe to press their advantage.

Speaker after speaker lauded the virtues of religion – how it had practically invented human rights, how it promoted democracy, how nothing could be real and valuable without it. Several had alluded to the horrors of totalitarianism under Stalin and Hitler, for example, as the consequences of (as they were disingenuously trying to portray them) of the absence of religion, and - predictably - not one had acknowledged any abuse of human rights coming from a mainstream religious source.

One delegate after another demanded privileges, such as religious bodies being consulted on all matters and that it should be the religious that would set the agenda in the Council of Europe in any cultural dialogue. There was a growing complacency among them that it was all a walk over. And then came Keith. Marching to the front of the auditorium rather than the speaking from his seat where he would be less visible, he said:

Can I remind you that Council rapporteur de Puig of Spain [the highly influential parliamentarian who will compile the report of the conference] told us this morning that around half of the population of Europe are not practising any religion? I am concerned that the non-religious voice is very much in danger of being ignored here and indeed in the dialogue we are discussing. This is unfair and unacceptable.

What has struck me most about the contributions to the conference has been the repeated assertion that religions are the guardians of human rights and indeed it was even claimed by some to be the source of them. I take a diametrically opposing view: religion is the greatest threat to human rights, and a growing one. I will give you some examples which will be expanded in my written submission to those preparing the White Paper:

1. Freedom of speech. I cite as an example the Danish cartoon debacle which Council parliamentarians have already acknowledged was manufactured after the event, with the cartoons being deliberately altered to make them more offensive. Earlier there was the Rushdie Satanic Verses affair.

2. Women’s rights. Many women will acknowledge that religion is one, if not the principal, source of their oppression.

3. Discrimination on grounds of sexuality. UK legislation outlawing discrimination against homosexuals in the provision of goods accommodation and services was opposed earlier this year (fortunately unsuccessfully) by every mainstream church.

4. It is acknowledged by all fair-minded people that the more theocratic countries are, the worse are their human rights records.

The Pope is keen, like other religious leaders, to denounce secularism, yet secularism is the best guarantee of equality and human rights for those of all religions and none.

I would ask the Council of Europe to bear the following salutary examples from other international organisations very much in mind when deciding the structure for inter-religious dialogue in the Council of Europe. Our written submission will contain copious detailed support for the following assertions.

1. In the European Union, religious bodies rather than parliamentarians are setting the agenda. Far from being open and transparent in their “dialogue”, they are seeking to dictate behind closed doors policies which will help to enforce religious doctrines apply to all citizens, whether they are religious or not.
2. In the UN, even in its Human Rights Commission, Roman Catholic and Islamic countries frequently vote as a bloc to frustrate freedom of speech and human rights initiatives.

Accordingly, I request the Council of Europe to place the following limitations on any religious dialogue:

1. That it be limited to conflict resolution.
2. That the Council alone sets the agenda.
3. That there is no formal representation of individual religions, nor any advisory body on which they are represented.

In conclusion, I would like to offer the benefit of some practical experience on attempts to achieve cohesion, the very objective of this conference. It comes from the United Kingdom, where I am the Director of the National Secular Society.

The United Kingdom government’s policy of the last decade was to communicate with minority communities by defining them in religious terms and communicating with them almost entirely through their religious leaders. Even the government now accepts that the policy has been a failure. There is clear evidence that, crucially, young Muslims, especially young men, are becoming more radical, unlike other ethnic and religious minorities that continue to become more integrated.

The alternative approach that we have strongly and repeatedly recommended to the UK Government is that we concentrate much less on religion and much more on what unites us – our common humanity. We have also warned strongly against the folly of opening up separate minority faith (and therefore almost exclusively minority ethnic) schools.”

Suddenly people sat up in their seats. What was this? Someone expressing a contrary opinion? Before long, many of the religious representatives were shuffling with discomfort and rattling their headphones to make sure they were hearing the translation correctly.

The mould of repetitive, self-serving and evasive, if not intellectually dishonest, contributions from the vast majority of the speakers representing religious bodies had been broken. It was not to everybody’s taste, as a clearly furious Catholic representative testified later. He intervened to refer (inevitably) to the “offence” caused by what Keith had said and how we all had to “respect each other” (which presumably meant there should be no criticism, especially of the Vatican). He implied our view would be very much a minority one on the Council of Europe.

Yet Keith had received a warm round of applause for his bold contribution as he walked back to his seat. It soon became evident that, from that moment, the conference was thrown off its self-congratulatory course. The Ambassador of Croatia put it this way in his contribution: “Mr Wood’s speech is a turning point in this conference. Before he spoke it was on a monotone – we were not conducting a debate but simply talking. Although I am a Christian and don’t agree with what he has said, he has taken this conference in a different direction.”

During the remainder of the conference, parliamentarians, national delegates and representatives of other NGOs came up to him one after another and congratulated Keith – many seemed relieved that somebody had taken the bull by the horns and said what they wanted to say but felt they could not.

Keith remarked: “Among the non-religious delegates, and some liberal religious ones, there was obviously delight that someone had contradicted the prevailing and unchallenged view that religion was as beyond reproach as its representatives were claiming it to be. We were being cheered on by people who felt unable to say these things themselves. And it suddenly seemed that the religious might not after all get everything they were demanding.”

It may have been that the religious had come to that conclusion too, for the next day they brought on the heavy artillery. The Roman Catholic Bishop of San Marino, embarked on a lengthy hell-fire sermon lionising the Pope and Catholic “morality”, thumping the rostrum as he told the assembled multitude that it was the Vatican which was the “natural partner” of the Council of Europe, and that it was obvious that the Catholic Church’s input was invaluable and entirely necessary. Many national representatives were shocked at this display of power-seeking, and it was almost certainly counter-productive. It was undoubtedly a rare glimpse of the almost mediaeval way in which Catholic Church still sees itself as a dominating force in the world.

Terry Sanderson was determined that this display of arrogance would not go unchallenged. In particular he rose to repudiate the propaganda that had been repeated over and over again at the conference, that there was a generalised religious revival in progress in Europe.

“It’s not true,” Terry said, once more causing religious heads to shake. “The reason that religion has taken on new importance in Europe is simply that a few acts of violence had frightened European governments into trying to anything at all to appease religion. It is this that has led to religion being given privileges out of all proportion to the number of adherents, and resulted in religious leaders assuming an entirely exaggerated importance.”

Mr Sanderson urged the Council of Europe to make its decisions on the basis of facts, not the unsupported claims of some of the religious people present. He cited the research demonstrating quite clearly that organised religion is in a long standing decline which is projected to continue. “Yet, the non-religious population, which might even be in the majority by now, are being ignored and side-lined. Where are their voices in this supposed “dialogue”? This needs to be addressed,” he said.

Outraged at the performance of the Catholic bishop, Terry said that the bishop had illustrated perfectly why no religion should be able to have special rights over others. The whole point of human rights is that everyone is equal and no-one is disadvantaged.

Some delegates were clearly discomforted by his forthrightness, but others congratulated him. It was clear that the Bishop’s rant had been a major blunder and strengthened our conviction that, particularly with our having drawn attention to it, everything would not go the way that the religious representatives wished.

The conclusions from our conference deliberations were to be set out in a document called the “San Marino Declaration”. In the first draft we saw the first concrete cause for optimism. There was to be (as Keith had asked) no generalised consultative body for religious groups, but there would be an experimental conference next year, at which religious groups could meet and talk to each other.

The communiqué from the conference– the final San Marino Declaration – included several significant positive changes on the initial draft. Instead of simply mentioning religious groups, there was now an acknowledgement that the views of humanists and others in “civil society” must be taken into account. Some delegates protested at this, saying that religious voices were not to be equated with those of the non-religious, but the changes stood.

Keith Porteous Wood commented: “Given there are 100-200 delegates at the conference, it is not even a foregone conclusion that anyone will get the opportunity to speak, so articulating our opposing view, is as much as could reasonably be hoped for. But we did not want to settle for that, and the only way we stood any chance of changing the outcome to our advantage was by being forthright, something no other delegation was prepared to be.

“We came away feeling he had achieved much more than we had dared hope at the outset. We are optimistic that we have been instrumental in limiting the ability of religious bodies to prevail on parliamentarians to impose religious dogmas onto the citizens of Europe.”

This is the paper, written by Keith Porteous Wood, that was circulated to delegates at the start of the conference, laying out our concerns in more detail:

This paper summarises the key positions that will be taken by International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) delegates at the conference. Considerably more detail will be provided at the conference that will also be set out in a written submission for consideration in preparation of the Council’s “White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue”.

a. The International Humanist and Ethical Union actively supports everyone’s right and freedom to:
• believe what they wish, but also for people to change their religion without penalty and to
• manifest their religion, providing in doing so they do not impinge on the human rights of others

b. IHEU recognises the right of freedom of expression of Churches and other religious institutions just as much as it does for all other bodies and individuals.

c. Dialogue with the purpose of resolution of conflict between religions is to be welcomed.

d. IHEU recognises that much good work for the benefit of humanity as a whole is done by individuals who have religious faith, sometimes because of their faith, and that some religious institutions promote such work. Such work is not of course the sole preserve of religious individuals, nor of religious institutions, some of whom choose to work in ways that do not accord the strict doctrines or wishes of their hierarchy in order to better serve what they see as the common good. (Examples would be ignoring bans on the distribution of condoms in areas of poverty stricken with AIDS, and working with ‘unrepentant’ homosexuals with AIDS.)

e. We anticipate that the comments we make will be branded as “anti-religious”, given IHEU’s philosophical perspectives. We contend that what follows does not deride religion, but merely makes logical points, however uncomfortable these may be for some people, which relate to religious representation, adherence or the activities of religious individuals or bodies.

f. We also note that it is also predictable that those who are religious or who represent religious power structures have a vested interest in promoting religious dialogue, particularly if (as we believe) this will prove a useful stepping stone to greater power.


Our conclusions and recommendations have been grouped under headings, such as Democracy. Several of them relate to two or more headings but to avoid repetition are only included once. Our conclusions and recommendations are followed in Section 4 by brief explanations and arguments which, as noted above, will be set out in greater detail at the conference and in our written submission.

A. Human Rights
i. IHEU notes that the primary aims of the San Marino presidency of the Council are to progress religious dialogue in the Council and to promote human rights. We demonstrate below some examples of why we believe such well-intentioned dual aims are likely to be in conflict.

ii. IHEU seeks to draw to the Council’s attention IHEU’s assertion that Human Rights are under unprecedented threat and that the greatest source of this threat comes from religion, whether mainstream or minority religions. We see the greatest threats in areas related to sex, women’s control of their own fertility, the start and end of life, scientific progress, freedom of conscience and various kinds of discrimination.

iii. Emerging areas of difficulty, often more associated with Islam, are freedom of expression, freedom to change belief without penalty, discrimination against women and homosexuals, freedom of movement and of association. The right to a fair trial and equal justice will/would become an issue with Sharia law. (Animal rights are also compromised by exemptions from humane slaughter regulations. Only Jewish and Islamic slaughter methods are granted these.)

iv. Our written evidence will also set out the repeated, spectacular and tragic failure of Human Rights bodies within the United Nations to uphold Human Rights. We contend this is because of religious obstruction and initiatives that effectively compromise human rights. We cite the recent successful motion at the UN Human Rights Council moving towards outlawing “defamation of religion”. We regard the creation of such an offence to be a serious threat to free speech. The inability of the UNHRC to condemn the offence of apostasy (punishable by death in some states) speaks volumes. We fear that the greater involvement of religion in the Council of Europe could be expected to lead to similar problems as have befallen the UN.

v. The greater the formal involvement of religions with the Council, the greater we believe the danger will be of human rights being compromised.

B. Democracy
i. IHEU draws to the Council’s attention to the fact that formal representation of religion is tantamount to duplicate representation, as parliamentarians (and indeed all individual participants) already bring with them their own religious, or indeed non-religious, perspectives. These will broadly reflect the religious and belief characteristics of society in member states as a whole and will also continuously reflect the subtle changes that are taking place.

ii. IHEU recommends the rejection of the proposal by the President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, René van der Linden, “to grant Churches official status with the Council of Europe” and disagrees with his assertion that in granting such status the Council’s “legal and political action” would be “strengthened through co-operation with Churches and other religious organisations”. We believe that to take such action would instead seriously undermine the democratic legitimacy of the Council.

iii. IHEU regrets the invitation issued by Mr van der Linden to Pope Benedict XVI to address the Parliamentary Assembly at one of its forthcoming plenary sessions. The concept of addressing the assembly is the very antithesis of dialogue, unless anyone doing so will be expected to answer Parliamentarians’ questions. The invitation will also create a regrettable precedent which will be seized upon by those of other religions and denominations who will before long be demanding similar recognition. Once such demands are made it will be almost impossible to refuse them and there will be no clear line that can be fairly drawn as to which religions (or indeed subdivision or version of them) should be accorded such precious access to parliamentarians and which should not.

iv. Religions of course lay down rules about the conduct expected of their adherents, but these must be subject to the rule of law and Human Rights. IHEU is concerned about the attempts by religious bodies to influence legislators to impose such conduct on those who are not adherents or to cause adherents to act in ways which adversely impinge–whether absolutely or relatively–on the Human Rights of others. Such attempts are often justified on the grounds of protecting adherents’ “conscience”.

v. Our written evidence will detail a catalogue of manoeuvres by religious organisations in European Union’s Parliament and Commission (the nearest equivalent to the Council of Europe) to (i) secure undue influence and privileged status religious organisations, for example on formal pre-legislative scrutiny, and (ii) attempting to impose religious perspectives on the population as a whole against its wishes, for example over voluntary euthanasia. We are convinced that according representative status to religious organisations would open the way to similar moves, which while legal are in essence undemocratic, into the workings of the Council.

C. Moral authority and other matters
i. IHEU rejects Mr van der Linden’s rationale that churches and other religious organisations’ “moral and ethical commitment…” should entitle them to a special, and indeed privileged, official status. We see no more reason to accord a special status to religion, or religious bodies, than – for example – to trade unions.

ii. IHEU notes with concern the growing difficulties with the integration of Europe’s increasingly multi-cultural or multi-religious society. We believe this will present one of the greatest challenges to Europe in coming decades and will need much more fundamental action than inter-religious dialogue, in particular a reconsideration of the dominant role of religion in public life, especially in education. We see the emergence of separate publicly funded education for minority religions (with primarily minority ethnic adherents) as a major threat to cohesion. On the other hand we note understandable feelings of resentment of adherents of minority religions if denied equivalent privileges to those enjoyed by Christianity.

D. A way forward?
IHEU sees significant dangers to the imposition of formal representation in CoE decision-making bodies - namely the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly.
Instead, we strongly recommend that any new "structure" should be:

i. restricted to exchanges of views or the gathering of information and opinions, which should preferably be focussed on the resolution of religious conflict

ii. such exchanges of views and gathering of information and opinions are pursued at the working level, i.e. the Steering Committees of the Committee of Ministers, the Assembly Committees and the Committees of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities instead of the Committee of Ministers, the full Assembly or the full Congress of Local and Regional Authorities

iii. not compromise the value of the INGO Conference of the CoE, as would result from the creation of any parallel structure(s)


Some additional points follow in note form which, among others, will be dealt with in considerably more detail in our written submission for consideration in preparation of the White Paper.

A. Human Rights
i. Vatican/Holy See Concordats. The draft concordat with Slovakia on freedom of conscience was examined by an independent panel of international lawyers at the request of EU parliamentarians and found to raise serious concerns on Human Rights grounds about discrimination against non-Catholics and for them being denied access to services such as abortion. This is the only Vatican/Holy See concordat examined in such a manner so far but others are expected to be susceptible to similar concerns. Because the Concordats have the status of international treaties they frequently escape the rigours of democratic debate and voting by elected representatives. We are concerned that were representational interventions from religious bodies to be permitted, some of those made might be expected to be similarly problematical in respect of Human Rights and democracy.

ii. The principal international representative of IHEU at the conference comes from the UK. He notes that in the last few months alone in the UK, all the major institutional churches fought hard to block legislation in the outlawing discrimination against homosexuals in the provision of goods and services (the attempt was unsuccessful) and the Anglican Church (successfully) proposed legislation dismantling long standing protections for non-religious staff in publicly funded schools. Earlier, the Anglican Church sought exemption from the Human Rights Act. Most UK anti-discrimination provisions contain at the behest of the religious, generous (indeed, we believe excessive) religious exemptions. Apart from de minimus exceptions, there are few if any other exemptions. We believe such examples reinforce our contention that religious bodies are, in many instances, major obstructers of human rights.

iii. We have particular concerns about several aspects of the fairness of introducing alternative systems of religious justice, something long ago abandoned in Europe for general citizens. We are similarly concerned about calls for separate taxation systems on religious adherence, if not available to all.

iv. We are also concerned on grounds of integration, cost and resources about calls – which have emerged in some European countries - for separate publicly funded health arrangements entirely segregated between males and females.

v. We commend the Human Rights based Brussels Declaration launched earlier this year by our organisation at the European Parliament.

B. Democracy
i. It is ironic, but perhaps not surprising, that increased input from religion is being proposed at a time when adherence to Christianity in Europe is at its lowest ebb and in continuous decline, and that even those who continue to be counted as adherents are less likely than ever before to abide by the strict doctrines of their churches.

ii We will present independent statistics showing a substantial sustained reduction in Christian belief, adherence and practice. We believe these destroy the case for any one religion to be able to claim it speaks on behalf of the people in member states.
The following incontrovertible evidence runs completely in the face of the much hyped phrase “religion is back”. Only a third of Western Europeans believe in a personal God. More than 80% of Europeans do not regularly attend a religious service. Religiosity has been in decline for nearly a century[1]. In Britain, normal Sunday church attendance dropped from 11% of the population in 1980 to less than 7% in 2005 and is forecast by Christian Research to drop to 2% in 2040[2]. Religion ranked just ninth in a list of characteristics regarded as important to their identity[3]. When Europeans were asked what values they "cherish above all", religion came bottom of list of 11 - with a meagre 7%.[4] Eurobarometer 66 conducted in 2006 showed “Public opinion is divided about the place of religion in society”. On average, a significant 46% of respondents agree with the proposal that it is “too important”.

iii Religious authorities or spokespersons are not democratically elected and are frequently not representative of the religious groupings which they claim to lead or speak for. They are almost exclusively male and older, and tend to be more orthodox. The Vatican’s uncompromising line on sexual matters is widely disregarded by, or thought extreme by a significant proportion, probably the majority, of Catholics. Italy’s low birth rate and the wide availability of contraceptives there are evidence of this. The voices of liberal organisations, such as Catholics for a Free Choice, which we suspect accord much more with the perspectives of ordinary Catholics, are rarely if ever heard – especially in official representations.

iv. Formal religious representation in the EU has given religion a hugely disproportionate voice for several reasons. Principal among these is that the number of religious missions to the EU is large and growing (rising from 50 to 60 in the last few years) yet there is only one non-religious equivalent. This is to be expected from the fact that the non-religious are heterogeneous and do not have a formal power structure – there is no logical reason why they should have one. Yet the non-religious are (or would be) directly and often adversely affected if the religious are able to impose, as they frequently seek to do, restrictions based on their doctrines onto whole electorates. Moreover the representatives of some religious organisations, particularly the Catholic Church, are permitted by the European Commission to have huge influence, while the one non-religious representative has hardly any at all. Religious representation in the EU is neither transparent nor open, and many parliamentarians are not kept informed about religious representations, and have difficulty in finding out what has happened or is planned.

v. Undue pressure is brought to bear by the Vatican on Catholic politicians, public servants and medical practitioners to toe the Vatican line, whether they agree with it or not, especially on abortion. The clear aim is to override their democratic or professional duty to act in the best interests of those they represent or to whom they owe a duty of care.

1. http://www.gallup-international.com/ContentFiles/millennium15.asp
2. UK Christian Handbook Christian Trends No. 5, 2005/2006 Publ Christian Research Ed Peter Brierley ISBN1-85321-160-5, Table 12.13
3. (Home Office Research Study 274 Religion in England and Wales: findings from the 2001 Home Office Citizenship Survey) publ 2004
4. http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/eb/eb66/eb66_highlights_en.pdf

viii. We note that theocratic or near theocratic states tend to have much worse Human Rights records, including on freedom for religion than more secular states. We are convinced that despite the regular denouncements of secularism by the Pope and other religious leaders, secularism will secure greater religious freedom for all.

Published Fri, 27 Apr 2007