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Newsline 12 May 2017

From Ahok to Stephen Fry, to the 'Pokemon Go' blogger convicted of 'insulting the feelings of believers', there has been an avalanche of blasphemy cases this week, with prosecutions and investigations around the world.

Blasphemy laws in liberal democracies aren't quaint oddities, they undermine the ability of those countries to condemn human rights abuses like the ones we have seen this week.

For those otherwise liberal and democratic societies which still have blasphemy laws on their statute books, we say: abolish them now.

Blasphemy laws are one of our major human rights concerns, and though we were critical in abolishing blasphemy laws in England and Wales almost a decade ago, we cannot be complacent. So show your support for our cause today.

Calls for abolition of Irish blasphemy law following investigation of Stephen Fry

Calls for abolition of Irish blasphemy law following investigation of Stephen Fry

News | Mon, 08 May 2017

The National Secular Society has called for the repeal of Ireland's blasphemy law after Irish police dropped an investigation against Stephen Fry over a complaint of 'blasphemy' related to an interview aired in 2015.

Casework focus: community schools and religious takeovers

Casework focus: community schools and religious takeovers

Opinion | Thu, 11 May 2017

Parents and staff regularly contact the NSS over concerns related to religious influence in their schools. Campaigns officer Alastair Lichten looks at a typical example of the casework we receive and what lessons can be learned.

A small rural primary school near Bath looks set to become the latest of hundreds of community schools to be taken over by a Church of England Multi-Academy Trust (MATs). Bathampton Primary is moving to join the Bath and Wells Multi-Academy Trust – a MAT run by the diocese, which promotes a "distinctly Christian ethos". These 'mixed' trusts, containing a combination of religious and non-religious schools, allow religious groups to take over community schools, and there are few meaningful ways to protect the non-religious ethos of these schools once they are absorbed.

The school has co-opted as a community governor who just so happens to be local priest – said by one parent at the school to be "particularly evangelical". He regularly leads assemblies and the school website says "in particular he wants to maintain and strengthen good links between the church and school".

Priests and religious leaders may have all sorts of skills which would allow them to be competent community or parent governors. But how confident can we be about their commitment to preserving a school's community, secular ethos, when a governor is a member of a religious organisation (e.g. a diocese) which wants to take over the school.

The National Governors' Association model code of conduct suggests that governors should "declare any conflict of loyalty at the start of any meeting should the situation arise" and should always "act in the best interests of the school as a whole and not as a representative of any group".

A parent who raised concerns with us said they had "been concerned about the schools links with the church for some time". The school does not have a large enough hall for whole school assemblies so relies on the local church to provide adequate space for various events. An act of generosity that we might welcome, as long as it wasn't leveraged by the church for improper access to the school.

Bathampton Primary School is the only non-faith school of nine primaries within three miles, with the nearest being twenty minutes' drive away. Parents who wish their children to be taught in a secular environment free from the influence of one particular religion will now have no choice whatsoever.

While the school won't officially become a faith school or acquire a religious ethos/designation upon conversion – something the current governing body stress they are opposed to – this could change in future. The MAT claim to have no such plans and have made the right noises about protecting the school's community ethos. However it is established CofE policy to treat such non-faith schools under their control as part of their 'mission'.

Parents concerned about similar takeovers and wishing to challenge them can basically have three aims:

In this case, parents contacting the NSS decided to focus on aim number 2. The school is under a lot of pressure to academise, and joining the religious MAT would be their only option; something one concerned parent called a "tragedy". The situation on the ground always matters, and the best way to protect a community school's ethos is vigilance and good communications.

In the case of Bathampton, parents told us that, whilst they do still have concerns over what influence the MAT may try to exert in the long term, they do not believe that this is an attempt by the board to extend religious influence over the school.

The governors seem genuinely concerned, and even passionate, about preserving the community school ethos of the school. In the words of one parent: "Following the consultations I have at least some confidence that the school board is fully aware of the vocal parents who will hold them to account if the community ethos of the school is negatively impacted by joining the religious MAT."

The earlier you can get involved in the consultation process the better. Although it doesn't always feel that way, consultation processes must be "substantively fair and have the appearance of fairness". David Wolfe QC gives a very clear definition of what that means on his 'A can of worms' blog – detailing some of the problems with academisation.

If your school is being academised, and you have concerns about it being taken over by a religious group, please get in touch.

CofE talks to the electorate, but is anyone listening?

CofE talks to the electorate, but is anyone listening?

Opinion | Mon, 08 May 2017

Religious leaders are free to speak out on politics, but they shouldn't expect their views to be given any special weight, and politicians shouldn't assume that clerics speak for anyone but themselves, argues Terry Sanderson.

The Church of England has published a 'pastoral letter' which calls essentially for the general election to be driven by religious considerations. It suggests that religion will be at the heart of the decisions that the country will make on 8 June. And maybe pigs will fly.

Reading the letter one gets the impression of it being written by men living in a delusional state, or maybe in a bubble of piety that does not permit them to see what is happening in the real world around them. The British people generally have no problem with politicians having a personal faith. But they do have a problem with politicians manipulatively waving their religion as a signal of moral superiority.

However, many politicians still labour under the impression that churches have a significant constituency that can be corralled into voting for them. This is despite research showing that church-goers do not have a hive mind, they very much think for themselves and reach a variety of decisions on issues such as women's rights, gay rights, abortion and all the other things that exercise their leaders.

There is no single religious constituency that politicians can tap into. Some Christians may regard themselves as sheep of the Lord, but they certainly don't act like sheep at the ballot box. Of course, in one sense, religion has already figured in the campaigns of the political leaders, but not in the ways that the CofE bishops would like.

Mrs May (who reminds us almost weekly that she is a vicar's daughter and church-goer), made the mistake of involving herself in the ludicrous CofE campaign about Cadbury's Easter Eggs in April. She was made to look silly as she indulged such triviality at a time she was charged with negotiating the whole future of this nation.

Despite this, she still insists that her faith will influence the decisions she makes. The irritating suggestion is that her Christianity imbues her with some kind of special moral insights. This gets up the noses of many of the majority of Britons who don't have a religion.

She would be wise not to push this evangelical aspect of her personality too hard or she might find herself getting the same response at the Jehovah's Witnesses do when they come knocking – the door slammed in her face.

Tim Farron of the LibDems almost had his election campaign derailed before it had started by questions about his evangelical Christianity and its nasty attitudes to the LGBT community.

He struggled for a while, but seems to have manoeuvred himself through the crisis. The whole episode has probably taught him a hard lesson that politics and religion really are better in their own domains, clearly separated.

Jeremy Corbyn, previously a life-long atheist, suddenly reminded us that he probably attends more religious ceremonies than most, as part of his duties, and he enjoys them. He is reluctant to tell the bishops to butt out.

The 'pastoral letter' does not tell anyone who to vote for. That would be truly beyond the pale. Mostly it is priestly platitudes, meaningless enough to qualify for Thought for the Day. But it does make the case for more religious influence and involvement in the political process.

The question that needs to be asked, though, is why should it have more influence? The Church of England is now so numerically small as to represent little more than a sectarian rump (and even its remnants are irretrievably split on the issues of women and gay people). Its claims to be "the national church" are empty and unconvincing.

Yes, it still has the vestiges of its previous power - its buildings and the enormous wealth that continues to grow at public expense. But it clearly does not have the support of the nation. Attendances at its churches are minuscule and continue to decline. People no longer feel the need to have priests telling them how to live a good life. Its only real raison d'etre is its schools.

And, of course, the letter makes the case for more "religious literacy" in education. It says:

"Contemporary politics needs to re-evaluate the importance of religious belief. The assumptions of secularism are not a reliable guide to the way the world works, nor will they enable us to understand the place of faith in other people's lives."

This is the usual misrepresentation of secularism as being anti-religious. The NSS has proposed that religious education should be reformed to help children understand religion better as a social phenomenon and as something that is important to some people. The much misused phrase "religious literacy" is too often a cover for the religious to have even more influence in schools and – as at present – frequently misuse it as a platform for proselytising. What secularists want to see is a balanced and objective approach to religion, and that is the last thing single-faith schools want to see.

Perhaps the most telling and deluded part of the letter is this sentence:

"Political responses to the problems of religiously-motivated violence and extremism, at home and overseas, must also recognise that solutions will not be found simply in further secularisation of the public realm."

This is as wrong-headed as it is possible to be. A secular response is the only response that will stop this horrendous violence.

More religion, more theology means more conflict. All these religious wars are based on disagreements over tiny matters of theological interpretation. Or so it seems to those of us looking at it from the outside.

The Church asserts that only it can provide the answer. The problem is that the Church is often at the heart of the problem.

We need to put theology back into church and keep it well away from politics. The harm it causes is clear for all the see. If only they could see it, the bishops would realise that secularism is the only way to protect religious minorities from their bullying, and sometimes murderous, larger cousins.

But such a vision seems not to penetrate the bubble surround the religious hierarchies of this country or any other. That is because most religions see themselves as the true guardians of power. They consider it their right and duty to run the world.

The Church of England's attempt to insert further itself into politics is wrong and potentially dangerous. Its hey-day has passed and there are other challenger religions that will soon be able to make claims to being more important than Anglicanism in England.

We need to make sure religion and politics are separated, and there is still long way to go in this country to achieve that.

Terry Sanderson is the president of the National Secular Society. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NSS. You can follow Terry on Twitter @TerrySanderson4

Murdered for the ‘crime’ of blasphemy

Murdered for the ‘crime’ of blasphemy

Opinion | Fri, 12 May 2017

There has been an onslaught against secularists, atheists, ex-Muslims and countless religious minorities for 'blasphemy'. It's important to remember the individuals, and honour their lives and heroism.

In light of the recent press coverage around the trial of Ahok, a Christian Governor in Indonesia, for alleged blasphemy, and the investigation against Stephen Fry in Ireland, I thought it was important to remind people of the names and courage of those murdered for uttering, writing or drawing blasphemous content in the 21st century.

The list below contains the names and brief details of some of those people killed since 2000 on the basis that they had allegedly committed blasphemy.

It does not include the many thousands who have been attacked and survived. It does not include those who have been arrested by the state for blasphemy. It does not include all sectarian killings, unless they were related as well to a claim of blasphemy.

It is almost impossible to list every person around the world who has been killed for this 'crime', even limiting the list to the 21st century.

The vast majority of the people listed below were killed for perceived insults against Islam.

Every time an atrocity happens such as the recent murders in Pakistan, there is outrage and condemnation, but we soon forget until the next deaths. I hope this list can provide a reminder for just some of these victims in one place.

  1. Fazal Abbas. Killed in Pakistan in April 2017 for allegedly making derogatory remarks against Mohammed.
  2. Yameen Rashid. An activist and blogger from the Maldives known for satirising religion and politics was stabbed to death in April 2017.
  3. Mashal Khan was a humanist who campaigned for women's rights in Pakistan. Hundreds of students chanted Islamic slogans as they searched their university campus, looking for Mashal. The mob beat and shot him. Witnesses said his body was still being beaten long after he had died.
  4. Professor Tahira Malik, a scientist and Ahmadi, was found dead in April 2017 in her house. An investigation by Pakistani authorities is still ongoing.
  5. Ashfaq Ahmed, 68, an Ahmadi, was gunned down in Punjab.
  6. Malik Saleem Latif, an Ahmadi leader killed in March 2017.
  7. H.Farook was killed in March "for being an atheist", according to his father, who has vowed to continue his work.
  8. Xulhas Mannan and Tajoy Mjumdar were murdered in April 2016. Mannan was the editor of Bangladesh's only LGBT magazine.
  9. Asad Shah, an Ahmadi shopkeeper, was killed in the UK in March 2016. His killer said Shah had posted 'blasphemous' material on Facebook.
  10. Faisal Arefin Dipan was murdered in October 2015, in Bangladesh after he published works of works critical of Islam.
  11. Malleshappa M Kalburgi was shot dead in September 2015 after disputed with Indian Hindu groups.
  12. Niloy Chaterjee was murdered in August 2015, Bangladesh. He was the organiser of a rationalist society and a blogger.
  13. Ananta Bijoy Das was an atheist blogger. Das was killed in May 2015.
  14. Washiqur Rahman lost his life in March 2015 in Bangladesh. He was a writer and blogger.
  15. Farkhunda was brutally killed in March 2015, in Afghanistan, after she was accused of desecrating the Koran.
  16. Dr. Avjit Roy, a Bangladeshi blogger and atheist, was murdered in February 2015.
  17. Govind Pansare died in February 2015, the victim of Hindu extremists campaigning against superstition and black magic Maharashtra.
  18. January 2015: The offices of Charlie Hebdo are attacked. Stephane Charbonnier, Jean Cabut, Georges Wolinski, Bernard Verlhac, Philippe Honore, Bernard Maris, Elsa Cayat, Mustapha Ourrad, Michel Renaud, Frederic Boisseau, Ahmed Merabet, Brigadier Franck Brinsolaro and Clarissa Jean-Philippe all lost their lives.
  19. Prof. Shafiul Islam asked that the face veil not be worn in his classes. He was then killed, in November 2014.
  20. Tufayl Naqvi was mentally ill, and was accused of insulting the 'prophet'. He was murdered in November 2014, in Pakistan.
  21. Shehzad Masih and his wife Shama, a Christian couple, were murdered in November 2014 after they were accused of desecrating a Koran.
  22. Rashid Rehman was a lawyer who defended a client in Pakistan who was accused of blasphemy. He was killed in May 14.
  23. Ahmed Rajib Haider was an atheist blogger in Bangladesh. He lost his life in February 2013.
  24. Hindu extremists killed Narendra Dabholkar in February 2013.
  25. Afrasheem Ali, a cleric and politician from the Maldives, was killed in October 2012.
  26. Shabaz Bhati urger the reform of Pakistan's blasphemy laws. He was a politician, and a Christian. He was killed in March 2011.
  27. Salman Taseer was the Governor of Punjab. He assisted Asia Bibi and urged for change in Pakistan, and particularly for the reform of laws against blasphemy law. In January 2011 he was assassinated by his bodyguard, who inspired Asad Shah's killer.
  28. On the 9 August 2009, in Nigeria's Kano state, a mob beat to death a fifty-year-old Muslim man who was said to have blasphemed Mohammed.
  29. A Christian police officer and two civilians were killed by a mob on 9 February 2008, again in Kano state, Nigeria. This was after the alleged distribution of a leaflet that supposedly slandered Mohammed.
  30. Nine Nigerian Christians were killed on 28 September 2007. Muslims has complained that Christian students had drawn a picture of Mohammed.
  31. Christina Oluwatoyin Olywasesin died on 21 March 2007 in Nigeria. A student complained that Oluwasesin, a Christian, had touched a bag which allegedly contained a Koran, and had thereby defiled the Koran.
  32. There were up to 200 deaths around the world after the publication of Mohammed cartoons in the Danish magazine Jyllands-Posten. It was (another) sign of things to come.
  33. Numerous death occurred in February 2006 in Nigeria, after a Christian teacher confiscated a copy of a Koran from a pupil who was reading it during an English lesson. The incident provoked rioting by Muslims.
  34. There were 250 deaths on 20 November 2002, again in Nigeria: Muslim and Christian mobs rampaged after an article in a daily newspaper suggested that Mohammed would have approved of a Miss World pageant that was taking place in Abuja. Muslim mobs accused the newspaper of blasphemy.

The length alone of this (incomplete) list stands as testimony to the battle that still needs to be fought to defend free speech.

This blog is published anonymously.

Belgium’s Walloon region to end slaughter of animals without pre-stunning

Belgium’s Walloon region to end slaughter of animals without pre-stunning

News | Thu, 11 May 2017

A committee of the Walloon Parliament has voted to ban the slaughter of animals without pre-stunning, a move welcomed by secularists and animal rights campaigners.

Atheists, secularists, and Ex-Muslims call upon Facebook to address campaigns to silence religious dissent

Atheists, secularists, and Ex-Muslims call upon Facebook to address campaigns to silence religious dissent

Atheist and ex-Muslim organizations and groups are finding themselves yet again the target of censorship campaigns by religious conservatives – this time with the aid of Facebook's reporting mechanism.

NSS Speaks Out

Executive director Keith Porteous Wood spoke to BBC Wales and BBC Stoke about the investigation into Stephen Fry. Campaigns officer Alastair Lichten spoke on 3FM about the Christian group teaching abstinence in Isle of Man sex education. Communications officer Benjamin Jones was quoted in Verdict, on the practice of instant Islamic divorce in India. Campaigns director Stephen Evans spoke to Talk Radio about our campaign to reform RE.

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