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Newsline 14 December 2012

"I joined NSS because I believe in religious freedom and freedom from religion. I want Britain to be a forward-thinking, fair and rational place to live for everyone and for future generations." – Richard, NSS member, Southampton. Join the NSS today.

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Census 2011: What has caused this massive flight from Christianity?

Census 2011: What has caused this massive flight from Christianity?

Opinion | Tue, 11 Dec 2012

So, now we have the census figures and, as expected, there has been a huge drop in the number of people declaring themselves Christian in Britain – from 72% to 59%. The rise in those declaring they have no religion has risen from 15% to 25%.

So what has happened in this country in the decade since the last census? What has caused this huge flight from religion?

It's complicated, but we have to take into account that in that intervening period we have had the trauma of 9/11 and the subsequent rise in Islamic militancy. We have seen a lurch towards conservatism within Christianity, with the Catholic Church becoming aggressively political and reactionary. But the Anglican Church, too, has been taken over by evangelicals with an agenda that repels people, even those who have been traditionally attached to the Church of England.

After the debacle over women bishops, we have seen another demonstration of the inhumane approach that the Church of England is taking to same-sex marriage. Some of the rhetoric coming from the bishops and their supporters in parliament is verging on the crackpot.

There is nothing wrong with them being out of step with the opinions of the rest of the nation, but they have to accept the consequences of their stance – and that is a wholesale defection of their supporters.

The terrible activities of Islamist terrorists also reached their peak in Europe during these ten years. The London bombings, the Madrid bombings, the constant demands for special treatment, the attacks on free speech and the hysterical threats that are made by fanatics may not represent the opinions of the average Muslim, but they bring Islam into disrepute – and in its wake the whole of religion is questioned.

We should also not underestimate the effect of the surge in New Atheism prompted by people like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. The influence of their thinking, particularly on young people, has been tremendous. As the Catholic commentator Damian Thompson wrote in the Daily Telegraph: "It cannot be said too often: the default position of people born since 1980 is agnosticism or atheism."

When the results of the 2001 census were announced and 72% of people had ticked the Christian box, we were told that this meant that Britain was a Christian nation and that religion must have a much greater say in legislation and policy-making.

In another ten years, if the present trend continues (and all the signs seem to point to it accelerating rather than reversing) the Church of England will be non-functional as a religious institution, but it will still cast a huge shadow over our education system. Its role as the established Church will be unsustainable, but there still may not be the political will to disestablish it.

Unfortunately, this is likely to be the last census that is conducted. The Government is questioning the cost of the exercise, so we will have to rely on other surveys and polls for the answers. But they bring even bleaker news for the churches.

How to make “nones” disappear: a lesson in statistics from Northern Ireland

How to make “nones” disappear: a lesson in statistics from Northern Ireland

Opinion | Thu, 13 Dec 2012

By Jill Farquhar

There is an old Belfast joke about the man stopped at a roadblock and asked his religion. When he replies that he is an atheist he is asked, "Protestant or Catholic atheist?" (Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great, 2007)

This week's press coverage of the census results for Northern Ireland has focused on the small relative increase in the Catholic population. As an atheist and secularist, however, my attention was focused on the percentage of the population who do not identify as religious.

The dramatic increase in those who state that they have no religion in England and Wales (15% in 2001 and 25% in 2011) appears to have little parallel in Northern Ireland. The coverage seems to suggest a much lower incidence of atheism than England and Wales and a corresponding higher level of religiosity with over 93% of the population identifying as either Protestant or Catholic.

From the BBC:

The census reveals 48% of the resident population are either Protestant or brought up Protestant, a drop of 5% from the 2001 census. 45% of the resident population are either Catholic or brought up Catholic, an increase of 1%.

7% say they either belong to another religion or none.

And from the UTV website:

The figures published on Tuesday also show 45% of people say they are Catholic - a slight rise since the 2001 census. But the numbers who say they are or were brought up Protestant has fallen by 5% to 48%.

Just over 5% of people in Northern Ireland said they do not belong to any religion.

A look at the real statistics however reveals these reports to be misleading and inaccurate, a situation aggravated by the wording of the NI census which differs in significant ways from the census of England and Wales.

While respondents in England and Wales were asked a straightforward question, "What is your religion?" and given a choice of various options including "No religion" their counterparts in NI were presented with a more complex query.

Question 17 asked "What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?" potential responses being Catholic, Presbyterian,ChurchofIreland, Methodist, other (which can be specified) or none.

Question 18 asked "What religion, religious denomination or body were you brought up in?" potential responses being Catholic, Presbyterian,ChurchofIreland, Methodist, other (which can be specified) or none.

So what? What's the issue? Is it not important to establish the demographics of religious background inNorthern Irelandgiven the sectarian tensions? Possibly, but that is not the point. The point which needs to be made here is that ONLY those who responded 'none' in question 17 were required to answer question 18. Those who identified with a religion in question 17 were not queried on their religious background.

Furthermore, if you chose not to answer the second question then the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) responded on your behalf using EDIS (the Edit and Donor Imputation System) which essentially 'predicts' a response according to your response in other fields.

In other words, unless you had no religious element to your upbringing, you have to identify with a religion for the purposes of the 2011 census.

As an atheist who had a protestant upbringing (in England, not NI) and wanted to ensure that my identity was recorded as atheist or 'none', this was extremely problematic. My major concern was that the second question was being used to shoehorn atheists, agnostics, humanists and non-theists generally into the Catholic/Protestant binary rather than allowing them to identify themselves as they saw fit.

This would be less of a problem if there were two separate data sets, one for religion and one for religious background but the data was not recorded this way (as only non religious respondents were queried about their religious upbringing) and is subsequently not being reported this way. Although NISRA provides separate tables for 'Religion' and for 'Religion or Religion brought up in' on their website, most media outlets have chosen to report the latter, not the former.

And here is the difference:

5.59% of the population are classed as 'none' in the 'Religion or Religion brought up in' table.

10.11% of the population are classed as 'none' in the 'Religion' table.

In other words, over 10% of the NI population describe themselves as having 'no religion'. This is very different to the 'just over 5%' reported by UTV.

Why is this important?

As politicians use the census statistics to form policy and allocate resources this type of misrepresentation is extremely significant. The use of data conflating religion with religious background produces an image of Northern Ireland which is significantly more religious and significantly less diverse than is actually the case. This reinforces the Catholic/Protestant binary and justifies the continued intrusion of religion into lawmaking in NI (see the restrictive abortion legislation for example).

More broadly, the conflation of 'religion' with 'religious background' perpetuates the idea that the religion of our parents defines our own religious identity and produces religion as something essential to the individual rather than something which can be changed, challenged and/or rejected.

For the purposes of the NI census, it seems, atheists really are 'catholic atheists' or 'protestant atheists'

Is it time to separate church and state in marriage?

Is it time to separate church and state in marriage?

Opinion | Thu, 13 Dec 2012

By Norman Bonney

One fact that the on-going debate over equal marriage has highlighted is that current marriage laws in England and Wales are of Byzantine complexity. They grant the power to many, but not all, religious organisations to register marriages on behalf of the state – along with their respective religious ceremonial. Establishment, and the inclusion of religions as partners of the state has caused major hurdle for the Government trying to enact legislation to enable equal marriage.

The UK government has now proposed the introduction of civil marriage for same sex couples in England and Wales, in addition to existing rights to civil partnership registration. It will also allow civil marriage to be registered along with religious rites by those authorised religious organisations which choose to do so.

Religious organisations will, in effect, have a right not to undertake religious celebration and the associated registration of marriage for same sex couples but the Churches of England and Wales will be excluded from conducting such business.

So we now end up with the absurd situation that the church of the state will, in England, not abide by the law of the land that the government proposes for society generally and for other religious organisations.

Additionally, religious organisations that register marriage on behalf of the state will now have the ability to pick and choose which of the varieties of marriage that they will choose to administer and celebrate and they will be legally protected against possible charges of discrimination for refusing to conduct same sex marriages.

Given that two in three couples now choose civil ceremonies to register their marriage, it would seem appropriate to now consider a complete overhaul the laws concerning marriage by requiring all marriages, of whatever type, to be registered firstly and separately in a civil ceremony by the civil registration authorities in non-religious premises.

Newly married couples or civil partners would then be free to negotiate their own subsequent celebrations or blessings with any religious organisation or other organisation as they wish.

Under this approach, religious organisations and denominations would be free of any regulation of their activities by the state with respect to the celebration of marriage so long as they acted within the law.

One country that already separates church and state in marriage is France. Under French law, only civil marriage performed by a French Civil Authority is legally recognised. A similar approach to marriage is taken in Belgium, the Netherlands and Turkey. If they wish, married couples are then free go to a church, mosque, synagogue, or other religious institution to have an optional religious ceremony. This can, but need not be, on the same day.

Of course, some UK citizens also already do this. Many mosques in the UK are not officially registered for the solemnisation of marriages, and therefore many Islamic weddings, for example, take place after a civil ceremony has been performed.

Likewise, as humanist marriages in England are not recognised in law, some couples choose to marry quietly in a register office and have a humanist celebration afterwards.

Adopting a French style approach in the UK would remove existing and future religious privileges and exemptions with respect to the recognition of marriage, and a genuinely secular system of marriage registration would be achieved.

Professor Norman Bonney is a social and political scientist, and member of the NSS council of management.

See also:

Gay marriage: Church of England signals it could "live with" new law

Campaigners hail Scottish same-sex marriage plans

French confrontation of church and state over gay marriage

French confrontation of church and state over gay marriage

Opinion | Thu, 13 Dec 2012

By Catherine Le Fur

The Law Commission of the French parliament held a hearing on 29 November to listen to representations from six religious leaders (Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Orthodox and Buddhist) on the Government's plans to legalise same-sex marriage. The legislation is planned for early next year.

Each representative was given ten minutes to explain his point of view on the subject to the Commission. Apart from the Buddhists (who are torn on the issue) the five others displayed a rare unanimity in expressing their opposition to the project. They argued that such a law will challenge the "symbolic meaning" of marriage".

When the debate was opened up, some members of the Commission and some deputies denounced the interference of the religions in the public sphere. Alain Tourret, deputy from the radical left party, criticised the role of the Catholic Church in trying to influence the decision. "Globally, you are lobbyists... In fact, all religions exploit the family unit to build their power in society."

He noted that "marriage slipped out of the Catholic Church's hands" in 1792 when it became a civil institution.

Monsieur Tourret declared that "The Catholic Church has always been wrong on social issues and the fracture between the Church and the people is now complete."

Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, archbishop of Paris and head of the bishops' conference, said that protests would be held in the streets and a demonstration against the law is planned on Sunday 13 January.

Alain Tourret replied: "You launch your troops, you launch your bishops, you launch your Catholics - if there are still any Catholics - are you going to encourage demonstrations in the street as you have done in the past in favour of private schools?" He urged the Cardinal to stick with theology and leave responsibility for deciding the law to the deputies.

One thing is sure: the Catholic Church is going to lead the battle during the next weeks to make itself heard in the debate.

See also: French Catholic Church seeks to revive itself on the back of gay marriage

NSS Speaks Out

Keith Porteous Wood gave an interview to Russian television on the topic of the CofE's establishment. Terry Sanderson was on BBC Radio Kent and BBC Hereford & Worcester talking about the Scouts.

The NSS was quoted in a story about the census in the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Express, the Guardian and Huffington Post; even in the USA and the BBC website here and here.

Keith Porteous Wood gave television interviews to BBC News and ITV news and BBC South East News and Radio Kent. Terry Sanderson was on Radio Liverpool, Radio Lincoln and Radio Birmingham talking about the census results.

The NSS had representation at a reception at the Foreign Office last week in celebration of the International Human Rights Day. At the reception, Keith Porteous Wood met Baroness Warsi, the Minister for Faith.

Keith Porteous Wood joined Simon Calvert of the Christian Institute to make the case for abolishing the "insulting" element of Section 5 of the Public Order Act at the Conservative Home website and the issue was covered on the BBC's Politics Show.

Secularist of the Year: nominations invited

Our annual prize-giving event is on Saturday 23 March 2013 and tickets are now on sale. As usual, we are looking to Newsline readers to suggest suitable nominees to receive the Irwin Prize of £5,000. This is awarded to someone who has contributed something significant to the cause of secularism in the preceding year. Send your nominations, with a few words about why you think that person should win, to

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