Trouble reading this email? View newsletter online.

Newsline 14 November 2014

Not a member? The most tangible way of supporting our work is by becoming a member and contributing funds to enable us to campaign effectively; the more we have, the more we can do. If you believe, as we do, that a secular Britain is our best chance to achieve true equality for all citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs, then please join us and become part of what is possibly the most important debate of the 21st century. Together we can create a fairer and more equal society.

Operation Christmas Child

Operation Christmas Child

Opinion | Thu, 13 Nov 2014

Every year the National Secular Society is contacted by parents upset to discover that a festive charitable project in their children's school is unwittingly making them tools for evangelisation. Alastair Lichten looks at some of their concerns.

It seems to get earlier every year. The first chocolate Santa Clauses are marching onto supermarket shelves, the first seasonal gift catalogues are being dropped into recycling bins and the NSS has begun to receive phone calls, emails and messages from parents concerned about Operation Christmas Child (OCC).

Schools (and often workplaces) are encouraged to promote OCC run by the Samaritan's Purse. On the surface it seems quite nice and is supported by plenty of well-intentioned parents, staff and pupils. Children at public schools of all faiths and none are encouraged to decorate a shoebox, pack it with gifts and maybe a personal note. The shoeboxes are then collected and shipped to children in poorer and developing countries.

What many schools and parents don't know is that the Samaritan's Purse is an evangelical organisation and that the Christmas gifts they have put together will be used as an evangelising tool, alongside promotional, conversion focused, literature to invite the children receiving it to follow up Bible studies. In 2012, in earthquake hit Haiti, the organisation boasted of more than 10,000 children who received a shoe box and completed the follow up course.

Here's a quote from a copy of one of Samaritan's Purse's inserts sent to us by a parent.

"Sin is our biggest problem. We all need to be rescued from sin. Sin is when we disobey God. Sin is when we don't live the way we are designed to live. You can see sin all around us...Sin must be punished. The right punishment for sin is death and to be separated from God and everything good forever. This is called Hell...Can you Believe and Follow Jesus? Anyone who believes him will not die but will have eternal life...Do you want to be a friend and follower of Jesus. If you do, you can speak to Him right now by praying the prayer below..."

Their charitable aim is "the advancement of the Christian faith through educational projects and the relief of poverty".

The NSS has been concerned about the scheme since it was discovered that evangelical Christian literature was being inserted into the shoeboxes. As long ago as 2003, awareness raising by the NSS led to the Co-operative Society and other supporters dropping out. In subsequent years other high-profile supporters such as HMRC and multiple schools have stopped supporting the scheme citing concerns over its effectiveness and evangelical nature. In 2005 an internal memo at HMRC, then the Inland Revenue, stated: "We were informed that people who participate in the shoe box appeal were probably unaware that Christian evangelical literature is distributed along with their gifts and the recipients get follow-up materials encouraging them to participate in Bible study classes."

In the face of such public criticism OCC stopped including their evangelical literature in the shoeboxes. The booklets are now sent and distributed alongside the packages. While Christian organisations are within their rights to raise money and spend it on promoting their faith, we should be concerned when they seek to involve publicly-funded schools in their evangelising efforts – especially given the efforts they go to downplay their evangelical nature.

This year I spoke to an NSS member in Solihull. She had first become concerned about OCC 3 years ago and told her son's school that he would not be participating. Only to be informed that the school had decided to make participation mandatory and pupils would receive 'penalties' for not taking part.

Another parent sent me a copy of a school newsletter which downplayed the evangelical nature of the programme, saying: "The volunteers (at a warehouse the children visited) have to make sure that there are no items linked to any form of religion". The newsletter explicitly claims that shoeboxes are given to the children with no "strings attached!"

Big money evangelical (and Pentecostal) organisations (mainly in the US but to a lesser extent in the UK) feel that the 'culture wars' – their term for resisting the move towards more pluralistic, tolerant and secular societies – has been lost in the West. Many conservative evangelical organisations are increasing their efforts to spread the faith in Africa and other parts of the developing world. Where war, conflict and poverty have left many people without access to education and reliant on aid, some pastorpreneurs see an opportunity for growth.

The scheme has echoes of a colonial style missionary approach. The organisation's language and choice of images on their website certainly don't help. Nor does their record. In 2001 Samaritan's Purse was under contract to deliver US aid to the victims of the El Salvador earthquake. Residents of several villages reported that they needed to sit through a half hour prayer meeting before receiving assistance.

The problem with this approach, apart from its historical links to colonialism and imperialism, is that even when explicit links aren't made between the aid and conversion / religious participation, the link is strongly implied and a social pressure is created. As any salesperson knows giving a 'free' gift alongside an invitation is intended to create a feeling of obligation. Creating the impression that those sending the gifts are all Christian is intended to subconscious link prosperity with Christianity.

OCC is just the seasonal iteration of a problem that is with us all year. In 2013 the National Secular Society published a report into evangelism in schools, mapping the growing problem of external visitors using access to public schools to promote their religious agenda and suggesting ways that this could be challenged by parents, staff and pupils.

Alongside OCC Samaritan's Purse often deliver collective worship, assemblies or even RE classes on the 'true meaning of Christmas' and their view of the Christian nature of charity.

Many schools eager to enrich their curriculum with the participation of external groups remain naïve about the intentions of evangelical groups – and are clearly unaware of the concerns with OCC.

This year James Carrol, an NSS member in Colchester, joined other parents to raise their concerns over their children's (CofE) school's involvement in the scheme. After reviewing the parents' research into the organisation the headteacher cancelled cooperation with the scheme and is now looking for a secular alternative. Given that it was a governor level decision to invite OCC, we are hopeful that the governors will support their headteacher's decision and exercise greater diligence in future.

However, many parents, pupils and teachers wishing to raise valid objections about the manipulative nature of the shoebox scheme probably stay quiet in fear of being represented as Scrooge-like figures. It's unfortunate they're being put in this position.

If you would like to support a charity this Christmas, there are many alternatives to the Samaritan's Purse who may make better use of your donation and don't come with the proselytization baggage.

Sending shoe boxes full of gifts is a horrendously inefficient way of making charitable donations but there are many other ways your school, club or office can help those in need this Christmas by supporting schemes, such as those run by Plan UK, who work with the world's poorest children, Save the Children, who carry out vital work saving children's lives across the world, and Good Gifts who provide practical help directly to those in need.

Assisted Dying: It is now a case of ‘when’, rather than ‘if’

Assisted Dying: It is now a case of ‘when’, rather than ‘if’

Opinion | Tue, 11 Nov 2014

On Friday 7 November the Assisted Dying Bill was debated in the House of Lords. The executive director of the National Secular Society, Keith Porteous Wood, who attended last Friday's debate, reports back about the debate and the Bill's progress.

Although the Assisted Dying Bill is unlikely to make it to the statute book this session, the progress made during the debate on Friday means that it is now a case of 'when', rather than 'if', some form of assisted dying legislation is passed for England and Wales.

The National Secular Society have long supported attempts to legalise voluntary euthanasia in the UK, and I am very pleased that much further progress was made on Friday.

No previous Bill has made it to committee stage, the second major debate in a Bill's passage. The task before the Bill's promoters on Friday was daunting; almost 200 amendments had been tabled, mainly by opponents, some of which were intended to bog down the debate, if not to wreck the Bill altogether.

There were quite a number of peers, mainly on the Conservative benches, who rarely attend the House, but had come on Friday - almost certainly to oppose the Bill. They were led by a number of big hitters including Lords (Alex) Carlile QC, (David) Alton, (Brian) Mawhinney and former Conservative Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay. No one was confident of the outcome: some even predicted filibusters.

Former Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer, who had introduced the Bill, skilfully and patiently manoeuvred his way through these amendments for seven hours. Sometimes he accepted suggestions or technical improvements that would be incorporated at a later stage, but generally he gave convincing counterarguments and expressed an unwillingness to concede the central aims of the Bill. Despite this Lord Falconer, together with NSS Honorary Associate Baroness Murphy and Baroness Jay of Paddington, deftly avoided any defeats.

The success was not without cost, however. The promoters decided tactically to accept an amendment requiring judicial oversight in addition to the relevant doctors' certificates. Having made this change, it was clear that the overwhelming majority of the House were happy for the Bill to proceed. Opponents, largely coming from a religious perspective, sensed this so decided early on that they would not risk calling a division that would reveal the paucity of their support.

Unsurprisingly, the mountain of amendments could not all be debated on Friday. More time is needed, and it is far from clear if this will be provided. Even if the Bill were to clear all of its hurdles in the Lords, it would then only become law if it passed through the Commons. This is highly unlikely as the Prime Minister has expressed his disinclination to assist the Bill in its passage, and there isn't enough time before the election. It is therefore relatively academic whether any more time is allocated; the Bill will not complete its passage through Parliament.

Supporters hope, however, that after the General Election the government of the day will recognise the support the Bill received in the Lords, and of course in the country as a whole (where 73% are in favour), and that a new government will hopefully give time for a private members' Bill to start in the Commons. This does not require the government to endorse the Bill; support would be a question of conscience, just as it was for the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill, now Act.

Dr Michael Irwin, the NSS honorary associate and long-time campaigner for voluntary euthanasia both in the UK and internationally, described Friday's debate as "a positive step". Lord Falconer and his colleagues, and Dignity in Dying, have made significant progress.

Glasgow University investigates impact and extent of religious privilege

Glasgow University investigates impact and extent of religious privilege

News | Fri, 14 Nov 2014

Researchers in the history and law departments of Glasgow University are beginning a research project to map the historical and current religious privileges in Scotland's laws.

Who are the true Muslims – all or none?

Who are the true Muslims – all or none?

Opinion | Thu, 13 Nov 2014

Moderate believers argue that Isis has misinterpreted the Koran. But no one can determine who is right or wrong, argues Matthew Syed.

Who are the real Muslims? Who are the bona fide, authentic, true-to-the-core followers of the Islamic faith? Now, that might seem like an easy question. Surely, the people who are Muslims are those who say, when asked: "I am a Muslim."

But there is a problem with this approach. As you may have noticed, Sunnis, many of them, tell us that they are the real Muslims and that the Shias are impostors. The Shias tell us the exact opposite. The Sufis have a quite different perspective: they reckon that both the Sunni and Shia brigades have it wrong, and that they have it right.

Some Muslims are pretty ecumenical. There are moderate Muslim groups in the UK who say that Islam is a broad church. They say they don't really have a problem with Sunni or Shia. But guess what? They don't extend this embrace to Islamic State (Isis). They describe its approach as "a perversion of Islam".

Barack Obama and Tony Blair have it in for Isis, too. Blair said that Isis possesses "an ideology that distorts and warps Islam's true message" while Obama went even further, saying: "[Isis] is not Islamic. No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of [its] victims have been Muslim . . . [it] is a terrorist organisation, pure and simple."

But what is their evidence for this? Members of Isis say that they are real Muslims. They say that they are inspired by the Koran. They say that they are killing and maiming people because that is what Allah wants them to do. They talk about their love of God and the glories of martyrdom. I reckon that, if we are going to take other Muslims at their word, we should take members of Isis at their word, too.

You see, the idea of "real" and "false" Muslims is ephemeral. With something like science, people who disagree with each other examine the evidence. They debate, they argue, they perform experiments. Sadly, this approach is not available for religious disputes. People with theological differences tend to appeal to divine revelation and differing interpretations of manuscripts that were written centuries ago. This is a problem when it comes to resolving differences, particularly when those manuscripts contain passages that seem, on a cursory reading, to condone violence.

It is no good Blair or Obama, or anyone else, saying that Isis has got it wrong, or that it is distorting Islam's "true message" because, when it comes to religious truth, there is no such thing as "wrong" — unless, of course, you happen to be the one person, one group, one faction, that is wired up to God. And think of the hypocrisy, too. Blair is a Catholic. He doesn't believe in Allah (unless he is the same as Jehovah/Yahweh/the God of Moses). Nevertheless, he feels entitled to rule on the question of who are Allah's chosen people. In other words, he is happy to second guess the views of a deity he thinks is fictional.

Other western politicians are engaged in the same duplicitous charade, as the philosopher Daniel Dennett has noted.

Senator Rand Paul, of Kentucky said: "I think it is important not only to the American public but for the world and the Islamic world to point out this is not a true form of Islam".

David Cameron and Ed Miliband have also jumped on the bandwagon, claiming that jihadists are motivated, not by Allah, but by hatred. This is surely untrue. To a man, the jihadists say they are motivated by faith.

Instead of pontificating on who are the real Muslims, isn't it time to acknowledge that the entire debate
is senseless?

Moderate Muslims would not like such a stance, of course. They would hate to be told that their interpretation of Islam is no more legitimate than that of Isis. But the alternative is far worse because it perpetuates the idea that there is a rational means of figuring out which of the subgroups has a hotline to God.

This takes us to the elephant in the room. The fundamental problem in the Middle East today is not with the Sunni or the Shia or even with Isis. The problem is with religion itself. It is the idea of received wisdom, divine revelation, the notion that "I have heard the Truth" and that everyone else is deluded. This is the corrupting, anti-rational, distorting engine of religious violence in the Middle East, just as it once triggered Christianity into a bloody civil war.

Truth divorced from evidence (or anything that counts as evidence) is perilous. Religion is not the only cause of violence, of course, but it has a particular virulence.

Members of my family have argued for jihad, not because they are crazy or unsympathetic, but because they think this is the will of God. They think this because the Koran, a bit like the Bible, has elements that can (rather easily) be interpreted as authorising violence.

Christianity has improved its record on violence in recent centuries, but only because it has become less religious. The farther it has retreated from the idea of revealed truth, the less it has killed people who take a different view. Most Christians today associate truth with evidence, reason and other Enlightenment ideals.

For all the debate over foreign policy, this is the only solution to the bloodshed in the Middle East, too.

Matthew Syed is a columnist and feature writer for The Times. This article first appeared in the Times (£) and is reproduced here with the author's permission. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NSS.

NSS Speaks Out

Our call for a secular ceremony of remembrance was featured on BBC R4's Sunday Programme, and NSS executive director Keith Porteous Wood also discussed the need to secularise remembrance with Iain Dale on LBC. Keith also represented the NSS at this week's European Parliament Platform for Secularism in Politics (EPPSP) meeting in Brussels.

Our campaigns manager Stephen Evans appeared on a BBC South West News headline story​ about plans for an independent school to be run by the controversial Winners Chapel Church, which has links to the 'witch-slapping' Bishop David Oyedepo. Stephen also appeared across a number of local BBC radio stations to discuss the role of the Church in education. Additionally, he spoke at a Policy Exchange event in Westminster on animal welfare, where he called for an end to the exemption that allows religious communities to slaughter animals without pre-stunning.

This email has been sent to you by National Secular Society in accordance with our Privacy Policy.
Address: 25 Red Lion Square, London, WC1R 4RL, United Kingdom.
Telephone: +44 (0)20 7404 3126

Please Note: Newsline provides links to external websites for information and in the interests of free exchange. We do not accept any responsibility for the content of those sites, nor does a link indicate approval or imply endorsement of those sites.

Please feel free to use the material in this Newsline with appropriate acknowledgement of source. Neither Newsline nor the NSS is responsible for the content of websites to which it provides links. Nor does the NSS or Newsline necessarily endorse quotes and comments by contributors, they are brought to you in the interests of the free exchange of information and open debate.