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Newsline 2 May 2014

Newsline is a weekly round-up of news and opinion from the NSS website. If you're not already a member, becoming one is the most tangible way of supporting our work. Our campaigning is wholly supported by our members, people like you who share our belief that secularism is an essential element in promoting equality between all citizens. Please join today.

Why religions, too, would benefit from embracing secularism

Why religions, too, would benefit from embracing secularism

Opinion | Tue, 29 Apr 2014

In a debate at the Nottingham Secular Society on 28 April, National Secular Society president, Terry Sanderson, argued that the time has come for all religions to embrace secularism. These are his opening remarks:

I think one of the most poignant headlines I've seen recently was in a Pakistani newspaper. It said simply: "Christians call for secularism".

Anyone who follows foreign news will know that in some areas of Pakistan the persecution of Christians is endemic. Churches are burned, pastors are murdered, people are forced under torture to convert to Islam. No wonder the Christians there want secularism.

They have come to understand that secularism is their best hope. It could help them gain the right to worship in the way they want to – as it would every other minority in the country. It would also help protect people who have no religious feelings – whereas at present just admitting such a thing in Pakistan – and many other areas of the Islamic world - could put your life at risk.

Secular laws would not permit particular religious doctrines to be dictated into law. A secular state has a justice system based on impartiality and not holy writ. It would not permit blasphemy laws that are so easily abused and misused. It would not contain privileges for one particular religion that put others at disadvantage.

In Burma there is a small minority of Muslims called the Rohingya. They are regarded by the Burmese in much the same way that the Roma people are regarded by most of Europe. They are mercilessly bullied and persecuted by the Buddhist monks that wield so much power in Burma.

Maybe they would find secularism would improve the quality of their lives – instead, Buddhist nationalism increases and so does the persecution and destruction of the Rohingya.

The persecution of religious minorities by overbearing majorities is rife around the world. Muslims persecute Hindus, Hindus persecute Sikhs. Recently Iran gave 80 lashes each to a group of Christians who drank Communion wine in defiance of sharia law.

Jews – well, Jews know all there is to know about persecution. When the Government issues figures on hate crimes, it will tell of a new rise in anti-Semitism in Britain. Once again, Jews are facing attacks.

What the figures don't tell is who is doing the persecuting. The collectors of the Government's statistics on religious hate crimes don't identify the religion of the perpetrators, only that of the victims.

So, you have to dig down more carefully into these cases to see that in most instances it is Islamic radicals who vent their fury at the Jewish community by desecrating their graveyards, attacking Orthodox Jews in the street and threatening Jewish schools.

Secularism can't stop this. We shouldn't forget that on paper Pakistan has a secular constitution. It has been ruthlessly overwhelmed by gun and bomb-toting radicals and their clerical bosses. A secular constitution can make it illegal for the state to engage in religious persecution but it cannot stop religions going to war against each other.

The Arab Spring started out with a great hope that secularism could be embraced by the many warring factions within Islam. That countries like Tunisia and Egypt could unshackle themselves from the extremes of Islam and bring peace and prosperity instead of sectarian suspicion and conflict.

But as soon as the dictators were overthrown, the Islamists moved in determined to use democracy to overturn democracy. They almost succeeded. The Muslim Brotherhood gained power because they promised not to be extreme in their religion. That promise was not kept.

Now the Muslim Brotherhood has been removed from power and political chaos once more reigns as factions fight for control. Attempts to create a constitution that is, to some extent at least, secular have yet to succeed.

In Syria, though, the dictator has not been overthrown and now a sectarian war of such cruelty has arisen that it beggars the imagination. As rival religious orthodoxies vie for power, hundreds of thousands of innocent lives are lost. It is unlikely that a secular constitution would stop this madness, but it might have prevented it starting in the first place.

But the motion we have before us today is: "This house believes all religions should embrace Secularism."

We at the National Secular Society believe that all democratic Governments should embrace secularism, too. It is an essential adjunct to democracy. It stops Governments being hijacked by one particular religion and then the state machinery being used to enforce in law the doctrines of that religion.

At the same time it does not repress or suppress religion. Secularism has to be a mutual compact between religion and state. They must each agree to respect the other's boundaries.

In a secular democracy the Church will not seek to dictate legal or social policy and in return the state will not interfere with the church as it goes about its business of saving souls. It will not seek to control the practice of religion, so long as those practices do not interfere with the rights of others.

There is only one nation on earth that was founded with a secular constitution and that is the United States of America. Most European countries that now have secular constitutions had to fight hard and long to free themselves from the iron grip of the Vatican.

England, of course, got rid of the Vatican only to have it replaced by the Anglican Church, something that still hangs on in our constitution to prevent us becoming a modern secular state. The people of Britain are in the main secular, in the sense that they have largely abandoned the churches. But the state remains resolutely non-secular.

The national debate last week about whether Britain is a Christian country remains unresolved. Nobody yet knows what the Prime Minister meant when he used the term "Christian country".

Yesterday, the Sunday Telegraph published an opinion poll it had commissioned from Mori, the first question it asked was "Do you regard yourself as ..." – and then a list of options that included "A practising Christian", a "non-practising Christian" or a "non-religious".

14% claimed they were practising Christians (a figure that is out of sync with the church's own count of attendance); 38% said they were non-practising Christians and 41% said they were non-religious.

Now, we are told that because a majority regard themselves as "Christian" in some sense, then this is a Christian country. But the 41% who said they have no religion and the 5% who belong to other religions and the 2% who didn't know must count for something. It is a minority, yes, but only just. They cannot simply be told that they are living in a "Christian country" that relegates them to some kind of inferior status.

But I mustn't exaggerate. The people belonging to this enormous minority don't feel inferior because to all intents and purposes Britain is a secular country. The Church of England has accepted in reality that its establishment brings very few benefits and an awful lot of disadvantages.

I heard Giles Fraser, the prominent media vicar, the other day making the case for disestablishment. He thinks the Church of England would be stronger and more honest and freer to make its voice heard if it were separate from the state. That is certainly what the churches in the USA have found. There is no establishment there, but there is certainly no shortage of Christian power.

As I said, secularism can't stop religions hating and fighting each other. It cannot stop fanatics trying to impose their religion by violence and murder. But our motion asks should religions themselves embrace secularism.

Actually, this is the only solution.

If, in some fantasy time in the future, the many religions and their many off-shoots could say: "We embrace secularism" and mean it, an unprecedented peace would fall on the earth.

Religions would respect each other's right to exist even if their doctrines are entirely contradictory. They would accept that their teachings are mutually blasphemous, as they are, but would not try to eradicate each other because of it. They would accept that none of them could have temporal power and that the neutrality of Government and politics would be accepted.

Fantasy? Yes, fantasy.

You only have to look at the way some religions regard human rights to see the impossibility of what our motion asks. Universal Human rights – as expressed and defined in the charter of the United Nations – are an innovation of genius. I will accept that many of those who drafted that charter were Christians and I salute their inspiration.

But human rights, with their respect for the individual's right to construct their own lives in their own way so long as they remain within the law and do not trample on the rights of others, is not a concept with which religion always sits easily.

People making their own decisions and living by their own conscience might mean they do not always live in the way that religion wants to dictate for them.

To get round this, we now have the Organisation of Islamic Countries, which likes to present itself as a sort of United Nations of the Muslim world, inventing its own Charter of Islamic Human Rights.

Islamic Human Rights? Think about it. In what way are Islamic Human Rights different from Universal Human Rights? What human rights could a Muslim have or not have that a Christian or a Hindu could or could not?

And so the ultimate secular document – the United Nations Charter of Universal Human Rights – is immediately balkanised. Human rights become a sectarian issue.

Although Islamic nations have signed the UN Convention, they carelessly disregard it. Some make changing religion into a criminal offence, punishable by death. They abuse it when they render women second class citizens, they demean it when they refuse to employ people because of their religion or their gender or their sexuality, they undermine it when they introduce blasphemy laws or stone adulterers to death.

It isn't anywhere near that in this country and that is, of course, because – as I said - we are secular in all but name. But the principle is the same. When equality legislation was proposed in our parliament – an extension of the concept of human rights that protects individuals from unfair treatment in employment or in the receipt of goods and services – immediately there were calls from faith groups for religious exemptions.

Exemptions that go beyond merely protecting directly religious jobs such a vicars and imams and extending it to having the right not to employ homosexuals or people who are similarly morally unacceptable to a particular religion.

We've allowed that in Britain. In some state-sponsored schools, namely those that are, for some unfathomable reason. still run by religious organisations, it is permissible to deny employment to people who are not of the same faith and to dismiss people who get pregnant outside of marriage or cohabit without matrimony.

Only last week a man in Cardiff was sacked from his job as head of a Catholic school (which, incidentally, is paid for by the taxpayer) because he had split from his wife.

Religious exemptions such as these make a mockery of the ambition of equality for all. They make real the Orwellian concept that all men are equal but some more equal than others. But there is no such thing as "partial equality" – it is an oxymoron. But as far as homosexuals are concerned, that is their status in equality law. Their "equality" is compromised.

Religions have been accustomed to enjoying power and privilege. The Church of England is no exception. Right from its beginning in Tudor times it has exerted extraordinary power.

In the 19th century it had the power to control who entered parliament (only practising Anglicans) and who had a university education (only practising Anglicans). It had the right by law to coerce people into church and to levy hefty tithes on them.

Much of this influence has now been taken away from it as society has gradually secularised. But it still enjoys an exceptional and privileged place in our constitutional arrangements.

Now that it cannot fine people for not going to church, and attendance is truly voluntary, its congregations have dwindled. Its influence on the personal lives of the population at large has declined to almost nothing. No-one takes seriously any more its admonishments or its more eccentric prohibitions.

The Church of England is now a very small denomination in a country mainly indifferent to it. Its position as the church established by law is unsustainable. It cannot continue for much longer. We hope that it will be able to accept this situation and to remove itself from its constitutional place with dignity and good grace. I hope, after all, it won't have to be kicked out.

In other words I would like the Church of England to embrace secularism. And I would like the Catholic Church to do likewise and the Muslim community and the Hindus and Sikhs and even the Scientologists and the Moonies. They might think this an extraordinary idea, but I refer back to the headline I cited at the beginning from the newspaper in Pakistan. "Christians demand secularism."

The religious demographics of this country are changing rapidly. If present trends continue, non-believers will be the majority quite soon. Other religions are expanding while Christianity declines. Soon there will be more Muslim worshippers than there will be Anglicans or Catholics or all Christian sects put together. Soon Muslims will have a good case for having a place in the state along with the Anglican Church.

I don't want that, and I suspect few others want it, either, including many Muslims. Which is why I think religions should embrace secularism and should observe the demarcation line that is so essential between the various faiths and the state.

Individual Christians and Muslims and so on can, of course, take part in the democratic process, just like all other members of society. Individual religious believers would enjoy the full protection of the human rights and equalities laws. But religious organisations would not. Human rights are for humans, individual humans, not for organisations or ideologies.

So, to sum up, I think religious people must stop regarding secularism with suspicion, as a bogeyman that's coming to get them. It is not their enemy. It is not "militant atheism" out to "ban religion" or crush their faith. It simply says that your faith is as important – but no more important – than anyone else's.

If we could all agree that, we could make real progress in interfaith relations. Peace would be easier to maintain (but given human nature, not that easy - there are plenty of other things to fight over besides religion).

But religious hostilities can only cease if religion takes it upon itself to embrace secularism.

(Opposing the motion was David Hilborn, a theologian, and his speech can be read here.)

Council prayers: Eric Pickles rewrites history again

Council prayers: Eric Pickles rewrites history again

Opinion | Sat, 26 Apr 2014

Rather than being a voice for "moderation and reasonableness" over prayers at council meetings, the partisan and dictatorial Mr Pickles is pursuing an agenda to impose his religion on public life, argues Terry Sanderson.

You will remember that the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, was a very strong opponent of the decision by the High Court in 2012 to ban prayers on the agendas of council meetings. In fact, he was almost apoplectic about it.

He announced that he had rushed through the Localism Act which, he claimed, permitted the councils to disregard the court's decision and continue including prayers on the agenda if they wanted to.

At the time of these events we said that only dictators unilaterally over-ruled laws that didn't suit them. We said that the Localism Act didn't mention prayers, that prayers had never been mentioned in any of the debates leading up to it and that Mr Pickles had not tested his contention in court. Our own legal advice was that Mr Pickles was entirely wrong.

Now, in the light of David Cameron's "Christian country" comments, Mr Pickles rewrites history with another weaselly-worded pronouncement.

In the Daily Mail today he is quoted as saying:

"I am a Christian, but my little intervention was basically just to say "let's allow people to have a prayer before a council meeting". I would have been equally angry if people were forced to go to the prayer.

"All I wanted to do was allow people, but on that basis the entire heavens have opened up - you would have thought I was some kind of ayatollah demanding people go to church when I was just trying to be a voice for moderation and reasonableness."

Let's get this straight. The National Secular Society has said from the beginning that it does not want to stop anyone praying or expressing their religion. All we wanted was for it to be separate from the official business so that no elected councillors are excluded from any part of the meeting, or compelled to participate in prayers. A local authority is for the whole community and participation in it should not be restricted – even nominally - to religious people alone.

We said at the time that we were happy with councils having prayers before their meetings, so long as they were separate from official business. Councillors are obliged to attend for the duration of the formal agenda, so there is no escape if you don't want to participate in prayers for any reason.

Mr Justice Ouseley ruled in the High Court judicial review:

"The saying of prayers as part of the formal meeting of a Council is not lawful under S111 of the Local Government Act 1972, and there is no statutory power permitting the practice to continue. I do not think the 1972 Act should be interpreted as permitting the religious views of one group of councillors, however sincere or large in number, to exclude, or even to a modest extent, to impose burdens on or even to mark out those who do not share their views and do not wish to participate in their expression of them. They are all equally elected councillors".

Mr Pickles new version of events now presents him as a victim of pushy secularists who want to banish religion from all aspects of public life. He is suddenly the voice of "moderation and resonableness".

But let's go back to the letter he sent to local authorities after the High Court decision. A letter which made quite clear that there was a theological basis for his actions. He said in the letter:

"...the decision on whether to hold prayers is now a local one again. Our multi-faith nation, which has brought many benefits, is not strengthened by the secularisation of civil life. I hope this action sends an important signal about how this Government values and will champion the continuing role of religion in public life."

Once again Mr Pickles is behaving like some kind of theocrat, unilaterally declaring that religion is the basis of our democracy.

It is not for him to simply impose religion on public life in this way or to say that anyone who is not religious can lump it.

Mr Pickles is not a voice of moderation when it comes to religion, he is partisan and dictatorial. And we should not allow Mr Pickles' controversial religious history to be forgotten, either.

Win tickets to see NSS honorary associates speak at the world’s largest philosophy festival

Win tickets to see NSS honorary associates speak at the world’s largest philosophy festival

News | Thu, 01 May 2014

To celebrate the participation of some of our honorary associates, the organisers of HowTheLightGetsIn, the world's largest philosophy festival, are giving away a pair of tickets to all of the associates' events.

Secularization is best thing that ever happened to religion

Secularization is best thing that ever happened to religion

Opinion | Thu, 01 May 2014

Douglas Todd argues that, properly understood, secularism is the best thing that has happened for modern religion and religious believers, and that secular societies can be breeding grounds for religious pluralism.

Secularization is the best thing that's ever happened to religion. That might seem like a shocking statement for both religious and secular people. But its implications become clear when we unpack new understandings of secularization. Canada is often called one of the world's more "secular" countries. Observers like me use the term because Canada, especially B.C., has among the highest proportion of residents who say they have "no religion," i.e., don't attend a church, synagogue, mosque or temple.

But it's time to get beyond a narrow understanding of secularization. We need not restrict it to the separation of "church and state" and to describing how an increasing number of people are rejecting formal religion.

A growing collection of philosophers and theologians, including Canada's Charles Taylor, author of A Secular Age, maintain we have to move beyond understanding secularization merely as a process of "subtraction," "loss" and "disenchantment."

I support such thinkers' efforts to re-define secularization – as a social development by which religion loses its state-sanctioned authority and moral absolutism (as the Catholic Church once functioned in Europe and Quebec). Secularization is creating societies in which religion is treated as one option among many.

The word "secular" now has as many different meanings as "love" and "spirituality." Because there is a great deal of confusion about it, Britain's Guardian newspaper ran a five-part series on secularism in June.

At prestigious Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., Professor Phil Zuckerman is starting this fall to offer a bachelor's degree in secularism. In Cambridge, Mass., Trinity College has a vibrant Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society.

These media and scholarly outlets are going far beyond the one-dimensional cheerleading for secularism led by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, who believe society advances only when religion is eradicated.

In contrast, I strongly endorse the emerging argument that secularization leaves open a great deal of room for new forms of religion and spirituality. Whether in Canada, India or Brazil, secular societies can be fertile places for spiritual expression in a pluralistic context.

One of the most welcome and quoted new books on the subject is Taylor's A Secular Age, an 896-page opus that argues that secularization has been largely positive – as long as it leaves open a "window on the transcendent."

The spiritual and religious impulse in humans will never die, says Taylor. Even if religion doesn't dominate a society, as it once unfortunately did in Europe and elsewhere, people will always seek the transcendent; something ultimate, larger than themselves.

The great sociologist of religion, Robert Bellah, author of Habits of the Heart, says what is needed most now is new forms of religion that work in a secular age, where they are subject to analysis and don't rely on political endorsement.

We are seeing this today. Many open-minded forms of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and of smaller spiritual movements, including meditation, yoga and healing, are maintaining a sense of the transcendent in some secular, pluralistic societies.

We can partly thank the Enlightenment for the rise of secularism, with the era's emphasis on freethinking, rationality and science. But many thinkers, including 19th century sociologist Max Weber, also credit the advance of secularism to Protestantism.

The Protestant Reformation rejected the absolute authority claimed by the Roman Catholic church of the time. It brought a new wave of reform, choice and intellectual questioning to Christianity. By the 19th century, Protestants were critically analysing the Bible and trying to discern the difference between the "historical Jesus" and the Christ of unquestioned mythology.

This so-called "critical method" wasn't an attack on the faith, as some traditionalistic Christians continue to argue today. But it was what many consider a valid attempt to challenge the taboos that surrounded Christian orthodoxy.

In his new book, Spiritual Bankruptcy (Abingdon Press), philosopher John Cobb Jr. maps out some of the pros and cons of secularism.

Cobb believes the religions and philosophies that took root in the so-called Axial Age, about 500 years before Jesus of Nazareth, began as "secularizing" movements. Early Judaism, Buddhism and Greek philosophy challenged the religious authorities of their day, condemning hypocrisy and superstition.

The fiery Hebrew prophets, who denounced injustice and royal arrogance at every turn, were profound secularizers, according to the refreshing definition provided by Cobb, director of the Centre for Process Studies in Claremont, Calif.

Secularization does away with taboos, Cobb says. "It does not give any privileged authority to tradition."

However, reforming movements often develop followers. And they can frequently turn a positive secularizing trend into a static religion or ideology, which tries to create divisions between "us" and "them."

The early Jesus movement was highly critical of Jewish leaders' strict adherence to religious laws. Later, however, Cobb says, much of the Jesus movement turned into what he calls "Christianism."

Some forms of Christianity became theologically and morally authoritarian. Such static religions often expect a place of privilege in society, says Cobb – as Christianity did in Europe and Latin America and Islam has in some Middle Eastern countries.

Dawkins et al. are not wrong to attack such dogmatic, power-hungry religious sects in the name of secularism. Many people justifiably rebel against hard-line forms of religions.

But it is not religion itself that is the problem. It is any ideology that becomes too doctrinaire; that has too rigid a definition of what is acceptable behaviour.

If we are called upon to resist dogmatic religion, we also need to oppose Nazism, fascism, state communism and other ideologies.

Indeed, Cobb believes that for many in the West the dominant ideology is the unrestrained accumulation of wealth.

That, he believes, is the current unquestioned, almighty "God."

Cobb says contemporary economic theory needs to be "secularized." It needs as much criticism as do the over-bearing religions of the past and present.

Like the 19th-century philosopher-psychologist William James and Charles Taylor, Cobb is trying to wed philosophy, theology, science and ethics to create healthy spiritualities within sustainable secular communities.

Canadians, especially residents of highly secularized British Columbia (where more people than anywhere else say they are not traditionally "religious"), should be at the forefront of this campaign. (For related reading, see the book I edited, Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia.) As an active member of the United Methodist Church, Cobb believes "secularizing Christians" should use their minds and imaginations to challenge all religious and non-religious ideologies.

Indeed, Cobb may stun many when he makes the theological statement: "God is always secularizing."

Says Cobb: "God doesn't call us to 'religionize.' God calls us to 'secularize;' to take seriously the past, without being slaves to it. God calls us to bring out of each moment the value that can be achieved; in the name of truth, justice and beauty."

Douglas Todd is a decorated spirituality and ethics writer in North America with more than 35 journalistic and educational honours. His Vancouver Sun blog – where this piece first appeared – explores religion, politics, immigration, diversity, sex and ethics. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NSS.

NSS Speaks Out

Our story about the headteacher who was sacked from his job in a Catholic school because he had split from his wife was carried by the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and EdExec.

Keith Porteous Wood was on Radio 5 Live talking about the Prime Minister's "Christian country" remarks and also the BBC website.

Keith was also on Radio Humberside about council prayers.

Terry Sanderson was on Radio Nottingham on the "Christian country" remarks; he was also quoted in The Times (£) over Nick Clegg's comments about disestablishment.

The Independent picked up our story about Chancel Repair Liability in a major story on Saturday.

The Times (£) picked up our story about the cohort study together with quote from Terry Sanderson.

NSS Scottish spokesperson Alistair McBay had a letter on secularism and Scottish values in The Scotsman.

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