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Newsline 20 November 2015

One week has passed since the Paris terror attacks – an assault on the French values that we should all cherish; freedom, secularism, democracy. The attacks were another grim reminder of Islamism's strength and influence. It is an ideology which requires a forceful defence of our freedoms; the right to speak your mind, to satirise, to critique – to live freely without the imposition of religion through any means, by law, or by force. These are values and rights the National Secular Society is totally committed to upholding. If you support our aims, there has never been a more urgent time to join the NSS, or see how else you can contribute. Vive la France.

A timid defence of free speech is no match for Islamism. We must do better.

A timid defence of free speech is no match for Islamism. We must do better.

Opinion | Wed, 18 Nov 2015

Society needs a much more vigorous defence of free speech than the one we are getting, with the 'elite' of society in academia, religion and politics offering a feeble and timorous defence, writes Benjamin Jones.

Speaking at a debate on "freedom of speech versus respect for religious belief" organised by The Tablet and St Mary's University, Dr Adrian Pabst of the University of Kent compared religious fundamentalism and "secular extremists", describing them in equivalent terms as comparable threats to free expression, phraseology he has used before.

On a panel at Westminster Cathedral alongside Jack Straw and the former UK ambassador to the Holy See, Francis Campbell, chaired by the BBC's Caroline Wyatt, Dr Pabst said that there was growing intolerance of free speech by religious fundamentalists and "secular extremists".

He was apparently oblivious to the vast amount of work that the National Secular Society does to defend preachers accused of hate speech or sending "offensive communications" by putting their sermons online, or that it speaks out for the rights of homophobic preachers who say hateful things but who don't incite violence, or that we are challenging the Government's approach to 'non-violent extremism' – a catch-all term likely to include all manner of people including many Christians – and ignorant of the fact that the NSS is again working with the Christian Institute to defend freedom of expression from the new 'extremism disruption orders'. Sadly most of the panel declined to address this point when I put it to them, and Dr Pabst seemed unmoved.

On the same day as the debate, the Director of the London School of Economics described the NSS as "extreme secularists". Our charter speaks for itself. Both of these academics have adopted a straw-man argument for transparent reasons, detached from reality – detached from the experience of the most influential secular state in the world – the United States – and built, it seems, only on cases of anti-clerical (non-secular) dictatorships.

The National Secular Society is not the League of the Militant Godless, and secularism does not seek to "eradicate" religion. The United States is the litmus test for this view; was religion eradicated by the adoption of the First Amendment, or does religion thrive in the US still, and in a manner unlike almost every other industrialised country?

Secularists will defend the free speech of Christians even when we object in the most fundamental way to what individual preachers have said – is it too much to ask for reciprocity on this fundamental question?

Sadly the panel was more-or-less in agreement throughout the 'debate'. There was little respite from Jack Straw, who said "you have to take account of the sensibility of people who have faith" in regard to the Charlie Hebdo and Danish Mohammed cartoons. He then suggested that it was "difficult" for a society that "doesn't know anything about religion" to understand. Ultimately he did come down modestly on the side of free expression, but his remarks were littered with ludicrous references to "aggressive humanists" and calls for "some restriction" on free speech to create a "stable and harmonious society".

While some Christians may not like secularism as a constitutional principle, humanism as a personal belief, or secularisation as a social phenomenon, it is absurd, inexcusable even in this global context, to be blasting "militant" or "aggressive" secularists or humanists. It is as over-the-top as describing a bishop in the House of Lords as a "militant Christian".

Straw made many reasonable points (some of which I strongly disagree with) about why you should be legally free to publish Mohammed cartoons but ought not to, and he said individuals have a right to be "outspoken", but this was all undone by his playing to the gallery on "aggressive humanists". I hope that in a more sober moment he would accept that the chances of a humanist gunman bursting through the door were vanishingly small.

Politicians sound ludicrous when they make these claims, framed in this hysterical language – western Christians have far bigger problems than the calmly proposed separation of religion and state, a protecting principle without which hundreds of thousands of their coreligionists in the Middle East have been deprived of life and liberty.

Though the panel broadly stayed on the side of defending free expression, though noting their personal objections to Christians being "ridiculed" and the 'renaming' of Christmas – which is a Christmas myth in its own right, society needs something much stronger than the tepid defence they offered.

Straw, a former Home Secretary, spoke of the need for a harmonious and cohesive society – aspirations which cannot be achieved by sacrificing liberty and freedom of thought, and –crucially – the freedom to articulate that thought.

Europe faces extraordinary problems integrating existing Muslim populations into society, much less integrating millions of new arrivals in Germany and elsewhere (a vast problem that the UK does not face in any comparable scale). Capitulating on our values, not inculcating an understanding that there is the freedom to satirise – and even to insult – is a recipe for disaster and complete cultural breakdown.

The demands will not end with a prohibition on depicting Mohammed. If we cave in on this (and we have now been debating this for almost thirty years) the other dominos will fall.

It was welcome that Caroline Wyatt, the BBC's religious affairs correspondent, was there to chair the debate and able to discuss the BBC's decision to change their policy of never depicting Mohammed – something the NSS called for after the January Paris attacks.

But the most troubling comment of all came before the debate started when the host quoted one Labour MP (unnamed), who said that in their largely Muslim constituency "blasphemy was the number one issue on the doorstep" during the election. If MPs do come under significant pressure for a blasphemy law in some form – as they clearly are – I fear that many will not have the fortitude to refuse.

Keith Vaz last week seemed to go much further than the Muslim Council of Britain when he said he had "no problem" with blasphemy laws being reintroduced and at Westminster Cathedral the great and the good of society seemed far more concerned with protecting people's feelings. The emphasis in their remarks was telling.

At a time when our values are (again) under direct attack from murderous gunmen, as I expect they will be for the rest of our lives, and senior politicians feel comfortable espousing the reintroduction of repressive laws, when MPs face pressure from their electorates to protect religious feelings above our individual freedoms, and as a generation of students graduate from 'safe space' universities – it is clear that a perfect storm is brewing.

Anti-LGBT religious exemptions will be removed from Ireland’s equality legislation

Anti-LGBT religious exemptions will be removed from Ireland’s equality legislation

News | Tue, 17 Nov 2015

The National Secular Society has welcomed confirmation that Ireland's government is to amend the exemptions to equality law which permit religious discrimination.

Scottish evangelists identify Paganism as one of the “biggest threats to Western civilisation”

Scottish evangelists identify Paganism as one of the “biggest threats to Western civilisation”

Opinion | Mon, 16 Nov 2015

After the world suffered another grim reminder of the merciless Islamist ideology, the Solas Centre for Public Christianity warned instead that the re-emergence of Paganism in Scotland was one of the biggest threats to civilization.

On Sunday 15 November 2015 the news media carried extensive commentary to the effect that Islamism, as displayed by Isis in the series of vile attacks in Paris on the preceding Friday 13, represented one of the biggest current threats to western civilisation.

However, fundamentalist Christians in Scotland decided Islamism wasn't the only serious threat to our way of life confronting them that day. Apparently another of the biggest threats to western civilisation and "to Christian values which underpin our society" was revealed in a story run by the Sunday Herald. This concerned the re-emergence of Paganism in Scotland and the UK generally. At this point are you imagining druids or wiccans turning up at Edinburgh bars and concert halls clad in suicide vests and wielding AK47s, crying 'Oh Mighty Horned Lord' as they cut down helpless innocent civilians? You'd be quite wrong.

The story in the Sunday Herald that has provoked such fear in Christian minds and hearts related to the 'Witchfest' gathering the same weekend in Croydon and claims made by its organisers that renewed interest in Paganism is a trend sweeping Britain. The Children of Artemis, which runs Witchfest, claims that tens of thousands of people are once more practising Paganism, being attracted by its spiritual and magical elements which can include moon worship and ritual. It has noted 'an unprecedented interest' in its events with ticket sales up 150%, while its event on Wicca at Glastonbury Festival next summer is already sold out.

Merlyn Hern, of Children of Artemis, is quoted in the article as claiming that though people are rejecting traditional beliefs and religions (as the Census and countless other surveys demonstrate) they are still looking for a spiritual dimension in their lives and are more attracted to the egalitarian nature of Paganism, not to mention its desire for peaceful and tolerant co-existence in a secular country.

Clearly however as the Saturnalia approaches there is no room at the Christian inn for the assortment of Wiccans, Druids and other devotees of nature and witchcraft gathered peacefully last weekend in south London. The Dundee-based Solas Centre for Public Christianity reacted with some frankly bizarre and intolerant nonsense on its Facebook page to this reported Pagan resurgence, calling it "one of the biggest threats to western civilisation and the Christian values which underpin our society". The irony in this will not be lost on the well-informed who are aware of the history of Christianity, how it usurped Pagan rituals and festivals in the process of imposing its own imprint on society, and how for centuries it invoked Exodus 22:18 to put countless witches to death, including the ten women and one man now remembered at a special monument in Crook of Devon in Fife. As usual with the fundamentalist Christian outbursts we have come to expect from Solas, once more everything good about modern life in Britain was being claimed as of Christian origin while inconvenient history such as witch-burnings, the suppression of free thought through blasphemy acts, book-banning and the like was quietly left out of the story of how Britain's 'Christian values' were cultivated.

Solas went further in attributing blame for this revival of interest in alternative religions to its usual prime suspects - secularists - but it didn't stop with us. 'Liberal Christianity', as opposed presumably to the illiberal version Solas stands for, was also blamed. The 'interfaith movement', of which Pagans are often active and valued members, was also in the Solas firing line for trying to do its job in, well, promoting interfaith harmony. Clearly interfaith activity has its work cut out to achieve harmony and respect for all faiths.

A key figure in Solas is the Free Church of Scotland Moderator the Reverend David Robertson also of Dundee, about whose immoderation and confused mindset we have written before, here and here. It's worth noting that you won't find any of his most intemperate material on the Free Church web site, no doubt to maintain an outwardly apparent display there of pure Christian love, respect and tolerance, but the reality is quite different. Already bound to the Westminster Confession of Faith and a rabid intolerance of the Catholic Church and its 'Maryism', the Calvinist Free Church and its Moderator also campaign vigorously against the human rights of the LGBTi community and women. Robertson has also condemned the Church of Scotland for having 'atheists in its pews' and in a recent debate with a Kirk minister on the subject of atonement, told him that in another age he (Robertson) would have had to report the man as a heretic. I doubt that Robertson would wish to play the role of John Calvin in the trial of an alleged modern day Michael Servetus, but history shows Christianity has never been too kind to those reported for peddling perceived heresies.

How convenient for the Free Church of Scotland that its Moderator confines his most splenetic outpourings to his personal blog and the output of Solas. It's not clear if Robertson is responsible for the Paganophobia at Solas this weekend or whether he approves of it, but I am not holding my breath on that one.

I know some practising Pagans and have served on an Equality & Human Rights Commission committee with others, and have always found them to be tolerant and reasonable people without any trace of an evil master plan to crush all other faiths, and who are keen advocates of secularism. Casting these folk as currently one of the biggest threats to western civilisation displays a unique Christian fundamentalist paranoia as well as a hideous sectarian intolerance. To do so as the world got yet another rude awakening to the very real threat of the Islamists is just plain daft.

Annual Report

Annual Report

Secularism's role has never been so important. Read our 2015 Annual Report to learn about our campaign work in the past year on faith schools, collective worship, freedom of speech, countering extremism, disestablishment, secular healthcare and a range of issues.

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