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Newsline 22 January 2016

Thank you to our members and supporters for the nominations we received for Secularist of the Year 2016. We are very excited for the event – to be held in central London – and for the chance to celebrate those who have advanced the cause of secularism in the past year. Don't forget to buy your ticket. There is a discounted price for our members – so join the NSS today.

Welby praises “most orthodox” bishops since WW2 as UK gives up on the church

Welby praises “most orthodox” bishops since WW2 as UK gives up on the church

Opinion | Thu, 21 Jan 2016

As the UK undergoes a "revolutionary generational change" away from religion the Archbishop of Canterbury has boasted that the Church's Bishops in the House of Lords are the "most orthodox since WW2".

Speaking during the fractious meeting of the Anglican Communion, Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, boasted that "the Bench of Bishops is described by the longer standing members as the most orthodox since WWII."

This was shortly before new research from Lancaster University again confirmed society's turn away from religion. Linda Woodhead, Professor of the Sociology of Religion, said that "not only [has] society has become less religious, but ... religion has become more so" – and this fuelled the secularisation of society. While the Archbishop boasts of his orthodox credentials to appease arch-conservatives in the Anglican Communion, wider society in the UK is even more alienated from the established church, which still claims national authority and to be (in Welby's words) a "primary source of leadership for communities".

The response to the Anglican Communion's punishment of the Episcopal Church for its stance on same-sex marriage has given as good a view as any of the chasm between church and society. In response to the sanctioning of the Episcopal Church a petition has been launched calling for the Church of England bishops in the House of Lords to be removed, and Lord Scriven, a Liberal Democrat peer, has submitted a written question to the Ministry of Justice calling for the disestablishment of the Church of England. He described the Church's behaviour over same-sex marriage as "institutionally homophobic."

Chris Bryant MP said that he had "finally given up on" the Anglican Church due to its decision on sexuality.

The Archbishop's claim that "The Church of England is still a primary source of leadership for communities" – and that this is to the "dismay of secularists" is peculiar. Even if his contention were true, it would have no bearing on the case for a secular state, which is practically strengthened by a non-religious majority, but not weakened in principle by majority religiosity (as in the US). Secularists have no investment or interest in where individuals derive their moral leadership; they merely resist the legal imposition of religious moral codes on society at large.

His claim is not justified in any case. 75% of Britons have never been influenced by a religious leader. Less than one-in-five are influenced (positively or negatively) by what religious leaders say. This is not to say that religious leaders cannot do tremendous good in their local community; but that is not an argument for notably conservative religious representation in parliament.

Professor Woodhead, herself an Anglican, has said that religious sexism and homophobia are one reason why the UK now has a "'no religion' majority". Not only are people not influenced by religious leaders, when they hear what religious leaders are saying, they are actually put-off. Woodhead says "This gap between church and society has been widened by a series of moral stands by church leaders which have set them against both English and Anglican opinion, and turned the CofE into a church which likes to [say] no." She adds that the Church of England has shifted from being a "societal church" to a "sectarian" one.

The Church's struggle to maintain its prestige project – the worldwide Anglican Communion – is widening the rupture between it and the society in which it claims to be a "primary source of leadership". The cost of maintaining the illusion of religious unity – inevitable given the global demography of the Anglican Communion – is that "Archbishops of Canterbury will continue to give more weight to Nigerian and Ugandan churches than to the views of ordinary English – or American – Anglicans."

To save the Anglican Communion the Church of England will become more religiously conservative, further alienating itself from the UK. The elephant in the room during the meeting of Anglican Primates was that surely many English Anglicans quietly agree with the Episcopalians. In the UK, liberals and modern-minded Anglicans have complained to the NSS for decades that they cannot get preferment in the Church; some have gone as far as to maintain "this is no longer the Church I joined".

Welby bragged that "we are exempted from the same sex marriage act, showing that our voice is still heard against the prevailing wind of our society, and at much cost to ourselves, by the way". But he omitted to mention that this was also against the prevailing wind in his own Church. Besides, nobody would want to see clergy compelled to perform same-sex marriages: but the Church's stance prevents those clergy who would perform them from doing so.

As the Church of England charts a course away from the new moral norms of the society in which it finds itself, it clings on to its institutional privileges – not least in education.

Welby, boasting of the moral leadership the church "still" provides, said "the C of E educate more than 1,000,000 children in our schools." But even this won't help the church; and it means continuing discrimination against parents, pupils and staff.

The British Social Attitudes Survey found that "40% of those brought up Christian become nones" and Professor Woodhead argues that "additional forms of Christian socialisation like Christian schooling clearly don't compensate."

Despite this, the Church is desperate to maintain its position and disproportionate hold on the education system, even as adults leave church in droves. The schools are not helping the church's mission to spread the faith, and they represent an anachronistic level of control over the education of a million children – and the imposition of faith on families who don't want it. This truly is something that does "dismay" secularists and the parents who contact us every week trying to protect their children from unwanted religious interference.

David Cameron is right to raise the integration of Muslim women

David Cameron is right to raise the integration of Muslim women

Opinion | Mon, 18 Jan 2016

The hysterical response to David Cameron's proposals to help the most disadvantaged Muslim women learn English and improve their lot in life will do far more to alienate British Muslims than anything he has actually said.

According to Government figures 22% of Muslim women speak "little or no English" and 60% of women of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin are "economically inactive."

Clearly, there is a real problem.

This is what the Prime Minister has set out to address with his announcement of £20 million of funding to teach Muslim women who can't to speak English.

David Cameron's proposals have however provoked a backlash, as is so often the case whenever anyone attempts to discuss anything to do with Islam or highlights the problem of religious segregation in Britain.

If newspapers and campaign groups are truly concerned about British Muslims being "alienated" from wider society, they should be far more responsible in the coverage they give to modest and carefully articulated proposals.

Anjum Anwar of charity Women's Voice said it was "absolutely absurd" to conflate radicalisation with not learning English. Indeed, the Prime Minister said as much. In the Times he wrote: "I am not saying separate development or conservative religious practices directly cause extremism."

The Independent reported the plans under the inflammatory headline "David Cameron says migrant families could be broken up and mothers deported if they fail new English test."

Del Babu, a former chief superintendent with the Metropolitan Police said that conflating "the issue of learning English with stopping radicalism and extremism" is unhelpful. Again, the Prime Minister did not do this. He in fact went to great pains to explain that while there was an "important connection" to extremism – this was about integration first and foremost.

The i100 said Cameron "wants to deport women who can't speak the language" – after he announced the launch of a proposal to help women from Muslim backgrounds learn English. The purpose of the proposals, and the debate the Prime Minister has started, is to integrate Muslim women into society – particularly if they are in the minority who cannot speak English and therefore have significantly reduced prospects (as evidenced by the striking economic inactivity in women from Bangladeshi and Pakistani backgrounds). As the BBC's political correspondent Alex Forsyth said, the Government was absolutely not suggesting people could be deported if they failed to reach the required level, but that language skills would be one factor taken into account when deciding whether to extend a person's right to remain.

But that didn't stop Lib Dem leader Tim Farron calling Cameron's announcement "dog-whistle politics at its best" (presumably he meant worst). Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham said that David Cameron "risks doing more harm than good" with a "clumsy and simplistic approach to challenging extremism is unfairly stigmatising a whole community."

He added: "There is a real danger that it could end up driving further radicalisation, rather than tackling it."

If this is not within the acceptable limit of debate, if even these proposals are "dog-whistle" politics, then the void left by these discussion will be picked up by the far right.

A far more likely driver of radicalisation is the sort of hysterical reporting about what the Prime Minister has said, and doing nothing and allowing the gulf between British Muslim communities and the rest of the country to grow even wider. In the view of the National Secular Society, the Prime Minister is absolutely right to raise these issues.

We particularly welcome the review of the role of Britain's religious councils, including Sharia courts, in an effort to confront men who exert "damaging control over their wives, sisters and daughters".

We share the Prime Minister's aspiration for Britain to be "more assertive about our liberal values, clearer about the expectations we place on those who come to live here". His view that courts and schools should be free to implement policies prohibiting the wearing of face veils is to be welcomed. Like us, he does not favour an outright ban on face veils – but recognises that there's nothing unreasonable about expecting them to be removed in the interests of security or when communication is paramount.

While the Prime Minister's new policy announcement is directed towards the particularly acute language problem that exists in Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage communities, the Prime Minister stressed repeatedly that the policy is not just about singling out Muslims.

As with coverage of the Prevent programme, lurid claims from the media and from campaign groups that Muslims are a "community under siege", "alienated", "targeted" or that their mothers are going to be deported does far more damage to community relations in this country than anything proposed by the Prime Minister.

This narrative is constantly being fed, particularly around the Prevent strategy, and regardless of the facts it is being accepted as fact by many.

It seems that no matter how carefully the Prime Minister sets out his thinking on these issues, how vigorously he stresses the "peace-loving" nature of most British Muslims, how strenuously he denies a "conveyor belt" concept leading from conservative Islam to extremism, that the response is the same.

The indignant statements from 'community leaders' and the politically partisan response from some point to a sad lack of interest in even considering (much less resolving) the segregated society that now exists.

Bradford West MP Naz Shah supported the Prime Minister on the need for Muslim women to learn English. She asked, "with the third and fourth generations, it's perfectly possible to live a life where you never have to speak English because everyone in the shops and services where you live speak your language ... Have we actually undone some of the good work that has been done in terms of integration?"

Inclusive education clearly has a key part to play in tackling sectarianism and segregation, but despite showing some willingness to tackle worst excesses of religious schooling, the Prime Minister's blind spot, despite our repeated appeals, still appears to be the divisive issues of faith schools.

At best a faith-based education system is a wasted opportunity to bring children from different backgrounds together; at worst it is fuelling segregation and allowing children from a very young age to live parallel lives to their peers from other faiths or ethnicities.

We hope this is something the review into segregation that is being conducted by Louise Casey can give serious thought to.

The Prime Minister has nonetheless set out serious measures to help the women of Muslim backgrounds who are most disadvantaged. Anyone concerned about forced gender segregation, discrimination and social isolation of British Muslims from mainstream British life should think twice before dismissing them out of hand.

NSS Speaks Out

NSS executive director Keith Porteous Wood appeared on Sky News and BBC Tees this week discussing whether Britain was a Christian country. He was quoted in the Argus on the bishop Peter Ball case. Campaigns manager Stephen Evans discussed faith schools with BBC Radio Devon and was quoted in East London Lines on a Jewish faith school that was ordered to close.

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