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Newsline 22 May 2015

Good news! Recent days have seen LibDem leadership contender Tim Farron call for a secular state, and, despite new legislation giving local authorities the 'power to pray', a town council has voted to drop prayers from its council meetings. However, we've also had an MP warning of "religious intimidation" of voters, and a former judge ludicrously compare secularism to religious repression under the Tudors. As MPs took their seats in Parliament this week, we remember the contribution of NSS founder Charles Bradlaugh- who fought for the right of the non-religious to affirm. Join us to help support and fund the work Bradlaugh started in 1866.

‘Spiritual influence’, democracy and free expression

‘Spiritual influence’, democracy and free expression

Opinion | Tue, 19 May 2015

Religious voting blocs and sectarian and divisive politics harm society and can undermine democracy. But are laws that potentially restrict free expression the answer? Alastair Lichten considers the charge of 'undue spiritual influence'.

Many student unions prohibit negative campaigning in student elections. The purpose of these bans and the values behind them may be ones that we find admirable; student elections are about more than just the result, they are about engaging people with politics, democracy and the student movement. Negative campaigning can put students off of all of these and harm campus relations.

Imagine if an aversion to negative campaigning was a universally accepted value in student politics, and if negative campaigners were punished at the ballot box. More people might be engaged, student unions might be more representative and less censorious.

The problem is whether you agree with these values or not, negative campaigning bans are a terrible way of encouraging them. Some groups flagrantly ignore the rules or work around them – these groups in my experience are among the most aggressive in complaining about others' perceived breaches of the ban. Other groups find their free speech restricted as they are prevented from making legitimate criticisms.

There are lots of electoral tactics which do societal harm and that undermine the values of a liberal democracy, but are laws the best way of preventing this harm/protecting those values?

For example, Section 115 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 creates the criminal offence of "undue influence", which is committed by anyone who (among other things) "directly or indirectly, by himself or by any other person on his behalf… inflicts or threatens to inflict, by himself or by any other person, any temporal or spiritual injury, damage, harm or loss upon or against any person in order to induce or compel that person to vote or refrain from voting, or on account of that person having voted or refrained from voting".

There were three articles published last week on the topic of 'undue spiritual influence' which are worth considering.

Writing in the Guardian, Giles Fraser contrasts two situations. The first is the removal from office of former Tower Hamlets mayor Lutfur Rahman, on charges including undue spiritual influence – for example Rahman was endorsed in a letter to a Bangladeshi newspaper by 101 imams, which may have been influenced by his funding of religious groups in the borough.

In the second case, Fraser considers various Hindu organisations who actively campaigned for the Conservative Party, including the Hindu Forum of Britain, over the Conservatives' opposition to outlawing caste discrimination. In this case no action was taken against them for 'undue spiritual influence', raising the question posed by Fraser: "Is it one rule for the Hindus and another for the Muslims?"

Fraser's article does not mention the National Council of Hindu Temples' campaigning for the Conservative Party on the same issue, campaigning which earned them a rebuke from the Charity Commission for potentially misusing their charitable status.

Religious and secular charities play an important role in civil society and their freedom to campaign should be broadly protected. However, not least because they receive effective state subsidies, most people accept some restrictions on charities (perceived) party political or other campaigning. Such restrictions have to be very carefully monitored so they do not restrict free expression and to ensure they are equally applied.

For example, in addition to the National Council of Hindu Temples, four other non-religious charities were recently criticised by the Charity Commission for potentially misusing their charitable status in appearing to endorse the Conservative Party.

Mr Fraser's bizarre assertion that "free-speech humanists" are not concerned because they "dislike religion more than they support free speech" is an unbecoming diversion in an otherwise coherent article. Whether you agree with his conclusions or not, he raises important concerns over the potential 'can of worms' that these cases open and the implications for community cohesion and religious freedom if the law is (or appears to be) enforced in an unequal or draconian manner.

These concerns over religious freedom were echoed in a second article, also from a Christian perspective, on the conservative religious/political Archbishop Cranmer blog.

The third article was the story we covered of the re-elected Labour MP for Slough, Fiona MacTaggart, who raised concerns when Muslim voters were allegedly told that they were not 'true Muslims' unless they voted against her. Her defeated Conservative Party rival, Gurcharan Singh, supported calls for 'blasphemy' to be criminalised.

So far in this case there is no suggestion from Ms MacTaggart that the undue spiritual influence law should be the tool to deal with what she described as "religious intimidation" and "an attempt to divide Slough and its community".

Yesterday we reported on a poll which showed that a plurality of Britons believe religious leaders should intervene in politics but that 75% of Britons paid their interventions no heed. Despite this, some religious leaders have a paranoid fantasy that secularists are trying to curtail their freedom of speech, when in fact secularists simply seek to prevent them having a privileged or undue influence and to guard against the very negative consequences of sectarian politics.

There may be a secular case for laws that restrict certain aspects of religious influence or other sectarian politics in elections, but these would need to be cautious and incorporate strong freedom of expression and freedom of religion protections.

This should be a secular cause that people of all religions and none can support. If a religious leader speaks out about political issues then they should be free to do so, though they should be given no special or privileged platform as Anglican bishops are today. If a politician divides communities with sectarian politics they should be punished at the ballot box, not in the courtroom. When political parties treat religious communities as (potential) bloc votes, those communities should be the first to stand up and say they will not be ignored and they will not be disenfranchised in the bartering between 'community leaders' and candidates.

A legal opinion commissioned by Mr Fraser into the Rahman judgment argues that there should be "no offence in merely expressing a view about the merits of a candidate at an election; nor in urging congregants or others to vote for or against a particular candidate; nor in asserting a moral or religious duty to vote for or against a particular candidate."

It is unclear* whether absent a legal restriction Mr Fraser, who has claimed to "deeply distrust the way politicians use religion as a part of public political campaigning", would consider such an intervention from the pulpit to be a good thing.

Secularists may find religious involvement in politics problematic, but there are great difficulties in framing and enforcing a law to prevent abuse or "undue" influence without discrepancy. In the long-term, the only approach that will work is from a civil society that rejects sectarianism and which simply disregards those who try to use the spiritual to secure temporal, political power: in other words, a secular culture, rather than over reliance on law.

*Giles Fraser has since replied to say that "absent legal restriction, and exceptional circumstances aside, I don't think the pulpit is the place for party politics."

A very confused and immoderate Moderator

A very confused and immoderate Moderator

Opinion | Wed, 20 May 2015

Alistair McBay examines the confused and immoderate arguments of the new Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland.

The Reverend David Robertson of the Free Church of Scotland has now taken up the mantle of the church's Moderator.

First of all, it would be churlish not to offer my congratulations to the Reverend on his appointment.

I have written before about the new Moderator, a man who believes that secular humanism is the biggest threat to Scotland, or at least to his desired vision of an orthodox Christian Scotland dancing to his Calvinist tune. Moderator Robertson has wasted no time before trashing secularism (which he conflates with atheism and humanism) in his opening address to his flock. It will be as much a recurring theme of his time in office as it has been in his ministry to date.

You may ask why the leader of a small Christian sect is of interest, given that his followers were outnumbered in the last Scottish Census by the number of Jedi, and that they are still debating at this week's General Assembly the distribution of assets after their most recent schism in 2000. Also taking place this week is the General Assembly of the much larger Church of Scotland, from which Robertson's church seceded in 1843, and which is arguably more engrained in Scottish culture. Well, Moderator Robertson is of note because of his high profile as one of the UK's 100 most influential Christians, because he repeatedly and wilfully misrepresents secularism and because he can play the Christian 'persecution' card with as much pious gusto as Lord Carey and the Christian Legal Centre.

It will be an interesting tenure of office that will no doubt see Robertson's sense of Christian persecution rise exponentially with every observation about, or critique of, his views. But what exactly are his views? He has made a number of contradictory arguments in the recent past.

Perhaps the greatest confusion in the Moderator's thinking is to do with education and where religion sits within the education system. On his blog he wrote these emphatic statements in January 2015:

"Schools should not be used either for religious, or secular humanist or atheist indoctrination."

and

"The state education system should not be used for the social engineering experiments of the secular humanists."

I am sure readers will concur that these are pretty clear cut and unequivocal.

However, back in March 2008, he wrote to the then First Minister Alex Salmond calling on the Scottish Government to set up Presbyterian state schools based on strict biblical principles. He noted at the time that politicians were in favour of Catholic schools and funding for Muslim schools, using these observations to argue: "On what basis they can then turn round and say Calvinist schools would be wrong, or other chosen schools would be wrong, I'm not sure."

He has now returned to this theme in his inaugural sermon as Free Church Moderator this week, stating:

"We need to educate church children in the Christian worldview and philosophy."

and

"Let the secular humanists have their schools, and let the Christians have theirs, and let parents have the choice."

So suddenly there would seem to be a great deal of equivocation where none existed before.

Is the Moderator in favour of NO indoctrination in schools of ANY kind, religious or otherwise, as in his Statement 1? Or is he now very much in favour of it as in this week's Statement 3, provided of course that the school estate is subjected to the religious apartheid he advocates? You will note here that the Reverend has conveniently segregated the young into "church children" (Statement 3), and presumably mosque children, synagogue children and gurdwara children are among other default identity groupings he would advocate. Note too that in using the expression "a Christian world view and philosophy" he simply means good old-fashioned indoctrination, although he is not alone in the religious world in using new age expressions such as this and the all-encompassing 'spiritual development' which are much less pejorative. Why else would he demand 'Calvinist schools' if their purpose was anything other than to turn out believing Christians of a Calvinist hue? Would these schools be likely to turn out believing Jews or Muslims? It would be safe to imagine their Christian ethos would be designed not to turn out disbelieving secular humanists or indeed adherents of 'Maryism', the term the Free Church uses to disparage Catholicism.

Lets turn to the Moderator's Statement 2 about why "the state education system should not be used for the social engineering experiments of the secular humanists". Does this week's Statement 4 mean that he now approves of such secular humanist experiments if they are conducted within the confines of exclusive secular humanist schools, and as long as he can indulge in his own social engineering experiments in his very own Calvinist schools?

So is he for or against indoctrination, and for or against 'social engineering experiments'? What we can say with absolute certainty is that he is definitely for religious apartheid. At no point in making these contradictory statements over several years has the Moderator attempted to explain how segregating children according to their parents' beliefs and teaching them often competing sets of world views rather than a universal set of views will lead to happy adults engaged in mutual respect and tolerance. If it's the sort of respect and tolerance this Moderator shows on a regular basis to those who don't share his beliefs (i.e. the usual suspects of religious phobias – LBGT community, women, atheists and secular humanists) then the world will remain in the troubled state we see it in today, torn apart by conflict along fault lines drawn by religious ideologies which are nurtured in education systems.

Instead Moderator Robertson tries to argue the case for segregated education by invoking an appeal to equality. He argues that if Scotland does not permit Calvinist schools as he demands, it will mean that "freedom, choice and equality don't quite extend that far." This is a criticism he likes to level at the secular love of fairness and equal treatment for all regardless of religious belief, and especially when this erodes his deep sense of entitlement to special privilege. But equality and freedom of choice should not mean intellectually vulnerable children will be subjected to religious apartheid and taught competing sets of values, not least because children have rights too, established in the European Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In the case of the Moderator's Calvinist schools, children would be taught matters of non-evidenced faith as historical fact, as well as made to promulgate arguments for the right to discriminate against gay people, women and those who seek a dignified death. The Moderator has campaigned vigorously against same-sex marriage, a woman's right to choose and assisted suicide, as of course he is free to do in secular Scotland – though I am far from convinced such freedoms would be extended in the Moderator's Calvinist Scotland. He is also free to run a church that has neither female clergy nor female elders, nor is it ever likely to appoint a gay reverend. However, his attempts to deny freedom of choice and equality to large swathes of the community fatally undermines any argument he puts forward to invoke the same equality and freedom of choice for himself. This means of course that I disagree with his appeal to equality and argue instead for universal education free from discrimination in selection and employment and from religious indoctrination. I will therefore be accused of persecuting him on grounds of his faith, somehow denying him the right to bring up his children in his own faith, as though it is impossible for him to achieve this in his home, social circle or place of worship and without the state education system doing it for him.

I have no doubt we will have cause to return to Moderator Robertson and his immoderate and frankly confusing views in the coming months. In the meantime I trust he will enjoy his new found platform and continue to engage with us to make Scotland and the rest of the world a better place. But his advocacy of educational apartheid with its conflicting agendas, cloaked in an appeal to equality and freedom of choice, is not the way to achieve this.

Alistair McBay is a member of the NSS Council. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NSS.

The difference between 'affirmation' and 'oath' and the role played by NSS founder Charles Bradlaugh

The difference between 'affirmation' and 'oath' and the role played by NSS founder Charles Bradlaugh

NSS founder Charles Bradlaugh played a critical role in ensuring the non-religious could affirm when they entered Parliament, rather than swearing a religious oath. What is the difference between oath and affirmation?

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