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Newsline 26 July 2013

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How do we keep religious education out of the hands of the evangelists?

How do we keep religious education out of the hands of the evangelists?

Opinion | Mon, 22 Jul 2013

How can schools tell children about religion in a way that is fair, objective, unbiased and, most important, doesn't close them off to alternatives?

How do we best explain to them that while some religious believers find comfort in their faith — as well as a motivation to do good — others find that it feeds a seething hatred?

The traditional approach to this topic has been "religious education", a mandatory subject the direction of which is largely dictated by religious authorities, who could hardly be described as disinterested parties. As A.J. Higginson put it, in an article for Huffington Post:

"RE classes are a chance for pupils to learn and understand about the diverse world religions. A dilemma occurs when you allow faith schools to teach according to their beliefs, once that happens, the lid of Pandora's Box is never far from being opened."

The Government is under increasing pressure at the moment by those very religious interests to increase and strengthen religious education in schools. The Church of England's ambitions to take control of the education system is not one that is opposed in any way by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove. Or, as Andy Yarrow, head of Chelsea (CofE) Academy put in an article in the Times Education Supplement:

"Forced religion is counterproductive. But when children leave Chelsea Academy, I want them to have had an entirely positive and attractive experience of Christianity, so they say, 'I like that. I want more of that.' The great commission that has been given to the Church is to spread the good news of Christ. Church of England schools are about sharing what Christianity means, communicating the gospel message, but they are also about unconditionally loving and serving the world."

Now, though, an increasing number of parents are feeling uneasy about the way RE is being taught and are wondering whether religion, as it is presented now, has a legitimate place in schools at all. They want to know if there is another way to tell children the facts about religion that does not, at the same time, try oh-so-subtly to bring them into the fold.

The Americans and the French, with their secular constitutions, have neatly solved the problem by excluding religion entirely from their publicly funded schools.

But Britain does not have the benefit of a secular constitution. We have instead an established church, which, to be fair, played a large part in the creation of our education system. So we have to give credit to the church for kick-starting education-for-all in this country.

But now that the government funds universal education, why is the church still so deeply entrenched? A poll of 29,000 schoolchildren in Britain conducted for the International Seminar on Religious Education and Values showed that 58% identified themselves as atheist or agnostic. This revelation was backed up by a study from the National Centre for Social Research, which showed that in 1994, 55% of 12- to 19-year-olds said they had no religion, a figure that had risen to 65% by 2003.

Children, then, are increasingly expressing severe doubts about the veracity and value of religion as a basis for life...

Religious education so easily morphs into religious instruction and thence to religious propaganda and evangelising. Enthusiastic believers who are drawn to teaching sometimes cannot stop themselves. This week I was on a radio phone-in show in which parents told horror stories of their own experiences: how a five-year-old had been told by the RE teacher that if she didn't believe in God she would go to hell, or how a nine-year-old asked in class "if God made everything, who made God?" and was told to shut up.

The only way to stop this kind of abuse of a child's intellect is to abolish the concept of "religious education" entirely. Let's call it something else that will allow us to move away from the sentimentalised, sanitised version of religion that is, at the moment, pumped into children's heads at school from the age of three. Something like "philosophical and ethical studies".

That would give us a fascinating palate of topics to draw on. Religion would be there, of course, but it would take its place with other approaches, to be examined critically. If we take the label of "religious education" away, we free ourselves from the need to give religion special privileges and the biased presentation it gets at the moment. We can look at it in a much wider context while, at the same time, other valuable world views that have been shoved out by religious dominance would get an equal-opportunity look-in.

After all, there is a strong argument that the values of western civilisation are not based on Christianity at all, but on the earlier thinking of philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus — and even Confucius. How often do the grand ideas of these formative figures get an airing in RE?

The dominance of Christianity in our schools is a product of historical circumstances — circumstances that have radically altered in the past 50 years. Once there was a single religion in this country, but now there is a multitude, some of them venerable, some of them very recent — all of them in need of rigorous examination and challenge in a fair school system.

So in an ideal world — well, my ideal world — children would be able to explore the big questions through a host of philosophical approaches that would not inevitably lead back to God. We start with a completely blank canvas and then we add to it from the richness of human genius, which could, of course, include Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha, but only as part of a throng that would also include Thales, known as the father of philosophy, who flourished around 585BC and who was the first to come to the conclusion that human reason is sufficient to answer questions about the nature of the world. We would have Socrates, who gave us the concept of civic virtue, and we need to know about the Cynics and about Epicurus's formula for a happy life.

There are Cicero, Diderot, Hume and the many gifts of the Enlightenment. The marvellous insights provided by these great philosophers have done as much to shape human life in the western world as the ancient religions of the Middle East have with their incredible claims and their vengeful Gods.

In my ideal school, religion would not be permitted to side-line every other human explanation for the meaning of life. Children who have rejected religion are not doomed to live a life of anarchy and nihilism. The world is full of marvellous philosophies and ethical systems that can inform morality. But the Old Testament God is, by his own admission, a jealous God, and he doesn't take competition very well. All the same, we must put to rest, once and for all, the propaganda that all that is good flows from a divine source.

A well-rounded, truly unbiased approach to ethics would equip our children with a real ability to make informed decisions about how they want to live their lives and where they will find their morality. It will also enable them to judge religion on its real, rather than its trumpeted, merits.

Same Sex Marriage Act - time to separate religion from politics

Same Sex Marriage Act - time to separate religion from politics

Opinion | Tue, 23 Jul 2013

The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill has passed with overwhelming support. It has done little more than re-brand civil partnerships, but symbolically its passing was a breath-taking moment of the zeitgeist, writes Keith Porteous Wood.

Even the leadership of the Established Church now recognise it as such, all the more so because it took place in the face of their implacable opposition.

More significant is the consequences of this shift of influence away from the churches. The hierarchy of both Catholic and Anglican churches staked their whole authority by insisting that the Government should not proceed with this legislation. And they lost, utterly.

Any religious group is at liberty to forbid its followers from entering into same sex marriages, but the Church went so much further: seeking to impose its dogma by law. It wanted to ride roughshod over the majority view in the country, and also against the religious/belief liberty of those of other denominations, such as Quakers and liberal Jews, who wished to permit such ceremonies.

The Established Church even came close to questioning the government's authority by stating with approval that "[m]any, within the churches and beyond, dispute the right of any government to redefine an ages-old social institution in the way proposed". Similarly, the most senior (and perhaps also now the most disgraced) Catholic in Britain, Cardinal O'Brien, announced less than a year ago with breath-taking self-importance that he had "suspended direct talks with the Scottish Government on the subject of gay marriage after relations between the two bodies became 'strained' by the proposals".

But I detect a new realism. Since his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury was announced, Justin Welby has courageously expressed his growing unease with the Church's position. And he was clearly bruised by the "noticeable hostility to the view of the churches" in Parliament over same-sex marriage, and with the Church's stance being "utterly overwhelmed".

This debacle should prompt a long-overdue reconsideration of the relationship between Church and state.

Paradoxically, Britain is both one of the least religious countries in the world and one of the most religiously diverse. Yet because, through historic circumstance, we have an established Church, religion is given disproportionate influence in public life.

The separation of religion and politics, the essence of secularism, is essential to democratic process and accountability. It is no coincidence that the worst known per capita incidence of institutional child rape occurred in Ireland, where the Catholic Church was virtually a department of the government (or was it the other way around)? Fortunately their PM has seen the light and the Church's influence over the Government is much diminished, to the extent that the Irish commentator Mary Kenny now refers to her country as "post-Catholic".

In England, public positions were reserved uniquely for Anglican communicants, and ecclesiastical courts formerly had wide powers, even jurisdiction to grant probate. As late as the 1840s, those unable to pay hefty fines for non-attendance at the Anglican Church faced a lifetime in prison. And in ensuing decades came the emancipation of those of other denominations and religions, despite the bitter opposition of the Church. The National Secular Society's first president, Charles Bradlaugh, was denied his seat won in four elections to Parliament in the 1880s because, as an atheist, he was not allowed to take the requisite religious oath.

But even now, from a constitutional perspective, Britain could hardly be less secular, given it is the only Western nation to give bishops the right to sit in its Parliament. Every session of Parliament, even in the Commons, starts with prayers. Being in Parliament gives bishops access to ministers, and the power to hold them to account. Bishops can table amendments, including on matters that directly benefit them. And whenever one of the Lords Spiritual rises to speak, even today, etiquette demands that everyone else immediately gives him precedence.

Probably because of the bishops' presence, England and Wales are the only Western countries to require by an old law a daily act of (normally Christian) worship on every school day in every school, including notionally secular community schools. The public purse pays the entire running costs of the third of schools which have a "religious ethos". And this in a country where less than 10% of those in any age group, including older people, regard themselves as "a religious person".

One would have expected a century of decline of church attendance to have resulted in a declining influence of religion in politics, but the reverse has happened. Until now, politicians have continued to buy into the Church's own delusions of its own importance to the nation, regardless of the evidence that for most people it is an irrelevance.

Usually governments try hard to avoid confrontations with the Church, but Mr Cameron clearly thought passing this legislation was the right thing to do. He showed courage rare in politicians in recent times by pressing on despite the bitter opposition from the Church's hierarchy, seemingly out of touch with its own followers. But it is unlikely that he or his party (or any party in the near future) will have the courage to grasp the nettle of disestablishment.

We know of plenty of Parliamentarians whose instincts are secular, who recognise the value and justice of separating religion from politics, but are – we think needlessly – worried about the electoral consequences of alienating religious voters. The time has come for them to be bolder and recognise that the dire consequences the Church threatens if it is defied is unlikely to come about.

The churches' days are numbered as a political force. Maybe the water can next be tested by the government introducing assisted dying legislation in the Commons. There is even strong support from the religious, but as in same sex marriage, the Anglican hierarchy are absolutely opposed.

Keith Porteous Wood is the Executive Director of the National Secular Society. This blog was originally posted on the Information

Muslims must be protected. Islam must not.

Muslims must be protected. Islam must not.

Opinion | Wed, 24 Jul 2013

The Muslim Council of Britain has called for a "serious national response" from the government to attacks against Muslims and mosques.

MCB leader Farooq Murad, said people were living in fear. He said that following the events in Woolwich, there has been a significant increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes across the UK.

Mr Murad said: "The community has patiently borne the brunt of these attacks despite condemning, in the strongest possible terms, the tragic murder of Drummer Lee Rigby. Despite this spike in incidents, there has yet to be a coordinated national effort to ensure that these sorts of attacks never happen again.

"It cannot be right that a minority community is allowed to be targeted in this manner."

Mr Murad said the suspected bomb attacks on mosques marked "the crossing of a red line".

"Had these bombs exploded, people would have been killed," he said. "There is an urgent need for the government and police to respond with a coordinated national strategy so as to prevent further attacks.

"For many Muslim communities across this country, there is a palpable sense of fear. While the local police are doing all they could to investigate these incidents, the national response has been far from satisfactory."

But we have to be careful not to be stampeded into precipitate action by claims, which because of their emotive nature, can so easily be manipulated.

It is entirely wrong that people from any minority should be targeted for violence or persecution simply because of their membership of that minority. Indeed, the law specifically recognises that, and there are severe penalties for crimes that are motivated by religious hatred.

If people are attacked in the street — whether they are Muslim or not — it is a crime. If their property is damaged by vandals, it is a crime. If they are threatened or harassed because of their religion, it is a crime that attracts extra penalties.

So what exactly is Mr Murad asking from the Government when he criticises it for not doing enough to protect Muslims?

Given that they are protected in every way that every other citizen is, their human rights are as valued as any other person's living in this country and, in fact, there are extra penalties for crimes that are religiously motivated, what is he expecting the Government to do?

Is he complaining that the police are not doing enough to enforce the law? In which case he may have a point. But in his statement he says that he feels the police have done everything in their power to investigate these crimes.

So what else is he asking from the Government? Is the next demand, after a spot of panic-mongering about persecution, that not just Muslims be protected, but Islam itself? We must wait to see whether the concept that Muslims are "deeply wounded" when their religion is criticised gets lumped in with the bombs in mosques and the people being beaten up. It wouldn't be the first time the MCB has tried to criminalise criticism of Islam.

Fortunately, the MCB fell out of favour with the Government in 2009 and all links were severed after much criticism of its members and its activities.

The NSS wants all Muslims living in Britain to feel safe. We deplore attacks on individuals and on places of worship. But the fault lies not in the law, which is sufficient, but perhaps in a failure to enforce it vigorously enough.

We do not need any more "hate crime" laws that are so easily exploited and misused.

And nor do we need protection for religious ideas or dogmas, which must always be open to criticism, examination and — where appropriate — ridicule.

We must watch carefully where this present campaign to promote the idea that Muslims are being widely persecuted in Britain is leading. All claims must be forensically checked and verified, and none taken at face value.

We must not allow it to be exploited to justify anything that looks even remotely like a blasphemy law.

Convictions for female genital mutilation: France - 100; Britain  0

Convictions for female genital mutilation: France - 100; Britain 0

Opinion | Thu, 25 Jul 2013

Back in 1999, a group of MPs criticised the author Germaine Greer. They were astonished by her claim in a book that criminalising female genital mutilation (FGM) amounted to "an attack on cultural identity". The MPs described Greer's view as "simplistic and offensive" but the fact that she could write in those terms less than 15 years ago, when FGM was already illegal in this country, is sobering.

It's also an indication of how the debate has moved on, to the point where FGM is widely regarded as a form of child abuse. But it remains a hidden practice, carried out in secrecy, and not a single person has been convicted of mutilating a girl's or woman's genitals in this country.

Unsurprisingly, this fact has caused trenchant criticism of the police and the prosecuting authorities; the UK is often contrasted unfavourably with France, where more than 100 people have been convicted. Some of the French convictions arose from two incidents where something went wrong and the families reported the practitioner to the police, but one recent case came to light when a child was treated for appendicitis and the hospital reported it to a prosecutor.

The reporting system in this country is nothing like as robust, as The Independent on Sunday revealed in January; a survey of 500 hospitals and local education authorities found that less than 50 kept records of women and girls who had undergone FGM or were believed to be at risk.

This lack of intelligence, say the police, goes to the heart of why there haven't been prosecutions in this country. It's also the reason why they've changed tack in London, appealing for information from the public about people who are doing the cutting.

"We've been waiting for victims to come forward," Detective Chief Inspector Iqbal Singh told me last week. "It hasn't worked, so now we're targeting cutters. FGM is child abuse and we're trying to get intelligence flowing into the police about cutters in the community."

In retrospect, the 1985 law outlawing what was euphemistically described as "female circumcision" created unrealistic expectations about children giving evidence against their parents. So the Metropolitan Police has adopted a new strategy, which it describes as "intelligence, prevention and enforcement". A key element is the NSPCC helpline set up last month for the public to report their suspicions about FGM, which was a police initiative.

"People don't want to talk to the police about this," Detective Chief Superintendent Keith Niven says frankly. "I understand that. Now there's another route."

Niven is head of Scotland Yard's Sexual Offences, Exploitation and Child Abuse Command. He's also in charge of Operation Yewtree, the inquiry into the late Jimmy Savile, and he's worked closely with the NSPCC during that investigation.

"You don't have to carry the weight of this information alone," is his message to families where FGM is carried out. "Please just tell us who's doing it. You can remain anonymous if you like. We need a starting point." His officers admit they don't even have as much information as they'd like on who is doing the cutting: "It could be a matriarchal figure or it could be a GP who's doing it as a sideline," says Singh.

If this sounds a rather candid admission of helplessness, the frustration of senior officers is palpable. Thousands of girls are believed to be at risk — the figures are estimates and vary widely — but what is known is that more than 1,700 victims of FGM have been referred to specialist health clinics in the UK in the past two years.

In London, a women's organisation, Imkaan, has carried out research suggesting that 7,000 women affected by FGM give birth in the city each year, which is a clear risk indicator for their daughters. So here's a startling figure: the police have received only 167 referrals about FGM since 2009. "Other state organisations are dealing with victims on a daily basis," Singh points out. "Why isn't that information coming in to the police?"

In a heartening sign, the NSPCC helpline received 39 calls in the first two weeks of operation. During the first week, five of the calls related to the area covered by the Met. So far they've been what Singh calls "snippets" — a teacher reporting anxiety about a girl being taken to an FGM-practising country for six weeks, for example. He sounds a word of caution: "It may be to do with FGM but it doesn't always turn out to be an allegation of crime. We need evidence — are these grounds to examine the children?"

Girls are routinely checked for FGM in France, but there's little appetite for compulsory examination in this country. The practice is unlike other forms of child abuse in one crucial respect. Most intelligence that a child is being abused comes to the police via relatives, teachers and organisations such as youth clubs — for example a teacher seeing bruises during a PE lesson.

"In a lot of child protection cases there's a build-up," says Niven. "But it doesn't happen with this type of crime. There's no contact with social services and no previous offences. The child could live in a family where there's no other detriment to them. That's one of the reasons we aren't getting those referrals."

The subject is particularly urgent as the summer holidays begin and girls are at risk of being sent abroad to be cut. There is also a worrying degree of ignorance: in March, the NSPCC published a survey of 1,000 teachers which showed that one in six didn't know that FGM is illegal in the UK. Almost the same proportion didn't regard FGM as child abuse, while four out of five said they'd had no training on how to spot warning signs.

It sometimes feels as if that elusive first prosecution is as far away as ever. While the kind of attitude expressed by Germaine Greer in 1999 seems anachronistic, the authorities remain caught between opposing accusations: not doing enough to stop FGM because of "political correctness" on the one hand, and encouraging "racist curtain-twitching" on the other. (That's the accusation recently levelled at the NSPCC by a mischief-making website, by the way.)

The police in London say they want to eradicate FGM within 10 years, which is ambitious. But it's a serious form of violence against women, and they need all the help the public can give them.

Joan Smith is co-chair of the Mayor of London's Violence Against Women and Girls Panel and an honorary associate of the National Secular Society ; This article originally appeared in the Independent and is reproduced with the author's permission. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the NSS.

See also: The worst kind of FGM

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NSS Speaks Out

Terry Sanderson was quoted in an American Public Media "Marketplace" report on the rise of sharia banking in the UK

NSS campaigns manager Stephen Evans was quoted in The Times about the Church of England's push to dominate religious education in schools (subscription). Keith Porteous Wood was on LBC radio on the same topic.

NSS Scottish spokesperson Alistair McBay was on the BBC1 Sunday Morning Live programme discussion about religious education. He was also quoted in the Ross-Shire Journal, Inverness Courier, North Star, Caithness Courier and the Strathspey and Badenoch Herald about the presence of unelected religious representatives on council education committees.

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