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Newsline 27 May 2016

This week the Government announced the launch of its long-awaited review into sharia law in England and Wales. Meanwhile changing demographics have shown (again) the need to rethink the role of religion in public life. A separate poll found widespread public scepticism about religion influencing politics – and most people, including most religious believers, thought the two should remain separate.

The National Secular Society campaigns for a state where all can live free from religious compulsion, a principle that desperately needs protecting.

We'll be discussing all of that, and more, at our conference this September. For now, you can see all of our news and commentary on the past week below.

In modern Britain, tradition is no excuse for retaining religious privilege

In modern Britain, tradition is no excuse for retaining religious privilege

Opinion | Fri, 27 May 2016

News that those declaring themselves to have no religion have exceeded the number of Christians in England and Wales has again prompted questions about Christianity's privileged role in public life.

Despite the vast majority of Brits being secular in outlook and largely indifferent to religion, our political structures and institutions have failed to keep pace with changing demographics. This leaves the privileged position of the established Church looking increasingly incongruous with the reality of modern life.

Despite Church attendance being in steady decline for the best part of a century, the CofE is still handed millions of pounds of public money to educate, inculcate and impose prayers on the one million children attending its church schools. With the decline of local education authorities, academisation may well see an increasing number of non-religious schools being swallowed up by Church-run academy trusts. Already the Church is the biggest sponsor of academies in England and a third of all schools are 'faith schools'.

One has to question how sustainable this all is when all the evidence suggests that the reduction in Christian affiliation and increase in non-religious affiliation is set to continue.

Meanwhile, 26 Church of England bishops laud it over us from their ex officio seats in Parliament, which gives them significant political power and influence which extends far beyond the debating chamber and deep into the heart of Government.

Sittings in both Houses begin with Christian prayers - as do many meetings of local authorities - although many have now abandoned the practice in the interests of being more open and inclusive.

Other significant privileges include the Church's currently pre-eminent role in national ceremonies, not least the coronation of the monarch - who also happens to be the Supreme Governor of the Church.

Despite sitting on massive wealth, the Church is still lavished with millions of pounds of public money in these times of austerity to repair its Cathedrals - cash it unashamedly accepts despite being in a position to fund these repairs itself. The CofE is also more than happy for hopelessly stretched NHS budgets to fund its representatives in our hospitals.

Any attempt to challenge this religious privilege is met with hysterical howls of 'persecution' and dire warnings from the establishment about the 'marginalisation' of Christianity. The Government placates its Christian base by constantly asserting Britain to be a "Christian country" - despite it being blindingly obvious that it isn't.

A piece in this week's Spectator suggests that the British regard for tradition will see that the Church's privileged position will be preserved, if only for nostalgic reasons. Its analysis - that tradition is the greatest barrier to secularism - may be accurate.

But the 'appeal to tradition' fallacy assumes that if something is traditional then it is right. This line of argument hardly provides a reason to preserve Christian hegemony, it merely signifies an absence of a reason.

It must also be recognised that the price of clinging to these 'quaint customs' could be the granting of similar privileges to other faith groups, leading to sectarian squabbles and competitive religious grievances and demands.

Our failure to call time on church schools has led to vast swathes of public money being handed to minority religious groups to open 'their' schools, creating silos of segregation and further impeding social cohesion.

Knowing the game is up on Christian privilege in this age of equality, the CofE is already advocating for seats as of right in the legislature for other representatives of other religions. And in Oldham, council meetings opened with Islamic prayer following the election of its Muslim mayor.

Humanists may occasionally be invited along to join the multifaith jamboree, but given that few non-believers choose to identify as a humanist, multifaithism merely further disenfranchises the non-religious.

This failure to keep up with the reality of Britain's shifting religious landscape means we are now in the absurd situation where the majority are being disadvantaged.

The founder of the National Secular Society, Charles Bradlaugh, said "No man sees a religion die", and it's true that religion will undoubtedly continue to play a role in the social and moral lives of believers. But Christianity - or any other religion - should no longer enjoy the patronage of the state.

The time has come for people of all faiths and none to look to the future and recognise the value of keeping the power of the state separate from the ecclesiastical world. Together we can find common cause in promoting the principles of secularism and a fairer Britain for all.

62% say there is “no place in UK politics for religious influence of any kind”

62% say there is “no place in UK politics for religious influence of any kind”

Opinion | Mon, 23 May 2016

The overwhelming majority of Britons believe religion should not "influence" politics in the UK, and majorities of all religious believers except Muslims agree.

A ComRes poll commissioned by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association has found broad support for separating religion and politics – but while the followers of most religions are happy to embrace secular ideals to some degree, most Muslims are not.

Unsurprisingly, support for the separation of religion and politics was very high among those with no religion, and 73% of the 'nones' agreed with the statement "There is no place in UK politics for religious influence of any kind".

Support for this separation among the followers of all religions, except Islam, was strong. The most secular group of all, including 'nones', were Jews, of whom 79% agreed with the statement, though for minority faiths the poll sizes were small.

56% of 1,039 Christians, the largest sample in the survey, agreed that religion shouldn't influence politics. Just 8% of Christians strongly disagreed.

Depending on the religion of those polled, support for separating religion and politics varied from a low of 31% to a high of 79%. Islam, by far, was the outlier. Muslims were the only group in the poll without a clear majority in favour of separating politics from religion.

Though 15% of British Muslims did "strongly agree" with the principle and a further 16% tended to agree, 36% either strongly disagreed or tended to disagree. The Muslims polled were also most likely to say they didn't know.

The poll only included 44 Muslims, but it can't be written off on that basis alone; it points to a lack of political secularity that is obvious in every poll like this.

The response from this relatively small sample size matches other surveys of Muslim opinion, most recently the ICM poll fronted by Trevor Phillips which found that, inter alia, 78% of British Muslims think there should be no right to publish images of Mohammed and that 52% think homosexuality should be illegal.

While followers of other religions in the UK and the 'nones' are in broad agreement that, in principle, religion shouldn't dictate politics (whatever that might mean in practice), these polls and many others indicate that this view is not at all common among British Muslims.

With an approximate doubling of the Muslim population every ten years, fuelled by immigration and a high birth rate, the Islamic failure to de-couple faith and governance poses, in decades to come, an existential threat to the broad secular values which are held across religious and non-religious divides.

Given this, it is unsurprising that most Britons polled in the same survey said that Islam is not compatible with 'British values'.

However, just under one-third of British Muslims believe politics should be free from religious interference. This demonstrates that it is possible to be a secular Muslim in Britain today. Everything must be done to increase that percentage.

In the meantime, Christians, those of minority faiths and no religion all have a growing interest in defending secular principles.

Benjamin Jones is the communications officer of the National Secular Society. Follow him on Twitter @BenJones1707. The views expressed in our blogs are those of the author and may not represent the views of the NSS.

2,012 British adults were interviewed in April 2016 by ComRes.

Invisible power: how the Catholic Church influences Italian politics

Invisible power: how the Catholic Church influences Italian politics

Opinion | Thu, 26 May 2016

Italy's bill on civil unions is an important landmark in the history of successful and unsuccessful attempts by the Vatican to influence Italian politics, writes Stefano Bonino.

The last country in the European Union to recognise civil unions for same sex-couples, Italy recently emerged from a thirty-year long battle against an inherently conservative culture borne out of a longstanding penchant for ecclesiocracy. Soon after the Italian Parliament gave way to the bill on May 11, Archbishop Michele Pennisi rushed to the newspaper La Repubblica, lambasting it as "creeping fascism." The next day, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi replied that he had "sworn to uphold the Constitution and not the Gospel," offering a public defence of the separation between temporal and spiritual authority enshrined in Article 7 of the Italian Constitution.

Pennisi's comments are offensive to all liberal Italians as well as to anyone with a passing familiarity with Italy's 20th century history. The Lateran Treaty of 1929 between Benito Mussolini and the Vatican made Roman Catholicism the state religion of Italy and granted the Vatican wide ranging privileged influence in areas such as education and marriage law.

This relic of ecclesiocracy was undermined in 1974 when Italians overruled the strong will of the Catholic Church, supported by the Christian Democrats and members of the Italian Social Movement, by voting to uphold a law legalising divorce.

The Lateran Treaty was eventually revised in 1985, when Roman Catholicism ceased to be the official state religion. However, the Holy See, with the Vatican acting as a sovereign entity, remained heavily subsidised by Italian taxpayers and continued to exert significant influence on Italian politics. Since the Italian republic emerged from the ashes of the Kingdom of Italy in 1946, its path to secular democracy has not always run smooth.

The Christian Democracy party enjoyed the full backing of the Catholic Church since after World War II and until 1994, when the Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) judicial investigation into political corruption eventually led to the collapse of the party. Yet, the Catholic Church continued to wrestle for power in the backrooms of a stagnantly tribal political system. Communion and Liberation (CL), a highly influential and tight-knit Catholic ecclesial group, has historically maintained close links to power, fielding "candidates for political office" and placing members within top positions (such as the Presidency of Lombardy which was held by Roberto Formigoni for seventeen years).

The "cozy relationship between Communion and Liberation and Roberto Formigoni and the entire Lombard regional government" that was dismantled amid corruption scandals in 2012 demonstrate that Catholic teachings are not always a repellant to political cronyism and malpractice. The subtle ways in which the Catholic Church directly or indirectly manages to exert power on the public sector are particularly disturbing and undermine the democratic process initiated by Italy seven decades ago.

The election of Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 opened a season of Catholic political battles on ethical issues and a more markedly interventionist agenda. That same year, the referendum on medically assisted reproduction failed to reach a quorum, also thanks to the influence of then Pope Benedict XVI, who openly recommended electoral abstention. While Catholic teachings, including the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, prohibit in vitro fertilisation, the Church is understandably less keen to focus on this aspect of their campaigning against reproductive rights.

Although direct Vatican interference in the Italian state has suffered a pushback over the last 30 years, the nature of this influence has shifted. Under Benedict XVI's Papacy, Cardinal and former Vicar General of the Diocese of Rome Camillo Ruini bolstered his evangelical mission to bring a stronger Catholic imprint on Italian society that had first been espoused in the Christian Cultural Project published by the Italian Episcopal Conference in 1997. Sociologist Luigi Ceccarini posits that this cultural project seeks to advance the Catholic Church's "presence and ethical perspective" and help it "act more independently in support of its own values and interests, by exerting 'pressure' on parties and institutions, taking advantage of its own diffuse territorial organisation and relying on the public credibility it possessed both nationally in Italy and worldwide."

Pope Francis, who was elected in 2013, has sought to show openness to liberal values with more inclusive language about LGBT people, while appeasing conservatives by essentially maintaining his predecessors' dogmatic views on sexual morality. Pope Francis remains personally committed to campaigning against civil unions and other rights for same-sex couples. However, under his leadership, the Church has been unsuccessful in opposing the advance of LGBT rights in Catholic majority countries such as Italy, Ireland and his native Argentina.

The Catholic Church's traditional influence over the Italian legislative process has rested on three pillars: direct legal religious privilege, societal religious privilege and popular support.

The bill on civil unions for same sex-couples, which was later signed into law on 20 May and will take effect on 5 June, and the Prime Minister's strong defence of the Constitution demonstrate that these three pillars are starting to crumble.

Dr Stefano Bonino is Lecturer in the Department of Social Sciences at Northumbria University and Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. The views expressed in our blogs are those of the author and may not represent the views of the NSS.

Britain really is ceasing to be a Christian country

Britain really is ceasing to be a Christian country

For the first time in recorded history, those declaring themselves to have no religion have exceeded the number of Christians in Britain. The Spectator asks whether deference to tradition will protect Christianity's privileged position in the UK.

NSS Speaks Out

Our Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood spoke on Sky News and BBC Radio London this week to discuss news that there are more non-religious people now in the UK than Christians. Our President Terry Sanderson discussed this on Talk Radio.

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