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Newsline 5 April 2013

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Catholic Church to lose control of some schools in Ireland – could this be the start of a seismic shift?

Catholic Church to lose control of some schools in Ireland – could this be the start of a seismic shift?

News | Wed, 03 Apr 2013

Following a survey of parents by the Irish Department of Education, 23 primary schools across the country will be divested of their Catholic Church patronage.

Is this a true history of religious education or a rewriting of the facts?

Is this a true history of religious education or a rewriting of the facts?

News | Wed, 03 Apr 2013

Secularists and humanists in the 1960s and 1970s played a critical role in stopping religious education in schools being used for proselytising. That's the claim being made in new research from the University of Exeter.

NSS honorary associate Iain Banks terminally ill

NSS honorary associate Iain Banks terminally ill

News | Thu, 04 Apr 2013

Our valued honorary associate, the writer Iain Banks has announced that he has "months to live" after discovering he has cancer.

Miliband should keep his party away from priests

Miliband should keep his party away from priests

Opinion | Wed, 03 Apr 2013

Amid his spectacular enthronement, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, managed to say something spectacularly wrong. "There can be no final justice or security or love or hope in our society if it is not finally based on rootedness in Christ." People have been seeking security, love, hope in society since long before Christ, and millions do so today without His guidance. Ideas of a good society unite or divide people in their own terms. People can and do decide what makes a good society – and whether they have reached it – without reference to any religious or spiritual doctrine.

The Labour party has always appealed to universal human values, and asked people to work for a "good society" which is derived from them. For many members the journey into the party may start from religious faith – but the subsequent journey and the final destination have different signposts.

Unfortunately, instead of challenging the new Archbishop's egregious statement, the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, asked for an encore. He invited him to get more involved in political debates. "I said he should intervene" (he told The Times on 23 March). "The Church has a closeness" (a curious expression: did he mean a cloister?) "and a sense of what is happening in the community. It's good that he cares about injustice, it's good that he stands up and talks about poverty and disadvantage."

Archbishop Welby (the first in our history with significant business experience) is undoubtedly too astute to turn the Church into the Labour party at prayer. Nonetheless, Ed Miliband's invitation was a mistake and a wrong turning in British politics. In Ernest Bevin's words, it opens a Pandora's Box of Trojan horses.

For centuries, our country – at least the English part of it – has been blessedly free of religious politics. Faith-based parties have made no headway. Very few major political issues have been influenced by faith groups (although they have, almost without notice, taken control of around a third of our publicly-funded schools). Very few voters take guidance or direction from faith leaders. We need to keep things that way. They make it easier for our democracy to handle contentious issues, because our political divisions do not become articles of religion.

The coalition government has already threatened this precious legacy by appointing the first-ever Minister for Faith, Baroness Warsi. Its motives were murky but it established Faith is an organ of government. Her official job description includes the promotion of faith and she has a budget (tiny but specified) for activities by people of faith. She told the House of Lords on 17 January that her specific role "is to ensure that the voice of people of faith is heard [in the formulation and implementation of policy], which has not always been the case."

The Labour party has not challenged this position or its declared purposes, and now its leader wants to see more involvement of religion in British politics. His invitation to the Archbishop must logically extend to leaders of all other faith groups. If they accept it he will have an invidious task for which he is neither paid nor qualified: deciding what constitutes a religion (as opposed to a sect or a cult) and deciding whether any particular leader is truly representative of the community in question. Even churches with defined hierarchies regularly defy their leaders, particularly when they speak contentious social and political issues, and it is never profitable in any country for secular politicians to become embroiled in arguments within faith groups.

Ed Miliband's invitation to the new Archbishop was peculiar since he remarked, in the very same interview on 23 March, that religion is "an incredibly vexed political issue" in the United States. Indeed. Organized American religious groups believe that they have a special right to influence the law and public policy at state and Federal level, and thereby to force non-believers to comply with religious values they reject. They seek public subsidies or tax concessions for their views and practices. They try to punish politicians who oppose them. The American elections last year suggested that the influence of organized religion is waning: voters, particularly younger ones, did not take their church's agenda to the ballot box and they did not vote with a secondhand conscience.

Just when America is breaking free of the thrall of religious politics, our political parties seem determined to bring it to Britain.

Ed Miliband should (politely) withdraw his invitation to the Archbishop and the implied one to other religious leaders. He should announce that his party will not solicit votes, members or money on religious grounds, nor give religious groups any special access to policy making. In government, he should commit Labour to protect all religious beliefs but promote none, while also making clear that religious belief will always yield to the law and to basic human rights, particularly those of women and children and the right of expression.

It would be "the right thing to do" and politically profitable.

This article was first published in the Yorkshire Post and is reproduced with the permission of the author

After Lord Carey’s attack, Prime Minister assures us that he is a good Christian

After Lord Carey’s attack, Prime Minister assures us that he is a good Christian

Opinion | Thu, 04 Apr 2013

Still wincing from Lord Carey's attack, the Prime Minister David Cameron put out his own Easter message, assuring religious organisations that "As long as I am Prime Minister, they will have the support of this government."

Downing Street, which rejected Lord Carey's criticisms, insisted Mr Cameron's message had been written before the attack and was not a response.

The Prime Minister said he was "particularly proud" of his government's decision to protect overseas aid spending to meet an international development commitment. Quoting the Bible, he said: "St Peter reminds us of the hope that comes from new birth through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Christians, it also reminds us of Jesus's legacy of generosity, tolerance, mercy, and forgiveness.

"That legacy lives on in so many Christian charities and churches both at home and abroad. Whether they are meeting the needs of the poor, helping people in trouble, or providing spiritual guidance and support to those in need, faith institutions perform an incredible role to the benefit of our society.

"As long as I am Prime Minister, they will have the support of this government. With that in mind, I am particularly proud to lead a government that has kept its promise to invest 0.7% of our gross national income on helping the world's poorest, and I am grateful that we have been able to partner with both Christian and non-Christian charities to relieve suffering overseas."

It had been "an extraordinary few days for Christians" with the enthronement of Justin Welby as the new Archbishop of Canterbury and the election of a new pope, he said. Writing in the Daily Mail, Lord Carey said he believed Mr Cameron was "sincere" in his desire to make Britain a place "where people of faith may exercise their beliefs fully".

Where there is state religion, there is less freedom

Where there is state religion, there is less freedom

Opinion | Thu, 04 Apr 2013

In a recent paper, "State Religion and Freedom: A Comparative Analysis", published by the Religion and Politics Section of the American Political Science Association, Professor Steven Kettell discusses the findings of his comparative analysis on the relationship between state religion and individual freedom.

Although he notes that his findings should be viewed with some caution - given that his research requires more detailed analysis – provisionally, his study reveals some very interesting findings and his overall thesis is a compelling one.

Kettell's study highlights two significant findings. The first is that state religions are shown to be disproportionately clustered in those countries classed as "less free".

The second finding is that in those countries with a state religion, there are significantly lower levels of political and civil freedom (i.e. in terms of political rights, civil liberties, and religious persecution) and a notably higher degree of government and social regulation of religion, as well as higher levels of favouritism toward religion.

The study found, according to one index, that nearly half of those countries classed as 'not free' possess a state religion, compared to just 12% of those countries classed as free. In other words, the further down a country was on the freedom scale, the more likely it was to have a state religion.

Interestingly, the research also noted that the form that the state religion took had an impact on freedom. Whilst according to one index used, just one of those countries with an Islamic state religion was considered free, according to another there was no free country with Islam as its state religion. By contrast, the vast majority of free countries with a state religion were Christian (i.e. Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox).

Political systems also played a significant role however; perhaps unsurprisingly none of the countries classed as 'not free' and all those considered free were liberal democracies, regardless of whether or not they possessed a state religion. Nevertheless, the pattern observed in terms of the relevance of a state religion's form when it comes to levels of freedom in a country, was consistent for liberal democracies also.

In response to these findings, the question that then might be asked is: Why do we see this negative impact of state religion on freedom in a country?

Kettell dismisses the often-pointed to factors of human development, religiosity or religious diversity as central to a lack of freedom in those societies with state religions. Instead, he contends, the reasons behind this phenomenon are likely to be based on the institutional dynamics of state religion. Kettell argues that since the very purpose of a state religion is to promote and support one particular religious perspective over any other, and to do so by extending political, legal and financial support for an institutional representation of that perspective, it is not overly surprising that such an arrangement should lead to limitations in political and religious freedoms.

What recognising one religion as a state religion does, Kettell argues, is to ground the authority and legitimacy of the state on sectarian criteria, and to imbue within the notion of national identity one particular religious affiliation. This inevitably institutionalises a ranking of citizenship. Thus, not only does this kind of institutional favouritism and biased conception of religious legitimacy undermine notions of civic equality, fairness, and individual freedom, it inevitably generates social divisions and tensions around religious issues, fosters intolerance of those not subscribing to the state religion, and corrodes the very democratic legitimacy and accountability which helps guarantee freedom in the first place.

Significantly, the paper concludes that the only way to avoid this negative correlation between state religion and freedom, and to best ensure the protection and promotion of human rights and freedom is to maintain a secular state; a state that is free from the institutional imperative to legitimise and officially recognise any one particular set of beliefs, a state that treats all citizens equally regardless of what they choose to believe.

The paper can be seen by subscribers here

Costa Ricans move towards secularism

Costa Ricans move towards secularism

News | Thu, 04 Apr 2013

The Catholic Church may be losing its grip on the Central American country of Costa Rica. While at present, Costa Rica is one of the few Western countries to have an official state religion, a recent poll shows that nearly half of the Costa Rican population would rather live in a secular state.

NSS Speaks Out

Lord Carey's ill-considered — not to mention slightly unhinged — comments about the Prime Minister "aiding and abetting aggressive secularists" made the front pages of the papers over Easter, mainly because there was no other news. The NSS was quick to get in a response that was widely carried.

As well as an appearance by Keith Porteous Woodon BBC Radio Five Live, we were quoted by ITV, BBC, Metro, London Evening Standard, Gulf Times, Independent, Belfast Telegraph and Malaysian Digest.

The BBC Asian Network picked up our story from last week about madrassas in Bradfordand interviewed Terry Sanderson. The story was also covered by Patheos.

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