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Newsline 8 September 2017

People who say they have 'no religion' are now in a majority in Britain, according to the highly-respected British Social Attitudes survey. This is a useful opportunity to say, once again, that Britain's institutions and public life are out of touch with the views of most of its people.

But the argument for secularism does not lie in the figures. Even if everyone in a country shared the same religious views, the fundamentalists would have no right to impose their views on the moderates. The separation between religion and power is an essential aspect of any free society, and it is a principle we should stand for on its own merits. This week, we've been making that case across national and local media.

Global events, such as the treatment of the Rohingya Muslims, also remind us of the need to defend freedom of religion. This is why we've spoken out against China's crackdown on religious freedom. Very often the religious lobby plays the victim to try to gain undue concessions. But events such as these illustrate that genuine persecution does exist, and those with the voice to do so have a duty to highlight it.

If you believe in defending both freedom from religion and freedom of religion, please support us.

Britain should embrace secularism as it loses its religion

Britain should embrace secularism as it loses its religion

Opinion | Fri, 08 Sep 2017

As new data suggests non-belief is at a record high, Chris Sloggett says secularists should be more assertive in making the case for freedom of and from religion. This article was originally published by the International Business Times; reprinted here with kind permission.

The case for secularism does not lie in the figures. Even if everyone in a country said they shared the same religion, fundamentalists would not have the right to impose their views on moderates. But the news that non-religious people are apparently in the majority in Britain is a reminder that our major institutions – and public life more broadly – is out of step with the British public.

In some ways the excessive deference we give to religion is blatant. The Church of England is established and 26 bishops still have a constitutional right to a place in the House of Lords. The government asks religious groups to run our publicly-funded schools. Christian prayers are said as part of official parliamentary business.

In other ways it is more subtle. Last week Drayton Manor Park in Staffordshire changed their entry policy to allow Sikhs to carry knives. On Monday the Church of Scotland's moderator gave an official blessing to the new Queensferry crossing. This week it emerged that thousands of state primary schools are incorporating the hijab into school uniform codes for pre-pubescent girls. These are just the latest instalments in an ongoing series of concessions to the religious lobby.

In response to the new figures several commentators have stressed the good that people do in the name of religion and expressed concern about what may come next. Secularisation, the argument goes, leaves a vacuum which could be filled by something particularly intolerant: extreme nationalism, perhaps, or radical Islam.

In the current climate, fear of these forces is understandable. But one of the striking elements of the politics of our times is its anti-secular character. Religion is far from being a private affair: it is a major political dividing line.

Nearly six in ten Christians voted to leave the EU last year; seven in ten Muslims voted to remain. Last year all five Tory leadership contenders were outspoken Christians, and during London's mayoral election both detractors and supporters seemed endlessly focused on the fact that Sadiq Khan was a Muslim. No wonder the magazine Christian Today said a 're-awakening' was taking place, where politicians increasingly felt the need to share their religious views with the rest of us.

Religion is also behind rising intolerance abroad. More than four in five white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump to become president last year. Trump got a higher proportion of their votes than Mitt Romney, John McCain or George W. Bush before him. And evangelical advisers continue to prop up the Trump administration even as others, for example from the world of business, desert him. India is experiencing a rise in Hindu nationalism under Narendra Modi. The orthodox church is one of Vladimir Putin's most important backers. Islamic fundamentalism continues to claim and ruin lives around the world.

And where the left has erred, it has been because it has embraced moral relativism and rejected secularism. Free speech is viewed as an expendable luxury. Campaigners for Islamic reform, or the rights of women or gay people in the Muslim world, are smeared. The current Labour party leader's history of allying with Islamists is explained away.

Over the centuries the religious lobby has not accepted the position of women, gay people or science – among many other things – easily. And in a multi-faith era, they hold the door open for each other's intolerance. In 2008 Rowan Williams, then the Archbishop of Canterbury, agreed with a questioner who asked him if the application of sharia was an "unavoidable" concession needed for social integration. After the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices, the Pope bought into the narrative that the cartoonists had brought it on themselves, saying: "Curse my mother, expect a punch".

Too often we accept this, while convincing ourselves we are being moderate or 'respectful'. We have a religious conservatism of our own, the argument goes, so we must allow others their equivalent. When New Labour decided it was too hard to take on the Church over Christian faith schools, Charles Clarke created schools for other faith groups.

But this approach has entrenched segregation even further and allowed religious groups to claim special rights that the rest of us do not have. Schools are allowed to choose their intake based on the faith of parents. The blasphemy law may have been officially repealed in 2008, but an Olympic gymnast can be banned for two months and forced into a grovelling apology for having a laugh about Islam at a wedding. Religious groups are granted tax breaks with precious few questions asked about the public good they are doing.

Now the evidence suggests we are not even deferring to a majority. But even if we were, it would not be the point. Societies can only cohere when they have a set of principles and laws to unite around. Secularism, when defended consistently, provides a framework of rights and responsibilities for all; a commitment to reason, open-mindedness and free enquiry; and an appreciation that our freedoms end when others' freedoms begin.

There is plenty of room for reasonable disagreement about where the margins of these principles lie. But only fanatics oppose them outright. It is up to the rest of us to stand up to them and call their stance out for what it is.

Cardinal Murphy O'Connor's cover-up of child abusers must be a lesson to the Catholic Church

Cardinal Murphy O'Connor's cover-up of child abusers must be a lesson to the Catholic Church

Opinion | Fri, 08 Sep 2017

Cormac Murphy O'Connor, the former Archbishop of Westminster, died on 1 September. NSS executive director Keith Porteous Wood seeks to set the historical record straight with this alternative obituary. This piece was originally published on Conatus News. It is reprinted here with kind permission.

The death of Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor has understandably resulted in obituaries lauding his achievements as a Prince of the Catholic Church. But we are pleased that few ignore entirely the Cardinal's involvement in one of the most scandalous child abuse cover-ups this country has seen.

I don't doubt for a moment that Cardinal Murphy O'Connor did some good in his life, but there was another side to his story that should not be forgotten – a side that resulted in pain and suffering for many children. And the ruthless campaign by the Church to repress the details of the Cardinal's many errors and misjudgements, and worse.

Despite the image of a genial old buffer that the Cardinal liked to project, it did not stop him, in 2006, from sacking his talented press secretary, a lay position, simply because he was "openly gay". And O'Connor was "firmly against the repeal of Clause 28, which banned the promotion of homosexuality in schools", a repressive and vindictive measure now regarded with embarrassment. This, despite the prevalence of gay men in the priesthood.

Those with long memories will also remember that, following complaints from parents, O'Connor, when Bishop of Arundel and Brighton, moved a known serial practising paedophile cleric, Michael Hill, from unsuspecting parish to unsuspecting parish.

If O'Connor's objective had been to reward Hill by affording him the greatest possible opportunities to prey on an almost unlimited supply of vulnerable unaccompanied juveniles, some of them thousands of miles from their parents, he could have done no better than appoint Hill as Catholic chaplain at Gatwick Airport. Yet this is exactly what O'Connor did, despite his knowledge of Hill's repeat offending and psychiatric reports that Hill was likely to re-offend.

Needless to say, O'Connor never shared what he knew about Hill's criminal abusive activities with the police, contributing directly to Hill's ability to continue his orgy of abuse unhindered. Hill was eventually convicted and jailed in two separate trials for abusing a boy with learning difficulties at the Airport, as well as eight other boys. Ten further charges unaccountably "remain on file".

To his dying day, the best Murphy O'Connor could do in his mea culpa on Hill was to say his response was "inadequate but not irresponsible". Not much consolation to the victims and their families. Nor will have been the self-righteous indignation of his pitiful response to criticism:

"Inevitably mistakes have been made in the past; but not for want of trying to take the right and best course of action."

Richard Scorer, abuse lawyer and NSS director, examined the Hill saga exhaustively in his book Betrayed: The English Catholic Church and the Sex Abuse Crisis and demonstrated beyond doubt that O'Connor's claims about Michael Hill were completely baseless.

And, so predictably, O'Connor's affable mask slipped again and he got pretty vicious when the media started asking what were, to his mind, too many questions and getting too close to the uncomfortable truth.

It is an open secret that the BBC was muzzled from pursuing its investigative work on O'Connor by top-level representations made by O'Connor.

Few if any others than O'Connor could have managed to intimidate the BBC into silence, yet having done so, O'Connor still had the gall to claim that there was an anti-Catholic bias in the media. He wrote:

"Many others feel deeply concerned by the apparently relentless attack by parts of the media on their faith and on the church in which they continue to believe."

That old trick so well practised by the Catholic hierarchy: portraying itself as the victim.

That would all be shocking enough, yet there is credible speculation that the Hill saga could have been just the visible tip of the iceberg. A 2012/3 report by the group Stop Church Sexual Abuse has speculated that:

"[Anglican] clergy … seem to have worked together with priests from [O'Connor's] Catholic Diocese of Arundel and Brighton … to abuse children.

Reports include that of a Catholic priest who had multiple reports for alleged child sex offences and who was moved by the Catholic Bishop [O'Connor] over to the CoE diocese of Chichester and became an Anglican Minister.

"The relationship between the [Catholic] Diocese of Arundel and Brighton [O'Connor's] and [the Anglican one of] Chichester [in which Peter Ball, mentioned below, ministered] has been historically close. … in the 1980s … Bishops Cormac Murphy O'Connor and Peter Ball [not imprisoned until 2015 on multiple counts of sexual abuse committed over twenty years earlier] were close friends and it is now [claimed] that both sat on multiple reports of child sexual abuse by clergy and did nothing to protect children from further abuse.

"In total upwards of 17 Anglican and 19 Catholic clergy have been reported to have abused children up to the late 1990s within these Dioceses. Most lived and/or worked within one small geographic area which adds to the concern that there [may have been] a network of sex offenders shoaling for victims within church communities, schools, cathedrals, youth groups and scouting groups."

Even the Daily Telegraph reported police investigations into "claims that O'Connor hampered Hill's prosecution" and if the claims above are correct about O'Connor's close friendship and nefarious collaboration with the devious and mendacious Peter Ball, who escaped justice for decades, this does not seem in the least far-fetched.

At least, however, O'Connor is still indelibly connected in the public's mind with the disgraceful Michael Hill saga, having been widely reported including in The Times, with severe criticisms including "Victims' groups demanded his resignation in 2002".

The Church could not but have known very much more. But the process of rewriting history is no doubt in full progress.

Does it not however speak volumes about the Pope and Catholic Church that, given all the above, they chose, out of all the possible candidates, "His Eminence Cardinal" Cormac Murphy O'Connor to be a cardinal, to be the most senior Catholic in England and Wales, to be Emeritus Archbishop of Westminster, and to be the Pope's Apostolic Visitor to investigate clerical child abuse in the Archdiocese of Armagh?

But maybe we should not be surprised. The Pope tellingly did not strip O'Connor's fellow Cardinal in Scotland, Keith O'Brien, of his cardinal's biretta for abusing his rank with decades of predatory sexual activity, when it all came to light in 2013. There, homosexuality seemed more like a job requirement than a sackable offence.

It seems from the Gibb Report into disgraced former Bishop Ball that Sussex police appear to have done a workman-like job on abuse in the Anglican diocese. I would have suggested that the Sussex Police now turn their attention to the Catholic diocese, but unfortunately the CPS told them in 2003 to abandon the investigation whilst refusing to explain why. Hopefully this was not because of O'Connor's clerical rank, just like the CofE's Report suggested Peter Ball's cleric rank was the reason he escaped justice in 1993.

Beware the drip drip of religious exemptions

Beware the drip drip of religious exemptions

Opinion | Sat, 02 Sep 2017

As a theme park lifts its ban on Sikh ceremonial swords, NSS campaigns director Stephen Evans questions the wisdom behind religious exemptions from generally applicable rules.

The latest submission to religious demands came this week when a popular theme park lifted its ban on Sikh visitors wearing ceremonial swords.

Quite understandably, Drayton Manor theme park has a general policy of not allowing 'weapons' or 'other articles which may cause injury' into the park. Clearly the Kirpan (or ceremonial sword) worn by a small proportion of Sikhs falls foul of this policy.

However, faced with accusations of 'religious discrimination', after refusing to allow a Sikh man carrying a sword into a children's party at the theme park in June, Drayton Manor has now backed down.

Following "in-depth consultation" with "Sikh elders", the theme park has backtracked and will now allow Sikhs to bring in ceremonial daggers provided they are "no more than six inches long". This is despite a report from a renowned health and safety specialist confirming that "the wearing of a sheathed dagger posed a viable compromise to safety whilst on a ride".

So now we have a situation whereby kids' wheelie shoes are banned, but six inch knives are fine ­– provided they're strapped to a Sikh. Welcome to the crazy world of religious privilege.

A couple of things concern me about this development. Firstly, it's concerning that some of the commentary around this decision appears to give credence to claims that for some Sikhs, wearing the Kirpan is "not a choice". Of course it is.

Being black is not a choice. Being gay is not a choice. Following a particular religion is a choice – or at least it absolutely should be. Amritdhari Sikhs make up fewer than 10% of all Sikhs. They choose to follow this religion and they choose their strict level of observance.

The bogus argument that we must make special exemptions for religious practices because those practising that religion have "no choice" in the matter needs to be called out for the non sequitur that it is.

But this case again highlights the extent to which we single out religion for special treatment and accord religious claims of conscience greater weight than other claims of conscience.

All claims of conscience should be subject to equal scrutiny. There are principled arguments for why the state ought to tolerate a plethora of private choices and conscientious commitments, but there is no good argument to single out religion for anything like the special treatment it receives in Western societies and legal systems.

The cutting of young boys' genitals and live animals' throats is tolerated because religious ideas are deemed more worthy of respect than children's bodily integrity or the welfare of farm animals. We grant wide exemptions to equality laws to enable discriminatory 'faith schools' to operate. We consider 'the advancement of religion' to be a charitable purpose, giving tax breaks to religious groups despite scant evidence that many religious charities deliver any meaningful 'public good'.

This uncritical privileging of religious ideas also renders us incapable of calling out bigotry and intolerance when it masquerades as faith. Those quick to call out racism, hatred, homophobia, sexism and even abuse too often give religion a free pass, turning a blind eye to injustices when occurring in a religious context.

We claim to support free speech, yet happily practise self-censorship of anything that might offend 'the religion of peace'.

Rather than applying any principled toleration of religion, perhaps what we're actually doing is privileging ideas and claims of conscience that are most likely to make trouble if not acceded to. But tolerating religious fanaticism for a quiet life many not be such a wise choice. Opening the door to religious exceptionalism is unlikely to lead to anything like a quiet life as Britain becomes increasingly diverse.

I'm all for reasonable accommodations and common sense, but religious freedom does not equate to religious entitlement. Let's not be fooled into thinking we're under any moral obligation to tolerate religious acts of conscience that burden others or risk harm.

As Brian Leiter points out in his book, Why Tolerate Religion?, "Toleration may be a virtue, both in individuals and in states, but its selective application to the conscience of only religious believers is not morally defensible".

Secularists have long challenged religious privilege. Such privilege comes in many forms. Not only is there a need to challenge the more obvious privileges religion enjoys ­– such as public funding for religious schools and automatic seats for bishops in our legislature. There's also a need to challenge 'soft privilege' that manifests itself in the mindset that religious ideas are somehow deserving of automatic respect simply because they are religious. They are not.

NSS criticises Chinese crackdown on religious freedom

NSS criticises Chinese crackdown on religious freedom

News | Thu, 31 Aug 2017

The National Secular Society has joined Amnesty International in condemning the Chinese government's crackdown on religious freedom.

How a teacher and a Virgin Mary statue drew attention to religious bias in the Irish education system

How a teacher and a Virgin Mary statue drew attention to religious bias in the Irish education system

News | Fri, 01 Sep 2017

A humanist teacher who objected to a statue of the virgin Mary being displayed at a state-funded school with a "religious ethos" in Ireland has lost a claim of discrimination at a Workplace Relations Commission hearing.

Ireland’s hospitals: some welcome secularisation

Ireland’s hospitals: some welcome secularisation

Opinion | Fri, 01 Sep 2017

NSS executive director Keith Porteous Wood detects a long-overdue and decisive turn towards secularism in publicly funded healthcare in Ireland, an area in which the Catholic Church has until now been predominant.

The Catholic Church in Ireland has, until recently, simply assumed that it would run much of the country's health services in much the same way as it does its schools. But that complacent assumption was challenged recently when a furious row erupted over a new, publicly funded, national maternity hospital. The government was intending to hand it over to a religious order, the Sisters of Charity (whose notorious reputation for abuse in the Magdalene Laundries is well known). Clerics maintained that because the Church owned the land on which the hospital was built, it would have to conform to Catholic doctrine.

This was particularly sensitive as some of the services that would normally be undertaken by a maternity hospital would not conform. Those related to abortion, the provision of contraception and work on gender reassignment are obvious examples. After the outraged public reaction to the maternity hospital proposals, the Sisters of Charity stepped down from running the hospital and a new trust was formed with no religious input. Now, after what has been described as a "damaging and drawn-out dispute with the Sisters of Charity", the nuns have also agreed to sell the land to the state – which in turn has made a commitment that the hospital will "provide all services to Irish women permitted under law".

The public outcry over the maternity hospital provided a hard lesson to the Irish government. Irish society has changed and its people are no longer prepared to tolerate the Church interfering so extensively in the private lives of citizens. Ireland is now, as the Catholic commentator Mary Kenny admitted, post-Catholic.

And lessons have indeed been learned. A new publicly-funded children's hospital is to open in Dublin in 2021 and the main question being asked by the public is: what degree of religious involvement will there be? The minister of health's answer to that could hardly have been more unequivocal. He said of the children's hospital, "The legislation is very clear: There will be no religious involvement in our hospital, all of the board will be appointed by the minister of the day. … This will be a secular hospital and the legislation is clear in relation to that. It's outlined in the programme for government that this will be a secular hospital, underpinned by legislation."

The minister made his announcement flanked by the heads of hospitals that would be merged into the new facility and members of the new group overseeing the project. None challenged his comments.

Several hospitals will become vacant when their activities are transferred to the new children's hospital. One of these, whose costs have been publicly funded for many years, is owned by the Sisters of Mercy, (who have also been singled out in the past for a high levels of child abuse in their facilities). It is thought to be worth €92 million, which the Sisters of Mercy will pocket when it is sold.

On the other hand, another hospital becoming vacant, Our Lady's Hospital in Crumlin, is under the control of the Archbishop of Dublin. He has - unlike many of his colleagues - shown notable contrition over clerical child abuse, and looks likely to pass the hospital back to the state.

After too many unrealised promises of secularisation from previous Irish governments, this latest administration is not just making secular noises but backing them up with tangible action. The opponents of such moves seem to have accepted this.

We hope the Irish government can keep this up, particularly in wresting education from the stranglehold of the Catholic Church.

And if the Sisters of Mercy still owe contributions towards abuse settlements, I hope these will be compulsorily retained out of the proceeds of the sale of their hospital.

NSS welcomes Conway Hall launch of 'Victorian Blogging' project

NSS welcomes Conway Hall launch of 'Victorian Blogging' project

News | Wed, 06 Sep 2017

The National Secular Society has welcomed a new project from Conway Hall which will highlight the work of Victorian radicals on major issues of the 19th century, including secularism.

NSS Speaks Out

Our response to the religion survey data was quoted in The Guardian and mentioned in The Times. Our staff responded to the figures across several local radio programmes, including Stephen Evans's appearance on BBC London (he is introduced after 10:44). Stephen also made the case for clearer labelling of halal meat on several local radio stations.

Keith Porteous Wood argued against Aldi's decision to accommodate a Muslim employee who refused to serve alcohol on BBC Three Counties Radio (he is introduced after 26:03). And Alistair McBay had letters published in The Scotsman and The Herald about church buildings' exemption from business rates and clerical appearances at official events.

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