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Newsline 9 January 2015
Collection of Charlie Hebdo front covers reprinted in solidarity

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NSS statement following Charlie Hebdo attack

NSS statement following Charlie Hebdo attack

Opinion | Wed, 07 Jan 2015

Restrictions on criticising or satirising religion, especially Islam, have hugely increased since Salman Rushdie was burned in effigy and driven into hiding over The Satanic Verses in 1988. That he was reviled and those attempting his murder not even charged showed Governmental contempt for freedom of expression.

The abolition of (Christian) blasphemy in England in 2008 became irrelevant with the introduction of protection from criticism or mockery of all religion when 'religiously aggravated offences' were criminalised with a seven year tariff. These offences dangerously go beyond protecting individuals to protecting their beliefs.

The extremists try increasingly to terrorise us into silence and often the state conspires with them, blaming the victims for 'bringing it upon themselves'.

But in an open society, free expression is more important than any religious dogma. Without free expression, our democracy will not function, as it does not in many Muslim countries. Religion will be permitted to go unexamined, even when it is a threat to life and limb.

We must stand together and refuse to be cowed into silence by the threats of terrorists and the cowardice of politicians. We cannot, as a society, place religion beyond the reach of satire or critical examination.

GP Taylor: Why faith has no place in our schools

GP Taylor: Why faith has no place in our schools

Opinion | Thu, 08 Jan 2015

Many principled people of faith oppose religious privilege in state schools. Former Anglican priest GP Taylor makes an impassioned case for secularism as a basis for equally inclusive education.

As a priest, I was always suspicious of the new parent lurking at the back of church clutching the hand of a four-year-old child. You knew that within a couple of weeks the application forms for the local faith school would appear and once signed you would never see them again.

The village where I lived had a great school, but there was a section of parents who wanted their children to attend a faith school and would do anything to make that happen. They would even endure months of church services and even Confirmation to secure that magic signature on the form.

Somehow they felt that faith schools offered a far better deal and were the nearest thing to private education without having to pay.

Perhaps they were right, but it is very easy to offer a higher standard of education when you are a selective school.

The issue is that faith schools attract the middle classes, fewer children on free school meals and are not encumbered with the problems of a difficult catchment area. They often attract the best teachers because they are easier to teach in and have better standards of behaviour. This isn't down to some magic formula that the spirituality of the school calms the children, it is the fact that they, on the whole get brighter kids from better off families with supportive parents.

The trade off for parents is that to get this superior education they have to allow their children to be indoctrinated into the traditions of that particular school and the faith on which it is based. In a modern and secular society this has many potential dangers.

The trouble with many faiths is that they are quite divisive. By their very nature, they work on the principle that they are the right and only way to God and every other way is wrong or flawed.

Many teach beliefs that are contrary to the views of the society in which we live. How can a faith school teach that all faiths are equal when the theology of that faith demands its followers to believe that they are the only true way to God?

Christianity and Islam both state this very clearly and don't believe anyone who says that us not the case.

Homosexuality, creation, gender separation and contraception are just some areas where these schools are at odds with the world. In some schools, children are taught outdated views on God that verge on the medieval.

But is it right to have any religion in school at all? Under the Education Act, each school is required to have some form of collective act of worship. Children coming together to pray, sing or act out a faith story. Perhaps this was acceptable thirty years ago, but it's place in society has now gone.

Only seven per cent of the population attend church on a regular basis, so why is it that schools up and down the country should act as recruiting agents for God?

This is an outdated and quite farcical concept. Many teachers find it difficult to maintain a balance in their approach and some find the whole idea very uncomfortable.

I believe that the only place for faith in our schools is as a subject delivered on the same level as maths and science. It is important that it is still taught and should be compulsory for every student to learn, but as a factual and not spiritual discipline.

Religious beliefs should not be forced upon anyone and should always be discussed in an age appropriate and sensitive manner.

Religious practice in schools often has a detrimental effect on students and pushes them away from exploring the concept of God rather than opening their minds to it.

In the age of rising fundamentalism, it is important that any aspect other than the academic study of faiths is stripped from our education system. Students should be free to learn about perceived beliefs in an environment of critical study and analysis.

Religious dogmas and outdated cultural concepts have to be allowed to be challenged and not received as absolute truths.

Secularism in schools will become a necessity for future generations. Schools will have to become places of intellectual safety and out of the control of religious groups with vested interests.

Faith must become a subject and not a means of pupil selection and prayers and worship put back into the hands of those who seek to propagate belief well away from places of education.

GP Taylor is an author and former Anglican Priest. The views expressed in this article (first appeared in the Yorkshire Post and is reproduced here with the author's kind permission) are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NSS.

Churches, charity and the conferring of privilege

Churches, charity and the conferring of privilege

Opinion | Tue, 06 Jan 2015

There are many ways to do good, including campaigning for human rights and equality over discrimination and prejudice, but charitable work is not a bargaining chip for special privileges, argues Alistair McBay.

Recently some Christian leaders in Scotland angered at secularists challenging their privileges have responded by pointing out the National Secular Society and other secular groups don't run care homes, or operate food banks, or run adoption agencies. Secularists have been the target of this ill-informed sniping from both the Free Church of Scotland and the Church of Scotland, and Anglican and Catholic leaders have made similar attacks in the past. So here is an attempt to set the record straight on a few points.

First, let's deal with the obvious. The NSS is not a registered charity, it is a not-for-profit campaigning organisation. It would be more accurate for the churches to compare us not with themselves, but to the Christian not-for-profit think-tank Ekklesia, which is also a campaigning group, not a registered charity, and doesn't run care homes or food banks. Perhaps the Christian Institute might be another more appropriate comparator – it is a registered charity but which spends its funds on campaigning for 'Christian influence in a secular world', and not on food banks.

So while it is true that the NSS runs no care homes or food banks, the religious leaders who condemn us for failing the vulnerable can be accused of the very same. For example, they have never campaigned for equality for the LGBTi community. In fact, they continue to campaign for LGBTi rights to be restricted and for Christians to be able to practise discrimination and prejudice against them through exemptions from the Equality Act. They also campaign to retain the legal right to exclude children and teachers on the grounds of their parents being of the 'wrong' religion or no religion. There is not much charity in evidence here - just the demand that Christian belief be seen to confer a right to discriminate against, segregate and exclude vulnerable groups.

I know of no secular charity that prostitutes its charitable works as justification for retaining special privilege in society - that seems to be the sole prerogative of some religious groups. All over the UK, every day of the year, people of all religious beliefs and none perform selfless works and activities to raise funds for those worse off in some way, or give up their valuable personal time as volunteers to make better the lives of others less fortunate. Yet the only people who consistently brag (sorry, bear witness) about what they do in this regard are church leaders looking to leverage this work in exchange for power and privilege, and to champion their allegedly superior belief system.

The NSS is a fervent supporter of charitable works conducted by organisations both religious and secular. We applaud all organisations that do such work, although we rightly object where receipt of charity is dependent on some form of religious observance. Many secular charities do much good, but we never hear them claiming in the media that their good works confer the right to dictate how the country should be run, to discriminate, or to promote the primacy of their philosophical beliefs.

Of course many secularists donate or support charities run by religious groups, including the many secularists who are also believers. How wonderful it would be if Christian leaders could continue the good work that their churches and congregations do because they are just good people with a human desire to help others, and did so without using it as a bargaining chip for special favour and influence.

Yet in its own way the NSS funds charitable organisations and activity. For example, we may not run schools or provide shelters for battered women, but our annual Secularist of the Year fund has recognised and rewarded charities such as Plan UK which supports the education of girls and young women around the world, an award we made in recognition of the wonderful example of Malala Yousafzai. We also continue to support secular groups such as the Southall Black Sisters, who do such sterling work on behalf of victims of domestic abuse in the UK's black and minority ethnic communities and challenge the religious dogma which contributes to their marginalisation. And we could do so much more of this if only we didn't pay our taxes in full and enjoyed the tax breaks and regular Government handouts the churches receive.

I have yet to see any church leader comment that the £15m handed out in the Chancellor's Autumn Statement for church roof repairs would be better spent directly providing a happier Christmas for many of the homeless. And this, remember, is on top of the £42m Listed Places of Worship Grants Scheme, which provides funding amongst other things for auto-winding turret clocks, pipe organs and bells and bell ropes!

Finally, a word about the topical subject of food banks, to which I and many other secularists donate regularly. Let us not forget that the current Government in Westminster claims to be a Christian Government in a Christian nation, and reminds us regularly that it is proud to 'do God'. This is a Prime Minister for whom the existence of food banks is "part of what I call the Big Society".

In the past we have supported the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams who alerted Christians in June 2011 to the dangers of this Government initiative to shrink the state and hand more control of services to volunteer groups and charities. The Archbishop warned that 'Big Society' might be a 'stale slogan' and a euphemism for 'an opportunistic cover for spending cuts.' This much was apparent in an address to the Council of Christians and Jews at a reception in Downing Street in 2012, where David Cameron reaffirmed his Big Society idea in these words: "There's a huge space between government and the individual that can be filled by organisations, faith-based organisations perhaps in particular, that can deliver great public services, that can do great things in terms of tackling some of the problems of our time." Those church leaders who proclaim their role in providing food banks should remember that it is due to the austerity policies of a Westminster Government that 'does God', complete with a Christian evangelical Minister for Faith, that such food banks exist.

In short, there are three principal ways to assist the needy, the vulnerable and the less fortunate. One is as a responsible individual with a regard and respect for our fellow humans, and to do whatever we can as individuals to alleviate the suffering or distress of others. Then there is the registered charity route, be it Muslim, Christian, Jewish or secular in construct, which gives structured help. We applaud the work of all organisations in this regard, secular and religious. The final route is to campaign for human rights and equality over discrimination and prejudice, and for inclusivity of public services rather than exclusion from them. That is also a vital service for the vulnerable and oppressed, and it is funded in our case wholly by members' subscriptions and legacies, and not Government handouts and tax concessions for buying bells and organs.

All three methods of helping the vulnerable are necessary. But none should merit the provider a special privilege in society over any other. It is time Christian leaders practised a little more of the humility they preach alongside the equally valuable work all our organisations perform.

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

If we exempt ritual slaughter from animal welfare laws we open the door to far worse crimes

If we exempt ritual slaughter from animal welfare laws we open the door to far worse crimes

Opinion | Mon, 05 Jan 2015

Jewish and Muslim sensibilities about ritual slaughter are given protected status, despite these practices being inhumane. Matthew Syed argues that religious exemptions in this area are a slippery slope into far worse crimes.

I'll be honest: I love meat. I like steak medium rare, lamb pink, and I am not averse to the occasional veal Milanese, particularly when it is served at Brocca, a rather nice Italian restaurant I know. But, like most carnivores in this country, I also believe that animals should be slaughtered humanely. In fact, I think it is imperative.

The law, unsurprisingly, takes the same view. Animal welfare legislation requires animals to be stunned before slaughter in order to minimise suffering. The stunning renders the animals largely impervious to pain before they are killed. There are also other rules and regulations that seek a balance between the rights of the animal and the practicalities of eating meat on a mass scale.

Some campaigners reckon that the law should go further to protect animals; others think that it is already too onerous.

But this is the stuff of democracy, isn't it? People with different opinions trying to reach a conclusion based on something approaching rational deliberation. And for those who disagree with the conclusion, there is always the opportunity to campaign, to proselytise, and, indeed, to stand for parliament if they so wish. That is how you change the law.

But it isn't the only way. When it comes to meat, it turns out that there are exemptions. Jewish and Muslim sensibilities about ritual slaughter are given protected status, despite these practices being inhumane. Kosher meat is taken from animals that are never stunned pre-slaughter. Halal animals are stunned sometimes, but not always. Both types of meat are routinely served in restaurants, without labelling. The exception was granted on grounds of religious freedom.

Now I want to point out here that I don't have any problem with religion. If you think that there is a divine rule that bans you from eating animals slaughtered in the name of anyone but "Allah"'; or animals that weren't killed by men trained for the purpose; or carcasses that haven't been patted on the head by a rabbi, that is your business. Hell, you can eat your food while balancing a copy of the Holy Book on your head if you really want to.

But I do have a problem with the law having get-out clauses. I do have a problem with rules being swerved around. The law is not a pick'n'mix counter. The right to religious freedom is not an absolute right to do what you like, whether killing animals inhumanely, barring gay couples from your B&B, or forcing your daughter into a marriage she doesn't want. Religious customs, like secular ones, must operate within limits.

And when those who make the laws start to grant exemptions, however well intended, it is not just animals that suffer; it is all of us. Just look at how this legislative fear of offending religious sensibilities has shaded into a deeper cultural impotence when it comes to standing up to crimes such as female genital mutilation, "honour" abuses and the more ludicrous aspects of Sharia. Look at how it has caused us to pull our punches on issues such as the burka.

Secular liberalism, we should remember, is not a wishy-washy doctrine. It is a positive, muscular and rather wonderful creed. It is about the principle of "live and let live", but within limits. When people behave in illiberal ways; when they trample on the rights of others (human or animal); when they try to exempt themselves from the law, we should confront them. Indeed, religious freedom itself can only survive in a society when it is protected from the illiberal tendencies of others.

Of course, if religious groups wish to change the law, on animal slaughter or anything else, that is their right. But let them argue for it openly, like anyone else. To be fair, some Jewish and Islamic scholars have argued that ritual slaughter is not inhumane, but they have been powerfully contradicted by the Farm Animal Welfare Council, the EU's scientific panel on animal health and welfare, and the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe.

But this is how it should be. Let us have the give and take of rational debate. Let us decide on the basis of evidence and reason. And let us examine the arguments of religious groups on their merit, and without fear of being labelled antisemitic, anti-Islamic or anti-religious.

Matthew Syed is a columnist and feature writer for The Times. This article first appeared in the Times (£) and is reproduced here with the author's permission. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NSS.

Who should be the next Secularist of the Year?

Who should be the next Secularist of the Year?

News | Wed, 17 Dec 2014

Tickets are now on sale for Secularist of the Year 2015 and the National Secular Society is seeking the public's nominations to receive the prize.

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