Saturday, 29 September 2012

Report on the National Secular Society Conference - 22nd September 2012

by Pat Marsh

Like many Green Party activists, I am a member of the National Secular Society and have been for many years, ever since my own experience with faith schools in Canterbury. I saw how a parent can be manipulated into attending a place of worship against their own conscience in order to ensure a place for their child in a secondary school run by a religious institution. Such schools are wholly financed by the taxpayer and yet permitted to select students on the basis of their parents’ religion (see article on Faith Schools on this blog). I attended the National Secular Society Conference last year. The speakers and people I met were persuasive and sometimes inspiring, so I decided to attend this year as well. I wasn’t disappointed and thought you might be interested in hearing about what went on.
For those of you not familiar with the National Secular Society, I’ll first give a bit more information about it and the reasons for its existence, with appropriate reference to relevant Green Party policy. Then I’ll report on the main speeches at the Conference, all given by distinguished associates of the Society, including the world-famous author of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins.

The National Secular Society (NSS) has much in common with the Green Party, particularly the “belief in fairness, freedom and human rights”. There are, however, some misapprehensions about what the NSS stands for, so let me just set out a statement of their aims from the website http://www.secularism.org.uk/:

“The National Secular Society is Britain's only organisation working exclusively towards a secular society. Founded in 1866, we campaign from a non-religious perspective for the separation of religion and state, and promote secularism as the best means to create a society in which people of all religions or none can live together fairly and cohesively. The NSS sees secularism − the position that the state should be separate from religion − as an essential element in promoting equality between all citizens.

We work in the UK and Europe to challenge the disproportionate influence of religion on governments and in public life. We provide a secular voice in the media, defending freedom and equality as a counterbalance to the powerful religious lobby and some of the more destructive religious impulses that can threaten human rights worldwide.”

Quite a few people are not aware that the UK is in the anomalous position of being the only state in the world, apart from Iran, which has a head of state who is also head of an established state religion. Most of us know why our Queen is Head of the Church of England as well as of the state: Henry VIII wanted to divorce his first wife and the only way he could do it was to replace the Pope as Head of the Church. What is puzzling is that this situation still exists today, nearly 500 years later. The UK is also the only state in the world with religious appointees to its legislature (26 bishops in the House of Lords). Furthermore, one third of UK schools are faith schools entirely funded by the state. In addition, England and Wales are the only countries where there is a mandatory daily act of worship in schools. I could go on, but if you were in any doubt about the influence of religion in the UK, I hope this is sufficient to make you think again. The press has given us the impression that Christians are being persecuted nowadays; this is simply not the case. In the past Christianity was the source of higher culture in many European societies, commissioning or inspiring supreme feats of art, architecture, music and literature. Today it is intellectually on the back foot, and its adherents are resentful of this position. They are desperate to cling on to the considerable privileges they have been given, which have no place in a modern egalitarian society.


The aims of the NSS and the Green Party coincide in wishing to create a fair and equal society with no special privilege given to the adherents of any particular religion. The relevant sections of Green Party policy are as follows:


Monarchy and the Church

PA601     There shall be a complete separation of church and state. Society shall not interfere with the individual's freedom of belief, but it may by law regulate conduct arising out of that belief. In a multicultural society, a privileged position for the Church of England is inappropriate.

PA602     The Church of England shall be disestablished. It shall become self-governing, and the government shall cease to have any powers and responsibilities peculiar to that church. No person shall hold office in the state, or be excluded from any such office, by virtue of their or their spouse's membership or non-membership of any religion or denomination of religion.

http://policy.greenparty.org.uk/complete-pss

So let’s move on to the NSS Conference on Saturday, 22nd September 2012. In his opening speech Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the NSS, reminded us of various instances of religious privilege aided and abetted by the UK government, but also listed successes the NSS has had over the last year in combating it. Perhaps the most significant one was action over the planned takeover of a community school by a faith school in Dagenham. Faith schools have the right to recruit only teachers who adhere to their particular belief system, so the jobs of many teachers were on the line in this case. Teachers from the community school went on strike and the government had to rescind the takeover decision.

Prof. Ted Cantle, CBE of the Cohesion Institute http://www.cohesioninstitute.org.uk/ presented the arguments for our society moving from a policy of multiculturalism to one of interculturalism. He showed how multicultural policies have kept people apart, living parallel lives within communities. The “tick-box” mentality of authorities has meant that people are classified according to their ethnicity, nationality or faith, even though they may have multiple identities. This often results in community faith leaders having exclusive access to government funding and imposing their own values on the whole community in the provision of services. These values often allow no freedom of choice: rejecting the faith of your parents or marrying someone from outside the faith may well be considered unacceptable, for example. Yet these “faith communities” have the same needs and disadvantages as their neighbours, who have other faiths or none: education and training opportunities, employment, help for those who “slip through the net”.  Therefore state support should not be given on the basis of faith or ethnic identities, but rather on the basis of need. Gateways must be found to communities, not gatekeepers.

Prof. Cantle also presented the results of research which shows that faith schools foster prejudice. Children brought up in a multicultural environment are much more open-minded. But in our current system children don’t have to attend faith schools to be indoctrinated. On this topic the NSS website has a poignant quote from a woman in Lancashire:

"Despite deliberately choosing a secular school for our five-year-old daughter, she is still taught religion as fact, has to attend 'communal worship' and has told us several times that she "believes in Jesus". I am deeply concerned about the teaching of religion in schools and the broader issue of community cohesion when faith schools automatically divide our children into 'us' and 'them'."

MP Nia Griffith, Labour's shadow Welsh Minister, wanted to know why so little progress had been made in parliament to progress to a secular society. She acknowledged that most MPs were not averse to secularism, but were, all the same, reluctant to support any overt secularist legislation. Often the excuse was that "there are more important things than disestablishment".

Observer journalist Nick Cohen gave us his thoughts on a very topical issue: the fear felt by publishers and editors of publishing anything which might conceivably be construed as “blasphemous”, particularly by Islamists. This has led to an overwhelming system of self-censorship, which has handed us all over to the most reactionary forces in the international community.

Cohen presented the case of The Jewel of Medina, a historical novel by Sherry Jones about Aisha, wife of the prophet Mohammed. The author apparently bent over backwards not to give offence to people of the Muslim faith, but the book was pulled from publication by Random House after a Texas academic said it might provoke violent reactions, even though no threats were received. When a British publisher took the book, its premises were firebombed. The case highlights the fact that extremists will always find some cause to incite violent protests against Western civilisation; worst of all, it is the author and publishers who are blamed for provoking the violence. Self-censorship may not be so frightening as having a secret police, but it is much more insidious. Certain subjects are simply off limits. This kind of failure to defend freedom of speech and expression has meant that there has not yet been one prosecution for female genital mutilation in the UK, although it is known to take place. Racist extremists are dealt with in our society by using ridicule, and this approach has been successful (remember the humiliation of Nick Griffin on Any Questions). Religious extremists should receive the same treatment. It simply needs us all to stand up and defend the hard-won freedoms we have achieved in the West.

This strategy of “safety in numbers” was taken up in Maryam Namazie’s impassioned speech, which received a standing ovation. Maryam is Spokesperson of One Law for All, Equal Rights Now and the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (UK). She recounted the case of women in Tower Hamlets who receive death threats for not wearing the veil. Apparently, there are more women in Bangladesh who don’t wear the veil than in that particular London borough. It is simply unacceptable that such intimidation is going on in Britain. The multicultural policies followed by successive governments have led to the state tacitly condoning the denial of basic freedoms in religious communities. It is now time to give full support to the majority of Muslims who are not Islamists.

The main focus of Maryam Namazie’s presentation was on the use and institutionalisation of Sharia law in the UK. Currently many British Muslim families have recourse to Sharia courts. Under Sharia law a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s; a woman’s marriage contract is between her male guardian and her husband. A man can have four wives and divorce his wife by simple repudiation, whereas a woman must give reasons, some of which are extremely difficult to prove. Child custody reverts to the father at a preset age, even if the father is abusive; women who remarry lose custody of their children; and sons are entitled to inherit twice the share of daughters. Proponents argue that those who choose to make use of Sharia courts and tribunals do so voluntarily and that, according to the Arbitration Act, parties
are free to agree upon how their disputes are resolved. In reality, many of those dealt with by Sharia courts are from the most marginalised segments of society with little or no knowledge of their rights under British law. Many, particularly women, are pressured into going to these courts and abiding by their decisions. More importantly, those who fail to make use of Sharia law or seek to opt out will be made to feel guilty, and can be treated as apostates and outcasts. Even if completely voluntary, which is untrue, the discriminatory nature of the courts would be sufficient reason to bring an end to their use and implementation. It is a matter of urgency that Sharia courts be abolished in the UK and that there truly is one law for all. More and more women are standing up for their rights and they must be able to feel that there is safety in numbers and that British society is overwhelmingly on their side.

Pragna Patel, a founding member of Southall Black Sisters, said it was important for women in ethnic and religious communities to have a "secular space" they could come to if they were being abused. Groups like hers provided such a space, but were constantly being threatened by withdrawal of funding.

Peter Tatchell — winner of this year's Secularist of the Year prize — made the point that religious organisations were now one of the greatest abusers of human rights around the world. He praised secularism as inclusive and tolerant and a way forward for believers and non-believers alike.

The final speaker of the day was Richard Dawkins, the University of Oxford's Professor for Public Understanding of Science from 1995 until 2008. He was presenting the arguments against the notion that we should respect other people’s religious beliefs, however irrational they are. Conviction, he said should never be mistaken for reason and respecting a person is very different from respecting their beliefs. This linked up with Nick Cohen’s assertions about the self-censorship which is rife in our society today. Prof. Dawkins was keen to show that this curb on our freedom of speech and expression is based on fear, not respect. At its foundation is the following truth: “I fear you because you are mad, but don’t confuse fear with respect. I fear you because you are behaving like a spoilt brat having a temper tantrum.” He shared Cohen’s championing of witty ridicule as the best weapon against religious extremists. He also said it could be used effectively to show the absurdity of labelling children according to their parents’ religion by talking about “existentialist” or “postmodernist” children for example, something we would find absurd.

Much of Prof. Dawkins’ presentation concerned the folly of respecting the privacy of a politician’s religion. He took the topical example of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. This religion is based on The Book of Mormon, the text of which was dictated by the American Joseph Smith, who claimed it was a translation of golden plates given to him by an angel in the early 1820s. He translated the text, which was in the “Reformed Egyptian” language, by using a “seer stone” which he placed in the bottom of a hat and then placed the hat over his face to view the words written within the stone. After translation a word would disappear and a new one appear miraculously. The golden plates were returned to the angel so that they have always been unavailable for independent examination. Like all Mormons, Romney believes the absolute truth of this story. It is surely desirable that voters are aware of this politician’s beliefs; many might prefer that the finger of such a manifestly gullible fool should not be on the nuclear button!

Many British people feel they should have been made more conscious of Tony Blair’s religious persuasions, which led him to be baptised as a Roman Catholic after he retired from office. It was common Christian belief which led him as British Prime Minister to involve this country in the military adventures initiated by George W. Bush, causing the radicalisation of many young Muslims here and abroad, not to mention the unnecessary deaths of tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers in Iraq. To sum up, voters should be entitled to ask those politicians seeking their support exactly what they believe. So a politician who says he or she is Catholic should be asked if they therefore believe that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ during the Mass. If they don’t believe this, why do they call themselves Catholic? If they do believe it, a voter might doubt whether their judgement can be trusted. Tony Blair said: “My faith has always been an important part of my politics.” Had voters been properly aware of this fact, he might not have won three elections as party leader.

The atmosphere at the conference was buzzing with excitement at the prospect of the secularist agenda achieving an increasingly high profile. And the presence of so many students gave hope for an even more vigorous future for the ideas being promoted at the conference. Over a hundred people signed up for membership of the NSS.

You can listen to the speeches from the Conference here: http://poddelusion.co.uk/blog/2012/09/23/national-secular-society-2012-conference-podcasts/ and see photos here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalsecularsociety/sets/72157631619545140/show/