West London Humanists and Secularists

Religion's Political Grip on Europe - 19th January 2012
A Talk by David Pollock, President of the European Humanist Federation

Reported on by Roger Haines:

In some European countries, billions of Euros of taxpayers' money is handed over to churches - even without including the similar sums that some of them receive "as payment for services" such as education and hospitals. This was one of the startling - some might say shocking - revelations from David Pollock, President of the European Humanist Federation (EHF). The situation varies greatly from country to country, and in a few cases national humanist or secularist bodies are included as minor beneficiaries of the "religious subsidy". Even in these cases, the share received by the traditional churches is out of all proportion to their level of support today.

In any case, David Pollock argued, this would still be a dubious approach on democratic grounds whatever the shares. It is often based on the concept of what is popularly known as a "pillar constitution", where much is devolved to the main pillars of the community - but for many people, religious belief is not an important factor in their self-identification. "This sort of arrangement.. ..assigns people to a very limited number of groups.. ..and almost forces them to act through these groups.. ..because they have the money and recognition". The EHF, a small lobbying body with 53 member organisations, was established in part to oppose this disproportionate public funding of religious bodies, but perhaps even more to attempt to counter their vast political influence in Europe's various government-related bodies, above all the European Union.

According to the Lisbon Treaty of the EU, David explained, national law regarding the status of religious bodies, however discriminatory, cannot be overridden by EU anti-discrimination or human rights legislation. A second clause "equally respects the status under national law of philosophical and non-confessional organisations" - which turns out in practice to have mainly benefitted freemason organisations. Finally, the EU is obliged to maintain a dialogue with these churches and other organisations. The EHF finds it appalling that such favoured treatment should be given to largely undemocratic bodies, notably including the Holy See, an entity with the status of a foreign state "that is not in the EU, has no wish to join, and is the only European 'state' that is not signed up to the European Court of Human Rights". This "right to dialogue" has been very heavily used, for example by the Vatican, which has a large lobbying staff in Brussels. More generally the European Commission has regularly arranged seminars on "fundamental issues" with church representatives.

Despite its opposition to the principle of this Article of the treaty, the EHF has attempted to provide some counterbalance, by itself using its right as a "non-confessional organisation" to dialogue with the EU Commission. However, the Commission has persistently raised objections to seminars on issues proposed by the EHF, such as the conflicts of equality and freedom arising from religion and belief. After an official complaint to the EU Ombudsman, the principle of a closed meeting of experts on such a topic has now been conceded. Other channels have also been pursued, such as dialogue with the EU President, with varying results depending on the current six-monthly revolving President in question. More fruitful have been dealings with the Council of Ministers, and in the European Parliament, the EHF works with an active backbench group of MEP's called the European Parliamentary Platform for Secularism in Politics.

The EHF, working with kindred groups, has also been active in lobbying within the organisations of the Council of Europe. Success here has been mixed - for example the religious lobby succeeding in pushing through a damaging vote on "conscientious objection" by professionals, on faith grounds, to the provision of services such as contraception. On the other hand, an EHF paper on "the religious aspects of intercultural dialogue" was successful in ensuring that humanism was recognized in a Council of Europe report on this topic.

Finally, the OSCE has proved to be useful forum. This body (the Organisation for Security & Co-operation in Europe) was set up during the cold war to provide a platform to discuss complaints about discrimination and persecution. The EHF emphasis on the general principles of Human Rights & non-discrimination has gone down well there.

Such limited success by the EHF has been achieved despite what David Pollock found to be a great disparity between member organisations in different parts of Europe, not just in terms of cultural history, but even in the meaning attached to words such as "humanist" and "secularist". In Britain and some other northern countries, "humanist" is most widely understood as what David called a "positive non-religious lifestance"; but in the Catholic dominated part of Europe, even this idea is unpopular among atheists as sounding too much like an alternative religion, while the word "humanism" is more often used by the religious as a cross between humanitarianism and Renaissance learning.

Similarly "secularism" in the political sense is taken to mean "separation between church and state" in some countries such as France, whereas in others there is no separation but only a "neutrality" of the State as between different religions or sects, so that both religious and humanist bodies in the Netherlands (for example) run some social services, provide chaplains in the Armed services and hospitals, and dispense overseas aid, all from public funds.

These differences in background have posed obstacles when it comes to things like dialogue with European bodies. Should the EHF oppose all such dialogue as undemocratic interference, and leave the field free for religious bodies without such scruples? The strict separatists have made such a case, but in the end the pragmatic view won the day and the Humanist/Secularist case has been put whenever questions of policy affecting matters such as freedom of belief have arisen.

RH 01/02/2012

David Pollock's transcript of the talk can be found here
The EHF website contains many thoughtful papers arising from this input.