West London Humanists and Secularists

Update on the National Secular Society (NSS) - Meeting 28/07/11

Terry Sanderson is President of the NSS to which our group is affiliated so it is important that we keep abreast of their activities. The talk was memorable for two things - an explanation of the proposed change to the scoping of the NSS mandate and an update on their campaigns.

Terry explained how the founder of the NSS had intended it very much as an atheist body, motivated by opposition to "superstition". In general use the term secularism is mostly identified with the idea that religion should not get involved with state government. Many people in many countries have fought long battles to achieve that separation. With recent developments in many parts of the world, including the UK, NSS leadership are now seeing this idea under increasing threat and believe that they must now do everything they can to the promote the secular state even if it means offering membership to theists who, nevertheless believe in a secular state. The fact that there are such people should come as no surprise as most of the people who have fought for a secular state in the past have been theists who saw it often as the greatest guarantee of religious freedom. In practice, when a state is religious it tends to have a particular state religion and it is not long before other religions are discriminated against.

State secularism appears in many guises and it is important to understand this when fighting for it. For example, the USA has a secular constitution although it has an increasingly non-secular society that wants to meddle in politics. Conversely, in Britain we have a largely secular society but still have a church-based constitution, and despite the slowly reducing numbers of theists, those that remain are increasingly voluble and demand more and more political and legal privileges. In Turkey there is a secular constitution that has been staunchly defended by most of the population, and the army, since Atatürk founded it as a republic. Now more that 50% of the population support a prime minister who is widely regarded as an Islamist whose ultimate goal is an Islamic state. In France, secularity law dates from 1905, with the intention of separating Catholicism from the State. Thus public-funded schools in France are all secular (except in Alsace, which wasn't part of France in 1905). Now some Muslims want to have special arrangements, on the grounds that in their religion "state" and "religion" are inseparable. Terry felt that the French reaction to such attacks on secularism were not very helpful. He feels that the "burkha ban" risks bringing the law on secularity into disrepute - a view not shared wholeheartedly by everyone in our group. He believes UK history is different and that banning religious clothing from schools just won't happen here.

The question is, what kind of secularism is right for Britain? Terry said that the first objective in the UK should be the disestablishment of the Church of England - though a distant objective at the present time, it is not inconceivable. Terry thought that complete separation of the state from religion would not be the UK way of doing things, but a more inclusive model, with equal privileges to all beliefs whether religious or not, is more likely to be acceptable. No doubt many people will be contributing their ideas to this but the reader may be interested to look at the work of Dr. Evan Harris (ex Lib Dem MP for Oxford West and Abingdon) who has drafted a secular manifesto which he presented at the recent BHA AGM and which is being considered by the NSS.

A draft proposal on a change to its constitution is being considered by the NSS and will be submitted at its AGM in November. Apparently, consultation with members has indicated a roughly 50:50 split on this question with many very passionate feelings being expressed. There are fears that, for instance, evangelical Christians could join in large numbers in an attempt to subvert the NSS but Terry felt this could be managed. Some members of our group were horrified that NSS might open its membership to theists and vowed opposition. Others, such as Philip Veasey, felt that such a narrowing of the mandate to what was most important, in practical terms, would be well worth it if it greatly increased the support for and focus on the fight for secular government. Philip bemoaned the way in which such organisations as Amnesty International have widened their mandate continually beyond fighting torture and supporting prisoners of conscience so that, although one might agree with each objective, the focus and widespread and passionate support could be lost.

Terry's update on NSS campaigns covered many things such as:

  • ending collective worship in schools
  • opposing the state-funding of hospital chaplains
  • the risk of evangelism under the guise of RE in schools
  • Roman Catholic child abuse
  • progress in strongly Catholic Malta which now allows divorce
  • support for young "Arab Spring" revolutionaries who have called for a secular state against moves by Islamists such as in Tunisia which has become less liberal in matters such as dress codes since the fall of what was a secular dictatorship.
  • the activities of the "Platform for Secularism" within the European Parliament
  • the opposition to various cases of "human rights" brought to the European Courts by Christian groups wishing to establish their right, on religious grounds, to deny others their rights.
More detail on any of these can be found by visiting the NSS site at http://www.secularism.org.uk/ .

Philip Veasey & Roger Haines - 17 August 2011