Newsline – 11 March 2011

Newsline is the weekly newsletter from the National Secular Society.  Every week we collate the stories and issues or most importance to our members and offer reportage and insight.  Our audio edition takes the main stories and offers them in an easy-to-listen podcast, available online and via iTunes subscription (for free).

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In this week’s Newsline

  • NSS call on Government to stand firm on RE omission from EBac
  • Scotland: Anti-sectarian measures “a mere band-aid”, says NSS
  • Lautsi judgment imminent
  • Big majority of Britons think religion should stay out of politics
  • End prayers in parliament, says LibDem MP
  • Is there really one law for all? We’re about to find out.
  • Secularist of the Year– last call for tickets
  • After environmentalism, animal rights is defined as a belief system equivalent to religion
  • Church tax brings in billions for the church
  • Anti-extremist think tank may close after funding stopped
  • Coming out as atheist: Ian McEwan and Francesca Stavrakopoulou
  • Support grows for a secular Lebanon
  • Have you renewed your membership?
  • Consultation on restructuring the NSS

NSS call on Government to stand firm on RE omission from EBac

The National Secular Society has called on the Government to stand firm in the face of a vocal campaign from vested interests insisting that Religious Education should be included in the English Baccalaureate (EBac).

The Government is introducing the new EBac qualification to recognise the success of students who attain good GCSE grades across a core of academic subjects. The chosen subjects are in line with what the Russell Group of universities say they expect students to have if they are to go on to leading universities. RE is not included.

In a written submission to the Education Committee, the NSS has supported the decision not to include RE, maintaining that the current arrangements for the provision of RE precludes it from being considered as a serious academic subject.

At present, the RE syllabus is determined locally by Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education (SACREs) which are dominated by religious interests. In addition, some faith schools are permitted to teach confessional RE in accordance with the tenets of the faith of the school.

Groups pushing for RE to be forced onto the English Baccalaureate have said its omission could create a future of ‘British Barbarians’.

Stephen Evans, Senior Campaigns Officer at the National Secular Society said: “Many advocates of RE are claiming that its inclusion in the EBac is essential for good community cohesion. As RE is already a compulsory subject, and will remain compulsory, we hope the Government will not find favour with this false argument.

“Any syllabus for a subject that covers religion and belief should be taken out of the hands of vested interests. Religious groups and representatives should have no privileged input and the RE syllabus should be nationally determined by independent educationalists without a confessional religious agenda.

“Too often, RE is regarded as a way of promoting the belief systems of the individual members of the SACREs. The correct objective of RE should instead be to provide pupils with a balanced and objective academic knowledge of religious beliefs and non-religious worldviews.

“The current poor provision of RE is short-changing pupils. Without radical reform, any decision to include RE as part of the EBac would only serve to increase this disservice to young people, who deserve better from our education system.”

Scotland: Anti-sectarian measures “a mere band-aid”, says NSS

Anti-sectarian measures announced at the summit meeting of Glasgow Rangers and Celtic football clubs and the Scottish Government on Tuesday are temporary band-aids that do not deal with the fundamental causes of sectarian animosities, according to the National Secular Society.

The NSS said that the religious divisions in Scotland are magnified by segregating pupils by religious worship and education. If state education places such significance on religious differences can it be any wonder that such differences find expression in other walks of life?

In a letter to the Scottish political parties, the NSS proposes that they include in their manifestos for the Scottish Parliament elections on 5 May moves to do away with religious segregation in Scottish state schools and to review the rules for religious education and worship.

The NSS calls for a religiously integrated primary and secondary state school system that mixes children with parents from all religious faiths and none rather than perpetuating the current system of state funded religiously segregated schools.

Given that one in three of the population is now estimated not to be religious in any way, continuing religious observance and indoctrination in schools cause distress to an increasing number of non-religious parents. Their only option is withdrawing their children from classes, religious services and activities to which they object and this, in turn, leads to children feeling excluded.

Edinburgh-based NSS Council member Norman Bonney commented: “Scotland’s renowned secular university system, where there is no enforced religious segregation or indoctrination, is a valuable example of how learning and social mixing can flourish in a multi-cultural environment where a wide spectrum of faith and non-belief is tolerated and respected. It should be a model for the other parts of the education system.”

Meanwhile, the absurdities of Scotland’s system of separate faith schools has again been demonstrated as Edinburgh councillors and education officials struggle to find a solution to overcrowding in one primary school and the underuse of another on a shared campus in the city.

Initial plans for a switch of the buildings between the state-funded Roman Catholic school and state-funded ‘non-denominational’ (Protestant) primary school were eventually withdrawn by the local authority because of community tension and opposition from parents of the latter school.

The local education authority is now proposing that a wing of the underused school should be shared between the schools with separate entrances to it but the Roman Catholic school is still insisting that religious images should be displayed in the new classroom spaces that will be available to it.

The two schools have attempted to promote more joint activities to improve relations between the two groups of schoolchildren and parents but NSS council member Norman Bonney comments how much easier, more efficient and more desirable the situation would be if the Scottish Parliament amended the laws so that there would be just one state school sharing all the facilities – happily mixing children of all faiths and none and leaving religious worship and indoctrination to home and church if that is what parents wish.

Lautsi judgment imminent

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights will rule on 18 March on the so-called Lautsi case. In this case, a parent (Mrs Soile Lautsi) successfully claimed that Italy’s administrative law requiring display of the crucifix in every State school classroom violated the right of parents to “to ensure [their children’s education is] in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions” (Article 2 of Protocol 1 to the Convention, which the Court read in conjunction with Article 9). More details .

The Court ruled in Mrs Lautsi’s favour, but Italy has appealed the case to the Grand Chamber, which is the ultimate court of appeal. If the judgment is upheld, it could have significant consequences for secularism in Europe. It could even impact on the NSS’s court challenge to council prayers.

Big majority of Britons think religion should stay out of politics

As the census form plopped onto the doormats of most households this week, a major new piece of research has shown that only 54% of people in this country define themselves as Christian. More importantly, over two-thirds of respondents said they did not approve of religion and politics being mixed, or religion dictating policy-making.

The survey (pdf) has been published by the Searchlight Educational Trust and was carried out by Populus. There were 5,054 respondents (much larger than the usual opinion poll, which usually questions around 1,000 people).

The poll also shows that as well as the 54% of people defining themselves as Christian, 35% say they had no religion and 7% were from other religions.

The survey runs to some 395 pages and the following detail was extracted from a summary compiled by the British Religion in Numbers website.

23% said that religion was important to them, with 55% disagreeing and 22% neutral.

Just 7% said religion was the most important element in their personal identity. This compared with 35% for nationality, 24% for country of birth, 16% for the city, town or village in which they lived, 7% for ethnicity, 6% for their immediate neighbourhood, and 5% for the country of residence, where different from that of birth. Religion was the second most important influence on identity for 8% and the third most important for 10%.

55% never attended a place of worship in their local community. 8% claimed to go at least once a week, 5% at least once a fortnight, 6% at least once a month, and 26% less than once a month. The official figures for church attendance, however, which are based on counting the number of people actually in the pews, indicates that respondents to opinion polls overstate their religious observance quite substantially. (A rough calculation by our Executive Director suggests the numbers claiming to be in Church on an average Sunday equates to around 14% – which is double the actual number as counted by the churches themselves.)

Only 23% thought that, by and large, religion is a force for good in the UK. 42% disagreed and 35% expressed no opinion.

A large majority of people in Britain are secularists, with 68% agreed that religion should not influence laws and policies in Britain, with 16% disagreeing and 16% neutral.

On a scale of 1 (= do not trust at all) to 5 (= trust fully), the mean respect score for local religious leaders was 2.95. This was lower than for the respondent’s general practitioner (3.98), the local headteacher (3.44), women’s institute (3.43), the local scout/girl guide leader (3.41) and the local branch of service organizations (3.31).

62% considered religious abuse to be as serious as racial abuse, but 38% viewed the latter as more serious.

60% believed that people should be able to say what they wanted about religion, however critical or offensive it might be. 40% thought there should be restrictions on what individuals could say about religion, and that they should be prosecuted if necessary. Significantly more, 58%, were in favour of limitations on freedom of speech when it came to race.

44% regarded Muslims as completely different to themselves in terms of habits, customs and values. Just 5% said the same about Christians, 19% about Jews, 28% about Hindus, and 29% about Sikhs.

42% said that they interacted with Sikhs less than monthly or never, 39% with Jews, 36% with Hindus, 28% with Muslims, and 5% with Christians. There were a lot of don’t knows for this question.

59% did not know any Sikhs well as friends and family members, work colleagues, children’s friends or neighbours. 55% said the same about Jews, 53% about Hindus, 41% about Muslims, and 8% about Christians.

32% argued that Muslims created a lot of problems in the UK. Far fewer said this about other faith groups: 7% about Hindus, 6% about Sikhs, 5% about Christians, and 3% about Jews.

49% contended that Muslims created a lot of problems in the world. Again, this was much less often said about other faith communities: 15% about Jews, 12% about Christians, 10% about Hindus, and 9% about Sikhs (tables 102–107).

25% viewed Islam as a dangerous religion which incites violence. 21% considered that violence or terrorism on the part of some Muslims is unsurprising given the actions of the West in the Muslim world and the hostility towards Muslims in Britain.

49% thought that such violence or terrorism was unsurprising on account of the activities and statements of a few Muslim extremists. 6% dismissed accusations of violence or terrorism by Muslims as something got up by the media (table 126).

On hearing reports of violent clashes between English nationalist extremists and Muslim extremists, 26% would sympathize with the former who were standing up for their country and 6% for the Muslims who were standing up for their faith. 68% would view both groups as bad as each other.

43% indicated that they would support a campaign to stop the building of a new mosque in their locality, against 19% who would oppose such a campaign, with 38% neutral.

In the event of such a campaign turning violent or threatening to do so, by the action of either of the disputing parties, 81% would condemn such violence but 19% would continue to support one side or the other.

Interviewees were asked to react to the possibility of a new political party which would defend the English, create an English Parliament, control immigration, challenge Islamic extremism, restrict the construction of mosques, and make it compulsory for all public buildings to fly the St George’s flag or Union Jack. 21% said that they would definitely support such a party and a further 27% that they would consider backing it.

End prayers in parliament, says LibDem MP

A Lib Dem MP has joined the chorus calling for an end to prayers before each sitting of the House of Commons. Jo Swinson, who represents East Dunbartonshire, said it was “time to reconsider” the daily Church of England ritual that dates back to the 16th century. Many MPs attended it simply to secure a good seat in the Commons.

All MPs must turn and face the wall during prayers, a tradition that developed in the days when most members wore a sword and could not kneel.

Last week, during a session of the House of Commons, Ms Swinson asked: “Is it time to reconsider the House practice whereby the only way to reserve a seat in the chamber makes it mandatory to attend Church of England prayers?”

Sir George Young, the Conservative Leader of the House, responded that such reforms were a matter for the Speaker. But Keith Porteous Wood, of the National Secular Society, told the Sunday Express: “I don’t think it is appropriate for prayers to form part of the proceedings, although we would have no objection to prayers outside the chamber.”

Ms Swinson’s call follows a similar one from Jo Johnson, MP for Orpington in Kent. The calls sparked an angry reaction from the Church of England, with a spokesman saying that prayers set the “important decisions” made by MPs “within a wider moral, Christian context”.

Sittings in both the Commons and the Lords begin with prayers and non-members are barred from the public galleries until they are finished.

Is there really one law for all? We’re about to find out.
Editorial by Terry Sanderson

Muslim extremist and provocateur Emdadur Choudhury was fined £50 this week for burning poppies during the Armistice Day commemoration ceremony. He was found guilty under Section 5 of the Public Order Act of burning the poppies in a way that was likely to cause “harassment, harm or distress” to those who witnessed it. As you would expect from a religious zealot of Mr Choudhury’s intensity, he was unrepentant, said that he did not recognise the court, answered only to Allah etc., etc.

Video footage of the demonstration in West London, shown in court, saw a group of about 20 Muslim demonstrators chanting: “Burn, burn, British soldiers, British soldiers, burn in hell.” and “British soldiers – murderers, British soldiers – rapists, British soldiers – terrorists.”

The £50 fine — which was the minimum tariff the magistrate could give — was roundly condemned by the tabloid press and by those present at the commemoration who had felt offended and insulted by the disrespectful gesture.

District Judge Howard Riddle explained “Shocking and offending people is sometimes a necessary part of effective protest. Here, an obvious consequence of this process was to show disrespect for dead soldiers. The two-minute chanting, when others were observing a silence, followed by a burning of the symbol of remembrance, was a calculated and deliberate insult to the dead and those who mourn or remember them. If the memory of dead soldiers is publicly insulted at a time and place where there is likely to be gathered people who have expressly attended to honour those soldiers, then the threat to public order is obvious.”

But the Judge said he had to take into account Mr Choudhury’s right to free speech as guaranteed under the Human Rights Act.

So, was it right that Choudhury was let off with such a derisory punishment? Did it just add insult to injury? Or were Choudhury and his fanatical chums entitled to their freedom of speech, meaning that no charge should have been brought in the first place? Should the injured sensibilities of the grieving relatives of dead soldiers be of no concern to the law?

In Britain we have laws protecting people from offence, particularly religious offence. And so, when an American preacher who had threatened to burn a copy of the Koran was planning a visit to the UK last year, the Home Secretary stepped in to ban him. Pastor Terry Jones hadn’t actually carried out his threat, but it was sufficient to trigger over-reaction from the Home Office.

But now a man in Cumbria called Andrew Ryan has actually done the deed. Mr Ryan burned a copy of the Koran in a Carlisle street in January and has now been charged with religiously aggravated harassment and theft of a Koran. The offence carries a possible 7 year jail sentence.

Mr Ryan is due in court on 24th March and it will be very interesting to see whether the judge in his case also thinks that “shocking and offending people is sometimes a necessary part of effective protest.”

Naturally, some people think the Koran is “sacred” while others think it is just a sheaf of papers bound together like any other book. Will Mr Ryan get a £50 fine for burning paper or will he get seven years for offending the sensitivities of Muslims?

Let’s see if the law thinks there is “offence” and “religious offence” and then, perhaps, “offending Islam” – all of which might bring very different punishments. One law for all? We’ll see.

See also: Inheriting the wind of free speech and religion

Secularist of the Year– last call for tickets

A great afternoon of fun and good food is in prospect next Saturday as the next presentation of the Irwin Prize for Secularist of the Year takes place.

The winner is now chosen and will be revealed to a roll of drums by A.C. Grayling after we have enjoyed a welcome cocktail, a three course lunch with tea or coffee and some eye-popping magic from the Trickman .

This will be your last opportunity to get your tickets to see the winner receive their £5,000 prize and the Golden Ammonite trophy and to enjoy the convivial atmosphere created by friendly secularists from around the country. We need to let the venue know the total numbers later this week so that they can make the catering arrangements. Bookings are already close to the venue’s capacity.

The occasion will also be an opportunity to honour those volunteers who have worked hard for the NSS over the past year and we will give a special achievement award to an individual who really deserves it.

Saturday 19th March is the date, Soho, London is the destination. We’ll be gathering in one of the capital’s more glamorous destinations – all red plush and crystal chandeliers. Festivities will be over in time for those outside London to make their contented way home.

So, if you want to be there, don’t delay – book online or by post from NSS SoY, 25 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL. Tickets are £45 each (£15 for students with identification). Please include the names of all your party, together with any requests for special dietary needs.

After environmentalism, animal rights is defined as a belief system equivalent to religion

Animal rights advocate 42 year old Joe Hashman was told by a judge this week that his belief in the rights of animals to live free from cruelty were equivalent to a religion when it came to the application of discrimination law.

He now has the right to sue a garden centre for discrimination over allegations that he was sacked when its pro-hunting bosses discovered he was a leading animal welfare activist.

Orchard Park Garden Centre, in Gillingham, Dorset, fought to prevent Hashman from bringing the case, claiming he was insincere and that his views did not qualify as philosophical beliefs under employment tribunal rules. However, Judge Lawrence Guyer said: “The claimant has a belief in the sanctity of life. This belief extends to his fervent anti foxhunting belief (and also anti hare coursing belief) and such beliefs constitute a philosophical belief for the purposes of the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003.”

Mr Hashman claims he was unaware when he took the job that the centre was owned by farmers Sheila and Ron Clarke, who are keen supporters of the South and West Wiltshire Hunt – or that they knew he had been a hunt saboteur since the age of 14. He alleges that when they found out, they dismissed him purely because of his beliefs, rather than the quality of his work running a vegetable patch to encourage customers to grow their own produce.

At a hearing in January at Southampton Employment Tribunal Centre, Mr Hashman argued that his views on foxhunting should be treated as a philosophical belief under employment tribunal legislation. “I know in my heart and soul that living life as a vegan is the philosophical foundation of my anti-hunting stance,” said Mr Hashman, who is a life member of the Hunt Saboteurs Association.

“Against hunting I have protested, demonstrated, sabotaged, monitored, infiltrated, filmed undercover and worked politically since 1982. I am devoted to the causes arising from my philosophical belief and I will not stop fighting for animal rights.”

The tribunal has heard Mr Hashman was dismissed shortly after the Clarke’s farm manager Andrew Prater — a terrier man for the local hunt who had repeated run-ins with Mr Hashman — recognised him while he was working at the garden centre. The garden centre denies his claims, insisting that his beliefs played no part in his dismissal. They claim that his vegetable patch was not making them enough money.

Their lawyers argued that Mr Hashman was not genuinely committed to animal rights because he continued to work for the garden centre after he learned that the owners were pro-hunting.

Mr Guyer added:

“I have no hesitation in finding that Mr Hashman thinks very deeply about the issues arising from his beliefs and that he attempts to live his life in accord with those beliefs. I find that his beliefs are truly part of his philosophical beliefs both within the ordinary meaning of such words and within the meaning of the 2003 legislation.”

Mr Hashman said he was “thrilled” that his case will be heard. “It’s absolutely brilliant,” he said. “It’s quite amazing to know that the judge has listened to my evidence and understood what I’m trying to say because it’s a very hard thing to articulate.”

The ruling comes after Tim Nicholson, a former executive with a London property firm, successfully sued for unfair dismissal in 2009 by claiming that he was sacked because of his strong views on climate change.

See also: Background to Employment Equality (Religion and Belief) |Regulations 2003
No end to Christian special pleading

Church tax brings in billions for the church

The figures for German church tax for 2010 were released last week. Some €4.794 billion was collected, a drop of 2.2 per cent in comparison with 2009 but still the third-highest income since the tax was introduced under the Weimar regime after the First World War. Germany’s 25.5 million Catholics must pay between 8 and 9 per cent of their income tax to the Church. Many are resigning from the church in order to avoid this.

Last week, the Catholic Church in Germany announced that it was offering €5,000 (£4,300) to victims of abuse by its priests.

Anti-extremist think tank may close after funding stopped

The Quilliam Foundation, an influential think-tank working to tackle Islamic extremism, has lost £1 million worth of government funding and faces closure within weeks.

Prime Minister David Cameron, who based his thinking on multiculturalism on findings by Quilliam, is said to be concerned about the news after his advisers warned that the loss of Quilliam would do “very great damage” to efforts to de-radicalise Muslims in the UK and overseas.

Coming out as atheist: Ian McEwan and Francesca Stavrakopoulou

Described as the greatest living novelist, Ian McEwan was interviewed in the Daily Telegraph. Part of the interview says:

McEwan of course, like The Hitch and Dawkins, is an avowed atheist and when we talk about the Christian belief in an afterlife he says: “Do you think they really believe it? I’ve been to funerals where I was pretty sure the majority were atheists and they listened to the vicar say that the deceased had gone to a better place and everyone’s toes curled.

“We can’t prove it’s not so, but the chances that it is are rather meagre. If they did believe you all meet up again in this big theme park in the sky why were they crying? How can you say you believe in the afterlife and weep at the finality of death?”

Meanwhile, in the Daily Mail, we are introduced to Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou, and Oxford theologian, who will present a new programme on BBC2 called The Bible’s Buried Secrets. Ms Stavrakopoulou says: “I’m an atheist with a huge respect for religion. I see what I do as a branch of history like any other.”

Support grows for a secular Lebanon

Thousands of people demonstrated in Lebanon last week demanding a secular state be established in place of the present sectarian regime. Protestors included religious figures.

Waving Lebanese flags, the demonstrators hoped to capitalise on public support for an end to corruption, selecting the Electricité du Liban building — a symbol of government mismanagement — as their end-point. Some of the banners at the rally read: “Confessionalism is the opium of the masses” and: “Revolt to topple the agents of confessionalism.”

Lebanon is governed by a complicated and delicate power-sharing agreement, based on political confessionalism that aims to maintain a balance between the country’s 18 religious sects. The system mandates that the president be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shi-ite Muslim. Other government jobs are allotted according to religion.

The agreement has been blamed by many as being the cause of serious problems and issues this volatile Mediterranean country has witnessed over the years, including civil war, corruption and cronyism.

Bishop Gregoire Haddad — at 87 a veteran of secular campaigning — toured the protest by car, saying, “We’ve been demanding the toppling of the sectarian regime for 40 years. But the movement shouldn’t be violent, so that we don’t witness what has happened in the Arab world … I believe it’s [too] early to call on the top three leaders to resign.”

At the other end of the age range, 18-year old student Saja Mortada, dressed in a jacket and head scarf, said “I am tired of the stealing and corruption. I want a democratic, civil, secular state where state and religion are divided.”

See also: Democracy is as dangerous in the Middle East as it is in the West

Have you renewed your membership?

The NSS’s quarterly Bulletin was sent out last week. If you are member and didn’t receive it, please let us know. If you’ve changed your address or other contact details, please tell us so that we can keep our records up to date.

Membership subscriptions for the NSS are now due, and we hope that you’ll by now have renewed for another year. If you haven’t, please do so now. We’ve got an important year coming up and we need you to stay with us. If you aren’t a member yet, please consider joining today.

You can do it quickly online or you can set up a standing order that will save you the trouble of renewing.

Consultation on restructuring the NSS

NSS members are being invited to take part in a consultation on proposed changes to the Aims and Objectives of the Society .

Please note that this consultation is for paid-up members only.

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