On Saturday, for the first time, I attended the AGM of the National Secular society. It isn’t easy for me to get down to London, where they ‘re normally held, but this year, because of the pandemic, it was held on-line. I’ve been a member of the NSS for some years now, and I’m very proud of that. Why? Well, the aim of the NSS is to challenge the right of religious groups to interfere in both the state, and the lives of individuals – countering religious privilege.
The NSS doesn’t campaign for atheism. In fact it supports the right to hold religious beliefs, as well as the right not to – freedom of belief, as well as freedom from belief. It has worked alongside religious organisations on campaigns where there is common ground, such as the campaign to get the Scottish government to amend its hate speech bill, which has been so badly thought through and worded that it will severely restrict freedom of speech.
Why should we want to restrict the influence and privilege of religious groups? Well, we supposedly live in a democracy, and yet we are one of only two states (the other being Iran) that reserves places in the legislature for religious representatives without the need to be elected (I’m talking of course about the twenty-six bishops who sit, by right, in the house of Lords). The NSS is working hard to persuade government to abolish the bishops’ bench. The bishops have repeatedly worked against the interests of the general population; for instance, they have been instrumental in blocking attempts to legalise assisted dying (something eighty percent of the population think we should have a right to).
One of the two vice-presidents of the NSS is a human rights lawyer, and in his election address he talked about how he has represented victims of child abuse in cases involving all of the main religions in the UK. A recent report by the Independent Inquiry on Child Sexual Abuse said that the catholic church repeatedly put its reputation before the interests of child abuse survivors. The Vatican is continuing to refuse to co-operate with the inquiry. Religious representatives continue to be given access to children without appropriate safeguards – the state wrongly assumes they can be trusted in situations the non-religious would not be allowed to go into.
Across the world, blasphemy laws restrict criticism of religion. In many countries, saying anything against the established religion can result in a death sentence. The term ‘blasphemy’ has no place in a free and fair society – we have to be free to criticise and even ridicule religion, without fear of imprisonment or death. We’ve got the NSS to thank for the abolition of the blasphemy laws here in the UK. But as we’ve seen in France particularly, some religious groups will stop at nothing to silence critics. The NSS is working hard to ensure governments maintain our right to freedom of speech, and don’t give in to the unreasonable demands of religious groups.
Successive governments, as a result of lobbying by the churches, have allowed the creation of more and more religious schools, to the point where increasing numbers of parents now have no other option for their children but a religious school. Even the most moderate of church schools teach religion as if it were fact, and subject their charges to enforced worship. Surely our kids deserve to be shown both sides of the argument, to be taught to think for themselves, rather than be indoctrinated into a particular ideology? That would allow them to develop their own world view, rather than have someone else’s imposed on them.
That’s before you even get to the many religious schools that have been found to be censoring text books, teaching creationism (the idea that the world is only six thousand years old, and that evolution is a lie!), illegally segregating boys and girls, and allocating virtually all of the time to RE, so that there’s little time left for other subjects. All of this paid for from our taxes (because religious schools are paid for by us, rather than by the religious groups themselves!)
The NSS, of course, are campaigning hard to bring the injustices of the education system to light, and to roll back the expansion of religious schools in the UK.
I could go on and on, but I’ll save you that. Across the world, wherever religious organisations have privilege and power, they use it to suppress the human rights of their citizens. That’s why we need organisations such as the National Secular Society – to ensure we are all free to believe in and practice religion if we wish to, but to stop religion from taking away the rights of those who don’t believe.
The good people of the NSS are a capable and committed bunch, fighting for a just cause, but they are few in number, and face very powerful enemies. They need all the support they can get, so why not join them?