An Opinion Piece from the Kenilworth Courier, August 2017
New evidence has been published about the continued decline in religious belief. The latest British Social Attitudes Survey showed that, in England, 53% of the population now describe themselves as having no religion. Forty-one per cent are Christian but Anglicans (the established church) are only 15%.
We are not a Christian country in anything other than a narrow constitutional sense.
These figures confirm that the Government, led by an avowed Christian, is going entirely against popular opinion in persisting with the policy of official support, and almost total funding, for faith schools and scandalously planning to allow them to take in only children of their own religious persuasion. It is obvious to most people that the policy is wrong on two grounds. First what is needed in our divided country is integration not segregation. This should start in schools. Second if you wish to teach moral behaviour it is no longer helpful to turn to religions which base their premise on a belief in God that no longer resonates with the majority and particularly younger people.
From a Humanist point of view we would like to see schools teaching ethical and moral behaviour which is not based on faith in a non-existent being but on human experience. Over the millennia we have learned what furthers the progress of mankind. We know that pleasure is better than pain, that cooperation is better than conflict, that kindliness is better than hostility and that all humans must be treated equally irrespective of characteristics such as gender, race, and colour. Children will respond to this with understanding. Requiring a belief in God is not helpful.
It’s not often now that the Church of England (CoE) hits the big headlines in mainstream media. Two news items – one on the historic physical child abuse known to the Church hierarchy for many years but only just revealed to the general public, and the other on the debate on the status of LGBTI believers, have both briefly hit the headlines recently. But both stories faded away very quickly, with little comment from outside the church itself.
The first issue is horrific and at the very least should result in prosecutions, not only of those directly involved, but potentially those aware for years of criminal offences who failed to report them – the very governance of the CoE. The second issue makes you wonder what decade the Church is operating in – the 1940s or 1950s? Any other major organisation with open discrimination against people’s sexuality would be challenged in the courts in high-profile cases. But in the CoE just a few dedicated Christian LGBTI groups seem to be pursuing this.
My point is – who really cares now about what happens inside the CoE? Even ‘big’ stories about their actions and their policies barely register in the media, and few outside the church seem minded to pursue them. The church never seems to comment on social policy anymore, or if it does, no-one cares much what it says. Even the CoE’s early involvement in food banks has been overshadowed now by corporate enterprises. World attention on religion is most definitely focussed elsewhere.
The CoE is still guilty of many crimes of morality, but in terms of influence I would suggest it’s largely an anachronism, an out-dated organisation run by elderly white men with a dwindling congregation of predominantly elderly parishioners. It is destined to fade away, I think, particularly in the UK, even if it maintains more influence in other parts of the globe. It’s still a scandal against democracy that Bishops sit in the House of Lords, but they are a small number in an unelected second house now packed with Tory appointees – the whole thing a bastion of privilege and cronyism in which the Bishops are just a little part of a very big problem. The Church still owns some enviable real estate. But did you know there is an organisation, the Friends of Friendless Churches, looking after a growing number of historic buildings that the CoE can not be bothered to conserve, let alone revive as vibrant centres of worship? What more poignant symbol of decline is there than churches disused and falling down.
Who could have predicted that the once great force of Anglicanism would die with a whimper rather than a bang, focussed on fighting internal battles which no-one outside of its walls really notices? How should Humanists respond? Can we look forward to the demise of the CoE without putting much effort in to help that process? I think so, and there will be little need for dancing on that grave, after what looks to be a slow but largely painless fading away. So maybe Humanists can now look elsewhere to fight more current and important challenges to enlightened secularism.
Humanists come in all political shapes and sizes. From conservatives to liberals, and socialists to libertarians, we’re a diverse bunch. For this reason, most humanist organisations remain strictly non-partisan, engaging with particular political issues relevant to humanism, rather than backing specific parties or candidates. Despite this, Donald Trump’s victory poses significant challenges to humanists worldwide.
Humanism seeks to understand the world through reason and the application of the scientific method: our knowledge should be grounded in, and tested against, evidence. Trump’s impatience with such values has been laid bare in his assertion that ‘the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing noncompetitive.’ Statements like these, along with claims that vaccines cause autism and that using hairspray indoors rather than outdoors eliminates its harmful impact on the ozone layer, led to Trump being labelled the ‘anti-science candidate’.
The next President will enact legislation that defies the scientific consensus. He has already made clear his intention to scrap the Paris Agreement, row back on regulations such as the Clean Power Plan, and get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency. This will damage the environment and, coupled with his plans to downsize the Department of Education, it could harm scientific literacy. Trump needs scientific policy led by science, not ideology or dogma.
Trump’s social and domestic policies also clash with humanist values. Building walls and banning people on the basis of their religion runs contrary to humanist principles of tolerance, equality, and promoting human flourishing. His tough stance on terrorism and border control risks isolating America from the rest of the world. Humanism relies on building coalitions, international co-operation, and uncompromising secularism. The President-elect must commit himself to defending civil liberties and human rights both abroad and at home.
Within the United States itself, his election risks legitimising his misogynistic attitude towards women. Despite his opponents’ best efforts, even accusations of sexual assault did not derail Trump’s campaign. If Trump’s attitudes become normalised as a result of his success, gender equality in the US could be severely affected. Similarly, the LGBT community risks facing rising intolerance; Mike Pence (Trump’s Vice-President) wants the Republicans to undo protections for LGBT people put in place by Barack Obama. Equality is a traditional battleground for humanists, and senior politicians expressing prejudices of this kind sets a dangerous precedent.
While Trump’s policies will almost certainly make his presidency difficult for humanists, it may not be as bad as we fear. Trump’s ability to find the path of least resistance could come in handy if the practicalities of building a wall or keeping Muslims out of the US prove too difficult to bring about. Historically, he has been more moderate than other Republicans on issues such as LGBT rights; if his post-election message of unity is to be believed, he may shy away from divisive policies where he can.
Ultimately, humanists will have to fight hard to ensure that science is not diminished, that minorities are not discriminated against, and that reason and compassion are at the forefront of political discourse. We will not be alone; the majority of voters opted for Hillary Clinton or for third party candidates, and Trump voters were more united by Trump’s anti-globalisation and anti-politics rhetoric than they were by a desire to frustrate humanist causes or divide society.
Campaigning does not end when the president has been elected, but rather, it now begins. Humanists are used to fighting against the odds — we’ve done it before, and we can do it again!
Thanks to the efforts of Bob Jelley and other volunteers, C & W Humanists have been organising a Humanist contribution to Remembrance Sunday by laying wreaths at local ceremonies for the last 4 years.
This year Bob has purchased five wreaths from the British Legion, and we are hoping to cover all the local ceremonies. Bob has organised representatives for Warwick and Coventry, and will cover either Bedworth or Nuneaton himself. If anyone would like to volunteer for Leamington, Rugby, Bedworth or Nuneaton, Bob has kindly offered to deliver the wreath to the volunteer in advance. He will also ring the relevant council to get details of assembly points and timings and then give that info to the volunteer.
Bob has also reminded us that the weather may be cold and the ceremonies can be religious and dour!
Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested.
If the UK is to be a truly democratic society then the Government must be open to changing its views on particular issues when it is clear that its current policies are against the wishes of the majority of its citizens .
We are increasingly a non-religious society as is shown by poll after poll, and the favoured approach is a secular one in which the Government upholds the right to worship but gives no special favours to religious bodies in general and the Church of England in particular. Unfortunately we are a long way from that position and Churches enjoy a range of privileges from automatic inclusion in the legislature and the, not unconnected, exemption of Churches from laws that apply to everyone else.
However it is education in which a lack of secularism impinges most on the lives of British citizens. Schools with a religious character, or ‘faith schools’ as they are commonly known, account for around a third of our publicly funded schools. This seriously limits choice for parents who do not share the faith of the local school and do not want a religious education for their children.
The National Secular Society has been campaigning for many years against faith schools which are a major divisive element in our society at a time when more than ever polices should be directed towards cohesiveness .
Totally ignoring this need and in the face of public opinion, it is extraordinary that our Prime Minister, a devout Christian, has chosen to put her own opinions ahead of those of the public at large by announcing the establishment of another hundred faith schools and changing the entry criteria to allow these state funded schools to take in only pupils of their favoured faith. This is a retrograde step of the first order.
By all means let us have variety in school provision but whatever their source or specialisation they should be inclusive and open to all.
Dr Brian Nicol
Coventry and Warwickshire Humanists.