Atheism Central for Secondary Schools
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BRADLAUGH (1833 - 1891)
A passionate non-believer, Bradlaugh loved to debate the merits of the Bible with fervent, and often prominent, believers. He was a courageous and stirring orator and crowds flocked to hear his verbal duels. Some of the public debates were so lengthy they were conducted over several consecutive evenings. Others became heated, and sometimes the authorities tried to stop him speaking. Opponents to secular speakers sometimes tried to trick them into saying something that would be regarded as blasphemous. Some secularist speakers even went to prison for blasphemy. Bradlaugh, however, was ingenious in outwitting his opponents; in the coastal town of Devonport in 1859 he addressed a meeting from a barge just a few feet offshore because he was speaking outside the jurisdiction of the town’s police. Bradlaugh’s oratory was later put to good use in his parliamentary career. He was elected as an MP for Northampton, but was not allowed to take the oath to take his seat in Parliament. A by-election was called, and he was elected again – this process recurred several times until a new Speaker of the House of Commons conceded that he be allowed to take his seat after making a non-religious affirmation. Legal oaths are also required, for example, in courts and in connection with some legal documents. In 1888 his Oaths Act enabled non-religious affirmations to be given as an alternative to the religious oaths.
Before the advent of broadcasting, books and magazines were much widely read than today. So, to spread the word about Secularism, Bradlaugh wrote books and pamphlets, and founded an influential magazine called the National Reformer.
Bradlaugh will be best remembered, however, for having founded the National Secular Society in 1866, and for his pioneering work to make artificial contraception widely available to those of all classes. Without artificial contraception, women frequently bore five or more children, and many were miserable because of this – particularly if, as often happened, the burden of supporting all these children drove them to poverty. The churches, however, rigorously opposed artificial contraception. The Church of England abandoned this policy in 1930, but the Roman Catholic Church still retains it, in theory (most UK Catholics reject their church's teaching on contraception).
The National Secular Society is the national campaigning arm of the secularist movement, it:
Keeps a high profile in the press and on TV and radio, speaking up for those who do not want religion to interfere in their lives and aiming to provide a balancing secular view to counter religious intolerance or claims for privilege.
Closely monitors parliamentary business to identify any attempts to increase religious power or privilege.
Makes submissions on issues important to secularists, including a submission to the Royal Commission on the reform of the House of Lords (making a comprehensive case for the new Second Chamber to exclude any religious representatives), and a submission to the Royal Commission on the Elderly (seeking to eliminate religious intrusion to those in hospital or residential care).
Informs ministers and government departments. The Society has made verbal and written representations to Government departments on legal issues such as the blasphemy law and on the proposal to extend the race relations law specifically to cover discrimination on grounds of religion.
WHAT DO SECULARISTS THINK ABOUT RELIGION IN SCHOOLS?
The law requires Religious Education to be taught in schools. For many years it was the only compulsory topic in the school curriculum. A religious element in daily school assemblies is also required by the law, but 80% of secondary schools do not conform with this legal requirement. Sometimes the reason is the practical difficulty of arranging assemblies, but often it is that the majority of pupils and staff do not wish to take part in an act of worship. Legally, if a parent or guardian so requests, pupils can be excused from religious education lessons or religious assemblies (visit link). No reason need be given for such a request; however before making one, parents and pupils should be aware that such action might result in ostracism by fellow-pupils or even victimisation by teachers. We have heard of teachers retaliating against requests for withdrawal by excluding pupils from receiving information disseminated during assembly.
Secularists particularly object to religion being taught in schools as fact. If there is to be religious education, secularists consider pupils should be told that "some people believe this and others believe that and yet others believe none of these things".
Because they believe religious schools result in increased levels of sectarianism, Secularists would like to see the elimination of denominational or religious schools. This particularly applies to areas of historic tension between Protestants and Roman Catholics, such as in Northern Ireland, the west of Scotland and Liverpool. Cohesion in the community is also particularly at risk if religious schools result in pupils being segregated on ethnic and/or socio-economic lines. Communities will best learn to live peacefully together if they grow up - and learn – together, respecting each other’s differences. If they are separated into religious groupings at such an early age, racism and lack of understanding will inevitably increase.
WHAT WOULD SECULARISTS LIKE TO DO?
Secularists believe that religion should be a private matter for the home or church or other place of worship - and that those who are not religious should not be disadvantaged because of their lack of belief.
Secularists are particularly concerned that religion should not be permitted to retain any special privileges. Here are some examples of religious privilege in the United Kingdom and how secularists want to change them. Secularists want to:
DISESTABLISH the Church of England (this means separate it from its links with the State).
CROWN any new British monarch in a non-religious ceremony. At present, the Archbishop of Canterbury (the senior archbishop of the C of E) crowns each new monarch at the coronation, which is a religious ceremony. (This is not the same as saying that secularists are monarchists).
WITHDRAW the subsidy given by the State to many religious schools. This subsidy covers practically all the salaries and building costs. Secularists believe there is no justification for such subsidy, especially as free education is available to all in State schools. Also, some religious bodies are very wealthy; the Church of England owns assets worth several billion pounds.
STOP religious tax privileges such as church buildings being exempted from a liability to Rates (local government taxation).
ABOLISH the common law offence of blasphemy. Blasphemy is referring to a religion in an impious or (as believers might describe it) a profane way.
It is against the law to ridicule the religion or doctrines of the Established Church (the Church of England). Many other Christian churches of course share doctrines with the C of E, and to the extent that they do, they can claim the protection of the law.
Curiously, blasphemy is still a criminal offence despite the statutes (Acts of Parliament) against it having been repealed (or revoked). Three is another kind of law in the UK which is called common law. Common law is the law which has been built up over the centuries by the decisions of similar cases in the past. Judges are expected to follow these previous decisions (called precedents), although as time passes changing attitudes - and sometimes the strongly-held feelings of judges) are reflected in new judgments. Under common law, there is the criminal offense of blasphemous libel. A magazine editor was the last person to be convicted under this offence in the 1970s. He received a jail sentence, but it was suspended. Others, especially up until the First World War in 1914 were much less fortunate. They were convicted for long periods and their health frequently suffered.
Although the Law Commission has twice recommended the complete removal of all blasphemy law, sadly, the common law offence remains in operation. Indeed, there have been suggestions by non-Christian religious groups that blasphemy law should be extended to many more religions. This would undoubtedly have disastrous consequences as what constitutes blasphemy is in the hands of priests who are answerable to no one and would be only too eager to exert their power.
Secularists believe that the criminal offence of blasphemy is an unwarranted restriction of free expression and would bitterly oppose any extension of this law.
TERMINATE the public funding of chaplains in prison, hospitals and the armed forces. A condition of public funding for such positions should be that they are staffed by non-religious counsellors.
April 2001 Update
VAT ON REPAIRS TO PLACES OF WORSHIP
REDUCED VAT ON REPAIRS TO PLACES OF WORSHIP
will drastically reduce the VAT burden on repairs to ‘listed’ places
of worship, but other listed buildings will not be given an equivalent
concession. The reduction will be from the standard 17.5 per cent to
5 per cent. Overruled by the EU from reducing the VAT rate on such repairs,
Chancellor Gordon Brown has chosen an indirect way of achieving the
same end. Places of worship will be able to claim grants equivalent
to the difference between the two VAT rates on such repair costs.
The Government will drastically reduce the VAT burden on repairs to ‘listed’ places of worship, but other listed buildings will not be given an equivalent concession. The reduction will be from the standard 17.5 per cent to 5 per cent. Overruled by the EU from reducing the VAT rate on such repairs, Chancellor Gordon Brown has chosen an indirect way of achieving the same end. Places of worship will be able to claim grants equivalent to the difference between the two VAT rates on such repair costs.
was made as part of the 7th March budget and comes hot on
the heals of the Government granting a substantial financial concession
on church schools (reported last month).
The announcement was made as part of the 7th March budget and comes hot on the heals of the Government granting a substantial financial concession on church schools (reported last month).
I imagine the champagne must be flowing at Lambeth Palace, judging by the Times headline: “Surprised bishops cheer VAT refund”. The announcement was as unexpected and welcome to their graces as it will be predictable and disturbing to secularists.
This privileged concession cannot however be regarded as an impulsive gesture; it was made with extraordinary tenacity, bordering on belligerence—the Chancellor ignored at least the spirit of public representations from the EU hierarchy.
The National Secular Society also wrote to him. In considering the stance the Society would take, we took into consideration what our members might think. Some may not care about the survival of any church architecture. Others - probably the majority - might wish to see fine church buildings maintained, as long as the public purse does not bear any of the cost, directly or indirectly.
As a matter of political tactics, however, we thought that this religion-friendly Government would be much more likely to heed calls for equality for all listed buildings than they would for the churches concession to be abandoned altogether.
Our research had led us to suspect that the Chancellor might try to circumvent EU VAT rules to subsidise the churches, so we therefore also sent a copy of our letter to the relevant EU Commissioner. It concluded: “We understand that consideration is being given to alternatives to a VAT reduction, but unless a way can be devised that does not discriminate in favour of places of worship, no changes should be made in this area. In the longer term, we would ask you to ensure equal financial treatment for all listed buildings - whether in grants, loans, or taxes.”
In the event, the Budget provided for grants to be made equivalent to the VAT reduction that the Chancellor previously proposed. This will require an expensive new bureaucracy.
The Church of England, in particular, had been complaining for decades to successive Chancellors about this issue on the pretext that most of the nation’s architectural heritage consists of churches.
The Church repair VAT announcement in the Budget, however, was the culmination of a remarkable sequence of events which the Society had been following closely both in the press and in Hansard.
The alarm bells started ringing with the Chancellor’s pre-budget speech to the House of Commons on 8 November 2000. He announced: “To assist the upgrading of listed buildings that are central to community life in all parts of the country, I can also announce that we are today asking the European Commission to reduce VAT from 17.5 per cent. to 5 per cent. for repairs to churches.”
The Chancellor elaborated on the rationale (if such it can be called) in his pre-budget statement, published concurrently with the speech: “The Government is keen to preserve Britain's rich built heritage for both current and future generations. Places of worship can play a focal point in rural and urban communities. The Government is attracted to the idea of offering a reduced rate of VAT for the repair and maintenance of listed buildings which are used as places of worship.”
Brown’s pronouncements were extraordinary, in that it is well known to politicians, economists and accountants that there are only a small number of special cases where concessional VAT rates are permitted. These are listed in an Annex to the EU’s 6th Directive, and church repairs are most certainly not included.
Even more surprising was that the announcement had been made despite a widely rumoured message from the EU (which had apparently learned of this budget proposal in advance) that such a reduction in VAT rates would be ultra vires - outside his power. The rumours were confirmed in an exchange in the Commons on 22 January when David Ruffley (member for Bury St. Edmunds) cornered Stuart Bell (effectively the CofE representative in the Commons). He asked Mr Bell if he were: “aware that [clergy in his constituency] are now very angry because they have discovered that the European Commission is now saying that it advised Her Majesty's Treasury all along that such a cut would require a major change to EU law . . . ?”.
Bell’s reply confirmed that “various discussions are taking place between Customs and Excise and the Church VAT group”. The Society had been aware of this; the Church had been very persistent, and Lambeth Palace had been directly involved.
Bell went on to reveal: “The scenario is not as pessimistic as [Mr Ruffley] paints it. We are considering possible derogations. Churches within other EU member states have the same interest in the matter. We travel on hopefully and believe that we will, in the end, reach a satisfactory conclusion. I again congratulate my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was the first Chancellor in 25 years to take an interest in the issue, on taking the lead within the European Union and on continuing to do so.”
Pre-Budget optimism was apparent elsewhere in ecclesiastical circles. The Church Times reported: “Next month’s budget may contain a relief package for parishes, to compensate for the decision of the European Commission not to cut VAT on church repairs, the Treasury confirmed this week. The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, is expected to make an announcement introducing “special measures to help congregations pay for repairs to listed church buildings”. A Treasury spokeswoman said … that there were no details yet of what “the special measures” would be, but confirmed it was likely that some announcement would appear in the Budget. Talk of grants at this stage, she said, was ‘pure speculation’.”
Pure speculation or not, we now know that grants were exactly what the Budget contained. At that stage, however, we (and, I have since learned, the Church) had been unsure whether the Chancellor’s publicising of attempts to reduce VAT were a cynical ploy to get the church off his back. Were they, we had wondered, a prelude to him wringing his hands and announcing: “I’ve asked Brussels if I can do as you asked; now you have the answer”?
I have just learned that our son of the manse Chancellor’s childhood ambition was to be Moderator of the Church of Scotland, but failing that, Prime Minister. I doubt if anyone else has regarded the PM’s job as a consolation prize. Our potential Prime Minister has demonstrated the extraordinary lengths to which he will go to give the churches what they want. For secularists, that is the most sobering thought of all.
We’ll complain to Brussels about the apparent circumvention of VAT rules—but don’t hold your breath.
March 2001 Update
OUR SYNOD IN WAITING?
Lord Wakeham's Royal Commission on the Reform of the House of Lords has reported the result of its deliberations. A major element of the Commission's remit was to consider the future of the CofE bishops in the House of Lords. As religious representation would be materially increased if the Commission's proposals are implemented, the report comes as a bitter blow to secularists.
Given that the National Secular Society has been fighting for separation of Church and State since 1866, it was fitting the Society should make a Submission to the Commission. The Society's was the only major Submission from the secular humanist, ethical and rationalist movements. Click here to read submission. The Submission made a compelling case for the Bench of Bishops to be removed from the House of Lords and for the new Second Chamber not to have any ex-officio religious representation, whether of Christian denominations or any other faiths.
It seemed that the message in our Submission was being heeded when the Society received an invitation to give further evidence to the Commissioners at their final public hearing. Only a handful of expert witnesses had received such an invitation.
The proceedings were somewhat like a court. Ironically, the venue for the hearing was the same chamber where the Church of England Synod meets. You will probably have seen this distinctive circular chamber on television. I introduced my evidence with the following address:
Address to Commissioners
"The National Secular Society has been opposing religious privilege for 130 years. Arguably the most glaring example of this privilege today is the 26 Church of England bishops who sit in the House of Lords, as of right.
"Our research confirms that Britain is the only Western democracy to have religious representatives in their Parliament, as of right. Yet, not only does the Government want to retain these 26 bishops, it wants to compound the inequity by introducing religious representatives of other denominations and faiths. It is undemocratic for these representatives to make laws binding on a population that largely considers religion to be irrelevant. The number of non-religious people in our country is growing. Their franchise would be further eroded with every additional religious appointee.
"Religious belief and practice in Britain is at its lowest ebb, and in accelerating decline. Given that an increasing majority of young people do not believe in God, this trend will continue. Around 90% of the English population does not attend any church and only around 1% of the population takes Church of England communion. The Church even refuses to publish the latest attendance figures, presumably because the levels are so low and are declining so rapidly. An LSE professor told the Sunday Times last week "If the [attendance] figures continue like this … the establishment of the church could be in the balance". Roman Catholic attendances in England are dropping still more rapidly - "haemorrhaging", according to an official source.
"Yet even if many more attended church, there would still be no justification for either Anglican or Catholic bishops in the Chamber. They are remote and unrepresentative of their flock; they are middle class, middle aged and nearly all of them are white. And they are all male, unlike their congregations who are predominantly female. Yet it is these very women who would be most affected by the bishops' often-dogmatic stances. This particularly applies to Catholic bishops on such issues as contraception and abortion.
"A surprising opponent of Catholic bishops taking up seats in the Second Chamber is the Roman Catholic magazine The Tablet. It warns that any Catholic bishops in the Chamber would not represent the opinions of British Catholics, but would represent instead the interests of the "Holy See". Does the Commission really want the Vatican to nominate members to our Parliament?
"Religious leaders continually demonstrate their inability to provide moral leadership to the nation. Religious representatives do not possess any special moral insights that would be denied to other members of the new chamber. On the contrary, most of these religious representatives would represent morally absolutist views out of line with the country as a whole, and sometimes even their own members. What could we expect from the Vatican, for example, given it has just attempted to stop women raped in Kosovo from being given 'morning-after' pills? These women are not even Catholics.
"We are particularly concerned about religious representatives' attitudes to Human Rights, when even Anglican bishops voted last year for religions to be exempted from the Human Rights Act. This was self-serving. But, far worse, the bishops seem unable to grasp the very concept of universal human rights. An Anglican bishop told me on Radio 4 in May  that "We're very committed to human rights, but not where that trespasses on religious rights".
"If religious representatives were banished from the Second Chamber, religion would continue to be represented there. The new chamber would comprise those of all faiths and none, in approximate proportion to the population.
"Existing temporal peers identify themselves as acting from religious motives, and those who profess no religion should not be regarded as any less capable of making good moral and ethical judgments - the Bishop of Oxford, one of the Commissioners, has acknowledged that.
"A major practical problem is numbers. We believe that the new chamber will be overwhelmed by religious appointees if other denominations and faiths are admitted. The C of E's refusal to concede any of its 26 seats creates an expectation for an unreasonable number of additional seats for other denominations and faiths. The English Catholic bishops want more than a token presence and could (on the basis of their higher church attendance) claim more seats than the C of E. So, already, we are up to over 50 seats without the remaining denominations and faiths. How many representatives will the three largest Jewish sects demand, or the larger Muslim community with its Shi'ite and Sunni sects? No matter how many seats are offered, they will never be enough.
"Those left out, or those who feel they have insufficient seats, will claim discrimination - and perhaps racism. "If such a plethora of religious seats ensues, the extension would be well-nigh irreversible, however much a failure it is.
"There is just one solution that overcomes all the concerns I have catalogued: the solution we invite the Commission to propose is an entirely secular chamber. Establishing such a chamber would remove a disturbing undemocratic anomaly and demonstrate that Britain really is prepared to let go of its feudal past and to modernise its Parliament."
From the Commission being set up to the publication of the report process took a year. We delivered our Submission in April 1999; the above address was delivered in July. It being a royal commission, protocol demands that the Queen should be the first recipient of the Commission's report and approve it before it is published. She received the report before Christmas and it was not published until mid January 2000.
If the recommendations of the Royal Commission in this area are implemented, we could well have in our new Second Chamber four times the number of religious representatives there are in the House of Lords today.
Although it recommends reducing the Bishops' Bench by ten, the Commission is proposing that ten further religious representatives are appointed to represent other Christian denominations. Five of these would be for England and the remaining five for other parts of the UK. Do not be deceived, however, by the apparent equivalence of numbers.
Many readers will be aware that, normally, there is only one duty bishop present in the Lords - his main function is to lead the opening prayers. (Incidentally, we recommended that these should go too.) But even during contentious debates such as the age of homosexual consent, there are rarely more than five or six bishops in the chamber. We are confident that there would be no less even if the Bishops' Bench were reduced to 16; the rotas would simply become more demanding. On the other hand, many of the ten proposed representatives for other Christian denominations could be expected to attend such debates.
There will clearly be an argument as to how the ten 'other denominations' seats are filled; the Methodists are apparently unhappy they will be appropriately represented. The Roman Catholics, with broadly similar attendance figures to the Anglicans, must at the least feel perplexed that they are only to be allocated a proportion of ten seats, - say five - compared with be Anglicans 16.
And what has the reaction to the allocation of 16 seats been from our Established Church? It wrings its hands and complains about the Bishops workload, studiously ignoring that Anglicans have been allocated a far higher proportion of seats than would be justified were attendance to have been the criterion. Instead, Anglican adherents were judged to be an absurd 25 million so-called baptised Anglicans many - in fact, most - of whom rarely enter a church's portals. It is just as well that the Trades Description Act does not apply to this Alice in Wonderland basis, or indeed much of the Commission's report!
The Commission recommended a minimum of five seats for non-Christian faiths (they probably had in mind Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Sikhism and Buddhism). Most in these communities would of course be flattered by the offer of seat in the reformed Lords. On the other hand, a senior figure in the Jewish community and another in the Muslim one (admittedly, minority views) have warned of the deep divisions that would be created by having to chose one representative for their faiths. An only too easy 'solution' would be to offer each of these five other faiths two - or even more - representatives. Given the CofE is complaining about the inconvenience to bishops of making do with 16 seats, it will be difficult to justify why the other faiths couldn't be given at least two each.
So, with all these elements, the new proposals - if accepted - could result in something like 24 religious representatives, and a few more clerics for good measure. (There may also be clerics among the ethnic representatives - and, for that matter, the general peers.)
Was it a unanimous report, were our the arguments heard - and, if so, why were they ignored? We should take scant consolation from the fact that, despite Lord Wakeham's protestations that the report was a unanimous one, there is circumstantial evidence that some of its most fundamental recommendations were hotly contested by the Commissioners. There was neither unanimity nor even a substantial majority on the key question of whether to dispense with the Bishops. A minority of Commissioners thought that ex officio representation "would be inconsistent with the principle of neutrality between those who adhere to a faith and those who do not". There also was dissension on whether there should be further ex officio representation beyond the Bishops Bench, but having conceded the Bishops, that next step was a small one.
The most revealing passage in the whole report is that: "[the Bishops'] removal would be likely to raise the whole question of the relationship between Church, State and Monarchy, with unpredictable consequences". Despite specifically acknowledging in the report many of the concerns we raised, those Commissioners who accepted that the Bishops should remain demonstrate in this excerpt that they lacked the steel to address these concerns and acknowledge the only logical conclusion (no Bishops at all). It seemed that these Commissioners would have recommended anything, however illogical, as long as in so doing they could not remotely be accused of even contemplating the possibility of disestablishment.
In its own submission, the Church of England claims - quite outrageously - that its bishops speak in the House of Lords "not just for the Church of England but for its partners in other Christian churches, and for people of other faiths and none" [my italics]. This gave those who wanted it a further pretext, however fallacious, to retain the Bishops' Bench and not make any specific recommendations about seats for the non-religious. Significantly, however, it did not stop them proposing specific or minimum numbers of seats for other denominations and faiths. Given the following sentence extracted from the Commission's report, there can be little surprise at this biased approach. "For some of us, the presence of the Lords Spiritual is a sign that Governments are in the end accountable not only to those who elect them but also to a higher authority."
What influence did we have? Some phrases in the report bear an uncanny resemblance to those in our Submission. Many of our practical concerns were repeated in the report. Indeed, immediately preceding the revealing passage quoted in the previous paragraph was one taken almost verbatim from the National Secular Society's Submission. It was: "While there is no direct or logical connection between the establishment of the Church of England and the presence of Church of England bishops in the second chamber". More examples follow.
The very opening of the Commission's chapter dealing with religious representation noted, as had our Submission, by observing that the present House of Lords is unique in the democratic world in providing seats in the national legislature for representatives of an established church. They too acknowledged that the Bishops only 'represent' English dioceses. In several places they had the grace to recognise - as we had opined - that the "faith communities" are not "the sole source of philosophical, moral or spiritual insight or that their insights are necessarily more valuable than those contributed by people without a religious faith. … Individual members will bring their own deepest convictions to bear, whether their basis is religious or secular. … The Appointments Commission should have regard to this requirement and seek to identify people, whether religious leaders, moral philosophers or other secular thinkers, who can make a particular contribution to such 'moral conversations' alongside the general contributions of other members of the reformed second chamber."
The practical concerns to which I referred included: the difficulty in keeping numbers under control; the selection of representatives being made more problematic by both the multiplicity of faiths and sects; and the lack of hierarchical structure in many of them. The Commissioners accepted too that some non-Anglican denominations and faiths may have rooted objections to being represented, such as the Roman Catholics - one of the examples we cited. This could be particularly problematical as, being the largest "faith group" after the Anglicans, their non-participation could make even more of a nonsense of the proposals. Alternative solutions could be that lay members could fulfil this role, or the Pope could change his mind and permit the RC representatives.
The report also took up our point about rivalries between sects and conceded that no one representative could be found for Judaism: "Even if a case could be made that the United Synagogue could in some sense act for Judaism (though this would be contested) [their words in parentheses, not mine], there is nothing comparable for Islam or Hinduism. The only way, therefore, of providing a voice for other faith communities would be to place a duty on the Appointments Commission to appoint individuals who would be perceived as broadly representative of the different faith communities. A substantial majority of us so recommend". Notice more evidence here of disagreement.
The Commission's terms of reference were laid down in a White Paper. It made clear the Government's wish to retain the Bishops as it wants the Church (of England's) perspective to be 'represented on all occasions when it would be particularly valuable'. The Paper also states that our society 'has citizens of many faiths and of none [our italics]. We shall be looking for ways of increasing the representation in the Lords of other religious traditions.' Significantly, this last sentence does not end … 'or none'. When we read this a year ago we realised that far from being open, the door against which we were pushing was locked - and the key had been removed. Given such a biased mandate, the result is just as we expected. Despite acknowledging the problems in the report, piper Wakeham obediently played the Government's tune. We can only hope the report is ignored, indeed there has already been a suggestion that it will not be actioned for at least three years. The reason given was shortage of Parliamentary time, and there is no doubt that to implement the Report would require a large amount of it. Yet to read the ethnic newspapers, implementation of the ethnic and religious recommendations is just a matter of time; expectations have clearly been raised.
This is a version of a monthly article in the , published continuously since 1881.
February 2000 Update
In my job as General Secretary of the National Secular Society I get a lot of strange requests. But none was stranger than that from The Times newspaper asking me to be a judge in their Preacher of the Year contest. My immediate impulse was to say "Not bloody likely", but then I thought about how the Society might benefit from our participation in this event.
To begin with, there was the prospect of national publicity. One of my main aims has been to raise the secular profile. That means getting our ideas across on any platform, wherever and whenever we can get it.
The conditions I imposed, and the The Times accepted, were: (a) that it should be made absolutely clear that I was an atheist (b) that the Society should be mentioned and (c) that I would be approaching the competition from the point of view of which contestant was the least dogmatic or extreme. Whether we like it or not – and most of us don’t – religion is still a major player in the life of this country, and there are signs that it is becoming more extreme. Any opportunity to counter this tendency is surely worth considering. Indeed, two of the sermons (including the runner-up’s) specifically referred to my criteria and even mentioned the NSS. One was so humanistic, it would hardly have raised eyebrows if it had been delivered at Conway Hall (The London home of the South Place Ethical Society and the NSS - both are humanist groups).
Perhaps the co-operation was already paying off, for when the judges were announced I was indeed introduced in The Times as "an atheist", and mine was the only comment they printed. It laid out my terms: "I shall be looking for those people who communicate humanitarian concerns such as togetherness and peace most effectively. I think many people have a psychological need for religion. The big challenge is to make sure that religion does not continue to be so divisive and a background to so much discord and violence as it has in the past."
I am also a great believer in ‘networking’ – making contact with influential people who might be useful to us in the future. Several useful contacts were made out of this event, the principal of which was Ruth Gledhill, the religious affairs correspondent at The Times. Naturally, she originates many of the stories about religion in which the NSS has an interest. If we want our point of view to be included in these stories, we have to convince the journalists that we have something relevant to say. I think Ms Gledhill now has the NSS firmly at the front of her mind when she writes her stories. Since the competition she has sought our views on some important issues, and as I write this (January 12) today’s Times story on Church schools included an NSS quote from me (the only non-religious viewpoint in the article) following a discussion she and I had last night. No doubt there will be other opportunities.
My participation in the competition was discussed in advance with the NSS Council of Management. And lest any reader should be concerned that we might have taken the Murdoch shilling, no fee was offered and none was solicited – although there was a dinner after the competition at which the aforementioned networking took place.
One of the finalists, it turned out, was Rabbi Schmuley Boteach, and I learned he had been runner-up the previous year. I remember battling with him for more than an hour on the Nicky Campbell show on Radio 5 in 1998. Given his ranting and intolerant manner on the programme, I soon found the less I said, and the more rope I gave him, the quicker he hung himself. He behaved in a similarly intolerable fashion at a Cambridge Union debate in which the NSS participated.
Regrettably, however, Mr Boteach did, indeed, win. In fairness, his histrionic oratory may have deserved an Oscar, but the content of his sermon did not - and I voted accordingly. I am glad to say it hasn’t all gone his way. His religious organisation L’Chaim is now under investigation by the Charity Commissioners and is, according to the London Jewish News, "winding down". Rabbi Boteach may soon be leaving us for the States. If so, I won’t be shedding any tears.
My few hours few hours judging Preacher of the Year was something of an Alice in Wonderland experience, and not one which I will be queuing up to repeat. But I think the Society may have benefited with a further raised profile and a few new members picked up along the way.
One of the arguments I put forward against questions being posed about religion in the British Census was that the results would be invalid, as significant numbers of respondents would describe themselves as Christian, for example, even if they hadn’t been near a church for years. This contention was based on informal observations of religious affiliations being sought for next of kin forms in hospitals or the military. A Gallup survey just published by the Daily Telegraph confirms our anecdotal evidence. The survey questioned residents of England and Wales over 16 years old.
So, what do these self-styled Christians believe? Overall only 66% of them believed in the virgin birth and the resurrection but only half the 16 - 24 years old ‘Christians’ could swallow these articles of faith. And what did they not believe? Extraordinarily, 15% do not believe in God. Between 60 and 64% of them did not believe in the second coming, the Devil and Hell. I presume the reason such people describe themselves as Christian is that it seems to them the right or decent thing to do, or perhaps they subscribe to the Commandments. Yet these are people that the churches will be asserting after the Census are included among their supporters. And neither were this 66% of the survey who described themselves as Christian well informed about the claims of their chosen religion. Only 29% of them thought the Millennium celebrated the birth of JC.
Confirming the findings of previous surveys, this latest survey provided detailed evidence that women and the elderly are more likely to be Christians than the population as a whole. A new finding is that Christians form a higher proportion of the population in the north than they do in the south. It seems likely that there is a higher proportion of non-Christian immigrants in the south than the north; this may be part of the explanation for the north/south disparity.
The survey also analysed answers to questions into age groups. Over 90% of respondents over 65 year old were Christian, yet only 30% of 16 - 24 year olds were. Church attendance showed a similar pattern with elderly attending frequently and the 16 -24 year olds rarely. And the young hardly ever pray, the survey assures us. These statistics make an unanswerable case that there will be no reversal in the relentlessly downward trend of church attendance, whatever the apologists say. Steve Chalke the tele-evangelist and (his near-holiness) Cliff Richard told a credulous press in 1998 that church attendance would be doubled by the beginning of this new Millennium. And it has not come to pass. And it never will.
This excellent study provides more detailed information about religiosity by socio-economic group. Last month I measured religiosity in terms of church attendance: Christians in the ‘lower’ socio- groups D & E are much less likely to attend church than Christians in the ‘higher’ A&B groups. The information in this latest survey reveals a paradox. Although there are proportionately fewer church attenders from the ‘lower’ groups, Christians ARE over-represented in ‘lower’ socio-economic groups. So, there are large numbers of Christian’s from this group who do not attend church. What do they do instead you may ask? The survey has an answer for that too. They make up a significant proportion of the (television) audience for Songs of Praise (A BBC TV programme that visits Anglican churches throughtout the UK to watch the congregation singing hymns. Astonishingly, the churches always look full. However, close observation shows this is because the camera only shows the first three lines of pews. One of the reasons the programme is aired is that religious programming has long been a compulsory feature of Sundays here in the UK).
Quote of the Month
"The official programme of the Millennium Dome opening ceremony consisted of the monarch lighting a bonfire, the Archbishop of Canterbury leading prayers, Mr. Blair himself opening that icon of modernity a Ferris wheel. A visitor from another planet might have concluded that this country was gearing itself up for 1900."
Joan Smith, Independent on Sunday.
Cleric Of The Month
Doubtless there are thousands of clerics around who do selfless work for little or nothing. Our prize this month is awarded to Bishop Chrysanthos of Limassol who may not fall into this category. He is facing two charges (each of which carries a three year maximum jail term) of defrauding investors. Around £3m is involved in these alleged frauds and another one under investigation.
January 2000 Update
FIGURING IT OUT - trends in religious observance in the United Kingdom
After a great deal of humming and hawing, the CofE has at last published its attendance figures for both 1996 and 1997. Or, to be more precise, it has released them to a select few. According to Andrew Brown’s witty and incisive article in the Church Times there was no press conference, simply "the spin doctor will see you now". The figures were — as the NSS predicted — pretty dreadful. They revealed that Sunday attendance had fallen below the psychologically significant one million threshold; 995,700 to be precise. If children are excluded from this figure it reduces to 816,500. The Times concluded that "The decade of evangelism, now drawing to a close has … largely failed to stem the decline."
Now the Church has to face the double embarrassment of poor figures and criticism for having tried to suppress them. The Daily Mail managed to spread the words "The empty pews" over the complete width of a page, adding "Fewer than a million go to church each week as the CofE hits new low". The Times headlined: "Empty pews force Church recount", and added in a leader "The Church should abandon the attitude that churches cannot be used for anything but prayer". The Church Times concluded "Survey paints gloomy picture". The Daily Telegraph’s headline was "Anglican churchgoers fall below a million" but, surprisingly, it was their columnist Clifford Longley who really turned on the Established Church. He contended that "The Church of England seems intent on following in the steps of [Alan Clark while Minister of Employment] with its weekly church attendance figures. They have been massaged." Longley revealed that widespread rumours had been circulating of figures showing another significant decline. Despite this, "the spin from Church House, Westminster, the Headquarters of the General Synod, and Lambeth Palace, the headquarters of the Archbishop of Canterbury, was that this contradicted a widespread feeling in the Church that the corner had at last been turned. Things were looking up in the parishes; spring was in the air, etc. The figures must be wrong."
Dr. William Beaver (the CofE’s Director of Communications since 1997) was reported in the Daily Telegraph as having sought to justify halting publication of the figures because the figures "were damaging to morale". Andrew Brown, on the other hand, described Beaver’s motive as "simple denial" in an article which the Church Times memorably entitled Spin-bowling.
In a paragraph containing a reference to Dr Beaver, Andrew Brown warned: "The real danger comes from people who want to believe their own propaganda, and are prepared to pay highly for anyone who makes this possible." He said that work had been set in train to find better figures, an example of which had, he said, been published in The Observer in August. This article had claimed that senior Church figures had seen figures to lead them to argue that the real level of attendance is over two million. "Following decades of apparently dwindling congregations, the prospect of boosting attendance figures by around 40% at a stroke is delighting bishops." Andrew Brown added ruefully: "I bet it was."
The majority of Anglicans no longer attend church every week and some churchgoers are migrating their churchgoing to much shorter services on days other than Sunday. Both of these factors represent a decline in commitment compared to the once near-mandatory attendance each Sunday. It therefore seems entirely legitimate to measure the decline of interest in the CofE by reference to the number of Sunday attendees.
Clifford Longley, on the other hand, having kicked the CofE resoundingly, then tried hard to reassure his devout Telegraph readers. Could it be more in hope than conviction that he declared: "declining church attendance figures do not necessarily prove a decline in interest in religion in the community at large. It could even be rising. The figures may simply measure changes in the way people practise their religion"?
Undeniably, many more people go to Church than the numbers shown above, which are described as Usual Sunday Attendance. If one includes those who attend at least monthly, the attendance figure over that period is raised by around the 40% suggested above, if not a little more - according to my crude calculations. But where does this absurdity stop? Were one to go as far to include all those who attend at least twice a year, the numbers could be as many as five times those quoted above.
Needless to say, the Church is investigating ways of including in the count those who attend, but not on Sundays. (In a similar vein, the Roman Catholics have introduced short Saturday evening services, presumably for those who do not wish to spoil the principal day off by having to endure a mournful service. They have overcome the statistical "problem" simply by counting the Saturday ‘quickies’ as Sunday services.)
No ingenuity was spared to excuse the figures – and some of the justifications seemed even more embarrassing than the truth on which they were trying to economise. According to The Times, the attendance figures are used "to calculate … the annual tax levied on each church. It is feared that some vicars might not take a proper count." That sounds like an acknowledgement – even an acceptance - of widespread fraud to me, but who are we to lecture the Established Church on ethics?
Some recent research confirms what many readers will have observed, that women are more religious than men and the older more religious than the younger. Less obvious, though is that the ‘upper’ (A, B and C1) classes are more religious than the lower (C2, D and E). This is food for thought and may go some way to explain some of the claims—if they are true—that the religious are more healthy than the rest of us.
Christian Research has combined with Harper Collins to publish the second edition of UK Christian Handbook - Religious Trends. It is packed with a plethora of statistics, a sample of which is given below.
Firstly, the CofE’s litany of decline. Easter day communicants as % of population have been in decline since 1960; baptisms as a % of births in decline since 1945; and the Church’s electoral roll as adjusted has been declining since 1983, the first year for which figures are given. Anecdotally, RC figures show a similar pattern.
Between 1980 and 1997, the Usual Sunday Attendance for the CofE has dropped by 15.6%, compared with 24.3% for Roman Catholic Church mass attendances. I am convinced the RC Church has been more badly hit by its absolutist moral position, especially on sexual matters.
Turning to other denominations, the Methodist Church and Salvation Army’s numbers have been in continuous decline since 1930 to only 405,000 and 55,000 now.
Well, what increases are there? A clue lies in a chart comparing for each denomination the number of churches opened and closed between 1989 and 1998. While Methodist churches, for example, show many more closures than openings, so-called New Churches and Pentecostal churches show a significant net increase. There is a 50% expansion of "New churches", however many of these are small and the total number of members is only around 125,000. There is a steady increase in Mormons, Scientology and Jehovah’s witnesses. Such non-Trinitarian churches combined membership exceeds 500,000.
The age profile of those in church (all denominations), compared with the population shows the same pattern throughout the country. Around 12% of over 64 year olds go to church. The under 15s form the next highest percentage (8%), yet only 5% of 20-29 year olds go to church. The percentages for all age groups have consistently dropped over the years.
The UK’s Christian community as a percentage of the population has suffered continuous decline since 1900, the first year for which the statistics are shown. Although the numbers on which the percentage is based may be open to question (37.7 million Christians – based those baptised still living) the trends are noteworthy, given the method is consistent. Baptised Christians started the century as 86% of the UK population and end it with 64%.
Adherents of Non-Christian religions started the century as 0.2% of the UK population and will end it with around 4.5%. For these faiths the number of adherents are as follows. The estimate for 2000 is followed by comparative figure for 1960 in parentheses. All figures are in thousands: Muslims, whose numbers have risen most, 675 (30); Sikhs 400 (50); Hindus 165 (40); and Buddhists 52 (1). The number of Jews, on the other hand, is declining significantly. Estimates suggest they are now (in thousands) only 284, compared with about 400 in 1960. Marriage outside the faith is a major factor.
Keith Porteous Wood
Church Times 19/11/99D
NEWS RELEASE 21st January, 2000
WAKEHAM'S RELIGIOUS PROPOSALS A BACKWARD STEP
The National Secular Society (NSS) strongly criticises the Royal Commission on Reform of the House of Lords' suggestion that religious representation in the new second chamber should be increased.
Keith Porteous Wood, General Secretary of the NSS said: "We are very disappointed that the Wakeham commission has let a rare opportunity pass to press for modernisation in the Lords. Every other Western democracy never had, or has abandoned, ex officio religious representation. Instead of following their lead, the Commission has belligerently chosen to propose the extension of religious representation. This weakens our democracy; the 30% of the population who are non-believers are under-represented in these proposals, which fly in the face of an unprecedented decline in the nation's interest in religion (based on attendances).
"The proposals are not the minor reallocation of numbers they first appear. Although the Bishops Bench will be cut by ten, ten additional Christians of other denominations are proposed. In practice, for important debates there are rarely more than six bishops in attendance; even with the reduction this number is unlikely to change. Most of the additional ten, however, would also be expected to attend important debates as would most of the five or more from other faiths. Thus the religious vote would be around three times the current levels.
"Appointing religious representatives will simply open the way to endless wrangling as every faith, sect and denomination fights for seats in the chamber. There is little more justification for Catholics and Church of Scotland to have places than the Mormons, Salvation Army or the Moonies.
There will be enormous difficulties choosing representatives: allocating quotas between RCs and Protestants; the Jews and Muslims have profound sects or splits. Those excluded will inevitably claim discrimination. The 'solution' will be to offer ever-more seats.
The NSS also criticised the report for not:
Mr Porteous Wood concluded: "The Commission included a number of devout believers. Its proposals on religion seek cynically to materially increase the power of religious influence in our legislature, at a time when the population is abandoning religion. Modernisation? They are trying to turn the clock back 150 years."
Title: 'Atheism Central for Secondary Schoolsl' Copyright © 1998, Alan Urdaibay visit our sponsor.