B1 Intermediate UK 2452 Folder Collection
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I'm sometimes asked what I mean when I refer to myself as a secularist.
The term 'secular' has different meanings.
But when I describe my own position as secular
I'm referring to a view encompassing two broad principles.
Firstly, the separation of religion from state leaves religious people free
to practice their religion, provided they don't infringe the freedoms of others
and allows the non-religious to live without the imposition of religion
through law, education, government, employment or health.
This promotes freedom of religion and from religion.
Secondly, the principle of equality before the law seeks to remove all privilege
or penalty for having or lacking religious faith;
to ensure that no belief, religious or otherwise
receives special protection from criticism;
and that inequalities which some support within their religion
won't be supported outside it.
Obviously, under this principle, blasphemy and apostasy are non-punishable.
When properly understood
secularism creates an environment of equality that benefits us all
which is why it's supported by theists and atheists
religious and non-religious people alike.
Until recently, many of Britain's Councils began meetings with religious prayer.
But in February this year, after informal requests for this to stop were ignored
the National Secular Society won a legal challenge
when the High Court declared the practice unlawful.
Some commentators and parts of the British media
were quick to portray this as 'militant secularism'.
But where was the injury here? Was religion criticized?
Were councillors told they must abandon their beliefs?
Or stop praying in their own time? No. All that was established was that prayer has
no place in formal proceedings.
As NSS Campaigns Manager Stephen Evans points out
the absence of prayers "simply creates a neutral space
and removes an unnecessary barrier to local democracy being equally welcoming
to all sections of society."
Prayer has never been part of any business meeting I've attended.
Nor have religious colleagues taken issue with that.
Even before the High Court ruling, many councils didn't open meetings with prayer.
The fact that some councils have traditionally done this in the past
does not justify them continuing to do so.
A history of doing X doesn't make it okay today.
It was once tradition for only men to vote.
Those who think prayer is a worthwhile use of their time can pray in their own time
but supernatural rituals will naturally fall by the wayside
as fewer and fewer people believe in the supernatural
so it's utterly misguided to try to preserve them as part of our heritage.
Just as I, as an atheist, would oppose inserting atheism into business meetings
bank note design or oaths of national allegiance
- no matter how many of the population are non-believers -
many theists recognize the inappropriateness of inserting theism in those contexts, too.
Of course, some don't...
Michael Langrish, bishop of Exeter, has claimed prayers said before council meetings
set its decisions in 'a wider moral context'
but acts of worship that exclude and alienate people at the outset
create an unnecessarily *narrow* context.
Also, religious rituals are not needed to set a moral context.
Gloucestershire council has replaced its original prayer
with, “May we find the wisdom to carry out our duties,
the humanity to listen to all, the courage to do what is right
and the generosity to treat each other with respect.”
Worthy sentiments, one might think, though eChristianNews reports this as 'shocking'.
Langrish says he finds it sad that what he calls "a tiny minority
are trying to ban a majority, who appreciate this activity".
Being in the majority is not a licence to ignore the impact
your activity has on everyone else.
And besides, Christianity is in dramatic decline in Britain.
Recent research by Ipsos MORI
indicates only just over half the population now identify as Christian.
More significantly, of the self-identifying Christians polled
over a third expressed no positive belief in the power of prayer.
The same number said they never or almost never pray from choice.
In fact, when asked why they identify as Christians
fewer than three in ten cited belief in Christian teachings as one of their reasons.
Far more said it was because they were christened
or baptised into the religion or that parents were Christian.
By reporting actual attitudes, rather than assuming them
this research undermines Langrish's assumption that those who identify as Christian
will share his perspective on council prayers, or indeed any other matter.
Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association
draws attention to the way certain public figures and parts of the media
sensationally misrepresent religious news stories
so as to create a narrative of victimhood and persecution
as a cover for what's actually going on:
Christian lobby groups arguing for more influence.
Andrea Williams of Christian Concern, who warns of totalitarian secularism
reveals her motives by urging councils to "[B]e vocal and visible for the Lord Jesus
by continuing to keep prayers on their agenda."
Christian Concern's website currently states: "[W]e want to work
to infuse a biblical worldview into every aspect of society."
Like egocentric infants who've grabbed all the toys
then throw a tantrum when some are taken away to be distributed fairly
some behave as though it's unbearable
if their religion isn't given prominence or even dominance, regardless of setting.
While secularists seek to establish fairness and equality for all groups
these people seek to establish religious privilege for their own group.
Earlier this year, David Cameron pledged to legalize same-sex marriage.
Keith O'Brien, head of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland
condemned this as 'grotesque' and shameful.
Many would say that about O'Brien's views.
More people in the UK and US now express support for same-sex marriage
than opposition to it, and it's legal in more and more European countries.
But secularism defends O'Brien's freedom to express his view
no matter how shabby, insular and irrelevant it may seem
at first, second or forty-ninth glance.
However, Vincent Nichols and Peter Smith, two R C archbishops
took the extreme step of composing a letter to be read out at 2500 churches
urging parishioners to ensure that what they called the 'true meaning of marriage'
(a commitment between a man and woman) is not lost.
They gave several reasons for their definition of marriage.
They said it reflects our nature.
Clearly, if many want same-sex spouses, mixed marriage does not reflect 'our nature'.
They said the stability of marriage provides the best context
for the flourishing of relationships.
If that's true for mixed couples it's true for same-sex ones.
They said it recognizes the complementarity of the sexes.
Many women feel they complement each other, so do many men.
And surely it's the relationship of the two people involved that matters in marriage.
Self-indulgent musings on male/female harmony don't justify denying marriage equality.
Lastly, they said marriage is for creating and raising children
which is absurd off the bat.
The church has no problem marrying mixed couples who don't want or can't have children.
Also, if they say marriage helps people raise children
that's a reason to support marriage of same-sex couples, many of whom raise children.
So we can easily dismiss these feeble justifications.
But whatever reasons these two had given
trying to mobilize Britain's catholics against civil same-sex marriage
to bully government into enshrining a religious view in civil law
was wholly unacceptable.
However, in an even more extraordinary intervention
reported by the Guardian and BBC a month later
the Catholic Education Service contacted nearly
four hundred state-funded Catholic secondary schools in England and Wales
to promote the letter, and a petition against same-sex marriage, to pupils.
One pupil reported the bristling reaction in assembly as her head-teacher
explained parts of the letter and encouraged them to sign the petition.
Expressing her disgust, she added that the talk prompted some pupils
to buy 'Gay Pride' badges to pin to their uniforms.
Using children as political lobbying tools to prevent non-religious same-sex marriage
is a deeply unprincipled tactic that shows the depths to which these people will sink
to interfere in the freedoms of non-catholics.
Secularists don't seek to interfere in the internal squabbles of religion.
If some church leaders don't want same-sex couples to marry in their church
they're free to make that known
and individual Christians can judge for themselves whether that's acceptable to them.
Certainly, some bishops have spoken out
against the Church of England's so-called 'official' opposition to same-sex marriage.
As bishop of Buckingham Alan Wilson notes:
"There is a groundswell of opinion that says, 'this does not speak for us'.
There is a sea change going on."
And these sentiments have been echoed by Tim Ellis, bishop of Grantham.
Secular atheists and theists campaign on many issues.
They work to ensure public services are delivered in a neutral way
without religious discrimination, promotion of religion
or religious judgments that may deter people from making use of such services.
They seek to disestablish the Church of England as our state religion
which is as crucial to the church's autonomy as it is to the government's
to guard against mutual interference.
And as Church of England priest Giles Fraser points out
society is too diverse to sustain a state religion.
A secular state stops any single religion monopolizing power.
Secularists seek the removal of the twenty-six unelected bishops
from the House of Lords, who unfairly inflate Church of England representation
in this law-making body.
There's no evidence that bishops bring superior moral insight
as is sometimes argued to justify their presence in the House.
On the contrary, some may have unduly limited insight on certain key issues.
The current lack of female bishops in the UK
also creates automatic and total sexual inequality among the twenty six.
Another secular campaign highlights the unfairness of hospital chaplaincy services
which, despite being publicly funded, exclude patients
who don't share the chaplain's religion.
As the National Secular Society points out, the major religions have enormous wealth.
The Church of England has assets of billions of pounds.
If they want hospital chaplains, they should pay for them
especially as they also get special tax exemption
another example of unfair preferential treatment that should stop.
An NSS study has shown that our best-performing hospitals
tend to spend the lowest proportion on chaplaincy services
and that if all health Trusts brought their spending in line with the best ones
savings could pay for 1,000 nursing assistants a year.
Some of the biggest concerns secularists have regard religions' role in education.
Many agree there's value in teaching children about different religions.
A worldly understanding will naturally involve learning about
what different people believe; why some follow religion
and equally why others don't.
What is not acceptable is using a national education system
to segregate and indoctrinate children into particular religions.
Around a third of the UK's publicly funded schools are so-called 'faith schools'
which enjoy many unfair privileges.
They can discriminate in employment by denying jobs to teachers
who don't share the school faith.
They can also refuse to admit children whose parents don't share the school faith
or aren't 'religious enough'
often forcing them to travel much further for their education
when nearby faith schools won't take them.
In fact, a study commissioned by the Department of Education and Skills
found that the high academic performance of faith schools
often cited to justify their continuation
is actually due to their being able to pick and choose which children they admit
based on what they can observe about the children and their backgrounds.
In other words, their success is due to privileges of selection, not religion.
Many faith schools supplement science classes with religious lessons
that are not subject to the inspection required in other schools.
We end up with schools claiming to teach science while guiding children to reject it;
incompetent science teachers stumped by elementary questions;
and children academically hobbled
because some adults, not content with having their own beliefs
insist on injecting their religious dogma into others' education.
What too often gets lost is any genuine consideration of the child's interests.
Leaving aside all the high talk
about parents' rights to do this or that with their children
what about the child's freedom to make their own balanced assessment of religion?
Children are not their parents' property.
Parents are temporary guardians of children.
Parenthood doesn't authorize one to disfigure another person's body for religious reasons
or fill impressionable minds with beliefs that may hinder their subsequent education.
Parents have no right to expect their children to carry on their religion
any more than they have a right to dictate their career choices or expect grandchildren.
We're all entitled to develop our own experience and beliefs about the world around us.
We equip children with the most effective tools to do that
by modelling and nurturing emotional and intellectual skills.
Children should not be valued in terms of their usability in religion
as they are by egregious manipulators like Becky Fischer
and those who see faith schools as a way of generating new believers.
They should be allowed to make their own decisions about religion
after a well-balanced education
not segregated into faith groups in their formative years.
There is no justification for publicly-funded schools teaching religious myth as fact
promoting religious beliefs or requiring children to perform acts of religious worship.
Parents determined to raise their children in a particular religion
can do that without publicly funded 'faith schools'
which should convert to community schools without religious practice or privilege.
This is not a Christian nation.
It's not even a religious nation.
It's a nation of many faiths and none.
And even within faith groups
there can be fundamental differences of opinion on important issues.
Establishing secular boundaries that prevent any single religion
imposing its values on everyone else
is as much a protection for the religious as it is for the non-religious.
Boundaries naturally upset those whose nature is to impose;
and people who've got used to privilege don't like it being removed.
Their complaints are to be taken for granted.
When Sayeeda Warsi told the Vatican earlier this year
that "aggressive secularism is being imposed by stealth"
likening it to totalitarianism and saying secularism "denied people the right
to religious identity", this was shameless misrepresentation.
Secularism denies no one religious identity.
It defends that freedom, but not the freedom to impose that identity on others.
What secularism says is that having a religious identity
does not justify special tax exemption, especially for the already rich;
preaching religion in state schools;
inserting narrow, religious values into common law;
having unelected religious leaders as legislators
or demanding council prayers.
Redressing these unjust and inappropriate privileges is not totalitarian
nor is it an attack on faith.
It's a recognition of the freedom of all people to live without divisive inequalities.
Secular principles, supported by theists and atheists alike
encourage fairness and mutual consideration
and help us all, within reasonable limits
to live together in the way we choose.
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2452 Folder Collection
Keith Hwang published on November 24, 2015
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