Secularism 2012

Challenging religious privilege in public life

At the Royal National Hotel on 22 September 2012

Gerard Phillips was an excellent master of ceremonies, keeping to a tight schedule and managing to get the attention of a large audience when it was needed. His only minor blooper was introducing Keith Porteous Wood as Executive Director of the NSS since 1966, not 1996.

Keith Porteous Wood

“To me, secularism is about equality.” Britain is the only country in the world where there are bishops in the legislature, and where every day in every school there is a mandatory act of worship and religion is often rammed down children’s throats, causing upset. The church is seeking more influence, and yet there are signs of secular resistance, e.g. there was a strike at the Dagenham community school that was threatened with closure (see also Community cuts both ways). The NSS is the only intervenor in the European discrimination hearing. We opposed the church over their dishonest objection to same-sex marriage, and we’ve taken on the Holy See over child abuse. (This got big applause.) We also work with Christians whenever we share a common goal, e.g. in drawing attention to how sharia courts are undermining secular justice.

Professor Ted Cantle CBE

Ted Cantle is Professor at the Institute of Community Cohesion. His report into the northern riots of 2001 drew attention to the “segregated” ethnic and religious communities living “parallel” lives. His new book confronts the failures of multiculturalism head on and establishes a new concept — interculturalism — for managing community relations in a world defined by globalization and super-diversity.

The policies of multiculturism are past their sell-by date, but globalization is ensuring more multiculturism. So we need to change the policies. The 1950s saw the birth of multiculturism, which began to replace the idea that the British were a single race. The “cold reality” was not always a cosy welcome: signs warned “no blacks, no Irish, no dogs.” We should be proud that we were among the first to develop anti-discrimination policies, but the price we paid was the creation of parallel lives. Boundaries began to go up.

He quoted from a 2009 article by Gary Younge:

Instead the government continues to approach Muslims as though their religion defines them. It rarely speaks to them as tenants, parents, students or workers; it does not dwell on problems that they share with everyone else; it does not convene high profile task forces to look at how to improve their daily lives. It summons them as Muslims, talks to them as Muslims and refers to them as Muslims — as though they could not possibly be understood as anything else.

This echoes Amartya Sen’s concern over a “religion-centred political approach” that is more about difference than common humanity

We should be proud of the diversity of a city like London, where 350 languages are spoken. Categories of ethnic identities are no longer, if they ever were, very informative: “You can’t put me in a box.”

We need to move from multiculturism to interculturism, and the state should change the way it relates to groups. Cantle has no objection to faith in the public sphere, so long as there is also contestation in the public sphere. The religious must be prepared to have their faith views challenged and to accept that both blasphemy and apostasy are outdated.

He has difficulty with the term “secular society” — he wants people of faith to be able to express their views: he is more hard nosed about the need for secular government. Britain is a very tolerant society, and we have broken down some of those parallel lives. Not all minorities are disadvantaged.


Multiculturist policies involve funding separate identities, while interculturism is the exact opposite: instead of providing, e.g., IT training for Muslims, the disabled, Catholics, single mothers, and so on, we should deal with the single issue of IT training in as inclusive way as possible.

He’s long been an opponent of faith schools. All schools should be desegregated and mixed. Northern Ireland is the most segregated part of the UK, where all community facilities are divided.

We need to get rid of those community leaders who are gatekeepers and replace them with those who can provide gateways into their communities.

Tackle the need, the disadvantage, and ignore the identity.

(Professor Cantle was featured on the 23 September edition of the Sunday programme.)

Nia Griffith MP

Nia Griffith is Member of Parliament for Llanelli, Shadow Minister for Wales and a campaigner for Lords reform. She is a firm believer in the need for the separation of church and state.

Why don’t we have a more secular society? In Wales, the funeral director — Evans Above — recommends the same few hymns at funerals, and these also get trotted out at civic ceremonies, rugby matches, and so on. (She dropped into a deeper Welsh accent, and demonstrated how using gentle humour can spice an argument with just the right amount of ridicule.)

Why do we do these things? Tradition, and custom and practice. In 1880, Charles Bradlaugh was elected an MP and then courageously battled for eight years before he was allowed to make an affirmation. Parliament has made pitifully little progress since. There are still prayers in the House of Commons, and any questions are met with indecipherable answers, which assert that it is “a little premature to consider change.” In the 1990s Tony Benn pushed his Commonwealth of Britain Bill, a radical overhaul of the constitution.

The disestablishment of the church in Wales in 1920 was due to nonconformism, and wasn’t a very thorough decoupling (the church managed to hold on to its land and there are still faith schools).

Why so little progress? There are always other priorities is the charitable answer. More to the point is that anything that upsets the church creates an almighty ruckus: there are few votes in challenging religious privilege, little to gain and much to lose in the fuss that inevitably follows. For example, the Human Embryo and Fertilization Bill generated a huge response from the less rational religious constituency (the evangelicals and Catholics): “we’d have centaurs running in the streets” (again, in a lovely comic Welsh accent).

MPs rarely receive letters in favour of a policy, and yet voices in support are important to balance the vocal, often religious, minority.

Why do we spend £29 million a year on religious chaplains in the NHS? There is a fear of being seen as anti-religious, and some even think being non-religious means having no morals or principles. Of course people like tradition, but we can change and even create new traditions, e.g. by disestablishing the Church of England and getting rid of the absurdity of bishops in a parliament that has passed an Equality Bill while they continue to exercise discrimination against women in their own church. This is a “complete and utter disgrace.”


The Welsh National Assembly does not have prayers. On the issue of gay marriage, there was a really disproportionate number of letters against it, and very few in favour, which does not reflect public opinion.

On a positive note, our party leaders can now admit to not being full-on Christians and even non-believers.

Pragna Patel

Pragna Patel is a secular campaigner, founding member of Southall Black Sisters and co-founder of Women Against Fundamentalism. In 2010 Pragna received the Irwin Prize for Secularist of the Year on behalf of Southall Black Sisters.

We need to prevent the shrinking of secular spaces in public life. The struggle for progressive secular values involves both countering the rise of the religious right and challenging hierarchical power structures. Wherever the political right is in ascendance, the human right to freedom from religion diminishes. Secularism is not anti-religion but about the separation of religion from political power, and we should remember that secularism does not guarantee equality or democracy.

We need to protect minority women whose “bodies have become the battleground” (literally, in the case of domestic violence), who live in communities which seek “control of women’s sexuality” and which suppress dissenting voices (e.g. the censorship of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s controversial play Behzti, in Birmingham). Women and children are also accused of being possessed by evil spirits, and are then subjected to cruel and humiliating exorcisms at the hands of religious leaders.

Southall Black Sisters supported Salman Rushdie and opposed the 2005 religious hatred bill (blasphemy by the back door). Religious groups couch their demands in the language of human rights but they strip human rights of their progressive meaning, and minority rights are almost exclusively expressed in religious terms. The state, impressed by “supposedly authentic theological” values, funds multi-faith programmes despite these having no interest in equality.

Equality and human rights are not Western concepts. Women across the world struggle for equality and human rights, often against Western imperialism, e.g. US evangelical Christianity.

There is no evidence that women Muslims want religious arbitration on family matters. We must avoid state support for discriminatory policies, and resist the promotion of faith-based organizations which endanger minority rights.


One questioner picked her up on a comment she made about Ted Cantle’s ideas being “deeply flawed”. She hadn’t actually heard his talk and didn’t really know what he meant by interculturism. A shame, since I think they have a lot in common, e.g. his opposition to faith schools chimes in with her resistance to faith-based organizations.

Nick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a journalist, author, political commentator and eloquent supporter of secularism. He is a critic of the increasing role of religion in state education and of the Left’s tendency to pander to religious fundamentalists. His latest work, You Can’t Read This Book, is on freedom of expression.

One of the main themes of this conference is freedom of speech. Although many people think the contrary, we’re not a secular society. There is a de facto blasphemy law in most democracies, but this is a law that has not been passed by any parliament. It is based on the threat of violence.

You can see the fear in editors’ eyes. They have a strong argument for censorship: they don’t want blood on their hands. The whole theory, e.g. that to insult Mohammed is Islamophobic, expects Muslims to behave like naughty children, who will run around having an almighty tantrum.

We have a good tradition of writing on freedom of speech, with John Milton one of the earliest champions. Who wants to be a censor, anyway? No one of talent, certainly: almost by definition, anyone who wants to set themselves up as a censor is not a fit judge.

The point about political extremism is that there always has to be something. If it’s not Rushdie, it will be someone else, some “politically profitable outrage” to keep them in business. In 2008, that someone else was Sherry Jones, whose historical novel The Jewel of Medina was cancelled by Random House when one single hysterical academic reported that it was an “insult to the Prophet”. Jones went to great lengths to make her romantic novel as innocent as possible, and yet a chain of events was set in train that ended with a London publisher’s home being fire bombed.

(As an aside, Cohen made the point that the writings about the Prophet were only written two hundred years after his death, and so are no more reliable as history than the gospels. Having just read Ehrman (2012), I would take issue with this claim: while I’m sceptical about the historical value of the Islamic tradition, and while there is much that is unhistorical about the gospels, we’re probably on surer ground with some of the stories about Jesus.)

(An unnamed Libyan in Benghazi, an electrician trained at Marconi in Chelmsford, says: “We want the foreigners to come back. The extremists, they put this anger in the minds of the people.”)

We need to understand the mentality of fundamentalism, which has a life of its own. To the fundamentalist, everyone is forever “transgressing boundaries” (and not in the sexy Social Text sense as parodied by Alan Sokal). A similar point is made by Yuri Yarim-Agaev in How to Win an Ideological War:

It is important to remember that a war with a fanatical foe is first of all an ideological war, and in such a war, appeasement doesn’t work. There are no defensive strategies. Any attempt to prove that you are right is a defeat. Any suggestion of compromise or acceptance of the legitimacy of your enemy’s ideology is a sign of your weakness—which only provokes further attacks.

The first step is to admit we are afraid, to admit that we censor, to be honest about being a coward.

John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty is the finest book against censorship ever written. Here’s a flavour of this great essay (Mill 2009:8–9):

Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.

(It is also a pretty good manifesto for the scientific method and the best kind of sceptical, critical thinking.)

“I’m an optimist” — he doesn’t believe his fellow citizens are closet Nazis, and most people are open to reasonable argument.

Ridicule and argument are better instruments to confront obnoxious opinions than the law. We need to build defences, thicken our skin, and speak out against divinely sanctioned prejudice: let’s “make them feel absurd.” (Here is John Kampfner, former chief executive of Index on Censorship, who writes that a“thick skin is the essence of a mature society.”)


The French have laws against Holocaust denial, an arrangement which doesn’t work. The cultural effects in a society where opinions are banned are uncontrollable.

Two hundred years ago, any believer knew that all the finest minds in the world were also believers. That safety net is no longer possible. Today, the finest minds in the world reject the supernatural explanation of the universe. Religion cannot now produce high culture, and this makes the religious defensive.

Maryam Namazie

Maryam Namazie is a secular campaigner and commentator, spokesperson for the One Law for All Campaign against Sharia Law in Britain and the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. In 2005 she was awarded the Irwin Prize for Secularist of the Year.

There aren’t many introductions that explain the speaker has campaigned against stoning, in the 21st century! As always, Namazie combined passion and reason with a powerful and moving delivery, which justly earned her a standing ovation from large sections of the audience.

Her talk was accompanied with a series of slides, more or less tied in, any one of which would have had the newspaper editors Nick Cohen referred to trembling in their patent leather shoes. The first was an illustration of sharia law: forbidding judges sat behind a desk below a washing line strung with severed hands dripping blood. The next was about Islamic marriage counselling: “Have you tried throwing rocks?”

Sharia is a code of death and despair. A religious law court based on the Bible or the Torah would be similarly barbaric and discriminatory. Marital rape is the prerogative of an Islamic husband, who is encouraged that the “secret of women’s nature” is that she really wants it, even if she’s screaming in your face. Child marriage is defended by appealing to religious rights and playing the racist card against anyone who suggests it’s wrong. Religious rights are not absolute, and we should stop apologizing, or hiding behind the language of rights to excuse misogyny.

There is an Islamic inquisition underway, which means the end of freedom. Sharia courts are regressive. We must resist the Islamic narrative, and reject notions of sole authority: “you’ve got to read more than one book if you want to call yourself a scholar” (she attributed this to Richard Dawkins). This is how we handle sassy teenage girls in the Islamic Republic of Iran: the cartoon showed a young girl hanging with a noose round her neck. (No doubt this would have been the fate of the character Fanny Hawthorn if she had been unlucky to have been living today in Tehran instead of in Hindle a hundred years ago.)

She then showed the Jesus and Mo multi cartoon and for good measure offered a “Bravo!” to Charlie Hebdo for not backing down when faced with Islamic intimidation. People say such cartoons are not helpful. What is not helpful is Islamism’s murder and violence. The real problem is Islamism, not bad films. It’s about politics, not religion. Like most religions, Islam is a religion of death, but unlike most religions, Islam has not been restrained. This is our task.


The rent-a-wife arrangement — so-called permanent and temporary wives — is highly discriminatory against women, and there is no protection. She’s opposed to temporary marriage.

Islamism is a political far right movement, but that doesn’t mean Islam is off the hook.

Historically, US imperialism has had links to Islamism, e.g. when they shared opposition to communist regimes.

We need to stop making excuses over sharia law, and support Baroness Cox’s Equality Bill, coming up in October. This is an important human rights issue.

“I’ll say what I have to say, regardless of breaking the 2005 law.” It’s scandalous that people in Britain should be afraid, compared with people who are in much more dangerous situations. There is safety in numbers.

However awful the religion of Islam, Islamism is even worse, which is why she compares it to the Inquisition. Women get death threats for not wanting to wear the veil in Tower Hamlets.

(I don’t think Namazie would be impressed by Martha Nussbaum’s position on “the new religious intolerance”. Here she is interviewed by Giles Fraser:

Those who associate the burqa with violence against women are often inconsistent, for instance, in not also wanting to ban alcohol, which is strongly associated with violence against women. Even during prohibition, she points out, alcohol was allowed for religious purposes, such as the eucharist. Many argue that the burqa is something forced on women and that the issue is one of choice. Certainly, if physical coercion is involved or threatened, the law must step in. But what of non-physical forms of cultural or community pressure? Yes, says Nussbaum – such as forcing your child to play the piano or dress smartly or to go into accountancy. The strategy of the book is to reveal the inconsistencies and double standards that we apply to minority religious positions and from there to plead for a more sympathetic hearing of those whose worldviews we do not share.

Is Nussbaum really comparing being forced to wear the burqa with being forced to “dress smartly”? When was the last time someone received a death threat for preferring not to play the piano?)

Namazie’s rousing finale — we need secularismfor the whole world and we need to stop being so damn polite! — gives a clue as to what her attitude to privileged academics like Nussbaum would be: strength not sympathy to stand up to these bullies, and only once they have renounced violence should we engage on more civil terms.

Peter Tatchell

Peter Tatchell has been campaigning for human rights, democracy, LGBT freedom and global justice since 1967. Through the Peter Tatchell Foundation, he campaigns for human rights in Britain and internationally. In 2012 Peter was awarded the Irwin Prize for Secularist of the Year.

We should affirm the values of secularism over the privilege of religion. Human rights have traditionally been narrowly defined, e.g. freedom of expression, but they have evolved to cover broader rights, including the right to food, shelter, education and healthcare. We can’t exercise the other liberties without the basic provisions, and it is the global economic system that is responsible for so many not having enough. (There are many problems with “the global economic system” but — even if a billion are starving — it is also responsible for feeding six billion people, which would have seem an astonishing achievement to someone like Malthus.)

Wealth is unfairly distributed. The vast suffering is not an accident, but is due to the ethos of free market capitalism. We need to organize the world economy differently. (My heart sank at this: who’s going to do the organizing? The real-world examples of centrally managed economies are not encouraging.)

We should distinguish between people of faith, many of whom share our goals of achieving social justice, and religious institutions and organized religion, which often hold back progress on many fronts. (If organized religion is so terrible, and given some similarities between economics and theology, why should we expect organized economies to be any more beneficial to humanity?) The Russian Orthodox Church showed their true repressive colours when they called for a severe sentence for Pussy Riot (see also No love for Russian pussy), the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe backed the tyrant Robert Mugabe and the Catholic Church has opposed the use of condoms to control the spread of AIDS in Africa.

In Iran, Shia muslims dominate Sunnis, while in Pakistan Sunni muslims dominate Shias, with the minority sects suffering persecution at the hands of the majority. In these countries, it is muslims who are the victims of organized religion.

(In the same report of the violence in Libya quoted in Nick Cohen’s section, we read about “government forces who stood aside last month to allow Salafists to bulldoze a Sufi shrine in Tripoli.”)

We can and should work with the religious who share our commitment to human rights. Ordinary believers are largely powerless — it is the clerics who are the major threat to liberty.


How to move to a different kind of economy? We need regulation on a global scale. (Again, we need to ensure that where regulation limits our freedoms, this is done by consent and with a clear goal in mind.) A 10% reduction in military spending would raise $160 billion a year, enough to eliminate hunger and the preventable diseases.

Individual believers should be criticized, but they are not our main enemy, which is irrationality and superstition.

Professor Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is a world famous Atheist, having authored several books and popularising Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. He studies ethology which is the study of animal behaviour and evolutionary biology. Dawkins was the Professor for Public Understanding of Science from 1995 till 2008 at Oxford University. After retiring from this position, he now travels internationally giving lectures and making documentaries to increase Atheism awareness.

Unsurprisingly, Dawkins got the loudest applause before he’d even said a word. He began with the idea that we are often asked to give respect to religion, simply because it is religion. He was sympathetic to people who were in physical danger because of their religious beliefs or lack of belief: but this is fear, not respect.

Sharia law offends logic and reason as well as being unjust. Religion is a threat to scientific truth. He hasn’t a crumb of respect for faith, though individual faith heads may be nice enough. At a recent conference Phil Plait put up a slide — “Don’t be a dick” — aimed at people like Dawkins. The approach should be: “I respect you so much as a person that you’ll change your mind in response to reasonable argument.”

He then gave an account of his own wide-eyed and youthful enthusiasm — even infatuation — for the writings of Teilhard de Chardin, and how his opinions were challenged — even insulted and ridiculed — by reading Peter Medawar’s review of The Phenomenon of Man. This was a book he treasured, and he was ashamed that he’d been taken in by style giving the illusion of content. The experience of having something he held dear ridiculed hit home. On the whole he doesn’t advocate ridicule, and certainly doesn’t approve of the horrible obscenity many go in for on the internet, but intelligently done it can be effective.

Here are a couple of extracts from the review (Medawar 1984:243):

Teilhard is for ever shouting at us: things or affairs are, in alphabetical order, astounding, colossal, endless, enormous, fantastic, giddy, hyper-, immense, implacable… infinite…


To equate it to consciousness, or to regard degree of consciousness as a measure of information content, is one of the silly little metaphysical conceits I mentioned in an earlier paragraph. \dots the idea that evolution has a main track or privileged axis is unsupported by scientific evidence. Teilhard is widely believed to have rejected the modern Mendelian-Darwinian theory of evolution or to have demonstrated its inadequacy. … Teilhard’s metaphysical argument begins where the scientific argument leaves off, and the gist of it is extremely simple. … Teilhard becomes more
and more confused and excited and finally almost hysterical.

And here is J. M. Ziman (1968:144):

To put it bluntly, let us have no truck with mystical ineffabilities of the Teilhard de Chardin ilk. On the contrary, I am arguing that all genuine scientific procedures of thought and argument are essentially the same as those of everyday life…

Back to Dawkins: Making common cause with faith heads over the battle for evolution is part of the wider war for rational and critical thought.

Should we respect the privacy of a politician’s religion? Sometimes, e.g. Baroness Warsi’s “We do God!”, they are the ones bringing their beliefs into the open. In the US every politician “does God” although the separation of church and state is deeply woven into their constitution, which demands that there shall be “no religious test” for any public office. (In the UK, apparently, “idiots are disqualified from election to Parliament.”) Despite this, in seven US states atheists are explicitly barred: for example, “any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God” will not get very far in North Carolina.

We should be able to ask about a politician’s beliefs. Voters are entitled to take account of what a person is capable of believing. For example, Mitt Romney is a Mormon who believes that Joseph Smith dug up some gold tablets which he translated with a magic stone (into 16th-century English: Mark Twain thought that if the phrase “it came to pass” were removed, then the Book of Mormon would be a pamphlet). Everything about the Book of Mormon reeks of faith. If Mitt Romney is a gullible fool who believes the stories about Joseph Smith, then he should be questioned.

Isn’t Obama’s Christianity just as ridiculous? First of all, he professes Christian beliefs because he’s an elected politician, but, second, he’s the kind of Christian who is not a literalist. Mitt Romney, in contrast, was a bishop in the Mormon church and went so far as to baptize his atheist father-in-law 14 months after his death.

(As sceptical balance to this view, I heard Mark Henderson the other day refer to Mitt Romney’s reasonable position on global warming (see The Geek Manifesto). Apparently, until a couple of years ago Romney accepted the scientific consensus. Now, of course, he’s had to take the standard Republican line that it’s all a liberal pinko enviro conspiracy, but that probably shouldn’t be laid at the door of his Mormonism.)

Mormon beliefs are hugely preposterous, more than most religious beliefs, except perhaps that of transubstantiation, in which the bread and wine of the Eucharist literally become the body and blood of Jesus.

Don’t call yourself a Christian unless you really do sign up the core beliefs, and if you are a believer then we’re entitled to be sceptical of your judgements.

He finished with a satire on the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, which espouses the equal validity of all opinions and respect for all religions:

All of us in the faith community believe in the total absence of evidence, and so we can believe anything we like!


He always asks what a religious scientist actually believes, and more often than not it’s simply that there’s something more, something “vaguely spiritual”.

He’s “opposed to the French law banning binliners” — a law which is a straightforward infringement of liberty.

If God cannot be created, or if no explanation is required for how God came about, then why not say the same for the universe?

One thing we can do is the break the cycle in which it is assumed that children should inherit the faith of his or her parents, an assumption which ought to be challenged at every turn. The way forward includes consciousness raising, e.g. by simply pointing out that a Catholic child is as ridiculous as a Keynesian child. At the moment, religion is given a free pass to label children, and we should begin to impose a cost.

 * * *

I chanced upon this report on the Jaipur Literary Festival by William Dalrymple, which illustrates many of the points made by the speakers, especially Nick Cohen and Maryam Namazie. Here are a few extracts:

[T]he Muslim Manch representative Abdul Salim Sankhla was quoted as saying: “We will not allow Rushdie to speak here in any form. There will be violent protests if he speaks.”

Threats of violence don’t come much more explicit. It’s not only Western politicians who are intimidated, and who seem ready to sacrifice any principled defence of free speech and freedom of movement:

[W]hen Maulana Nomani of Deoband then called for Rushdie to be banned from India, not a single Indian politician was willing to state clearly and unequivocally that he was welcome in the country in which he was born, which he loved, which he had celebrated in his fiction and to whose literature he had made such a ground-breaking contribution.

Dalrymple’s conclusion resonates with the themes of this conference:

We can only hope that the debate begun in Jaipur continues. Outdated colonial laws need to be repealed, violent fringe groups must be stopped from holding the nation to ransom and we need a movement to stop politicians abusing religious sentiment for political gain. Only when freedom of expression can be taken for granted can India really call itself the democracy it claims so proudly to be.

The only argument he doesn’t make is that for a truly secular India.

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