The National Secular Society celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2016, having been founded in 1866 by the atheist MP Charles Bradlaugh – who fought for, and won, the right to take his seat in the House of Commons by affirming, rather than swearing allegiance to God. The NSS celebrated the anniversary by donating a statue of Bradlaugh to the House of Commons, inaugurating a Bradlaugh lecture (the first was in September 2016 in Manchester), and by producing an anniversary brochure with a brief history of the NSS. We at South London Humanists belatedly celebrated the anniversary by inviting Stephen Evans, Campaigns Director of the NSS, to come and talk to us about secularism, its contemporary challenges and putative future – and the proposals set out in its new manifesto for change.

Stephen began by saying that we live in a very different world from that of 1866, and one where the picture of belief is changing fast. It has recently been found (by the latest British Attitudes Survey) that non-religious people are now in the majority in Britain. The demographic dominance of the Anglican Church is long gone. But, owing to unprecedented levels of migration, minority faiths are on the rise – and especially Islam, which threatens secularism in new and different ways, having a theocratic tendency not generally seen in other faith traditions today. The Muslim proportion of the population is growing, and Islam is gaining in assertiveness and influence. And that can be problematic for secularism, since polling indicates that most Muslims seem to lack political secularity, and believe that religion should influence politics. So we urgently need a long-term sustainable settlement on the relationship between religion and the state. We need to be very clear on the role and place of religion in British society.

There are various options for a way forward, says Stephen. The answer the NSS proposes is secularism. But two other options are being promulgated:

1. Continuing with the status quo, with our established Anglican Church advantaged (for historical reasons) by powerful constitutional and social privileges – including seats in the House of Lords, supposedly representing all faith traditions and interests.

But with the plummeting numbers of Anglican believers, this solution appears unsustainable in the long term, and disestablishment of the Church is justified, both on principle, and in the light of the changing belief landscape. Politicians and public are loathe to tangle with big constitutional issues, and the Anglican church still wields considerable political power and influence, but the time is surely coming when change will be inevitable.

2. The other option is the multi-faith model, replacing the privileging of a single faith with the privileging of faith itself (and this thinking was reflected in the suggestion of Prince Charles that his coronation oath should refer to him being “defender of faith”, rather than “defender of THE faith”). But the multi-faith model would unfairly privilege those with a religious belief over the millions who don’t have one, and it is a matter of concern that this approach is already in evidence in the public funding of Muslim, Sikh, Jewish, Hindu and Catholic schools, and chaplaincy services becoming multi-faith rather than secular.

And the recent Woolf Commission came out in favour of the multi-faith model by recommending that rabbis and imams be appointed to the House of Lords, as representatives of their faiths. The NSS naturally rejects this approach because state-sponsored multi-faithism is inconsistent with the character of our British population, with its very high number of non-believers – and it also presents large practical problems. Most people in Britain today aren’t religious, and huge numbers are just indifferent to religion, with an attitude that’s “secularish” – that is, they have no problem with other people being religious, as long as religion isn’t foisted on them. The multi-faith model thus marginalises the majority of the population.

So, if the status quo isn’t sustainable, and the multi-faith model isn’t right, what’s the answer? The answer is clearly secularism. But what is secularism, and how could it be the right way forward? There is a lot of confusion over the meaning of secularism. Some deem multi-faithism a kind of soft secularism because it seeks to offer all religions equal treatment, but that could never be achieved in practice, and leaves out the interests of non-believers. So it is not an interpretation of secularism supported by the NSS.

Different countries have their own interpretations of secularism, informed by history and circumstances, and the secular settlements of India, America, France, Nepal and Turkey (where secularism is now under threat) all differ. Perhaps the concept of laïcité in France, and the wall of separation between Church and State in the USA, have the most defined modern concepts of secularism.

In Britain, secularism is not widely understood or embraced, and in many ways it’s much maligned. And this is getting in the way of achieving a secular settlement which will ensure fairness for all. Many with a vested interest in maintaining religious power and privilege falsely equate secularism with atheism, or outright hostility to religion. Such people present secularism as seeking to undermine religion, and this deters many religious believers from subscribing to secularist arguments (though some do). And many non-believers are also alienated by the mistaken idea that secularism is the enemy of religion, because, while we are not a nation of religious enthusiasts, we are not generally anti-religion. Pew polls recently confirmed that, except for Muslims, people in Britain feel much less strongly, one way or the other, about religion than most other people around the world.

As long as secularism is perceived as antagonistic to religion, or religious believers, it won’t make much progress. And this is why many of its opponents choose to muddy the waters by falsely equating secularism with “strident” atheism. Hence, it’s vital that secularists avoid creating the impression that secularism is “politicised atheism”, because this can alienate potential allies – not least religious moderates, who support secularism in principle, but for whom personal faith is still important. Such people must be brought on board with secularism for it to succeed. Secularism needs people, and could be much stronger for such support.

Therefore there is an urgent need for secularists to clearly articulate what we mean by the word secularism.

Admirable as French laïcité might be, said Stephen, it is unlikely to be right for Britain. Equally, we must reject the “soft” option of multi-faithism, because, in a country as diverse and religiously indifferent as ours, it makes no sense – and is dangerously divisive – to organise public policy around religious identities. So the American concept of separation is probably closer to the mark. But we need to carve out our own British concept of secularism – seeking to minimise interference with the free exercise of religion, but protecting secular spaces, and ensuring religious freedom is always balanced against an individual’s right to live their life free from religion. This would provide a model that treats a person’s religion as a personal, private matter, rather than the basis for public policy – a model that robustly asserts the primacy of secular law, and the principle of one law for all.

So the NSS is advocating a very British form of secularism, a muscular yet inclusive version – a codification of “live and let live” – but within clear limits. The secularism campaigned for by the NSS is is based upon two basic and straightforward propositions:

1. The clear separation of the state from religious institutions.

2. That people of different religions and beliefs, including non-belief, are treated equally.

Secularists need, says Stephen, to confront the notion that they want “to eradicate religion from public life”. Certainly the intention is that religion’s public role would be greatly diminished, and also that the public funding of faith schools should be brought to an end. But it should be clear that secularists support an open society – where people are free to express their religious beliefs – while also being clear that there are limits to religious toleration. In reality, secularism offers us the only realistic framework to enable citizens to live together peacefully, alongside others whose beliefs are different from their own. Such peaceful co-existence cannot be taken for granted. Just look around the world. Religious conflict and sectarian grievances have the potential to tear a society apart. Secularism can save us from this. But what would secularism look like in practical terms? The NSS manifesto for change sets out in detail what a secular state would mean for Britain, and Stephen went on to give a few clear examples of what secularism would look like in practice.

Firstly, it would mean the disestablishment of the Church of England, so that the Anglican Church would be detached from the state, and free to compete in the market place of ideas like all other religions and ideologies. Possibly the most obvious example of religious privilege in Britain is the Bishops’ Bench in the House of Lords – 26 places are allocated to bishops simply by virtue of their office. The removal of the Bishops’ Bench would be the first step in disestablishment. The arguments for separating Church and state are compelling, but there are significant obstacles to achieving this – including the lack of any impetus for such change among MPs or the Government, and the general apathy and indifference of the British public regarding the issue. But equally there is no evidence of substantial support for the status quo. And the longer-term picture is far more positive. Overt support for Establishment is weak, and the current attempted justifications for it will become increasingly unsustainable as cultural and religious diversity grow, and the gap between the ethical positions of church leaders and wider British society – including many in the pews – continues to widen. This point particularly applies to the Bishops’ Bench, whose occupants seem less and less relevant, and more and more anomalous, in our society – being characterised last year by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, as the most conservative bench of bishops since World War II. They represent no one but the upper echelons of Church hierarchy.

The multi-faith option for addressing the hegemony of the Established Church in the Upper House is problematic because expanding religious representation to other traditions could inject inter-faith tensions into the legislative organs of state. And the legitimacy of any such expansion would be fundamentally compromised by the exclusion of the non-religious majority. Some might suggest the inclusion of a Humanist or two, but few non-religious people identify as Humanists, and many don’t even know what the word means. And of course the whole point of secularism is not to organise representation around religious identities. Moreover, there would be real difficulties in determining which other religions would be eligible for inclusion, and which religious leaders could be considered authentic and legitimate voices. It’s not clear who, if anyone, can claim to speak for other faiths such as Islam, which don’t have formal hierarchies of authority. Significantly, the former Chief Crown Prosecutor, Nazir Afzal, has recently commented that he has spent twenty years talking to faith “leaders” who represent no one but themselves. The UK is unique among Western democracies in guaranteeing religious representatives Parliamentary seats as of right. There is no justification for maintaining this privileging of religion, let alone extending it to other faiths.

Another vital area for reform is education, religion in schools being one of the most contested areas of public policy. A large part of the work of the NSS is providing advice and assistance to members of the public, and the number one issue raised is publicly funded faith schools, and the role of religion in schools in general. Concerns relate to the imposition of religious practices, prayer and worship; compulsory worship; poorly or subjectively taught religious education; discrimination in respect of admissions, or the employment of staff; and, increasingly, the frustration of parents with no option but a faith school available for their child. It appears that it is in our state education system that the absence of secularism most directly impacts the lives, rights and freedoms of ordinary people. Hence NSS’s recent report on rethinking the role of religion and belief in public life devotes a great deal of attention to education policy, because that’s where religion has an influence not seen in any other area of policy.

A whole third of English and Welsh publicly funded schools are legally designated as of a “religious character”. These include Church of England, Church of Wales, Roman Catholic, Jewish and Methodist schools – and, since 1998, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim state schools have opened, and an increasing number of non-denominational Christian schools. In addition to this, Academisation in England has seen the introduction of faith-ethos schools. Such Academies and Free Schools transmit a faith ethos without registration as being of a religious character. Scotland is still divided between denominational and non-denominational schools – and children in Northern Ireland mostly attend religiously separated schools, a position heavily criticised by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

The UK’s supporting and funding of religious schools as part of the state education system is not common across Europe, and is mainly a consequence of the historical fact that churches were among the first providers of universal education in the country, and have remained part of the landscape ever since. But the historical legacy, whatever its benefits in its day, does not automatically justify religious organisations having a permanent role in state education. Nevertheless, Church schools have remained, and this privileging has recently been extended to more minority faiths, not because of public or political support for that extension of privilege, but because to fund only Church schools would be discriminatory. In this way the path has been paved for the growth of minority faith schools, and with it has come the potential for social division stemming from this multi-cultural approach.

Generally, people share many of the same values in our society, but we don’t all share religious faith, and it is arguably potentially divisive for religious faith to intrude on education. And the desire to satisfy the demands of some parents and religious groups for faith-based education has led to a neglect of the civic purpose of state education. Which is perhaps why the Government has felt the need to commit to the promotion of “British values”. But regardless of such an aim, the continued state funding of religious schools is the least appropriate response to Britain’s increasing religious diversity. Closer integration is needed, not the encouragement of sectarianism and separatism by faith-based state schools. It’s more than seventy years since there was any legislative attention to the role of religion in state education, and our religion and belief landscape has been transformed in that time, but our education system is still stuck in 1944, when the current education settlement between Church and State was established.

There is a good case now for a fundamental rethink. The existence of publicly funded faith schools is defended by interested parties on the basis that parents value and want them, but it is actually not clear that this is what parents want. According to polling data most parents just want good schools, rather than specifically faith schools. The findings are that the things that matter to parents choosing a school are:

Academic standards – 77%
Location of school – 58%
Discipline record – 41%
Ethical values – 23%
Prestige of school – 19%
Grounding of pupils in faith tradition – 5%
Transmission of belief about God – 3%

Church schools have been very good at branding themselves superior in terms of results and discipline, but there is a wealth of evidence that a religious character is no magic formula when it comes to academic excellence. Faith schools’ apparently slightly better academic performance, on average, results from their unique ability to select on the basis of faith, which can also act as a form of socio-economic selection. Which means that the selected pupils yield better results. So parents wanting good schools for their children often simply tolerate the religious element.

Another indicator that the secular approach would be acceptable to the majority is that a recent poll found that 60% of Muslim parents would prefer a secular state school to a Muslim one for their children if given the choice. And, generally speaking, there is not a lot of public support for faith schools, with polling consistently showing significant opposition. In an increasingly secularised society, the future of faith schools is rightly uncertain.

Nevertheless, while the NSS’s long-term goal is to bring an end to publicly funded faith schools, Stephen said, it is important to challenge some of the most egregious aspects of the current system.

Discriminatory faith-based admissions is an obvious example. Why should children’s access to their publicly funded local school be determined by their parents’ religious activities, or whether they were christened or not? About 1.2 million school places across England and Wales are subject to religious selection when oversubscribed. We are used to this in the UK, but it is highly unusual. The Republic of Ireland, Estonia and Israel are the only other countries that allow this kind of discrimination, which is clearly at odds with a society based around principles of fairness and equality – qualities which one would hope our education system would espouse.

Regrettably, however, our current Government are actually planning to allow an expansion of religious selection in school admissions, to allow faith-based schools to select all of their pupils on the basis of parental faith. This is to accede to the demands of some faith-based education providers, primarily the Catholic Church – which has refused to open schools under the 50% cap rule – and some Jewish organisations. But, as ever, many people of faith are on the secular side of the argument. For example, the sociologist of religion, Linda Woodhead, herself an Anglican, has said that the proposals represent “another in a long line of victories for hard-line religion over more moderate wings”. And a group of rabbis also published an open letter to the Secretary of State, echoing the NSS’s concerns, and calling on the Government not to remove the cap.

Moreover, Ted Cantle, Britain’s foremost expert on community cohesion, called the 50% admissions cap, “The only measure of any substance, in the history of the modern education system, that has directly sought to address the segregation that has been, and continues to be, caused by religious selection in schools.”. To lose this important measure at a time when our society has never been so diverse, or felt so divided, would be deeply worrying.

Another issue is the law that requires publicly funded schools to hold acts of worship, which is anachronistic, and an abuse of children’s religious freedom.
These are campaigns which the NSS is very much engaged in.

And there is also the need for reform to religious education. More than 30 years after the introduction of a national curricular entitlement for all pupils, religious education remains exempt, and, unlike any other compulsory subject, its content is determined at a local authority level – by local committees largely made up of religious representatives, with non-religious representatives either excluded, or barred from voting. Even worse, many faith schools don’t even need to follow the locally-agreed syllabus, instead teaching what they wish from a syllabus of their own devising.

Stephen said that if there is a body of knowledge called “Religious Education”, which is worthy of being taught, it should be taught to all children in state education. All children have an entitlement to the same high quality, non-partisan, education about religion and belief. The persistence of the role of religious bodies and influence in determining this area of the curriculum is neither helpful nor appropriate.

The changing demographics of our country, in which religious adherence is both diminishing and diversifying, means that the multiculturalist, multifaithist approach to education – and other areas of public policy – is becoming steadily less tenable and attractive. The NSS is now dealing with a number of cases where parents have been left with no option for their children’s education other than a faith school which they don’t want. The justification offered for faith schools is that they offer parents choice, but the reality is that the existence of faith schools is diminishing choice for many parents.

The hope of the NSS is that it’s just a matter of time before politicians stop seeing these issues as a can of worms too contentious to tackle, and accept that they have to face up to them, and introduce reforms.

Stephen concluded his talk by stressing that secularism doesn’t seek to take away anyone’s religion, or deny anyone the right to practice their religion. Faith, he said, should be a welcome component in any society, along with any form of diversity. But, he said, it is essential to educate children together in order to create a more cohesive, integrated and tolerant society, in which people of all faiths and none can live together well.

The NSS’s manifesto for change sets out many more areas in which religion’s public role needs to be rethought and reformed, with incremental, attainable steps to make our society fairer. The proposals in the manifesto were referred to by The Economist as “evolutionary rather than revolutionary”. And, Stephen said, with the help of supporters such as Humanists, these are the policies and reforms for which the NSS will continue to campaign.

We thanked Steve very much for his very illuminating and inspiring talk, which was very much enjoyed by all the audience.

The website of the NSS is accessible via this link http://www.secularism.org.uk/, and their new manifesto can be viewed via this link: http://www.secularism.org.uk/rethinking-religion-and-belief-i.html.

The more members the NSS has, the greater influence it will be able to exert to improve public policy. This is the link to the subscription site for the NSS – http://www.secularism.org.uk/join-and-renew.html – and this is what the NSS says about the importance of subscriptions and donations to the Society:

“We receive no funding from government or outside bodies. Our campaigning is wholly supported by our members – people like you who share our belief in the urgent need for a public life free from religious concerns. Your membership will also give you the chance to stay up to date with secularist news and shape NSS policy.”

Membership subscription rates are:

from just £3 per month, or £34 annually, for individual membership, with a concessionary rate of £2 per month, or £23 annually; student subscriptions are set at £9 annually; group subscriptions are from £3 a month, or £34 annually, and joint subscriptions are from £5 per month, or £57 annually.