Sunday, 16 October 2011

"Argument for a Secular Britain" - Haris Ismail

The ideal of true secularism holds firm the view that the church and state must be kept entirely separate. In a society adhering to this basic principle, each person is to be treated as an individual where equality in the political, legal and educational systems regardless of religious belief is of paramount importance. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s founding fathers, a secular society is one in which “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever” and furthermore the religious shall not be afforded any privileges or special treatment simply because of their beliefs. Why is it then, that in today’s supposedly secular society, religious leaders are still treated with sycophantic reverence and given the platform and the power to influence the way our country is run?

Perhaps the most shocking example of this religious special treatment is found in the second chamber of the British parliamentary system: the House of Lords. Currently sitting in the Upper House in Westminster are 26 unelected Protestant Bishops; men (note, not women) who have the power to amend or reject crucial bills that could potentially play a decisive role in determining the laws of the land. Known as the “Lords Spiritual”, these Bishops are an unwanted remnant of the 1661 Clergy Act – unwanted not only by me, but by 74% of the population who agree that “it is wrong that Church of England bishops are given an automatic seat in the House of Lords”. The most common defence of their presence is that their position as religious leaders somehow affords them a greater and more authoritative insight into matters ‘spiritual’ or ‘moral’. This view is not only patronising and offensive, it is simply incorrect. Put it this way: in a debate on assisted suicide would you rather the people with the power to shape the law based their conclusions on reason and evidence, as medical ethicists and moral philosophers do, or on out-dated and irrelevant scripture and the even more reprehensible justification of ‘faith’? Indeed, this very issue highlights another strong argument against these unelected bishops in the House of Lords – they don’t always even represent the views of the majority within the institution they are supposed to represent, the Anglican Church. A 2004 vote on the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill revealed that 81% of Protestants agree that “a person who is suffering unbearably from a terminal illness should be allowed by law to receive medical help to die, if that is what they want” and yet the bishops still opposed the bill.

The news of reform to the House of Lords may sound welcome to secularists across the country but Nick Clegg’s proposals, made in June this year, would actually see a 1% proportional increase of the number of bishops allowed to sit in parliament as of right. Furthermore, the Church is to be handed new powers to choose over half of their representatives – a fact that enables the religious authorities to work together with more cohesion to influence legislation. The British Humanist Association notes that “these proposals in effect create a new largely independent, and largely unaccountable, bloc for the Church of England in Parliament”.

Whilst bishops get a free ride in the House of Lords, there is another heinous privilege that our government and media afford the religious: freedom from scrutiny. A debilitating paranoia of causing offense serves to protect and preserve the role that religion plays in society, as we are constantly told to “respect” the beliefs of others.

The effects of this paranoia can be seen all around us. One of the biggest perpetrators of providing religion with undue protection from criticism is the BBC. Last year the state-funded broadcaster introduced new guidelines that were condemned by the National Secular Society as “a threat to free speech” and were seen to be “an entirely retrograde step [since] almost anything that isn’t wholly reverential towards religious beliefs can be perceived as offensive by some believers”. Special status is already given to religion on flagship programmes like Radio 4’s Thought for the Day (which invariably invites a religious figure to deliver an early-morning dose of meaningless spirituality) and significant portions of prime time news programmes are often devoted to informing the public that prayers are being held or religious vigils are being kept; information that is as meaningless as the act is useful. What’s more, under the new guidelines comedians, satirists and commentators wanting to be critical of religion have had their work strictly censored – a luxury that would never be afforded to other matters of individual choice like political affiliation or fashion sense and there is no reason why religious beliefs should be free from similar questioning.

A secular society does not have to be one that shuns religion completely; in as diverse and multicultural country as ours the freedom to practice one’s religion in peace is seen, quite rightly, as a fundamental right. However, a truly secular democracy ensures that such religious beliefs are kept out of government policy and legislation. To create such a society we must do as columnist Johann Hari proclaims, and ensure that “nobody is granted special rights just because they claim their beliefs come from an invisible supernatural being”.

Haris Ismail
University College London

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