The Position In British Society of Those Who Profess No Religion
Debate called for by Lord Harrison in the House of Lords
on 19 April 2007
Paper presented by the National Secular Society
1. For the Government to openly debate the (as we see it, hugely adverse) implications for future cohesion of opening many more minority faith schools. (We believe that this issue is currently being evaded for electoral reasons and/or to avoid disturbing religious sensibilities.) This is discussed in Section 2 below.
2. The National Secular Society would prefer maintained religious schools didn’t exist but the practical solution we propose is to:
a) halt opening of any additional minority faith mono-ethnic schools religious schools, because of the adverse implications for cohesion. It would be necessary in equity to halt building new Christian schools and make some major changes in religious schools
b) give existing religious schools the option of continuing as they are, but without public funding, or admitting all pupils without discrimination on grounds or religion (or no religion);
c) forbid discrimination against staff on religious grounds (including the concept of reserved teachers) for schools receiving public funds;
d) convert Voluntary Aided schools still wishing public funding to Voluntary Controlled schools (with the composition of governing bodies altered accordingly), and with any appropriate financial compensation;
e) remove diocesan representatives from LEAs.
This is discussed in Section 2 below.
3. A major review of Government policy to reduce the emphasis on identifying people by faith and consulting faith leaders. Instead, the Government should change the emphasis to consultation with community leaders who are more representative. Actively acknowledging that the non-religious exist both in majority and minority communities and engaging with them on equal terms. This includes acknowledging that some people, especially women and homosexuals in minority communities, are oppressed by religion. This is discussed in Section 3 below.
4. Disestablish the Church of England. This is discussed in Section 4 below.
5. Remove the Bishops Bench from the House of Lords, which has no equivalent in any Western democracy, and cease any further appointments to the House of Lords based on a candidate’s religious position, rather than their individual merit. This is discussed in Section 5 below.
Section 1 - Context – Religion in this Country
Religion is ranked just ninth in a list of characteristics regarded as important to people’s identity although it is ranked higher for those from minority communities. When Europeans were asked what values they "cherish above all", religion came bottom of a list of 11 - with a meagre 7% choosing it.
According to the British Social Attitudes Survey 2006:
“there has been a major decline over time in religious identity, defined as belonging to a religion or attending religious services:
* In 1964, a quarter (26%) either did not belong to a religion or never attended a religious service. Now the same is true for over two-thirds (69%).
* Even people who belong to a religion are less likely to attend services regularly, down from around three-quarters in 1964 to half now.”
This major decline is echoed in the steadily falling percentage of the population who attend church in England on a normal Sunday. This dropped from 11% of the population in 1980 to less than 7% in 2005 and is forecast by Christian Research to drop to 2% in 2040.
The trend can easily be confirmed by observing the ageing church congregations and perhaps the most relevant statistics of all, relating to the widespread non-belief of secondary school children. According to a National Centre for Social Research study: “Two thirds [of 12–19 year olds] did not regard themselves as belonging to any religion, an increase of ten percentage points in as many years (from 55 per cent in 1994 to 65 per cent in 2003). The comparison with 2003 shows how rapidly adherence is dissolving.
A survey just released by Tearfund, a relief and development agency working in partnership with Christian churches, has itself confirmed the huge numbers of people that have abandoned the churches and religious belief. According to this large-scale survey, only 53% now define themselves as "Christian". This is markedly different from the 72% claimed in the 2001 census, itself a dubious figure - the NSS Submission in 2005 to the Office of National Statistics on the 2011 Census drew on independent research to conclude that the 72 per cent broadly represented the proportion of the population brought up in nominally Christian households but that many of these respondents no longer have any connection with any church. The Home Office Citizenship Survey, carried out in the same year as the Census (O’Beirne 2004) confirms this and paints a starkly different picture. Indeed, the proportions of religious and non-religious almost change places.
Despite this decline, state institutions retain their religious component, the privileges of the established church remain in place, the number of taxpayer-funded religious schools is to increase, and religious organisations of all types are given special access to the machinery of government and are given increasing influence (and cash) in the public sphere, including a substantial role in the delivery of social services under the Government’s “ChangeUp” strategy.
The de facto majority of British citizens, those who profess no religion, are bewildered and dismayed at this situation. They feel that they are often given no voice and that when their opinions do filter through (e.g. the disquiet at the expansion of religious schools) they are brushed aside. Their views, though subject to vociferous and often misleading criticism by senior religious figures are rarely, if ever, publicly defended by the Government.
The result is that the non-religious increasingly feel marginalised and considered by the state to be second-class citizens. They hear the clamour from religious bodies for more blasphemy law, for more religious representation in Parliament, for religious representation in the Council of Europe and for an EU constitution that denotes Europe as a Christian zone, despite the fact that the EU was set up by secular governments to serve the secular purpose of keeping the peace after a long history of religious and other wars.
The non-religious are becoming alarmed at the resurgence of religious fundamentalism and the side-effects of excessive tenderness towards religious sensibilities in this country and elsewhere. They fear for traditional values of liberalism and tolerance and see that the time has arrived for a fundamental reappraisal of the role of religion in the public sphere.
Section 2 - Religious Schools
We draw attention to the anomaly whereby the Government continues to promote and expand taxpayer funded religious schools against the backdrop of substantially reduced and falling religious adherence, to the distress and disadvantage of many children, parents and teachers, and to society as a whole.
One survey showed 96 per cent agreed that ‘Tony Blair should end his support for faith schools’. In 2005 an ICM survey made banner headlines in the Guardian, statingthat ‘Two thirds oppose state aided faith schools’. And yet The Prime Minister seemed shocked when confronted with a press corps vocally opposed to single faith schools, saying ‘I hadn't realised that you all felt so strongly’. “Teachers call for ban on new faith schools amid segregation fears” runs an article in the Independent in April 2007.
It is clear to the non-religious that segregating schoolchildren according to their parents’ religion will discourage social mixing, even in later life. Although exercised about segregation by race or class or disability, the Government refuses to examine segregation by faith.
We cite the Commission for Integration and Cohesion’s recently published interim report as an example of the dangerous evasiveness in this area. We also consider it to be contradictory and counterproductive.
That report suggests that "faith schools" play no part in segregation while at the same time admitting that school is probably the best way to break down barriers between communities. It dismisses those who oppose faith schools on the grounds that they are divisive as "obsessed".
“Some people have told us that they see faith schools as a significant barrier to integration and cohesion. Others, especially from faith communities have said faith schools are vital to helping their young people develop as strong and confident British citizens. Our initial thinking is to put faith schools in the same category as residential segregation, almost as a 'red herring' in the debate – there is no problem as long as there is social interaction outside the faith school...”
These ill-considered accusations are made despite an opinion poll cited in the report concluding that "Going to school or college together emerged as the top way of encouraging interaction." It found that 47% of people "identifying using shared education resources as a motivation towards mixing together" and that "improving the value of these every day education and employment interactions would have a significant result on cohesion."
The report’s poll result identified that there was a major problem: as few as 42% of respondents had mixed with people from other ethnic groups once a year. The report concedes: "Given what we understand so far about the need for interactions to be meaningful in order to promote integration and cohesion, it is worrying that more sustained encounters are not being developed. But our work has uncovered positive signs about the sorts of areas that might help us influence interactions in our four key areas: schools, workplaces, neighbourhoods and arts/cultural."
Since the authors of this report agree that schools are the best place to break down barriers but then complain that opponents of faith schools are “obsessed” it is clear that they are listening only to the Government and the 'faith communities', who want more faith schools for their own reasons.
The Government should also be open to those who consider that the proliferation of faith schools is a threat for the future. A recent report from Professor Irene Bruegel of the South Bank University was emphatic that 'twinning' faith schools simply increased the sense of 'us' and 'them' that these schools engender. Crucially, Professor Bruegel's research showed that children from different ethnic groups and religions must mix every day in primary schools to promote social mixing in later life.
Instead of trying to solve the very real problems created by religiously and hence ethnically segregated schools, the cohesion report ignored Professor Bruegel’s research and appeared to open the door for the most disastrously counter-productive government policy on cohesion imaginable: a massive increase in minority faith schools, the equivalent of Government-introduced apartheid in education. Some church schools have already become state-subsidised middle class white ghettoes, and integration is already in reverse for some young Muslims: this misplaced policy could accelerate these trends.
Never was it more true than now, that “schools should be for teaching, not preaching”.
We recommend that the Government should permit, indeed encourage, an open debate concerning the implications for future cohesion of opening many more minority faith schools.
Given that religion is not an important element of most people’s identity, there are powerful arguments against state-funded religious schools in the UK on grounds of social justice:
On unfair discrimination against children
Selection: Through the notorious vicar’s certificate, religious schools are more able than community schools to select pupils from the families of aspirant parents, the best predictor of academic success. This not only gives them an unfair advantage over the community schools, but the latter generally end up admitting the pupils rejected by the religious schools. It is naïve to believe that converting all schools to faith schools would bring about significant improvements all round.
Admissions – local pupils disadvantaged: Pupils living near to these schools are frequently unable to gain admission while pupils living farther away are admitted, based on their parents’ beliefs. This also materially increases the distance travelled to schools. Some pupils to church schools travel a thirty mile round trip each day. Not only is this bad for pollution. It is more often than not at public’s expense while unbelievers who are forced to travel lesser distances to a community school have no such privilege. Human Rights Act compliance is belatedly forcing local councils to consider making their pupil travel policies non-discriminatory.
Entry criterion – hypocrisy: There is widespread subterfuge with parents professing beliefs they don’t have to gain a place in a publicly–funded school. Given the small number of committed Christians, there is no doubt that in most cases, the criterion for entry is hypocrisy, or outright dishonesty.
Financial issues: Given the high proportion of such schools (a third of all state schools), this places children of Christian (or purportedly Christian) families in a substantially better position to be enrolled in a good school than children from other families. This is because the access to community schools is non-discriminatory for both groups, but the religious have greater access to religious schools. The religious argue that they “pay their taxes too”, but in fact they get hugely more privileges for them. It is generally assumed that the churches paid for the schools which they own. But the money was often raised by public subscription and even paid over to the churches by local councils to run schools on behalf of the community.
Unjustified claim to superiority: Religious schools claim superiority over community schools and ascribe this to the so-called ‘faith ethos’. We accept that, overall, religious schools are ranked higher in the exam league tables. But there is no convincing independent evidence that we are aware of that the value they add is greater than for community schools. We are however aware of two surveys that suggest that it is no greater. Teachers tell us that the two most powerful external factors improving performance are higher social class and the ability to be able select or to exclude pupils. It seems obvious that oversubscribed CofE schools have an advantage on the first of these factors and most religious schools have a major advantage on the second.
Community schools disadvantaged: The community schools are not simply deprived of the privileges enjoyed by religious schools, they are being actively disadvantaged by them. By losing some of the more talented pupils, they have a higher proportion of the less-talented ones or those from poorer families, and even of pupils with special needs. And at a certain level normal teaching becomes much more difficult, badly affecting all the pupils in the class, regardless of ability.
On unfair discrimination against staff
The careers of tens of thousands of staff in publicly funded faith schools have now been put at risk because, at the behest of the Church, the Government has swept aside long-standing legal bans on discrimination against staff who do not share the religion of the school or who do not have a religion at all.
Because of this change, recently made in Section 37 of the Education and Inspections Act, it will now be possible to discriminate against the non-religious head teachers of Voluntary Controlled schools, and non-religious non-teaching staff, mainly teaching assistants, in Voluntary Aided schools.
The change regarding head teachers is especially devastating because it will, in future, even be possible to refuse to appoint the best candidate because:
* of their (lack of) religious faith
* of their not attending church sufficiently often
* of their not being able to teach RE
* of their relationships or conduct out of school hours being thought to fall short of religious teachings.
It will be easy for a head teacher with strong religious commitment to give preference to similarly-minded candidates. This change therefore has the potential to damage the career prospects of all non-religious teachers in “faith schools”. We acknowledge that the law does not require these religious criteria to be adopted, it merely now permits them to be applied
The fewer religious schools there are, and the fewer privileges they have, the more socially just our education system will be, both for pupils and teachers. The NSS would prefer that maintained religious schools did not exist at all, but at present that is not a practical solution. In the recommendations above (page 3) we make a number of suggestions.
Section 3 - Government Relations with “Faith Communities”
We draw attention to the anomaly whereby the Government promotes the idea that the population is entirely comprised of sets of “faith communities”, whose sensibilities must be respected, to the disadvantage of those who profess no religion.
Although far fewer people practise a religion, the Government is conciliatory, often accommodating, towards the demands and beliefs of religious bodies. Multiculturalism, these days a euphemism for ‘multi-faithism’, has fed the sense of isolation felt by the non-religious, as the Government continues to ignore them and to address the rest of the population through leaders of the so-called “faith communities”. And yet in a recent public opinion poll, 53 per cent of UK respondents agreed that ‘the place of religion in our society is too important’ while only 38 per cent disagreed.
The Government’s insistence on emphasising religious belief as a matter of personal identity increases the tension between different religious groups as each is encouraged to see defence of that identity as so important as to warrant violence in some cases. It seems to be a deliberate policy to conflate race and religion, with the result that there are increasing examples of criticism of religion, or of a particular religion, being referred to as “racist”. The two things are not the same and it is hardly beneficial to community cohesion for the Government to act as though they are.
With the exception of religiously motivated violence it is rare for the Government to criticise religion - it seems literally an article of faith for the Government that it should respect religion without question. Many consider it shameful that the Government has shown little real appetite for defending freedom of speech when the sensibilities of religious groups are said to be offended.
The Government should be willing to openly recognise that certain religious doctrine is oppressive, particularly with regard to groups such as women and homosexuals, and to be prepared to tackle that issue in the proper way.
In the recent debate on the Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations it was not gratifying to see Church leaders fall back, when all other arguments had been lost, on the “question of conscience” defence. Conscience means (OED): “the inner feeling or voice viewed as acting as a guide to the rightness or wrongness of one’s behaviour”. For the religious this means in effect that religious doctrine takes precedence over such regulations, an argument often used in some quarters of the Muslim religion. This is especially important in the context of such legislation since the issue at stake, as we see it, was essentially one of practice, not conscience. That the Government came close to conceding an exemption in relation to those regulations is thus alarming to the non-religious.
We recommend a major review of Government policy to reduce the emphasis on identifying people by faith and consulting faith leaders.
Section 4 - Disestablish The Church Of England
We draw attention to the anomaly whereby the Church of England continues to enjoy the extraordinary privileges of establishment against the backdrop of substantially reduced and falling religious adherence in a society which, as a whole, no longer finds itself at ease with many of the doctrinal principles of that religion.
The history by which the Church of England came to be established is well known. The justification for the continuation of this arrangement has been given as the Church’s “mission to the nation”. However this is no longer a tenable proposition. While the population has become less religious and more tolerant, the Church is widely thought to have become less tolerant and more evangelical, orthodox or even fundamentalist. Most of the Anglican churches abroad are even less moderate and their growing numbers of adherents give their leaders increasing power over the organisation as a whole.
Another symptom of this trend of being at odds with the public, on whose behalf the Church is so keen to speak, is the internal warfare – waged over almost half a century - over women and homosexuals as priests and, more recently, as bishops. The intensity of this fight, apparently heading for schism, is viewed by the British public with growing incredulity, feeding its conviction that the Church has become increasingly out of touch and irrelevant. When the schism arrives, the decision as to which faction carries off the ‘trophy’ of recognition as the country’s established church will not be made by the electorate, or even by the elected Government. It will be decided by the outcome of a power struggle, much of it being exercised outside the UK by those with little regard for human rights as understood in the West. Prominent in this struggle are Nigerian bishops with an obsessive hatred of homosexuality and any other form of western liberalism.
The wing of the Church that is more moderate, and more representative of the majority of English opinion, is being cowed into submission by the conservative faction that the Archbishop of Canterbury has opted to support. He does so to preserve an illusion of unity at all costs, even at the cost of going against his personal convictions and compromising any commitment to upholding human rights. That the country should be tied to an established church whose future is being controlled by such a tug of war is constitutionally unjustified.
The continuation of establishment is warranted neither by the (ever-decreasing) number of adherents nor by a doctrine which is increasingly out of touch with the citizens of Britain. Other European nations have recently recognised the changing circumstances that make establishment increasingly inappropriate and, after a mature debate, they have acted accordingly. The Church of Sweden became ‘disestablished’ with effect from the start of 2000. Negotiations are taking place in Norway with the same objective.
We recommend that the Church of England be disestablished.
Section 5 - Remove the Bishops’ Bench of the House of Lords
We draw attention to the anomaly whereby Britain, alone amongst western democracies, provides for religious representation in its legislature.
On the present state of affairs
There is almost no more visible representation of establishment than the Bishops’ Bench. Its presence gives religion an unjustified double, or duplicate, and privileged representation in the legislature. The bishops are unrepresentative. They are all male, middle class and disproportionately white, and come only from dioceses in England.
Neither the bishops, nor other religious representatives, are needed to present a religious view. The religious are already well represented among the ‘Lords Temporal’, partly as a result of the higher age profile, and also the appointment of former bishops and other religious functionaries as life peers. Many lay peers declare their religious motivation during debates. The NSS is convinced that the proportion of religious believers in the Lords, even without the bishops, far exceeds that in the population as a whole.
Similarly bishops, or other specifically religious representatives, are not needed in order to present a ‘moral view’. It would be a slur on the hundreds of other members of the Lords to suggest that they could not fulfil that role without the bishops. And, in many cases, the bishops’ votes all but cancel themselves out; suggesting that to dispense with them would not make much difference.
But on the latest occasion when they turned out to vote in force, over the Assisted Dying Bill, their views were in stark contrast to those of the population at large. Despite widespread public support for voluntary euthanasia, the bishops in the Lords voted en bloc to oppose even the most conservative version of this – the proposal to allow self-administered suicide by competent terminally-ill adults after careful checks by doctors. The bishops directly contributed 14 of the 48 votes by which the Bill failed and further debate was curtailed, thereby also depriving the elected chamber from having its say on this matter of great public interest.
Bishops also use their position to table amendments for self-serving purposes. One example was their tabling of an amendment in 2006 to dismantle long-standing protections against discrimination against non-religious staff in publicly funded faith schools. This prejudiced the jobs or career prospects of thousands of publicly funded head teachers and teaching assistants. Another was the Church demanding massive exemptions from anti-discrimination employment regulations for ‘organised religion’. The exemptions were granted almost verbatim, as demanded, and without consultation with those adversely affected by the exemption.
On possible reform of the House of Lords
The non-religious were pointedly overlooked in the Government’s 1998 White Paper Modernising Parliament - Reforming the House of Lords. On the one hand, the existence of the non-religious was acknowledged: ‘The Government also recognises the importance of the House of Lords reflecting more accurately the multicultural nature of modern British society in which there are citizens of many faiths, and of none’ (Cm 4183 1998: Chapter 7, paragraph 22). Yet the same White Paper proposed that the bishops should remain, and that representatives of other faiths be appointed. Notably, no representation was suggested for the remaining ‘and none’.
The White Paper House of Lords: Reform (Cm 7027) of February 2007 similarly maintained that the bishops should stay and that means be found to extend representation to other faiths.
Against the backdrop of ever declining religious belief the Government puts forward no substantive argument to support such representation. For example Cm7027 contents itself with the assertion (6.22) that ‘It is important that faith communities are represented in the House of Lords’. No other interest group is likewise to be privileged, and certainly not the non-religious.
Research (see the table at Appendix A) commissioned by the NSS reveals that the United Kingdom is unique among Western democracies in having ex-officio religious representation in its legislature. Other countries do not seem to have been harmed by abandoning such links. Even in Poland, where the importance of the Roman Catholic Church’s influence is acknowledged in the preamble to the Constitution, the remainder of the document contains very definite separation of Church and State. To increase the number of such links, as the Government proposes, as “modernisation” is at best disingenuous.
No doubt the subject of Reform will be taken up again at some stage. The Lords could become more representative either through the appointment of specifically non-religious representatives or, as is the NSS preference, by achieving balance by not having any (essentially duplicate) religious representation at all.
We recommend that the Bishops’ Bench be removed from the House of Lords.
Despite the continuing fall in the number professing religious belief, religious privilege remains on show, in force, and gathering strength in very many walks of life. From the issues mentioned in this paper, to the exclusivity granted to the religious in the BBC’s Thought for the Day, to the coronation oath with its emphasis on sustaining the protestant religion, to the religious nature of state events of remembrance, commemoration or celebration, the presence and influence of religion remains pervasive. And yet religious privileges, the moral ethos of the religions, the discriminatory rights that they demand are increasingly out of step with the general view amongst British people.
If the recommendations of the NSS were to be accepted, religion could become more the preserve of the private sphere. This is not to say that individuals should not have the right to hold and express their religious beliefs, nor that religious bodies should not have the right to hold public services or express their views in the public domain. All that it means is that religious privilege should be removed from such areas as state education, the legislature, government policy making, state occasions, and access to public funds. We are convinced that this would help lead to a fairer, more cohesive, inclusive society.
At the very least the Government should recognise and support those who profess no religious belief, and bring about a genuine and open public debate on the future of religious privilege in the public sphere.