In my previous two articles I, firstly, outlined the background behind me joining the National Secular Society (“Ask me why?”), and, secondly, went into some detail about the NSS campaign for no more faith schools (“Power to the public”). In this, the third article in the present series, I wish to comment on some aspects of the recently held AGM of the NSS.
The AGM took place at the NSS headquarters at Conway Hall, in London’s Bloomsbury district. As is usual for an AGM of any organization, the opportunity was taken to review the previous year’s work by the NSS. Much of the detailed work is undertaken by the NSS Council and, especially, by the President, Keith Porteous Wood.
There is much on the NSS agenda that is quite public and well known, if not supported, for example, the No More Faith Schools campaign, the reform of religious education in state schools and the reclamation of religious freedom (see the previous two articles for more discussion of these areas).
However, what is not so publicly visible is the NSS’s focus on Human Rights, both nationally and internationally.
The NSS continues to work with the United Nations, especially with the Committee for the Rights of the Child. in bringing pressure on countries around the world, including England and Wales, to confront clerical abuse and take legislative measures to improve prosecution rates for alleged perpetrators and justice for victims/survivors. The NSS is widely known and respected by abuse survivors for the determination with which it works to ensure that truth, justice and accountability ultimately prevail.
In the UK the exposure of abuse scandals in the churches also highlights wider issues of importance to the secularist cause, for example, the unacceptable constitutional and legal privileges of the Church of England, as well as its corrupt nexus of power with other institutions that resulted in the protection of clerical sex offenders.
Progress is reported in these endeavours, but so is the extent to which UN member states fall short, sometimes totally, of their obligations.
This situation is particularly galling when flagrant breaches of obligations come from countries who consider themselves out to be exemplars. Again, the United Kingdom’s intransigent refusal to enact laws against caste discrimination is such an example, but by no means not the only or, arguably, the most concerning lapse. It is open to speculation if this situation would alter should the UK leave the EU (and takes back its own law-making prerogative!).
As in most areas of British national life, the implications for Human Rights in the event of a British exit from the European Union (Brexit), has been under close examination.
The NSS President is working with parliamentary experts to minimize the dilution of existing Human Rights protection post-Brexit. The focus of this examination has been on finding ways of outlawing caste discrimination – a parliamentary mandate long ignored by the present British government.
Earlier this year a conference was held in Athens, Greece, on religious and secular judgements of the (non-EU) European Court of Human Rights.
At this event the NSS President took the initiative in arranging a systematic monitoring system that enabled the NSS to intervene to encourage the Court to make secular-friendly rulings. As is usual in such environments, the NSS flew the secularist flag and spoke out strongly in several high profile EU events, including representation at the annual European Humanist meeting.
At the national level there have been opportunities for NSS personnel to speak on radio broadcasts and appear on television conveying the good news of the work, and especially the campaigns, of the NSS.
With reference to the above, and as well as the opposition of the NSS to more faith schools, the society has opposed genital cutting; sharia courts; continuation of an established church; homophobic campaigning by fundamentalist Christian groups; the continued growth of fundamentalist Islam; the outrageous attempt to stifle free speech, especially in universities; and attacks on the rights of women to exercize their lawful right to an abortion.
All these issues, and more, demonstrate the extent and importance of NSS campaigning and campaigns as it seeks to fulfil the secularist agenda.
Religious lobbies in the UK know that many of their views are unpopular and discredited. Notwithstanding, they continue to use unjustified legal and social privileges and connections to advance their regressive agenda. So the work of the NSS has never been more necessary or more urgent.
With this mind, the AGM debated the only motion to come before the meeting. The single motion stated: “This General Meeting supports campaigning and campaigns designed to facilitate an individual’s right to seek a medically assisted death, whether through legislative changes or judicial rulings”.
This motion is, of course, supportive of the Campaign for Dignity in Dying, of which I am also a member. So it was pleasing that the motion was substantially supported by the AGM and was carried. Crucial to the acceptance of the motion, and most important to me in favouring it, is the fact that most opposition to medically assisted death comes from religious lobbies seeking to enshrine their religious prejudices in secular law.
The AGM of the National Secular Society recognized that there is still much work to be done in order to realize a genuinely secular society in the United Kingdom. However, the meeting was an encouragement to the society’s members to maintain effort and enthusiasm as they seek to be on the alert about, write persuasively in support of, and campaign forcefully on behalf of, those issues of concern to secularists.