In my previous article, I made a case for the disestablishment of the Church of England as the state church of the UK.
Relevant to this subject, it is anticipated that The National Secular Society (NSS) will hold an online discussion to explore the necessity of disestablishment in the context of modern Britain’s religiously diverse landscape. The online discussion, to be held this month (February), will explore not only how disestablishment benefits the state, but also arguments from those within the Church who support a secular state from a religious perspective. It has been reported that Anglicans sceptical of the Church of England’s established status will join the NSS for this online discussion on the future of church and state.
The chief executive of the NSS, Stephen Evans, said: “Following the revelation that Christians are no longer the majority in England and Wales, the established church has never looked so out of place. It is, therefore, more imperative than ever that serious conversations about separating church and state are brought to the fore.” The online discussion is “…an event designed to bring together everyone who believes that a secular democracy, in which people of all religions and beliefs are treated equally, is the best way to protect the rights and freedoms of all.” Naturally, the Anglican bishops would not agree to abolish their presence in the House of Lords. The NSS head of campaigns Megan Manson said: “The bishop’s opposition to plans for a more democratic second chamber reveals how self-serving the Lords Spiritual are.”
Moreover, and to indicate the political nature of issue, following the Labour Party’s recent pronouncement that it would seek to abolish the non-selective aspect of the House of Lords, a Labour Party spokesperson has said that, “Under Labour’s plans, it is inconceivable that the bishops’ bench could remain part of the legislature, because it is one of the most archaic, undemocratic, and unjustifiable groupings in the House of Lords. Alan Smith, and the bishops in the Lords he represents, know this – hence his opposition to such reforms.” Whether the House of Lords is abolished entirely, replaced, or reformed, there should be no reserved seats for religious clerics. The bishops’ bench has no place in a modern democracy – let alone a largely irreligious and religiously diverse country where Christians are not now the majority (see the previous blog).
During 2022, as well as campaigning for the issues mentioned above, the NSS had been active in many other areas in the cause of advancing secularism in British society. In what follows, this article will briefly discuss a number of these.
The National Secular Society (NSS) was responsible for proposals for updating marriage law to reflect the nature of contemporary society in which British people live. Such proposals were reflected in the Law Commissioner’s recommendations for reform. The NSS has advocated tolerance, rather than condemnation, of those who aren’t in an opposite-sex marriage. In the face of religious opposition, the NSS has successfully lobbied to improve women’s access to abortion services.
In sympathy with the aims of the Dignity in Dying campaign, the NSS has been successful in bringing about a review of the assisted dying laws. The NSS support has given valuable support to a proposed bill to legalise assisted dying for terminally ill adults in the Isle of Man. So too, the NSS has issued a warning that some religious groups with theological objections to assisted dying resort to fearmongering and misinformation to impose their beliefs on those who want the option. The NSS has recently responded to two other consultations on assisted dying held by a UK parliamentary select committee and the government of Jersey.
In the field of education, the NSS promoted the rights of children to live, learn, and develop their beliefs free of religious coercion and control. So too, the society has stepped up to the plate when it comes to reminding religious offence takers that free speech is a fundamental right of citizens, in this country, as elsewhere, and that this is a positive value that the society is unwilling to surrender.
Steven Evans, pointing out that next year will mark the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, reminds us that “Secularism’s role in allowing equality and human rights to flourish is too often unrecognised and hugely under-appreciated. In a world where polarisation, authoritarianism, and religious fundamentalism are gaining ground, the secular liberal democratic ideals that underpin human rights can’t be taken for granted.”
Meanwhile, across the pond in the United States of America, the 2022 US Supreme Court ruling in the Roe v Wade case, was a wake-up call to remind all of us that conservative religious views threaten women’s reproductive rights globally. In Europe, the movement towards the political right, and more extreme conservative views in Poland and Italy, is eroding reproductive freedoms.
However, it is not only in allegedly Catholic Christian countries in which religious conservatism represses human freedoms. The NSS has widely campaigned against the role of religious rites and rituals that impose restraints and restrictions on women and children. Children’s circumcision and women’s compulsory wearing of the hijab, have been challenged. In the absence of a fair measure of secularism, children, women, as well as minority religious and sexual views, have continued to feel the full force of oppression and a complete absence of secularism by theocratically controlled countries. For a state to be protected from oppressive religious institutions, and for human rights and freedoms to be protected, it is necessary for state and religion institutions to be separate in form and function. No matter in which country they constrain human freedoms, it is blasphemy laws, not books, that belong on the bonfire.
The above shows various ways in which the NSS has furthered its mission to bring people together to build a freer, fairer, and more tolerant society. It does so with the belief that a secular state is the best way to bring this about, and that secularism’s time has come.