This piece was commissioned for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and is reproduced here.
With the approval of Britain’s Supreme Court you can now be married in England by the Church of Scientology, the cult founded by the science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. What next, Jedi or Doctor Who-themed marriages? Well, actually, you can already have a Jedi-themed marriage, so long as you don’t claim it is religious. That’s because of a rather bizarre divide in British law that says you can have a secular marriage (themed however you like) so long as there is no religious content; or you can have a religious marriage, for which you need to go to a place of religious worship on the approved list.
Prior to 1837 there was only the religious option, with a choice of Church of England, Quaker or Jewish (Catholics and the non-religious had to pick one). When the rules were extended to allow a secular alternative the churches flexed their muscles and insisted on the “no religious content” rule in order to preserve their monopoly over religious matters. Thus, when the new-fangled cult of Scientology came along, the High Court judges turned up their noses and said, no, it couldn’t get its churches onto the approved list because there was insufficient “reverence for God or a deity” going on in them. Continue reading
Reading the British newspapers each morning I’m often irked by the reporting of religious-freedom cases. I’ve posted before about how misunderstood the concept of “religious freedom” is — it shouldn’t grant anyone extra rights, that would violate the equally important principle of equality under the law. In a nutshell religious freedom means this: you should not be imposed upon for religious reasons. That’s it.
Of course society can have every right to impose on you for good, secular, non-religious reasons, even if these impositions affect your religious practice. Such restrictions, if they apply to everyone, are not a violation of religious freedom. But no-one may impose on you for reasons motivated by religion, either their promotion of their own religion or their dislike of yours.
Treating people equally, regardless of their religious views, is as important as religious freedom. Indeed the concepts of religious freedom and religious equality are entwined and inseparable. In the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, one of the first and finest declarations of the concept, Thomas Jefferson declared:
That our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry […] opinions in matters of Religion […] shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.
The word “enlarge” is as important there as the word “diminish”. Continue reading
One would have thought that UK universities would hold fast to principles of equality, and reject the notion that “separate but equal” can ever be truly equal, and thus reject the idea that seating arrangements at university events be segregated by sex.
But Universities UK, the umbrella body for UK universities, is willing to compromise this principle in a misguided attempt to — bizarrely — promote freedom of speech. This is so utterly wrong-headed that it needs rebutting. Thankfully many people have already done so, but being a professor at a university that UUK supposedly represents I’m joining in.
The UUK advice is wrong, wrong morally and wrong on the legalities and wrong about what “freedom of speech” entails. Continue reading
The Bishop of Oxford and the Theos Think Tank are complaining that the debate over state-funded “faith” schools in the UK is getting “overheated” and too “ideological”. So let me explain, from the non-religious perspective, why this is so.
First, the number of people attending a Christian church in a typical week in the UK is down to about 6%. Yet fully a third of taxpayer-funded schools are handed over to be run by Christian churches. This means they can discriminate on religious grounds over which pupils they admit, and further, they then get frequent opportunities to proselytise to the captive-audience pupils and can compel them to participate in Christian worship.
Despite the fraction of the population attending church being in long-term decline, and despite the number of people regarding themselves as “non religious” rising fast, the number of “faith” schools is increasing, with thousands of new religiously-restricted places being set up each year.
Why are the non-religious getting “overheated” about this? Firstly, we regard the very concept of taxpayer-funded schools being able to choose pupils according to their parents’ religion to be morally wrong in a modern society that should treat all citizens equally. The fact that this requires a special exemption from the 2010 Equality Act is revealing. Continue reading
The Theos think-tank have posted an article “Is Secular Law possible?” that follows hard on the heels of the Chief Rabbi’s denunciation of Europe’s progress towards secularism (see replies by Jerry Coyne, the Heresy Corner and myself). At root the Theos article is making the same claim, that Judeo-Christianity is needed for the health of society.
In discussing whether secular law is desirable, the writer — lawyer, university lecturer and Christian David McIlroy — produces three definitions of secular law.
The first he calls “secularist” law and says it means law that is “free from any religious influence whatsoever”, law that is indeed opposed to religion and seeks to root it out, in which “religious voices are silenced and anti-religious views are imposed”. Clearly that is a strawman, and not something that any secularists actually advocate (past communists may have liked totalitarianism, Western secular atheists don’t).
McIlroy’s second attempt is even more bizarre, he suggests that the “dominant interpretation” of secular law is law that “seeks to take no moral stances whatsoever, to rely on no contentious claims about the nature of human beings, about morality, or about values”.
Sigh. How does one respond to this? It is of course another strawman, and, worse, it’s the standard religious claim that doing without religion equates to doing without morality. McIlroy spends a lot of time arguing that a society and a law without morals and having no values is unworkable. Really? Who’d’a’ thunk it? I never would have guessed! Continue reading
Religious equality — the idea that people should not be treated any more or less favourably because of their religious opinions — is a fundamental principle in any modern liberal democracy. It is written into the American Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. Everyone is agreed on it. Aren’t they?
Well no, unfortunately not. Owing to Britain’s long heritage of religious privilege there are still many instances of the state treating the non-religious less favourably. Here are the ten worst violations of religious equality in the United Kingdom today:
(1) Admission to taxpayer-funded schools: Even though the non-religious pay the same taxes as the religious they have worse access to taxpayer-funded schools. This is actually deliberate and legal. The government put special exemptions into the 2010 Equality Act enabling “faith” schools to treat pupils unequally according to their parents’ religion. About a quarter of state schools are “faith” schools, and often a non-religious family can only send their children to one if it is undersubscribed, even if they live next door.
The government’s excuse is that such schools do well and are popular. Well yes, schools that get to pick their pupils can indeed do well (as private schools show). Study after study has found that “faith” schools use their power of selection to pick middle-class pupils with strong parental support. Parents want such a peer group for their children, so these schools tend to be oversubscribed, and that gives the school more choice in selection, and hence the feedback produces popular schools with good exam results. Being oversubscribed also means that such schools can both expel problem children and not have to take children expelled from other schools. When corrected for the differences in pupil intake, “faith” schools do not do any better.
The non-religious family doesn’t get to play this game since non-“faith” schools don’t get to pick pupils. This is a racket that only the religious can take advantage of. It even extends to provision of school transport. Even worse, religious discrimination is now spreading to non-“faith” schools! Continue reading
Why are atheists “militant” (as we are so often described)? Because we object to being treated as lesser humans just because we don’t believe in gods; because we don’t want the state to give extra privileges to the religious and treat us as second-class just because we are atheists. And speaking up, seeking only equality, gets us labelled as “militant”. Unfortunately, such is the history of religious privilege that most Western societies are still far from having a genuine secularism that treats everyone equally (and don’t even ask about the Islamic world).
Another privilege running through the history of most societies is male privilege. This is diminishing (at least in the West) and it has diminished largely because of the “militant” women who speak up and demand equality, that they not be treated any less favourably just because of their gender. Any atheist who supports secularism must — if they have any consistency — applaud them and fully support the equality of women. Unfortunately, such is the history of male privilege that most Western societies have still not arrived at full equality for women (and don’t even ask about the Islamic world). Continue reading