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National Secular Society

Newsline



Becoming a member of the NSS is a declaration of your belief in fairness, freedom and human rights. Stand up and be counted – join us and add your voice to the call for a secular society. 

09 December 2011
 
In this week's Newsline
Quotes of the week
Essays of the week
NSS argues for an end to council prayers at High Court
More councils re-evaluate prayers at meetings
Reaction to council prayer challenge
Large-scale survey shows religion in rapid decline in Britain
Quarter of the population intend to go to church at Christmas – yeah, right
Scottish regional council spreads the Gospel in schools
Nadine Dorries' 'abstinence for girls' Bill – what you can do
What is a Family?
Catholic Church drains €6 billion out of Italian exchequer every year
German court rules that school has a right to ban Muslim prayers
NSS speaks out
Events
Letters to Newsline




Quotes of the week  
"We must be guided by the facts regardless of which deeply held religious belief they may contradict or who they may offend. We must maintain an open minded approach to knowledge seeking and not be afraid of hearing views which may challenge our beliefs."
(Ghaffar Hussain, leading independent counter-extremism expert, The Commentator)

"Those who shout their warnings about religion being 'removed' from the public square should provide evidence that their religion belongs there at the exclusion of all other religions in a pluralistic society."
(Franklin Evans, American Conservative)

Essays of the Week   
Islam, Charles Darwin and the denial of science
(Professor Steve Jones, Telegraph)

Time to save religious freedom from UK's religious right
(Professor Iain McLean, Open Democracy)

NSS argues for an end to council prayers at High Court
Report by Keith Porteous Wood
We had our day in court, about five hours of intense legal activity. The case was presided over by the judge in charge of the Administrative Court, Mr Justice Ouseley.

We were represented by David Wolfe of Matrix Chambers with defendants Bideford Town Council being represented by James Dingemans QC, who acted (ultimately without success) for the Islington registrar who refused to perform civil partnership ceremonies.
David Wolfe set out in turn the three main grounds of claim that the Council's practice is unlawful in that:
(1) it is unjustified (and thus unlawful) indirect discrimination against persons of no religion; and
(2) it is incompatible with Articles 9 and 14 ECHR (freedom of religion/conscience and non-discrimination) and/or
(3) it is ultra vires (outside the powers of) the Council.

James Dingemans sought to refute all three grounds. He began by putting great store on the fact that the NSS is a campaigning organisation, although the complaint originated from the co-applicant, Clive Bone, a councillor at the time of the complaint but who stood down at the election and decided not to stand again because of the prayer issue. Mr Dingemans read out the NSS's Secular Charter (approved at the recent AGM) to apparently show that this was incompatible with a plural society. However, the judge stopped him from pursuing this line.
Mr Dingemans then proceeded to assert that Councillor Bone's attitude to prayers was also incompatible with a plural society. He claimed that, in contrast, the actions of the Bideford councillors who determined by a democratic vote to continue prayers were compatible with a plural society and were not open to challenge, despite the protestations of Clive Bone and others, and their offers of compromise such as for the prayers to take place before the Council meeting or for a period of silence.
While making great play of councillors voting by a majority to continue with prayers, Mr Dingemans later conceded — in response to an intervention — that democratic votes do not make lawful that which is unlawful. He surprised many by saying that that there was no evidence that prayers were continuing, but evidence was produced to scotch this. The judge asked to see a set of Council minutes and although neither of the legal teams had one, one of our members kindly obliged. (Bideford Council has subsequently held a meeting with prayer, which they did with great fanfare and much media coverage.)
Much time was spent about the exact sequence of events in Bideford Council meetings. Mr Dingemans claimed that Clive Bone was free to arrive late or leave at any time, therefore he was not being required to participate in prayers; Mr Dingemans felt that the record of attendance being taken after prayers had finished supported his point.
But our counsel took a different tack, emphasising the significance of the "summons" that councillors are sent in advance of each Council meeting setting out the business to be transacted, including prayers. The judge engaged with this and the defence came under pressure to explain why they were unwilling to accept the compromises offered. Detailed arguments were exchanged about the nature of disadvantage to which Clive Bone and councillors in his position had been subjected and the threshold of disadvantage at which it fell foul of discrimination protection.
The defence had also raised the spectre of "far-reaching consequences" of our victory: "the coronation oath would need to be abolished; the council's involvement in services of remembrance would be prevented; and chaplains would not be able to serve in HM Armed Forces". Our lawyers considered this to be exaggerated at least, but the judge thought the "implications could go further".
Reference was made throughout to hundreds of pages of case law as well as statutes in a series of ring binders. One relevant case used the phrase "particular disadvantage" and the judge focused on the exact meaning in this context of "particular". Cases can be won or lost on such details. The oldest case referred to by the defence went back to 1880 in which a litigant was the Great Eastern Railway. It concerned what was legitimately "incidental" to a company's activities. This was the defence's attempt to bring prayers within the lawful activities of the Council under the Local Government Act 1972 which permits "incidental" activities. Among other arguments, we relied upon the Equality Act 2006 giving only one specific exception allowing "acts of worship or other religious observance" in relation to educational establishments, from which we inferred that such acts in any other context were not allowed.
NSS counsel David Wolfe answered all the defence's points in detail. He also suggested that a major plank of the defence's case was ill-founded. They had gone to great lengths to reject what they thought to be our claim that Clive Bone's freedom to manifest his non-belief had been breached. But our counsel said that this was not something we had contended or relied upon. As a supplementary argument, he added that there was scant evidence of Bideford Council making efforts, as they are required to under the Equality Act 2010, to seek to eliminate or reduce unnecessary discomfort through their actions on grounds of belief or (crucially) non-belief.
Judgment is expected within a month or two.
Keith Porteous Wood worked with the legal team and was joined in the afternoon by Honorary Associate Dr Evan Harris, who has made helpful suggestions to the Claimants' team. Supporting them were both vice-Presidents (Gerard Phillips — who is also Chair of Council — and Elizabeth O'Casey) council member Afonso Reis e Sousa, three former officers as well as Society members. Meanwhile, Terry Sanderson and Campaigns Manager Stephen Evans took part in radio and TV interviews and headed up the team dealing with non-stop press enquiries. Before the hearing, Mike Judge of the Christian Institute and Keith rehearsed the arguments at the BBC in interviews on Radio 4's Today programme, Radio 5 Breakfast with Nicky Campbell and the BBC News Channel (TV).
The Church Times sank to the standards of the worst tabloids by opening its report with the following sentence: "The practice of saying prayers at the start of council meetings is akin to councillors' reading pornographic or racist material, lawyers for the National Secular Society (NSS) told the High Court last Friday."
It only becomes a little clearer later in their account that the analogy being made by the lawyer was that, in the same way that the Council couldn't lawfully decide by democratic vote to read out racist material or pornographic material and justify that on the basis that black or women councillors who felt uncomfortable could leave, so neither can they lawfully do the same by imposing prayers on those who felt uncomfortable by them.
See also: One blogger who understands what we are getting at

More councils re-evaluate prayers at meetings
The NSS's council prayer challenge has caused other councils to reconsider their policies.

Vale of White Horse District Council — the only district authority in Oxfordshire to hold a short service at the start of its full council meetings — was told by Cllr Melinda Tilley that the service should be scrapped. "I just object to it. It is the wrong time, the wrong place, the wrong everything," she said.
Both she and Jerry Patterson, Liberal Democrat member for Kennington and South Hinksey, leave the chamber in Abingdon when prayers are said. Ms Tilley said: "They have all these prayers and everyone is bowing down, feeling righteous, and then everybody kicks six bells out of each other. It is a bit hypocritical, they should hold it afterwards."
But the council voted to keep praying back in May. Former Oxford West and Abingdon MP Dr Evan Harris said: "It causes problems for those councillors who are not religious or of a different religion when they have to appear to take part or leave."
But Roger Cox, deputy leader of the Vale of White Horse District Council, said: "I am a traditionalist and I see no reason why not, provided it does not offend anybody."
Meanwhile in Gloucestershire County Council — which scrapped prayers last week — Cllr Simon Wheeler said it was about being fair to all religions. Council chairman Brian Thornton announced the change on Wednesday, saying the practice excluded some members, who might feel embarrassed. But Mr Wheeler, an agnostic, said he and two other colleagues had been behind the move and that it had been about not offending non-Christian religions. He said: "It was simply a Christian prayer but there are many other religions."
However, in neighbouring Cheltenham, the mayor, Barbara Driver, has declared that prayers will continue – despite the fact that several councillors wait outside the chamber until the chaplain has finished the Christian ritual.
Mr Driver said: "I have thought about it, but those who do not like a prayer can either not come into the chamber until it is over, or indeed not pray. I have had the chaplain talk more about what we are there for rather than just a prayer, but everyone should have a choice. Who am I to say to one side or the other? This is what we will do in Cheltenham. We have a choice, that is was (sic) democracy is all about."
Reaction to council prayer challenge
Editorial by Terry Sanderson
The NSS's court challenge drew an extraordinary and almost entirely negative reaction from commentators. Most of it could have been written well in advance by the usual suspects so predictable was it.

Ann Widdecombe in the Daily Express could hardly contain her heaving anger as she labelled Clive Bone — the councillor at the centre of this case — "an ass" and added: "I hope the High Court throws out this nasty little action, which predictably is backed by the National Secular Society, and awards the not inconsiderable costs against that body."
The Daily Mail wrote us off — again with complete predictability — as the "PC Brigade". MP Chris Bryant writing in the Independent seemed to disapprove of our action but at the same time praised it (speaking as a former vicar, he claimed) and said that he would like to get rid of prayers in parliament and bishops in the House of Lords. (One of the commenters under the article was adamant that Chris had never been a vicar only an "assistant curate and youth chaplain").
As we'd anticipated, there was plenty of abuse in store from the Christian lobby. They couldn't actually grasp the larger issues at stake here — the need to separate religion from politics — and concentrated instead on Clive Bone's personal discomfort at sitting through prayers.
Cristina Odone, the Catholic apologist who propagandises in the Telegraph, said: "Judges tend to focus on the discriminatory act, arguing, for example, that atheists and Christians alike would be wrong in banning same-sex couples from sharing a double bed in their B&B. So the Christian taken to court can't claim that his religious beliefs are infringed. This is all wrong... Christians have special requirements, just like the disabled, women, the elderly or ethnic minorities. Courts must accommodate their beliefs, not ignore them. I hope that this will prove a winning argument."
She asserted that if we were to win, the Coronation Oath would have to be abandoned, chaplains would have to be drummed out of the forces and there would be a general "evisceration of Christian culture". Who'd have thought we were so powerful? So exercised was she by this that later in the week she wrote another article calling for some kind of religious war to be fought by Christians.
Martin Hannan in the Scotsman branded us "the secular taliban" saying just like the Taliban the NSS will not rest until all dissenting voices are silenced. Mr Hannan forgets to mention that the religious Taliban pray five times a day and kill people who don't do likewise. We aren't proposing execution for Bideford councillors. The whole point of equality law is protecting minorities being oppressed by the majority. And none of our detractors could bring themselves to mention that the Christian councillors had refused compromises of a period of silence or prayers before the meeting.
In the Daily Telegraph, Rev Peter Mullen called us "totalitarian", while Michael White, the Guardian's resident Victor Meldrew figure, came up with an extraordinarily convoluted piece in a blog to oppose what we're doing. When you get to the end of it you'll wonder whether he's lost his thread or his marbles. What's he on about?
In the Daily Mail, Rev George Pitcher (aka George of the Sixth Form) ascribes all kinds of powers to the "bullying" NSS. Not only are we going to disestablish the Church of England, but we are going to "sweep religion from public life", "abolish the Royal Family", "pass nasty laws to introduce euthanasia" and establish our "authoritarian, godless and uniformly secular republic". And all before teatime! 
In the Church of England Newspaper, Andrew Carey was even more apocalyptic: "On the National Secular Society's case against Bideford Council... rests the entire edifice of continuing religious freedom in the UK".
In an exchange in the House of Commons, Martin Vickers, the MP for Cleethorpes said we were "secular fundamentalists".
There was much, much more in similarly virulent vein. All of it was in the "isn't the NSS cruel, picking on a tiny council like Bideford" vein. As we've explained before, one of their councillors approached us, and Bideford is a test case for a much wider principle. The council will pay nothing, even if it loses. They're backed by the well-resourced Christian Institute.
The NSS is concerned with separating religion from politics and this is one vital element of that campaign. Naturally the Christians and other traditionalists won't be able to comprehend that some people don't accept that they are entitled to simply impose their religion anywhere they like. There's a time and a place and formal meetings in council chambers are not it.
The one question that is never asked by our critics is: why is prayer part of civic business in the first place? Who decided that it should be, other than the vested interests in the church? And why, when it comes to religion, is it imagined that 'tradition' trumps all else? If society never changed and never abandoned any 'traditions' we'd still be trading slaves and denying women the vote. Society moves on – as the British Social Attitudes survey reported elsewhere shows. 'Tradition' should not be a reason to halt progress and keep us living in a past that is long gone.
Slideshow of pictures from the High Court
Large-scale survey shows religion in rapid decline in Britain
The latest British Social Attitudes Survey paints a grim picture for the future of religion in this country. It shows that the number of people who do not have a religion has risen to 50% (65% for the 18–24 age group). In 1983 one in three did not have a religion, but by 2010 this has become one in two. See Losing faith? (pdf).

Since 1983, the number of people who describe themselves as Anglicans has halved from 40% to 20%.
One in five people say they are CofE, one in ten say they are Catholic, slightly less than one in five say they belong to another Christian denomination and one in 20 belong to non-Christian religions. Fifty-six percent of those who say they have a religion never attend any services.
Analysis shows that people who are not religious in their youth do not embrace it as they get older. It follows that as the more religious older generations die out they will not be replaced with similar generations of religious older people.
The authors of the report conclude that this is not good news for the Government which seems more and more inclined to involve religion in public life. They write:
What does this decline mean for society and social policy more generally? On the one hand, we can expect to see a continued increase in liberal attitudes towards a range of issues such as abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and euthanasia, as the influence of considerations grounded in religion declines. Moreover, we may see an increased reluctance, particularly among the younger age groups, for matters of faith to enter the social and public spheres at all.
The recently expressed sentiment of the current coalition government to "do" and "get" God ([Baroness] Warsi, 2011) therefore may not sit well with, and could alienate, certain sections of the population.
The results beg other questions – such as why the Church of England, demonstrably dying on its feet, is permitted such huge political privileges and allowed to run a third of our education system. Why, indeed, does it continue to have a constitutional status that it does not deserve?
See also: Questioning the Queen's religious role opens up a real can of worms
Quarter of the population intend to go to church at Christmas – yeah, right
Once more this year, a large number of people are lying about their intention to attend a religious service over Christmas. A YouGov poll conducted for The Sun this week found that 24% of the 1,723 adults questioned said they intended to attend a church service.

The same question was asked last year at the same time and gave the same result. But the figures collected after Christmas showed that only something like 11% of people actually went to Church.
This is a familiar pattern with religious surveys. Respondents always overstate their commitment to religion, and it also explains why the census throws up such ridiculous figures about religious allegiance. It also indicates that the results of the Social Attitudes Survey mentioned above may be even worse for the churches than the figures indicate.
Scottish regional council spreads the Gospel in schools
The Highland Council in Scotland has joined forces with a creationist evangelical group to spread their message to primary school children.

The Council authorised a CD-ROM produced in the United States by the creationist group Answers In Genesis to be given to all children in its 183 primary schools. It distributed the CD at the request of the JAM (Jesus and Me) Trust, an evangelical Christian organisation based in Scotland which spreads the Christian gospel in East Kilbride and surrounding areas.
The JAM Trust claims 450,000 copies of the CD-ROM were produced for distribution in the UK this year. At first glance, the CD appears to be an advent calendar, but is in fact a Trojan horse for spreading the Christian gospel. Earlier this month, copies of the CD were also given out free with copies of The Scotsman newspaper.
Nick Noble, a parent of a six year old who was given the CD in school told the NSS: "I was horrified when my son brought home a CD-ROM containing an "advent calendar" which on a cursory examination is linked to a creationist group in the USA. If schools wish to teach a range of religious views in a balanced context that is one thing, but this is totally unacceptable. It was thoughtless of the school to allow a young child to bring home a gift which I then had to take away or spend many hours teaching my own child about differing religious views which at his age I really don't think would be appropriate."
On 14 December, the Advent Calendar CD, which purports to explain the "true meaning of Christmas" tells children:
"When God first created the world, it was not the same as it was today – everything was good. The first man and woman, Adam and Eve, were told they could eat the fruit of any tree in the Garden of Eden except one. They disobeyed God and ate from that tree. That was the start of things going wrong and death came into the world. "Children are then informed "Christ died for the ungodly".
A message on 18 December encourages children to pray, advising (quoting from Matthew 6:5-14) that when they pray, they should not "be like hypocrites, for they love to pray in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men".
On 19 December children are warned "God is light and we cannot hide anything from him, He knows the secrets in our hearts."
Stephen Evans, Campaigns Manager at the National Secular Society, said: "It is wholly inappropriate for local authorities to favour one religion or belief over another. In this instance they appear to have completely ignored their responsibility to be religiously neutral in favour of evangelising to young and impressionable children. Local authorities must think twice before carrying out the work of evangelical groups".
The Highland Council declined to issue a formal comment but have acknowledged that parents should have been given the opportunity to refuse the material, and have apologised for any upset caused.
See also: Too much religion on Shetland school advisory board
Nadine Dorries' 'abstinence for girls' Bill – what you can do
A parliamentary Private Members Bill that would "require schools to provide certain additional sex education to girls aged between 13 and 16; to provide that such education must include information and advice on the benefits of abstinence from sexual activity; and for connected purposes" is scheduled for a second reading on 20 January 2012.

The Bill, called "Sex Education (Required Content) Bill 2010-11", is the work of Nadine Dorries, the MP who last year attempted to diminish abortion rights.
At the first reading of this Bill, many people did not take it seriously, thinking it would be quickly disposed of. Chris Bryant MP adeptly took her argument apart during the debate, but she narrowly won (by six votes; 67 to 61). Please write to your MP asking them to vote against her Bill on January 20, using the information below. You can find out who your MP is here.
The Background
In May 2011 Conservative (and Christian) MP Nadine Dorries introduced a Bill proposing that girls (and only girls) between 13 and 16 get extra sex education teaching them to practice abstinence. Ms Dorries has close ties with Christian Concern For Our Nation, a highly conservative group that campaigns (among other things) for 'Christian family values'. Her Bill is also supported by the Christian Legal Centre and the Christian Medical Fellowship. She misrepresents facts to claim that current sex education is not working. She also claims that teaching abstinence to girls will reduce child abuse – which has outraged abuse survivors' groups.

The Facts
The NSS strongly believes that all teaching around sex and relationships should be evidence-based. There is strong evidence that teaching abstinence does not work and that it can exacerbate problems with teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Abstinence teaching may delay first intercourse by a few months but when it does happen, it is much less likely to involve a condom. The UK has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Europe and very high rates of STIs, with the highest STI rates in the under-25 age group. Of even more concern is that of all 16–19 year olds diagnosed with an STI, at least 11 per cent of women and 12 per cent of men will become re-infected within a year. UK teenage pregnancy rates are beginning to fall; fact-based sex education is essential to ensure this continues.

It should be made clear that delaying first intercourse until a young person is ready is not the same as abstinence. Education for Choice points out that those involved in the delivery of SRE do already discuss reasons not to have sex as an integral part of high-quality education on the issue. However this is placed in the context of young people's choices and well-being and does not seek to make value judgements about those choices.
Why we object to this Bill
Ms Dorries' proposal is based on ignorance of the evidence, distortion of the facts and a religious agenda that fails to put the needs of young people first.

This religiously-inspired proposal is misogynistic; it forces girls to be the gatekeepers of sexual morality. It also implies that boys cannot control themselves and should not even be expected to try. It puts young people at risk of STIs, including HIV/AIDS, and unwanted pregnancy.
Educating girls in abstinence to reduce abuse ignores the fact that saying 'no' will not prevent rapists and child abusers but may well make the victim feel responsible for not preventing the attack. Moreover, it is not only girls who are abused.
For more information, please contact Senior Campaigns Officer Tessa Kendall at ad...@secularism.org.uk.
What is a Family?
The importance of marriage will be taught to every pupil at the Government's flagship free schools and academies, which will have to sign up to strict new rules introduced by Michael Gove, the Education Secretary. This means that children must learn the 'nature of marriage' and its 'importance' for family life and bringing up children.

As we have covered in previous editions of Newsline, religious campaigners against gay marriage have been claiming that marriage is only for a man and a woman and that allowing gay marriage would undermine the bedrock of society and destroy family life.
But now there is research by think-tank the Centre for the Modern Family which shows that eight out of 10 people describe their family set-up as not the traditional two married parents and two or more children. Just 16% of people define themselves as part of this kind of family.
Although the Government and religious campaigners might see it as their mission to restore 'family values', they are increasingly out of step with the people they claim to represent. Single parent, same-sex, or unmarried couples are increasingly regarded as 'proper' families. 57% of people no longer believe that a couple with children needs to be married to be a family. 77% of people believe that single parents can be a proper family and 59% believe that same sex couples can be a family.
The public doesn't just disagree with the Government, they feel alienated by the emphasis put on a 'traditional' model of family life. 22% don't believe their family is valued by society and 18% feel judged because of their family set-up while 52% claim the Government does not take their family set-up into account. However, both the Government and 'traditionalist' religious groups are very good at ignoring data that don't suit their agenda and carrying on regardless.
NSS President Terry Sanderson said in The Telegraph: "Children brought up by unmarried parents or single parents being told that marriage is the only valid family arrangement will be totally contradictory to everything they know about the world. It is telling our children that their own family structure is somehow inferior." 
Catholic Church drains €6 billion out of Italian exchequer every year
Italy's leading secularist group UAAR has compiled the first detailed investigation on the impact of the various contributions and tax privileges enjoyed by the Catholic Church on Italian public finances – and found it comes to more than €6 billion.

The group claims that if these privileges were stopped, the horrific austerity measures just enacted by the new Italian government would not need to be so severe. It would also put an end to the unfair tax breaks that Catholic hotels and tour operators get, at the expense of others who have to operate in normal competitive business conditions.
Unlike everyone else, says UAAR, the Catholic Church always emerges untouched by the many budget cuts of recent times, including the ones approved this week, which reduced the Welfare Minister to tears in public as she announced them.
Raffaele Carcano, secretary of UAAR said: "The Monti government promised sacrifices for all. But it did not keep its word. With this study we point out to him the costs and waste, so that it will be easier for him to intervene, if he wants to."
UAAR discovered that financial grants of the same type (e.g. for the construction or renovation of churches) are lavished at several levels: by municipalities, provinces, regions, state, different state agencies. And this is bound to cause inefficiencies and waste resources. Unsurprisingly, the ones who benefit from these inefficiencies are most often those closer to power: just like the Church.
In putting the results online, UAAR hopes that further contributions will be made to make the site more accurate.  "We invite the Italian Episcopal Conference to launch a project like this, too" Carcano concludes: "It would benefit transparency and dialogue. Even more, it would benefit citizens. And public finances."
German court rules that school has a right to ban Muslim prayers
A decision by the German Federal Administrative Court allowing a Berlin school to ban Muslim students from praying on their lunch break is being viewed as a ruling on public religious expression and has been closely watched by members of different faiths. Yunus Mitschele, an 18 year-old student at Diesterweg Gymnasium, brought his case to the court in Leipzig, but the ruling on 30 November prioritized the peaceful running of the school over students' right to pray. The school had argued that differing views on the interpretation of the Quran had led to conflict and bullying among its students. 

NSS speaks out
The Bideford case generated a huge amount of interest. As noted above Keith was on BBC's Radio 4 Today programme, Radio 5 Live and TV. It was included in news bulletins, sometimes as the top item. Terry Sanderson did interviews on BBC Scotland and local radio stations in Berkshire, Cumbria, Devon, Gloucestershire, Kent, Newcastle, Sheffield, Somerset, Tees and West Midlands. Keith Porteous Wood was also on Radio Gloucester and Radio Northampton. The case was widely reported.

The case was widely covered by the press particularly in the broadsheets and radio and TV. Senior campaigns officer Stephen Evans was on ITV West Country's report on the matter.
Terry Sanderson was quoted in The Times (subscription only) in connection with the Church of England's attempt to stop gay people getting married in its churches. Terry made the point that the church by law established is supposed to serve the whole nation – and that means everybody, including gay people. If it doesn't want to do that, it should give up its official status.
Terry was also quoted in a BBC report about the rush for Catholic schools to convert to academy status – which will make them freer to ramp up the religious proselytising they engage in. He was also quoted in a Sunday Telegraph article about Government plans to make schools teach that marriage is the only legitimate relationship. He spoke on the same topic on LBC Radio.
Events
A Yuletide MiscellanyChiltern Humanists present a light hearted cultural/social evening for Yuletide. There will be readings, poetry, music and secular carols. Members and friends are invited to bring along a seasonal favourite poem, quote, reading, etc. to share with their fellow Humanists and participate in making the evening a successful and lively one. Mince pies and mulled wine (and soft drinks) will be provided. Wendover Library, Tuesday 13 December 2011, 7.45 for 8.00.

Anyone sporting a long white beard and wearing a red coat may not be admitted!
Ribticklers – NSS President Terry Sanderson will be presenting his tribute to the best-loved comedians of yesteryear in a hilarious evening of comic nostalgia at the Cinema Museum, 2 Dugard Way, London SE11 4TH on Thursday 15 December 2011 at 7.30pm (doors open 6.30 for an opportunity to see the museum). Fun for all the family. More details.

Letters to Newsline
Please send your letters for publication to let...@secularism.org.uk. We want to publish as many letters as possible, so please keep them brief: no more than 250 words. We reserve the right to edit. Opinions expressed in letters are those of the writers and not necessarily those of the NSS. You can also join in live debates on our Facebook page.

From Bill Gorman:
One of the difficulties facing secularists is the perennial problem of explaining to the generally uninterested public what secularism is. Any mention of religion is a turn-off for most ordinary people.

I joined the NSS a number of years ago because I was concerned about the way in which religious privilege undermines the law, corrupts the democratic process and stifles and sometimes even silences free expression. Secularism is essentially about promoting a free and fair democracy where there are no privileged, unelected interest groups able to exercise undue influence on democratically elected representatives to seek privilege or exemption from the law. So let's talk about democracy over religion.
Opposing religion is a negative campaign issue, promoting an open, free democratic process is the core value of secularism and a positive campaign issue. People will support a democratic movement but shy away from an 'anti' movement, opposed (and disrespectful) to religion. The arguments needed to explain secularism's challenge to religion can be nuanced and subtle and can be easily hijacked and misrepresented by the pious, respected and hard-done-by religious spokespeople. This allows the religious spokespeople to present themselves as victims of 'aggressive' secularism, undermining any opportunity to reasonably explain the aims of the NSS. As we know they are not victims, quite the opposite. The analogy of a spoiled child throwing a tantrum when it is told to share the toys springs to mind.
So, from now on when I am asked to explain why I am involved with the NSS, I will explain that it is in order to defend our democratic institutions from groups that are trying to gain undue influence over policy without being subject to the democratic process. Also, it will be interesting to hear how those opposing it then explain why they are so opposed an organisation that promotes and defends democracy.
From Dianna Moylan:
Following up on Nigel Sinnot's reference to the Abraham-Isaac story, I remember being told the story at Sunday School when I was about seven years old. I was shocked that this being that supposedly cared about sparrows dying, would play such an unpleasant trick on Abraham, who seemed a reasonably nice chap (remember, at 7 we don't really understand an awful lot of what we hear). For me it was the beginning of the end for my relationship with the god that I was forced to talk to, in absentia, at Sunday School. It took many years for me to realise I was not a failure for my inability to believe in the unbelievable, but this was the first wedge in the door to the freedom that atheism brought. And, yes, I saw the picture in the bible too. It horrified me then, as now.

From Mike Lawrence:
I actively campaign against the religious indoctrination of children in the UK, under the name of NOTORI (No To Religious Indoctrination).

On Saturday 19th November, NOTORI conducted a static public protest in Chelmsford town centre against religious privilege in society, with particular reference to the expansion of government funded faith schools, and the law which requires an act of collective worship on a daily basis in state funded schools.
There is a 16 minute YouTube video containing some of the public's response to the static protest; including an interview with Stephen Cottrell, the Bishop of Chelmsford, giving his views on Church of England schools, and the importance of the concept of God in education.
From Alan Jones:
People of religious belief should watch the Tony Robinson series (Gods and Monsters) on Channel 4 and ask themselves if this is what people believed 400–500 years ago, where does that leave the beliefs of 2,000–3,000 years ago.

From Jill Walton:
In response to Robert Kaye's (2nd December) comment about Queen: 'the lead singer was mixed-race'. This is not the case. Freddie Mercury's parents were both from Gujarat in British India, making him just Indian, surely? Nevertheless, I like his point!

From John Edmondson:
Someone suggested in Newsline that the Bible is not child-friendly, but I think that the basic problem is that the Church taught that the Bible should be read as a single book despite being written over a period of about 1,000 years by up to 40 different authors. The problem then is that people who rejected the Bible as the "Word of God" (I am among them) may have failed to see that it is not always internally consistent. There is a long saga in the Old Testament against child sacrifice. And Jesus himself (always prone to exaggeration) suggested that that for those who injured children, "It would be better …. To have a millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea."

My own interpretation of the story of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac is that the arrival of the angel was intended to convey the idea that God did not want this sort of thing. The story of Jephthah is odd, even by ordinary Biblical standards, as it is out of line with Biblical thought generally and is generally ignored by Christian teachers. However I don't think that quoting one story in the Bible can necessarily give evidence of a general Biblical theme.
From Lynne Davis:
I was very interested to read the item in Newsline about representation from the CofE in the House of Lords and fully support removal of unelected representatives of religious groups. I notice that there are several e-petitions set up calling for removal of all bishops from the House of Lords: Are any of these supported/endorsed by the NSS?
Ed replies: Lynne, we have included links to as many of these petitions as we can find, encouraging readers to sign up.

From Julia Drown:
Well done on the high court challenge. For your info: I've sent the statement below to the Today programme:

Prayers at councils debate today: you gave the impression that prayers at the House of Commons are OK because they are before the business or the day in the Chamber and so don't interfere with it, but in my time — and I suspect it hasn't changed — if you wanted a seat for any packed debate the way to get one was to get to prayers and put a 'prayer card' in the slot to show it was your seat. And does the tax payer pay for the person who leads the prayers? As an MP (South Swindon 97–05) representing people of all religions and none I felt it was inappropriate – as I did when I was a county councillor here in Oxfordshire. I don't want to stop anyone practising their religion but it doesn't feel right to use the main place of business just before business starts for prayer for one religion only.
From Brent Cheetham:
As a Cllr for the national liberal party on Northaw and Cuffley parish council in Hertfordshire and editor of the Cuffley Courier, I wish to give my support for the notion that prayers should not be held before council meetings.

I have attended, as a member of the public, council meetings for Broxbourne council in Hertfordshire in which prayers which sometimes verge on a sermon are held before the meetings commence. This certainly makes members of the public unwelcome. This to me is an anachronism which should be confined to the dustbin of history. What people believe in is their own business and should not be forced on others. Religion of any kind has no place in council meetings and should be confined to the church of your choice or your private home.
PS: Did you know that parish councils can and still have the right to insist on a Church of England special service in their local church to be held by the local bishop for the chairman once a year? I know as I have attended two myself. This is a throw back to when parish councils came into being in the late Victorian times when most parish councils were made up from the local church council. This outmoded way of operating excludes not only atheists and agnostics but also Roman Catholics and people of other religions. It's about time that this practice should be stopped. What do you think?
From Mike Staite:
I have only today become aware of your case against Bideford TC and its intolerable religiousness – however while I wholeheartedly support your stance, I must put it to you that you are missing the real point. The following is extracted from an unpublished piece that I wrote a few months ago:

I hear that the argument about folk not being allowed to wear religious symbols in the workplace is continuing – apparently some Christian groups are particularly keen to wear crucifixes on necklaces and complain that other religions aren't similarly persecuted.
With the exception of Health and Safety considerations (a healthcare provider or machine operator might be well-advised to eschew dangly jewellery, for example), I long for the day that religious-tagging becomes compulsory at work – we might mandatorily add such legends as "Religious", "non-Religious" or (for me) "anti-Religious" to name-badges. I absolutely feel entitled to know if my advisor, representative, boss, employee or colleague bases their end of our intercourse on something imaginary.
As I now understand it from the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning, the Council roll-call isn't taken until after the prayers have finished and your complainant could simply absent himself until the actual business of his Council starts.
 
Far better, I suggest, if all councillors are in future compelled to register and declare their religious tendencies up front. Let the religious then briefly hold whatever little rites they wish outside the council chamber, while the rational members converse, grab a beverage or check their e-mail.

From Yvonne Shaw:
I was pleased to hear about the high court action against Bideford Council this morning and hope it has been successful. I considered applying for a job with Helston Town Council recently but was shocked to find from reading their minutes that each council meeting begins with a prayer. I found the same thing on checking out a position with Rhyl Council. As a result, I haven't applied for either job knowing that by not being able to play along with this practice, I would be inviting discrimination from my employer.

Obviously this is a very common practice which is very disturbing in the UK in this day and age. It is completely unnecessary and inappropriate in a local government setting.
From Cllr David Boothroyd:
You might be interested to know that when Westminster City Council has a prayer as part of the annual meeting of the council, it takes place right in the middle of the meeting. The procedure is that a new Lord Mayor is elected, retires to take on their robes, then returns and signs their acceptance of office. They then appoint their Lord Mayor's Chaplain for the year and the new Chaplain leads the council in prayer.

The meeting is not adjourned during the prayer; there is no option given for anyone to leave if they do not wish to be present, and it is minuted as part of the meeting. See item 3  (Word doc).
I am not the only atheist to be a member of the council but I am the only one who does not participate in the prayers.
Incidentally, the Lord Mayor is automatically also given the job of Deputy High Steward of Westminster Abbey during their year in office; they declare their acceptance of this office immediately after accepting the office of Lord Mayor. I don't know what the Abbey would do if a Lord Mayor declined to accept the post.
From Kim Biddulph:
I sent emails to the Head Guide and Top Scout using the email addresses you supplied in Newsline. I had two very different responses.
 
Whereas his Holiness the Top Scout made it clear that any children I had who couldn't say the oath would be very welcome to go ahead and join the Woodcraft Folk 'cos they would not be welcome in the Scouts:

We are a membership association rather than just an activity programme, and this basis of common beliefs between the members who choose to join has been well-defined.
Although this may be disappointing to you with regard actual Membership of Scouting, there may well be other opportunities for youth activities provided by the local authority or local branches of other voluntary organisations (such as the Woodcraft Folk, who also enjoy some similar activities such as camping, international networks, etc), where the basis of shared-belief is not an expectation of membership or participation.
The Head Guide's answer, however, was more promising:
Not taking the Promise does not preclude any girl from becoming a full member and participating in any element of guiding, such as activities at meetings, gaining badges and attending overnight and residential events...
The issue is on the Executive Committee's agenda and when the time is right we will review our current approach.
From Chris Bushill:
In response to recent correspondents who expressed apprehension about involvement in religious ceremonies, my attitude has always been that, if the organisers do not mind an avowed atheist in their midst, I am happy to be an interested observer/participant. As I remarked at a relative's recent catholic wedding, when the groom's uncle expressed surprise that I was singing hymns, 'us atheists can do as we like'. I had earlier told him that it is all mumbo jumbo to me.

From Patricia Tricker:
I never use the C word. When others whom I know not to be Christians mention celebrating it, I ask them why. The usual answer is that they're not celebrating it religiously. I then ask them why they then use a religious word and suggest that in order not to be hypocritical they call it celebrating midwinter, Yule, the solstice or the Saturnalia.

I do nothing different on 25 December from what I do on most other days of the year. I don't see any need to do anything instead of it, in the same way that I see no need to do anything instead of eid or divali, and being asked the question is just as irritating as being asked what, as a vegan, I eat instead of animal products.






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