Religion or Belief conference report
The BHA received grant funding from the Equality and Human Rights Commission for a project which aims to increase understanding of the ‘religion or belief’ equality ‘strand’. As part of this, the third in a series of conferences was held in Birmingham on 22nd January this year. We’ve previously posted a report from the Daily Mail, which misrepresented the purpose of this work.
With her permission, here is a report on the conference from Alison Rawlinson from Coventry & Warwickshire Humanists, which was published in their newsletter. Alison attended the conference with her husband Mark.
On 22nd January, Mark and I attended the BHA’s conference on ‘Religion or Belief and Equality in Human Rights’ in
The first section of the event took the form of a discussion on the matter of ‘Religion or Belief in Education’ between Andrew Copson, the BHA’s Director of Education and Public Affairs, and Tony Pearce, Regional Officer of the NUT.
Andrew Copson opened by pointing out that schools are perceived as being at the forefront of teaching about toleration and equality, even though in reality schools probably carry out more institutionalised discrimination than any other public organisation. Aside from the obvious bugbear of daily compulsory religious worship, he cited examples of children being told that they will “believe when they get older”, and one case where the teacher of a child whose parents were of the Baha’i faith flatly refused to believe that the child wasn’t making it up. He pointed out that the acceptance of faith schools and daily acts of worship cause religion to become normalised in society. He made a very interesting point that schools can apply to their local authority for ‘determination’ which allows them to opt out of daily worship, and that some councils actively encourage this.
Tony Pearce expressed the NUT and NASUWT’s concern about state funded faith schools, particularly through the academies programme, as most academies are in some sense religious. He also pointed out that there is a continuous erosion of staff employment rights due to exemptions on religious grounds. He then went on to demonstrate how faith schools’ selective nature can lead to socio-economic discrimination. For example, C of E primary schools have only half the number of pupils eligible for free school meals compared to non-religious schools, and the number of children with special educational needs is also lower. In fact, church and foundation schools are 25 times more likely to select children in order to boost their league tables. He also expressed concern that most faith schools are quite unaccountable for the state funding they receive, as they are not obliged to have governors appointed by the local authority and therefore are de facto self-governing.
A third speaker in favour of faith schools was due to attend but had to cancel, so the chairman gave a brief synopsis of his points, i.e. that faith schools provide parental choice, that they give children a familiar environment (in terms of dress, food etc.), that they perform better in exams and that they involve themselves in wider society, including teaching about other faiths.
A fascinating lecture was then given by Professor A C Grayling on the nature of religious talibanisation. He began by talking about the persecution of early Christians in the
Roman Empireand their refusal to publicly observe Roman deities. He then moved on to illustrate how quickly the roles became reversed once Constantineelevated Christianity to its position as official religion of , the persecuted becoming the persecutors within a very short time. Christian coercion continued and escalated, reaching its height by the late mediaeval period with the Inquisition. He recounted the story of Michael Servetus, who was persecuted – and eventually executed for heresy – by Calvin (himself in exile from Catholic persecution) and defended by Sebastian Castellio who publicly denounced Calvin for his hypocrisy towards Servetus. Prof Grayling gave other examples of how the Christian church has talibanised (demanded observance), and commented on the fact that our human right to freedom of religion is not necessarily the same as having freedom from religion. Rome
He then moved on to speak about the amplification of religion. As someone who is regularly invited to speak in debates about religious issues, he pointed out that although he may be one of a panel of five, the remaining four (comprising perhaps a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim and a Sikh) represent only around 8% of the population between them; the only reason so many voices are needed is that they can’t agree between themselves! He argued that not every debate is representative of society’s distribution of viewpoints, and yet the BBC’s policy of giving equal airtime to minority views gives the illusion that each possesses equal weight and public support. Amplification occurs when one religion begins making proportionately more noise than the rest about a particular issue, then the others feel they must be heard too. The Professor pointed out that an increase in volume does not necessarily equate to an increase in number. He concluded by saying that people who have no religious persuasion should be protected from those who do.
In the afternoon, various discussion groups took place. Mark and I attended one run by Anna Fairclough, a lawyer for
, on the subject of freedom of expression. She outlined some recent case law on the topic, then we discussed what limits should be placed on religious belief itself, what limits (if any) should be placed on criticism of religion and whether we should have the right not to be offended. We discussed the notion of blasphemy, and noted that there is little point in having laws that guarantee freedom of expression if they apply only to ideas which are likely to be favourably received. Liberty
Being a BHA event, the pervading intention of the day seemed to us to be to remind those attending, some of whom were not Humanists, that when it comes to matters of belief, in the context of people’s human rights, the non-belief perspective also has to be addressed.