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Secularism at the End of the 20th Century

by Keith Porteus Wood, General Secretary of the National Secular Society

The Leicester Secular Society 1997 Anniversary Lecture

A fully illustrated, printed version of this address may be obtained from the Society. Booklet price U.K. only £1 per copy plus C5 (6.25"x9") SAE. Enquiries to General Secretary, National Secular Society, Bradlaugh House, 47 Theobalds Road, London WC1X 8SP. We regret we cannot accept foreign currency or stamps.


CHARLES Bradlaugh, who founded the National Secular Society in 1866, was of the opinion that the spread of education would, gradually and inexorably, reduce the influence of religion. Although the process is taking longer than he - or any of us - would have liked, Britain is certainly a much more secular society today than at any time in its history. Religious influence is waning and the churches are splitting themselves into fragments. But what influence is left to them, they cling to with great ferocity. It is our business, as active Secularists, to prise their fingers loose and take these last vestiges of privilege away from them.

At the zenith of the organised Secularist movement, just before Bradlaugh's death in 1891, there were about 100 NSS branches, with 100 outdoor meetings being held in the season each week in London and 1,000 new members joining the NSS each year. The growth of the leisure industry, however, has eaten away at both religious and Secularist attendances. As religion has become less influential, so organised opposition to it has waned. I doubt if we will ever have a large-scale popular Secularist movement in this country again - unless, of course, religion ever manages to stage the revival with which it constantly threatens us.

Some Religions; their splintering and other problems

ONE question I would like to consider is whether the ebbing popularity of Western religions is leading to their being taken over by the evangelicals and extremists, those who have traditionally been relegated to the fringes. For instance, the Orthodox Jews are losing numbers overall, but one fundamentalist element, called the Lubavitch Movement, I am told, is proselytising among Jewry and gaining strength. I had a taste of Jewish extremism in January, 1997, at a Cambridge Union debate about the existence, or not, of "a loving and personal God". Of all the speakers, the most fanatical was Rabbi Shmuel Boteach - self-styled "Moses of Oxford" - who has been involved, I am informed, with this Lubavitch Movement. After several breathtakingly bigoted comments, he taunted his supposed ally, the Bishop of Basingstoke, by asking: "Who are the biggest joke for the Jews? Answer: The Christians!"

The problem in current Jewry is exemplified by the pressures being exerted upon the present Chief Rabbi by both the left and the right within his religion. Recent controversies have seen Chief Rabbi Sacks denounced as a traitor to Judaism by the Orthodox wings and as a destructive reactionary by the liberals.

The Roman Catholic Church, too, is experiencing this kind of internal rift. In the United Kingdom attendance at Mass decreased by more than half-a-million between 1970 and 1992. The majority of Catholics cannot reconcile the inhumane and ridiculous teachings of the Pope with the realities of their own experience. Even in Ireland, which has traditionally been in the thrall of Rome, the tide has turned. The Irish government has relaxed the laws on abortion, divorce and homosexuality (which are, ironically, at present more liberal than those of the UK). The reduction in the number of monks and nuns teaching in secondary schools in Ireland has been dramatic. In 1970 there were 2,300 but by 1993 that figure had declined to 1,000 - and a third of them were within 10 years of retirement. A similar picture prevails in Britain: the Sunday Telegraph recently reported: "More than 2,500 sisters have been lost from Britain's 200 orders since 1985 and of the 8,000 remaining almost half are more than 70 years old. Nuns aged between 30 and 50 account for just 10 per cent of the total." Also, two leading Roman Catholic girls' schools - "already almost run by lay staff" - are now to have lay head teachers.

The only increase the Roman Catholic Church seems to be experiencing at the moment is in the number of reported instances of child abuse by priests, and of priests with secret offspring of their own. There are now two types of "Revelation" that concern Irish Catholics: the biblical - and the tabloid.

All too often, in the past, complaints of child abuse by priests were either ignored, or the errant priests were simply moved elsewhere, where they tended to re-offend. In many cases the police have still not been informed, and further damage - that could have been avoided - has been done. Even now, in Britain and Ireland, few victims have received significant compensation - unlike in the USA, where the Church has been forced to pay out millions of dollars to those young people whose lives have been ruined by untrustworthy clergy.

Other types of child abuse have been uncovered, including the ferocious disciplinary methods employed in Catholic educational institutions in the past. Tales of overly-strict nuns and brutal monks inflicting disproportionate punishments on their pupils are commonplace. It has been so bad that the Christian Brothers have issued a public apology for their behaviour. Another variation on the child abuse theme emerged recently in Ireland when it was revealed that a group of unmarried mothers in the 1950s was pressurised by heartless nuns into giving up their newborn children. These were systematically sent to the USA for adoption, often completely losing track of their original identity. A help group has been set up to try to reunite mothers and children who were victims of this church-inspired cruelty. Although individuals were responsible for these events, the institution they represent must carry the ultimate blame. I would concede that in Britain secular authorities followed similar policies, but maintain that their motivation was based on the prevailing Christian ethos.

All over the world, Catholics are rebelling against the authoritarianism of Pope John Paul II. Individuals routinely reject his teachings on abortion, contraception and homosexuality, and, despite threats of dire retribution, liberal-minded priests continue to speak out against the inhumane pronouncements - bull, I think it is called - of the Pope. Many in Ireland now refer to the country as "post-Catholic", including the well-known Catholic apologist Mary Kenny.

An example of both rebellion and the extremism to which I have referred in the British Roman Catholic church is a movement called "Neocatachumenate"; it has many of the sinister characteristics of a cult: it is secretive, authoritarian, right-wing and manipulative. With branches all over the world, including a large one in Rome, it has the personal support of the Pope. Despite this, Cardinal Hume has consistently opposed it. He and a bishop are now taking steps effectively to ban it in Britain.

The Church of England is also experiencing a similar crisis of loyalty. It recently released statistics showing that church attendance has experienced its biggest drop in the past 20 years. The figures for 1995 - the latest available - show that Sunday attendance for the Church of England was 1,045,000, down 36,000 on 1994. As the schisms and splits continue between the evangelicals and the liberals, this trend will be difficult to reverse. Some opponents of women priests - many of whom appear to be motivated by simple misogyny - have deserted the C of E for Rome, to the horror of those trying to liberalise Roman Catholicism. Further schisms can be expected in the C of E over gay priests and women bishops.

Half-baked attempts at evangelism have also alienated many. It would be tasteless to lampoon the Nine o'clock service debacle at Sheffield - too many families were damaged by the manipulative and sexual antics there - but that the church authorities stood by, desperate not to interfere in anything apparently successful, speaks volumes.
While Anglican pews remain empty, the hysterical happy-clappy "house churches" grow at a fair rate. What seems to be happening is that the followers of middle-ground religion (I hesitate to use the phrase "moderate religion") are declining rapidly, and their institutions are falling into the hands of the remaining evangelicals and extremists.

Despite the splintering, they are still a threat

ALTHOUGH participation in organised religion in Britain seems to be a thing of the past for the majority, the Established Church itself is far from being a dead duck. Centuries of power and influence are not going to be forfeited overnight. The Church of England still has fantastic wealth, which wasn't accrued simply from the collection plates on a Sunday morning: it has taken hundreds of years of exploitation to build-up assets of this size. The Church still wields totally disproportionate power in our national institutions - Parliament, education, the Monarchy. It insinuates itself into many areas of national life, exerting far more influence than its numerical support should ever justify in a democracy.

If we need evidence of the Church seeking any opportunity to thwart Secularist gains, we need look only to Norway. Despite having one of the most active Humanist movements in Europe, it seems likely that Norwegian state schools will now have to teach that Christianity is the one true religion.

The Norwegian Humanist Movement's President, Steinar Nilsen, has said that he feels that this surprising - even shocking - move has been in part the reaction of a very conservative society to a large number of immigrants. His organisation is planning to fight the change at the European Court. If the case proceeds, Secularists will follow it with great interest.

Despite most of the population abandoning the superstitious trappings of Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism, the influence of these two juggernauts remains largely intact, and needs to be challenged.

It is hoped that an opportunity may arise to open up a debate on the separation of Church and State if the Labour government carries out its promised constitutional changes. Other issues I hope will be debated include the removal of the Bishops from the House of Lords and who, if anyone, should succeed the Queen as so-called Defender of the Faith. I say "so-called" because this title was bestowed on Henry VIII by none other than his Holiness, for services to Catholicism!

British Secularism since 1970 and the proliferation of "New Age", astrology, etc.

BARBARA SMOKER, the most recent past-President of the NSS, has said she saw little real progress in dismantling religious privilege in the quarter-of-a-century that she was in office. The Common Law offence of blasphemy is still intact, and was even given a boost by a recent ruling of the European Court over a film entitled Visions of Ecstasy. Church schools are still extant, and their position seems more secure than ever. There is now even pressure for State funding to be extended to Islamic schools, and it seems quite likely to be granted. The clergy are still exempted from paying rates, despite the aforementioned fabulous riches of their employer; animals are still ritually slaughtered in the most horrific way to satisfy ludicrous religious "traditions". On the human rights side, equality for homosexuals is still awaited - and what change has been effected so far has been achieved by organisations outside our movement. Most of the opposition to change has come, as usual, from religious bodies.

But we must balance Barbara's rather downbeat assessment by remembering that the decade of reform in the 1960s was a hard act to follow. Also, there is no doubt that society became significantly more secular over this period, although how much credit the organised Secularist and Humanist movements can claim for this is an open question.

So, while we can be happy that British society is becoming less religious, we cannot claim that it is becoming more rational. There is a huge move to fill the void left by religion with equally barmy belief-systems. Horoscopes, faith healers, flying saucers, renewed interest in witchcraft, devil worship and other nonsense abounds. Prominent "psychics" are unquestioningly presented on television as having telepathic and supernatural powers. There is widespread acceptance of so-called New Age philosophies which throw reason out of the window and encourage belief in unproved and sometimes dangerous systems of medicine. The Daily Mail, while demanding the imposition of "traditional" religious values onto just about every aspect of life, also runs a weekly series about "Feng Shui", which it calls the "ancient art of arranging furniture in order to bring good luck, health and wealth". While demanding more belief in "traditional religion" the Daily Mail gives uncritical daily coverage to just about every crackpot "alternative therapy" and silly variation on the fortune-telling theme that charlatans can think up. This is symptomatic of society at large which seems to be increasingly accepting the validity of pseudo-scientific follies such as "crystal healing" and the "laying on of hands". These "New Age" philosophies are promoted with vigour by newspapers, and those who criticise them are denounced as bigots.

The down-market tabloids are even worse. Mystic Meg in The Sun and the News of the World makes wildly inaccurate predictions about the National Lottery (itself a major source of superstitious nonsense). Just about every newspaper, including several broadsheets, employs an astrologer.

Such silliness is written off by the majority as "a bit of fun" and so it may be in its present limited form. But when people are encouraged to believe in mumbo-jumbo they are open to exploitation - a fact not overlooked by pernicious cults which exploit gullibility for vast profit. At the same time, genuine science is under constant attack, accused of creating monsters.


ON THE international scene, things are very different. Traditional religions still hold many countries in an iron grip, and fundamentalism is on the rise throughout the world. In the USA, Christian evangelicals wield considerable clout in Presidential elections. Although they have so far failed to impose their agenda on the American people, that does not mean that they have abandoned their efforts. They are using the new communications technologies quite ruthlessly to spread their message of intolerance and hate. Television, radio, the Internet and all other conceivable means of communication are being employed by such organisations as the Christian Coalition to increase their influence and power. So extreme is their philosophy, and so apparently open to it are some Americans, that they are prepared to commit murder in God's name, as demonstrated by the killing of several doctors who carried out abortions. The influence of these sinister fundamentalists in American politics is truly frightening and should not be underestimated - even Presidents have been known to consult them.

The stated aim of these politicians posing as priests is to turn the USA into a theocracy. Despite the fact that so many televangelists have been unmasked as nothing more than money-grubbing con men - some of them even jailed for long periods - their popularity remains strong. So far, at election time, the Americans have narrowly rejected such extremism. This does not guarantee that, in the future, the balance will not tip the other way.

The rise of militant sects of Islam, too, is terrifying. As in Northern Ireland, it is often difficult to distinguish the exact role of religion in sectarian wars. Over the past 10 years, more than 60,000 people have been murdered in Algeria, mainly by Islamic fundamentalists in the civil war. Millions have been killed in the Iran-Iraq War. Bitter conflict between secularists and Muslims is now starting in Turkey. And the dreadful irony is that the people who are being killed are themselves often Muslims - but not the right kind of Muslims. In some parts of Afghanistan, where a sect called the Taliban is fighting to take power, not only has music been banned - hence the order for all song-birds to be shot - but also women doctors have been proscribed. And as women are forbidden from being treated by male doctors, many are dying from neglect.

As Babu Gogineni, the Executive Director of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, has said, it wasn't unusual, in the early years of this century, for Islamic scholars to openly criticise Islam without themselves suffering criticism for doing so. Such a thing nowadays would be unthinkable in most places - as Salman Rushdie has found out to his cost. Despite international pressure to lift its fatwah on Salman Rushdie's life, the reward for killing the writer has been increased to 2.3 million dollars. Yet we still have commentators in our press who claim that the public money spent on protecting Rushdie is "wasted". Incidentally, I am told that Rushdie helps to pay some of the cost of this security himself.

More worryingly, commercial considerations seem to override several Western governments' ability to condemn outright the Ayatollahs in Tehran and to take action against them. Free speech, it seems, also has a price on its head.

But we must tread carefully here. There is a campaign afoot to try to contain criticism of Islam by associating such criticism with racism. Members of our societies abhor racism. Those in the West who express horror at the atrocities committed in the name of Allah are now described in some quarters as being "Islamophobic", and law-abiding Muslims citizens in this country who are not extremists are said to be on the receiving end of the inevitable adverse reaction. Such criticism of Islam, according to the Runnymede Trust in a recent discussion paper, engenders racism. The National Secular Society has responded to the Runnymede Trust. One point we made was to object to the creation of the neologism "Islamophobia", fearing that it will restrict justifiable criticism of some manifestations of Islam. The Society would like to foster dialogue with moderate Muslims whose views, regrettably, are little in evidence in the media.

Leicester was mentioned in a TV programme about race relations in Britain. The programme asserted that Leicester had what was probably the most cosmopolitan mix of citizens of any town in the country. And yet it has an enviable record of race relations. Those of the Enoch Powell persuasion seem to have been proved wrong. Rivers of blood have not run through the streets of Leicester.

Residents of the city were questioned in the street, and they seemed on the whole tolerant and happy with the ethnic mix, which I understand is more or less equally balanced between Hindu, Sikh and Muslim. The interviewees on the programme instinctively knew the difference between liking or getting along with individuals and hating any excesses of their religion. No doubt many people have friends, work colleagues and neighbours from different racial backgrounds to themselves - many will have good, life-enhancing relationships with them.

The difficulty comes where religions try to impose on the freedom of others.

Hating religious extremism is not the same as hating individuals because of their race or religion, and we should not be distracted from criticising the irrationality, cruelty and excesses of some members of some sects of Islam by the arguments put forward by the Runnymede Trust. I dislike all religions, but I am not anti-Muslim people. My contempt for religion extends to all religions because I feel that they are all an insult to reason. But that does not mean that I don't have, say, very close Christian friends. I tolerate their self-delusion in the same way I expect them to tolerate my little eccentricities. I tolerate it so long as they do not try to impose it on me or anyone else. But as soon as they, or adherents of any religion, attempt to interfere with our liberty, then we must all stand up and be counted among the opposition.

Where this could be leading is indicated by a suggestion from the Runnymede Trust (whose members include the Bishop of London, Muslim academics and Rabbi Julia Neuberger) that they are considering suggesting that race relations law should be extended to embrace Muslims, as it currently applies to Jews and Sikhs. Taken to an illogical conclusion, it could lead to calls for criticism of all religion to be outlawed. I cannot imagine such a law being passed here, but, if it were, I would anticipate its having exactly the opposite effect to that intended.

Even without the imposition of new laws to curb criticism of Islam, it is not necessarily easy to do it under our current laws, as our former President Barbara Smoker found out in May, 1989. Along with two other protesters, she went along to a Muslim rally held to protest against Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses and in favour of an extension of the blasphemy law. She and her co-dissidents were holding banners calling for free speech. The young hotheads who were attending the rally rushed towards them shouting "Kill! Kill! Kill!". Barbara and her colleagues were slightly injured before being rescued by mainly older, more moderate Muslims.

I raised the Runnymede Trust¹s proposals during a discussion about racism at a recent meeting of the European Humanist Federation. The President, while totally opposed to racism, summed up the consensus of the meeting when he said that it was a core objective of the Humanist movement to resist the extension of laws protecting religion and that this should remain paramount.

Christianity, of course, has its own long history of murder and blood-letting, but hopefully its days of over-arching power are long past, in this country at least. Indeed, the number of churches in England has dropped by about 800 in the past 25 years, although new ones are being built at the rate of 15 to 20 a year. But that does not mean things cannot change back. Huge resources are being poured into resurrecting religion in Britain. So far it is showing little sign of working. Attempts, sometimes exorbitantly funded from the United States, to establish Christian broadcasting in the UK have been manifestly unsuccessful. The disastrous Decade of Evangelism is drawing to a close, with small sign of success.

One of our major problems is the oft-repeated charge that Secularism is negative. But until the influence of religion is removed - or at least neutralised - we cannot establish a rational, secular society based simply on human needs. As Robert Ingersoll so succinctly intimated: before we plant our vegetables, we have to tear out the weeds and the rocks. Neither should we forget that it was Secularist campaigners who played a large part in many of the changes in our society that have benefited most people. In the face of religious opposition, the rational campaigners have managed to change the law on contraception, abortion, homosexuality, the treatment of animals and Sunday trading. The fight is not ended on any of these issues. The battle also goes on to improve the situation in relation to environmental issues, disarmament, women's rights and relief of poverty.


RELIGIOUS education and collective worship are something which I remember hating from the age of five. It is a basic tenet of the NSS that we oppose RE, collective worship and denominational schools. I am in contact with the Northern Ireland Department for Education and have offered the Society's support in the promotion of integrated schools. There has been some progress but, while giving them every encouragement, I fear that it may be too little too late.

Regrettably, in Britain, church schools are in the ascendant, certainly in terms of their academic results and hence popularity. Parents with no interest in religion are attending church services in order that their child can gain a place at the local church school. Because of the often superior academic results that are achieved in these schools, they are hard to oppose successfully.

Despite the Education Act requiring worship in schools to be "broadly Christian" in nature, under certain circumstances, the law permits the teaching of minority religions in state schools. This has already happened in Birmingham. Already there has been pressure for state funding for specifically Islamic schools and schools for obscure Christian denominations. The Seventh Day Adventists, for instance, are being sympathetically considered by the Funding Agency for Schools (a government department) even though the sect specifically rejects the theory of evolution. Part of the Islamia School in London is also anticipating state funding.

These groups maintain that in being denied state funding for their schools they are being discriminated against. There may be some justification in these protests.

What about the reactions of parents who object to the fact that their particular religion - be it Hindu, Sikh, Muslim or way-out Christian - is not being taught in state-funded schools? They may feel a genuine sense of grievance and discrimination, and it is from there that they will begin to demand state funding for schools based on their own particular religion. And if that is not forthcoming, then it is likely that attempts will be made to set up privately funded schools for minority religions. It is difficult not to feel uncomfortable about the potential for fanaticism and further divisions in society occasioned by segregated schools. In theory, there should be little difference between the controls on state and private segregated schools.

It is not a foregone conclusion that Secularists and Humanists have the ability to influence this issue significantly; but if we do, there are some very hard questions indeed. Few here would disagree that integrated education is preferable to segregated education, particularly in terms of community relations. It is a more open question as to whether segregated schools in the state system are preferable to those outside the state system.

On a more positive note, the current multi-faith approach - almost a Which? guide to religion - has probably done more to promote scepticism than anything we could have proposed! My experience is that children who hear about many religions often come to the conclusion that they are mutually exclusive, and end up not believing in any of them.

Science - and Professor Dawkins

ONE OF the greatest allies of Secularism is science. Science has done more to discredit the irrationalism of religion than any other influence. Indeed, the Church seems never to have quite recovered from having to concede that Charles Darwin was right about evolution.

Whenever science advances, religionists' knees start jerking. They are always ready to jump in and explore what they like to call "the moral dimension". A recent example of this occurred when it was announced that Scottish scientists had succeeded in cloning a sheep. Immediately, the religious Jeremiahs were on the bandwagon, wailing about the "ethical implications" of this dreadful new development. But Professor Lewis Wolpert - a well-known atheist and leading biologist - has said that he knows of no new ethical issues involved with cloning; indeed, he has been offering a bottle of champagne to anyone who could think of one new moral implication. But the wailing and gnashing of teeth continues from the self-appointed moralists. "It's against nature" they say, "flying in the face of God's intentions". But this has been the story of religion throughout the ages. It has tried desperately to retard knowledge because all along the line knowledge undermines the fairy tales on which religion is based. In her laughable contribution to the debate, the Catholic journalist Mary Kenny even quoted the infamous verse from Ecclesiastes: "In greater knowledge is greater sorrow." What she really means is that with greater knowledge, there are fewer believers in religion.

Professor Dawkins - who I'm proud to say is an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society - is another scientist who will have no truck with the nonsense spouted by those of a religious persuasion. His relentless logic and intolerance of irrationality often gets him into trouble, but he seems to thrive on the controversy. Each time he puts his head above the parapet, the supposed moralists jump up and down with fury.

Richard Dawkins gives no respect where none is due - and he believes that little respect is due to religion. His services were much in demand by the media after the reports about the sheep-cloning experiment in Scotland. He said that whenever he was invited to some radio or TV studio there would invariably be what he called "the religious lobby" waiting. Writing in The Independent, he said: "This week I have experienced public discussion of cloning with several prominent religious leaders, and it has not been edifying. One of the most eminent of these spokesmen, recently elevated to the House of Lords, got off to a flying start by refusing to shake hands with the women in the studio, apparently for fear that they might be menstruating or otherwise 'unclean'. They took the insult graciously and with the 'respect' always bestowed on religious prejudice (but no other prejudice)." He asserted that religious lobbies have an inside track to influence and power, but - as their contribution to the cloning debate shows - their views are a waste of time.

"Cloth-heads" is what he called his religious adversaries: ignoramuses who didn't know what they were talking about, but were always invited to contribute to scientific debates simply because they were representatives of religion.
Professor Dawkins does not mince his words and neither do those who regularly take pot-shots back at him. His writings invariably lead to much furious correspondence in the letters pages, and almost always from the Reverend this or Father that. The fact that he shakes them so profoundly is an indication of his great value to the Secularist cause.


UK General Election 1997 - "Pro-Life" performance

SHORTLY after the lecture, the 1997 General Election returned a record number of Labour MPs to Westminster, ending 18 years of Conservative rule. The Christians, in particular, seem triumphant. A Church Times banner headline read: "The incoming Government is said to contain 'swaths' of Christian MPs - Christians take top jobs" (9 May). Indeed, the Labour Front Bench is heavily populated with active Christians - and there are even rumours of Tony Blair's imminent conversion to Catholicism! We can only hope that the election of this Parliament did not herald a new era of religious influence.

History has taught us that nothing is more divisive than religion, so if Prime Minister Blair wants to realise his dream of uniting the country, he will keep his religion well in the background. He at least acknowledges the problem, having already declared that his faith will not influence his policy-making. The National Secular Society will be fighting to make sure that Tony Blair - and his Government - keep to this pledge.

Keith Porteus Wood, 1997

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