The government's attitude to faith groups

A bishop making our lawsThe Church of England is the established church of this country and its authority has been intertwined with the state's for five centuries. Although its influence has steadily declined with the decline of religious belief, 26 seats in the House of Lords are still reserved for its Bishops and the Queen is Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Recent years have seen an influx of people with other faiths and, not surprisingly, they want a share of these privileges. This competition for influence has caused a reaction. A 2008 study for the Church of England "Moral but no Compass" claimed that government ministers focus "intently" on Muslim organisations and pay only "lip service" to Christianity; it even calls for a new "minister for religion". The government has encouraged the expansion of religious schools and relies increasingly on religious and other "third-sector" groups to help it deliver social services and has encouraged the creation of local "faith forums" to ease the way for religious faiths to influence local government. Religious groups such as faithnetsouthwest are taking full advantage of funding available to the third sector (faithnetsouthwest, funded by the government's changeup programme, advertised for a CEO at £36,000–£40,000p.a.). The various faith groups are pushing at an open door so that it is more important than ever for the non-religious to make themselves heard.

The state of religious belief in the UK

Between the censuses in 2001 and 2011 there has been a decrease in people who identify as Christian (from 71.7 per cent to 59.3 per cent) and an increase in those reporting no religion (from 14.8 per cent to 25.1 per cent). From 2009 the annual British Social Attitudes results has revealed that over 50% of Britons say they are not religious. Of those who identify as belonging to or having been brought up in a religion only 14% attend religious services or meetings on a weekly basis. The move away from religion seems likely to continue. In 2014 65% of 18-24 yr olds do not affiliate to a religion compared with 55% of the same age group in 1983.

Religion is not a major factor in most peoples' lives: the 2001 Home Office Citizenship Survey Religion in England and Wales found that "Overall, one-fifth of the respondents considered religion to be an important part of their self-identity after family, work, age/life stage and their interests"; a European survey found that religion came 12th in a list of personal values (full report 2.6MB pdf). See Religion and Belief – some surveys and statistics for more surveys. The report Religion in Britain: Neither Believing nor Belonging found that, "the number of people who have a real faith is now smaller than the number of people who passively "belong" to a religion" (Guardian 16/08/2005). From personal observation, many who attend and support their local church appear to do so for social reasons and not because they have a religious faith.

The case for secular government

There are two ways in which we can try to adapt our social organisation to a multi-faith society. We can extend the privileges of the established church to all religions (but what about the non-religious?), or we can aim for a secular society. Do we allocate seats in the House of Lords to all religions? Do we pay for a plethora of faith schools thereby increasing social divisions? How do we cope with the disparate requirements of each religion in our laws? What about the majority with no religious belief? The only way to be fair to all is to take religion out of government all together so that nobody is discriminated against on grounds of religious belief or lack of belief. The case for secularism has been eloquently made by the Humanist Philosopher's Group in booklets available from Humanists UK and by HUK campaign documents:

The case against the government's policy of encouraging the establishment of publicly funded religious schools is also made by the National Secular Society and by the Campaign for State Education:

The National Secular Society has proposed this secular charter.

Exemptions from equality and human rights legislation

Organisations with a religious ethos are exempt from important provisions of equality and human rights legislation that apply to public authorities (eg in the employment of staff and selection of pupils by faith schools). The BHA report "Quality and Equality: Human Rights, Public Services and Religious Organisations" (471kB pdf) draws attention to many examples of such discrimination and to other problems arising from the use of religious organisations to provide public services. Legislation should be strengthened so that any organisation, without exception, involved in the supply and delivery of public services:

  • could not discriminate between service users on grounds of 'religion or belief', or on any other grounds;
  • would be required to respect the human rights of service users;
  • would be required to have equality-based employment policies, so that no one is privileged for a position because of her/his religion or belief, her/his sexual orientation, or on any other irrelevant ground.

Even the Christian think-tank Ekklesia urges the government to "close discrimination loopholes for faith groups in welfare". But, from a study of current practice, the BHA report concludes "It is our firm view that no publicly-funded, comprehensive and statutory public service, to which all citizens have an entitlement, should be contracted out to a religious organisation. … The problem is that religion brings supervening motives into play that can interfere with providing the best possible service to the public." Accord, a wide coalition of organisations, campaigns against legislation which gives religious schools special exemptions from human rights legislation, and against restrictive and discriminatory admissions and employment practices. In Evidence on faith schools, they bring together and summarise high quality research from reliable sources on the consequences of current policy on faith schools. The BHA booklet Guidance on Equality of Religion or Belief (195kB pdf) gives advice to local authorities and other public bodies on including the non-religious "Never assume that everyone has a religious belief".

Representing the non-religious

To get these views heard, it is important that Humanists in Devon are represented on as many local government forums as possible. At present we are represented on:

  1. Devon SACRE (Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education)
  2. Devon Faiths Forum
  3. Exeter Inter Faith and Belief Group
  4. North Devon/Torridge Diversity Group

In addition to these standing committees we need to look out for other opportunities to make ourselves known to local government. An example was Equality Day, called by Devon County Council's Strategic Intelligence, where we were able to raise questions about the application of equality and human rights legislation to faith groups providing publicly