20 November 2015


Open Letter to Keith Vaz regarding blasphemy law for the UK

Dear Mr Vaz,

I write to express deep disappointment at your support for blasphemy laws to be re-introduced to the UK.

I write this as an open letter to encourage clarity on the matter.

It is outrageous that someone, as senior within the Labour party as yourself, would put forward the outdated, regressive, and oppressive concept that faith and belief need legal protection. They do not. These ideas must be subject to as rigorous questioning, criticism, ridicule and offensive comment, as any other idea.

Just because someone sincerely believes an idea does not give the person nor the idea any special privilege in being immune from normal human interaction, even if offensive criticism is offered. The line we draw, and it is a reasonable one, is that we do not permit the incitement of hatred nor violence. Everything else must remain within the law.

It is the duty of everyone to be prepared to take offence on the chin rather than demand special privilege to avoid facing unpleasant truths about their cherished beliefs. To give religious ideas special protection would be to give succour to the despicable regimes around the world who are happy to murder blasphemers. Take a look at Pakistan where even to allege that someone has blasphemed is enough to bring out the vigilante death squads. Why would you want to take our legal system in that direction or in the direction of Saudi Arabia where it is a terrorist offence to not believe in Allah?

I sincerely hope that you will reconsider your position and make it clear that a blasphemy law is not appropriate for this liberal democracy of ours.

Yours Sincerely,

Gush Bhumbra,
Leicester Secular Society
75 Humberstone Gate

03 April 2015


Secular schism and dogma

One of the weaknesses of religion is the tendency to lay down dogma and create schism (well illustrated by the Life of Brian scene about the People's Liberation Front of Judea etc.). Unfortunately Secular Societies can exhibit the same weakness.

Our strapline demonstrates the problem - “for an inclusive and plural society free from religious privilege, prejudice and discrimination”. Some Secularists prefer to concentrate on promoting “an inclusive and plural society”, leading to accusation of appeasing the religions by those who prefer to concentrate on campaigning for freedom from “religious privilege, prejudice and discrimination”.

Going back in our history this dichotomy was the cause of a split in the secular movement in the 1860s when many of the secular groups formed in the 1850s disappeared. To quote from “A Chronology of British Secularism” (G.H. Taylor 1957):

“Is the theoretical attack necessary or advisable? That was the problem which did more than any other single factor to split the ranks. Roughly speaking Holyoake said No, Bradlaugh Yes. The former, in his earlier career, often broke his own rule and attacked theology, but as time went on he became more concerned with the fruits of secular philosophy than with its theoretical basis. In his (unpublished) reminiscences Sidney Gimson, son of Josiah Gimson of Leicester, has referred to Holyoake's readiness to placate liberal clergymen for the sake of advancing on common ground.” 
N.B. George Holyoake defined “Secularism” in 1851 and Charles Bradlaugh was the founder of the National Secular Society (NSS) in 1866. Both spoke at the opening of Secular Hall in 1881.

Today, at the national level, this difference is demonstrated in the differing priorities of the NSS and the British Humanist Association (BHA) – Leicester Secular Society being affiliated to both. The BHA is overtly atheist and secular, yet includes in its objectives “The promotion of understanding between people holding religious and non-religious beliefs so as to advance harmonious cooperation in society”.

The NSS by contrast is indifferent as to religious belief but campaigns energetically for a secular state, concentrating on opposing religious privilege, prejudice and discrimination.

Currently there has been some controversy over whether or not members should have been involved with the King Richard III re-internment (which can be seen as a community event) or support the reform of the hospital chaplaincy service to make it fully inclusive. My personal preference was to ignore the Richard III hullabaloo and I think that the NHS chaplaincy service should be replaced by properly qualified pastoral support workers. If organisations (including the religions) want to encourage volunteers to act as hospital visitors (subject to proper guidelines) I would not have a problem. However I accept that other secularists can have a perfectly valid differing view.

Some members advocate setting out the “doctrines” of secularism in motions to special meetings and accepting the decision of the majority. Democracy (the worst form of governance apart from all the others, to paraphrase Churchill) means that the majority dictate to the minority. Within a country this works as it is very difficult to leave. In a voluntary society, if you set down narrow requirements that your expect all members to adhere to, many will simply not renew their membership and others will decline to join. Consensus is a much better way to move forward.

Many members take pride in our opposition to fascism. The word derives from the ancient Roman “fasces”, which consisted of  is a bound bundle of wooden rods, sometimes including an axe with its blade emerging. This represented the authority of the civic magistrate and was used for the corporal and capital punishment of those who failed to conform with the rules of those in authority. The point being that whilst an individual rod was weak, a tightly bound bundle or rods is strong. In its modern political incarnation it represents enforced control and conformity of a population (and in some cases, such as the Nazis, racial conformity) which is deemed to give such a society strength.

It would be ironic if Leicester Secular Society were ever to adopt such an approach. I'd suggest that we should welcome diversity and debate within the Society, uniting around our core principals, but not being too prescriptive as to the way in which we expect members to behave or the ideas they espouse.

John Catt

09 January 2015


As a result of the Charlie Hebdo assassinations Leicester Secular Society has issued this press release.

Leicester 9th January 2015

Leicester Secular Society along with secularists around the world condemns the religiously motivated brutal attack in France on a free press and freedom of expression. This is a terrorist attempt to silence criticism and divide society

We are not unique in stating our disgust at these brutal attacks and we all unite in strongly urging people and Governments to remember the crucial importance of the right to free expression.

Following these unprecedented attack carried out in the streets of Paris, we would like to express our sympathies to the victims and condolences to those who knew the murdered.
Gush Bhumbra, President of Leicester Secular Society, said:
“We must stand for our right to free expression or we will lose that right. The only rights we can ever have are those we are prepared to take a stand over. Totalitarian ideologies will take for themselves the right to rule our lives, to tell us what we can do or say or even think, if we let them.

This barbarous attack on the free press deserves only our contempt and commitment to maintain freedom of expression.

The passive acquiescence of our media and politicians in self-censorship has been part of the problem. We must not be afraid to criticize, parody or ridicule any organization or ideology we disagree with (from whatever our perspective) and oppose ignorance, superstition and pompous behaviour.

This is particularly important in such a religiously diverse city as Leicester. The claims and images of one religion are regarded as blasphemies by another. 

Unless we accept the right of others to express their views in the public square, no matter that we find them offensive, then we cannot have freedom of religion and belief.

Those who advocate further censorship of cartoonists and writers in the wake of tragedies like this will only embolden the murderous outrages of these criminals.”

The right to free expression is a universal one, and it lies at the foundation of our every liberty. It must always be defended.

In that same spirit of solidarity, the Society has republished some notable Charlie Hebdo cartoons which can be viewed together with this press release here.

Leicester Secular Society (the oldest secular society in the world – founded 1851) is the leading organisation in Leicestershire advocating and campaigning for an inclusive and plural society free from religious privilege, prejudice and discrimination.
The Society is committed to:
The Society is affiliated to (but independent of) the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society.
The Society aims to provide a stimulating atmosphere, nurturing debate and creativity. Regular lectures, meetings and events continue to be held at Leicester Secular Hall, one of the world's last surviving Secular Halls, built in 1881. The Hall and Society together provide a local base for loosely bound groups and individuals to join forces with a view to creating a better world.

Images from the BHA press release https://humanism.org.uk/2015/01/08/humanists-united-condemnation-charlie-hebdo-assassinations-support-free-expression/

20 December 2014


Government Blocks Proposals for Humanist Marriages

The Government has published a report declining to allow Humanist marriagesdespite a public consultation which showed over 90% of respondents to be in favour. It is reported that this is the result of their election strategist Lynton Crosby decreeing that nothing "promoting initiatives that are not central to the party’s key election themes of crime, the economy, immigration and welfare" should be taken forward before the General Election.

The reasons given for not agreeing to Humanist Marriages were in summary:

  1. Location (listed as the key difficulty)

    Humanists want the freedom to hold ceremonies anywhere, a right enjoyed by the Quakers and Jews since 1753.

    However the Church of England and others entitled to undertake registered marriages are restricted in that they have to use their own buildings and they wish to apply the same restriction to Humanists. The simple answer is to remove the restriction on all the marriage providers and allow them to choose as to whether or not they restrict themselves to their own buildings.

  2. Equality

    The report states "There is already a difference in treatment between couples professing different religions and no religion. Allowing non-religious belief marriages might reduce this to some extent but not solve the problem."

    So rather than improve on the existing situation and then initiate further reform, the government prefers to retain the existing greater level of inequality.

  3. Unfair competition

    The Church of England (CoE) is opposed to belief marriages taking place at both unrestricted locations and premises approved for civil marriage, on the basis that either option would create an inequality for the majority of religious groups and couples, who are restricted to their registered place of worship.

    This is blatantly the Church of England attempting to protect its market position. There is no reason why the churches need to be restricted in the locations where they perform marriages. This should be their own decision.

  4. Sham Marriages

    The existing religious provision has been shown to be wide open to abuse. The BHA celebrants are vetted much more thoroughly than most religious celebrants. The government needs to bring in relevant regulations relating to all registered marriages and this has nothing to do with whether or not Humanist marriages should be recognised.

  5. Other groups would want to perform marriages

    Yes. But there should be no problem authorising the BHA (which is a registered company and charity) by giving them exactly the same rights as the Quakers and then reviewing the legislation.

    There are well known problems. The Cohabitation Bill is almost attempting to reinstate Common Law Marriage. The argument against this is that people should not be forced into what is effectively a marriage contract without committing themselves to it.

    However one of the most powerful arguments in its favour is that it would provide some protection to Muslim women who enter into a Muslim religious marriage without realising that it is not recognised in English Law.

    I suggest that the best solution would be to reform the marriage law so that any organisation that meets laid down criteria for recognition can license celebrants to perform registered marriages. In turn it would be made illegal for anyone else to claim that they were preforming a marriage ceremony.

    All aspects of the Marriage Law need review, but this should not prevent Humanist marriages being recognised on the same basis as Quaker and Jewish marriages in the meantime.

  6. Commercial Marriages

    The Government report claims that "Change would open up the solemnization of legally valid marriages to a potentially large number of independent celebrants who may still be paid directly by the couple and able to benefit financially".

    This is a bit rich from a Conservative government. Opening up provision would increase choice and competition, normally the mantra of Conservative policy.

The Labour Party is taking a more sensible approach and has pledged to give legal recognition to Humanist marriages (as have the Liberals) if returned to power next year.

22 August 2014


Learning about fundamental human values in Leicester(shire) schools

The Government has set out the fundamental human values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. It requires these to be the basis of education in Britain, describing them as British values. 

Following the Trojan Horse events in Birmingham, the President of the Society, Gush Bhumbra, has written open letters to the City Mayor and the leader of Leicestershire County Council, seeking their assurance that they have measures in place to ensure that students at all schools within their areas (whether or not of a religious character) are educating their students about these values.

Sir Peter Soulsby has responded saying:

Thank you for writing to me about our child protection, safeguarding and welfare responsibilities under the Children Act 2004. I note also your request for assurances about the particular norms and values that our children are being taught within our schools.

Further to your letter I have discussed the matter with Councillor Vi Dempster, Assistant City Mayor for Children, Young People and Schools and have been advised that we have good relationships with our schools in Leicester. I can say that we know them well enough to have confidence that your expectations are being met.

That said, it would be unwise of me to give an unequivocal assurance although I can say that we work very hard to monitor standards of educational provision within our schools.

As I’m sure you are aware, it is for Government and Ofsted in particular to thoroughly assess educational standards within all schools, and to have confidence that the correct curriculum is being taught. We do, of course, work very closely with them on this.

Yours sincerely

Sir Peter Soulsby
City Mayor

A response has been received from Ivan Ould of Leicestershire County Council.
As Lead Member for the Children and Family Services I have been asked to respond on behalf of the Leader.

ln response to your letter dated 20 July 2014 I would like to assure you that Leicestershire County Council, in its role as champion for children, promotes children's learning to ensure that there is tolerance of all faiths and none, mutual respect and an understanding of democracy and the rule of law. Officers work with governing bodies and senior leaders in all schools to make sure that the values you describe underpin their planning and provision. School inspection reports are monitored on a weekly basis and officers liaise with Ofsted if any concerns are raised. To date, no concerns regarding any school's curriculum and values have been raised.

You will appreciate that both local authority maintained schools and academies have choice and freedom to plan an appropriate curriculum. The new National Curriculum for maintained schools provides a structured, balanced framework. Leicestershire is reviewing the agreed syllabus for Religious Education, working with head teachers and governors to ensure that this is appropriate to the Leicestershire context.

With regard to children's safeguarding, we have clearly understood procedures by which schools and other providers can contact Children and Family Services. We know through monitoring incoming calls that schools are confident about the way in which this works. The safeguarding team run regular training which is well attended and evaluated. All schools, including academies, participate in regular professional development.
It is somewhat concerning that Sir Peter Soulsby deems it necessary to qualify his assurance, although not surprising. The Government has left the local authorities with the responsibility for child protection but not given them adequate powers to police acadamies and independent schools.


25 April 2014


Listening to Music is Haraam and a Sin

A poster has appeared the local Boys' School of the Madani Federation stating:

Listening to Music is Haraam and a Sin
Stay away from evil acts such as listening to music and encourage others to do the same too!
  • Music is a tool of Shaytan (Satan) 
  • The playing of musical instruments and listening to them is Haraam 
  • According to the Law of Islam one who participates in music is regarded as a Fasiq (Sinful person) 
  • One of the harms of music is that it distracts one from his Creator 
  • The messages of today's music follow a general theme of love, drugs and freedom 
  • Appearance of music and stringed instruments is a cause of Allah's anger 
  • It is the tool of Shaytan (Satan) by which he attracts people to commit wrongful acts
Music is Haraam
The Federation's website states that Music is studied (along with other subjects at Key Stage 3) but does not appear to be included as a GCSE option.
Gush Bhumbra, the Society's President, has sent an open letter expressing concern that students may be denied the opportunity to learn to appreciate music in all its aspects. 
The school has been asked to provide an assurance that:
  • this poster was not approved by the school;
  • it, and any similar, will be removed when found;
  • music is viewed as a culturally beneficial art form and its appreciation is encouraged throughout the school.
Click here to read the press release.

11 March 2014


Community, diversity and the public good

I'm intending to go along to this event and decided I would set out my thoughts on the questions put so I will hopefully be able to give some cogent answers. As always as a Humanist I have to admit that I can be wrong and would therefore welcome comments below.

The Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life: community, diversity and the public good

12 March 2014, 3.30-5.30pm

The commission asks:

What are the foundations of a democratic and diverse nation?
How is community identity formed in a multi-faith society?
Should the freedom of religious expression be limited?
How should religion and belief be taught in state schools?
What lessons can Leicester share about interfaith dialogue and action?

What are the foundations of a democratic and diverse nation?

I think the word liberal is missing here. Our liberties, established in the Magna Carta, Bill of Rights 1689 and the Human Rights Act, limit the power of the state over the individual and in my view precede and take precedence over democracy. These include the rule of law, free speech, freedom of thought and religion together with freedom of association.

The power of democratic government has to be limited in order to protect the individual. Hitler was supported by a majority and this was a major motivation behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

A diverse nation is made up of diverse individuals.

How is community identity formed in a multi-faith society?

Diverse individuals should result in a diverse society. In a healthy society we belong to multiple communities. Religion cannot be the base for a sustainable society if it attempts to monopolise community.

A Sikh 
may be a member of a multi-faith society, but it is also an apartheid society (even if voluntary) and highly schismatic.

In a plural and inclusive society (which is what I believe must be our ambition) a Sikh might 
 I submit that this results in strong communities and a strong society.

Should the freedom of religious expression be limited?

No more than for free speech. Shouting “Fire” in a theater when there is no fire should be illegal. Inciting violence should be illegal. Otherwise we have to accept that free speech means that we have to be prepared to be offended and not react. Without the ability to offend, the term free speech is meaningless.

Accusing your opponent of causing you offence is a tactic, which allows you to avoid putting your own case, or pointing out the other’s flaws.

How should religion and belief be taught in state schools?

Comparative religion should be taught in state schools along side philosophy and critical thinking. Children should understand the history of religious beliefs and the main beliefs of those following the major religions, in order that they can relate to followers and avoid causing unintended offence.

The inculcation of religion should be the sole prerogative of parents and religious organisations.

What lessons can Leicester share about interfaith dialogue and action?

The civil authority must be agnostic and neutral with regard to religion (secular) and encourage dialogue between all communities (which includes all the groups that make up society).

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