13 December 2012

First Person Column in Leicester Mercury Dec 13th 2012

The times they are a’changin’

As the new President of Leicester Secular Society my particular interest in the 2011 Census has been data relating to religion and belief in Leicester.  These stats are quite different from the national averages, revealing a city that is more diverse than most other places and, notably, where the four main belief categories (Christian; Non-religious; Muslim and Hindu) are relatively evenly balanced, with a sizeable number of Sikhs too.

The new figures show that the number of Christians (of ALL denominations) is now down to only 32% of Leicester’s population.  Those without religion (atheists) are the second largest group with almost 23%, while Muslims check in at nearly 19% and Hindus at just over 15%.  Sikhs are at about 4.5%.  In other words no single belief group is anywhere near dominant.  I believe this means that no spokesman for any single religion can be seen as a moral spokesman for the city.  Each belief community has something to offer in this respect.

The key objective of Leicester Secular Society is to achieve a “separation of religion from the state”.  We have no desire to ban religion, worship of gods or religious rituals.  These are matters of personal conscience and we will do as much as anybody to protect those fundamental rights.  Indeed, in a world where religion often seeks to impose its dogmas onto society as a whole it is increasingly obvious that only a secular state can guarantee freedom of religion and belief for all. 

We believe strongly that religion can divide people against each other, especially when national or local government gives favoured status to one belief over the rest.

This is why we have campaigned against the creation of ever more publicly funded ‘faith’ schools and have called for the ending of religious rituals in public bodies, like prayers in council meetings and the religious ceremony to welcome a new Lord Mayor.  This is why we believe that national and local celebrations of events like Remembrance Day for those killed in war should not be based on a specific religious ritual but on secular respect, reflecting that those who died were of many different beliefs.  This is why we must question the financial privileges given to religious bodies, like publicly funded chaplains in hospitals, prisons and armed forces.  If the religious want them then it is obvious who should pay.

In terms of policy making it is time that those who live good lives without religion were given proper respect with consultation alongside religious bodies.  In education the Religious Education syllabus in community schools could be replaced by a syllabus that covers all paths toward living as good citizens with or without religion.  It is also well past time that any residual ‘political correctness’ in not questioning harmful practices based in religious dogma was eradicated from public bodies and law enforcement.  We must stand by ‘one law for all’.

The new Census statistics must give all the City’s policymakers and opinion formers pause for thought.  

Harry Perry
President of Leicester Secular Society