26 December 2013

City of shame if “Leicester is not a secular city”

The open letter of complaint sent to the Mayor of Leicester, Sir Peter Soulsby, from the President of Leicester Secular Society, about the civic event celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela (which appears in the earlier Blog "Commemoration of Nelson Mandela in Leicester) stated:

“We are very concerned indeed that you chose to endorse a commemorative event that is a religious affair, inevitably dividing us and reinforcing the privileges of the Church of England. Mandela advocated an inclusive and plural society free from discrimination, prejudice and privilege”

The Leicester Mercury reported on this, together with comments from the Bishop of Leicester and Sir Peter Soulsby in its issue of 20/12/13 under the headline

“Row over religious elements of Nelson Mandela memorial in Leicester”

  and published an editorial which can be read  here under the headline

“Leicester is not a secular city”

Gush Bhumbra, President of Leicester Secular Society, has responded with an open letter for publication which reads as follows:

Dear Sir,

The title of your opinion piece of 20 December wears a point of shame as a badge of honour. “Leicester is not a secular city”.

Secularism, in guaranteeing freedom and equality, is a pillar of a just society, which we must be vigilant in defending.

Secularism guarantees everyone's right to practice their religion of choice.

Secularism prevents any government from promoting or persecuting any religion or belief.

Who could be against Secularism? The Church of England certainly seems to wish to protect its privileges. The exclusive privileges of this church are promoted by central government as the established religion.

The exclusive privileges provide by apartheid were promoted by the central government in South Africa.

Being privileged by government is no justification for privilege.

Is the Leicester Mercury advocating that the Church of England should have primacy over all other religions and beliefs, merely tolerating them and being prepared to work alongside them? Or should these be treated as equals?

Leicester Secular Society is against religious privilege, prejudice and discrimination by government and that is why I wrote to the City Mayor to point out the folly of choosing to make Nelson Mandela's commemorative event a religious one. We have a duty NOT to uphold unjust laws providing religious privilege.

So why would I choose to be offended and speak at such a religious event? I can only say it is my civic duty to take offence on the chin in order to be able to publicly proclaim my dedication to the cause that Mandela made his life's work. It was the only show in town where we could honour the man.

As to what could have been a plan for better more inclusive commemoration – how about this? Reminders of what he stood for, what he achieved, the struggle he went through, his famous and moving quotations.

This could be followed by a few words from some of the communities of Leicester who did what they could to promote his cause over the years, unions, political parties, students, and of course religious organisations, including the Church of England.

Secularism protects religion and belief. Let us all adopt it so we can proudly proclaim "Leicester is a secular city".

Yours faithfully,

G. Bhumbra

19 December 2013

Commemoration of Nelson Mandela in Leicester

This issue has produced an article and comment in the Leicester Mercury.

There have also been some letters on 20/12/13 and 25/12/13 .

Following the death of Nelson Mandela an invitation to a “Thanksgiving for the Life & Legacy of Nelson Mandela” was issued by Leicester City Council, Leicester Cathedral, St Philip's Centre and Leicester Council of Faiths to be held on Saturday 14th December. The event consisted of a gathering at Nelson Mandela Park (with readings, singing and a Christian prayer), a procession to the Cathedral and a Church of England Service, where representatives of various faiths and beliefs made short statements paying homage to the life of Nelson Mandela.

Whilst this attempt at an inclusive celebration of Mandela's life by the Church of England was to be welcomed, particularly as it had not always been so strongly supportive of him, it also incorporated the civic celebration of the life of Nelson Mandela. As such the event failed to involve other non-religious groups, such as trade unions, from within Leicester that had worked against apartheid. The City could have organised a fully inclusive civic event at a neutral location such as the Town Hall. A Christian ceremony is uncomfortable for many non believers and those whose strict adherence to their religion prevent them joining ceremonies involving worship by other religions.

This placed members of the Society (and no doubt others)in something of a quandary as many have been life long supporters of Mandela together with the anti-apartheid movement, but were not religious and did not wish to attend a Church of England Service. The Society decided that it would be represented at the event as it would have seemed churlish and devisive to boycott it. Some members stayed away, others just attended at the Park and others attended the whole event, which was well managed.

While the Society has no objection to the Church of England holding such events and inviting all to attend, we oppose the City granting the privilege to a particular religious denomination instead of providing an official civic event.

Our acting President, Gush Bhumbra sent the following "open letter" to Sir Peter Soulsby, The City Mayor.

Dear Sir Peter,

We applaud the decision to mark the ending of Nelson Mandela’s life with a commemorative event in Leicester. The great man is renowned for creating a rainbow nation and he deserves a fitting tribute from our rainbow City.

We are very concerned indeed that you chose to endorse a commemorative event that is a religious affair, inevitably dividing us and reinforcing the privileges of the Church of England. Mandela advocated an inclusive and plural society free from discrimination, prejudice and privilege.

Even in South Africa itself his life is not being marked with a state religious event, so why it was thought appropriate to do so here, where more than a quarter of the population profess no religious affiliation, is beyond us. It is offensive to many of us to have to sit through a religious service in order to be able to make a public show of respect to this great secular leader, who never used religion to justify any of his thought processes or actions.

An opportunity to unite the whole community is lost when religion is touted as the only way to mark significant events in Leicester. A secular society is inclusive of all, providing for freedom of religion and from religion. The Bishop of Leicester has no place leading a civic event such as this. A City Mayor is elected to organise such events for the whole community.

We strongly believe future events that are universal in nature, such as this, should be marked in a secular fashion at a non-religious venue. We have many secular venues here in Leicester, some of which are even owned by the local authority, so there is no excuse to choose Leicester Cathedral for such events.

Yours sincerely,

G. Bhumbra

Before the Society received any response from Sir Peter, the Bishop of Leicester issued his own letter
Dear Peter,
In common with the Leicester Secular Society I am delighted that the life and work of Nelson Mandela has been commemorated in the city.

However, since the Society's Open Letter makes direct criticisms of the role of the Bishop and of our Cathedral, and indeed of religion in general, we feel it important to make a response.

It is sad that an event to celebrate Mandela who did so much to heal wounds should become a cause of conflict in the City. I am sure I speak for Christians and those of all faiths in making it absolutely clear that we believe that no one should be coerced to express a faith or belief at any time, least of all on such an occasion.

However, the Secular Society seems to be implying that religion should be excluded from all forms of public celebration. In Leicester, where the cityscape is shaped by the mosques, temples, churches and synagogues of the great world faiths, our very identity is associated with public respect for each other’s beliefs on a great variety of public occasions. These include the recent visit of Her Majesty the Queen as well as the annual remembrance of the fallen on Remembrance Sunday and on many other similar occasions. 

At the heart of our cities stand cathedrals which embody a faith tradition alongside the story of a local community. In Leicester our Cathedral gathers people of all faiths and none at times of celebration and sadness and when great national or international events touch all our lives.

The Cathedral does this work in partnership with the City and County with a commitment to a vision of the Common Good arising from the Christian faith. This is a faith which seeks to offer hospitality in a city like ours as an expression of the Church of England's role in serving all the people. This task is specifically focussed in the public office of the Bishop and in the role of cathedrals. This is why the hospitality of the Cathedral was offered by the Dean on this occasion. We are puzzled to note that the person who spoke in the Cathedral on behalf of the Leicester Secular Society felt it necessary to write a letter of complaint.

We agree that a secular society should be inclusive of all, but this surely cannot be achieved by excluding the most deeply held beliefs of participants from public events. Anyone who watched the ceremonies in South Africa will have seen formal, public expressions of faith at many points in the proceedings. The people of South Africa appear to take it for granted that faith is a natural context for events of this kind, so that all the leaders of the world faiths prayed publicly at the Soweto memorial.

Lastly, it is simply untrue to claim Mandela as a ‘great secular leader who never used religion to justify any of his thought processes or actions’. In his autobiography, ‘The Long Walk to Freedom‘ he writes that he saw that ' The Church was as concerned with this world as the next: I saw that virtually all of the achievements of Africans seemed to have come about through the missionary work of the Church.'

Secularists have nothing to fear from Christians. And indeed, in the spirit of Nelson Mandela people of faith and of no faith have nothing to fear from one another. Please let us continue to keep a public space in this City for those of all faiths and none.

Yours sincerely,

The Rt Revd Tim Stevens
The Very Revd David Monteith

We believe that the Bishop has misinterpreted the letter sent to the Mayor.
  1. It is precisely because Mandela was a unifying figure who stood out against privilege for any one group that we felt we had to protest at the Church's pre-eminent position in the celebration of Mandela's life.
  2. We are not, however, directly criticising the Church for wanting to celebrate Mandela's life in their own way with Christian prayers - that is their right and one we defend. But what we object to is the City Mayor making this THE civic event of commemoration. We do not recognise the Church as speaking for us and we doubt whether Leicestershire people who do not profess any religious belief (one quarter of the population) or many believers in other religions would accept that role for the Church either.
  3. The very fact of this debate shows that the Church cannot be a unifying force in our society and the bishop is simply mistaken to think that he can speak on everyone's behalf. That can only be done by the elected civic authority on the basis of a neutral secular approach that treats all beliefs as essentially equal.
  4. It is disingenuous of the bishop to allege that our letter is attempting to silence the views of religious people at public civic events. What we are saying is that all such broad public celebrations should be conducted by the secular civil authority with representatives of all strands of opinion present, not belief or faith groups alone, and the secular civic authority must be seen to be clearly in control. This was clearly not the case in the cathedral and the City Mayor and the bishop are wrong to think that that venue should be acceptable to all as some kind of neutral space.
  5. The Anglican church represents no more than one quarter of the population of Leicester. It is completely wrong that they should insinuate themselves into a leadership role in community affairs.
  6. Finally, in respect to Mandela's beliefs, at no time in his adult life did he make any declaration of religious faith. What he did was to praise the role of churches of various kinds, along with a whole range of other organisations, in the struggle to end Apartheid.
Gush Bhumbra was interviewed by Ben Jackson on this subject on 19th December - the programme can be found here 2 hours 44 minutes in.

01 December 2013

Leicester Secular Society says NO to Sex Discrimination in Universities.

Universities UK have published a guide for its member universities entitled "External speakers in higher education institutions" in which it advocates universities allowing the segregation of audiences by sex in order to meet the religious “requirements” of some speakers.

Leicester Secular Society is opposed to such discrimination. 

This policy is based on exactly the same grounds as used in the “Separate but equal doctrine” in United States constitutional law that justified racial segregation until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the apartheid regime of South Africa. In a university segregation by sex on the grounds of religion and belief is no more acceptable than such discrimination on the grounds of race or religion. Some religions may object to adherents sitting with others with different beliefs. Would it be acceptable to divide an audience in this way by religion or race?

Human Rights relate to the individual and freedom of speech is not promoted in any way by allowing audiences to be segregated. If an individual chooses not to speak to others because he/ she objects to an unsegregated audience, there are many other forums available to express a controversial point of view.

Two of the key reasons for segregation are the subjugation of women, and a throwback to the times when lawlessness and a lack of control by men meant that women were subject to abuse and molestation even in public. Thankfully, we no longer tolerate either of these in our society and segregation is now unnecessary. Surely a primary role for Universities is to educate and promote understanding of these issues and not merely to pander to prior practice and prejudice?

The Society has sent open letters to three local universities (The University of Leicester, De Montfort University and Loughborough University) seeking an assurance that these Universities will not be segregating audiences at any events in this way.


De Montfort University has responded advising that "As a university we therefore take all reasonable actions to prevent forced segregation at our events". 

The University of Leicester response states that "we are tolerant of the views and beliefs of others, we will not accept behaviours "which seek to coerce others into accepting those views or beliefs".

Universities UK (UUK) has withdrawn its controversial guidance that gender segregation could be permitted at UK universities. UUK is now working with lawyers and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to clarify the position and in the meantime, it has withdrawn the case study in the guidance which triggered the debate.

The paragraphs in the document causing most concern are:  

“Assuming the side-by-side segregated seating arrangement is adopted, there does not appear to be any discrimination on gender grounds merely by imposing segregated seating. Both men and women are being treated equally, as they are both being segregated in the same way.” (page 27)

 “Segregation in the context of the facts outlined above would only be discriminatory on the grounds of sex if it amounts to ‘less favourable treatment’ of either female or male attendees.” ... “It should therefore be borne in mind that [...] concerns to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of those opposed to segregation should not result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system.”... (page 28)

"Ultimately, if imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely-held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event, or those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully.” (page 28)

The full document can be read at:

We are not alone in opposing these guidelines.

BHA Head of Public Affairs Pavan Dhaliwal has commented that:

 "Universities are secular institutiyesterdayons, not places of worship, and sex segregation should have no place in secular spaces in which we expect to find equality between men and women. It would be completely unacceptable if a visiting speaker tried to segregate an audience along racial lines, so sex segregation should be equally unacceptable. Universities UK have characterised this as a freedom of speech issue, but this is misleading. A visiting speaker’s right to freedom of speech entitles them to express their political and religious views, but not to impose these views on the audience."


NSS Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, has said:

"A commitment to Freedom of Expression does not extend to submitting to speakers imposing their own conditions which are, or should be, contrary to the values of the institution, such as the segregation of audiences, or the refusal to allow questions or challenges."


Sylvia McLain in an article "Segregation on campus is never OK, whoever makes the rules"  in "the Conversation" stated:

"A single speaker – whether hypothetical or not – requesting the segregation of an audience at a public university event should be told no, in no uncertain terms.
In the hypothetical case put forward by UUK, the requester did so on religious grounds. But you could think of any grounds you like. What if a white supremacist speaker demanded that races be separated? How would UUK advise them? What if the speaker demanded the audience be separated by religious belief – Sikhs on the right, atheists on the left, Christians to the centre right, Muslims on the centre left. Would UUK consider this arrangement equal?"


Sara Khan in the Independent writes:

"So let me spell it out for Universities UK, segregation results in ‘less favourable treatment.’  It enables the unequal distribution of power between men and women, resulting in gender based discrimination and inequality.  It manifests itself in few female speakers being invited to speak to a mixed audience, limited decision making powers by female members, and how there have only been a handful of Isoc female presidents. 

Segregation perpetuates discriminatory social norms and practices, shaping male attitudes about women and restricting the decisions and choices of women.  By allowing gender segregation, Universities UK are complicit in the gender inequality being perpetuated by Isocs whose advice will only make it easier for Isocs to treat socially unequal groups, in this case women, even more unequally."yesterday


Louisa Peacock in the Telegraph has written:

Universities UK has effectively decided that institutions' duties under law, not to bar anyone on the grounds of their beliefs or views (the Education Act) outweighs other duties under law to help eliminate unlawful discrimination, and advance equality of opportunity between men and women (the Equality Act). 

As Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, claimed earlier this year, universities are pandering to extreme religious beliefs before considering what is morally right from wrong.


Nick Cohen in the Spectator has written:

....academics are using a perveryesterdayse notion of freedom. In normal language, you restrict my freedom if you stop me from speaking or writing. According to Universities UK, you are restricting the freedom of an extreme religious believer if you sit next to someone from the opposite sex, even if he or she is your husband or wife. Your behaviour is so outrageous it silences the believer and deprives him of his right to speak. This is akin to me demanding that everyone who hears me speak must agree with my sentiments. If they politely disagree or ask hard questions, I am a victim. I am at liberty to walk out and perhaps sue the event organisers for attacking my freedom of speech. 


An excellent analysis of the law relating to sex discrimination and religion entitled "University segregation guidance – manifesting, not imposing, beliefs" can be read at http://www.halsburyslawexchange.co.uk/university-segregation-guidance-manifesting-not-imposing-beliefs/

Chuka Umunna, the Labour Shadow Business Secretary, recently made the following comments:

"A future Labour government will not tolerate segregation in our universities, it offends the basic norms of our society. People should, of course, be free to practice their religion privately, at places of worship and religious events, but universities are publicly-funded institutions of teaching, learning and research and state-sponsored segregatioyesterdayn would be utterly wrong."

Jon Ashworth MP Member of Parliament for Leicester South says:
"I agree that people must be free to practice their religion, but as universities are publicly-funded institutions it would be wrong to promote segregation in these arenas."

A legal note has been submitted to Universities UK (UUK) in the name of Radha Bhatt, a student of Cambridge University, against their Guidance condoning gender segregation. The legal note can be found here:

16 September 2013

Sense about Science - Evaluating Miracle Cures

From Sense about Science - A quick note to let you know about two things happening this week:
  • Today we’re launching a new edition of ‘I’ve got nothing to lose by trying it’, our guide to help weigh up claims about miracle cures and untested treatments on the internet and in advertising. We’ve worked with patients and medical charities and now captured more patient experiences and the ways you can get involved in research. 
We’re trying to get this out as widely as possible, can you help by sending to your contacts? You can download the guide here: http://bit.ly/194Rm4O.
  • And this week the Ask for Evidence campaign is taking on dubious treatments: http://bit.ly/1496q2W. You can get involved, share your experiences and read about what others are doing – starting with a guest blog on unproven cancer treatments from Cancer Research UK’s Dr Kat Arney: http://bit.ly/180Y2lg.

22 April 2013

Subordination of Muslim Women in Great Britain

Posted on behalf of Mike Burden:

How timely it is that Leicester Secular Society welcomes Anne Marie Waters (One Law for All) to speak at Secular Hall next Sunday (28th April 6.30pm), Having watched tonight's horrific Panorama on Shari'a Councils in Britain

We need to know more. Where are the Shari'a councils in Leicester? Are they open to the public? Who are the judges? Who holds them to account? We need to know. 

The terrible injustices and inequalities handed out to the women in the programme demolishes any idea that Islamic Law has any place in our Society.  

Support Anne Marie, a brave woman, who is at the forefront in opposing this evil and inhumane form of 'justice'.

Shame on you Margaret

Posted on behalf of Mark Lucas
‘... nowhere in the Bible is the word democracy mentioned.  Ideally, when Christians meet, as Christians, to take counsel together their purpose is not (or should not be) to ascertain what is the mind of the majority but what is the mind of the Holy Spirit – something which may be quite different.’  M. Thatcher, 21st May 1988

So there we have it in a nutshell:  the thoughts of the Great Iron Female Leader.  Sod the majority (illegally if it was up to her).  She was not in Parliament because of democracy, but in spite of democracy.  She quickly lost the blessing of the majority, but that matters not one iota because she has ghosts on her side.

As for that other pillar of the Church and the Party – the Family – the evidence shows us that she and her family were either unchristian, hypocritical (a mortal sin the last time I looked), or incompetent.  According to Prof. Bernard Crick, grocer daddy Roberts was a well-known ‘toucher-upper‘ of nubile shop lasses (in today’s post-Savile world that description would certainly not have sufficed).  She in her turn committed all manner of sins both Christian and legal (after generally changing the law to suit her designs).  As for that world-renowned gun-running son Mark, the less said the better.  No wonder Denis preferred the G&T.

Margaret Hilda Thatcher (née Roberts), as the first democratically elected female leader of these Isles you had a unique and special opportunity to change the political and social face of this country for the better after two thousand years of patriarchal testosterone-fuelled wars and an under-civilised society.  What did you do instead?  You practised and perpetuated patriarchy and nepotism with your hereditary baronetcy to Denis.  You blew it Lady.
We cry not for you but for what could have been.

Mark Lucas

Further reading:
For a critique of her religious posturing:  God, man and Mrs Thatcher by Jonathan Raban; ‘The religious mind of Mrs Thatcher’ by Antonio Weiss: http://www.margaretthatcher.org/commentary/displaydocument.asp?docid=112748

26 March 2013

Secular Hall Mini-Modernisation Plans

If you're a member or associated with one of Leicester's radical or community pressure groups you will probably have visited or held meetings in Secular Hall at 75 Humberstone Gate.

Unfortunately this Grade II listed Victorian building doesn't any longer come up to the modern standards we'd expect, especially for an organisation as committed as Leicester Secular Society is to equality and diversity.

We have no accessible toilet for disabled people, no hearing loop, and our kitchen is frankly a shambles.

So we're raising funds for a mini-modernisation.  You can read more about it - and I hope, make a donation - from the project page on our website.

Here are some extracts from the modernisation plan (click to enlarge):

New accessible toilet for disabled people Refurbishing the Kitchen New store and office/meeting room
New accessible toilet for disabled people Refurbishing the Kitchen New store and office / meeting room

Read more about it and make a donation from the project page on our website.

09 February 2013

What can people learn from Humanism?

'What can people learn from Humanism? 
Humour, love and respect for each other. 
We all have so much in common'

That's the title the Leicester Mercury placed above an interview piece about me and my work in the community as a non-religious celebrant and volunteer hospital chaplaincy visitor (More Mercury, 9 Feb 2013, pp 10-11).

I couldn't find it on their website, so here it is:

I was 8 years old when I decided that I didn’t believe in god.  I’d thought about it a lot, and worked out that it simply didn’t stack up.  It wasn’t a subject that was often spoken about at home.  My grandmother had an expectation that I attend Sunday School, which I did until I was 11.  I spoke to my mother about my atheism, who thought it was no big deal and that I should be allowed to make my own mind up about such matters.  It’s only in recent years that people have started to identify themselves by their religion.  We used to simply refer to each other as ‘people’ rather than as Christians, Sikhs, whatever.  It’s very sad to see society being segregated like this.  It is tragic that children are being educated in segregated schools, not mixing with each other.

During my late twenties and early thirties I attended the Church of England, and looked into other branches of Christianity; I explored Buddhism and Islam.  I enjoyed the journey to some extent, as a learning exercise, but then got on with life without further recourse to religion.

Humanism came into my life through my passion for reading.  Its positive slant on life encompassed my feelings in that I don’t believe in gods but I do believe in other human beings; that we should make the very best we can of our lives – not only for ourselves but also for the wider community.

The latest Census revealed a significant cultural shift, with a 67% relative rise in the number of people identifying themselves with ‘no religion’.  A huge proportion of us here in Leicester are non-religious and hold humanist principles, whether or not we call ourselves humanists!

I realised that non-religious people were getting a raw deal when it came to provision for rites of passage.  People who choose to live without religion in their lives should be afforded dignity and respect when it comes to funerals, weddings/civil partnerships, baby namings, memorials.  I trained with the British Humanist Association to become an accredited Celebrant.

Humanist wedding ceremonies and civil partnerships reflect the wishes and lifestyles of the bride and groom/partners for life.  I help them to design their ceremony, and to write their own vows from the love in their hearts.  Humanist baby naming ceremonies are also popular, because the emphasis is on a ceremony tailored to suit that particular family, bringing joy and hope to everyone involved.

The ceremonies contain no religious liturgy.  A typical funeral ceremony is customised to pay tribute to the deceased, outlining their life and character with respect, compassion and often humour.  Poetry and favourite music reflect the deceased's personality, and family and friends usually contribute to the ceremony.  Photographs, paintings, mementoes which meant a lot to the person who has died might be displayed.  Space is set aside during the service to remember the deceased in accordance with mourners' personal beliefs.  The ceremonies are inclusive and bring consolation to those who are grieving - whatever their beliefs.  A growing number of people like to arrange the style and content of their funeral ceremony before death.

What happens to us after death?  We simply cease to exist.  Our bodies go back, either in the form of cremation or burial, to the earth or to the seas, back to star dust – just like before we were born.  But we carry the dead with us in the love and memories that we keep for them; that’s how they live on.  Some people leave tangible memories like paintings, writing, architecture.  I believe that if you have made someone’s life breathe just that little bit easier, then it’s all been worth it.  Love never dies.

What I say to people who state that there must be a point to life is that The Point of Life is Life!  Humanists find meaning, beauty and happiness in the one life we have.  We are lucky to be here; let’s make the most of it.  To attain any kind of life at all in this great universe is quite an achievement.  To quote Bill Bryson in his ‘A Short History of Everything’: For us to have come into existence, trillions of drifting atoms somehow assembled in an intricate manner.  Without atoms there would be no water or air or rocks, no stars and planets, no distant gassy clouds or swirling nebulae; no you and me.  It’s great that nowadays we have easy access to the wonders of scientific exploration.  We can watch Brian Cox on television, read Richard Dawkins’ erudite and poetic essays on evolution.  Dawkins has clarified so much – filled in the blanks between Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel and ecology, and made biology into a rigorous science unified around evolution.

One of the lessons I learnt from Dawkins is that every single creature that exists is at the pinnacle of an evolutionary tree, a whole continuum of survivors.

As a story or fairy tale Creationism doesn’t worry me although it amazes me that people entertain Creationism, and horrifies me that it might be taught in schools.  When folk put their faith in a creator god they think they’re absolved from responsibility – a very dangerous notion to promote as part of education.  We’re living in the twenty-first century; it is pointless to drag civilization back to a despotic, grim and authoritarian past.

I see Fate as a device used by authors in theatre and literature, but it’s not part of real life.

Our guide to living a worthwhile and moral existence is to analyse the effect of the things we do and say.  It is futile and cruel to promise people a ‘better life in the hereafter’; we should encourage everyone to grab life by the shoulders, shake it up and enjoy it.  Look for adventures but take responsibility for our actions.  Above all, demand justice and peace.

On a voluntary basis I am part of the Leicester Hospitals’ Chaplaincy Team, available to anyone in the hospital community who would prefer to seek pastoral and spiritual support from someone of their own life-stance.  Religious chaplains (some full-, some part-time) of several denominations plus chapels and offices are funded from taxes paid by all whereas there is no paid chaplain for the non-religious, although about a quarter of the Leicester population is not religious.  It’s a good thing that the NHS provides chaplaincy, but it should be there on equal terms for all and adhere to NHS equality and diversity provisions.  

Apparently, research shows that society is becoming more secular.  Sadly, I see society becoming more polarised in many ways as feelings of identity, particularly religious identity, are fostered to the detriment of initiatives like anti-racism of just a generation ago.  Everyone should be free to practise their faith, just as they should not be disadvantaged for not having one.  As a Humanist I campaign for the separation of religion and State, for an end to religious privilege – be it in the Lords or state-funded faith schools.  It is inappropriate to include prayers as part of local council meetings.  I believe it imperative that the Council reflects the diversity of our community and excludes no part of it, and it should therefore move away from prayers enabling councillors to serve the community without bias.  We need those in power to promote equal treatment in law and policy for everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

We are fortunate in Leicester to host the world’s longest surviving Secular Society.  Members have met in Secular Hall since 1881 and we continue to challenge the status quo.  It’s the natural home for anyone who is not religious.  We warmly welcome anyone to our weekly talks and events.  It is monumentally important to acknowledge that – whether we are religious or not – we all have so much in common.  Our common humanity bonds us, and we should all fight to keep these bonds strong, to build on them and to look to the future as an integrated and harmonious community.

What can people learn from Humanism?  Love, humour, a way to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity, and respect for each other.  We could all have better lives if we pay attention to the welfare of everyone in all countries and if we act as if we’re the trustees of the world and its resources for future generations.  

24 January 2013

Leicester’s need for civilised discourse on religion and belief

A criminal prosecution was recently brought by Leicester’s Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) against a man who publicly demonstrated his opposition to religion by ripping up a Koran in public and throwing it to the ground. The case ended with a hung jury and a decision by the CPS not to pursue it further.  The failure of the jury to reach a verdict reveals a problem with the law.  

Tearing up a holy book is not an effective way to take issue with religion but the right to free expression valued by jury members is so fundamental to our way of life that it must be protected even when its exercise involves bad taste or insult.  

Many religions take it on themselves to seek to persuade people of other religions or of no religion to convert.  Dire consequences of failing to believe in this or that god are often cited in these attempts.  Likewise, atheists sometimes seek to expose the fallacies in religion, hoping to persuade people to give it up.  They can all do this because what they are seeking to change is a matter of personal conviction.  With race, gender, sexual orientation or disability the position is completely different.  You cannot persuade someone to change these characteristics.  

The legislation that rightly protects people in these categories from being harassed and abused or put in fear of their life on account of their characteristics has been developed over recent decades.  But the addition of protection on grounds of religion more recently has brought with it a threat to the right of free speech because the police and the CPS have not got clear in their minds the qualitative difference involved.  It is because of this that a broad coalition, including religious opinion, is currently trying to get Parliament to remove the word “insulting” from Section 5 of the Public Order Act as it has been used by the police in several instances to silence critics of one or other persuasion.

There is no special protection from insult or abuse on matters like politics, vegetarianism, astrology, homeopathy, and so on, beyond that which ordinary citizens expect purely in virtue of being a citizen.  The same should apply to religious belief and non-belief.

Leicester Secular Society is a “Freethought” organisation dedicated to the idea that the best way to change people’s convictions is through the rational debate of available evidence.  People in Leicester who wish to show their disagreement with others’ beliefs should normally do so in a calm and reasoned way, showing respect for persons even when condemning or lampooning their ideas or station.  This is common courtesy and politeness, after all, and exemplifies the kind of city and country that most of us would like our children and grandchildren to inherit from us.

But by the same token, those whose beliefs are challenged, even when done discourteously, would be best advised to ‘turn the other cheek’ rather than calling for prosecutions.

Harry Perry

President of Leicester Secular Society

09 January 2013

Posted on behalf of Peter Flack
Teachers must be valued for what they do
Teaching is an unusual job.  It involves taking responsibility for the education of other people's children.  It is also a daunting one.  You enter your classroom and are normally out-numbered 30 to 1.  You are expected to control and manage the class, ensure their safety, address their individual needs and at the same time stimulate and enthuse them about learning.

To do so requires skill, knowledge and the ability to capture and retain the attention of children of varying abilities who may be ill-fed, tired, abused, or living in squalor.  To do so requires belief in what you are teaching, belief in the importance of learning and a huge amount of self-belief in your abilities as a communicator.  That is why morale is important.  If you lose that self-belief and start to doubt what you are doing then you cannot teach well.

Despite the impression often given, teachers face long working hours, often up to 11 or 12 hours a day, constant changes in what and how they must teach, the emotional pressure of managing challenging pupils, the stress of meeting externally imposed targets that take no account of the actual class in front of you and a top-down culture of blame.  According to the Health and Safety Executive, teaching is the most stressful occupation in England.  Teachers increasingly fall ill with mental health problems.  There are now more qualified teachers working outside of teaching than there are in schools.

In May 2012 former Chief Inspector, Christine Gilbert said, “Morale among state school teachers is at 'rock bottom', “She noted there was evidence of widespread disillusionment in schools despite teacher professionalism being “better than ever”.  A new report commissioned by the NUT confirms this. “Teacher morale is dangerously low and has declined dramatically in recent months. “

The reason for this is simple.  Teachers do not feel valued.  Those in charge of education nationally spend much of their time criticising teachers and undermining their status as professionals.  Michael Gove has frozen teachers pay, decimated the pensions structure, devalued the worth of GCSE exams, encouraged schools to use unqualified staff to 'teach' and demonstrated he does not trust teachers or Headteachers.

Chief Inspector of Schools Michael Wilshaw, said “If anyone says to you that ‘staff morale is at an all-time low’ you know you are doing something right.”  How can teachers feeling beaten down and unvalued be creative, innovative and dynamic in the classroom?  How can they inspire a class?

Teachers do a vital job for the nation.  Education is our investment in the future of our young people.  We should value our teachers as they do elsewhere, not make them scapegoats for society's problems.
Peter Flack
Asst Secretary Leicester NUT