Concern expressed over discrimination against the non-religious
In its evidence to the UK government's independent Equalities Review, chaired by Trevor Phillips, the British Humanist Association has expressed concern that the situation of the non-religious may be overlooked in the headlong rush to develop positive relations with faith communities.
The review has been established to investigate the causes of persistent discrimination and inequality across British society.
In its submission, the BHA traces progress in establishing the rights of people with non-religious beliefs since 1948. It presents and analyses the current situation as regards discrimination against the non-religious, and makes recommendations for the future.
Areas covered in the BHA submission include education, community services, broadcasting, and discrimination by government and other official bodies.
The BHA also highlights the role of religion in perpetuating discrimination on other grounds, for example gender, disability and sexual orientation.
Hanne Stinson, executive director of the British Humanist Association says: 'There was great progress for humanists and the non-religious in the twentieth century. The social stigma attached to atheism was gradually eroded, religious instruction in schools was reformed to become religious education and became (marginally) more inclusive, and the role of religion in delimiting the individual's moral and life choices declined considerably.'
But the BHA evidence warns that the current approach towards the issue of ëreligion and belief' is fatally flawed because it privileges ëfaith' over non-religious convictions, and there is still very little understanding in government and elsewhere about the legal equivalence of religious and non-religious beliefs.
The submission emphasises the threat posed to the non-religious by the current government's policies on education, public services, and social cohesion, which give undue weight to matters of faith, in spite of evidence that shows that religion is of only limited importance to the majority of UK citizens.
Ms Stinson warns: 'The non-religious are one group for whom things may actually get worse, if the current expansion of religious schools, religion in public services, and official encouragement and even funding of ëfaith' groups and their non-representative leaders continues'.
'The BHA has raised serious arguments about important issues in a temperate way', commented Simon Barrow of the UK Christian think tank Ekklesia, which has argued that privileging faith communities in public life is not only unfair, but inhibits their own development as free-standing advocates in civic life.
Continued Barrow: 'Christianity has been hugely damaged when it has been a state religion, and Jesus' message of radical equality is incompatible with social discrimination. For this reason, Christians should support fair treatment for all - people of faith and people of ëgood faith' who express their convictions in non-religious ways.'
The British Humanist Association is the largest organisation of its kind in the UK. Its work, it says, 'is firmly based in principles of human rights, equality and social cohesion'.
The BHA's executive director, Hanne Stinson, has been involved in the Equalities Review as a member of the reference group and for the Discrimination Law Review.
Both Ekklesia, as a Christian think tank, and some leading secularists - like biographer and academic Bernard Crick - have called for more positive conversations between atheists, secularists and progressive people from religious communities.
The BHA's evidence can be read in full here (*PDF file format)
[Also on Ekklesia: Leading humanist calls for renewed cooperation with believers; Humanists and Christians argue against faith schools; Black churches oppose religious hatred bill; 'False polarisation' over homosexuality challenged; Government plans reopen debate on faith schools; Questions raised over St Paul's service for 7/7 victims]