The British Humanist Association (BHA) has forthrightly rejected as "untrue" accusations published in the Church of England Newspaper (CEN) this week that it has targeted and criticised Christians in its election briefings.
The BHA, whose high-profile backers include the popular actor and author Stephen Fry, works for a world "where people are free to live good lives on the basis of reason, experience and shared human values".
Its aims state that the organisation exists to "promote Humanism, campaign for an open society and a secular state, and work with others of different beliefs for the common good."
But a spokesman from the Church of England told the CEN that the Association's recent General and Local Manifestos 2010 document "appears to rely on stereotypes of the issues concerning religious people, while offering very little positive contribution on the range of complex issues facing the world today."
“Expunging all traces of religion from the public square is not a priority for most voters and is unlikely to be much of a priority for candidates seeking election,” the Church of England representative declares.
The paper's report claims that the BHA document, which aims to assist humanist voters, "questioned and criticised religious faith in seven out of eight of its key points."
But Andrew Copson, the new chief executive of the British Humanist Association, says that the CEN headline and the accusations from the Church of England are "untrue".
"The story that appears under the headline says that our material for the general election ‘criticise[s] religious faith’ – it does not," Copson declared today.
He added: "Our manifestos are built on the positive bases of equality, freedom and human rights, and focus on the area where the British Humanist Association has particular interest – the creation of a society where no one is privileged or discriminated against by the state because of their religion or belief."
The BHA has often worked with people of religious faith on issues of common concern in the areas of human rights, equality and education, he points out.
"The hysterical accusation by a Church of England spokesperson that our material wants to ‘expung[e] all traces of religion from the public square’ is also untrue," said Andrew Copson. "Nowhere do we say such a thing and it is not our policy."
The British Humanist Association has most recently worked with a range of civic and reform groups, including the Christian think-tank Ekklesia and the Student Christian Movement, on a Power2010 initiative to encourage Church of England bishops to take a lead in achieving an elected and reformed second chamber in parliament.
It is also an active member of the Accord Coalition for inclusive schooling and the reform of faiths schools, alongside people and organisations from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and other backgrounds - as well as participating in Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education and similar public consultative bodies alongside people of all faiths and none.
"Support for democracy and political participation at local and national levels is core to humanist thinking and we have a lot of issues where we need to make our voices heard,” said BHA campaigns officer Pepper Harow, launching the organisation's election statements recently.
She added that religious organisation lobbyists defending their vested interests had a disproportionate influence in some political debates - over faith schools and equalities, for example, and that "non-religious voices and concerns are often not heard."
Christians have also been making similar points of late, indicating, according to Ekklesia think-tank co-director Simon Barrow, that "in a democratic, mixed-belief society the real issue in the public realm is not being pro-religion or anti-religion in some generic sense. That is a hopeless and often angry cul-de-sac. Rather we need to focus on the question of how to handle the different visions and understandings that clearly exist within, as well as between, people aggregated according to particular headline convictions - Christian, Humanist, Muslim, Jewish, 'spiritual but not religious', and so on."
"There is a popular but misleading idea doing the rounds," says Barrow, "that the policies and interests of certain religious institutions are co-terminous with, and indistinguishable from, the faiths or beliefs they conserve or promote. That is evidently not so. In the Christendom era, institutional church and governing authority were seen as mutually reinforcing, and Christians or others who disagreed were suppressed and denounced. That era has thankfully been ending, but its embers are still burning in some modern confrontations, so we need to think in much more creative, boundary-breaking ways about these issues."
An April 2010 editorial in the respected monthly Christian social and cultural comment magazine Third Way also suggests that when Christians urge the government to allow them special concessions and opt-outs in public life, they may actually be doing themselves a disservice by further alienating others in society, including the non-religious, who might otherwise be in "meaningful dialogue with faith".
While recognising legitimate disagreements on the pros and cons of these issues, the influential Christian magazine states that: "[o]f late the government has given rather too much credence to its religious opponents. Despite British society becoming less religious over the last decade, faith schools, for example, have flourished. And a recent attempt to arrive at consistent instruction on sex and sexual ethics was amended at the last minute to allow those schools to teach their own commandments. This despite recent research suggesting that homophobic bullying in faith schools was compounded by a lack of regard for lesbian and gay issues among their teachers. Similarly, after the Pope declared that [parts of] the Equality Bill contravened ‘natural law’, Harriet Harman announced that [they] would not be pursued."
This perspective contrasts significantly with some campaign groups who have argued that Christianity - in the form of particular institutions and interests - has been "marginalised" in the UK and faces hostility and even "persecution".
However, the BHA and equality campaigners point out that this claim is hardly borne out by evidence on government policy in many areas, or by Communities Secretary John Denham's recent unveiling of a £1 million fund to help faith groups get their voices heard by Government and public bodies, and play their part delivering public services.
Such provisions cannot reasonably co-exist with acceptance of demands that these same groups should be able to discriminate against other sections of society in service provision, while relying on public and taxpayer support, say critics.
British Humanist Association campaigns are detailed here: http://www.humanism.org.uk/campaigns
BHA General and Local Manifestos 2010: http://www.humanism.org.uk/campaigns/what-you-can-do-to-help/Election2010
Church of England Newspaper - http://www.churchnewspaper.com/
The Third Way editorial, 'Concession Speech', is reproduced here - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/11565