Members of the UK's House of Lords will today discuss the position and rights of the non-religious in Britain today.
Against the background of declining formal religious attendance but increased government commitment to faith-based public services, Lord Harrison of Chester, a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPH), has called the debate to bring attention to how the many non-religious people in Britain are affected by this approach.
The APPHG and the British Humanist Association (BHA) argue that polls and surveys "consistently show that many if not most people in the UK do not define themselves as religious. 63% of people in an ICM poll last December said they were not religious, and a survey of 12-19 year olds for the DfES in 2004 showed 65% saying they were not religious."
A majority of marriages and civil partnerships are also non-religious, general 'christening' is in decline, fewer than a million people attend the Church of England each Sunday, and in a MORI poll last year the domestic group most people thought had too much influence on government was "religious groups and leaders".
Welcoming the debate, and discussion BHA chief executive Hanne Stinson declared: "A proper consideration of these issues is long overdue."
She added: "The increase in the number of state-funded religious schools and a drive by the government to hand over other public services to religious groups have alarmed people, both religious and non-religious, who are committed to equality, non-discrimination and social cohesion."
Ms Stinson said: "These moves all disadvantage those whose beliefs are humanist rather than religious - non-religious parents cannot get their children into their local state school because it is a faith school or they can only get them into a faith school and find their beliefs and values denigrated at that school; non-religious teachers lose out on promotion and employment prospects; non-religious citizens seeking access to a service may feel marginalised by the religious ethos they encounter and non-religious professionals in these sectors are disadvantaged in the job market."
BHA also points out that the increasing "muti-faith" approach, while assumed to be inclusive, in fact excludes the many non-religious people in the UK as well as the many religious people for whom religion is not their main concern in matters of identity.
Though its primary purpose is to promote humanism, the BHA cooperates with religious groups on areas of common interest and argues for a level playing-field for all in public life and institutions.
The debate has been welcomed by the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, which says that in a post-Christendom era the churches' message would benefit from embracing plurality rather than seeking advantage over others.
Commented Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow: "The churches in this country have historically been privileged through things like Establishment, bishops in the Lords, tax breaks, legislative exemptions and state funding for their schools. But the Gospel message is about equality not privilege, neighbourly love not self-interest. We should not be afraid of an honest debate about fairness in public life."