It’s okay to be unsure: My talk to the LibDems

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On Sunday 15th September I joined Tim Maguire of The Humanist Society Scotland at the LibDem Party Conference at a meeting of the ‘Humanist & Secularist Liberal Democrats’ on UN International day for Democracy.   This is what I had to say…

Tim Maguire of the Humanist Society Scotland, and I were invited to speak on the motion, ‘The Coalition Government: Friend of foe of secularism’.

Tim gave an excellent talk about a range of issues, including same sex marriage and education, you can read his words here.  There were some very thoughtful words from Sophie Bridger, a LibDem activist and previous candidate.

I decided to focus my remarks on education.  Starting with this joke:

“There was a boy having a lot of trouble with maths at school.  No matter how hard he tried, he just could not master the subject.

“Even though he wasn’t a Catholic, his parents had him enrolled in a Catholic school, because they knew that these schools fostered harder work.  After some weeks, his marks had improved markedly.

“His parents were delighted.  They asked the boy how he managed to improve his maths grades.

“The boy replied, ‘When I saw that poor guy lashed to a plus sign, I realised they must really mean business!’”

I explained to the LibDems delegates, mostly from south of the border, that although once a strong practicing Catholic, I was now atheist, but that in Glasgow, one is still a ‘Catholic atheist’.

It seemed somewhat ironic to be having a conversation about the Westminster’s failures in articulating a positive secular message, in a city still gripped by the ancient shame of sectarianism.

I shared with the delegates my frustration, event anger, that they political rulers of the land ever thought it would be appropriate for me to be sent to a religious school.  I explained that by my late teens, all my cultural and philosophic education can been through the narrow lens of ‘Catholic education’.  How can it be useful that, to this day, most of my close friends are Catholic?

Of course, there is nothing wrong with this per se, indeed, my close friends are… well – close friends of course!  I am just concerned what they effect has been on me, surely it would have been better to learn about people of other religions and cultures, and to actually learn to get along with them.

Explaining to the delegates that most of my knowledge was Scotland-specific, I went on to give an overview of the education system in Scotland.

I explained that, much like England, in Scotland there are ‘denominational’ (Catholic) schools, and ‘non-denominational’ (de facto protestant) schools.  The language of ‘faith schools’ – which has no basis in Scots law – creates the false assumption that there are non-faith, or secular schools.  This is not true.

I referenced a report that I has authored a few years earlier, explaining why all Scotland’s state schools are considered ‘Christian’.

Relgion Chart

(Chart courtesy of Ian M Scott, Glasgow Skeptics)

All stats show us that Christianity, in Scotland at least, is now a minority position.  We know that the majority of people in Scotland, when asked if they are religious will say no.  That number seems increase in correlation to younger age groups.  It’s not surprising that more and more young people are leaving religion behind.

In light of this changing demographic, I took the opportunity to spell out some glaring inconsistencies in the Scottish education system:

  • Science and anti-gay propaganda.

My recent blog post on the scandal in East Kilbride, is likely to be the tip of the ice-berg, as this report from the Sunday Herald shows.  The level of religious interference in education has even caught the eye of educationalists, as shown in this article by TESS.  It has got to the stage where Catholic schools in Scotland appear unashamed in telling the NHS that they have no business advising the pupils on matters of sexual health.  This a catastrophic failure in our education system, which is now discriminating sexual health advice based on the religious beliefs of their parents.

  • Forced worship

In Scotland it is the law that all pupils in state school (denominational or non-denominational) should attend ‘Religious Observance’ events.  Some of these events will be fairly harmless, group singing or praying to one of the many Christian gods.  However, isn’t it strange that in a 21st Century democracy like Scotland, with a minority of religious citizens, all Children are expected to attend compulsory prayers?  There has been a lot of campaigning activity around this recently.

  • Interference in local democracy

In Scotland, on each of the 32 Local Authority Education Committee’s is required to be three statutory, un-elected ‘Religious Representatives.  Recently Edinburgh Secular Society took the unparalleled decision to publish a full list of these ‘Religious Representatives’, available here.  This in completely anathema to the principle of democracy.  Responding to this Church of Scotland spokesperson Sally Foster-Fulton said that Religious Representatives are driven “to serve others for the common good”.  What a ridiculous statement, is she implying that elected members aren’t, or that Religious Representatives have a particular ability that non-religious people lack?  If Religious Representatives are so motivated, why did they report recently that they claim to ‘hold the balance of power on 19 [of 32] local authority committees’.  It’s clear that the Church of Scotland, and other religious groups are well funded and organised political lobby groups, seeking to influence policy through the back door.

However, my intention was not to totally depress the delegates at the conference, but to firstly make it clear that we have a problem, and then to set out some concrete steps for the way forward.

Returning to the changing religious demographics, I also reminded the delegates that there is a phenomenal rise in the number of science/skeptic/atheist/brights and humanist groups all over the UK, and this shows a growing trend for non-religious community building, as Prof AC Grayling reflects, this can only be a good thing for our democracy.

I urged the delegates to really understand this point, I’m always concerned about labels such as ‘Muslim community’ or ‘Sikh community’.  As far as I am concerned, given the changing religious demographics, these terms are now completely useless!  It’s a throw-back to a New Labour failed attempt at multi-cultural relativism.  Religious labels are so individualised that it would be, frankly, wrong to assign any group of people to one.  Take for example, the large number of people in Glasgow who identify as Catholic for cultural and traditional reasons, but would never thing of attending mass.  Or the large number of people for whom Islam has more to do with an Arabic identity and familial connection than it does with the Prophet Muhammad.  Also, what about the majority of us who are non-religious, are our votes not worth courting?  As a secular humanist, and skeptic and a rationalist, who is my ‘community leader’?

The fact of the matter is that secularism is a position on religious neutrality, it is the principle of democracy and nothing more.  I urged the members of the party, as I urge all other political parties, to hold-true to their democratic principles and stand-up for secular democracy.

We should oppose denominational/faith schools, we should be active in defence of our schools against infiltration from dogmatic fundamentalists, we should consider it an embarrassment to expect children to indulge in compulsory group worship and expel the droves of religious reps who seek to bypass the democratic system.

How will we do that on a political level?  Well, I don’t know.

It won’t be popular, and it will be hard work.  However my message to politicians is, that it’s ok to be unsure.  Let us stick to our liberal and democratic principles, and we will get there… eventually!

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