I’m not particularly into joining clubs or societies (and no, I won’t quote Groucho Marx here). I guess that is (one of the reasons) why I’ve never, despite considering it on occasion, joined a political party. Because you can never be happy with every aspect of policy pursued by any single one of them. But then, who is? And doesn’t belonging to one give you the voice to interject, oppose, resent? What does that say about me: apathetic, clueless, ‘maverick’? Whatever, I’m only moved to sign up when I’m seriously convinced of the intentions and aims of the particular organisation. I was a few years back briefly a member of the British Humanist Association, but became disillusioned, it seeming to me the resort of people looking for a belief system in lieu of a religious one. I’m not looking for a ‘belief system’. Thus, having been quizzical for some time of the anachronistic and unwarranted esteem, authority, privilege and political clout afforded (organised) religion, I eventually became, and have so far remained, a member of the National Secular Society… and hence, last Saturday, attended its conference.
What drives an owl to rise before 6 am in order to get a train to London for a one-day conference, thus running the risk of being talk-bored to sleep? Well, the list of speakers generally helps. And it did: a stimulating, often amusing – and moving – day was had at Conway Hall. Except, contrary to the billing, Sir Jonathan Miller wasn’t there – and I don’t recollect seeing or hearing why not. Which was a pity, as I was looking forward to hearing him speak. But that’s a minor quibble at what was a largely excellent speaker program, ably and courteously chaired by Gerard Phillips, Vice-President and Chair of Council, who commenced the day by asking delegates: who attended last year’s ‘Protest the Pope’ rally march in London?; who is a member of the NSS?; and (mischievously?) who considers theirself a ‘secularist’?
So, having arrived with my notebook and camera, half-intending to photograph each speaker, but didn’t (because I couldn’t be bothered, or because I consider it rude and intrusive, or because I didn’t want to bolster any egos?) – but perhaps ought to have done, being as how some speakers bore little resemblance to their countenance displayed on the screen behind them – my companion and I registered and took our seats at the end of one row in the hall. After President Terry Sanderson’s welcome, reminding us how relevant and important secularism is now, Nick Cohen kicked off the talks proper, on the theme of ‘Respect’ – specifically respect for religious belief. Which was music to these ears – or would have been if I could have heard him properly. Nevertheless, despite struggling to pick up on much of what he was saying (due in part, we hypothesised, to our acoustically-affected seating position underneath the overhanging balcony, subsequently tested successfully by moving up to seats on it), I got the gist, which I endorse: that disrespecting religious belief/authority is not, as is often defensively, frothingly claimed, intolerant; rather “Religious respect is the enemy of religious tolerance.” There exists, in effect, an “unwritten blasphemy law” that deters legitimate criticism and dissension of religion. It has become akin to a ‘Catch-22’ scenario: criticise and you’re being disrespectful; don’t criticise and you are guilty of apathetically contributing to the continuation of the unwarranted privilege and authority afforded religion in our society, which is what you want to criticise. So we have a pussy-footing culture, wherein people are wary of what I have come to term ‘Offence by proxy’ – the defensive reaction on behalf of some other person(s) who would take offence to what you say, even though your arguer doesn’t, really. Cohen discussed Islam and the Rushdie affair, and how the ensuing culture of fear and taboo has, along with pernicious libel law, fostered self-censorship, lest we endanger ourselves to the capricious violence of some brain-washed, sociopathic adherent to a totalitarian worldview. And he’s right; people are cowed into silence (‘respect’) by this terrorism of the intellect. Well, not all of us – someone in the hall certainly is not, and I’ll come on to her later.
When Evan Harris’s tardiness necessitated moving forward in the schedule, Dr. Antony Lempert of the Secular Medical Forum picked up, with fortuitous neatness, on Nick Cohen’s theme – that due to being “fearful of causing offence, dangerous practice goes unchallenged.” Being a medical doctor, he went on to discuss ritual circumcision: female genital mutilation is illegal, but there has been no conviction under 26 years of legislation; however, male ritual circumcision for non-therapeutic purposes is legally available on the NHS, despite there being no evidence for the claimed therapeutic benefits. The General Medical Council’s advice on ritual circumcision? ‘We do not have a position.’ Why? So as not to offend important and influential religious elders, perhaps.
Meanwhile, Dr. Evan Harris arrived and thus took the next slot, in which he presented the work in progress that is the ‘Secular Manifesto’. A lot of dry words on the screen were alleviated by Harris’s often comical delivery, and he provoked much comment and question from the floor, which he dealt with in an interestingly skilful way: rather than one at a time, he would take three questions/comments in a row, then deal with all three in turn. Is this a politician’s trick of avoiding unwanted debate? Whatever, it was impressive, and I am certainly an admirer of Harris, having noted repeatedly his support for science and scientists, and his championing of libel law reform. Hmm, okay, all well and good. But among a lot of imparted information one or two things bothered: he argued that doctrinal matters, such as, eg, women priest/bishops, are “matters for religion”, offering the analogy that the NSS, as a member organisation, would not brook interference with its own council election rules, so we shouldn’t presume to dictate to the church what it does with its own. Err, no? If the NSS were to bar women from being elected, one might expect a challenge backed up by law – because such discrimination is illegal. Why then, if the NSS is about ‘challenging religious privilege’, should we accept discriminatory (sexual or otherwise) policies of the church? Otherwise, we’re affording it the privilege of disregarding laws that the rest of us are bound by, surely.
Moving on, next up was Baroness Warnock, whom I was particularly looking forward to hearing, but found disappointing. She discussed morals – and how we don’t need to rely on religion for them. Right on. But then followed a seeming apologetic defence of the established church, citing the art and music it has inspired. I don’t consider that the latter qualifies as argument for retaining an established state church, much as I don’t consider that we need the church’s claimed superiority on morality. I may have become confused here; but her latest book is subtitled ‘On Keeping Religion Out of Politics’, which (again) I kind of thought was the point.
The first session after lunch was chiefly concerned with education, commencing with an erudite Baroness Turner of Camden, of whose work, I confess to my shame, I have hitherto been ignorant. Then came Antony Lempert again, delivering a witty, but earnest account of his disputes with his child’s school over its collective worship policy. The point was subsequently hammered home by the Society’s Executive Director, Keith Porteus Wood, reminding us that England, aside from being the only country in the western world to have ex officio bishops in its governing body, is also the only country in the world to have compulsory collective worship in schools. Yeah, I know, laughably archaic, isn’t it? Only it isn’t funny.
The day’s final session featured four shorter talks, kicking off with Anne Marie Waters from the One Law for All ‘No Sharia Law campaign.’ Now, Waters is apparently not cowed by the fear discussed earlier by Nick Cohen. An impressive and impassioned polemicist, she opined on how the liberal left and feminism are failing women vulnerable to the dictates of Sharia, a failure that is allowing the BNP and EDL to move in on such territory, because, returning again to Cohen’s theme, we’ve become too reluctant to offend by protesting. To sin by silence does indeed make cowards out of men.
Then followed Sue Cox, representing Survivors Voice Europe. I first heard this brave lady speak at the ‘Protest the Pope’ rally last year. She is now able to tell, without shame, of the abuse inflicted on her as a child by her family-trusted priest. Moving stuff.
Next came a by-the-numbers presentation from Paul Blanchard on how to utilise PR; I’m afraid I was flagging a bit by now, and didn’t really get this. But I was perked up by a very droll, yet wholly serious talk by Dr. Edward Presswood, concerning the irrational, delusional and misplaced activities of our ‘secular’ NHS, from the absence of ward beds numbered ‘13’, to funding of hospital chaplains, homeopathy hospitals and ‘religious surgery.’
So here is where I should round off with some relevant conclusory coinage. Well, my companion and I, not getting the opportunity for a day out in London too often, went for a walk, because we’d decided to take a look at Tate Modern, via the Millennium Footbridge. En route on Queen Victoria Street, we passed ‘The Church of Scientology of London’ – an impressively gleaming, expensive looking place. While not formally recognised as a religion in the UK, Scientology can invoke the Racial and Religious Hatred Act, has no restrictions on its activities here, and is exempt from VAT because it is supposedly a not-for-profit organisation. Talk about taking liberties.