Food for thought: Secularism 2011

I almost didn’t go to the National Secular Society‘s 2011 Conference on Secularism. But I am so glad I did.

A nasty bout of insomnia meant I wasn’t at my best first thing yesterday morning. I had to peel myself out of a comfortable bed to race over to Holborn in record time. Amazingly, I was only 10 minutes late.

I then spent the rest of the day listening to passionate, thought-provoking speakers talking about incredibly relevant national issues which I think can be summed up as: the influence of religion on national life. A topic like secularism can be dismissed as a theoretical or abstract concept – these speakers ensured that everyone understood the impact of religious or superstitious thought on society in very real terms.

A couple of talks stood out for me in particular. Dr. Antony Lempert from the Secular Medical Forum spoke eloquently about his family’s experience of trying to secure a religion-free education for his daughter. It highlighted  the influence that the established church has on education in the UK but also the fact that parents seeking a non-religious education for their children are starting from a disadvantaged position.

This cuts to the heart of the secularist agenda. It’s not about attacking religion or denying anyone their religious freedom. It’s about ensuring that everyone, regardless of their religious belief or lack thereof is viewed as equal before the state.

Dr. Edward Presswood gave a very entertaining presentation on the impact of superstition in the NHS, illustrating that avoiding numbering beds in a ward as “No. 13″ is the thin end of a wedge which also includes paying religious chaplains significantly more than nurses and providing Homeopathic Hospitals.

There were of course dissenting voices. Baroness Mary Warnock emphasised that she believed there is a place for an established church in the UK, drawing murmurs of disapproval from many in the audience. She pointed out that she enjoys ceremony and religious music and that national religious ceremonies give the public a necessary excuse to come together as a community.

I would argue you can do all of these things without having the Church of England in its privileged position, leading national prayer. But dissent is what a conference like this is all about. If I wanted to sit in an audience and agree with every word that was said, I’d be in a church!

Sue Cox, from the Survivor’s Voice Europe, was simply an inspiration. I wish I could have made it through the crowd at the end waiting to congratulate her and just shake her hand. Anne Marie Waters from the One Law for All campaign pointed to the very real dangers of permitting concurrent legal systems, based on religious dogma, to sit alongside the existing UK legal system. They are inherently biased against the rights of women and undermine the cohesion of the country. Her passion and belief were infectious.

What followed were three excellent hours of debate… in the pub! Meeting presenters and other attendees, we continued to discuss the points raised. Not always agreeing, we respected each others positions. The common thread, regardless of party politics, was a desire to see a more level playing field and the removal of unwanted religious influence on our lives.

My thanks to the National Secular Society for a thought-provoking day, to the speakers for sharing their expertise, and to the other attendees for fuelling such positive debate and conversation afterwards. It is impossible to effectively summarise all of the content from the conference in a single blog post, so I’ll be returning to some of these themes again in the future.

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