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The place of faith in the “Big Society”

Delegates at the Liberal Democrat conference filled the room at the BHA’s first ‘fringe’ meeting last night. Together with the Humanist and Secular Liberal Democrats (HSLD), the BHA hosted a meeting on ‘The place of faith in the “Big Society”’, with speakers BHA chief executive Andrew Copson, vice chair of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group Dr Julian Huppert MP, and author of ‘Multiculturalism: some inconvenient truths’ Dr Rumy Hasan. The event was chaired by Arnie Gibbons, HSLD.

Dr Hasan spoke on his research on the effect of an increasing focus on faith in public policy and the negative impact that can have on Asian people in the UK. He argued that encouraging people to identify by faith contributes to the existence of inward-looking and increasingly segregated communities. He argued that faith schools had a direct impact on creating social segregation and the increase of discriminatory faith schools would create huge social divisions along religious lines.

Dr Huppert began by refuting claims, made by the Pope and some government ministers, that Christianity was being attacked in the UK, giving examples such as the existence of daily Christian prayers in parliament. He expressed his concern that some people really believe that morals only come from religion. Dr Huppert said that the challenge was to make a strong case for Humanism being a positive force for progressive change.

Mr Copson spoke on the concept of the Big Society, stating that two-thirds of the voluntary sector is secular, not “faith based”, and yet he doubted that policy makers would be creating a strategy to encourage the growth of the secular voluntary sector as they are the religious. The government will continue the trend to contract out public services to religious organisations, he said, but had no plans in place to prevent those organisations from discriminating against staff or in the provision of services. If religious organisations are to be awarded public contracts, they should expect to have to behave as any other, secular or public provider.

The meeting was opened up to questions from the floor, with delegates also reflecting on their own experiences. Much of the discussion focused on religion and women’s rights, with that discussion culminating in an impromptu vote on whether the audience thought that the burqa should be banned in public places in this country. Those present voted overwhelmingly against.

We ‘tweeted’ updates during the meeting and will continue to do so throughout our time and activities at the Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative conferences. Follow us @BHANews. 

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