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Advancing humanism in Wales: an interview with Kathy Riddick, Wales Humanists Coordinator

Kathy Riddick is the Wales Humanists Coordinator, working on the behalf of the non-religious in Wales to promote humanism, a secular state, and equal treatment for everyone regardless of religion or belief. We spoke to Kathy about her work, this year’s celebrations of the 100th anniversary of disestablishment, and what this means in a plural, diverse, modern Wales.

Hi Kathy! Can you tell us a little bit about Wales Humanists and what it is you do for them?

Wales Humanists is part of Humanists UK. All members of Humanists UK in Wales are considered part of Wales Humanists. We are the national section whose focus is specifically representing the needs of non-religious people in Wales. As well as coordinating and developing the different services we provide, we represent the non-religious to stakeholders in Wales in relation to devolved issues such as education and health. We work to support lasting change for a better society, championing ideas for the one life we have in all areas of public life in Wales.

This year Wales Humanists is celebrating the 100th anniversary of Welsh disestablishment. What significance does this anniversary have to humanists, and to Wales more broadly? 

The enactment of the Welsh Church Act in 1920 led to sweeping and meaningful changes in Welsh society. Wealth, powers, and property that had resided within the established Church of England were redistributed to local authorities and universities, empowering civic institutions for the benefit of communities across the country. 100 years later, tolerance and pluralism have taken root in this modern and confident nation. You can really draw a line in history from the passing of that Act to the modern, inclusive polity that is Wales today – in a way, it marked the beginning of the story of devolution, as much as it was a secularist reform driven by public demand.

Today Wales benefits from a devolved Assembly instituted as a secular body and an opening, flourishing, and diverse civic sphere, reflecting a country where belief and identity, like language, is plural. There are real contrasts to be drawn between how politics is conducted in Wales and how it is in England in particular.

Wales, however, doesn’t have a completely secular framework. Despite our successes in education, such as changes in legislation for non-religious views to be given equal treatment in school curriculum, we are still campaigning to end collective worship and state-funded faith schools. Through our work, we’ve found there is strong support for equality and human rights across all demographics, including the right to freedom of religion or belief. When the Welsh Assembly was established in the late 1990s, it was done in keeping with the pluralistic and secular ideals that were argued for in 1920. And that’s really led to a lot of distinctiveness and a great deal of positives. There are no prayers before meetings (unlike in Westminster), Assembly Members affirm rather than swearing in on a religious book at the start of each term, and there is no special place for religious representation in the Senedd. It’s a much more level playing field.

But as I said, undue influence by some religious groups over government policy still persists, including in devolved areas such as education and health. We want to ensure the original intent of the Church Act is fully implemented, with inherited laws and practices reviewed and changed to embed the freedom of religion and belief we support here in Wales.

As many of the AMs I’ve spoken to about our celebrations have said, civic pluralism and really secularism is part of who we are, and the way we do things. The anniversary is an opportunity to celebrate that.

Where exactly does religious privilege persist in Wales?

The first thing to note is that Wales is the least religious part of the UK, 58% of the population is non-religious according to British Social Attitudes Survey! So while the non-religious do get more of a hearing here than in the rest of the UK, it’s really astonishing to see just how many times this very large demographic gets overlooked.

While education law is changing to recognise non-religious beliefs as equal to religious beliefs in the new curriculum, it is disappointing that the law requiring daily Christian collective worship in all schools, which originated in a law passed in England in 1944, is not being addressed by the Welsh Government. A petition on this issue had widespread support and there have been calls for reform from both sides of the Assembly. The law needs replacing with one mandating inclusive assemblies for all. It’s quite out of step with today’s society and has been called out by the United Nations for breaching the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Schools with a religious character also still receive significant public funding, but can still select 100% of their intake based on faith. They can even discriminate by belief in employment. These schools can also teach ‘denominational RE’, i.e. a one-sided and doctrinaire religious view of open-ended philosophical and spiritual questions. The Welsh Government is also removing the right to withdraw from RE in 2022, so in faith schools there is a potential for very significant breach of children’s human rights.

One area where Wales actually lags behind England is pastoral care. All Welsh hospitals have chaplaincy teams led by Church in Wales (Anglican) chaplains, who are free to appoint teams in their own faith. This means non-religious patients cannot access the same level of pastoral support. A report by Marie Curie in 2018 on Diversity in Palliative Care highlighted the need for non-religious pastoral care for non-religious patients but this has not been carried across to NHS Wales. NHS England guidelines have also long recognised the need for non-religious pastoral care.

And finally, marriage law represents something overlooked by devolution – meaning Welsh politicians haven’t had the opportunity to address inconsistencies or problems in the law at all. Marriage law in Wales is tied to England, so Wales like England doesn’t allow legally recognised humanist marriages, as are found in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Ireland, and Jersey. This disadvantages non-religious couples as to their choice of ceremony, they must have two separate ceremonies to gain legal recognition, unlike religious couples who can be married by just their religious representative.

How can people get involved with grassroots humanist campaigning in Wales?

Many ways! We always need help from volunteers, through helping to lobby AMs and MPs, sitting on local SACREs, school speaking, training as a pastoral carer, or attending local group meetings to work to improve communities. Get in touch to discuss how you would like to help out –

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