We are committed to secularism – the principle that, in a plural, open society where people follow many different religious and non-religious ways of life, the communal institutions that we share (and together pay for) should provide a neutral public space where we can all meet on equal terms. State secularism, where state institutions are separate from religious institutions or the state is otherwise neutral on matters of religion or belief, guarantees the maximum freedom for all, including religious believers. In such a state, no one should be privileged nor disadvantaged on grounds of their religious or non-religious beliefs.
One of our key aims is that the UK should be a secular state guaranteeing human rights, with no privilege or discrimination on grounds of religion or belief. This is not only because it is the fairest approach, but also because it reflects the diversity of Britain today. Survey after survey shows that the UK is a diverse country that is becoming more so all the time, with most measures suggesting a majority of the population is now non-religious. And yet many of the barriers to secularism involve legal privilege for Christian groups in particular, using historical justifications for continued advantage over others.
In practice we work on the following issues:
- Constitutional reform, in particular disestablishment of the Church of England and Church of Scotland and the end to Bishops sitting as of right in the House of Lords
- No privileges for faith communities in their relationship with government or in state funding, and no legal recognition of any religious so-called ‘courts’ or ‘tribunals’
- An end to discrimination in public services either against employees or service users, including on the basis of religion or belief and sexual orientation
- An end to religious privilege in marriage laws, through the legalisation of humanist and same-sex marriage across the UK
- All national ceremonies equally inclusive of those of all faiths and none, for instance remembrance ceremonies
- An end to the state funding of religious schools, including schools’ ability to discriminate in admissions and employment on the basis of religion
- Inclusive assemblies in schools instead of mandatory religious Collective Worship
- Education about religions and non-religious worldviews in schools that is impartial, objective, fair, and balanced
- Fair and equal treatment of religious and non-religious perspectives in public broadcasting, including, for example, opening up Thought for the Day to humanist perspectives
- The provision of pastoral support for the non-religious, in particular in prisons and hospitals
Our views on secularism are part and parcel of our firm commitment to equality and human rights, in particular rights such as freedom of religion or belief, freedom of speech and expression, and children’s rights, as well as our support for democracy and the rule of law.
We also work internationally on these issues through our representation at the UN Human Rights Council, and in partnership with the International Humanist and Ethical Union and European Humanist Federation through, for example, the End Blasphemy Laws campaign.
What we mean by ‘secularism’
‘Secularism’ can mean different things to different people. We use it to mean separation of church and state and equal treatment for all, regardless of religion or belief – much as set out above. Someone who supports secularism is a ‘secularist’, hence the BHA is a secularist organisation.
The term ‘secular’ is occasionally used to mean something that is atheistic or agnostic, and more frequently is used analogously to ‘secularist’, but the most common meaning is something that is simply not connected with religion or belief – for example, the Natural History Museum is a secular institution in this sense. When we say something is ‘secular’ this is what we mean, as we think using it in this way is the clearest.
‘Secularisation’ is the process by which something, in particular society, becomes more secular (which might also mean it is becoming less religious but does not have to), while ‘secularity’ is the state of being secular.
What we’re doing
We have long been the most vocal voice calling for disestablishment of the Church of England and for a removal of bishops in the House of Lords. For instance, in 2011, when the last major proposals to reform the House of Lords and replace it with an elected chamber were being discussed, we led the movement for their removal with our ‘Holy Redundant’ campaign. The Government received more correspondence objecting to the place of bishops in the Lords than on any other aspect of the proposals.
In 2007 we published Quality and Equality: Human Rights, Public Services and Religious Organisations, setting out our concerns around service provision and our proposals for secular and inclusive services free from discrimination. More recently we have been working with the Equality and Human Rights Commission as part of its research into religion and belief and discrimination in the workplace and in service delivery. This process is ongoing.
Our long-running ‘For All Who Serve’ campaign with Defence Humanists aims to see non-religious defence personnel represented at remembrance events, both national and local. The main focus has been on the National Remembrance Day Ceremony at the Cenotaph in Whitehall. This is in spite of the fact that non-religious personnel number eight times all the non-Christian religions combined, and that membership of Defence Humanists alone is larger than the number of Sikh and Jewish members of the forces – but both Sikhs and Jews do have official representation.
You can also research and take up one of these issues with your MP and/or local authority, or write to a newspaper. Our Take Action Toolkit has advice on how to go about this.