Government and ‘faith’ communities

We want a state with no discrimination or privilege on grounds of religion or belief and with truly inclusive approaches to public policy. We therefore want government and others to recognise the value of communities as a whole (rather than religious ‘communities’) and the contributions made by humanists and the non-religious at large as well as those from religious people. We want communities where people of all different backgrounds and beliefs engage and work with each other for the benefit of the whole community. Only in this context can people be positively empowered to make choices about their lives.

In recent years we have particularly focused on public funding for religious groups, and programmes that promote faith per se; governments’ approach to ‘interfaith’ and ‘dialogue’ initiatives; the ‘Big Society’ and localism agendas; and the need for inclusive Remembrance ceremonies.

In depth

Government and faith communities

The UK Government is increasingly encouraging religious groups to take on a role in local communities and pressing local government to welcome such religious groups as ‘partners’. Insofar as these arrangements are no more than what would be offered to any local group with strong links with the local community, such moves may be acceptable.

However, there is strong evidence to suggest that what the Government intends amounts to new privileges for religion, such as a distinct role in providing public services on behalf of the state at national, regional and local levels. We work for a state with no privilege or discrimination on grounds of religion or belief and so find this unacceptable. In terms of social cohesion initiatives, religious groups and communities have been singled out by government as having a special importance and being in need of special attention and assistance, mostly in isolation from other communities and almost always to the exclusion of the non-religious – normally under the remit of ‘faith’ or ‘interfaith’ strategies.

Interfaith and dialogue initiatives

Interfaith initiatives, by their very name and often by their nature, are exclusive and do not involve humanists and other non-religious people in the community. Most bodies which government promotes and engages with as a means of bringing people of different beliefs together are ‘interfaith’ groups that explicitly exclude the non-religious. Where such initiatives are genuinely willing to include those with non-religious beliefs we support humanists joining them, but have a preference for the inclusion of non-religious people to then be made clear in the name of the group in question – preferring terms such as ‘multi faith and belief’ or ‘dialogue’ – the BHA, for example, has a Dialogue Officer.

We believe that, rather than making a fetish of faith, social cohesion and other community initiatives must focus on the contribution that all individuals and groups in the community can make. Where there are legitimate reasons for working with communities identified by beliefs, then these must also include humanists and other non-religious people, and we support the involvement of humanists in those circumstances.

Localism

In recent years the UK Government and its agencies have been focusing disproportionately on religious groups and communities as part of its localism agenda, to the exclusion of many ordinary people within so-called ‘faith’ groups and certainly to the detriment of wider society and social cohesion. That is a policy about which we are critical particularly because it tends to view and treat people by perceived or declared group identity rather than as equal, individual members of the wider community. We are concerned that current initiatives around devolution to English regions may compound these issues.

Unless localism initiatives are secular, neutral on matters of religion and belief, treating all people equally regardless of belief, and without privilege or discrimination, then they will fail to be inclusive and may serve to divide rather than to unite society.

In the first few years of the Coalition Government, the UK Government advocated what it called the ‘Big Society’ as part of its localism agenda. There is no agreed definition of what the ‘Big Society’ is (beyond being a useful slogan) or what it means in practice. On the one hand, we welcome initiatives that encourage civil, social and political participation. We support democracy and we know that humanists are often social activists already, driven by their desire to work for the good society for the benefit of all.

Remembrance ceremonies

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Every year since the establishment of Defence Humanists in 2010, we have worked with them through the annual For All Who Serve campaign to advocate for inclusion of a humanist representative at the National Remembrance Day Ceremony at the Cenotaph in Whitehall. The membership of Defence Humanists is larger than the number of Sikh and Jewish members of the forces – but both Sikhs and Jews do have official representation, while Defence Humanists do not.

What’s been happening

Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government have been very vocal in praising religious groups, and even religion itself, as fundamental to the government’s vision. This was epitomised by the creation of the role of ‘Minister of State for Faith and Communities’ in 2012, held by Baroness Warsi, and subsequently held from 2014-15 as ‘Minister for Faith’ by Eric Pickles MP, who was also Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government at the same time. Pickles was particularly vocal in promoting ‘Christian persecution’ narratives whilst simultaneously arguing that Britain is a Christian country.

The Department also funded the ‘Near Neighbours’ programme, launched in 2011 and expanded in 2014 and 2016, which saw massive funding extended to the Church of England in order to strengthen local faith initiatives promote neighbourliness among faith groups – in spite of the fact that the Church is far from a neutral body to be doing this, and has been very hostile to the non-religious in recent years.

In addition, in 2015 the Department awarded a £400,000 grant to run a ‘new programme to strengthen and support faith institutions’. In 2013 it launched the three-year, £200,000 ‘Together in Service’ programme which aimed to ‘celebrate the practical contribution faith communities make to society’. And for several years it has funded Inter Faith Week, a week which has often promoted faith per se as well as promoting inter-faith relations.

We believe that, rather than making a fetish of faith, social cohesion and other community initiatives must focus on the contribution that all individuals and groups in the community can make. Where there are legitimate reasons (although we can imagine these would only ever be very few) for working with communities identified by beliefs, then this must include humanists and other non-religious people, as well as religious people.

Unless such initiatives are secular, that is, neutral on matters of religion and belief, treating all people equally regardless of belief, and without privilege or discrimination, then they will fail to be inclusive and may serve to divide rather than to unite society.

What we’re doing

The BHA is committed to working with those of other beliefs for the common good. In the 1970s, years before the foundation of bodies such as the Inter Faith Network for the UK, we were co-founders of the Standing Council on Inter-Faith Dialogue in Education (SCIFDE) together with Jews and Christians; along with religious believers, we were also co-founders of the Social Morality Council (now the Norham Foundation), of which the BHA’s then Executive Director was chair. More recently, we were co-founders of the Religion and Belief Consultative Group.

We fully support inclusive strategies to develop social cohesion in the community and are involved in promoting social cohesion both at a strategic and a grassroots level, with efforts aimed in particular at ensuring the non-religious in the community are engaged with by government and others. We work with local humanists and the non-religious to contribute to local authorities’ work around both ‘religion and belief’ equality issues, and projects of inter-cultural dialogue and good relations.

The BHA has produced a briefing on religion, belief and volunteering that provides a useful overview of the evidence about the levels of charity and volunteering amongst the religious and non-religious, and concludes there is not much difference.

In addition, the BHA is working independently and with our supporters in parliament, as well as individuals and organisations from across the equalities field, to develop policy and to lobby government and other decision makers on these issues. For example, in 2011 we submitted written evidence to parliament’s Public Administration Select Committee’s inquiry into the Big Society, and our Chief Executive gave oral evidence (see also the transcript). We also made submissions on equality in commissioning and on the Localism Bill.

Since then we’ve continued to work to highlight and protest the discriminatory nature of a number of state-funded projects that in effect promote religious beliefs, groups and leaders to the expense of others, whilst simultaneously engaging as a stakeholder with the Department for Communities and Local Government to build mutual understanding. We have met with Department of Communities and Local Government ministers, and we have secured regular meetings with DCLG officials to discuss our perspective on the Government’s community strategy.

At the same time, our own Dialogue Officer has engaged in a number of inclusive projects with individuals from a range of different faiths, including a series of humanist-Muslim dialogue events in 2015. We have also worked closely with organisations that excel at inclusive dialogue such as 3FF and the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, and many humanists are members of their local Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (SACRE).

Finally, with respect to the national remembrance ceremony at the Cenotaph, we and Defence Humanists have been asking the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, the Royal Household, and the Royal British Legion for the addition of humanist representation. We have been doing so through the annual For All Who Serve campaign, in partnership with BHA/Defence Humanists patron Dan Snow. Similarly, local humanist groups have been working – much more successfully – with local Royal British Legion groups to see humanist participation in local Remembrance ceremonies.

Get involved

You can 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. In particular, you can get involved with the For All Who Serve Remembrance campaign by, for example, writing to your MP.

If there is anything in these pages that you need more information or advice on, please contact our Campaigns Team.

You can also support the BHA by becoming a member. That helps in itself, and you can help even more by supporting our campaigns in the ways suggested above. But campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we also need financial support. You can make a donation to the BHA.