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A modern secular state

Comment 1st July 2010

Religion does not need the special status it currently enjoys within the British state. Quite rightly, we have laws that ban discrimination on the basis of religion or faith. That is sufficient. We have already abolished the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel in England and Wales, which were long recognised as an anachronism. We should now go further and end the formal establishment of the Anglican Church as the state religion of Britain.

No one should occupy a place in Britain’s legislature on the basis of religious office. There is no objection to holders of religious office being members of either house of Parliament or any other part of government, but they should only win such status through the same democratic processes as everyone else.

We must also repeal or rewrite the laws that require schools to impose a daily act of collective worship upon pupils and we must remove the special privilege given to Christianity within religious education (I understand this to be in the Education Act 1944 as amended by the Education Reform Act 1988 and the School Standards and Framework Act 1998). The removal of anachronistic religious requirements in our education system is a matter of prudent use of funding as well as basic freedoms.
 

Why does this matter?

It is at the very least anachronistic and, arguably, unfair and divisive for organised religion to have a privileged formal role in the constitution of a modern democratic state. It is also a clear violation of fundamental freedoms, not to mention a waste of precious money, to have a law that compels our education system to promote a specific religion and force our children to engage in acts of worship that mean little to most of them and alienate many of them.

Britain is a de facto secular state. Many of its citizens choose not to have a religion. To many of these it is not just offensive to carry the label of being a citizen of a religiously-aligned state but it compromises their freedom to hold their own philosophical ideas. Even among those British citizens who do have a nominal religious belief, many choose not to practise it actively and in an organised manner. Furthermore, within the proportion of the population who are religious, there is a great diversity of beliefs and practices. It is therefore manifestly wrong to establish a single faith or denomination as the formal religion of the nation. The fact that religious differences have been a cause or rallying tool in so many violent conflicts should also show us that it is dangerously divisive for a state such as Britain to give special privilege to a particular faith.

It would be no solution to try to give multiple relgions a role comparable to that currently held by the Church of England. There are simply too many different faiths and beliefs – not mention those people to whom any religious involvement in the state would be offensive. Any multi-faith establishment of religion within the state would inevitably still leave many people as second-class citizens – subjects of a state that incorporates religion but whose beliefs are excluded from the structure of the state.

The removal of anachronistic religious requirements in our education system is a matter of prudent use of funding as well as basic freedoms. Many schools already struggle to follow the law because budgets are stretched and because more RE teachers would need to be recruited if the requirements were to be met. At a time when public finance is under crushing pressure it would be scandalous to continue to burden schools with the excessive demands of a religious curriculum that is out of step with the modern world.
 

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