Friday, 10 February 2012

NSS Gets It Right

(Apologies for the delay between posts - believe it or not, I have unexpectedly been without home internet access for a while.) 

The National Secular Society is one of those organisations that in theory I feel I really ought to support, but in practice tend to find rather too often backing deliberately controversial points. 

Recently, the NSS has again made the news, this time for successfully campaigning against Bideford Town Council's practice of holding compulsory public prayers before its meetings.  At first sight, I thought this might be another occasion where the NSS was pushing things too far - I am not in favour of outlawing public expressions of religious belief, which was how much of the reportage portrayed this. 

In fact, however, this judgement seems to have been a victory for common sense - and one that even most religious groups ought to support. 

There are (as is so often the way) some technicalities that the more hysterical portions of the media have played down - for instance, that prayers have not been banned, merely that they cannot be compulsory. 

But more importantly, let's take a quick sanity check here.  The BBC quotes the Bishop of Exeter, for instance, as saying 'I think it's a great pity that a tiny minority are seeking to ban the majority, many of whom find prayers very, very helpful, from continuing with a process in which no-one actually has to participate.'    (Bishops are, of course, employed primarily to make arses of themselves in public.  In this instance, the Bishop appears not to have grasped the central point, that these prayers were compulsory for councillors.)  Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, has bemoaned the loss of Britain's 'Christian Heritage', and has promised to hasten legislative changes that would overturn this ruling.  And in general, the Christian media seems to be talking about a 'creeping secularisation of society', which is their usual cry whenever their more intolerant elements are called to task. 

But pause for a moment to consider what the situation actually was here.  Yes, the media has focused on this as a case of religion vs secularism.  But in truth, this is one particular religion against all others.  To require councillors to say explicitly Christian prayers would be a form of discrimination scarcely distinguishable from the series of recusant, anti-Catholic and non-conformist laws whose steady dismantling dates back to the late 1600s.  That Bideford Council couched this in terms of a 'reflective silence' rather than denomination-specific prayers makes this only marginally less acceptable; it is still the deliberate and unnecessary exclusion of individuals on the basis of religion (or lack of it). 

My point is made most clearly by another 'man of faith' quoted by the BBC, Conservative Councillor (and Muslim) Imran Khan: 'Under the old regime I had to wait outside the room while everyone else was praying. This meant that it appeared I was being late or just plain rude to other people's religions as I walked across the floor afterwards.'  It is not just the non-religious who were (or felt) excluded from participating in local government; it is all non-Christians, and potentially all non-Anglicans. 

In a heterogenous society, it is essential that the rights of minorities be protected by the majority.  I would not hesitate to argue for this if a religious or ethnic minority to which I do not belong was being persecuted.  I see no reason to be any less vociferous simply because I happen to belong to the minority in question.