Religious zealots everywhere are intent on rolling back hard won rights of women and others whether it be Afghanistan, Texas, or here. All the more reason we, who are free to do so here, should engage in the struggle to defend and extend them. Opinion piece Newham Recorder 8.9.21
In 2018 just one in five marriages were religious. So says the Office for National Statistics who published the figures in August. This comes hot on the heels of the latest British Social Attitudes Survey which shows 68% of 18–24-year-olds have no religious belief. It’s time this sea-change in belief was reflected in our rights and institutions.
Decent people are horrified at the resurgence of fundamentalists in Afghanistan who seek to crush the rights of women, punish homosexuals and ban music. The Taliban and ISIS are of course at the extreme end of the religious spectrum. But a broader question is whether the religious should ever be able to dictate how the rest of us live.
There are numerous examples of overreach in this country, but one stand-out is the sway the religious hold in our schools. For example, the UK is the only advanced democracy which imposes worship in all state schools, including those without a religious character. The requirement to hold a daily act of Christian worship is enshrined in the outdated 1944 Education Act. Anyone relaxed in thinking this can be safely disregarded got a rude awakening in April. In answer to a Parliamentary question Education Minister Nick Gibb said non-compliant schools will be ‘investigated’ and ‘reminded of their duty on this matter.’ Fairness and social cohesion demands assemblies, and schools, which are inclusive of all faiths and none.
Of course, the extremists in Afghanistan seek to impose their beliefs on an unwilling population using brute force and cruelty. We should be thankful for living in a country where we can freely campaign for equal rights. But we should not forget how our own gains in areas like women’s reproductive rights and gay equality have also involved long struggles against religious zealotry. Freedom of belief, one of our most precious values, includes the right not to have religious doctrine thrust on us.
We, who are free to campaign, owe it to those who are not to do what we can to defend and extend everywhere advances made so far.
Chair East London Humanists