God Dammit: Secularism in the UK

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A generic essay bitching about religion. I did it for english.

Submitted: September 15, 2012

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Submitted: September 15, 2012




Recently, councils across the country have been forced to review the practice of beginning their meetings with prayers after it was questioned by atheist group the National Secular Society and by much of the British public. This has caused many people to examine religion's role in the modern government, and to consider whether or not we still need it.

Every year, the number of irreligious people in the UK rises exponentially. According to NatCen Social Research, based on their own surveys and data received from the 2011 census, 50% of people in the UK have "no religion." In a separate study by YouGov and Cambridge, 78% agreed that religion is a private matter and should have no place in politics. Despite this, religious involvement in government, especially from the established Church of England, has seen little change in the last century. No matter how modern or free Britain likes to think it is, there's no escaping the fact that it's one of the few remaining countries in the developed world which isn't officially secular. The vast majority of the EU is secular, as is the rest of the G8. Is it time we caught up with the rest of the world? Should the UK be a secular state?

Put simply, secularism is the principle of separation between religious establishments and government institutions. In the UK, this means that the church would have no influence on the government, and the government couldn't give special privileges to the church. This would affect many things in our everyday lives. For one thing, it could end the controversy surrounding faith-schools.

Religious influence can be clearly seen in our education system, and this isn't fair. Faith schools are funded by the government but receive additional funding from their respective churches. This gives the churches control over the school, rights to discriminate against teachers and student admissions on religious grounds, and freedom to teach their own syllabus of education. On top of these church-run schools, most other Scottish primary schools have close church links and practise group worship at least once a month. This seems somewhat backwards these days, inflicting complicated and flawed concepts and ideas onto young and impressionable minds despite countless protest and contrary opinions from the general public (59% of people believe that the government should not fund faith schools of any kind. ICM, 2010). It also seems not to be working in favour of the church, as according to NatCen, almost two-thirds of 16-24 year olds are now leaving school with no religious beliefs. This surprising statistic could be the result of secondary education. Almost no public secondary schools are faith-schools, so they will teach both indiscriminate open-mindedness and spiritual reasoning in RE class, and fact-based logic in science classes which will often conflict with religious beliefs. If, to use an overly-exhausted phrase, "religious indoctrination" in primary school is more often than not made redundant during secondary school, what is the point in having faith schools? Secular education would make 59% of the country happier, allow school pupils more in-class time to focus on improving their education, and work heavily towards modernising the country. It's a no brainer.

Unfortunately it's not quite that simple. We can't just "get rid" of certain schools. A decision would have to be made as to whether to end church involvement within the schools, losing a considerable amount of funding, or to force faith schools into privatisation, a decision which many parents cannot afford. Plans for an education reform would have to be made, and the entire transition could cost the taxpayer a horrendous amount of money. As much as some of us hate to admit it, it can be very convenient to have the church give us money in exchange for teaching our children how to pray. If it's clearly not brainwashing them and taking away their right to choose their own beliefs, what's the harm in a little deal with the devil?

While it's perhaps easy to adopt such a laissez-faire attitude towards education, it's hard to ignore religious influence within parliament. There are currently 26 bishops in the House of Lords. All unelected. All from the Church of England. No other religious group is entitled to any representation within parliament. Despite accounting for less than 20% of the population, the Church of England receives 100% of the religious influence. In other countries like France, Germany, even Christian dominated America, the idea of any, let alone disproportionate, religious influence on the highest form of government would be unthinkable, an insult to the free and  equal democracy each country works hard to achieve. Yet we still welcome bishops into parliament.

This could be set to change soon. If planned Lords reform comes into effect, it will cut the number of Bishops in the House of Lords from 26 down to a maximum of 12. While this is not a complete revolution, it is a sign that more people in the UK now want to see less religious involvement within politics. More people want to be secular. Surely a good reason to consider the possibility of changing our ways.

The influence of religion can also be seen in healthcare because of hospital chaplaincy. To many, the idea of chaplains is archaic and old-fashioned, and some are surprised to hear that they still exist. Not only do they exist, but they are a massive strain on funds. During 2009-10, £29million of the NHS budget was spent on the provision of chaplains. In a time of economic instability, despite concerns over cutbacks and budget misuse in our healthcare system, it's incredibly irresponsible to spend such money on something so unnecessary. To me, it's odd enough to even allow pastors into hospitals, a place of science and medicine. We used to entrust our health onto priests, resulting in plagues, famine and upsettingly high mortality rates. The two simply don't mix well. If a hospital patient requires moral support, I'm sure their local priest would be happy to pay them a visit, but it shouldn't be the responsibility of the state to see that this happens. Spend the money on nurses or beds or dialysis machines, I guarantee it will work better.

A final place where religion has too much control is marriage. Marriage laws in the UK are still firmly based around traditional values laid down in the bible, values which many disagree with. Humanist weddings, conducted by non-religious celebrants, were only introduced in Scotland as recently as 2005. In England and Wales, weddings must still be conducted by a religious figure or in a registrar office. It must be incredibly difficult being an atheist couple with any sense of romance or occasion. Not as difficult, though, as it is for same-sex couples. While civil partnerships are available for homosexual couples, it's not the same as being married. 60% of the Scottish public wish for them to have the right to marry. But the government still won't allow it, as it is still firmly under the thumb of traditional Christian dogma. We want it, but the Church won't allow it. Religion is impeding the public's right to control the country in which it lives in. If that's not a good argument for secularism, I don't know what is.

There are countless reasons why the UK should be secular. It probably will be secular one day, through decades of inevitable change, change which we are already experiencing. Humanist weddings, repealing Blasphemy Laws, a decline in council prayers and stricter measurements on worship in schools are all signs that the government is accommodating for the rapidly shifting religious views in the UK. As I previously mentioned, two thirds of 16-24 year olds are irreligious, and as the generations go on, the adult population of Britain will be overwhelmingly atheist. Christian influence on government cannot and will not last if this happens, and the UK will eventually catch up to its neighbours' secular ways. I just hope that I see this happen in my lifetime. God willing.



Principle sources:

Guardian newspaper December 2011-"The weightless Lib Dem rationalists will end up looking rather quaint"

Shetland Times newspaper December 2011-"Two more religious appointees to join council's education committee."

Huffington Post UK January 2012- "David Cameron urges Britons to stand up and defend Christian values."

Faith Schools Menace by Richard Dawkins 2010

British Humanist Association website

National Secular Society website




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