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Baroness Falkner in defence of secularism

December 11, 2012 9:56 PM

Humanist & Secularist Liberal Democrats have welcomed a recent speech in the House of Lords by Lib Dem Baroness Kishwer Falkner defending secularist values.

Baroness Kishwer FalknerWith the news of the sharp increase in the number of people stating they have 'no religion' in the recent census, and the fact that the Church of England is clearly failing to represent modern opinion on matters of equality, such as gay marriage and women bishops the case for secularism needs to be heard more loudly.

After a succession of speeches praising the role of faith groups in public life, Kishwer had this to say:

"I want to emphasise the role and importance of the secular space in public life. In that arena I am a secularist, and secularists can be religious too. As a society we can uphold everyone's right to their religion or belief as well as their right to change or abandon it. Religions have just as much right to express their views as anyone else, but those views should not be privileged in the framing of public policy and law unless specifically related to policies of non-discrimination. Secularism, often unjustly maligned, is becoming more widely understood and recognised as its importance in a multi-religious society becomes more appreciated. The UK could hardly be more multi-religious, but France, India and even the United States opted for secular constitutions to avoid hegemony by any one religion.

"Separating religion and state enables those of all religions and none to participate as equal citizens. The fight for that equality, which we now take for granted, has been fought over hundreds of years by non-conformists, Catholics, Jews, and non-believers. In fact, in the 1880s the founder of the National Secular Society, the Liberal MP Charles Bradlaugh, was obstructed from taking his elected seat in another place four times because of his non-belief, and was responsible for the Oaths Act 1888 which ended this affront. We take the Bishops' Bench rather for granted as something very normal, but, in international terms, it could hardly be less so. We sit in the only Parliament in the world that gives bishops the right to sit. None of our reform proposals contemplated their departure, except as a by-product of the wholly elected option."

Same sex marriage

"Let me turn to same sex marriage to which the established church is so opposed. It is surely entitled to that view and to tell its flocks not to partake in it. However, what rather alienates those who believe in it is that the church has sought to put pressure on the Government not to legislate on same-sex marriage, despite knowing that liberal religious groups, the non-religious and probably many individual Anglicans and Catholics wish to proceed with it. The church is, therefore, still seeking to restrict others' freedoms, and I invite it to ponder on this.

"I admire much charitable work done in the name of religion. However, there are also secular charities, and doubtless those of all religions and none contribute happily to both. In a society in which church attendance continues to dwindle and congregations age-I am sure there are anecdotal exceptions, but the statistics are very clear-we rapidly approach a time when we need to think about the extent to which religious precepts should be allowed, often through the workings of both Houses, to override the view of the people on sensitive social issues. When I say "the view of the people", I mean even religious people.

"It is remarkable that, according to reputable polls taken during the Pope's visit, only somewhere in the range of 8% to 15% of Catholics agreed with their church's official doctrine on such sensitive social issues as contraception, homosexuality and abortion. In conclusion, I very much regret our House's repeated rejection of assisted dying legislation and stem cell research. I am convinced that that was done on religious grounds, while the public are so markedly in favour of those.

"The secular point on which I would like to conclude is that religions should not have privileged positions to restrict others' freedoms-something that they do far too often."

The full debate in the House of Lords on 22nd November 2012 can be seen here: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201213/ldhansrd/text/121122-0003.htm#12112245000873