‘There’s still this idea that God is good for everyone and that’s ridiculous’

Campaigning against religious privilege

Almost three quarters of Scots don’t have any religion, according to recent study by the Humanist Society Scotland. Nevertheless, the church and state in Scotland are still harmfully entangled, according to the Edinburgh Secular Society (ESS). ‘’They can believe what they want as long they don’t act like everyone else should believe it too.’’

Neil Barber is the communication officer for the Edinburgh Secular Society (ESS). He writes pieces in newspapers about the dangers of the church’s influence in public life and helps the ESS in their campaigns for the separation between church and state. Although he has a catholic background, he is a secularist. ‘’Actually, there’s a tiny fraction of people who believe in God, but there’s still this idea, when it comes down to it, that God is good for everyone and that’s ridiculous.’’

Secularism isn’t a religion nor has it anything to do with atheism, says Barber: ‘’Secularism is about the separation between church and state.’’ Barber explains this by making a comparison with India: ‘’There is a dozen of different religions there. The government basically has a ‘sort it out yourself’ mentality; we don’t have anything to do with this, we’re the government.’’

In Scotland, the relation between the church and state is very different. Barber: ‘’We don’t have an established church, like the Church of England, but we do have the Church of Scotland, which is presumed to be the national church and it does have certain privileges.’’

The ESS has one vision: a secular state with freedom of, and freedom from religious belief. It is determined to accomplish this vision by campaigning against those privileges.

Religious representation
In Scotland, each regional council has an education committee that’s made up by a variety of elected councillors. It also has three or four religious seats: one catholic, one protestant and one or two others, depending on what area of Scotland you’re in.  Barber: ‘’These people are simply nominated by their respected churches. They can’t be voted off, but they have full voting rights over what happens in the education committee.’’

‘’They campaign against sexual education classes.’’

The ESS has campaigned to remove these representatives from education committees, because If you think they don’t cause any harm, you’re wrong, according to the ESS. Barber: ‘’Those representatives try to pursue their Christian agenda. For example, they campaign against sexual education classes. They also voted against joint schools where children from different religious backgrounds go to school together, so it’s quite wrong that there are unelected representatives on education committees.’’

One counterargument Barber often hears is that there are more unelectable members on education committees. Parents and teachers also have seats on education committees. ‘’However, they have views that are relevant to education’’, says Barber. ‘’Religious people say that they must have religious freedom, but what they mean by religious freedom is the freedom to impose religion on other people. That’s a privilege.’’

‘’It wasn’t going to provide her with any comfort to visit her child, because it was full of somebody else’s religion.’’

Garden of remembrance
A few weeks ago, Neil Barber had a meeting with a woman whose child died during pregnancy. Barber: The hospital suggested that the child would be cremated in a joint cremation and afterwards the ashes would be scattered in what is called the garden of the remembrance.’’ At first the women thought it would be fine, but then she found out the garden had a cross in the middle of it. Barber: ‘’It wasn’t going to provide here with any comfort to visit her child, because it was full of somebody else’s religion.’’

Although the ESS actively tries to change religious influences in public life, it hasn’t led to immediate changes. ‘’But that’s to be expected’’, says Barber.  ‘’The Edinburgh Secular Society has only been around for six years, religion for more than 2000 years.’’ The ESS hasn’t changed anything under the law yet. ‘’But the Scottish Parliament is thinking about changing religious representatives on education committees.’’

‘’…The best way to change the society is to change the mind of the people that vote for politicians.’’

So, the progress made by the ESS has to be based on ideas. Barber: ‘’Campaigns against certain things like religious seats on education committees are important, but I feel that the best way to change the society is to change the mind of the people that vote for politicians.’’

One of the ways Barber sees these changes in society is through surveys that ask about people’s religious identity. In 2016, according to the Social Attitudes Survey done by the National Centre for Social Research, 58 percent said they didn’t have any religion.

Both the ESS and The Humanist Society have tried to inform people about the consequences when people ticked the religious box on a survey. Barber: ‘’If you don’t go to church, if you are not religious, tick none, tick atheism, because if you tick a religious box the government will assume that people want a certain amount of religion in government.’’

And it seems to have worked: figures released by the Humanist Society last year, show an enormous increase of that number. According to their research 72 percent of the Scots don’t have any religion. Barber: ‘’The progress we make as a secular society is to convince people that when they are asked: do you have a religion and they say ‘No, I have none’, the politicians will then act without fear that anything that doesn’t continue the religious privileges, will lose lots of votes.’’

Another way Neil Barber tries to change the mind of the people is by writing letters in the press. Although he tries to be careful, he does get a lot of criticism. Barber: ‘’People come back to me, saying I’m just an atheist and want to impose my atheism in place of their religion and therefore, I’m just as bad.’’

‘’We argue that you can believe on your own. That’s a private belief.’’

Another common thing Barber hears is that he has an aggressive atheist agenda, but according to him, that’s not true. ‘’We argue that you can believe on your own. That’s a private belief. We would defend your right to have that, but when we try to protect everyone’s children, so they don’t get brainwashed at the age they still believe in Santa, that’s perceived to be an anti-religious position.’’

A new campaign the ESS is getting involved with is about religious influences in crematoria. Barber: ‘’Some crematoria are different, but there is one in Edinburgh that is full of Christian symbolism.’’ Barber thinks it’s not appropriate when you’re grieving for a loved one, you are surrounded by someone else’s religion. ‘’They should bring their own crosses. We would defend their right to do that, but crosses of somebody else’s minority religion shouldn’t be nailed to the wall. They should have a choice.’’

The people that are actual members of the secular society can fit in one pub, according to Barber. “But the group of people that follow us on twitter and Facebook are much wider.’’ It’s a slow progress, but Barber hopes to get rid of religious influences in public life. ‘’Those are privileges, so that’s the line we keep drawing all the time.’’

Door: Wesley Klop