18 August 2016


Safe Space v Freedom of Expression

The Society had two related talks in July. The first, where we once again welcomed Maryam Namizie to the Hall on Sunday 17th July 2016, was entitled “Apostasy, Blasphemy and Resistance to Islam” and provided an update on her campaigning for Iran Solidarity, One Law for All and the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. The second was given by Robbie Travers, a 20-year-old law student and commentator for the Gatestone Institute (a non-partisan, not-for-profit international policy council and think tank, dedicated to educating the public about what the mainstream media fails to report in promoting human rights and in particular freedom of expression). Both speakers highlighted the current threats to freedom of expression in the UK.

Maryam has been experiencing limitations being placed on her freedom to set out her point of view with the recent advocacy for “safe spaces” at universities. She expressed concern that particularly in some universities many “liberals” and “socialists” now seem to regard anything that might be derogatory about religion, in particular Islam, as unacceptable. She has been labelled as a “race traitor” and “Islamaphobe”.

In December 2015 she gave a talk about blasphemy at the Goldsmiths University in London, sponsored by the university's Atheist, Secularist and Humanist society. During her talk, members of the university's Islamic Society caused a disruption by heckling, switching off her presentation and behaving in an intimidatory way. In response to the incident, the university's Feminist Society released a statement expressing support for the Islamic Society, and condemning the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society for inviting "known islamophobes" to speak at the university.

Maryam emphasised that while the beliefs of individuals must be protected, organised religions were often ideologies that could result in fascist societies if allowed to take power, and must be open to criticism and mockery. She was adamant that religions must accept that apostasy and blasphemy are permitted behaviours and, while they may not be welcome, must be tolerated.

Both Maryam and Robbie emphasised the need for Muslims to be able to challenge the ultra orthodox conservative interpretations of Islam and that those who supported progressive political views needed to support groups such as One Law for All, the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and British Muslims for Secular Democracy. However both highlighted the fact that people they might normally have regarded as “Progressive” and of the “Left” more often supported Islamists, who advocate death for apostasy, adultery and homosexuality, rather than oppose them.

Robbie highlighted that this was a problem particularly with the younger generation and was particularly well demonstrated by the concept of “safe space”. The term was originally introduced to indicate that a teacher, educational institution or student body does not tolerate anti-LGBT violence, harassment or hate speech, thereby creating a safe place for all LGBT students. However this became extended to refer to the protection of any individuals who felt marginalized on a university campus from being exposed to views that they would find upsetting. Such a rule makes robust free expression impossible.

Some students involved in political discourse now refuse to listen to or engage with people of opposing points of view on the basis that it violates their entitlement to “safe space”. Some also argue that only LGBT people can be regarded as qualified to discuss LGBT issues and only “black” people are qualified to discuss racism etc. Robbie believes that such ideas lead to “group think” and stereotyping.

Robbie put forward the hypothesis that young people are rebelling against the equalities and human rights agendas pursued by the post war generation. Instead they are advocating rights for groups that they feel have been discriminated against in the past. This means that not all groups (and hence people) have the same rights. He highlighted the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM). This was now being labelled as female genital circumcision and regarded as a norm for some Islamic groups. As such some of these “avant garde” groups maintain that it should be regarded as acceptable. Hence one young lady, who had suffered FGM and opposed the practice, was told to shut up and branded a “race traitor” by a group of student “feminists”.

It was suggested that the current student generation has grown up in an era when there was no longer a folk memory of the horrors of the World Wars. Many students no longer appreciate how essential it is to avoid stereotyping and that everyone must be entitled to their human rights as individuals, together with equality before the law. Robbie suggested that the older generation, including our membership, needed to try and engage with the younger generation through social media, even if they felt uncomfortable with it, as advocates for liberty and human rights.

11 July 2016


Kinky Sex, Education & Human Rights

John Pendal
John Pendal gave a very entertaining and thought-provoking talk on Sunday 10th July 2016.

John is a gay comedian and an advocate for sexual liberty. He grew up in a religious family that was part of a strict Baptist Church which could not accept that homosexuality was anything more than a life choice. When he declared that he was gay, but intended to remain celibate, he was still expelled from the Church.

He gradually moved into the Gay community and found he had a propensity for leather, becoming involved in that scene. He won the Mr Hoist title in 2003, the prize being that he was sponsored to enter the 25th annual International Mr Leather contest in Chicago in May 2003, which he also won. It turns out that the contest is about finding the person most able to act as an ambassador for those who like to indulge in leather. John took the year off work travelling to events full time from July 2003 to June 2004, covering 100,000 miles and visiting 28 cities in the US, Europe and Canada, while raising money for charities.

John emphasised that the sado/masochistic (S/M) scene was very much based on consent and he felt that this was an area that was not sufficiently covered in what most schools teach within sex education. He put great emphasis on the need for everyone to understand that consent is always provisional, can be revoked at any time and must always be respected. Many people (including just about all who produce pornography) seem to regard initial consent as sufficient. This is something we need to change.

The point was made that S/M sex is just a part of the spectrum of what, in the final analysis, is rather weird human behaviour. He pointed out that much of this behaviour either produces an endorphins rush (such as that experienced from strong physical exercise such as running, cycling or swimming) or an adrenalin rush caused by undertaking what are perceived as high risk behaviours, such as riding on a roller coaster or bungee jumping. Why do we regard slightly weird sex as being unacceptable while accepting running or bungee jumping as being perfectly normal? Why can indulging in sex outside the normal range of behaviours be considered a mental illness when other equally strange hobbies are not?

John also highlighted how the law discriminates against those who wish to indulge in unorthodox sex. In the early 1990's sixteen gay men were prosecuted for private, consensual S/M play under the "Offences Against the Person Act 1861" (R v. Brown). None had required medical treatment and all believed that they were innocent as they had consented throughout. However, the judge decided that "sexual pleasure" was not a good enough reason for people to be able to consent to an assault, and so he wouldn't allow consent as a defence. Consequently the men pleaded guilty and were sentenced to up to four and a half years in prison.

The police investigation was called "Operation Spanner" and a defence fund was set up and trustees appointed to what became the Spanner Trust. An appeal resulted in reduced sentences but the convictions were not overturned. The convictions were upheld by both the House of Lords and the European Court of Human Rights. The trust now has the task of trying to change the law.

Currently it is illegal in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to engage in any activities for sexual pleasure which result in an injury other than "transient or trifling". Even a love-bite is technically illegal. This means that S/M players are still at risk of arrest and prosecution. It restricts S/M education (increasing the danger that people will injure themselves during play) while making it difficult for S/M players to get medical attention if there is a problem. It also enhances the prejudices against those in the S/M community, driving the scene underground and making it harder for essential safety information (such as the difference between S/M and abuse) to be disseminated widely. S/M activities can also be used against people in custody court cases, or lead to blackmail or the loss of jobs.

In addition, bad laws spread from country to country. The Spanner verdict has been quoted in trials in at least three other countries as an example of where a government can over-rule your right to consent. In America it was quoted during the Texas sodomy trial as evidence that it was acceptable for a government to stop people having the kind of sex they wanted - even if the sex was private, consensual and caused no harm.

Currently the law appears to be anomalous. In the court cases seen to date there have been three different types of verdicts:

John hopes that the Spanner Trust will be able to use the 1998 Human Rights Act to pursue a claim in the High Court that the Spanner decision (R v Brown) is contrary to the Human Rights Act, thereby forcing a change in the law. To do that they will need claimants (people willing to come forward and say they are at risk of prosecution) and money.

15 December 2015


Christianity under attack - Mercury Mailbox

Stephen A Warden, Leicestershire chairman of the Society of St George had the following letter published in the Leicester Mercury on 14th December 2015.

The National Secular Society is making a deal of noise about another report, by the former judge Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, that is expected to recommend state schools should cease holding Christian assemblies so atheist children are not offended.

Other faiths will be allowed to continue to hold religious assemblies should they wish.

We Christians are pretty well hardened to the annual relentless calls from atheists and secular societies to curtail any and all religious content in public life.

However, to single out English Christians would be against all that is English, fair and just. That would turn us toward those dark days when Christian expression resulted in state punishments.

England has been a Christian nation since the late 7th century and has introduced Christ to so many countries that it would unthinkable we would even consider turning our backs on the world's largest faith.

If Christianity was driven out of all schools, public meetings, state and public ceremonies it would not result in a religion-free society, it would create a void for one of the other faiths to fill.

I cannot say all Christians have been good but one thing I am sure of is a future England without the moral guidance, ethical voice, advocacy for the powerless and sanctuary of peace and calm the Christian church provides would increase the probability our children being subjects on an island where materialism, self interest and moral bankruptcy was the norm.

I posted the following comment that unfortunately did not format well when uploaded to the Leicester Mercury website - 

Stephen A Warden (SAW) said "The National Secular Society is making a deal of noise about another report, by the former judge Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, that is expected to recommend state schools should cease holding Christian assemblies so atheist children are not offended."

Mr. Warden should follow the news a little more closely. Elizebeth Butler-Sloss is a practising Anglican and the report has been published. It can be read at https://corablivingwithdifference.files.wordpress.com/2015/12/living-with-difference-community-diversity-and-the-common-good.pdf

SAW "Other faiths will be allowed to continue to hold religious assemblies should they wish."

This is completely false. The actual recommendation on page 8 is:

"All pupils in state-funded schools should have a statutory entitlement to a curriculum about religion, philosophy and ethics that is relevant to today’s society, and the broad framework of such a curriculum should be nationally agreed. The legal requirement for schools to hold acts of collective worship should be repealed, and replaced by a requirement to hold inclusive times for reflection."

SAW said "We Christians are pretty well hardened to the annual relentless calls from atheists and secular societies to curtail any and all religious content in public life."

I would suggest that just about all atheists and secular societies are "for an inclusive and plural society free from religious privilege, prejudice and discrimination" - to quote the strapline of Leicester Secular Society. http://www.lsec.org.uk

Christians are welcome to proclaim the message at the clock tower or other public space. What they are not entitled to are privileges that are not granted to other organisations.

SAW: "If Christianity was driven out of all schools, public meetings, state and public ceremonies it would not result in a religion-free society, it would create a void for one of the other faiths to fill."

No one is suggesting a religion-free society. To quote from the report:

"In such a society all:

• feel a positive part of an ongoing national story – what it means to be British is not fixed and final, for people in the past understood the concept differently from the way it is seen today and all must be able to participate in shaping its meaning for the future

• are treated with equal respect and concern by the law, the state and public authorities

• know that their culture, religion and beliefs are embraced as part of a continuing process of
mutual enrichment, and that their contributions to the texture of the nation’s common life are valued

• are free to express and practise their beliefs, religious or otherwise, providing they do not
constrict the rights and freedoms of others"

SAW: "I cannot say all Christians have been good but one thing I am sure of is a future England without the moral guidance, ethical voice, advocacy for the powerless and sanctuary of peace and calm the Christian church provides would increase the probability our children being subjects on an island where materialism, self interest and moral bankruptcy was the norm."

Not sure where this idea comes from. If you look around the world the most civilised societies such as Norway, Sweden, the Netherland and Japan have the lowest levels of religious belief. See http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2005/2005-11.pdf and http://infidels.org/library/modern/nontheism/atheism/more-moral.html .

I may be a mere Humanist, but isn't the ninth commandment "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour"?

20 November 2015


Open Letter to Keith Vaz regarding blasphemy law for the UK

Dear Mr Vaz,

I write to express deep disappointment at your support for blasphemy laws to be re-introduced to the UK.

I write this as an open letter to encourage clarity on the matter.

It is outrageous that someone, as senior within the Labour party as yourself, would put forward the outdated, regressive, and oppressive concept that faith and belief need legal protection. They do not. These ideas must be subject to as rigorous questioning, criticism, ridicule and offensive comment, as any other idea.

Just because someone sincerely believes an idea does not give the person nor the idea any special privilege in being immune from normal human interaction, even if offensive criticism is offered. The line we draw, and it is a reasonable one, is that we do not permit the incitement of hatred nor violence. Everything else must remain within the law.

It is the duty of everyone to be prepared to take offence on the chin rather than demand special privilege to avoid facing unpleasant truths about their cherished beliefs. To give religious ideas special protection would be to give succour to the despicable regimes around the world who are happy to murder blasphemers. Take a look at Pakistan where even to allege that someone has blasphemed is enough to bring out the vigilante death squads. Why would you want to take our legal system in that direction or in the direction of Saudi Arabia where it is a terrorist offence to not believe in Allah?

I sincerely hope that you will reconsider your position and make it clear that a blasphemy law is not appropriate for this liberal democracy of ours.

Yours Sincerely,

Gush Bhumbra,
Leicester Secular Society
75 Humberstone Gate

03 April 2015


Secular schism and dogma

One of the weaknesses of religion is the tendency to lay down dogma and create schism (well illustrated by the Life of Brian scene about the People's Liberation Front of Judea etc.). Unfortunately Secular Societies can exhibit the same weakness.

Our strapline demonstrates the problem - “for an inclusive and plural society free from religious privilege, prejudice and discrimination”. Some Secularists prefer to concentrate on promoting “an inclusive and plural society”, leading to accusation of appeasing the religions by those who prefer to concentrate on campaigning for freedom from “religious privilege, prejudice and discrimination”.

Going back in our history this dichotomy was the cause of a split in the secular movement in the 1860s when many of the secular groups formed in the 1850s disappeared. To quote from “A Chronology of British Secularism” (G.H. Taylor 1957):

“Is the theoretical attack necessary or advisable? That was the problem which did more than any other single factor to split the ranks. Roughly speaking Holyoake said No, Bradlaugh Yes. The former, in his earlier career, often broke his own rule and attacked theology, but as time went on he became more concerned with the fruits of secular philosophy than with its theoretical basis. In his (unpublished) reminiscences Sidney Gimson, son of Josiah Gimson of Leicester, has referred to Holyoake's readiness to placate liberal clergymen for the sake of advancing on common ground.” 
N.B. George Holyoake defined “Secularism” in 1851 and Charles Bradlaugh was the founder of the National Secular Society (NSS) in 1866. Both spoke at the opening of Secular Hall in 1881.

Today, at the national level, this difference is demonstrated in the differing priorities of the NSS and the British Humanist Association (BHA) – Leicester Secular Society being affiliated to both. The BHA is overtly atheist and secular, yet includes in its objectives “The promotion of understanding between people holding religious and non-religious beliefs so as to advance harmonious cooperation in society”.

The NSS by contrast is indifferent as to religious belief but campaigns energetically for a secular state, concentrating on opposing religious privilege, prejudice and discrimination.

Currently there has been some controversy over whether or not members should have been involved with the King Richard III re-internment (which can be seen as a community event) or support the reform of the hospital chaplaincy service to make it fully inclusive. My personal preference was to ignore the Richard III hullabaloo and I think that the NHS chaplaincy service should be replaced by properly qualified pastoral support workers. If organisations (including the religions) want to encourage volunteers to act as hospital visitors (subject to proper guidelines) I would not have a problem. However I accept that other secularists can have a perfectly valid differing view.

Some members advocate setting out the “doctrines” of secularism in motions to special meetings and accepting the decision of the majority. Democracy (the worst form of governance apart from all the others, to paraphrase Churchill) means that the majority dictate to the minority. Within a country this works as it is very difficult to leave. In a voluntary society, if you set down narrow requirements that your expect all members to adhere to, many will simply not renew their membership and others will decline to join. Consensus is a much better way to move forward.

Many members take pride in our opposition to fascism. The word derives from the ancient Roman “fasces”, which consisted of  is a bound bundle of wooden rods, sometimes including an axe with its blade emerging. This represented the authority of the civic magistrate and was used for the corporal and capital punishment of those who failed to conform with the rules of those in authority. The point being that whilst an individual rod was weak, a tightly bound bundle or rods is strong. In its modern political incarnation it represents enforced control and conformity of a population (and in some cases, such as the Nazis, racial conformity) which is deemed to give such a society strength.

It would be ironic if Leicester Secular Society were ever to adopt such an approach. I'd suggest that we should welcome diversity and debate within the Society, uniting around our core principals, but not being too prescriptive as to the way in which we expect members to behave or the ideas they espouse.

John Catt

09 January 2015


As a result of the Charlie Hebdo assassinations Leicester Secular Society has issued this press release.

Leicester 9th January 2015

Leicester Secular Society along with secularists around the world condemns the religiously motivated brutal attack in France on a free press and freedom of expression. This is a terrorist attempt to silence criticism and divide society

We are not unique in stating our disgust at these brutal attacks and we all unite in strongly urging people and Governments to remember the crucial importance of the right to free expression.

Following these unprecedented attack carried out in the streets of Paris, we would like to express our sympathies to the victims and condolences to those who knew the murdered.
Gush Bhumbra, President of Leicester Secular Society, said:
“We must stand for our right to free expression or we will lose that right. The only rights we can ever have are those we are prepared to take a stand over. Totalitarian ideologies will take for themselves the right to rule our lives, to tell us what we can do or say or even think, if we let them.

This barbarous attack on the free press deserves only our contempt and commitment to maintain freedom of expression.

The passive acquiescence of our media and politicians in self-censorship has been part of the problem. We must not be afraid to criticize, parody or ridicule any organization or ideology we disagree with (from whatever our perspective) and oppose ignorance, superstition and pompous behaviour.

This is particularly important in such a religiously diverse city as Leicester. The claims and images of one religion are regarded as blasphemies by another. 

Unless we accept the right of others to express their views in the public square, no matter that we find them offensive, then we cannot have freedom of religion and belief.

Those who advocate further censorship of cartoonists and writers in the wake of tragedies like this will only embolden the murderous outrages of these criminals.”

The right to free expression is a universal one, and it lies at the foundation of our every liberty. It must always be defended.

In that same spirit of solidarity, the Society has republished some notable Charlie Hebdo cartoons which can be viewed together with this press release here.

Leicester Secular Society (the oldest secular society in the world – founded 1851) is the leading organisation in Leicestershire advocating and campaigning for an inclusive and plural society free from religious privilege, prejudice and discrimination.
The Society is committed to:
The Society is affiliated to (but independent of) the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society.
The Society aims to provide a stimulating atmosphere, nurturing debate and creativity. Regular lectures, meetings and events continue to be held at Leicester Secular Hall, one of the world's last surviving Secular Halls, built in 1881. The Hall and Society together provide a local base for loosely bound groups and individuals to join forces with a view to creating a better world.

Images from the BHA press release https://humanism.org.uk/2015/01/08/humanists-united-condemnation-charlie-hebdo-assassinations-support-free-expression/

20 December 2014


Government Blocks Proposals for Humanist Marriages

The Government has published a report declining to allow Humanist marriagesdespite a public consultation which showed over 90% of respondents to be in favour. It is reported that this is the result of their election strategist Lynton Crosby decreeing that nothing "promoting initiatives that are not central to the party’s key election themes of crime, the economy, immigration and welfare" should be taken forward before the General Election.

The reasons given for not agreeing to Humanist Marriages were in summary:

  1. Location (listed as the key difficulty)

    Humanists want the freedom to hold ceremonies anywhere, a right enjoyed by the Quakers and Jews since 1753.

    However the Church of England and others entitled to undertake registered marriages are restricted in that they have to use their own buildings and they wish to apply the same restriction to Humanists. The simple answer is to remove the restriction on all the marriage providers and allow them to choose as to whether or not they restrict themselves to their own buildings.

  2. Equality

    The report states "There is already a difference in treatment between couples professing different religions and no religion. Allowing non-religious belief marriages might reduce this to some extent but not solve the problem."

    So rather than improve on the existing situation and then initiate further reform, the government prefers to retain the existing greater level of inequality.

  3. Unfair competition

    The Church of England (CoE) is opposed to belief marriages taking place at both unrestricted locations and premises approved for civil marriage, on the basis that either option would create an inequality for the majority of religious groups and couples, who are restricted to their registered place of worship.

    This is blatantly the Church of England attempting to protect its market position. There is no reason why the churches need to be restricted in the locations where they perform marriages. This should be their own decision.

  4. Sham Marriages

    The existing religious provision has been shown to be wide open to abuse. The BHA celebrants are vetted much more thoroughly than most religious celebrants. The government needs to bring in relevant regulations relating to all registered marriages and this has nothing to do with whether or not Humanist marriages should be recognised.

  5. Other groups would want to perform marriages

    Yes. But there should be no problem authorising the BHA (which is a registered company and charity) by giving them exactly the same rights as the Quakers and then reviewing the legislation.

    There are well known problems. The Cohabitation Bill is almost attempting to reinstate Common Law Marriage. The argument against this is that people should not be forced into what is effectively a marriage contract without committing themselves to it.

    However one of the most powerful arguments in its favour is that it would provide some protection to Muslim women who enter into a Muslim religious marriage without realising that it is not recognised in English Law.

    I suggest that the best solution would be to reform the marriage law so that any organisation that meets laid down criteria for recognition can license celebrants to perform registered marriages. In turn it would be made illegal for anyone else to claim that they were preforming a marriage ceremony.

    All aspects of the Marriage Law need review, but this should not prevent Humanist marriages being recognised on the same basis as Quaker and Jewish marriages in the meantime.

  6. Commercial Marriages

    The Government report claims that "Change would open up the solemnization of legally valid marriages to a potentially large number of independent celebrants who may still be paid directly by the couple and able to benefit financially".

    This is a bit rich from a Conservative government. Opening up provision would increase choice and competition, normally the mantra of Conservative policy.

The Labour Party is taking a more sensible approach and has pledged to give legal recognition to Humanist marriages (as have the Liberals) if returned to power next year.

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