'Systemic discrimination' against non-believers

Norwich Cathedral - a symbol of the Church of England's position as the established church in England
Norwich Cathedral - a symbol of the Church of England's position as the established church in England
Alex Stevenson By

Non-religious groups face "systemic discrimination" in Britain, an international report has found.

The alarming conclusions of the International Humanist and Ethical Union's (IHEU) report finds the influence of religion in schools has increased in recent years and removed secular options from some courses, leaving it concluding Britain is in "flux".

The IHEU's headlines are deeply troubling for non-believers. It finds 'hate speech' against non-religious people is being driven by political leaders around the world, including heads of state. It's a big shift from the typical attacks on atheists and agnostics previously led by reactionary or radical religious figures.

The Malaysian prime minister described humanism and secularism as "deviant". Saudi Arabia has passed a new law equating atheism with terrorism. Egypt's Ministry of Youth has campaigned against the "dangers of atheism" and the "threat" it poses to society, despite the Egyptian government supposedly being secular.


By contrast, Britain's non-religious people get off lightly. But the UK has not been granted the 'mostly satisfactory' rating handed to other European countries like Norway, France and Ukraine. It notes that "preferential treatment is given to a religion", "discriminatory prominence is given to religious bodies, traditions or leaders" and that "religious groups control some public or social services".

Unlike in countries like Belgium, Holland, Sierra Leone, Taiwan, Estonia and Kosovo, which were judged to be 'free and equal' states, Britain has a long list of weaknesses in the way it treats those who don't believe in God. All these, the report suggests, stem from the fact that "religious privilege remains in many spheres of UK life".

It finds efforts to legislate for humanist marriage have been delayed, partly because of the huge backlash against the coalition government's bid to legalise same-sex marriage.

It points out the Equalities Act allows religious organisations to discriminate in various ways: against potential applicants for jobs on grounds of religion or belief, for example. Places of worship were singled out for preferential tax treatment in 2012. The government even helps fund the repair and maintenance of all listed places of worship.

Sharia law remains a concern in Britain. It is in danger of putting some family matters under the jurisdiction of a parallel and discriminatory legal system. This is problematic because many of those participating don't truly understand their rights under British law.

The report also notes the increasing numbers of cases where people in important roles deploy the 'conscientious objection' legal argument to excuse themselves from doing things they really should. Magistrates have refused to handle adoptions by lesbian and gay couples, for example. Nurses have refused to treat IVF treatments. Pharmacists have refused to dispense the morning-after pill. Muslims have refused to allow their children to participate in mixed-sex PE lessons. These claims go "against the spirit of freedom of conscience", the IHEU claims.

But this week's report is at its most critical on education policy, where the proportion of state-funded schools designated with a religious character is increasing. It now stands at 34% in England, 14% in Scotland, 15% in Wales and 94% in Northern Ireland.

Discriminatory admissions policies affect pupils; discriminatory hiring policies affect teachers. Children who do attend often face religious teaching which the IHEU suggests probably breaks their human rights. In the two-thirds of state-funded schools which shouldn't have anything to do with religion, teaching about non-religious beliefs is almost entirely excluded from new qualifications for 14- to 18-year-olds.

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