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Freedom to believe

Second only to the Bible, the most important item on my bookshelf is the” Universal Declaration of Human Rights” agreed and published by the U.N. in 1948.

It matters so much because it affirms my “freedom of thought, conscience and religion and my freedom either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest my religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”. The importance and relevance of this document has grown as these freedoms are increasingly under attack.

Newspaper headlines record evidence of this almost on a daily basis. Sometimes it is persecution of one faith community by another and in others it is atheistic hostility to all faith communities. Thus 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have been ‘ethnically cleansed by the Burmese military who are predominantly Buddhists. Daesh have similarly murdered Christians, Yazidis and even Muslims who don’t follow their extremist ideology. Christian leaders are imprisoned in Iran and increasingly in Pakistan and Eritrea too. In some cases Sunni Moslems are attacking Shiite Muslims. Freedom of religion is not assured in Russia unless one belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church. There is a thriving underground church in parts of China but persecution in others.

It is too easy for us Britons to exclude ourselves from all this and assume we are immune from religious bigotry and persecution but we should not. There have been too many cases of Christians being sacked for manifesting their faith in public. Examples include Nadia Eweida, a Coptic Christian, who was placed on unpaid leave from her job with British Airways for wearing a necklace bearing a cross. It took her seven years to obtain justice from the European Court of Justice. A nurse was sacked for offering to pray with patients before their operations. A young relative of mine had to listen to an anti-Christian rant by his English teacher in class.

Sadly there is growing evidence of anti-religious intolerance in Briton. Last week the Archbishop of Canterbury was likened to Adolf Hitler by the National Secular Society (NSS) for a speech he made in the House of Lords in a debate on education. Opening that debate on the ‘role of education in building a flourishing and skilled society’ the Archbishop suggested  that non-religious schools fail to instil in pupils the values needed to help them to challenge utilitarianism in the world.  “This means that, for schools that are not of a religious character, confidence in any personal sense of ultimate values has diminished”. The NSS are entitled to disagree but to liken Justin Welby to Hitler was outrageous and needs to be seen in a wider context.

A British Social Attitudes Survey reveals that 75% of 18-24s say they have no religion. 40% of people in England don’t believe Jesus was a real person, just a mythological character like King Arthur. Fewer than 10% of those who identify as Christians read the Bible, pray regularly and go to church at least once a month. The result is an appallingly low level of religious literacy. The risk is that this leads to intolerance such as that experienced by Nadia Eweida and others.

The NSS is wrong when it claims that “None faith-based schools actively promote the same universal values as church schools”. They are more likely to teach what the Archbishop called “the inviolability of personal choice”. This engenders a consumerist ‘me’ centred life-style that is incompatible with Christianity or any other serious world religion. The likely consequence is that secularist intolerance will lead ultimately to the sort of persecution experienced in so many other countries. A serious national debate is needed to identify how this can be prevented so that the Universal Declaration of Rights still applies in this country. The Archbishop was right, schools have a major role to play in that debate.


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