Bideford council and the 2 views of secularism

I have written before about what I believe to be the proper meaning of secularism. Last week, a ruling was made by the High Court about Bideford Council to the effect that prayers would no longer be allowed as an item on the agenda at the start of their meetings. The complaint had been brought about by the National Secular Society (NSS) under a claim that a former council member had been forced to partake in prayers. 

The High Court eventually ruled on an issue that was not brought up by NSS. So far as the case went that had originally been brought, the NSS lost. The former councilor’s human rights had not been breached as had been claimed. The judgment hung on the fact that prayers were not explicitly allowed by an earlier Act of Parliament. They were therefore not considered to be part of the Council’s official business and so the judge ruled against the council.

By extending the logic used in the ruling, if the serving of tea and biscuits at these meetings was not explicitly allowed then they too ought to be banned from council meetings. As has been pointed out by others, the ruling is not as landmark a case as the NSS would like it to be, as the scope is extremely limited.

What it has done is stir up a renewed interest in the role of state and religion which often seems to confuse people endlessly. This, I believe, is that while there is are loads of people who couldn’t give a toss either way, as well as many reasonable moderates, the loudest voices are those with an agenda to push. In this case, we have the NSS on one hand and we have conservative christians (such as the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey) on the other.  

My own view is that moderate secularism comes about as a consequence of the Golden Rule. Bideford Council never forced or coerced anyone into participating in prayers. Had they done so, I would not have been in support of their defence. If we are to do to others as we would have them to do us, then we should never impose our beliefs or specific “religious” practices on anyone. 

The fallacy that has been used by those who supported the NSS’s case can be demonstrated as follows: Let’s say we have 4 individuals, all with different beliefs. 

1. Prays to Jahweh
2. Pray to Allah
3. Prays to the Flying Spaghetti Monster
4. Prays to no one. 

By misrepresenting the Bideford case as a compulsion to make someone pray to an entity they did not believe in, the NSS portrayed it as person 4 being forced to comply with person 1’s beliefs. This did not actually occur, but if it had then there would be very minor human rights issue (how often have the NSS campaigned against human trafficking?). So while the moderate secularist would advocate that no one party can impose their views on another, the NSS seek as a default that person 4 be allowed to impose their views on all others. This is done by grouping together 1,2 & 3 as being “religious” and then seeking a non-religious alternative as being the view that ought to be predominant.  

In other words, the ultimate aim is to create an out of sight, out of mind political culture. As an aside, it is interesting to note that while it may be reasonable to state that we live in secular culture, the same cannot be said of our political system. One phrase I often hear used to describe Britain is a liberal, secular democracy. Of these 3 words, I don’t think any of them accurately describe our politics. We presently have a Conservative-led government which is demonstrating that it values the pound more than the person, thus dispelling the myth that government is liberal. The head of state, the queen, is unelected and is also outside of the jurisdiction of some laws (for example, she cannot be sued), which shows that the idea of democracy is a joke. Then, to top it all off, the queen is also the head of a national state religion, which puts pay to the idea of the state being secular.


I don’t buy into the rhetoric that says that christians in this country are being persecuted. If so, then you might as well say that a fruit fly buzzing past your ear is a persecution. It does a disservice to those places (and here I am thinking of the Sudan and Nigeria) where people have been murdered for being christians. The particular case in Bideford is really of limited importance. What is important is that the extreme and intolerant voices be exposed for the folly that they put forth, and to actively push to change our politics to become more liberal, secular and democratic, so as to be a fair reflection of the society it purports to serve.

2 responses to “Bideford council and the 2 views of secularism

  1. Interesting and thoughtful observations. However, I disagree with your assertion that what the NSS is wanting is for person 4 to impose their views on 1 to 3. Insofar as the outcome of the Bideford case goes, it’s not true. The pursuers of the case were purely wanting the praying to no-one to happen within the realm of a constituted, formal local government meeting. For persons 1 to 3 to pray to whoever they like, with whoever they like, is unchanged by this ruling. The issue is not about suppressing Christianity, but giving it the same rights and freedoms as other religions and not have privilege over them.

    It’s a tricky one though, and I am sure it (or the wider narrative of church and state) will run and run.

  2. I think it may be that I’m just a little more cynical. There is a subtle but important difference between:

    a) Removing religious priviledge from public institutions, and
    b) Removing religion from public institutions.

    While the NSS often proclaim a message of a) I can’t escape the conclusion that their real aim is b), or at least the aim of many of their members and leaders, even if it is not stated as such in their formal policy.

    The implications of the Bideford case are very limited, but the debate needs to be had. I just cringe when I read what George Carey and Baroness Warsi have said.