East London Humanist Chair Paul Kaufman claims that secularism is the best guarantee of freedom of religion


- Credit: Archant

Queen Mary College hosted a lively debate in January on the hot topic of human rights and religious rights for the BBC1 The Big Questions show.

Participants included ­religious fundamentalists as well as members of the East London Humanist Group and other secularists.

For Humanists the programme highlighted the value of living in a secular society, a concept often misunderstood and misrepresented.

Many confuse secularism with atheism. The latter simply means a lack of religious belief, whereas secularism refers to the separation of the state from religion.

It means that everyone is free to practise their religion without interference from the state. Indeed, many religious people favour secularism.

Secularism also means that we are all subject to identical rights and obligations whatever religion or belief we have.

If we do not, dare I say it, ‘‘sing from the same hymn sheet’’, then what is the point of having laws?

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We would instead have different ‘‘menus’’ where, ­depending on your belief, you could enjoy special privileges and pick and choose whether or not to discriminate. Contributors to the programme provided interesting illustrations of where rejecting ‘‘one law for all’’ could lead us.


For example, one Muslim contributor argued for public meetings where women are segregated from men, a backward idea which flies in the face of equalities legislation.

In another exchange, a Christian, displaying a Cross, argued that Muslim women should not be permitted to wear the full face veil in public.

Although a Muslim objected to this denial of her rights, she argued that students in the audience should not be allowed to wear T-shirts she found offensive.

Of course, each of those participants should have the right to express their belief – even where this may cause offence. Secularism is the best guarantee of freedom of religion and belief we have.

However, the manifestation of that religion or belief must always be carefully weighed up against the rights of others.

For example the law cannot prevent some religious people holding views hostile to homosexuality.

It can and should prevent them from discriminating in providing services to gay people.