Why religion shouldn't enjoy special favour
Allan Hayes reflects on his year as humanist chaplain to the Lord Mayor of Leicester
My year as Chaplain to the Lord Mayor has been an interesting and rewarding experience; meeting people from different communities has been a particular pleasure. The year started with some tension over the Civic Service in the cathedral. It proved impossible to agree on a way that I as a humanist could give a short address in what was a Christian service. As a consequence the Lord Mayor, the Lady Mayoress and I felt unable to attend the event.
The same problem could arise for any other non-Christian chaplain. This raises the obvious question: in a diverse city with people from a variety of religions and with many who do not belong to a religion, shouldn't a civic event be one in which we can all feel part and to which we can all contribute – a celebration of today's Leicester for all by all? I think so.
I have tried to encourage dialogue and improve understanding by my letters and other activities. I am grateful to the Mercury for carrying these and to individuals and organisations that have helped.
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During the year there have been repeated attempts to pin words like "aggressive", "extreme" and "militant" on secularists and atheists and accuse them of trying to exclude religion from the public space: this is a dangerous tactic, but fortunately, we have largely avoided it in Leicester.
Secularists recognise that religions are important to many and should contribute to the public debate, but insist that this must be done openly and through the normal democratic process: religions should not be embedded in the state structure or specially privileged. We are joined in this view by many within the religions who favour a secular state.
However, while pursuing dialogue and understanding, we should not overlook the facts that are being created on the ground.
The urgent issue now to my mind is whether our schools will help our children grow up together or will separate them by religion. The new free schools can be proposed by a local group or an outside body and be approved by the Secretary of State with very little local consultation. For a start, a Hindu free school, eventually to take 420 pupils, is opening in Evington in September next to St Paul's Roman Catholic school. I am told that other free faith schools are being proposed in the city. Change could come quickly and could damage both community schools and social cohesion. My experience as humanist representative on the Leicester Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (SACRE) shows me that most families are very happy with how our community schools deal with religion. I would ask that if they hear of proposals for faith schools they get in touch with local head teachers and discuss the situation.
Allan Hayes, is director of the Leicester Secular Society.