National secular society conference – a review


On Saturday 22nd September the National Secular Society held a day conference in London. The title of the conference was “Challenging religious privilege in public life,” and speakers included well-known secularists such as Nia Griffith MP, columnist Nick Cohen, campaigner Maryam Namazie, Secularist of the Year 2012 Peter Tatchell and Richard Dawkins.

There was a small secular fair at the conference at which various secular organizations were represented, including the Secular Medical Forum, which strives to ensure people are not disadvantaged by their doctor’s religious belief. Other tables at the secular fair included the AHS (National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies), Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, and Survivors Voice Europe, a charity organization that focuses on the empowerment of survivors of Catholic clergy abuse.

Keith Porteous-Wood, the Executive Director of the National Secular Society opened the conference with a welcome speech that covered topics such as: the issues of faith schools in Britain, recent European court cases and the reform of the House of Lords.

The talks by distinguished secularists began with Professor Ted Cantle, on the topic of “Faith in the era of cohesion, diversity and globalisation.” Professor Ted Cantle highlighted how in a multi-faith society the constitution should change so that no faith in particular can have preferential treatment. Furthermore, faith schools create greater divisions than mixed schools, as children in mixed schools end up being more open minded owing to exposure to different cultures.

Nia Griffith followed Professor Ted Cantle with a talk on “Why don’t we have a more secular society already?” Her answer to this question is that tradition has a large part to play in the reluctance to move towards a secular society. Even in this day and age prayers are still given in the House of Commons. The problem is that the general population are afraid of being anti-religious, afraid that one will be considered anti-tradition or that one doesn’t have any morals without a belief in god.

After a short break Pragma Patel, a founding member of Women Against Fundamentalism, explained that the rise of religion goes hand in hand with the rise of intolerance and it is the minority women who suffer the most as a result in the UK. In the face of religion the state cannot intervene as easily when it comes to women’s rights.

Nick Cohen, an Observer columnist, followed on from Pragma Patel’s talk about women’s rights by discussing our right to freedom of speech. He explained that there exists a de facto blasphemy law in the UK in the form of self-censorship. Because of the threat of violence people are less likely to express themselves freely against the wrongs of religion.

Maryam Namazie of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain spoke on the issue raised by Nick Cohen that people are too afraid to speak freely against religion and insisted that we must not be afraid to criticise religion, especially Islam. Maryam passionately explained the importance of resisting Islamism and how by resisting it we are by no means being racist. Maryam went so far as to say that what is happening in the Islamic world at this time is almost like that of the inquisition, and stated how important it is that we resist Islamism and stop making excuses for Sharia law.

Following on from the topic of human rights, Peter Tatchell spoke on how organised religion is the greatest global threat to human rights. Freedom and liberty is threatened by religious leaders and organisations; one example would be how Catholicism has campaigned against life-saving condoms that prevent the spread of HIV.

Finally, after a short break and ‘networking,’ the keynote session featuring Richard Dawkins began. Dawkins picked up where Nick Cohen had left off on the topic of self-censorship, adding that fear is not respect and normally we do fear these people “because they are mad.” In response to ridiculous religious ideas, we should respond with witty and satirical ridicule, not aggressive ridicule but something akin to the satire in his article in the New Statesman on Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation.

Richard Dawkins then turned his attention to US politics and how all presidential candidates have to “do god” to some extent – or at least pretend that they do. What is shocking is that atheists (those who deny god) are disqualified for office according to various US state constitutions; one such state is North Carolina, which says in Article 6 Section 8 that:

The following persons shall be disqualified for office:

First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.

Not surprisingly Richard Dawkins turned his attention to Mitt Romney (a Mormon) and asked, “Can we respect a political candidate who believes in Mormonism?” and, “Should we elect people who have such ridiculous beliefs?” He was adamant that we should be sceptical of a presidential candidate’s credibility if they are so gullible as to follow any religion, not just Mormonism.

Overall the highlight of the conference had to be Maryam Namazie, who passionately spoke about the need to stop being polite about the wrongs of religion and refrain from being afraid to speak out against the injustices that it causes, which is something we should all remember.


  1. Great review. I was at the NSS conference to. Some amazing points raised regarding the importance of challenging religious priviledge. Was not aware how prayer os forced on all schools in the Uk and even in parliament! What century are we in where people can’t choose this for themselves? Sacrier yet was the presence and role of the Sharia law council in the UK!
    Good review Ruth.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.