The struggle against religious privilege

Charles Bradlaugh 1833-91

Charles Bradlaugh 1833-91

Report of a meeting led by Dan Bye of the National Secular Society.

Dan Bye was a founder member of Sheffield’s Humanist Group in 1993. He has been active in the National Secular Society (NSS) for 25 years, being the longest serving member on its Council of Management.

Dan gave us some background to the founding, in 1866, by Charles Bradlaugh of the NSS. Various Socialist movements were collapsing in mid-Victorian times. One point at issue was the fact that atheists like Bradlaugh could not pursue any action in Court as they would not be able to take the Oath. Robert Owen’s group proposed a nonconformist Oath, but George Holyoake refused the idea of any Oath, and split from Owen. Holyoake coined the term ‘Secularism’ in 1851, as an ethical movement to unite all people for Social Reform.

Bradlaugh however felt that the group should be campaigning against the privilege of Church and Religion, and split to form the National Secular Society. He was very litigious, battling for 12 years to get elected as an atheist MP, a further 6 years before he was able to take his seat. Eventually, in 1888, a change in the law allowed Universal Affirmation.

The NSS is seen as a more militant organisation than the British Humanist Association. NSS has been instrumental in work towards abolishing the Blasphemy law (2008), and it has been successful in lobbying for the imminent removal of the weak ‘insulting’ term from s5 of the Public Order Act.

Dan explained that ‘secular’ in meaning is the opposite of ‘sacred’, ie not connected with religion. More recently, NSS is concentrating on a narrower definition of its work within secularism, that is on progress towards the separation of Church and State.

NSS takes a ‘strong’ principled line on such matters as religious schools (against), and against any exceptions for minority religious activities such as council money for transport to schools for some, Chaplains in hospitals, ritual slaughter of animals, prayers in Council meetings.

Early on, Dan showed a graph which confirmed that ‘religious affiliation’ has reduced with each generation – a process called secularisation.

An excellent talk and lively discussion.


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