Au Revoir Laïcité: 8 years on the forefront of secularist activism

My reflections on leaving the National Secular Society to take on a new role in humanist community building.

I joined the National Secular Society in March 2014 as a campaigns assistant, and leave as head of education. Over the last eight years, I’ve worked with some brilliant colleagues, and incredible supporters. So, I thought I’d share eight takeaways from my time at the NSS.

1. The work I’m most proud of

None of my work at the NSS would have been possible without the rest of the team and our supporters. There are some big things I’m proud of such as launching the ground breaking Choice Delusion project looking at how many families are locked out of their nearest state school because of religious selection, or conversely left with no choice but a faith school. Other important pieces of work I’ve led on include Religiosity inspections: the case against faith-based reviews of state schools and Power grab: Academisation and the threat to secular education, each the first major research project looking at these specific problems of religious control of state education. I’m also proud of my work launching the NSS podcast, and the many brilliant activists I got to meet through this project and other events.

2. What does success look like?

It’s difficult looking back on eight years of dedicated activism for a cause to see many major tangible successes. While we have made incremental gains in many areas, religious privilege seems as entrenched in state education (and other areas of public policy) as ever before.

Eight years ago I would have predicted successes like ending discriminatory school admissions and starting a serious debate on moving away from faith-based state education. I would have said success would be getting the bishops out of an elected upper house, and starting a serious debate on disestablishment. Instead, I’ve had to come to see successful holding actions, and the slower building of public support for these positions as their own form of success.

My entire time at the NSS has been under Conservative governments determined to increase religions’ role in education and public services. Faith schools and religious selection haven’t expanded at anything like the rate threatened, and we haven’t seen a mass transfer of public services to religious providers.

3. 2014 was a different time

Ten years ago the NSS was still riding the surge in public interest and membership from the ‘new atheist’ movement, but had already moved away from promoting atheism to being a true secularist organisation, challenging religious privilege, while respecting everyone’s freedom of and from religion.

Spring of 2014 saw the legalisation of same-sex marriage in England & Wales. It felt like the country was on a clearly liberalising trend and dogmatism was in political retreat. Secularism and the challenging of religious privilege felt like it was gaining more political traction, and certainly had more media coverage. The country was clearly on the path to a nonreligious majority, and it felt natural to assume that this was going to translate into political change.

4. An inclusive secularism

As the NSS’s resident ‘social justice warrior’ I always tried to stand for an inclusive secularism: one that is fundamentally tolerant of differences in worldviews, but is unabashedly progressive. I’ve tried to make my secularism – and that of the NSS – feminist, anti-racist, LGBTQ inclusive, and focused on the harms of religious privilege, rather than religious beliefs.

5. Secular literacy

One of the things I’m most continuously shocked by is the lack of understanding of secularism (and related AHS+ ideas) among those most crucial to informing our public debate on religion and belief. It’s disheartening to meet experienced religious education teachers or prominent religious affairs journalists with such little understanding.

6. Religious allies

Over the years I’ve read tens and tens of thousands of petition comments, and people’s reasons for supporting campaigns usually revolve around the values of freedom and fairness shared by most people regardless of faith or belief. Anti-religious comments were relatively rare and prejudiced anti-religious comments were extraordinarily rare.

If I have one regret from my last decade in secularist activism, it is the relative lack of success in bringing more progressive religious allies with us. Time and again, polling and personal experience shows that many religious people support broadly secularist positions. Progressive religious people don’t want religion to be privileged, or used as a basis for discrimination or control of others’ lives. But this doesn’t translate into pressure to change the status quo. Unfortunately, many religious people continue to see secularism as a threat to religious freedom.

7. My personal journey

I grew up at the NSS, got engaged, got married, moved houses more times than I care to remember, went through a global pandemic, lost a parent, made new friends, travelled the country and had two wonderful sons. My time at the NSS helped shape my moral, political and personal outlook in uncountable ways.

8. Next steps

I’m moving to Humanists UK to work on supporting the development of local humanist groups. If you’ve followed my community matters series, you’ll know that this is one of the issues I’m most passionate about. As the leading charity representing the nonreligious, Humanists UK is in a unique position to support such communities.

The National Secular Society is a vital organisation in the fight against religious privilege, discrimination and control in our society. I wish them every success, and leave with much love in my heart for the institution and my colleagues.

Thanks for reading

What do you think? Have we met through my work at the National Secular Society? Are you a member? What should the priorities for secular activism in the UK be?

Please get in touch or comment below to let me know what you thought of this, or any of my articles, and if you want to hear more. If you value this content and are able to financially support it, £2 or more a month would help with hosting and other costs, and help improve my content.

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How will the UK’s nonreligious majority impact older generations?

The discourse on Britain’s developing nonreligious majority has focused on the increase in younger generations leaving or being raised without religion. Much of my writing on humanist community building has focused on improving groups’ offer to younger more diverse generations and families. However, while age and religiosity remain strongly negatively correlated, older age groups are also becoming steadily less religious. What impacts might this have on organised nonreligious communities and wider society?

Background

Between the 2001 and 2011 Census (usual caveats apply) the nonreligious population figure for England and Wales went from 16% to 27%. Most of this rise was driven by younger less religious generations. However, between the 2001 and 2011 Census the proportion of nonreligious over 65 year-olds rose from 5% to 9%, among over 75 year-olds the nonreligious proportion rose from 4% to 7%, and those over 85 went from 3% to 6% nonreligious.

The British Social Attitudes Survey has shown ta steady rise in the nonreligious population from 31% in 1983 to 52% in 2018. I don’t have a UK Data Service ID to download the full data including age breakdowns for all surveys, but would be happy to update this post with that data. The ever useful British Religion in Numbers website’s analysis shows that in 2015 people aged 65-74 were 34% nonreligious, and people aged 75+ were 24% nonreligious.

1. Service needs (wider society)

Government policymakers and civil society continually fail to engage with the UK’s demographic shift towards nonreligion. Much of my professional focus in this regard has been on education, but this failure also has specific impacts on older people.

Religious organisations remain important voluntary providers of social services and support for older people. But these are institutions in decline and these levels can’t be relied upon forever. Rather than investing more in the secular delivery of public services, successive governments have increased state funding for religious organisations’ service delivery, despite all the problems this can bring.

Research shows that older LGBT people in care homes are finding themselves forced back into the closet due. Could older nonreligious people reliant on religiously affiliated services and a continuing assumption of elderly religiosity from service providers, face a similar experience?

While older people will on average continue being more religious for some time, public services need to move on from the casual assumption of (at least passive) religiosity. Very little is being done to challenge this assumption, but a good example may be the government’s 2019 guidance on making civic crematoria less exclusively Christian.

2. Service needs (organised nonreligious communities)

As someone who speaks at or has been involved with a lot of humanist and other AHS+ groups over the years, I am well aware of the (often misleading) stereotype of these being small groups of retirees. While groups absolutely need to attract younger members, they also need to consider their offer to increasingly nonreligious older people. They may need to invest more in accessible venues, social activities during otherwise working hours and social support. Demand for humanist funerals is also likely to continue increasing.

This could be seen as conflicting with support for younger members, if we think of a one size fits all approach to organised nonreligion. But there is no reason that strong nonreligious communities can’t have multiple distinct and overlapping offer to different groups.

3. The end of ‘doing it for the grandparents’ religiosity?

Parents engage in a large range of religious sustaining activities and faith formation, often not based on their own personal beliefs or preferences. It’s a bit of a cliché, but how often do you hear that a church wedding, christening, choice of a faith school, or even circumcision would “make grandma happy” or is “what grandad would have wanted”? Because of the correlation, there is often an assumption that older people are more religious potentially at the expense of their actual wishes.

As those grandparents become less religious, that intergenerational expectation is likely to diminish, or be replaced with a less salient more amorphous sense of tradition. We may even see a nonreligious expectation affect – “let’s get a humanist naming ceremony for the baby, it would make grandma so happy”.

Twenty years ago there was virtually no literature on humanist or other nonreligious parenting. Where grandparents are mentioned in this increasing genre, the focused is often on managing conflict between nonreligious parenting and religious grandparents. There may be a shift in the literature towards more positive nonreligious grandparental models.

4. Sustainability of organised nonreligious communities

Often humanist and other AHS+ groups fail to attract volunteers particularly in the 25-50 age range because they are simply so busy with work and family commitments. Groups should be working to make it easier for all age ranges to participate. However, realistically retired people and those without fulltime childcare responsibilities, have far more availability for volunteering. More older nonreligious people, particularly in the 50-70 age bracket could dramatically increase the volunteer pool for such communities.

Legacy income is crucial to the whole of the UK’s third sector including both religious and nonreligious organisations. This is worth £3bn a year in England and Wales, and is rising. Yet according to Smee and Fords’ Legacy Trends Report 2021, “the proportion of bequests left to religious organisations is beginning to decrease year on year.” Without being insensitive, AHS+ organisations need to recognise that more nonreligious old people, combined with younger people shying away from paid membership, means that legacy income will be an increasing proportion of their funding. Managed right (remembering that legacies are more likely to be left to well established, well run institutions) this could provide serious long term investment in the movement’s sustainability.

5. Impact on religious privilege issues

A lot has been written on the challenges posed to institutional religion by societal secularisation. So much focus has been on how the churches are losing younger generations, that the loss of adherence among the older generations has had far less specific attention.

People generally remaining nonreligious, despite fluctuations, as they transition into older age brackets, continues to dash British Christianity’s three quarters of a century long hope that the rise of nonreligion is just a young people’s fad to be grown out of. The established Church of England operates as an increasingly geriatric tontine, and should start seriously considering what to do with its billions when its membership ages out.

This goes beyond simple demographic replacement driving mainstream British Christianity towards extinction. Secularisation is taking place within those older demographic brackets. Returning to the British Religion in Numbers analysis above, in the 2015 BSA Survey, the 65-74 and 75 demographics showed the largest proportional difference between being nonreligious and being raised nonreligious.

Christian churches will be running out of the predominantly older volunteers needed not only to provide for their religious and social services, but those services most focused on maintaining those churches institutional and state privileges.

Partly due to our disastrous housing market, and partly as older people are more active voters, they have disproportionate political power. The political establishment’s extreme deference to institutional religion may be more transformed by rising nonreligion in these demographics than the much higher levels of nonreligion among younger less active voters. This could also affect media including printed newspapers and BBC radio, with disproportionately older demographics and a similar bias towards religious privilege.

This could impact the whole industry based on selling Christian persecution fantasies to predominantly older religious people uncomfortable with the speed of social change and nostalgic about an imagined homogeneous past.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you think. Are humanist and other AHS+ communities doing enough to respond to the needs of increasing nonreligious older generations? How are civil society and other social services responding to this shift? How can this be balanced against attracting younger members? Do you expect currently majority nonreligious generations to remain so into older age?

Please get in touch or comment below to let me know what you thought of this, or any of my articles and if you want to hear more. If you value this content and are able to financially support it, £2 or more a month would help with hosting and other costs, help improve our content.

You can also support this content by liking and sharing this post, or connecting on Twitter and Facebook.

Photo information: Silhouette Photography of Group of People Jumping during Golden Time, Belle Co

Should we prefer secular polling places to churches?

The practical benefits of churches as polling places needs to be weighed against the potential impacts on priming and exclusion when considering their suitability, and this balance may shift in an increasingly irreligious society.

Democracy is an important humanist value. I vote in person – despite knowing my political party would prefer a postal vote – because of the value placed in this secular ritual: greeting the tellers, thanking the poll staff and any volunteers as they look up your name, and of course most importantly #DogsAtPollingStations*. I’ve voted in schools, community centres, and a few churches. I generally prefer secular polling places, but it’s a weak preference informed by more interesting flyers on the noticeboard more than anything else.

* Technically this should be Dogs at polling places, as these are the buildings that host individual polling stations. But pedantry shouldn’t distract from a cute dog in a rosette.

In the 2018-20 compulsory periodic review of polling places my village ticked over some formula of population or distance to qualify for a second polling place serving its western half. A local church has been selected, but I do feel glad that I’ll continue to vote at the community centre.

There are good practical reasons for churches and other religious buildings to be selected as polling places. While guidance makes no reference to religious considerations, great emphasis is placed on size, location, accessibility and availability. Local authorities have the right to commandeer schools free of charge, however these may not be available at short notice and the use of other council owned assets such as leisure centres can mean lost income. Churches meanwhile are usually empty and happy to host polling stations, both out of altruism, and in an effort to remain engaged with an increasingly secular civic life.

Concerns

Over the years as a secularist activist I’ve had the occasional and varied complaint from members at the public either slightly miffed or genuinely aggrieved at having to vote in a church.

While churches using polling day to proselytise is unlikely, I’ve often seen the manipulative Alpha Course being advertised, along with other church activities being promoted. Though to be fair, I always check the community centre noticeboard when voting. The main concerns with religious polling places are priming, and exclusion.

Priming, in a political context, is the intentional or nonintentional tendency of external factors to influence our framing of and weight given to political issues. Churches’ association with political and social conservatism and tradition may subtly prime voters towards such attitudes. Part of the reason for voting on Thursdays in the UK is to reduce the impact of impact of religious sermons on voting behaviour.

It is impossibly to have a polling pace that is entirely neutral, with no priming effect. Vote in a school and you may be subtly influenced towards parties with better records on education, a community centre may prime other civic values, vote in a pub and you may be influenced by parties’ policies on drinks tax etc. There is evidence in the US of voting in, or in sight of, churches, priming more conservative voting behaviour. Such priming may be more important in some elections than others, or even within the same category of setting. For example, voting in a local village pub may have less of a priming effect than voting in a Weatherspoon’s given the latter’s prominent Brexit views.

We should also appreciate that many find churches exclusionary and deeply discriminatory organisations. Many people are victims of religious abuse and can legitimately find it uncomfortable or even triggering to have to attend a church to exercise their democratic rights.

A final concerns is an indirect one. If churches keep being selected as polling places, does this indicate a lack of provision for secular community spaces?

Impact

There is a lot more research on the potential impact of these problems in a US context, though I was unable to find any looking at the UK. Previous FoI requests to the Electoral Commission show that any complaints of this nature are categorised in such a way that data can’t be provided. Given our extreme sensitivity to potentially inappropriate political priming at polling places, the impact of religious priming should at least be explored. We regularly hear complaints about everything from the size of tellers’ rosettes to the newspapers read and left out by poll officers – though again the Electoral Commission doesn’t appear to hold data on these.

Even if churches or other religious buildings could be shown to have a limited priming effect in previous elections, new electoral cleavages can emerge quickly. For example, UK opinion pollsters relatively recently began weighting their polls by education in an effort to improve their models in response to increasing political populism and the salience of ‘culture war’ issues. At present no major UK pollster weights their voting intention polls by religion. However, both education and religiosity are highly correlated with partisan identity and ‘culture war’ issues.

I’d also be interested in the impact of non-Christian religious polling places. Would voting in a mosque or temple prime more positive or negative associations with religious and ethnic minorities? Would Christians be more sensitive to concerns over the suitability of churches if they had to vote in another religious building, and would such sensitivity be driven by increased empathy, or by prejudice? Do religious buildings associated with more conservative, stronger or more discriminatory beliefs have a greater potential for inappropriate priming or exclusion?

We don’t know if the potential priming or exclusionary effect of religious polling places will increase, decrease or be unaffected by our continuing move towards a post-religious majority. In a less religious society fewer people may have experienced religious abuse and so see churches as less exclusionary. The declining social relevance of religious institutions may decrease any priming power, or lead to an increased association with conservatism.

The attractiveness of churches as polling places is heavily based on their availability. Religion may have declined to a sweet spot where those churches are more likely to be empty, but still maintained. Will this always be the case? The CofE – despite huge financial assets – draws heavily on public funds to maintain its churches. These may be less readily available in future, and the CofE have already controversially floated plans to abandon their parish system.

Conclusion

I’d like to see more research about this topic. Though I don’t think any of the major humanist or secularist organisations necessarily should or will actively campaign on or prioritise this issue, it’s fair to raise these concerns. Equally, one can treat these concerns with seriousness and sensitivity, while concluding that the practical benefits of churches as polling places win out on balance.

If you are concerned about any inappropriate behaviour at, or selection of, a religious polling place you should speak to your (acting) returning officer. You could also consider writing to the Electoral Commission, and commenting on the regular compulsory review of polling places in your electoral district. You could even ask appropriate secular locations to put themselves forward.

Personally, I would advocate a weak preference for secular polling places, combined with reporting of any serious concerns.

What do you think? Should we have a strong, weak or no preference for, or against, either secular or religious buildings as voting locations? Have you ever experienced an issue? Is this likely to be more or less of a problem as society becomes more diverse and irreligious?

Thanks for reading

Please get in touch or comment below to let me know what you thought of this, or any of my articles and if you want to hear more. If you value this content and are able to financially support it, £2 or more a month would help with hosting and other costs, help improve our content.

You can also support this content by liking and sharing this post, or connecting on Twitter and Facebook.

Photo information: Close Up Photo of Vote stickers on People’s Fist, Mikhail Nilov

NI education conference shows cause for secularist hope

The National Secular Society recently held an online conference on inclusive education in Northern Ireland. Here, Alastair Lichten shares the videos from the conference and thoughts on the speakers’ key messages.

Education in Northern Ireland features levels of religious privilege, discrimination, segregation, and control not seen anywhere else in the UK. Entrenched religious interests make reforms extremely difficult. However, we are continuing to see broad, cross-community and grassroots support for a more pluralistic, integrated approach.

The ‘NSS articles’ category contains links to my opinion pieces, written while a campaigns officer or head of education for the National Secular Society, before June 2022. You can read the full original of this article here >>>

Photo credit: Blog Blocks Wallpaper – Miguel Á. Padriñán

Theocracies and humanism in science fiction

Theocracies –states or societies ruled by religion – make for interesting settings and alternative worlds in science fiction and fantasy. Like many other tropes or allegories in the genre, they allow us to hold up a mirror to our own society, and in particular to question the consequences of dogmatism and religious power.

This article isn’t anything like an exhaustive list, but just some of my favourite and most interesting examples.

Stargate

The principal baddies in the 1994 Roland Emmerich blockbuster Stargate, and for most of the film’s main spin off TV series Stargate SG-1, are the Goa’uld. This snake-like parasitic alien race use their enslaved subject races – including humans – as hosts and have created a religious structure with themselves playing the role of gods demanding worship and allegiance. They fly around the galaxy in pyramid space ships and dressing up as various casually racist stereotypes.

The series began to engage with questions of theocracy and freedom of belief in greater depths in its final two series. Following the final defeat of the Goa’uld, the show had a major refresh of characters and focus in source mythology. The new main villains introduced were the Ori. These powerful aliens had also set themselves up as gods – though with an actually fleshed out religion (Origin) rather than simply a control structure. They are related to another ancient quasi-supernatural species (things get a little complicated after 214 episodes not counting movies and spin offs) but are contrasted by their concern with worldly power rather than spiritual enlightenment. The Ori have a clerical class, (the Priors) and many voluntary well intentioned followers, who eventually launch an evangelistic crusade of the Milky Way.

The direct to video movie Stargate: The Ark of Truth which completes this story arc also raises interesting questions of freedom of belief. The titular Ark of Truth uses the same sci-fi magic the Ori use to indoctrinate followers of Origin to reveal the truth that the Ori are not god – destroying their religion and ending their attempted conquest of the galaxy.

Star Trek

The world’s largest multimedia science fiction franchise has had a lot to say about religion and theocracies over the years. Though the treatment of such ideas in the eras of ‘original’, ‘next generation’ and ‘modern’ Trek are noticeably different. Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry was a committed humanist, and his humanist vision has had huge direct and indirect influences on the franchise.

In The Original Series the crew of the USS Enterprise typically encountered a ‘planet of the week’. A recurring theme was encountering a dystopian society controlled by a self-appointed god or antagonistic god-like being. The enlightened Federation crew expose a scientific explanation behind or outsmart the ‘monster of the week’ before moving on. A typical example sees the crew of the Enterprise held captive by the Greek god Apollo. Similar themes are explored in the Star Trek: The Next Generation. The episode Who Watches the Watchers, includes a storyline where Captain Picard is mistaken for a deity, though no theocracy is proclaimed in his name. The godlike alien race known individually and collectively as Q could arguably be seen as a theocracy though uniquely one where all members of the society have gods status.

The Star Trek: Voyager episode Distant Origin takes on the creationism and anti-scientific dogmatism prominent in the clash between the emerging new atheist movement and the Christian religious right. Though in 1997 this had limited penetration in the public consciousness, the episode’s writer Brannon Braga saw it as being a metaphor for the relationship between Galileo Galilei and the Catholic Church. The episode features the Voth, an advanced alien species who outlaw heretical theories of their evolution from dinosaurs (it’s complicated) as an explicit “crime against doctrine”.

Perhaps the most interesting exploration of theocracies and freedom of belief comes in the series Deep Space Nine. The series’ principal antagonists are the Dominion, intended as a dark mirror of the Federation. Both are huge multi-system multi-species political entities. But whereas the Federation is democratic and egalitarian, the Dominion is authoritarian and hierarchical. Whereas the Federation is humanistic, the Dominion is explicitly theocratic. While there is no formal religious system, the Founders proclaim themselves as gods and the creators or elevators of specific chosen species. All aspects of Dominion society are geared towards veneration of the Founders, and hierarchal control mechanisms are heavily ritualised.

The Federation notably do not demand that the Founders emancipate their subject races in their terms of surrender. Perhaps knowing this would effectively demand the Founders give up their position of godhood, the Federation feels this would violate their Prime Directive of cultural non-interference. Coming at the close of the series, the moral implications of this approach – compared to the theological dethroning of the Ori in Stargate – are not explored.

The titular Deep Space Nine orbits the planet of Bajor a virtually mono-religious society. If not an open theocracy, the Bajoran religion is the principal political and cultural actor on a planet ravaged by an occupation that left few other functional institutions. This embrace of positive religious themes was seen as part of Star Trek’s move away from Gene Roddenberry’s humanist vision for the franchise. Notably, the series lead Commander, then Captain, Sisko, is the first human character in Star Trek shown as having religious beliefs as a Bajoran religious leader (the Space Jesus trope deserves its own essay). While the clearly secular Star Fleet make cultural allowances for many alien religions, Sisko often finds conflicts between his role as religious emissary and officer.

You have to wonder though what the social status of unbelieving Bajorans or those of minority religions would be? The Bajorans have their own version of Satan – the Pah-wraiths are the ancient evil rivals to the Prophets for control of the wormhole/Celestial Temple. The Pah-wraiths received a cult in reaction to perceived failings of the Prophets. How would those sympathetic to this minority religion be treated by wider society?

Later Trek took on a more New Agey ‘everything is true’ approach to religion. Many species in Star Trek are presented as monocultures with various aspects of that culture being embedded in quasi-religious traditions – such as those around Vulcan logic or Klingon honour. This reflects Gene Roddenberry’s humanist and spiritualist ideas about the future of human society.

The Klingons are particularly interesting. Their empire’s founding father Kahless and other legendary figures are deified. But the Klingons explicitly do not have gods as “Ancient Klingon warriors slew them a millennia ago. They were more trouble than they were worth.” This is assumed to be a mythologised telling of the Klingons’ overthrow of an occupying alien species in their distant past, who perhaps set themselves up as gods.

The Orville

Seth MacFarlane’s comedy homage to Star Trek the Next Generation, returns to that generation of Trek’s general approach to religious societies and theocracies, but with more modern storytelling sensibilities. The most explicit examples are the episodes If the Stars Should Appear and Mad Idolatry.

The first of these features the crew discovering a 2,000-year-old derelict colony ship. Inside is an artificial biosphere and a civilization of three million who worship ‘Dorahl’ – a deified mythical figure evolved from their captain. Captains or original colonist crew being deified is also a pretty common trope. The society living on the ship have created a theocratic government imposing the death penalty on any “Reformers” who believe an outside world exists. The Orville’s crew eventually expose the falsity of these beliefs by opening the ships windows exposing the stars. Everything is wrapped up by the end of the episode with the assumption that this demonstration of facts and logic will peacefully sweep the theocracy aside with no long term social problems or ethical dilemmas for the heroes to worry about.

The episode Mad Idolatry is pretty much a straight lift and mash up of two episodes of Star Trek, but has some more interesting reflections. The crew visit a planet with a Bronze Age society and accidently encounter a local. They later learn that the planet magic sci-fi phases in and out of our universe every 11 days, with 700 years passing for the inhabitants. The planet is now in a Middle Ages level of development and an authoritarian theocratic state worshiping a deified version of the Orville crew member encountered 700 years earlier. Horrified by the level of religious persecution done in her name, the crew member Kelly Grayson visits the planet’s religious leader and exposes the truth. But the next 700 year shift shows that this truth has been kept hidden by the church. Now at a 21st-century level of development, the planet appears to have shifted from a singular theocracies to a society of extreme religious strife. The next 700 year shift sees the planet evolve to a comparable technological level. Representatives of the planet and the Orville crew discuss their apparently shared deterministic view that all societies must go through a ‘religious phase’ before gaining a more secular and scientific worldview.

Honorverse and Safehold

Prolific military science fiction writer David Webber is a United Methodist lay preacher, and the role of religion for good and ill is a major recurring theme in his work. His Honorverse series – basically Horatio Hornblower in space – features two prominent theocracies in the Protectorate of Grayson and Masada. Both theocracies were founded by colonists of the Church of Humanity Unchained. Religious organisations being major sponsors of interstellar colonisation is also a common theme in sci-fi – reflecting the influence of American westward expansion on the genre.

The two theocracies and their split following a civil war are used to illustrate the idea that religious extremism  is the problem, rather than religiously based states being inherently problematic. The conflicts between the Graysons and their extreme Masada cousins, and tensions with their more secular allies, provides a lot of room for social commentary.

Representations of ‘good’ theocratic states are understandably rare in science fiction. But the protagonist faction – the Manticoran Alliance – features another implied theocratic monarchy in the form of the Caliphate of Zanzibar. This Islamic state is not explored much in the books. However, one small fun detail is that their flag ranks are indicated by doubled crescent moon collar insignia, rather than planets used by other space navies in the series.

Theocracy and freedom of belief are more central themes in Webber’s Safehold series. Set largely in the 31st century, the planet of Safehold is humanity’ last refuge fleeing an interstellar war. The pre-industrial technology level imposed to avoid detection by the genocidal alien Gbaba is enforced by a global religious system set up by the ‘archangels’ of the original colonising mission, and upheld by the Church of God Awaiting.

The series follows a religious war between the nations loyal to the Church, and the independent Empire of Charis with its own more humanistic and reform minded Church of Charis. Along the way centuries of technological evolution unfolds in a matter of years. By establishing freedom of thought, Charis hopes to gradually undermine the single theocratic authority of the Church of God Awaiting and eventually undermine the technological restrictions.

Webber frequently uses extreme pluralism and diverse religious perspectives to make the case for non-confessional and at least loosely secular states. However, given how important these themes are in his work and Webber’s skill at writing such ideologically and religiously diverse characters, it’s surprising how bad he is at writing humanist or nonreligious perspectives.

Unlike the Safehold series, outside of a few particular planetary societies the Honorverse series makes no attempt to explain why religious belief would continue to be such a widespread default among interstellar human civilisation – let alone what any nonreligious characters would think of this.

Theocracies show up in a lot of military science fiction. Often this serves a storytelling shortcut providing an ideological reason for militarism and conquest where within the science fiction setting resource motivated warfare is irrational. Off the top of my head, the Halo franchise’s Covenant and Christopher G. Nuttall’s Angel in the Whirlwind Series are good examples.

We Are Legion (We Are Bob)

This series by Dennis E. Taylor – brilliantly narrated by: Ray Porter – features FAITH, an acronym obsessed US Christian Nationalist theocracy. FAITH are cartoonishly evil and over the top in a fun way. They rose to power in a backlash against the social liberalisation of the United Sates’ ‘first’ openly atheistic president, they are constantly riven by factionalism between different extremes, and demand public piety while tolerating a greater degree of private dissent.

The whole series is so unique and interesting that I want to avoid spoilers. Basically, software company founder and unabashed geek Bob Johansson has his body frozen, only to be woken up a century later to serve as the computer for a space colonisation probe. FAITH’s pre/post-apocalyptic and post-Earth forms are very much secondary protagonists, and I may not have included it on this list. But Bob’s humanism and its effects on his and his clones’ (it gets complicated) decision making and philosophy is a major theme.

Dennis E. Taylor explains the reasons that he “had to create a theocracy” for the story to work in an interview about the series.

His Dark Materials

Much of the anti-theocratic and pro-humanist messaging of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials flew over my head as a child, along with its commentary on the clash between religion and science, and the need to manage amoral science with human morality.

The Holy Church’s Magisterium rules over the world where the story begins, and its sister theocracies rule over many parallel worlds in the name of The Authority. In a commentary on the claims of theocracies to speak for gods while advancing their own interests, and twist on Nietzsche’s “God is dead”, it is revealed that The Authority is actually a captured elderly and frail tool of the Magisterium and is easily killed.

One of the most interesting ideas in the series is that of the Republic of Heaven, a kind of antonym to the Kingdom of Heaven, where the despotic authority of god is overthrown and replaced with democracy, and freedom of thought. The Republic is established in a parallel universe in preparation for a final battle. However, this is shown to be an act of hubris by Lord Asriel, and the protagonists eventually realise that establishing societies truly free from controlling theocracies such as the Magisterium requires more difficult work.

Near future dystopian theocracies

I’ve already written quite a bit about this subgenre. Cassandra characters and the looming threat of theocracy looks at the common thread of ‘Cassandra Character’ or ‘Ignored Expert’ in the Handmaid’s Tale, Christian Nation, and Vox. These are all very explicitly warnings about the danger posed by White Christian Nationalism. Incidentally, Andrew Seidel has put together a very useful list of non-fiction books exploring the same theme.

I could have added V for Vendetta to that loose Christian Nationalist trilogy, though I am more familiar with the film. The fictional political party Norsefire is explicitly Christofascistic, and an explicit warning about the ability of fascists to co-opt authoritarian power structures. In the film version Valerie Page, a lesbian actor imprisoned for her sexuality, or Evey Hamond’s politically active parents, could both be seen as examples of specific Cassandra character.

As Jacques Berlinerblau, author of Secularism: The Basics, recommended The Plot Against America – an alternative in a similar style depicting the experiences of Anti-Semitism of the Roth family during a Charles Lindbergh presidency. Another commentor recommended I mention If This Goes On by Robert A. Heinlein – a short story set in a future theocratic America ruled by the latest in a series of fundamentalist Christian “Prophets”, and It Can’t Happen Here, though I don’t know enough to call these representations of fascism and national populism theocratic. The latter is often erroneously credited with originating the phrase that ‘When Fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross’.

Another commentator recommended the Sliders episode California Reich as what they imagine a White Christian Nationalist government to be. The premise of Sliders is visiting alternative Earths each of which have diverged from our own at some point in history. I’ve been unable to track down another episode of Sliders that featured a more explicit theocratic society, making an analogy to Newt Gingrich’s embrace of the ‘Moral Majority’ movement. On a similar note, another commentator recommended The Fifteen Percent Solution – an alternative history depicting the rise and fall of a theocratic state of New American Republics temporarily fulfilling Patrick Buchanan’s ambition of a “sovereign America and that is the sovereign of God himself”.

Others

Thanks everyone who responded to my requests for examples. Zachary Bos of Bonfire Bookshop suggested the theocracy page on TV Tropes, which had some great examples. But I wanted to stick to examples where I had some existing familiarity or something to say.

So I haven’t included recommendations like War Hammer 40k, Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods, Final Fantasy, the Holy See from Berserk, Hyperion’s sequel Endymion, Dune Messiah, or many others. Various people also had a lot to say about whether the Jedi/Sith count as theocracies and other examples from the Star Wars extended universe.

I got a lot of suggestions, but decided not to include examples of fictional societies analogous to theocracies. 1984 came up a few times, as did stories involving various God-Emperor or leadership cults. While I wouldn’t include 1984 on this list, I would include Ben Elton’s homage Blind Faith. The story’s anti-intellectualism, rejection of science and individualism is explicitly institutionalised via a state religion, “The Temple”, and the underground resistance network is explicitly humanist.

Small societies organised around religious sects or cults are such a common trope in post-apocalyptic fiction that I couldn’t pick out any particularly interesting examples. I also don’t think these are as useful as allegories or warnings about current society.

The only exception I’d make to that is one of my favourite examples – the Holy Russian Empire from World War Z. One of the book’s themes is the impact of national and cultural identity on responding to crises. We’re not being overrun by zombies in 2022, but the warning of how Russia could turn to concepts of traditionalism and Christian Nationalism to reclaim lost prestige is prescient.

Emma Park (editor of the Freethinker) suggested that depending on whether you classify the Bible as fiction, the Old Testament stories of Moses and the Exodus through to the Israelite kings could be considered an example, and even etymological root of the word ‘theocracy’. But I’d already stretched the definition of ‘sci-fi’ a little far, and already had to miss out on so many examples.

I could have explored whether the monotheistic Cylons of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica franchise could be considered a theocracy. You could even argue that the polytheistic humans’ colonial society could have some theocratic elements.

So, over to you: what are your favourite representations of theocracy in fiction? Can you think of examples from beyond sci-fi and fantasy? What warnings do the theocracies of fictional worlds have for us in the real world?

Thanks for reading

Please get in touch or comment below to let me know what you thought of this, or any of my articles and if you want to hear more. If you value this content and are able to financially support it, £2 or more a month would help with hosting and other costs, help improve our content.

You can also support this content by liking and sharing this post, or connecting on Twitter and Facebook.

Photo information: Defocused Image of Lights, Miguel Á. Padriñán

What ‘All churches are bad’ doesn’t mean

Popular among some atheists and critics of religion as a snappy and incendiary meme, and caricatured by their critics in turn, as an example of atheist arrogance. I try to unpack the context behind the catchphrase.

‘All Churches Are Bad’ doesn’t mean that all churches are equally bad, or even a net bad. It doesn’t mean that many churches aren’t home to many lovely people, or aren’t involved in many important social goods. It certainly doesn’t mean that the problems common in churches – abuses of power, bigotry and dogmatism – can’t also be found in secular institutions. It doesn’t mean the atheist and wider humanist movement shouldn’t focus on harmful actions rather than disagreements of belief, or build positive relationships with Churches.

‘All Churches Are Bad’ means that all churches provide social, political and financial capital to a system that is bad, a system that does very real harm in the world.

Some atheists have argued that all religion is bad because it promotes faith based beliefs. While any promotion of faith based epistemology is problematic, this can overstate the role that belief plays in religion. It’s important to focus on the tangible moral failings of religious institutions, over the theoretical intellectual ones.

#ACAB

The phrase is consciously based on the initials ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards) popularized by the 1982 song by The 4-Skins. The phase has been used by racists, but has become predominantly associated with leftist anarchist and anti-racist culture. The way in which #ACAB has inspired ‘All Churches Are Bad’ has clear parallels to the ways that other anarchist phrases such as “No Gods No Masters”, have been used and recontextualised by others in the atheist movement.

#ACAB also doesn’t mean that all cops are equally, or individually personally bastards, or that there aren’t those trying to improve things. The point of #ACAB is that the system of policing necessarily forces even well intentioned officers to work in a certain way, and that the nature of that system necessarily limits the potential for reform. Plenty of nuanced and legitimate criticisms can be made of #ACAB, but these all require scratching below the surface of the catchphrase to engage with what is actually meant.

LGBTQ inclusive churches

Debates over ‘(Not) All Churches Are Bad’ most commonly come up in discussions over LGBTQ inclusive religious spaces. This thread by the activists and journalist Jenna Scaramanga is a great example. Jenna calls out ‘evangelical LGBT allies’ who (despite some good intentions) can never be true allies because they aren’t willing to truly challenge the anti-LGBT power structures and foundational theology of evangelism.

None of this is to say, that we shouldn’t support LGBT allies in religious communities or that there aren’t churches that make sincere attempts at inclusion.

In the UK context it is basically impossible to be a Church without being a member of or affiliated to a more or less institutionally homophobic organisation. This provides direct financial (as well as indirect) social capital for campaigns against LGBT rights.

Time and again LGBT friendly Christians, however sincere their activism and beliefs, gaslight LGBT victims of religious abuse. Their allyship is limited by an understandable, but problematic need to absolve their religion from blame, or pretend anti-LGBT religion is some sort of fringe perversion of ‘real’ religion.

For example, as a campaigner against state funded faith schools, I will point out how the Catholic Education Service promotes an institutionally homophobic approach to relationships and sex education (RSE). Pointing out how many LGBT-affirming Catholic school teachers do their best within that context, or oppose the Church’s homophobia, simply adds nuance to rather than refutes the point. It’s like an abuser trying to claim credit for their victims’ resilience.

Black American and pro-choice churches

I’ve also seen pushback (often in an American context) arguing that the claim ‘All Churches Are Bad’ should only be used with respect to Christian Nationalist churches, white churches, evangelical or fundamentalist churches etc.

It true that Black American churches have played a pivotal historical role in the nation’s civil rights movement, and continue to play a crucial role in resisting White Christian Nationalism. However, these facts simply adds nuance and context to, but do nothing to refute the claim that American Christianity (taken in its entirety) is a white supremacist endeavour. White liberal church communities wishing to support the good fight should first face up to their own history in this area.

Similarly I have seen resistance from pro-choice Catholics and other Christians in America and beyond, to pointing out the religious motivation behind the recently leaked overturning of Roe Vs. Wade. It is true that there is a strong tradition of pro-choice Catholicism. It is also true that the Catholic Church as an institution is anti-choice, that the US Catholic Church has played a key role in the decades long White Christian Nationalist attack on reproductive rights, and that it is no coincidence that five of the six Catholic justices on their Supreme Court support that attack.

#NotAllChurches?

Searches on social media suggest that you are actually more likely to come across people saying “not all churches are bad”, rather than the opposite. ‘All Churches Are Bad’. The slogan comes from atheists tired of hearing “not all churches are bad” from progressive religious allies in response to specific criticism, in a way that shows such ‘allies’ to be more concerned with the reputation of their Church. Making the positive claim, can help call out such behaviour.

I completely understand and sympathise with those well intentioned, often progressive, Christians, who want to defend their own subgroup of Christianity from guilty associations. But I can’t abide that phrase being used to obfuscate specific criticisms or to marginalise and gaslight victims of religious abuse.

We should recognise this as an example of the ‘Not all’ fallacy, of which #NotAllMen is probably the most famous specific form. This fallacy has multiple variants and is regularly “employed in the hopes of shutting down conversation (particularly around social justice) by making the opponent appear to lack all nuance”.

Of course there will be some narrow-minded atheists, or other religious critics, who just use the catchphrase as a simplistic conversation stopper or in an unnuanced prejudicial way that dramatically overstates the case. That is clearly intellectually lazy.

But to argue against just the catchphrase, without acknowledging this whole discourse and context is intellectually dishonest. Even if you have a more positive view of religion, or believe churches as a whole are a net good, it is hard to acknowledge that context without acknowledging ‘All Churches Are Bad’ as an intellectually defensible position.

Religion poisons everything?

Christopher Hitchens famously wrote that “religion poisons everything”. But both his most ardent fans and critics sometimes forget that he also wrote a whole book setting out his case, and that a lot of that book included addressing the good that is done in the name of religion, and why this is still consistent.

‘All Churches Are Bad’ suffers from the same problems as other catchphrases that cover whole political discourses, but which most people on all sides are more likely to hear stripped of that context.

We need to provide space for critics of institutional religion to unpack and explain – and for pro-religionists to understand – that context. Maybe then ‘All Churches Are Bad’ could become a conversation opener rather than closer.

Thanks for reading

Please get in touch or comment below to let me know what you thought of this, or any of my articles and if you want to hear more. If you value this content and are able to financially support it, £2 or more a month would help with hosting and other costs, help improve our content.

You can also support this content by liking and sharing this post, or connecting on Twitter and Facebook.

Photo information: Photo of An Empty Church, RODNAE Productions

CofE plans to increase influence in post-16 education smack of hubris

The Church of England’s emerging plans to expand their role in sixth form and further education colleges, accompanied by empire building and evangelism, may undermine the secularity and inclusivity of this sector, argues Alastair Lichten.

The Skills and Post-16 Education Bill has attracted little media attention. Compared with other wide ranging government proposals that could increase religious control of education, the bill has been seen more as a technical tidying up exercise. Those opposed to any religious discrimination, privilege or control of state education have traditionally had few worries about the further education (FE) sector.

The ‘NSS articles’ category contains links to my opinion pieces, written while a campaigns officer or head of education for the National Secular Society, before June 2022. You can read the full original of this article here >>>

Photo credit: Blog Letters on Brown Wood – Pixabay

A government blueprint for more religious control of schools?

The government’s new proposals for education reform in England could see increased discrimination, and most non-faith schools placed in faith-based academy trusts. Alastair Lichten explores the threat to secular education posed by the ‘Opportunity for all’ white paper.

Opportunity for all’ sets out the government’s vision for the future of England’s education system. But perhaps the biggest opportunity created is for further religious control of publicly funded schools.

The ‘NSS articles’ category contains links to my opinion pieces, written while a campaigns officer or head of education for the National Secular Society, before June 2022. You can read the full original of this article here >>>

Photo credit: Blog Blocks Wallpaper – Miguel Á. Padriñán

Religious selection is only part of the problem with faith schools

Ending religious discrimination in faith school admissions is an important first step; but it will not undo all the harms caused by faith schools, says Alastair Lichten.

It’s easy to see why religious selection in admissions dominates the debate over faith schools. It is perceived by many as their most obvious and egregious problem. It is a form of direct and open discrimination that would be unlawful and unacceptable in almost any other public context, and contributes to the problems of middle-class parents ‘gaming the system’.

The ‘NSS articles’ category contains links to my opinion pieces, written while a campaigns officer or head of education for the National Secular Society, before June 2022. You can read the full original of this article here >>>

Photo credit: Blog Letters on Brown Wood – Pixabay

Remembering the ‘atheist bus’ campaign

What made the ‘atheist bus’ campaign so successful, what is its legacy, and what can other atheist, humanist or secularist campaigns learn from it?

Last week, after posting my latest article on atheist community organising, I saw something that took me on a bit of a nostalgia trip back to the beginning.

The story goes like this: religious adverts from the mundane to the pretty extreme are common across many public spaces – including Transport for London. In 2008 Guardian columnist and comedian Ariane Sherine took issue with two bus adverts for a website warning non-Christian passengers that they would burn in hell for all eternity, unless they accepted Jesus. She did some tongue in cheek investigating, and asked the Advertising Standards Agency why the adverts were able to make such strong claims without the evidence we’d normally expect for such a product. She suggested that atheists club together to run an advert saying  “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and get on with your life.”

After a false start, the campaign was wildly successful, spreading to 13 countries, launching a spoof Ladybird Book of Atheist Buses, and helping re-frame the UK’s ‘debate’ on religion.

I had been in my fairly stereotypical new atheist phase for a couple of years when Ariane came and spoke at my student group. I was much more interested in being argumentative and confrontational, but the talk on the positives of the campaign, and her upcoming book The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, left an impression.

So 13 years on, I’ve been thinking about why the campaign was so successful, and what other AHS+ groups could learn from it.

1. The message was positive and inviting

The message was only seen as anti-religious in some parts because of our culture’s excessive privileging of and deference to religion. The short and simple message didn’t come with a clear selling point, but invited curiosity.

2. It focussed on activating not persuading or arguing

The atheist and wider AHS+ movement was able to grow so excessively in the early 21 century, not because of some great rational success in persuading people out of religion, but in activating those already with atheistic or humanist beliefs to be confident admitting them (even to themselves) and to find a community that shared them. Many people would have seen the message, and for the first time realised how many people out there thought the same. It treats arguments for gods with the intellectual respect they deserve (casual dismissal) to move on to what is important, while linking the concepts.

3. It was creative and fun

The bright font was instantly recognisable and often combined with bright engaging images. The project lent itself incredible well to image sharing. People could spot the busses and share their sightings, with 5MP camera phones just becoming ubiquitous. The use of a proto ‘pay to post’ message board of the campaign page was innovative. All of this helped challenge the unfair stereotype of atheists as shut ins or boring self-serious intellectuals.

4. There was an established group in position to support and benefit from the campaign

According to JustGiving’s analysis of the successes of the fundraising campaign, the British Humanist Association “weren’t the first organisation contacted to run the appeal”. But they “gained more publicity and funds than they have probably ever had” before.

The relationships between, and the advantages or disadvantages of, individual verses institutional activism is a key theme in my interview series with various leaders in this space. In this case, both were able to combine their knowledge and connections.

It appears that the BHA (now HUK) initially provided logistical support, before taking more ownership of the campaign. Fundraising efforts were focussed on the adverts themselves, but surely had a big impact on their membership. It was only in the second phase of the campaign – focussed on challenging the idea that children can be labelled with their parents’ religion, and promoting their own campaign against faith schools – that the BHA used the adverts for direct fundraising. Notably, this more complex messaging exceeded their fundraising aim, but had far less cultural cut through.

5. It took a risk

A lot of things about the campaign could have gone wrong including the adverts being rejected or falling flat. That positive responses would so outweigh criticism couldn’t be guaranteed, and that criticism could have led to serious reputational damage. But those risks were managed through small scalable goals. The early fundraisers were structured in such a way that they could be abandoned with no loss if they weren’t successful.

6. It failed and tried again

Following her initial article, blogger Jon Worth took up Ariane’s idea and launched an initial fundraiser, when this failed to reach the necessary support, the idea could have died. Instead, people reflected on it and tried again.

It seems like many in our own communities, not just our critics, are always on the lookout for examples of atheist failures and hubris, to validate their own cynicism. But trying, and failing at, new projects is the only way to move forward.

7. Famous ‘new atheists’ used their platform to promote others

Richard Dawkins’ offer to match the first £5.5k, along with his promotion of the campaign was a key factor in its explosive initial growth. Figures like Dawkins have become extremely polarising in the atheist and wider AHS+ movement, arguable they’ve done more harm than good in recent years. But this was one of many examples where ‘celebrity atheists’ actually used their power and their privilege to promote the work of others, rather than making it about them.

8. It exposed religious hypocrisy and arrogance

When digging back through the history of the campaign, I decided not to spend time on all the articles written by religious groups outraged about the campaign, or who tried to ban the adverts, or those self-important religious commentators who felt the campaign should really be a conversation they have equal part in. But all that noise and the religious imitations just helped fuel the campaign.

It would be difficult to quantify the millions or billions spent by religious groups every year on proselytising, but as soon as a few atheists write a book or put up one advert among the hundreds of religious ones, or politely invite someone to consider the issues, and we’re ‘just as bad’?

It’s a reminder also that although there is plenty to criticise in movement atheism, there really is no way however mild, polite or conciliatory that atheists are able to publicly exist or organise without accusations of arrogance and pushing atheism down people’s throats.

9. It was not deterred by atheist negativity

There is a whole group of atheists who are fundamentally opposed to the whole idea of any atheists ever doing anything or there being any such thing as an atheist movement and want to snipe at every effort.

Often these people felt a great intellectual superiority from being an atheist when it wasn’t socially acceptable, or they passionately believe in the importance of religious privilege and religion for the ‘plebs’ even if they don’t need it themselves.

There were even those in the movement, who felt the adverts were a waste of money, some of those who want to keep atheism as a small very serious elite club. If the campaign organisers had asked a hundred people who were in some way involved in organised atheism before and then again after the campaign whether they thought it was a good idea, there would have been very different answers. There’s an important lesson there in reaching beyond your base’s comfort zone.

10. It moved on

Though campaigns inspired by the original continue to pop up around the world more than a decade later, a key part of the success was it being time limited and the activists and organisations involved moved on to other projects. This made it easier for people with very different views or levels of commitment to be involved. If it had tried to continue forever, then people would have got bored, arguments over different messages and issues would have proliferated, and funds would have dried up. This would all have been painted as a failure.

Looking back I realise that the campaign’s core message – with its focus on moving on baked in – has influenced so much of my activism and community organising. Realising that there’s probably no god, is the easy first step, we should probably stop worrying about, and if we want everyone to be able to “enjoy your life”, focus on building the systems which allow a personally fulfilling and socially just humanism and secularism.

Thanks for reading

This is the 40th weekly article since the blog launched in 2021. Due to some personal changes this year, I’ve decided to take a break from weekly blogging following this article. I’ve bought my planned break forward a little because of other circumstances, but will be taking the time to reflect on what’s worked well and to come back strong, with new articles in May 2022.

Please get in touch or comment below to let me know what you thought of this, or any of my articles and if you want to hear more. If you value this content and are able to financially support it, £2 or more a month would help with hosting and other costs, help improve our content.

You can also support this content by liking and sharing this post, or connecting on Twitter and Facebook.

Photo information: A picture from the atheist bus campaign by Dan Etherington