The UK Government has today published the report of its Independent Faith Engagement Review, titled Does government ‘do God?’. Humanists UK has welcomed 9 of the 22 recommendations of the report, which, if followed, would represent significant progress on addressing illegal schools, providing support for those leaving high-control religions, and preventing forced marriages. Many other recommendations, however, are completely out of step with modern Britain, affording religion and religious groups unwarranted special treatment.
These recommendations include a ‘Faith Partnership Charter’ foisted on local authorities; a Government ‘Faith Champion’ with their own ‘well-resourced’ Office; and more high-level engagement between Government with faith leaders – all constructed in ways that exclude the non-religious. It recommends that the Faith Champion should have an Office ‘rebuilt from the current faith team in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities’, when in fact that Department has a faith and belief team, not a faith team. That team includes a civil servant responsible for humanists.
Many of the problems stem from the premise of the review being fundamentally flawed, focussing as it did on religion and excluding the non-religious. This is in spite of the fact that most people belong to no religion, our population is set to become much less religious over time, religious groups are civil society groups like any others, and religious people are no more generous than others.
Problems with the report
This starting error was a major factor in causing a report that fundamentally misdiagnoses the needs of a changing Britain. Despite Humanists UK protesting ahead of and in our response to the review, the report explicitly focuses on faith groups to the detriment of the non-religious. Some of the recommendations could have been easily written to be inclusive of the non-religious. The Government needs to wake up to the demographic time bomb it is facing if it continues to ignore the non-religious in this way.
The report is also a serious missed opportunity. Any review of religion and government should have taken into account that most people’s interactions with religion in England today are when they face discrimination by state-funded religious schools, or compulsory Christian worship in all schools of no religious character. In spite of Humanists UK having submitted significant evidence of the issues, there are no recommendations on them. Collective worship isn’t even mentioned. The single most important discriminatory fact about religion in the state – the fact that we have an established church which nearly 90% of people do not belong to, but which enjoys extreme privilege – is not identified as an issue at all.
Some positive recommendations
Humanists UK has welcomed calls for new legislation to close illegal schools – something Humanists UK has led the campaign on for the last decade. Last year, the Government introduced such legislation through the Schools Bill. These aspects of the Bill received very broad support as the Bill completed most of the stages of debate in the House of Lords. But then in December the Government abandoned the Bill because an entirely separate part of it proved to be unpopular. Since then the Government has said it still wants to legislate, but only will do so if time becomes available for such a Bill. It hasn’t said if this will happen, or if so, when.
It has also welcomed proposals relating to part-time schools, and a call for greater resources to help support those trying to leave controlling religious groups. Humanists UK’s service Faith to Faithless supports those leaving high-control religions, and trains service providers to do the same. It gets a specific commendation in one of the recommendations, which says: ‘Government should fund a programme that supports vulnerable people to leave high-demand groups, high-control movements (often referred to as cults) or religious groups. In addition, this work should help people who face isolation as so-called ‘apostates’ and those facing threats of homelessness, shunning and honour-based abuse. Government should consider partnering with experts on this topic, such as the pioneering academics… and Humanists UK who currently work to support so-called “apostates”.’
The report also calls for legal recognition of humanist marriages ‘at the earliest opportunity in line with the recent ruling of the High Court’.
These are positives but they do not outweigh the problems.
Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented:
‘We very much welcome the positive and thoughtful engagement that we had with the Government’s independent reviewer. Some recommendations in this report – related to illegal schools, those leaving high-control religions, and forced marriages – are very welcome. If followed, they would improve the lives of some of the most vulnerable to society.
‘Apart from in these specific areas, however, the report simply hasn’t recognised the UK for what it is: a largely non-religious nation whose non-religious population contribute just as much to society as the religious. The report puts religion and religious groups on a pedestal, set up for exclusive funding, consultation, and partnerships with government all overseen by a “Faith Champion”. These proposals aren’t merited, the public don’t want them, and they are based on a flawed analysis of our country. We have a rich and diverse civil society in which the various groups and communities should be treated equitably, not singled out for special treatment if they are religious.’
The review was led by Colin Bloom, Independent Faith Engagement Reviewer. Prior to his appointment he was Director of the Conservative Christian Fellowship. Humanists UK responded to the call for evidence that was run as part of the review in 2020, and met several times with the Faith Engagement Advisor.
For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.
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