A secularist response to CORAB: recommendations at odds with the realities of twenty-first century life in Britain

In March 2016 the University of Warwick convened a panel to consider the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life’s report ‘Living With Difference’. In a post that first appeared on the LSE’s Religion and the
Public Sphere,  Steven Kettell explores its findings.

The last few decades have seen significant changes to the landscape of religion and belief in Britain. According to surveys by British Social Attitudes, the proportion of the adult population describing themselves as ‘Christian’ fell from 67% to 41.7% between 1983 and 2014, while the proportion self-identifying as having ‘no religion’ rose from 31% to 48.9% over the same period. These developments pose a number of important challenges, thrusting concerns about social cohesion, debates around national identity and questions about balancing the rights and duties of citizenship to the forefront of British public life.

In December 2015 the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life (CORAB) published a report entitled Living With Difference. The report made a total of 37 recommendations, covering a variety of themes. A notable feature of the CORAB report, however, was that it paid insufficient attention to secular views and voices. Of the twenty members making up the Commission, just one – Andrew Copson, the chief executive of the British Humanist Association – was from a ‘non-religious’ organisation. And despite acknowledging the rise of non-religion and the growing diversity of religion and belief in Britain, the CORAB recommendations sought a more prominent role for faith in public life.

In spring 2016 a panel of experts convened at the University of Warwick to consider the Commission’s report. Our findings, which are supported by secularists from a range of spheres – including academics, activists and representatives from Britain’s leading campaign groups – have now been published as a report entitled A Secularist Response.

While being generally supportive of some of the CORAB recommendations (such as putting an end to the requirement for compulsory worship in schools, or refusing public funds to charitable organisations involved in proselytising), the principal thrust of the CORAB report remains deeply problematic. One of the key recommendations, for example, is for greater ‘religion and belief literacy’ (a phrase that appears in the report no fewer than thirteen times). But it is simply not clear what the rationale for greater literacy is (especially in a context of religious decline) and no evidence in support of this point is ever actually presented. Similarly, CORAB calls for religious representation in the House of Lords to be extended to give voice to a wider variety of faiths, and for national and civic events (such as the coronation) to be made more representative of British society. Britain, of course, is the only sovereign democratic country to have automatic religious representation in its legislature (a wholly anachronistic practice that has no place in a modern democratic society), and it is hard to see how the coronation – as a distinctly Anglican ceremony – could be made properly inclusive without losing its religious underpinnings. Possible alternatives, such as holding the coronation or investiture in an inclusive secular ceremony at Westminster Hall, are simply not discussed. Moreover, while calling for the pluralisation of civic ceremonies sounds entirely reasonable, the Commission’s call for the inclusion of religious representatives from a wider variety of faiths gives unwarranted credence to the self-presentation of religious leaders as moral figures representing separate communities.

The CORAB report goes on to call (amongst other things) for religious coverage to remain a part of the BBC’s charter (again with no justification – and in fact the charter makes no reference to ‘religion’ at all); for chaplaincy funding to be ring-fenced (we argue that religious organisations should fund their own chaplaincy provisions); and for charitable organisations based on religious principles to be given ‘fair funding’ (we object to government money being used to promote religious causes or viewpoints, and it is notable that CORAB fails to call for any reform or repeal of exemptions from equalities legislation allowing discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief).

The CORAB report ends by calling for a review of the law covering the categories of race, ethnicity and religion in order to correct any ‘unjust anomalies’. Reasonable enough, you might think. But we have serious concerns that extending further legal protections to religious groups could lead to a curtailing of freedoms and an erosion of current safeguards (such as the freedom of expression safeguards contained in the Racial and Religious Hatred Act). There is, it is worth remembering, no right not to be insulted. Relatedly, the issue of separate systems of religious courts and tribunals also presents a number of concerns, not least the worrying potential for the abuse of vulnerable citizens. In our view, the use of such tribunals should be accompanied by strict conditions, including that all participants be fully informed in advance as to their rights in civil law, and that such bodies refrain from pretending to a legal status that they simply do not possess.

Taken together the CORAB recommendations are completely at odds with the realities of twenty-first-century life in Britain. At a time when the majority of the British population belongs to no religion at all, proposals to extend the public role of faith amount to little more than an attempt to shore-up the crumbling towers of unwarranted religious privilege.

And while secularism is often presented as involving a curtailment of religious freedom, as an authoritarian attempt to force religion out of public life and to impose a particular (usually non-religious) worldview, the reality is that a secular state – by distancing itself from all systems of religion or belief – provides the best possible framework for guaranteeing equality for all citizens, and the best means of fostering a free, inclusive and democratic society in which people of all faiths and none can live harmoniously together.

The recommendations of the CORAB report, which defends and promotes religious privilege, are a recipe for increasing unfairness and division. Our response highlights the critical need for secular voices to be heard.

Steven Kettell

Cross-posted with permission: the author is an Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick and a co-founder and executive editor of British Politics

Cite this article as: Steven Kettell, “A secularist response to CORAB: recommendations at odds with the realities of twenty-first century life in Britain” in Religion and the Public Sphere, 23 January 2017, http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/religionpublicsphere/2017/01/a-secularist-response-to-corab-recommendations-at-odds-with-the-realities-of-twenty-first-century-life-in-britain/.

8 thoughts on “A secularist response to CORAB: recommendations at odds with the realities of twenty-first century life in Britain

  1. Without a belief in religion, my Christian viewpoint, life is made cheap and disposable in a throwaway society that values only purchases and disposals. The fundamental principle of Christianity of the rights to practise a belief that inspires us to be good (an impossible dream perhaps) and yet by abolishing the concept of both good and evil (as CORAB seek to establish secularity in Schools particularly) under what is clearly an EU ambition – means that nobody has any rights to ‘anything’, not even rights to ‘family’ (which is being decided by the ECHR (see link below) at the moment).

    Although one cannot force anyone to be Christian, it is increasingly difficult to voice a concern for those not yet born (abortion), the disabled (euthanasia), and the right to inheritance (legality and state taxation) and the right of a child to be protected from sexual abuse (by the secular state). All becomes undermined by EU laws defining sexuality, abortion, euthanasia and family life. Much of this is derided by some lawyers (here) but I suspect not all. As it stands the EU will ‘fail’ due to giving too many rights to those that don’t deserve it. Who am I to judge? But then who are the EU judges? and what do they believe in? The logical choice is that nobody has any rights and nobody has rights to anything and the point of life, love and even family are deemed too ‘offensive’ to those that don’t have any. Its the new default.

    I rest my case. Flawed as it is. There is no ‘perfect world’ and you cannot ban ‘identity’ without a whole raft of new and more serious problems. Islam, for example, is not going to follow any laws based on the principles of Christianity. The future of Western values is largely bound by the few that have clear Christian values, in the democracy that we have.

    Secularity is denying that any values exist and can be changed at will by the state; therefore no value to life or child. What is the value of a child? What is state education? Who lives, and who dies thereafter. EU secularity is increasingly ‘offensive’ and totalitarian when it rejects all Christian values. The UK should be distinctive and have a far better picture of life’s rights and wrongs. The EU is wrong to judge.


    • I don’t wish to carp, but are you, perhaps, confusing the European Union with the European Court of Human Rights?

      • No, the European Court of Human Rights exist within the EU framework. The Lisbon Treaty ensures all ECHR rulings are also EU directives are made law. ‘One of the most significant developments brought about by the Lisbon Treaty is the legally binding status of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU [PDF].’

        But I think you knew that already.
        I don’t want to score points and I appreciate your Law and Religon Blog, I just wish to voice dissent on all (EU) ECHR rulings over the UK jurisdiction. It’s a question, ultimatly of sovereignty and UK freedom of thought which are increasingly undermined by (EU) EHRC. This is self evident.

        • I don’t want to score points either; but I’d argue that, conversely, the EU exists within the ECHR framework. We were signatories to the ECHR before we joined the EU and we’ll still be signatories when we leave it (though not for much longer if the Prime Minister has her way).

          But where we differ fundamentally is on the supra-national nature of human rights legislation. You obviously deplore the fact that the UK courts are subjected to supranational oversight, while I welcome it. Neither the ECHR nor the ECtHR is perfect, but nor is our domestic judicial system. I guess on that we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

  2. I genuinely feel sorry for Phillip S. His very first sentence reveals a man who is so constrained in his thinking by his religiosity that he is convinced that everyone who does not share his belief in the strange and improbable doctrines of religion in general and Christianity in particular must live a life which is worthless, unreflective and materialist. I will not waste my time and the reader’s on this matter. It is self-evident bunkum.
    His second sentence asserts that without Christianity as a guide, the human mind cannot distinguish between good and evil . This is a preposterous and blatantly untrue claim which is insulting to the millions of his fellow citizens who are not Christians. The next sentence again asserts an untruth in that the CORAB report advances a secularist position. It is because this is clearly not the case that the Warwick response was required. Perhaps Phillip S. is confusing the CORAB Report with the Warwick University publication:-
    A Secularist Response to the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life

    The Warwick study was necessary because of the religious bias in the CORAB paper. A look at the list of people contributing to the CORAB report reveals that it was unlikely to be too critical of religious involvement in public affairs.
    Bishop Dr Joe Aldred, The Very Revd, Dr Ian Bradley, Dr Shana Cohen, Andrew Copson, Shaunaka Rishi Das, Professor Gwen Griffith-Dickson, Professor Mark Hammond, The Rt Revd Professor Lord Harries of Pentregarth, Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal, Professor Francesca Klug OBE, Professor Maleiha Malik, Professor Tariq Modood MBE, Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, Professor Lord Parekh of Kingston upon Hull, Brian Pearce OBE, The Revd Canon Dr Angus Ritchie, Rabbi Dr Norman Solomon, The Revd Dr. Robert Tosh.
    To clarify here are the titles:-
    Bishop, The Very Revd, The Rt Reverend, Shaykh, The Revd Canon, Rabbi, The Revd. There are also several theologians in the list which does include a couple of academics working in the area of human rights law and a couple of persons who have been prominent in inter-faith activities.
    In case some of these names are unfamiliar Andrew Copson is the only representative of Humanism and there is no representative of the National Secular Society which has been working in this field for 150 years.
    The Established Church of England is wealthy – despite teaching the religious value of poverty. It is proud – despite teaching the religious value of humility. It is highly active politically and makes use of undemocratic privilege in Parliament (the Lords Spiritual) and undeserved political access by claiming to speak for citizens far beyond that justified by its congregation.
    I see no evidence of the religious being denied a chance to put their case to the public. Religion has privileged access to air-time on BBC broadcasting under the BBC Charter. Newspapers will print an opinion piece from an Archbishop whenever offered. The Christian religion has entirely undeserved access to school children by law. This claim of persecution and repression is simply a childish reaction to the evidence based challenge to unjustified privileged access and influence in the contemporary world.
    As to his rant against the EU (this now seems strangely irrelevant) and against the programme for the creation of a universal code of equality and human rights. .. so often denied by religious dogma… I think he has no need to fear. All the present signs are that we will need to campaign for many more decades to advance this cause. He will no doubt be safely in the arms of Jesus long before universal human rights are achieved in this world.

    • Alan, it’s clear you take a different viewpoint, but it is very much supporting the current status quo of marginalising all religious debate and creating your own vacuum that only secularity can fulfil. I agree that The Church of England is a problem (many of which don’t believe in Christianity either) so I suspect you may be welcome there. The BBC is a special case and were it not for the BBC Charter it would be clearly aligned with the secular EU requirements you speak of. You may not recall that the scientist Richard Dawkins (admitted that he was a ‘Prophet’ when questioned about his views on religion on air). The basis of any human right is surely a belief in Christian equality as defined by Western values. The ECHR has redefined this to mean ‘communal’ values of the secular prophets of the ECHR. Unlike our own Courts, the ECHR rulings cannot ever be challenged by member states, even when in error.

  3. Steven Kettell provides an excellent critique of CORAB. In particular his sentence:-

    “And while secularism is often presented as involving a curtailment of religious freedom, as an authoritarian attempt to force religion out of public life and to impose a particular (usually non-religious) worldview, the reality is that a secular state – by distancing itself from all systems of religion or belief – provides the best possible framework for guaranteeing equality for all citizens, and the best means of fostering a free, inclusive and democratic society in which people of all faiths and none can live harmoniously together.”

    would be worthy of comment on this site. A healthy debate might ensue. It seems to me that this is the central issue concerning religion in the public sphere and in law.

    I would make one point immediately. Although it is relatively easy to define what is meant by a “secular state” there are many disagreements about implementation. The French ban on some forms of Islamic dress for women is an example. My English response to this is, of course, pragmatic. Basically John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism … the State may prohibit only on the basis that an act may cause harm to others.

  4. Thanks Stephen. I am not against secularism per se as long as we realise that it creates its own values akin to socialism. And the EU is very much part of that same bloc of French ideas that have failed all other countries in the past…

    ‘Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850) was a French economist, statesman, and author. He did most of his writing during the years just before – and immediately following – the Revolution of February 1848. This was the period when France was rapidly turning to complete socialism. As a Deputy to the Legislative Assembly, Mr Bastiat was studying and explaining each socialist fallacy as it appeared. And he explained how socialism must inevitably degenerate into communism. But most of his countrymen chose to ignore his logic.

    The Law is here presented again because the same situation exists in America today as in the France of 1848. The same socialist-communist ideas and plans that were then adopted in France are now sweeping America. The explanations and arguments then advanced against socialism by Mr Bastiat are – word for word – equally valid today. His ideas deserve a serious hearing.’ (excerpt)

    How little has changed, except the word ‘socialism’ is now called socio-economic.


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