Secularism 2019: Stephen Evans, National Secular Society CEO

Stephen Evans: Right, hello. Good Morning. How are you?
Hope you’re all well fed – well, suitably caffeinated for the day ahead. My name
is Stephen Evans – I’m the chief executive of the National Secular society and it’s
my, my pleasure and my privilege on behalf of everyone at the NSS to welcome
you here today. It’s great to see so many members again but even better to see so
many new faces. So, for those of you not familiar with the work of the NSS, we’re
an organization that essentially campaigns for a secular approach to
public policy, making a clear separation between religion and state and equal
respect for everyone’s human rights – so no one is either advantaged or
disadvantaged on account of their beliefs. Now we’ve been challenging
religious privilege since 1866 – founded by a man called Charles Bradlaugh
who was a liberal, a radical free thinker, brilliant lawyer and he was elected as
an MP to the Westminster Parliament in 1880. However, because of his well-known
atheism he was refused the religious oath and denied his seat in Parliament.
Now he had to go on to contest and win four subsequent by-elections before
finally being allowed to take his seat and it was his Oath’s Act that enabled
non-religious MPs to affirm rather than swear a religious oath and take their
rightful place in Parliament. Now since then, and over the last hundred and fifty
or so years, we’ve been at the forefront of a number of other social reforms with
regard to birth control, reproductive rights, the liberalisation of Sunday
trading laws, the development of the Equality Act and of course the abolition
of the blasphemy law in England and Wales but, you know, with religious
fundamentalism on the rise, I think our work is as important today as it ever
has been and as an organization we remain absolutely as committed as ever
to working for a secular state that’s free and fair for everyone.
Now I just wanted to say a quick word about the theme of today’s conference –
reclaiming religious freedom – now we decided on this title for today’s
conference because it seemed to us that many of the things we campaign and
advocate for are sometimes described or perceived by some as being an attack on
religious freedom and this is kind of perplexing to us and, and to be honest,
really extraordinarily frustrating because we see secularism as something
that underpins the rights and freedoms of everyone irrespective of what they
believe. So perhaps this reaction by some to our campaigns highlights a serious
misunderstanding – sometimes probably a willful
misunderstanding – of the whole concept of religious freedom and human rights.
Now religious freedom belongs to everyone – the right of individuals to
live their, their religious values, to manifest their religion. It clearly needs
to be balanced by other considerations and competing rights not least the right
to freedom from religion and it seems to us that some people want religious
freedom for themselves but without the fairness and we support freedom and
fairness. So today, we’re going to try and unpack this, this tricky but crucial
concept of religious freedom and we’ve got some of the very best in the
business to help guide us through that. Now before I hand over to Josephine, our vice
president who has kindly agreed to host today’s event, I just want to say once
more on behalf of all of us at the NSS it is wonderful to see so many of you
here and if you do support the work we do please do bear in mind that it’s all
made possible by the support of our members. So if you’re not already a
member, please do consider joining us and together we can put your principles into
action. Right. So thank you everyone. I hope you all enjoy the day and without
further ado I’ll hand you over to Josephine to get the ball rolling and
introduce our first session. Thank you.

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