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?

Photo information: NSS logo pattern

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