The open society

The humanist view of what constitutes an open sociey

Humanists only seem to hit the headlines when we’re campaigning against something – faith schools, bishops in the House of Lords, faith-based welfare. In fact, these are not negative campaigns – they all stem from a positive position that humanists hold on what sort of society we should live in.

Almost all humanists are believers in the model of an open society and are secularists – people who believe in a society where no one set of religious or non-religious beliefs is given official privilege.

An open and secular society is one in which there is individual freedom of belief and - as a matter of policy - the state does not accord any one religion or philosophy special status.

In fact allowing any one group special status runs contrary to the idea of an open society. Each citizen's status - real and perceived - must be seen as independent of any particular religious or non-religious worldview.

Otherwise people whose beliefs differ from the mainstream can be made to feel isolated or inferior. I’ve had personal experience of this myself when, present at a seminar addressed by the Bishop of Rochester, I felt totally alienated by his account of Britishness that was almost synonymous with Christianity.

For everyone to feel included within public institutions, the neutrality of the public framework must be apparent and genuine. Secularism is a strategy for the establishment of a public sphere in which the negotiations vital to an open society can be held in a way that's accessible to all. Unfortunately our society is far from matching up to the ideal of an open and secular society.

This is true in many ways, but two of the most current are state-funded religious schools and the presence of Church of England bishops as of right in the House of Lords. The presence of Bishops in the Lords is an obvious archaism and one which can hardly be defended (though some try). But state-funded religious schools, though the majority of people in the UK are opposed to them, are more vigorously defended.

Humanists believe that, in the open society, schools should be inclusive of all children in a shared framework that models the wider community in which they must take their place as citizens. So, humanists are opposed to any school being able to discriminate in their admissions and employment policy as ‘faith’ schools are, or to teach an unbalanced curriculum of beliefs and values education. In short, humanists are opposed to faith schools because we believe that inclusive and accommodating community schools are a better way forward for society. Humanists believe in removing the automatic right of bishops to sit in the House of Lords because we believe in equality and in democracy, and we believe in a secular society at large because it is the best way to ensure respect and dignity for all.

Andrew works for the British Humanist Association on education and public affairs. As well as campaigning for the inclusion of non-religious philosophies such as humanism in the school curriculum, he has published articles criticising worship in schools.
Getty
Show Hide image

Want to send a positive Brexit message to Europe? Back Arsene Wenger for England manager

Boris Johnson could make a gesture of goodwill. 

It is hard not to feel some sympathy for Sam Allardyce, who coveted the England job for so many years, before losing it after playing just a single match. Yet Allardyce has only himself to blame and the Football Association were right to move quickly to end his tenure.

There are many candidates for the job. The experience of Alan Pardew and the potential of Eddie Howe make them strong contenders. The FA's reported interest in Ralf Rangner sent most of us scurrying to Google to find out who the little known Leipzig manager is. But the standout contender is Arsenal's French boss Arsene Wenger, 

Would England fans accept a foreign manager? The experience of Sven Goran-Eriksson suggests so, especially when the results are good. Nobody complained about having a Swede in charge the night that England won 5-1 in Munich, though Sven's sides never won the glittering prizes, the Swede proving perhaps too rigidly English in his commitment to the 4-4-2 formation.

Fabio Capello's brief stint was less successful. He never seemed happy in the English game, preferring to give interviews in Italian. That perhaps contributed to his abrupt departure, falling out with his FA bosses after he seemed unable to understand why allegations of racial abuse by the England captain had to be taken seriously by the governing body.

Arsene Wenger could not be more different. Almost unknown when he arrived to "Arsene Who?" headlines two decades ago, he became as much part of North London folklore as all-time great Arsenal and Spurs bosses, Herbert Chapman or Bill Nicholson, his own Invicibles once dominating the premier league without losing a game all season. There has been more frustration since the move from Highbury to the Emirates, but Wenger's track record means he ranks among the greatest managers of the last hundred years - and he could surely do a job for England.

Arsene is a European Anglophile. While the media debate whether or not the FA Cup has lost its place in our hearts, Wenger has no doubt that its magic still matters, which may be why his Arsenal sides have kept on winning it so often. Wenger manages a multinational team but England's football traditions have certainly got under his skin. The Arsenal boss has changed his mind about emulating the continental innovation of a winter break. "I would cry if you changed that", he has said, citing his love of Boxing Day football as part of the popular tradition of English football.

Obviously, the FA must make this decision on football grounds. It is an important one to get right. Fifty years of hurt still haven't stopped us dreaming, but losing to Iceland this summer while watching Wales march to the semi-finals certainly tested any lingering optimism. Wenger was as gutted as anybody. "This is my second country. I was absolutely on my knees when we lost to Iceland. I couldn't believe it" he said.

The man to turn things around must clearly be chosen on merit. But I wonder if our new Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson - albeit more of a rugger man himself - might be tempted to quietly  suggest in the corridors of footballing power that the appointment could play an unlikely role in helping to get the mood music in place which would help to secure the best Brexit deal for Britain, and for Europe too.

Johnson does have one serious bit of unfinished business from the referendum campaign: to persuade his new boss Theresa May that the commitments made to European nationals in Britain must be honoured in full.  The government should speed up its response and put that guarantee in place. 

Nor should that commitment to 3m of our neighbours and friends be made grudgingly.

So Boris should also come out and back Arsene for the England job, as a very good symbolic way to show that we will continue to celebrate the Europeans here who contribute so much to our society.

British negotiators will be watching the twists and turns of the battle for the Elysee Palace, to see whether Alain Juppe, Nicolas Sarkozy end up as President. It is a reminder that other countries face domestic pressures over the negotiations to come too. So the political negotiations will be tough - but we should make sure our social and cultural relations with Europe remain warm.

More than half of Britons voted to leave the political structures of the European Union in June. Most voters on both sides of the referendum had little love of the Brussels institutions, or indeed any understanding of what they do.

But how can we ensure that our European neighbours and friends understand and hear that this was no rejection of them - and that so many of the ways that we engage with our fellow Europeans rom family ties to foreign holidays, the European contributions to making our society that bit better - the baguettes and cappuccinos, cultural links and sporting heroes remain as much loved as ever.

We will see that this weekend when nobody in the golf clubs will be asking who voted Remain and who voted Leave as we cheer on our European team - seven Brits playing in the twelve-strong side, alongside their Spanish, Belgian, German, Irish and Swedish team-mates.

And now another important opportunity to get that message across suddenly presents itself.

Wenger for England. What better post-Brexit commitment to a new Entente Cordiale could we possibly make?

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.