What are "matters of conscience" in a non-religious country?

It takes religion for parliament to accept that an MP might have a conscience.

Today's census figures are the second to include an answer to the question of what religion people identify with. They show a country of rapidly declining faith: 25 per cent of people now say they have "no religion", up from 15.5 per cent in 2001; 59.3 per cent of people say they are Christian, down from 72 per cent in 2001; the Muslim population had increased to 5 per cent; and other religions totalled 8.4 per cent.

In other words, slightly over half of Britons are Christian. We can't know how that breaks down over various denominations, because the question was not specified any further, but if adherents to the state religion – the Church of England – aren't already a minority in Britain, then they are fast on their way there.

All of which marks out quite how bizarre the continued religious influence in our legislature is. Not just that we still have 26 bishops in the House of Lords in the year two thousand and twelve (although the e-petition to put an end to that has just broken 10,000 signatures), since that is something which, when it comes down to it, only matters on a symbolic level.

The far stranger influence religion has on the laws of the land has surfaced today with the debate over same-sex marriage. Take a look, for instance, at George's post about Labour's decision to offer a free vote on the bill:

"The three-line whip only applied to civil ceremonies. Now the government has agreed to allow gay marriages in religious buildings, we will hold a free vote."

That is: same-sex marriages weren't an issue "of conscience" until they involved religious buildings; now that they do, they are.

Clearly same-sex marriage is something which people care greatly about; and it is perhaps understandable that some people of faith feel that involving religious buildings to be involved is a categorically different issue to whether or not to allow equal marriage in the first place.

But why are we still acting as though religious beliefs are the only ones which people hold closely enough that they ought not be made to break them by a party whip? Are the 25 per cent of people who hold no religious beliefs also unable to ask for a free vote on matters of conscience? Can an atheist not be as vehemently opposed to war as a Christian is to abortion?

Britain is less religious by the day; soon, we will have to confront these questions head on.

The House of Commons in 1890, about as long ago as it made sense to have bishops in the Lords. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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A rape-able sex robot makes the world more dangerous for women, not less

Eroticising a lack of consent is no answer to male sexual violence. 

On Wednesday, the Independent reported a new setting had been added to the personality range of a sex robot made by the company True Companion. Called “Frigid Farrah”, the setting allows men who own the robot to simulate rape. If you touch it in a “private area” when it is in this mode, the website explains, it will “not be appreciative of your advance”.

True Companion says the robot is not programmed to participate in a rape scenario, and the idea is “pure conjecture”. Nevertheless, the news has reopened the debate about sex robots and their relationship to consent. What does a rape-able robot say about our attitudes to consent, sex, violence and humanism? Do sex robots like Frigid Farrah eroticise and normalise male sexual aggression? Or does allowing men to “act out” these “most private sexual dreams” on inanimate objects actually make real women safer?

The idea that allowing men to “rape” robots could reduce rates of sexual violence is fundamentally flawed. Sex robot settings that eroticise a woman’s lack of consent, coupled with male aggression, risk normalising rape. It sends a message to the user that it is sexually fulfilling to violate a woman’s “No”.

It’s important to remember that rape is not a product of sexual desire. Rape is about power and domination – about violating a woman’s body and her sense of self. Raping a robot is of course preferable to raping a woman, but the fact is we need to challenge the attitudes and sense of entitlement that cause violent men to rape in the first place.

There is little evidence to back the claim that giving men sexual “outlets” reduces violence. The research that exists is focused on whether a legalised sex industry can reduce sexual assault.

Studies on Dutch “tippelzones” – spaces where soliciting is legal between certain hours – claimed the areas led to a reduction in sexual violence. However, the research lacked precise data on incidents of sexual violence and abuse, and the fact that sex workers themselves can be victims. As a result, it wasn’t possible to determine exactly how the number of rapes and assaults fell in the population at large.

Similar claims made by social scientist Catherine Hakim also failed to prove a causal link between legalised prostitution and reduced levels of sexual violence – again, because low reporting means a lack of accurate data.

Other research claims that access to the sex industry can in fact increase incidents of sexual violence. A 2013 report by Garner and Elvines for Rape Crisis South London argued that an analysis of existing research found “an overall significant positive association between pornography use and attitudes supporting violence against women in non-experimental studies”.

Meanwhile, a 2000 paper by Neil Malamuth, T Addison, and J Koss suggested that, when individuals considered at high risk of acting sexually aggressively are studied, levels of aggression are four times higher among frequent consumers of pornography.

However, just as the research fails to find a causal link between access to the sex industry and reducing violence, there is no research proving a causal link between violent pornography and gender-based violence.

Instead, we have to look at the ethical and moral principles in an industry that creates models of women for men to orgasm into. Sex robots are, at their heart, anti-humanist. They replace women with plastic and holes. They create a world for their owners where women’s voices and demands and desires and pleasures – and right to say no – are absent.

That should trouble us – we are creating products for men which send a message that the best woman is a compliant and silent one. That the best woman is one who lies back and “likes what you like, dislikes what you dislike”, to quote the True Companion website, who is “always ready to talk and play” but whose voice you can turn off whenever you want.

“By transferring one of the great evils of humanity from the real to the artificial, sex robots simply feed the demon of sexism,” says Professor Alan Winfield of the Bristol Robotics Lab. “Some might say, 'What’s the problem – a sex robot is just metal and plastic – where’s the harm?' But a 'fembot' is a sexualised representation of a woman or girl, which not only invites abusive treatment but demands it. A robot cannot give consent – thus only deepening the already chronic and dangerous objectification of real women and girls.”

What research does tell us is that there is a clear link between violence and the perpetrator’s ability to dehumanise their victims. That, and a setting designed to eroticise a woman’s lack of consent, suggest that Frigid Farrah will have no impact on reducing sexual assault. Rather, it creates a space where rape and violence is normalised and accepted.

Instead of shrugging our shoulders at this sexualisation of male violence, we should be taking action to end the belief that men are entitled to women’s bodies. That starts by saying that rape is not an inevitable part of our society, and the danger of rape cannot simply be neutralised by a robot.

Sian Norris is a writer. She blogs at sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com and is the Founder & Director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. She was previously writer-in-residence at Spike Island.