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21 February 2007updated 05 Oct 2023 8:32am

The open society

The humanist view of what constitutes an open sociey

By Andrew Copson

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.

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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.

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