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Artillery Row

The hubris of humanists

There is no case for a broader ban on conversion therapy

Conversion therapy did not get a mention in the King’s Speech this year. Perhaps that doesn’t strike you as unusual, but it is the first time in three years that the Government hasn’t included the controversial topic in its legislative agenda.

Many are concerned that a new law on what Stonewall calls “conversion therapy” would go well beyond banning genuinely abusive practices. Rightly, a plethora of laws already strongly protects gay and trans people from coercion and abuse. Instead, a new law is likely to curtail free speech on controversial issues. Those who hold traditional beliefs about sex and gender are highly likely to face criminalisation for sharing their viewpoint. That’s what top legal advice says, anyway.

Sadly, the absence of a conversion therapy law from the King’s Speech is of little comfort. The Government’s position is still that it will produce a draft Bill to introduce in Parliament. That might not have time to become law, but it will almost certainly embolden whoever is in power after the next election.

Perhaps more immediately, Baroness Burt came out top in the House of Lords’ ballot of Private Members’ Bills. She will bring her own Bill on “conversion therapy” for debate.

A former Lib Dem MP for Solihull, Baroness Burt is a vice-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group. Humanism is a pretty difficult movement to define, since it describes itself as merely “bringing non-religious people together to develop their own views”. You could argue it is the conclusion of an increasingly liberalising ‘Christian’ sect which ostensibly promotes the abandonment of creeds.

The Humanist Manifestos of the 20th century could be accused of looking rather like creeds or doctrine

Holding together a group of people committed to a set of aims inevitably means drawing up some sort of uniting documents, however. The Humanist Manifestos of the 20th century could be accused of looking rather like creeds or doctrine. Recently, “kindness” appears to have joined “science” as an equal partner in the movement.

This new coalition of ideas seems to be why the American Humanists retracted their accolades for leading light Richard Dawkins because he prioritised biological reality over people’s feelings (he didn’t toe the line on transgenderism). I can’t help but think it a drastic failure of supposedly non-creedal rationalism that those who think the wrong thoughts can be judged to have fallen from grace. 

This strangely pharisaic zeal against those who hold views the group considers heterodox is not new. In fact, its pursuit of certain beliefs is often marked by a remarkable religious fervour.

Reflect, for example, on the efforts of Stanton Coit, the founder of the group later to become Humanists UK. He purchased a chapel in 1909 and renamed it “The Ethical Church”. His dream was of eventually converting the entire Church of England to his new religion free of God.

Today, humanist groups seek places on panels of religious groups, wanting a seat at the table despite opposing traditional beliefs at every turn. It wants to be seen as the authoritative voice of the “non-religious”, like a new class of priests for those who rejected the old labels. 

Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of perfectly nice people who are humanists. If that’s you, you’re very welcome to hold your views. I support your religious freedom. But, just as with any set of beliefs or worldviews, it’s all too tempting to slide into underhand power-grabbing, an unfair assumption that because we know we’re right that means everyone else’s views should be ignored. Too often, humanists seem to wield secularism against Christianity, rather than pursuing others’ freedom, as they claim.

Christians, then, are frustrated but unsurprised by the involvement of Humanists UK in the campaign for a broad “conversion therapy” law. It is strongly supportive of Baroness Burt’s initiative.

The national body went so far as to say “confessions/repentances” should be outlawed in its public response to the Government’s consultation on the matter in 2022. It continued its list of practices that should be made illegal: “faith declarations, fasting, pilgrimages, and attendance on religious courses”.

“Humanists are strong advocates for the right to freedom of religion or belief”, they insist. But nonetheless, it strongly disagrees with the Government’s view that a new law should not “impact everyday religious practice”. That’s a curious form of freedom. Freedom only if religious people do what humanists agree with. Freedom of belief, but not if that involves declaring your beliefs. Freedom of conscience, but not if it involves repentance. It is freedom to believe in Humanism, but not to hold any historic religious belief.

Of course, everyone agrees that freedom of religion is not absolute. Christians agree with the principle that Governments exist to restrain evil, so of course it is right to curtail unjustifiable offences wrongly carried out under a religious guise. But how do the Humanists come to the conclusion that everyday Christian repentance fits the bill?

The answer comes from the Government’s 2018 National LGBT Survey. It is this very study that first encouraged the Conservative Party to take seriously the calls for a new law. The Humanists explain: “Of those who had undergone conversion therapy 51% reported that it had been conducted by a religious group or in a religious setting.” Later: “We know it is within religious settings that some [of] the most damaging types of conversion therapy … occur.”

I would encourage the Humanists to take a closer look at the survey. The data tables have some secrets to share. You see, among non-trans respondents, a higher proportion of humanists said they’d been offered “conversion therapy” than Christians. Those who instead declared themselves “atheists” fare even worse.

“Clearly”, one must logically conclude, “humanist freedoms must be curtailed. Proportionately, these belief settings are at least as dangerous”. 

“Ah”, the Humanists will say, “those are former religious believers who have since seen the light. You must read the survey with more care”. No one should dispute the possibility some have converted away from traditional belief. The problem for the Humanists, however, is that they don’t do this more critical, nuanced reading with any of the rest of the survey statistics.

Were they to carefully analyse the rest of the findings, they’d find it gives no justification for a new law.

It was no surprise to those familiar with the data that the Government eventually admitted the survey offered no reason for a new law. In a leaked document it resolved that “we were not able to conclude whether those who reported being subjected to therapies were reflecting on recent events, incidents in the UK, or to say whether what they experience[d] was already covered by existing legislation”.

The simple fact is that genuinely abusive practices are already illegal. The survey didn’t define “conversion therapy”, which means mere disagreement will have been tallied alongside historic horrors. That is no ground for writing a new law banning creeds and declarations. Choosing this approach would force the whole nation to bow to a new religion — a curiously anti-Christian one.

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