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The Need to Chew Up Bishops!

The Need to Chew Up Bishops!

BARBARA Smoker, President of the National Secular Society, has said in defence of her devouring of bishops, that this is a small price to pay for preventing the delay of social reforms.

At the AGM of the National Secular Society at Conway Hall on Sunday, December 4 (the feast of St. Barbara!), Barbara Smoker was re-elected President –  being only the ninth President in its 112 years. Thanking the members for this implicit vote of confidence, she said that having a woman as its President was just one indication that the NSS is socially far in advance of all the main institutionalised religions in this country. Not one of them yet permits women to occupy key positions in its hierarchical structure.

Remarked Ms Smoker with an ironic smile:

Had I remained in the Catholic Church I could never have become a priest, let alone a bishop or cardinal – though I hasten to add that that was not my reason for leaving the Church.

Somehow, in the intervening years, I seem to have acquired the reputation of devouring bishops – probably fried for breakfast. This is gross slander. I merely bite their heads off; and then only when they really deserve it. Which is, I’m sorry to say, all too often.

Continuing to refuse equality of opportunity to their own women members and perpetuating anti-feminism in society at large (four centuries after Luther coined the phrase ‘A woman’s place is in the home’) is just one of many social issues on which the churches (not to mention the mosques and temples) are dragging their holy feet and keeping everyone else’s feet in shackles as long as possible.

The legalisation of voluntary euthanasia, the preservation of legal (and therefore safe) abortion, and the abolition of censorship, whether censorship through the revival of blasphemy law or any other means, are examples of current issues on which the opposing pressure groups divide almost exactly along religious lines. Thus, religion still pursues its age-old mission, as a satellite of the ruling power, of slowing down the rate of social progress in terms of human welfare.

During the past two centuries, the pioneering ‘infidels’ – who campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade, for the promulgation of family planning, for the legal equality of women, for the rights of religious and ethnic minorities, for democratic rights, for the right of non-believers to affirm instead of taking a religious oath, for the introduction of cremation, for the legalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults, for the legalisation of abortion, for the reformation of divorce laws, and so forth – have generally been opposed by the whole Bench of Bishops, both in the House of Lords and with their wider authority through the pulpit.

But once these reforms have been achieved, in spite of them, and have become part of modem civilisation, most of the churchmen have come to welcome them, and even claim credit for them. Some of these claims have been made so often that almost everyone believes them.

What is far more crucial, however, is the effect of the long delays on people’s lives. Even if history is on the side of secularism (and that is by no means certain), delays in furthering human welfare cannot but mean more human misery for those individuals and groups living during the period of the delay. And since, as freethinkers, we are convinced that this life is all that there can possibly be for each person, it os that much more important that it should be made as good as possible.

If chewing up a few bishops helps in this, just a little, it is but a small price to pay – however distasteful it may be to us.

• This piece appeared in the December, 1977, edition of the Freethinker, and is included in Barbara’s collection of Freethinker contributions, entitled Freethoughts.

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