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Andrew Copson: ‘What is aggressive secularism supposed to mean?’

Chief executive of the British Humanist Association, Andrew Copson

On the morning of Feburary 11, while newsrooms went wild across the world, Andrew Copson serenely boarded a plane from London City Airport to Malta. It was not until he landed that he heard of the shock resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.

“I was just about to get on a long flight so when I landed I had voicemails from the BBC saying: ‘Can you come in and talk about this?’” he recalls. “And I’m sort of glad I couldn’t because I wasn’t quite sure what I’d say.”

Following Benedict XVI’s resignation it was notable how many opponents of organised religion were willing to offer their opinion about how it should be organised. So Catholics might be surprised to learn that the chief executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA) had nothing to say about the pope who seemed to antagonise secularists so frequently. In fact, Andrew Copson almost takes too much delight in telling me how rarely he thinks about the Catholic Church. The recurring point throughout our meeting is that he is not anti-Catholic; he merely opposes religious privilege in general.

Stylishly unshaven and clad in a dark pink short-sleeved shirt, Copson tells me he grew up in the ex-mining town of Nuneaton and had “a totally non-religious upbringing in every way”. His first encounter with Christianity was at secondary school and then through his study of ancient history at Oxford, where he didn’t see any evidence for the faith to be true in historical terms. He joined the BHA when he was a student and tells me that he felt particularly strongly about its campaign against state-funded religious schools at the time.

This debate re-ignited recently when the London Oratory School was ordered to change its admissions policy by the Office of the Schools Adjudicator following a complaint from the BHA. The BHA argued that the admissions policy, which favours parents who are actively involved in their local parishes, breached the schools’ admissions code.

I ask Copson why the BHA is so preoccupied with Catholic schools’ admissions policies. Why doesn’t it focus its energies instead on establishing Humanist schools and let Catholic parents, who also pay their taxes, educate their children as they see fit?

“We don’t work for the establishment of Humanist schools,” he explains, “because we would be concerned that, just as with religious schools, such schools would further segregate society on the basis of belief, or otherwise limit horizons, and that would be a bad outcome for all of us.”

He continues: “Parents have the legal right to educate their children in line with their philosophical convictions, but the state is under no legal obligation to provide or fund any particular sort of school to provide what parents want – the legal obligation on the state is merely not to interfere.”

Copson’s approach is determinedly smooth and unflappable throughout our potentially inflammatory conversation and it is difficult to judge at what point we should simply agree to disagree. With church schools we have hit an ideological cul-de-sac, and so I return to Benedict XVI and the papal visit of 2010. After all, the BHA formed part of the coalition known as Protest the Pope, which strongly opposed the state-funded trip.

Copson tells me he thought Benedict XVI’s Westminster Hall address in 2010 was “pretty disgraceful”. When I ask him which part in particular, he replies: “I recall writing a critique of it but I don’t recall the substance of what was said.”

I remind him that Benedict had warned politicians about the dangers of aggressive secularism. “Well, I don’t understand what that’s supposed to mean,” he says. “That’s always been my problem with ‘aggressive secularism,’ no one has really given a coherent account of what that’s supposed to mean, including the former pope.”

I suggest that the closure of Catholic adoption agencies is a manifestation of aggressive secularism, as Catholics are squeezed out of contributing to civil society and are not even accommodated in this instance for the benefit of supporting vulnerable children. “There are religious people who would agree that same-sex couples should be able to adopt,” he replies. “It’s not purely a religious argument.”

But how many same-sex couples would approach a Catholic adoption agency in the first place, I ask. “Why is that relevant?” he says. “If you’re talking about the provision of a public service I think it’s relevant that the provision of a public service should be universal and should be available without discrimination. Would I put the state allowing people to discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation on a par with allowing them to discriminate on the grounds of race? Yes, I would.”

So you’re not anti-Catholic then, I say, just against Catholic institutions? “I wouldn’t want to say I’m anti-Catholic organisations,” he replies. “What I do think is that there are great harms done by the Roman Catholic Church worldwide which have affronted my sense of justice and my liberal convictions. I think there is also religious discrimination in this country that similarly offends me which is unjust and I’d like to see ended.”

I ask him if he sees anything good in the Catholic Church. An awkward pause follows while Copson appears to be struggling to answer for the first time during the interview.

“I mean, I don’t know the Catholic Church very well so it’s not an institution I’m familiar with,” he says. “I think, certainly, pioneering work in the areas of hospices and palliative care. I think that credit has to go there due to the fact that many people who helped inspire that movement were Catholic. So I think that’s important work that can be appreciated… there may be other things that I’m just not familiar with.”

Given how personal the Protest the Pope campaign seemed to be at times about Joseph Ratzinger as an individual, I am curious about what Copson might have said if he had agreed to be interviewed on that historic day in February.

“I suppose if I reflected on it and, as I say, I am not actually interested in the Catholic Church for its own sake, I would say that what the event did do was make it clear that the Catholic Church is just a human institution like any other,” he says. “It’s something from which you’re capable of resigning. I don’t now why he resigned. I don’t think any of us do. I suppose it was sad for him that he was not very well.”

After our interview it struck me that indifference to the Church is far more disconcerting than hatred. Given the choice between the next papal conclave featuring wall-to-wall coverage about the likelihood of women’s ordination or absolutely no coverage at all, I know which one I would choose.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald, dated 11/10/13