Saturday, 27 February 2010


Are we seeing history in the making? It seems to me that a great institution, one that seeks to shape people's everyday lives, is now tearing itself apart. Differences of opinion are being expressed in very strong terms and it may be that it is too late for reconciliation. Perhaps there will just have to be a parting of the ways with one camp staying put and the other moving off in a new direction. This of course is a reference to the unholy row that has blown up among members of the Richard Dawkins foundation. This article in yesterday's Times tells the whole story.
I have from time to time ventured onto an atheist discussion forum to offer a Christian perspective. Whilst some of the exchanges have been extremely cordial I have nevertheless suffered the proverbial hairdryer treatment at the hands of the more fundamentalist factions of the atheist community. It now seems that they are turning the hairdryers on one another and even on their leader. Poor Professor Dawkins: how he must be suffering for his faith.

Its not often that I sign petitions but this one which I read about on Fr. Ivan's excellent blog got my early and unqualified support. There is a fair bit of dust being kicked up by the NSS and others about the fact some of the costs of the visit are being picked up by the taxpayer. Why shouldn't they? The fact that some people do not necessarily wish to engage in a particular activity does not mean that those who do should have their views or aspirations trashed. Nor is it without parallel that State visits (or in this case one with equivalent status) are supported with public funds. So, since the secularists have a petition I think its terrific idea that we fight fire with fire and have one of our own.
I think its worth comparing the scale of taxpayer support for the Pope's visit with the money that we are being asked to find for the 2012 Olympics. Because there is one certain parallel between the two and that is whilst everyone may not support a visit from the head of the Roman Catholic church there are plenty who are equally unenthused by the Olympics. Now the costs of the former according to an NSS article is £20m. I would suggest this compares extremely favourably with the £9bn+ that is being spent on the Olympics (or, for every £1 for spent on the Holy Father, that's £450 for the Olympics). The Olympics investment of course is in part about legacy and the laudable plans for the regeneration of areas of East London . So I suggest that the Pope's visit may leave another legacy, the regeneration of Christian faith in parts of the country. Now that, as they say, would be priceless.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

A fair challenge (Part 2 with all the right bits in)

Last week I reflected that in spite of its high media profile, it was not that easy to discover much about the National Secular Society. I was wrong. Having ascertained the NSS was not a registered charity I found it why: as a lobbying organisation it does not pass the public benefit test that would enable it to acquire charitable status.
The NSS is a company limited by guarantee (status that would not of itself prevent it from registering as a charity with the Charity Commissioners). By virtue of its operating size (well below £0.5m per annum income) it can properly be exempted from some of the onerous reporting and disclosure requirements placed on larger incorporated bodies.
That is not say there is nothing about them. Our Companies legislation still places a duty of disclosure, albeit it at more manageable levels. So for example it is possible to see the Memorandum and Articles of Association: broadly statements of why the company exists and its governance arrangements. A lot of this is fairly standard stuff but the principles o which it is founded bear repeating here:

  • The National Secular Society affirms that this life is theonly one of which we have any knowledge and human effort should be directed towards its improvement. It assets that supernaturalism is based upon ignorance and assails it as the historic enemy of progress;
  • The National Secular Society affirms that progress is possible only on the basis of equal freedom of speech and publication; that the free criticism of institutions and ideas is essential to a civilised state;
  • Affirming that morality is social in origin and application the National Secular Society aims to promote the happiness and well-being of humanity;
  • The National Secular Society demands the complete separation of Church and State and the abolition of all privileges granted to religious organisations
  • It seeks to spread education, to promote the friendship of all peoples as a means of advancing universal peace, to further common cultural interests and to develop the freedom and dignity of humantiy
As for the objects these are:

To uphold and propagate the principles in Clause 3
To stimulate freedom of thought and inquiry in all matters relating to secularist principles
To promote a secular system of education
To maintain and assert the same right of propaganda for opinions and ideas which conflict with existing or traditional creeds and beliefs as is now exercisable in favour of such creeds and beliefs
To publish and distribute, either gratuitously or otherwise, books, pamphlets and periodicals designed to promote these objects or any of them
To originate, to watch over or to petition Parliament in relation to measures pertaining to the principles and objects of the Society
To initiate, organise and participate in campaigns for such reforms as, in the view of the Society, would promote human welfare and enhance the quality of life
To purchase or otherwise acquire, either wholly or in part, and to print, publish and sell any newspaper, journal, magazine, periodical, leaflet or book for the purpose of circulating information on all matters relating to the principles and objects of the Society and for that purpose to carry on the business of newspaper proprietors and of newspaper and general printers and publishers, booksellers, advertisers and advertising agents and contractors

This represents the latest version of these documents - I cannot say how they differ from earlier versions. In terms of substance I doubt whether it is much.

The last accounts for 2008/09 have been lodged. This confirms the picture of a very modestly sized operation. Income appears split between mainstream income and donations; and more substantial donations and legacies (defined as £2500 or more). The nature of substantial donations is not explained further - without them though the NSS could not sustain operations at the level suggested in the accounts. Finally the NSS holds investments valued at well over £1m as a way of generating income for future operations. In the current economic climate it may be that these are not performing as well as hoped.

As far as expenditure is concerned, naturally this is dominated by staff salaries (around 1/3 of income). Equally predictable the next highest expense is stationery and information dissemination at just over £40k. Oh and the auditors resigned in 2009 - probably not too much of a surprise as they did their inspection for free. Even accountants have to eat!

Where does all this lead? Just one reflection for now. Here is an organisation that is barely the size of two or three church parishes able to leverage significant thought leadership through the national media, with an agenda that is pretty unambiguous. None of this would be too serious if this was just another lobbying group. But the target is religion or, as they call it, supernaturalism. As a Christian, I am not sure I should sit idly by and do nothing.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

How does it add up?

The last few days the National Secular Society has been getting a considerable amount of national media coverage - Cherie Blair's act of judicial mercy, the cost of the Pope's visit and so on.... That suggests an extremely effective lobbying group, one that has now become the media's sound-bite of choice when they are looking for a counter to a "religious" news story. A visit to their website similarly suggests a well-organised operation.
It says on their website that NSS is reliant entirely on donations for its continued survival. I visited the link to see how one could make a donation. To my surprise there was no opportunity to Gift Aid one's donation. Well, that put paid to one assumption: that the NSS is a registered charity, a view which seemed to be confirmed when a search of the Charities Commission website also drew a blank. If that is the case, fair play to them as it would be incompatible with their principles if they were able to use the tax advantages used by charities to supplement donations.
But it raises another question: how does the NSS survive financially? If anyone is reading perhaps they could let me know: my search capability does not extend much beyond the NSS website or Google. Better still if anyone has a set of their last financial statements (or knows where to get them) I would be very grateful.