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£35,000 of taxpayers' cash given to 'atheist bus' group

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An atheist group planning to put adverts on London buses declaring that "there's probably no God" has been given £35,000 in taxpayers' money.

By Martin Beckford, Religious Affairs Correspondent
Last Updated: 12:22PM GMT 26 Nov 2008

The British Humanist Association, which is running a campaign get rid of faith schools and wants to end the Church of England's position as the established religion, was given the grant by the Government's equality watchdog and is using it to stage a series of debates about the place of religion in public life.

The four events will include speakers from faith groups but one of the keynote addresses is being delivered by the prominent atheist Professor AC Grayling, who claims "religious belief shares the same intellectual respectability and rationality as belief in the existence of fairies".

Critics say it is wrong for the Equality and Human Rights Commission to give taxpayers' money to a controversial organisation whose stance would be found objectionable by many members of the public.

Neil Addison, a Roman Catholic barrister who specialises in religious discrimination, said: "It's a bit like paying the Taliban to lecture on women's rights.

"There's nothing wrong with the British Humanist Association organising seminars, but it's the fact that they're getting public money.

"There is the question of whether this is what Government money should be going for, particularly in a time of recession.

"If we're having a debate on religion, should we be paying one side of the argument to hold it, especially with public money?"

The BHA says it is dedicated to bringing about "a world without religious privilege or discrimination" and represents "people who seek to live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs".

As well as lobbying the Government for the disestablishment of the Church and the scrapping of faith schools and religious assemblies, it registers "officiants" who hold weddings, funerals and naming ceremonies with no religious content.

The BHA is also the "official campaign partner" of the atheist bus campaign, launched earlier this year, which seeks to place on London bendy-buses a series of adverts declaring: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life".

It is administering donations to the cause, which was set up in response to religious adverts on public transport linked to a website "threatening hellfire for unbelievers".
Using the public money it has been given by the equality watchdog, the BHA has planned four conferences on "religion or belief" between now and February which will question whether it is right for the devout to be given special treatment in the workplace.

The first, held earlier this month, was addressed by the Lib Dem MP Evan Harris, who has been dubbed "Dr Death" for his campaign to liberalise abortion laws.

The other keynote speeches will be delivered by Angela Mason, a former gay rights activist who became a senior civil servant; Prof Grayling, who will discuss whether religious groups should be exempt from discrimination laws; and Brian Gibbons, a former GP who is now a Welsh Assembly minister.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission confirmed that it had given a £35,000 grant to the atheist group this year, but pointed out that it also funds 285 other organisations that campaign for an end to discrimination in race, gender, age and sexual orientation.

Hanne Stinson, the BHA's executive director, was on the Government task force that led to the creation of the equalities watchdog.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission confirmed that it had given a £35,000 grant to the group, but pointed out that it also funds 285 other organisations that work to tackle discrimination and promote community cohesion.

It said: “The list includes nine organisations specifically focused on religion and belief from different perspectives, as well numerous other organisations that have an element of religion and belief in the work they do.”



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