Interview with Terry Sanderson — President, National Secular Society
[Previously published in Conatus News]
Terry Sanderson, the President of the National Secular Society — a British campaigning organisation that promotes secularism and separation of Church and State.
How’d you become an activist?
I became an activist entirely by circumstance, by accident even. My recently published autobiography The Adventures of a Happy Homosexual is subtitled Memoirs of an Unlikely Activist tells how, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I became involved in the burgeoning gay rights movement.
But I was not part of the Gay Liberation Front that flourished in London and provided all the ideas and ideology for the movement at the time. No, I lived in a small mining village in South Yorkshire, a centre of severe social deprivation. It still is extremely poor, even more so since the coal mines and the steel works closed. London was not just another country, but another planet.
I had a sheltered childhood, where the concept of social mobility was unheard of.
As was homosexuality.
And yet, I knew I was gay from a very early age, and became increasingly frustrated at the prospect of a life of loneliness and isolation, which is what many gay people of that period endured. I hated the contempt and cruelty that was shown to anyone ‘found out’ to be gay, and I became increasingly determined to do my bit to change things. It took a long time for me to realise that you don’t have to believe everything that you’re told, even when you’re told it by your teacher or your parent.
And so, I started a gay group in the nearby town of Rotherham, which caused a sensation there in 1972. Although most of the people who joined were simply looking for a social life, I was more interested in changing the attitudes and injustices that created their isolation in the first place.
This was my training ground in activism. I came to understand how politics work, how the media can be used to foment campaigns, how to enlist allies and wrong-foot opponents.
It was a very different time, of course, there was no internet or social media so campaigning had to be done in a long and time-consuming way — especially so when, like us, you had no resources. This period of almost frenetic activism lasted for about fifteen years and gave me the grounding that I needed.
Eventually I moved to London and pursued some of my journalistic ambitions. I wrote a series of self-help books for gay people, hoping that the next generation could learn from the mistakes of the previous one and perhaps lead a happier life. My book How to be a Happy Homosexual went through five editions and sold tens of thousands of copies. Even now, older gay people still come up to me and tell me how that book helped them to make positive changes in the way they regarded themselves. It brought many people out of the closet and helped in the raising of gay people’s self-esteem. It is one of my proudest achievements in that it gave the tools for people to think about themselves in a different, more constructive way and therefore progress in their lives.
The present generation of gay youngsters take much of this for granted, but all the reforms were the result of hard, persistent work.
My other area of activism was in trying to change media images of gay people from entirely negative to — at least occasionally — sympathetic. I wrote a column called “Mediawatch” for Gay Times magazine. It appeared through the whole period that the greatest battles in the gay struggle took place. The column ran for twenty-five years and I believe it made a difference to the way gay people were portrayed in the media.
As gay rights flourished and progress was made in just about all the areas of law that we had struggled so long to reform, I came to realise that the main barrier to complete equality was religion.
In all the reforms that have occurred over the past fifty years, it was the Church that tried hardest to derail them. It was the churches (and other religious organisations and religiously motivated individuals) that continued to portray gay people as evil and undesirable. It was their aggressive and regressive attitudes that needed to be challenged. And so I changed my focus to secularism.
I reasoned that secularism was the only way to keep religion in its proper place — and that place is not in Parliament where laws are made (and unmade) for everyone.
Were parents or siblings an influence on this for you?
Not at all. The environment in which I was raised — working class, poor, accepting of an inferior lot in life — was not conducive to challenging authority. My parents were terrified of authority, particularly the police. I don’t know why, they were the most upstanding and honest people I’ve ever known. They were loving people, but they discouraged my tendency to independent thinking. They were traditionalist in their approach and, in the words of that great champion of the North, Victoria Wood, if there were problems “you kept your gob shut and got on with the ironing.”
It took me a long time to shake off that fear of our supposed superiors and realise that authority is often not all it seems — indeed, it can often be corrupt.
But this fear of authority, imbued in me by my parents, and this discouragement of challenging the status quo, made me quite a late starter. It was only when I was in my twenties that I felt that something was severely out of kilter with our society if it thought I was a satanic creature that must be suppressed or even put in jail. It was also an overwhelming desire to experience love and companionship with another man — something religion was trying to stop, by legal means if possible.
It was this personal sense of persecution, of course, that made the gay rights movement so powerful. Everyone involved had a very personal stake in it, and much to gain from its success.
So, my parents were not my inspiration. I had to operate in an atmosphere of disapproval in order to pursue the activism that I felt was just.
Was university education an asset or a hindrance to your goal of being an activist?
I left school at the age of fifteen without a single qualification to my name — not even a measly GCE. I was expected, like my peers, to start work the day after I left school, which is what I did.
But I was always curious about the world, and anxious to know more about it. I spent most Saturdays in the library reading and exploring the things that interested me. I became an autodidact — just like the first President of the National Secular Society, Charles Bradlaugh, who came from a similarly poverty-stricken background and educated himself into the law, becoming an admired and skilled advocate.
I have felt my lack of education from time to time, and have had to accept my limits. I can always draw on the skills of others, though, and am good at delegation.
Would a university education have made a difference to what I did? No — I was not motivated by intellectual rigour but by a strong sense of injustice. The isolated place where I was born and raised meant that I had no-one to tell me how to do it, but plenty of people telling me I shouldn’t do it. Everything I knew about activism, I had gained from reading about it in books.
I was, therefore, obliged to make it up as I went along.
Did you have early partnerships in this activist pursuit? If so, whom?
The gay group I started in Rotherham was a branch of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE), which was based in Manchester. CHE was different to the Gay Liberation Front, less radical and more pragmatic in its pursuit of law change. But for those of us in the branches — and there were dozens around the country — we were left to our own devices to proceed as we saw fit. Some branches were social and some were activists. It all depended on the individuals who ran them.
But the mutual support they provided and the platform from which campaigns could be launched was essential. CHE also brought me my partner of 35 years, Keith.
How did you come to adopt a socially progressive worldview?
Although it was a Labour heartland, the mining town where I was raised was anything but socially progressive. It was conservative (small c) in its approach to social issues. Most of the campaigning I did in those early days was aimed at the Labour local authority which was utterly opposed to homosexual equality.
It was only over a long period that this changed after people like Ken Livingstone in London adopted gay rights — even in the face of relentless attacks in the media and from the Conservative government.
It was only while campaigning in this area that I came to see — through contact with other activists — that there were other areas of glaring injustice, such as women’s rights, racism and disregard for the rights of people with disabilities. I like to think of myself as a feminist and want more than anything for women to play a much bigger role in the power structures of our society.
All this activism has been carried out in my spare time — I had to support myself with full-time work and most of my working life has been spent in the area of disabilities. Working with people with disabilities changed my whole approach to life.
Gradually, through all these issues I have come to recognise that all people — no exceptions — have the same rights and should be equal before the law.
Now I’d like to spend much more time helping women in Islam improve their lot. I strongly believe that Islam will never be reformed until women are liberated within it. The ghastly machismo that dominates the religion at the moment gives greatest power to stupid, violent men.
Why do you think that adopting a social progressive outlook is important?
If people are unhappy they will eventually try to do something about it. Trying to repress human impulses — which is what religion seeks to do — eventually leads to an explosive reaction. You can see it in Iran, where the mullahs try desperately to control every waking moment of the people — telling them what to wear, what to eat, what to do, when to sleep, what to think.
But young Iranians are filled with that natural exuberance that cannot and should not be dampened. Despite the rulings from the crackpot ayatollahs, these youngsters find ways of expressing themselves as human beings, not as robots impatiently awaiting their place in paradise.
I believe that eventually the Iranians (it is an overwhelmingly youthful population) will rebel against the patriarchy and overthrow those bearded, be-turbaned relics and reclaim their lives.
And that is why I believe in social progress, in inclusion, in equality. I think the issue of women’s rights all over the world is the number one issue for this and many other generations to come. Empowering women can save the world. And again it is institutions like the Vatican that keeps women down, stifles their lives and limits their options.
But change will only come through social progress, and the challenges to religious power. That is why I think it is important.
Do you consider yourself a progressive?
I like to thinks so, if progressive means wanting to challenge injustice and move equality forward.
But like everyone else, I occasionally backslide. I look on in alarm at the refugee crisis and wonder where it is all leading. Is it racist to be worried about that?
I have changed my mind about what is the best way to ensure religion does not dominate the lives of those who don’t want it. Trying to persuade people out of their religious beliefs is a hopeless cause, except in very limited ways. Those who have religion as the centre of their lives are not going to be persuaded out of it. And why should they be?
The way forward is to ensure that state and religion are separated. That no religion can take secular power and use it in the way it is used in so many theocracies around the world, as a means of persecuting those who do not share that faith.
It is an ongoing battle — who is to define “religious freedom”? I know how I would define it, but others have different ideas.But a definition that is realistic needs to be made and accepted by all, or the battles over who is entitled to rights and who isn’t will continue.
Does progressivism logically imply other beliefs, or tend to or even not at all?
I think there have been progressive people of all beliefs and none. There are Christians who want to push their faith in a progressive direction and there are atheists who want to make the world a better place by other means — through environmentalism or poverty-reduction. Nobody has a monopoly on progressivism and it is becoming increasingly clear that unless we break down the barriers that separate us and work together, the whole of humanity could be under threat.
What are your religious/irreligious beliefs?
I’m an atheist. That’s all. I don’t think it needs any qualification. An atheist simply doesn’t believe in the existence of the supernatural in any form, and if you want to define it beyond that, it becomes something else.
In many people’s minds — particularly in the USA — atheism has become a ‘movement’ with all kinds of agendas. It wants to take religious wording off banknotes, remove religious references from the Pledge of Allegiance, remove religious paraphernalia from public buildings. But that is taking atheism into another dimension and making it into something other than just not believing in gods.
Atheism is used as an interchangeable term with secularism, but they aren’t the same thing.
Of course, some religious activists of a theocratic disposition, love to conflate atheism and secularism, because they realise that secularism is a real threat to their ambition for religious power and that atheists are supposedly widely despised in America. Ergo: secularism is worthy of dismissal because it is just the same as atheism.
My own atheism is simply a reflection of what I can’t accept to be true. Supernatural claims just seem ridiculous. I laughed when the Catholic Church made “Mother Theresa” a saint because she apparently cured someone of brain cancer from beyond the grave. It just seems so primitive.
As a progressive, what do you think is the best socio-political position to adopt in the United Kingdom?
I don’t think progressivism should be defined in those terms. Anyone from anywhere can be progressive on some issues and not on others. We can unite on what we agree on and continue to argue about the rest. I like the fact that the NSS has no political affiliation and no religious affiliation — anyone can join so long as they accept the concept of secularism and the NSS’s approach to it.
We even have a couple of vicars who have joined recently and some progressive Muslims. They know that separating religion from the state makes things safer for everyone, and we welcome their participation. But the NSS is sharply focused — it won’t be starting prayer groups or atheist churches.
What big obstacles (if at all) do you see social-progressive movements facing at the moment?
Religion first and foremost, but also the rise of what has become known as the Regressive Left. These are the people who one would usually associate with progressive movements but who have allied themselves with horrendously backward-looking Islamist groups.
They rightly think that they must support Muslims in their efforts to settle in this country. We all want people to be safe and free from discrimination. But the neologism ‘Islamophobia’ which has been so successfully promulgated by these regressive groups, does not defend Muslims, it defends the philosophies of these awful Islamist groups who shelter under its umbrella. It allows the worst elements to deflect criticism with cries of racism. This is encouraged and applauded by the Regressive Left.
Criticising Islam and the fanatics who use it for political purposes is not the same as defending the rights of individual Muslims. I always say that human rights are for humans, not ideas.
But ordinary Muslims who are doing their best to get on with life in a peaceful and orderly fashion are the ones who suffer when Islamists and theocratic elements within their communities are empowered in this way.
The regressive left really needs to rethink its approach. If anti-Muslim prejudice is what they oppose, they could help things along by saying that and disposing of the term ‘Islamophobia’.
How important do you think social movements are?
They can be extraordinarily important. The current crop of activists fighting social injustice are very effectively using social media to promote their campaigns. Democratic governments, too, recognise the value that social movements can have on policy making.
Once suspicion by politicians is allayed, social movements with their wealth of specialised knowledge, can contribute greatly to progressive law-making.
It was only through pressure from interest groups that the great social reforms of the 1960s happened. Governments will not change the status quo unless pressed to do so.
It is through social movements that we ended slavery, that women were emancipated, that gays were released from illegality, that racism came to be seen as undesirable.
What is your current work?
I am President of the National Secular Society and before I retire from that I want to see its activities expanded and intensified. With the resurgence of such a nasty strain of Islam, the NSS has a new relevance and new challenges that we intend to meet head on.
Where do you hope your professional work will go into the future?
My work is almost done. I’m seventy years old this year and I understand that maybe the time is coming for me to hand over the torch to the next generation. I will, of course, continue to contribute where I can, and I hope that my writing career can continue.
Thank you for your time, Mr. Sanderson.