Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has said he fears humanists are becoming “ever-more combative” towards faith communities.
Speaking at a conference in Madrid this week, the Chief Rabbi called on proponents of the movement to cease campaigning against religious practices like faith schools or circumcision in boys.
Rabbi Mirvis told the conference: “We are finding that, often, Humanism, and other secularist approaches, seek out opportunities to attack faith. I have always believed that when it comes to self-definition, the finest way for people to describe themselves is by explaining what they live for. It is a failing of human nature that, increasingly, people self-define according to what they are against.”
Mirvis added: “Humanism, with a small ‘h’, sits at the centre of what it means to be a Jew. But there is a different Humanism, with a capital ‘H’, which I fear is becoming ever-more combative in the way in which it regards faith communities.
“So to my Humanist friends, I call out to you in friendship and with respect. By all means, live your lives according to the values you hold dear. However, if it is freedom you seek, please do not campaign against our freedom to practice our faith.”
Rabbi Mirvis expressed concern about Humanists UK, a charity opposed to state-funded faith schools, saying that those “who campaign against the existence of faith schools are in effect campaigning against my freedom to raise my children in accordance with the tenets of my faith.”
“We may play different instruments, each one with a unique sound, but when we all play together under the baton of respectful cooperation, we can create beautiful harmony,” he continued.
In response, the charity’s chief executive Andrew Copson said: “We work with many religious groups with whom we share liberal social values.
“The coalition we co-founded for the reform of faith schools was chaired by a rabbi,” he added, referring to the Accord Coalition, a group of organisations challenging faith schools’ admissions and employment policies.
“We are ready to engage likewise with the Rabbi Mirvis at any time to explore what we share and how we can work together towards any shared goals and in the cause of greater mutual understanding,” Copson added.
“I very much regret these words of Rabbi Mirvis and I don’t believe that his words are fair, nor that they reflect any attempt to engage either with our principles or our work.”
Later on in the speech, Rabbi Mirvis extended criticism to Stephen Evans, the CEO of the National Secular Society, over his stance on circumcision.
“An attack against our right to perform circumcision is an attack against a most fundamental element of our belief,” the chief rabbi said.
In response, the CEO said in a statement: “The Chief Rabbi is entitled to his view, but in a democratic society campaigns against religious violations of individual rights and freedoms must not be silenced.
“Religious practices aren’t beyond reproach and religious groups shouldn’t be given a free pass to carry out harmful practices. Secularists seek to ensure that the right to religious freedom is always balanced against other considerations, including the protection of children.”