rose to call attention to the position in British society of those who profess no religion; and to move for Papers.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, all my life, religion has all too frequently meant division and separation. At school, non-Anglicans were excluded from morning assemblies until prayers were said—an infelicitous image of separation lodged in the minds of young, impressionable boys. When my own children came of school age, my wife and I had to choose between sending them to the local church school or exporting them out of area and so separating them from their circle of friends in our closely knit local community. It scarcely rated as parental choice. When I came to this House, I once again found myself segregated as this Chamber—my workplace—is daily transmogrified into a church. We non-churchgoers troop in afterwards like guilty office workers returning from a quick inhalation of inspiration from the street outside. Perhaps those who wish to pray could copy our Muslim colleagues and use the private prayer room. Those are three examples of the regular experience of those of us who profess no religion and those non-churchgoers who are the silent majority.
It is time to speak up, especially as a more strident note is now sounding. The Anglicanism of my youth, more sedative than stimulant, now gives way to the harsher tones of those like the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York, who describes us as “illiberal atheists” and “aggressive secularists”. We learn that to combat this perceived intolerant public atheism, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Roman Catholic Church and the Jewish leader will meet this summer in a holy alliance to plot the counterstrategy—a less than ecumenical approach. Indeed, it seems to me that the religious today do not lack leaders but they lack leadership.
Religious belief continues on its long-term decline in Britain, as the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York recently acknowledged on the “Today” programme. However, his remonstration of us non-churchgoers as the authors of this steepening decline is neither warranted nor deserved. My debate today seeks to rebut those charges and to tabulate those areas of public life where we feel unacknowledged, unprized and under-represented. I hope, too, to ponder on what government and the wider community might do to reflect better this modern and more secular Britain that is developing, in particular in its public policies and institutions.
In that, I call for fair play. I invite our religious colleagues to debate how we can find common ground to establish a new consensus. I offer my own credentials in this quest for consensus by reminding your Lordships of the debate that I led two years ago highlighting the urgent need for the church, the state and those of religious beliefs and none to unite, perhaps on a more equal basis, to save Britain’s unparalleled architectural and cultural heritage revealed in the wealth of its parish churches and city cathedrals. I believe that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester, who is with us today, contributed to that.
I have unswervingly and religiously voted for the Government over the past seven years but I confess to qualms about their so-called faith agenda, which has the merit of being well meaning but whose consequences have all too often been ill directed. The Government fulfilled a 2001 manifesto promise to encourage co-operation between religious communities and themselves by publishing a paper entitled Working Together but their compass on promoting togetherness is too unsteady. They signally fail to canvass the views of non-churchgoers about religious matters despite the fact that, as the 2001 Home Office Citizenship Survey asserts, four out of five of us find that religious belief is not central to our self-identity.
Working Together is lax in the way in which it elevates obscure religious groups such as the Jains and the Zoroastrians to a significance way beyond their numbers. It too eagerly equates religious belief with specific ethnic communities, thereby overlooking the authentic non-religious views and needs of, say, our Chinese and Caribbean communities. It is seduced by using religion as a key to revealing other problems and opportunities. It passes over the myriad other groups and subsets who make up the mosaic of Britain and deserve to have their substantial and unique voices heard. Most egregious, though, is the omission of those for whom religion is either perfunctory or defunct—we the silent majority. The report compounds its diagnostic errors by proposing therapies that are dubious. The use of public moneys and resources to seek out and harvest the views of small, unrepresentative religious groups is problematic.
However, I am particularly perturbed by the Government’s companion paper, entitled Building Civil Renewal, which apparently encourages civil servants to dilute the strength of the secular voice,
“by preparing to mount publicity and media-handling strategies to answer adverse criticism from the secular quarter”.
That is neither wise nor even-handed. Groups such as the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association, of which I am a member, should be encouraged, not discouraged, from commenting on the development or the framing of relevant laws and policies. Had those groups been dispassionately asked and thoughtfully answered, some of the rough edges of legislation regarding religious hatred or religious schools might well have sat better with the very communities such laws are designed to serve.
However, let me turn to other, sometimes unintended incivilities visited on us, the non-churchgoers, arising from the muddled miasma of thinking about the role of religion in Britain today. Why on state occasions such as Remembrance Day is no representative from the non-religious community invited to attend the Cenotaph? How appropriate is it that the commemoration of those killed in London in the bombings of 7 July takes place in an Anglican cathedral, when such buildings have lost their once universal numinosity? Indeed, one of those murdered was a prominent secularist. Would a Christian be content with a humanist funeral if that was all that was on offer?
The various standing advisory panels set up by the Government to garner the views of religious groups forgo—indeed, avoid—the contribution that non-churchgoers might proffer. So too with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Religious Freedom Panel, bereft as it is of the humanist voice. Also, the chaplaincy services found in the armed services, in NHS hospitals and the Prison Service—important services offering comfort and advice—are provided exclusively by the church. Why should they not be extended beyond that? After all, our prisons are not overcrowded with regular churchgoers.
I harbour anxieties that the Government are devolving community services to religiously motivated groups and that that will further erode the clear principle that public funds should be disbursed in a non-discriminatory manner. A further discomfort is the fact that humanist marriage ceremonies—which I have had the privilege to be invited to and to preside over—are not recognised as a legal marriage. Why not? My view, for what it is worth, is that the churches should open up their premises to the wider community, who value the local church as a fine building redolent of the local community. Indeed, why should they not preside over humanist marriages?
My hair shirt itches on the question of public service broadcasting. “Thought for the Day” is a dusty desert in the oasis of political and current affairs reporting on the “Today” programme, but these days the even earlier “Prayer for the Day” strays beyond the bounds, as witness yesterday’s unchallenged criticism of the Government’s liberalising legislation on gambling. No one should be deaf to criticism, but I deplore the abuse of that unearned licence as the nation's reveille at 5.45 am.
The Government must redouble their efforts to ring-fence moneys provided for education in schools and other institutions, but that becomes an increasingly difficult task—indeed, a Sisyphean task—when a school is deliberately encouraged to develop a Christian ethos. I still believe in the principle of schools being charged with the clear task of imparting knowledge, skills and the ability to reason and think. Religion should be confined to the Sunday school. At the very least, religious education should restrict itself to the disciplines of history and the study of ideas. Neither school, hospital, prison nor public or community services should be metamorphosed into the vessels of promoting religion.
The Queen has done an outstanding job as our head of state, but is it not an unfair burden to place on her—or on her successors—that she should combine being head of state with the role of titular head of the church, especially given that belief in God is a very personal decision and not one that should be assumed or, for that matter, particularly expressed? I join those in the Anglican communion who believe that the Church of England should be disestablished. The Government should canvass views widely about the desirability and practicality of that.
I hope to hear the Minister’s views not only on that but also on those other areas of public policy. I hope her response will be positive and that there might be a consensual meeting between those who represent the religions and our own people, so that we can strike a way forward that is both profitable and modern for a modernising Britain. I beg to move for Papers.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, is one of the more perspicacious Members of your Lordships’ House. Of course I accept that the anxieties and resentments that he has expressed so vehemently are real; they may even be widespread. I suggest, however, that there is at least one very important reason why he, and others who are like-minded, should take comfort. In this country of many faiths and none, our common aim must surely be to bring out the best in everyone. That involves accepting that for many, although of course by no means all, their best derives from their religious faith.
On the face of it, that proposition may seem dreamily naïve. Throughout history, and alas very much at this moment, religion has been and is at the root of terrible events and some of our most intractable problems. Religious fundamentalism, not least Christian fundamentalism, has a lot to answer for on the world stage. What many of us see as out-of-date theology holds back medical research, delays improvement in the well-being of the world’s poorest and so on.
It is therefore unsurprising that religion is often cast as a malign influence, as I think the noble Lord has cast it. It is cast as something to be stood up to by government, and government does indeed respond from time to time by picking a fight with religious bodies, even when, as occasionally happens, there is no real need to do so. Of course, sometimes the religious bodies get their way.
In a democracy, however, government is not mainly about dealing with organisations, although they are important. Ultimately, government is about individuals and enabling people of diverse backgrounds and points of view to live together harmoniously; to understand, co-operate with and support one another; to help one another to prosper; and to be open to helping others beyond our shores.
This is my point to the noble Lord: it so happens that the great faiths that we have in this country—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism—are all, at heart, about just that. They are about empathy, feeling what it is like to be in another’s shoes, being self-critical, seeking and recognising the good in others, giving people the benefit of the doubt, and helping others where help is needed. Of course, that behaviour is plentiful in people who profess no religion, but because it is the kind of behaviour that all the great faiths in our midst nurture at their heart, and because, goodness knows, we all need that kind of behaviour, no one should feel threatened by, or indeed threaten or resent, those who live by a faith.
The noble Lord, Lord Winston, referred the other day to his lecture at Dundee University and expressed the view that we in this country have never needed spirituality more than we do today. He speaks as a scientist. However, spirituality—one’s understanding of what life is about—is a deep-down thing. It is part and parcel of a person, and it is unsurprising that, when that spirituality is threatened, there is a strong reaction from organised religion on their members’ behalf. The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, and those who share his concern worry too much. The tribal behaviour of religious bodies is one thing, especially when, rightly or wrongly, they are cornered into acting politically; the spirit within individual members of those faiths and the behaviour that comes from it is quite another. All of us, the Government of the day included, need to nurture spirituality wherever it grows. We need the best in everyone even if we do not necessarily accept from whence that best comes. Let us face it: we are all in this together.
My Lords, in 1959 I spent a holiday in the USSR and visited the city of Smolensk, where Intourist arranged a guide to show me around the cathedral. The guide was a Soviet woman battleaxe of the type who had no doubt killed whole regiments of Germans with her bare teeth. As we were leaving the cathedral she said to me fiercely, “Do you believe in God?”. I hummed and hawed for a bit and said, “No, not really”. She said, “Well then, why do you not stay in the Soviet Union?”. She clearly thought that as a non-believer I was subject to persecution in the United Kingdom. I did not feel persecuted then, nor do I now.
However, I have concerns particularly with education. I am therefore extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for having introduced this important and perhaps overdue debate. I agree with much but not everything that the noble Lord says. I do not want humanism treated as a virtual religion. For that reason, I do not want humanists to be represented as a specific group on public occasions. Nor do I have any particular objection to prayers in your Lordships’ House. For me, humanism is a fallback position not a matter of positive belief. As I get older I simply get more convinced that there is no credible evidence for the existence of God and see no merit in believing the truth of something not supported by evidence.
I fully support the right of believers to freedom of belief, but I believe that church and state should be separate. Schools are perhaps the most significant problem, if not the only one. Why should we have schools funded by the state which discriminate on grounds of religion? Why should children be denied entry to the best and nearest school to their home because their parents do not share a particular belief system to which that school is attached? Why should faith schools be entitled to discriminate in the employment of teachers who are not employed to teach religious education?
If we were starting from scratch, I would want to see a state-funded school system which does not teach any faith as truth or select on grounds of faith. Comparative religion and explaining the central tenets of main world religions could be taught, but teaching should not be wider than that. In principle, teaching any religious belief as truth should be left to churches, mosques, synagogues and temples.
I recognise that we do not start from scratch. By the time state education was introduced in the Education Act 1870, there were already established networks of free or subsidised church schools; namely, Church of England, Roman Catholic and non-conformists. Those networks were inevitably absorbed into the church-state partnership which exists to this day. They were reinforced by the Education Act 1902. But in 1870, the United Kingdom was overwhelmingly a Christian society with a tiny Jewish minority and almost no one from any other religion.
We have since become a multi-faith society, and non-belief has greatly increased. It is time to revisit the 1870 settlement. We cannot abolish it completely, but we could say—I believe we should say—that there should be no new state-assisted faith schools and no academies sponsored by religious bodies. We should remove the rights of existing faith schools to discriminate in their admissions and teacher appointments on religious grounds. State funding should not be provided for any school that teaches creationism or its little brother, intelligent design, either as truth or as a serious hypothesis.
I do not feel now any more than I did in 1959 that I suffer discrimination in this country on the grounds that I am not a believer in God. It has never been an issue in my political career, unlike in the USA, where an admission of the absence of belief in God would make a political career almost certainly impossible. My grandchildren go to a good local primary school which is not a faith school, but I have to say that if those grandchildren had been denied admission to a local primary school because their parents were not believers, I would have felt that there really was discrimination against them. That real threat must be dealt with in this country to avoid treating humanists in a way that they do not deserve.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, has described me as having a harsher voice, but I can assure noble Lords that they will not hear a harsher voice. Twenty-seven years ago I was chaplain to a young offenders remand centre, Latchmere House. Every inmate was asked to declare his religious affiliation, and four young men were registered as having no religion. One Sunday, all the inmates were offered the chance to go to worship. The four young men with no religion declined the offer, while their fellow inmates on the A wing took up the offer. The prison officer, not wanting the four men to remain locked up in their cells, asked them to clean the toilets on the wing. The following Sunday, our four non-religious young men took up the offer to go to worship. The prison officer was puzzled why they had opted in this week. “Why are you going to chapel?” he asked. The four replied, “Sir, we didn’t like the ‘No Religion’ place of worship”. Crudely as they put it, those four young men were saying in their naivety that we are all essentially religious. The question is not whether we worship, but rather one of who or what do we worship. We give allegiance to something, and during my time at Latchmere House we persuaded everyone to volunteer to clean the toilets.
In a study called “Spirituality” among randomly selected primary school children in Nottingham and Birmingham some years ago, the researchers said that they did not come across a child who did not have an inherently spiritual perception of life. For me, religion is a narrative we all inhabit that makes sense to us of what would otherwise be nonsense. Time does not allow me to speak at length, but let us be clear: dogmatic assumptions also underline non-religious world views—Marxism, Darwinism, Freudianism, capitalism, secularism, humanism and so on. Those are clear dogmatic positions.
For me, this is not a human-centred universe. Religious and non-religious people need to recognise the absolute mystery of existence. By mystery, I do not mean the unexplained, but the question that persists beyond the possible explanation. Wittgenstein put it wonderfully when he said:
“Not how the world is, is the mystery, but that it is”.
Beyond all the explanations the question persists: why should there be anything at all rather than just nothing? For me, belief in God, whose face I have beheld in Jesus Christ, means not only that he makes me see things in a new light but that he sets me free to do things in a new way. Why? Because for me he is not only a model for life, like birds for the aeroplane, but a living presence who helps me to live as he lived. He is not just a great teacher who lived, or simply a person to be studied in a book, or a perfect pattern or example.
“We can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common line is that we all inhabit this small planet. We breathe the same air; we all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal”.
So said J.F. Kennedy in his commencement address at American University on 10 June 1963, and I agree with him.
How are we to do this? I suggest we do it by not polarising the claims of law and freedom. For me, the greatest danger we face in this country is the ethical and spiritual problems associated with the concepts of law and freedom. It is a problem for society, which can scarcely hope to survive without the delicate balance between them. If we do not delicately balance them, we will be in trouble. It is a problem for the individual, who swings uneasily between the seemingly old-fashioned moral imperative of a higher authority and the seemingly legitimate demands of their own physical and moral nature. As one of my predecessors, Archbishop Stuart Blanch, said:
“Long before we perish of pollution or civilisation goes up in some nameless holocaust we may die the death of those who, in the pursuit of freedom, undermine the law, or in the name of the law extinguish freedom—unless, that is, we are prepared to learn from the past and take more seriously than we sometimes do the accumulated wisdom of a peculiar gifted people—the people of the Bible”.
For me, any society that forgets its memory becomes senile. Balancing the rule of law and freedom has been the greatest gift this nation has offered the world. I trust, therefore, that we will not give away that birthright for the very thin stew of social justice. The sure-footed way of keeping our birthright is the,
“maintenance of true religion and virtue”,
as we say in the prayers. How? By maintaining the intermingling of religion, morals and law. The severance of law from morality and of religion from law has,
“gone much too far. Although religion, law and morals can be separated, they are nevertheless still very much dependent on one another. Without religion, there can be no morality, there can be no law”.
So said Lord Denning.
My Lords, I am sure the whole House should be deeply grateful to my noble friend Lord Harrison for having introduced this debate. I have often felt, in the debates he introduces in this House, that he brings with him a warm engagement with the realities of society, what people are really encountering out there and what really makes society, at the grassroots, tick. It is always good that he challenges us with those perceptions.
I am sure I am not alone in reflecting that in the experience of life, some of the finest, most humane, perceptive and principled, most socially committed, wise and decent people I have encountered have been among those who are agnostic, atheist and those just with no religion. Conversely, it would be madness to deny that the reality of the human story is that in the name of religion so much suffering has been caused, so much oppression and bigotry generated.
As one bred in a Church of Scotland and English non-conformist family, I have always been very much at home in the Anglican Church since my wife introduced me to it, and I sometimes ask myself: what is it that makes me feel at home there? I believe it is the inclusiveness, tolerance, rationality and openness of that church at its best. I cannot say how sad I become when there seem to be those in its ranks who want to turn it into just another exclusive sect. I would argue that exclusiveness and sectarianism are the biggest dangers to humanity in the age in which we live.
Some years ago I was serving on the Commission on Global Governance. It was a fascinating experience; people were there from all around the world, with a great deal to offer. We got on extremely well on that commission. I remember reflecting, in a casual conversation one day with another member of the commission, that in some ways our natural intellectual village was a commission like that. We lived in an international world; that meant something to us. We found it an altogether good and positive experience to be together. Reflecting on this, my friend and I came to the conclusion that our position was very privileged, and at times it must be very threatening to many deprived and excluded people throughout the world.
Dwelling on that thought, I have come to the conclusion that we must be careful not to deny identity. It is terribly important to develop a sense of identity. People need to be secure in what is familiar and means something to them. The challenge is then to lead on from that position to a recognition that the world can only survive, let alone prosper, if we co-operate and learn from each other and intermingle in the fullest sense.
If that is true of those with faith, it must be true of those with no religion. We deprive ourselves of an essential part of the success of society unless those who have that particular orientation—or lack of orientation—are as full members of society as anyone else. We should be concentrating on the importance of contributing from our different backgrounds to a citizenship that we all share; a global citizenship.
I conclude with this experience. Forgive me if it is a little personal. I was once discussing my younger daughter with my parish priest, who is a good friend. She is an extremely warm and committed person who, I am proud to say, works in the front line among women with mental health problems in deprived communities. I was discussing the fact that she did not share a sense of religion. He said to me, “Frank, I have come to the conclusion that what we should be doing in life is seeking truth. We all find a path to start climbing the mountain of truth. We cannot hang around at the bottom looking for the perfect path; we start climbing from where we are. It is a very big mountain and takes a long time to get to the top, but as we climb, is it is important to remember that countless other people are climbing it on other paths. If by climbing whatever path we have chosen we reach the summit together, we must respect and love those who have chosen paths different from ours”.
My Lords, I, too, would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for initiating this debate. This House excels at this kind of debate. Perhaps no other political Chamber is brave enough to discuss these issues so openly. For that, we should be grateful not only to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, but to everyone who will take part. They will say things that matter to them, and that is the bottom line.
I was brought up a Hindu by a very devout mother. At the age of 12, she started me off on meditation. Unfortunately, the holy lady who was living with us who I meditated with used to fall asleep very quickly and start snoring. A child of 12 is too young anyway, and when the person who is supposed to be leading you into something very special starts snoring, that is not a very good start.
The other problem that arose was that my mother was a very unhappy woman. In spite of her great religious belief—her following all the rituals and festivals and so forth—she was full of anger. She had great grievance against everyone, including all of us; her three children and her husband. None of us had lived up to her expectations in any way whatever. Surely, being a religious person should give you peace of mind. What else would you want to be religious for except to feel good inside you? She did not feel good inside and that is what started me on the path that I have now taken.
As we have heard, all religions are essentially good, we all know that. It is the followers who are a problem. They are the best and worst and we have seen that time and again. The followers lead us into the best and the worst.
Hindus respect all faiths; there is no question about that. When I was a child we were told that it was just a question of pathways to God, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said, and that you could choose whichever pathway you wanted. There is nothing lower or higher; it is a pathway to God. That is how I was brought up.
When I came to this country, I knew that it was Christian. I have never had any problem with the value system. My value system as a Hindu is no different from the Christian value system. We all want the same things; we all try to do the same things. It has always been thus for me.
Hinduism is a very broad church, if I may use that term. I am an atheist and yet I am accepted by Hindus because as far as I can I follow the principles of the Gita, which I consider the most important Hindu book. In my small way I try to live by that. I do not believe in God but I believe that we have to live a good life on this Earth. We have to give out as much as we can. That is no different from any other faith community. We are all taught similar things.
Looking at the Blair decade, where are we at? What different has happened? I am deeply concerned about the pandering to other faith communities in this nation. This is a Christian country. We should either accept that or separate the state and Christianity; you cannot have it both ways. The other faith communities should not be led to believe that they have equal faith rights in this country. That leads me essentially to the faith schools. If our children are not educated together, when will they learn to live together as adults? Our children need to live and learn together—that is absolutely straight down the line—but they do not.
The other problem is the intent to dilute very important factors such as our wonderful anti-discrimination legislation. In trying to pander to the faith communities our Prime Minister is willing to sacrifice parts of it, which is a very dangerous thing to do. He has led us into the most disastrous faith-based conflict we could ever have imagined. I do not know how we shall get out of it. It has destabilised the Middle East and put us under threat. What will come out of it? We need to consider these faith issues very carefully. I have not faced religious discrimination but that may be because I have faced other sorts of discrimination and have not realised that I faced religious discrimination. I have run out of time; I hope that noble Lords will forgive that.
My Lords, for the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, to initiate this debate requires him to adhere to the convention of the House by which he moves for Papers. I understand that that device is a technicality and that he will withdraw the Motion at the end of the debate, but it has set me musing upon this question: suppose the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, were to press his Motion for Papers? What would the papers be about? Who would write them? What sort of papers would they be? Therefore, he has raised a really important question by initiating this debate and I, for one, am grateful for that. We need some papers.
Some of the papers might, for instance, be truces—that is, areas in which we agree that, although we differ from one another, we want to ensure are not going to turn into a battleground. Some of the papers will be academic papers, which examine the diverse philosophical traditions from which we operate and the contribution that both faith and non-faith has made to the development of those intellectual traditions. But those would not be all the papers.
Some of the papers would have to be vision statements about the shape of the public square in this country. What kind of life together do we envisage? How dull and flat is that public square to be in the interests of offending nobody or, on the other hand, how variegated, colourful and rich in design is it going to be to enable us to rejoice at bits of it, even though we dislike other bits? That seems the kind of vision statement that might be another of the papers.
There will—and we had better be realistic—also be some papers that amount almost to a summons to battle on certain issues. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, is going to speak later, and I look back with very mixed feelings at the phalanx of Bishops with which he was faced when he presented his Bill to this House. That was a mark of a situation in which we have not come to a common mind, and where a sense of mutual threat arises between faith and non-faith on the particular issue with which the noble Lord was concerned. So some papers will make uncomfortable reading.
What will be the purpose of this set of papers for which the noble Lord has moved in his Motion? What would we be trying to achieve? We would be trying to achieve the production of a book of papers, as it were, or perhaps a loose-leaf folder, in which the particular issues of grievance that arise from time to time on the religious and non-religious sides can be held together in a binder that allows us to pursue these issues in due course and at the right time—an educational enterprise or kind of seminar for us all to be involved in.
Some of the arguments that will take place around individual papers may be quite fierce, but some of them will be areas of agreement. As I was musing early in the debate, I noticed that the noble Lord, Lord Steel, was in his place and recalled the very creative work that he did in relation to the Scottish Parliament in developing ways in which the recollection and prayerful traditions of a variety of the citizenry could be articulated. Although I may well not reflect the views of all the Lords spiritual, I for one would welcome the creative production of a paper to go in that ring binder.
I am not quite sure what I am saying. It may be that I would prefer the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, not to withdraw his Motion at the end of his debate. What I am really asking for is a programme in which we develop together a common vision of a society in which we face the fact that there are serious disagreements but on the other hand rejoice in the points of common life that we can create together and perhaps draw the sting out of a discussion that could otherwise easily turn into who is more marginalised than whom—a discussion that I would find regrettably unconstructive compared with the vision of the papers and the ring binder that the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, has put into my mind.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Harrison on initiating this timely debate. I declare an interest as chairman of the All-Party Humanist Group. Perhaps another relevant interest is that during 30 years working in television I was responsible for the production of religious programmes during periods at Granada and Scottish Television. As a non-believer I worked amicably with the religious advisers and produced a pretty wide range of programmes that were usually well received by viewers of all faiths and none. I hope to build on that experience of constructive collaboration and perhaps persuade colleagues who are religious to support my appeal today for television scheduling that is broadened to encompass ethical and philosophical as well as religious matters; scheduling that allows time for the systematic exploration of other belief systems such as humanism.
More specifically, this appeal is directed at the BBC, at its executive board and at the public appointees on the new BBC trust. The appeal to the BBC to update its approach to religious broadcasting is well-founded on recent legislation, parliamentary debates, Select Committee reports and ministerial statements, all of which informed the new BBC charter and the BBC’s agreement with Government. I am pleased to say that the All-Party Humanist Group, now with a growing membership of around 100 MPs and Peers, played a constructive role at all stages of the debates on broadcasting.
Our humanist focus in Parliament was how best to broaden the appeal of religious and ethical broadcasting, how to make it more representative and attractive, thus helping broadcasters in their mission of,
“sustaining citizenship and civil society”.
The humanist group helped to ensure that the Communications Act 2003 gave the BBC a duty to make programmes about “religion and other beliefs”. Indeed, the Minister in your Lordships’ House responsible for broadcasting in 2003, my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey, specifically stated that these “other beliefs” included non-religious beliefs. During the parliamentary business of the BBC charter renewal, my noble friend Lord Davies of Oldham confirmed, quite assertively as I recall, that parity of esteem should be granted to other beliefs. Some guidance on the nature of the new approach came from the report of the Select Committee on BBC charter renewal, ably led by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, which recommended that,
“the BBC should review its programme output to ensure that it complies with the Communications Act 2003 by providing services of a suitable quality and range dealing with religion and other beliefs”.
The Select Committee also called for the “objective portrayal” and “wide definition” of,
“different religions and other belief systems”.
Further, the Select Committee was,
“eager to see more high quality, innovative and thought-provoking programmes emerging from the BBC Religion and Ethics Department”.
With its new charter and structures in place, the BBC will now, I trust, respond to the needs of a changing society. When I first produced programmes 40 years ago, religious programmes were overwhelmingly Christian programmes. Today, BBC output must take account of the beliefs of several million UK citizens who are Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or Hindus. It surely is now time for this outreach in pursuit of broader understanding and tolerance to embrace the many millions more British citizens who are not religious believers but who aspire nevertheless to lead good lives. Those non-religious people can construct principled ethical frameworks from ancient, universal wisdom, from Confucianism or Stoicism, or from the Enlightenment philosophy of David Hume or John Stuart Mill, or indeed from the writings of philosophers today such as Anthony Grayling.
I accept that the recent increase in public interest in humanism is in part a reaction to the increased and sometimes threatening activism of religious fundamentalists. Naturally, we humanists are fearful of irrational fervour that rejects tolerance and refuses dialogue. However, we must not allow those very real concerns to dictate or distort the positive role that we might play in broadcasting, letting ourselves be defined as simply anti-religious. Humanists will resist being defined negatively and then no doubt having our demands for fair treatment fobbed off by reference to occasional atheistic essays by a Richard Dawkins or a Jonathan Miller, however worthwhile and thought-provoking those might be. The appeal on behalf of 100 or more parliamentarians and for countless freethinking viewers is much wider, as illustrated by this debate.
I encourage the new chairman of the BBC trust, Sir Michael Lyons, and the BBC director-general, Mark Thompson, to open a public dialogue on how best the BBC can update its approach to religious and ethical broadcasting to meet its new remit. I assure noble Lords that humanists would participate constructively to produce the kind of religious and ethical programming that would help the BBC in its vital requirement to sustain citizenship and civil society.
My Lords, I have to thank the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, but I admit to him that I have never spent so long in preparing for a five-minute speech and then feeling that what I had put together was not what I was trying to achieve. He has, indeed, challenged us and I have to admit that at one stage I thought that I would not be able to take part in this debate.
I accept the views that the noble Lord has expressed and I accept that he has shown us in his contribution that a lot of his views are based on his family experience—and I suspect that most of us who are speaking will find that as well. He mentioned how his children had to go to the local Church of England school because it was nearer, although it did not really suit him. I would slightly challenge him on that; if that had been me, I do not think I would have done that if I really did not believe that there was goodness to be gained from that school. If it represented something against which I believed, I am certain that my children would not have gone to that school.
The noble Lord also challenged us on praying in this Chamber. I cannot always get in, but I feel that it is very much a part of the start of preparation. He said that we could do it elsewhere; but debates take place in this Chamber and that is why it is so important that those who have faith and who wish to participate are able to do so.
My journey is probably similar to many others—family, school, church and everything else. At one stage, when I was confirmed, I wanted to become a missionary. I thought that that definitely was my calling in life. Unfortunately, my later teens took me down a different road and I went through a period during which I certainly did not support the Church in the normal, regular way. But it has become an important part of my life and I wish to share that briefly.
I was delighted to be invited to become a canon of Leicester Cathedral, which is at the centre of a multi-cultural, multi-faith city—and we welcome people to the cathedral. But my normal routine practice has been with a small parish church, and I have the great joy to be one of the servers, because, to me, the most personal and private part of our faith is when communion is taken. For me, that is a bonus.
I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, if he has concerns about church schools, why do so many people—many of whom perhaps are not active in the Church—seek to send their children to those schools? The noble Lord needs to answer that question in some way. What is it about those schools and why do people choose them? My husband is a governor of Barleycroft, a primary school in the middle of Leicester. There are 17 mother tongues in that school and I cannot imagine the number of faiths that it copes with, but it tries to share. The importance of the debate today is to get a better understanding and acceptance for the good of the whole.
I turn now briefly to something that I have come across over many recent years. I have a great friend who has struggled with alcoholism. It is a huge problem, particularly at a time when people are at their lowest, for whatever reason—there is no self-belief, they see no way out of it. Alcoholics Anonymous has produced a little blue book. It is simple—and chapter 4 talks about agnostics. Clearly, some of those people have no belief. Through this book, the organisation tries to say to people, “We believe in a power greater than ourselves”. We could debate that, but that is not religion or faith in the purest sense, and it gives a person, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, has said, a chance to start somewhere. It is remarkable how that book and that approach to helping people to start to climb a mountain—to believe in themselves and in helping others—help them manage to overcome their problem. I am delighted to say that my friend will say that every hour, every minute, every day is another challenge to her; but if it were not for that book—and she at that stage did not have that faith—she would not have managed to come out of it.
Lastly, I share with your Lordships the whole question of religion for those who cannot find faith. It is not for everyone and I respect the views of the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, and other speakers. Many noble Lords know that, sadly, our son committed suicide in 1999. For him, faith was something that he could not grasp. I am sure that he would never have committed suicide if he could. It was not that help was not there, but, for him, it just was not possible. All I would say to those who will follow me is that we do need to have some faith, some hope for people, because, without that, other people like my son—who could not find it; it was not that he was not used to it, but he could not find it—will not lead fuller lives as they might otherwise do.
So while we must work together, which is immensely important, I still think that there is a real role for faith in this world today and, I hope, for many years to come.
My Lords, perhaps I may start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for initiating this debate and to say how deeply I was moved by listening to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, just now.
I want to talk about something that is a little different—the vision of the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights, of which I am privileged to be a member. The vision of the new commission is of a Britain at ease with its diversity, in which all its people are treated with respect and fairly, and where they can be certain that they will be treated equally under the law—as embodied in the Human Rights Act, the Equality Act and the employment equality regulations. The Human Rights Act outlaws discrimination between people on the grounds of religion or belief. Two words are used in those Acts—“religion” and “belief”, which are obviously considered to be different or one word would suffice.
Non-religious beliefs are defined as spiritual or philosophical convictions which have an identifiable formal content—humanism being an obvious example. Unfortunately, the Human Rights Act has been slow to be fully enforced and to make its full impact in all the areas where humanists and other non-religious people need it to. Non-religious beliefs are of a single type in their legal aspect along with religious beliefs. They are legally equivalent to religious beliefs, but we have seen again and again that the implications of that are not being felt.
When the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights advised that, to be compliant with the legal requirement not to discriminate between religious and non-religious beliefs, Parliament should explicitly include “belief” along with “religion” in the current Charities Bill, the Government paid no heed to its recommendations. To comply fully with the law, non-religious beliefs must be recognised across all relevant public policy in their own right as having equal validity to religious ones. The implications of this must be fully realised in services, employment, marriage and so on—and in all areas where religion is currently an issue.
Part of the problem has been that until now there has been no real enforcer of equality and human rights law. I hope that that will soon change as a result of the CEHR and I hope that a fair approach to religion and belief will begin to be promoted as a result of its creation. I have been inspired in my life by people who live their faith—and they are of many faiths—and by people who do not have a faith and who believe that we should have total responsibility for our own moral codes. I hope that fairness and equal treatment under the law will be what we can all expect.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Harrison on an original idea for this debate and on a fine opening speech. I begin by quoting the final lines of a poem;
“for the world which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night”.
Thus Matthew Arnold on Dover beach watched the receding tide of Christian faith, at a time when science was starting to assert its claims and people began to turn away from Christianity. Many of them, like me, began as Anglicans but lost their faith in youth or middle age.
The trappings of the religion we have lost remain dear to us. Let us take church music. Where would we be without Bach or Handel? What about the writings of the saints? I wonder how many times, with increasing enjoyment, I have read the Life of St Teresa of Avila and The Confessions of St Augustine. When I go to Florence, one of my greatest pleasures is to visit the Carmine to look at Masaccio's “The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden”, an event in which I emphatically do not believe. In the words of Thomas Hardy, an atheist but a “churchy” man, who loved ritual and church music:
“It is only a sentiment to me now”.
“I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars”.
Most of us would agree that it is this conflict between beneficence and omnipotence which makes belief impossible. There is no answer to it. We are obliged to own that something which was beautiful and once seemed an incontrovertible truth was acceptable only when magic was a reality and science a mystery.
One of the great pleasures of my life was to attend morning service and to hear the most beautiful prose ever written in the English language. Its demise, to be succeeded by the New English Bible and the Alternative Service Book, put an end to that. Slowly, as the prayer book and King James Bible faded from use, so their language passed from the vernacular. It is rapidly becoming as though that language had never been.
When I was young, Bible and prayer book language permeated the speech of every Christian. However ignorant they might have been in other aspects, they were all in possession of this particular lingua franca. They understood when someone spoke of the Good Samaritan or the lilies of the field. Such obsolete words as “manger” had their own significance, as did “falling on stony ground”. Society was bound together by this language. In rural communities, someone who failed to understand it would have been regarded as strange and, oddly, among those who in other ways were barely literate, uneducated. Now, to the middle-aged, it is barely recognisable and entirely mysterious to the young.
Not long ago, a friend told me that he wondered what the world we lived in would be like if religious faith had not dictated the form that works of art must take. What would painters and sculptors have taken for their subjects in the absence of the Holy Family and the saints? There is, of course, no answer. We cannot even guess what we might have had instead of “The Last Supper” or the many depositions and resurrections. But if we had had more “Mona Lisas”, more assembled families and “The Marriage in Florence” instead of “The Marriage at Cana”, would that have made so much difference? As it is, painters put their friends and relatives into their pictures, thinly disguised as Mary Magdalene and St Peter, but these paintings brought people together and gave them a common bond as they came into the church—perhaps the only beautiful and gorgeous place they ever knew.
It seems to be true that, if God did not exist, we would have to invent him and that many who would call themselves atheists turn to other objects of veneration or are drawn to witchcraft, black magic, astrology and various types of divination. In Greece, I understand, a group of people have returned to the worship of the Olympian gods and sacrifice to Zeus and Aphrodite. Was society morally better when:
“The Sea of Faith
Was once … at the full”?
If I am speaking mainly of Christianity in western Europe, it would seem not. The 20th century has been called the bloodiest and most savage humanity has ever known, but those preceding it were, in proportion, as violent and brutal. Arnold’s ignorant armies clashed by night then as now. Atrocities and massacres occurred when almost everyone believed in obeying the commandment “Thou shalt not kill”.
Are we better now? Not noticeably, although we may be more aware. Most of us know that we should not abuse children, commit perjury or steal, but we go on committing crimes that we no longer call sins. Lately, a child in London has been murdered nearly every week. There are still 7 million slaves in the world. God could not make us good but nor does his absence. It is strange that so many people declaim, when misfortune comes, “What have I done to deserve this?”.
The countries of Scandinavia, intensely Lutheran while Ibsen was writing, later became almost entirely secular. They are widely acclaimed as societies nearer to the ideal than any others and are held up as an example to the rest of us. Post hoc is not proper hoc, but the fact remains that, when Scandinavians were at their most devout in the 19th century, their peasantry was desperately poor and emigrating in droves.
It appears that society is much the same when atheist as it was when godly. It has lost a certain kind of cohesion—the comradeship of Bible language and church assemblies—but not the music, literature and art of Christianity, and there is no sign that it will.
My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for introducing this debate on a very unusual topic, although I am sorry that he attacked the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York in the way that he did. I do not think that anyone should be attacked for holding strong views, and the Archbishop is greatly admired and respected for his. However, I agree with the noble Lord in finding common ground between us, and I hope that my contribution will help towards that end.
For me, the issue is largely about the kind of society that we all aim to create and how responsible listening and arguments might strengthen the building up of community. The debate hangs on the word “religion”, and thereby also hangs a problem. We simply cannot lump religions together in that way as though they mean the same thing; they do not. What is common to most religions is an acceptance of a creator who brought all things into existence and that this creator gives meaning, hope and life to everyone.
If those two opinions separate the believer from the unbeliever, we should not then assume that religion is necessarily the place of superstition, credulity and ignorance. Both the unbeliever and the believer are essentially handling the same data—the same raw material, of which Professor Brian Hebblethwaite posed the question: how do we best account for the data all around us? That is, how do we best account for the existence of a universe endowed with powers and laws when apparently none of this has to be? How do we account for the capacity of the fundamental stuff of the universe to evolve not only life and consciousness but also mind, intelligence and personality? I find that some atheists seem to be unaware that their beliefs, too, are at best a faith. Indeed, it seemed to me to be a lot to swallow that from absolute chaos, confusion, chance and futility have emerged intelligence, moral awareness, beauty and purpose.
I make those points to underline the fact that many intelligent believers are anxious to relate their beliefs to truths of different kinds. We are not all obscurantists or flat-Earthers. From these observations flow my concern that, in building a good, strong, free and secure society in which truth and beauty exist, we need to co-operate more—I think that that is the purpose of the noble Lord’s Motion—and to find ways to overcome barriers to our working together. It is certainly untrue that the voice of the humanist is silenced in our land; indeed, these days it is often harder for the Christian believer to be heard.
The challenge breaks two ways. It is certainly true that those who profess a religion must realise their responsibility to contribute to the health of society. They must not impose barriers on freedom to think differently or compel their adherents to believe in set ways. That there is bad religion around cannot be doubted. We have only to consider what Sunni and Shi’ite believers are doing to each other in Iraq at the moment to see what evil can be done in the name of Allah Most Compassionate. The same could be said of Christianity in the past. But there is another side of religion: the vast majority of believers of all faiths are honourable, decent people who live by their creeds and want to make a better world.
By the same token, those who profess no faith or belief have a responsibility to put their own personal beliefs to work. If the profession of no faith simply leads people to assume that life is meaningless and ultimately purposeless, then its contribution to life is worthless and not worthy of debate in your Lordships’ House. But if the professing of no religion leads, as it often does, to humanism, it can make a great contribution to our world, and that should be encouraged. However, if I may be a little provocative, in my opinion, atheists are not renowned throughout the world for their commitment to the very poor, the starving and the needy. Whereas, as I have already indicated, believers have made and are making an effective contribution throughout the world, it will not do for others to rubbish that and then do little to make up for what they feel are its inadequacies. Those who have nothing but contempt for religion should heed the comments in the Guardian of 12 September 2005 by the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley. He is not known for his great belief in religion as such, but he says in the article that unbelievers are less likely to care for the poor or spend time with outcasts of society. He writes:
“‘Good works’, John Wesley insisted, ‘are no guarantee of a place in heaven. But they are most likely to be performed by people who believe that heaven exists’”.
It is not my intention to score points. Our world has enough divisions without deepening controversy and taking attention off its serious problems. I believe that the Motion charges us all to move beyond using our freedom to disagree, to building a world where all believers and unbelievers may use their beliefs as building blocks to create a better society.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for raising this debate. I speak as a rationalist, agnostic—I shall not say atheist in the light of the comments of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey. It is not a particularly comfortable matter, but one reason to contribute to this debate is to stand up and be counted.
I was going to remain rather calm throughout this, but I was rather offended by the comments of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, about the role that people without faith have played in doing good in the world. He is entirely and wholly wrong. We feel just as passionately as those who have faith about ensuring that society is just.
I want to spend my few minutes expressing concerns about the growing influence of religion on the delivery of public services. I am very uncomfortable with the 2003 government policy of encouraging faith-based organisations to participate in public service provision. Of course, I acknowledge that there are occasions when religious organisations or their representatives can reach those unreachable by statutory sector workers. I can cite a good example. In the Hassidic Jewish community in north Hackney in the early 1990s we had very low rates of child immunisation in the health service because of a myth that had grown up among the women in the community about its religious significance. Local GPs and health visitors tried hard to persuade, but it was the mobilisation of the community rabbis who finally nailed this myth and persuaded the women that immunisation was a good thing for their community and worked positively to their children's advantage. I was deeply honoured to work with them and am grateful for their intervention.
The crucial issue for me is whether religious service organisations compete on an even playing field for public service contracts, are explicitly committed to delivering services to people of all faiths and none without prejudice, disapproval or proselytisation, and whether they have employment practices consistent with public service values. I have three examples. The first is an organisation on which I served, and with which I was proud to be associated. For many years I sat on the board of Springboard Housing Association, established by a Christian minister with explicit Christian values. It continues to deliver housing services to scores of people with mental health problems, learning disabilities and to older people. It is true that in the early days we started our board meetings with a prayer, which took me as much by surprise as Prayers when I first started in this House but the ethos was established early that it would deliver services without prejudice or proselytisation. On its website there is no religion, but there is an exemplary statement of values and employment practice. It is a great organisation and I hope that it will continue to deliver public services.
During the 1980s and 1990s when I was a community psychiatrist in inner London, I saw homeless mentally ill people, particularly those with alcohol and drug dependence problems, sleeping on the streets rather than go into a shelter where they would be subjected not only to disapproval but rules drawn up to satisfy religious edicts. I am told that the Salvation Army is less rigid than it was, but its website did not give me comfort that those people would be as welcome as they should be.
An example that is more worrying is CrossReach, which was formerly known as the Church of Scotland Board of Social Responsibility. It employs more than 2,000 staff in 80 services stretching from Shetland to the Borders, providing care and support services for thousands of people. Indeed, it has an excellent reputation for the quality of care that it provides. I say that first of all. It has an annual expenditure of more than £45 million, of which more than 99 per cent comes directly from local government. It is overtly proselytising, its website is as embarrassing as Radio 4's “Prayer for the Day” and it makes quite clear that it reserves jobs in the organisation for those who share its particular brand of faith. The Scots are even less religious as a nation than the English or Welsh. I wonder what it feels like to have your social care delivered by this overtly missionary organisation.
How can the Government encourage local government to contract with religious organisations for public services? What guidance do they provide on mission statements and the policies that they follow before handing out public money for back-door ways of pushing beliefs that most people now find unbelievable?
My Lords, I am very pleased that my noble friend Lord Harrison has secured this debate. It gives us the opportunity to explore some important issues to which I hope we shall return, including the view that spirituality, mystery, values, a full life and concern for others are not the property of the religious alone.
EM Forster said in 1938 in a marvellous essay called “What I Believe” that to,
“get a little order into the contemporary chaos”,
one had to believe in personal relationships. I agree with him. He went on to say that the,
“individual is important, and that all types are needed to make a civilization”.
Indeed, all types are entitled to respect, equal status and an equal profile. This does not always happen to those who profess no faith, as others have said.
Fundamentalist views in religion are largely responsible, of course. Wars, torture and discrimination are some by-products of religion as well as human venality. I want to consider attitudes towards sexuality and women in religion. Historical dogmatism still influences us, as do some rather bizarre attitudes. I have just read a book called Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven which tells of Origen, successor to Clement of Alexandria. Seeking Christian perfection, he castrated himself and declared that quite a few women indulged unceasingly in lust. Clement himself had earlier said that,
“if the reason taught by the stoics did not even allow the wise man to move his finger any which way, how much more must the seekers of wisdom affirm their domination over the organ of generation?”.
Augustine, too, recommended control over sexuality, noting that some people can move their ears either one at a time or both together. Therefore, controlling the sexual organ with will should be possible. It is little wonder that there is confusion, embarrassment and guilt about sexuality.
Perhaps these examples are extreme, but it is true that attitudes to sexuality and sensible, healthy debate have been adversely affected by historical, religious attitudes. Extremism may appear ridiculous, but it is alive and well, and it is dangerous. It adversely affects those who do not adhere to its tenets. For example, recently an applicant for a post at a right-wing Christian college in Middlesbrough was grilled in the interview about his views on the Catholic Church, birth control and whether he believed in Noah's ark. This man happens to be a Methodist lay preacher. I was in the United States recently where it was reported that extreme members of a Baptist Church in Topeka had picketed burials around the country of American troops killed in combat in Iraq, claiming that their deaths were God's punishment for a nation harbouring homosexuals.
What is going on here? In his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins suggests that religion may be a by-product of something else. Large numbers of people,
“flatly contradict demonstrable scientific facts, as well as rival religions followed by others”.
They do indeed, and they often hide their prejudices behind professed religious faith. This prejudice shows itself in relation to sexuality, women, gay people, science and a host of other things.
People sometimes ask me, “Can you not accept that religion has inspired wonderful art, music, poetry and architecture?”, as referred to by my noble friend Lady Rendell. Well, not quite. Some great religious art, in its broadest sense, was initially condemned by religion, even defaced or destroyed. In any case, I argue that those artists were displaying a creative instinct rather than a religious one. I have immense respect for many courageous and humane people who profess a faith in your Lordships’ House. While I do not support the retention of the Bishops’ Benches, I have admired brave stances by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, the former Bishop of Oxford, when he decried Section 28; and by the late Lord Sheppard, the former Bishop of Liverpool and a great cricketer, for devoting his life to the underprivileged. Such people and others like them would not deny rights to anyone, and would support diversity. I respect them as people, not as representatives of their faith.
I still distrust religion in its fundamental form, and am proud to be a humanist. I do not feel threatened. We are a growing number, and a more vocal group. We have a valid and important contribution to make to society. We should be consulted, locally and nationally, on issues which affect society. I hope that politicians will take note. Does the Minister agree?
My Lords, I speak as a humanist. I agree with the position of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, and am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for introducing this debate. I do not wish to convert anyone, but I understand how difficult it is for right reverend Prelates even to understand the sort of position that humanists adopt; the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, who is sadly not in his place, was one.
This issue raises a question of human rights, because the European Convention on Human Rights, adopted in the Human Rights Act 1998, proclaimed in Articles 9 and 14 the freedom of religious belief and freedom, as interpreted by the Strasbourg court, of other beliefs—including, as it puts it, atheism or scepticism—to be human rights. Practical matters arise from that. The Government are bound by the standards which the Human Rights Act has adopted into our law. I will advert as quickly as I can to areas where the Government should take note and, perhaps, begin an inquiry or, as has been suggested, some dialogue with humanists, who suffer a number of disadvantages in a religious environment.
First, on broadcasting, everybody knows that you can hear “Thought for the Day” at a quarter to eight. The British Humanist Association asked whether some humanists without a belief in God could be selected for these talks, which are currently usually given by people who think that morality and a sense of behavioural conduct can be introduced only by those who believe in God. The BBC replied in correspondence, saying that it could not include such speakers. Why?
Secondly, on charities, a religious organisation automatically passes the first test imposed by the Charities Act 2006. Organisations for other purposes and beliefs do not. That is straightforward discrimination. On health, as noble Lords have mentioned, the National Health Service recruits chaplains; so do prisons. All of them are either Christian or some other faith. As I found, being in hospital a lot last year, no humanist chaplains appear to exist.
When Swedish doctors found that women were threatened by a plague of chlamydia, they organised distribution of condoms in the streets and backed explicit television programmes explaining their use. Could that happen here? I very much doubt it. I ask the right reverend Prelates who have spoken whether they will support a move to liberalise broadcasting in that respect from public service bodies, which are bound to a balance of religion and other beliefs. Then there is the Government’s structure of consultation, based on the paper Working Together in 2003. In fact, the standing advisory panels and other groups that control the consultative process include no humanists and no persons other than those who belong, with great respect, to religious organisations.
On education, we all know that a church school can be either the only primary school in a district, or certainly the best. I congratulate the Church of England on maintaining the quality of church schools, but when you see humanist parents going to church on a Sunday for perhaps the first time ever, certainly only for a short period, you know why: they wish to get some advantage for their child in school selection. I have personal experience of a great number of people doing this; it really does discriminate in society. More importantly, Church of England schools, for which a report was produced for the Archbishops in 2001, still aim to proselytise and convert. It is a problem in our society that schools based on religious faith must have a divisive effect. The new academies include an increasing number of aggressively religious schools teaching creationism. One such school states that its object is to instruct pupils that,
“those who love Jesus the Lord will enjoy his presence forever. But those who do not will face God’s judgment”.
That is hardly an inclusive philosophy to put to children who enter.
Lastly, the justification for some of these things is, as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said in a recent debate, based upon the census of 2001. It stated that 72 per cent of the population ticked a box saying “Christian” in a long list of religions ending with “None”. That result has clearly been exploded by the Office for National Statistics. Other surveys have shown that the number of humanists in society with no religious belief is much higher than the Government state. I must end there, but I suggest that there are practical matters for ordinary people here which demand some inquiry or consultation from the Government with the British Humanist Association.
My Lords, the idea that ethics can be unattached to a religious belief has ancient roots. It is a significant strand in our heritage which we have downgraded in comparison with faith-based morality, but which can offer help in many of our modern dilemmas. I remind the House of my interest as a vice-president of the British Humanist Association.
I will not rehearse the many Asian, Greek and Roman thinkers, from the Indians of 700 BCE to Seneca in the first years of the Christian era who upheld this idea, but they are most interestingly analysed in Karen Armstrong's latest book, The Great Transformation: The World in the Time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah. She emphasises their focus on conduct. It is in this spiritual development of thinking about conduct that humanism belongs and has its origins.
Humanism offers a coherent ethical structure which goes something like this: life is finite and we must therefore make choices. We must take responsibility for these choices ourselves. Human thinking and human nature are so constituted that we want to justify our choices. We want them to be worth taking responsibility for and to be consistent, hence a system of ethics. The great schema of conduct like the Code of Hammurabi, the doctrines of Confucius and the Buddha and the precepts of the Old Testament prophets are great early ethical frameworks.
Skipping a few centuries, the Enlightenment added a new chapter to the humanistic strand, growing as it did out of the evidence-based discoveries of the scientific renaissance, but, perhaps following the excesses of the French revolution, humanism later became publicly much less respectable. Although nobody tried to imprison Thomas Hardy, George Eliot or Joseph Conrad, the MP Charles Bradlaugh was sentenced to six months for refusing to take the parliamentary oath and had to speak from a barge just outside territorial waters to avoid arrest. I hope we know better now.
After all, humanists were at the forefront of some of our more recent progress. They were active in the founding of the United Nations and its agencies, that great leap forward in human rights, as those who knew Lord Ritchie Calder could testify. They were not against religion, simply apart from it. In the 1970s, long before the setting-up of the Inter Faith Network, humanists took a lead in founding bodies like the Standing Conference on Inter-Faith Dialogue in Education and the Social Morality Council, together with people of faith.
Humanism can include many cultural bases. Jawaharlal Nehru said to George Bernard Shaw:
“We are both atheists but the difference between us is that I am a Hindu atheist and you are a Christian atheist”.
Perhaps I may put myself in the box of Jewish atheist, very attached to one of the precepts of the prophet Micah:
“to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly”.
But other faiths would claim these values too and why not? I am delighted that the Berlin declaration published on 25 March by the German presidency reflects the broad sweep of Europe’s heritage and values and does not confine itself to the narrow Christian strain. I am also glad that this was supported by many religious groups and all those who think that church and state should stick to their separate roles.
I also want more space in this country for the non-religious universe. Faith is not the only basis for morality and I want to inhabit that culture, not in opposition to religion but in opposition to its monopoly. I do not think that makes me an aggressive secularist; but it does alienate me from aggressive proselytising. The website of the Department for Communities and Local Government says:
“The traditions of all major faiths contain teachings commending the fundamental values of equality and respect which are so important to community cohesion.”.
It is not only the major faiths that commend these fundamental values—it is, at least as much, that great strand of non-religious belief that has carried them forward. I think my noble friend’s department has government responsibility for non-religious belief as much as for religion and I hope she will listen with her usual perspicacity and push for more recognition for the non-religious approach. We are grateful for the grant of £25,000; but I think we would all benefit if local, regional and national bodies convened by the DCLG on matters of religion and belief and community cohesion had humanist representatives, who could more accurately reflect the beliefs and values of that large minority who do not profess a religion.
My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for introducing this debate. I come to this debate with some hesitation because, although I am an atheist, I have always respected the Church of England for the courageous conduct of some of its clergy in South Africa during the apartheid regime, for its social and community work in the UK and for its stand on many human rights issues, and, of course, my admiration and respect for the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York is unbounded.
Sadly, however, when I introduced the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill in this House, the attitude and conduct of the faith groups and some of their members made me wonder whether their views and actions on some social issues deserve the respect that government and parts of society give them. The purpose of the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill was to prevent the unnecessary suffering of terminally ill patients. I imagined that, although there would be strong opposition from faith groups, they would show concern about the suffering and that, in their opposition, they would rely on well researched evidence, thoughtfully and calmly. I also assumed that they, as a small minority, would show respect for the 80 per cent of the public who supported the Bill. I thought that the church’s attitude would be similar to the way in which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester spoke earlier in this debate: calm, thoughtful and constructive. However, I was quite wrong. Compassion and respect for the views of the majority on suffering did not figure in that debate on the part of the opponents.
The church campaign began with Archbishop Peter Smith, the Catholic Archbishop of Cardiff, announcing that it was the launch of the biggest political campaign by the church in its modern history. I was flattered that a small Bill that I had introduced should require such a campaign, given that modern history encompasses a number of wars, famine, poverty and a number of other very important issues. The campaign went on in an aggressive, emotional way. It was often misleading, it often relied on anecdote rather than careful research, and it was frequently plain scaremongering.
Time does not permit me to go into the details but typical was an article in The Catholic Times on 2 April 2006, by a Father Francis Marsden, headed, “Legalising Euthanasia Turns Carers into Killers”. The reverend father thoughtfully attached to that article a photograph of 24 children who were murdered by the Nazis. Self-evidently, that had nothing to do with the Bill; it was, in my view, a disgrace and obscene.
The faith groups’ campaign was a great victory, as the Bill was defeated at Second Reading by the breach of a long-standing tradition never to oppose a Private Member’s Bill at Second Reading and by the ignoring of the key recommendation of the Select Committee which the House had set up to consider the Bill.
The outcome was that a Bill supported by 80 per cent of the public was defeated by a campaign orchestrated by the churches. I do not suggest for a moment that the churches should not strongly express their views on issues in which they believe, nor that they should not campaign on those issues, but one would expect that a campaign run by the churches would be a model of fairness that all other campaigners could follow.
The ultimate rejection of the Bill raised two questions. The first is: who do the church leaders represent on this issue? Research showed that 80 per cent of Catholics and 80 per cent of Protestants would have been in favour of the Bill. The second question is whether it is right that church leaders should mount a campaign that was not even supported by their own laity, with the intention of imposing their beliefs on the majority of the population who do not share those beliefs.
My Lords, I was interested in the remarks of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York about Latchmere House. For a period of my parliamentary life, I represented the Prison Officers’ Association so I know the place well. The illustration he used about those who were of no religion being given an alternative task reminds me of when I joined the Royal Marines in 1943. Very early on, I was asked for my religion. I became an OD—a member of the other denominations—because that meant I was excused church services. That served me well during that period.
This kind of debate is valuable for many people—believers and non-believers—because it is being held in a calm atmosphere with the utmost tolerance and respect shown for other views. People have been allowed to say exactly what they want—nothing extreme or too condemnatory. I listened to every speech and, whatever the point of view of the speaker, I was able to agree and disagree with something the speaker said. It has been therapeutic. I am a member of the British Humanist Association, and I heard discrimination against those who support my views that I had not appreciated. That is not to say that they are not correct because, of course, I accept the integrity of the speakers.
I have always enjoyed carol singing, religious services and “Songs of Praise”. On Sunday, I went to an 800 year-old church in Welwyn, Hertfordshire, for the baptism of a lovely little boy called Leo. I was there two years ago for the baptism of his elder brother, Toby. I enjoyed the service enormously. The church was packed full. The priest and the people in charge were very kind.
I speak as a socialist and someone who believes in the brotherhood of man and in tolerance and fair play. There is no religion in the world, including Christianity, that should not hang its head in shame at the acts of its followers at some time or other. However, we are living in a period when we ought to respect each other.
The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, whom I respect very much, said that everyone must have faith. I envy people who have faith because for them it is powerful, personal and precious. I have never been able to embrace that. My faith is in the human spirit and the ability of ordinary people to control their affairs. I do not besmirch or belittle people who think differently. Society needs an examination of the ways in which we can work more closely together. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Harrison on bringing this matter to the attention of this House. Those of us here today know from the media that there is some disquiet about people like me who do not believe in religion but who are religious about respecting the views of others. The Minister would do this House and the country a power of good if she were able to say that by some means or other the exclusion or non-inclusion of those who share my views would be looked at with respect. This debate has done a great service.
I would like to have said a lot more, but I cannot at this time. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who has my respect, spoke powerfully. He used the word “contempt”. As far as I am concerned, that has no place in a debate of this kind. If the Minister can help us by saying something about her intentions about a consultation that will be all-embracing and will cover people with no religious views, as well as those who have them in the conduct of affairs in this society we will be very well served.
My Lords, I cannot wind up this debate on behalf of these Benches but as an independent-minded person. If there were a party Whip on today, we would all be very embarrassed. We appreciate the opportunity to discuss this. Usually, I am one of three Methodist ministers in this House facing 26 Bishops; we feel totally overwhelmed. However, today, I seem to be facing serried ranks of members of the British Humanist Association. Hearing what they had to say makes us think. I have the highest regard for the noble Lord, Lord Harrison. I can call him a fellow traveller because he is on the same train as me every Monday morning. I am sure it would even be right to call him a friend. He has often spoken in this House of the need to preserve various church buildings and put them to wider use. That is right, but it is already happening. I come from a small Methodist circuit in north Wales. I know of one church that has a nursery class three times a week and a most unreligious bingo on Thursday night, so it meets the community. I know of another small church that has a music appreciation society, a mothers’ union, an art class and all sorts of other things to meet the needs of the local community. Another church has a Welsh language class and meets the needs of the community in other ways. Churches have opened their doors and meet many needs.
In 1993, there were floods in Llandudno that made 4,000 people homeless. The doors of the churches were open and they met a very real need. On 3 May, thousands of church halls will be used as polling stations for Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament elections. The church is in the community in many different ways, not only as a building, but to meet the needs of people. I sometimes stroll up to St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square. I have such regard for what happens there. The crypt has been open to the homeless since the time of the other Sheppard, who said that he wanted St Martin’s to be the place where the love of Jesus could be found. It meets the needs of the community in that way.
The Friends’ Ambulance Unit has given tremendous help and is still there. The Religious Society of Friends meets the needs of the people. For some reason, the Salvation Army and the Church of Scotland have been criticised today. We are told that 2,000 people are employed by the Church of Scotland in social welfare work. Who would be doing that job if the Church of Scotland was not? Who would be meeting the needs of people if the Salvation Army was not? We can always say that it is not doing it properly and accuse it in different ways, but it is meeting the need in the best way that it can.
I have a link with the needs of AIDS orphans at the Watoto children’s village in Kampala in Africa. If non-believers want to help there that is wonderful, but the idea was sparked off by people with a faith vision. Without that faith vision, tens of thousands of children would not have survived today. If noble Lords criticise, they should please try to give us another alternative.
People of all faiths and of no faith play an essential part in society, and their compassion, whatever their belief, is always appreciated. When there is need you do not ask, “Are you this or that denomination? Do you believe in this or that way?”. We ask, “What is your need?”. Perhaps it is not what we do, but our beliefs themselves—our faith—that is the threat.
The other morning I went to the Imperial War Museum. I wanted to see the Holocaust exhibition. I also saw it in Yad Vashem in Israel. You can see that for nearly 2,000 years the Jewish people were homeless and persecuted. The pogroms were devastating and culminated in what Hitler did in the Holocaust when 6 million Jewish people were exterminated. Yet they went back to their country. What kept them in that hope? It was their faith—their religious tradition. That is why they survived.
Therefore, we must say that faith, even though all might not share it, keeps society and people going. In the UK, are we not increasingly living more at ease with one another? It is wonderful to speak to people from different faiths and traditions. This sounds awful but, speaking of secular people, some of my best friends do not believe, but such people are some of the finest people—as has already been said this afternoon—that I know.
Let us admit it—this has already been mentioned—some terrible things have happened in the name of every religion. As people try to exercise power, they express their greed. Sometimes people use religion as a label, when something is more tribal than faith. There is no depth of faith. Trouble begins with this superficial religion. At the heart of every religion is compassion, caring and tolerance. That is the root. If you have that, you can be pretty sure that these atrocities would not have taken place—I mention the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and the Christian Phalange, which attacked the refugee camps in Lebanon. These groups are deplored as much by believers as they are by non-believers.
To have faith is a tremendous bonus in life. Dr Leslie Weatherhead, who has sadly left us, was one of the great ministers of his time. He said that when reason ends you need a leap of faith. I suggest, even to the humanists here, that when reason ends—when you cannot logically discuss your position—is there not a leap of faith that you also have to take, in whatever direction that might be? All of us need this invisible means of support to hold us in the more difficult times. If you can survive in the more difficult times without that faith, I envy you. Others find it very difficult to do so.
Finally, recent votes in your Lordships’ House refused to discriminate against folk because of their sexual orientation. I know from many noble Lords, on all sides of the House, that this caused uncertainty and heart-searching. But we refused any form of discrimination. I agree with that. People are people. They have depths, wits and different attributes. We must accept them as they are. Every one of us needs to stand up not only for our own principles, but to respect those principles that spur on other people. We might disagree with views and beliefs, but we will defend to the very end other people’s right to hold them.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for initiating this debate. I declare an interest. I am a communicant member of the Church of England. I am on the electoral roll of St Mawes church, in Cornwall, and of St Peter’s Eaton Square, in London, and an oblate of the Community of St Mary the Virgin in Wantage. I had great sympathy with my noble friend Lady Flather when she spoke about early meditation in her faith. At the school I went to, St Mary’s Wantage, we learnt to meditate from the age of seven. It was from that early age that I planned how I would lead our hockey team to greatness.
As a member of a Christian community that continues in so many parts of the world to suffer discrimination and persecution for its faith, I cannot help but be saddened if the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, and others feel lessened or harmed by the role of Christianity in our society. It is no part of my belief or of the church’s to deny him his freedom of conscience or his ability to live by that conscience. Sadly, it sometimes, and increasingly, seems to some of us, as was so powerfully stated by the cardinal archbishop lately, that those of us with faith feel pushed to the outskirts of society and find our space, values and beliefs that are the very core of our daily life being infringed and belittled.
No one would disagree with the belief of the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, that in a democratic state a person’s lack of religion should not lead to any kind of prejudice or deprivation. We agree that religious groups should be controlled in any misuse of their position but religion—in our case, the Christian religion—has had a major effect on the history and sociology of many societies.
Religion has played a great part in the evolution of education, so much so that in Britain, when the state moved to compulsory education, it decided to enter into a partnership with the Christian churches—a partnership which still exists. Even in this so-called secular age, when only a minority attend churches, faith schools still face very heavy demand for places. The modern state has tried to meet the position of those who profess no religion by allowing them to withdraw their children from religious assemblies. It is open to non-religious people to raise money and to set up schools of their own. Of course it might mean that their children have to travel long distances. That is very often so for religious parents who wish their children to attend a school of their choice.
Here I admit to having had a conversation with the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, before the debate began to ask him quite what he had in mind. He told me the story of his little girl wanting to go to school with her friends, yet the local school was the Church of England state school. The noble Lord had to try to find another school that was not a Church of England state school. I was most touched by the love of a daddy who, in the end, gave in to his little girl wanting to be at school with her friends. I find most heartening this wonderful picture of the noble Lord’s little girl with all her little Christian friends at school. I hope that she will come home and have lovely words to say to him, and that he will think more kindly of us.
Those who profess no religion have not yet evolved a common ritual and philosophy that appeals to the mass of the population. Perhaps that is why they have not yet set up any schools. Where are the humanist schools? I wonder how many people would attend them. Maybe now that this little group has been set up in the Houses of Parliament, it may work towards that end.
The trouble is that humanism can seem too intellectual or remote. There is also disagreement about the prevailing non-religious philosophy, stretching from Nietzsche’s superman to a vague humanism. By contrast, although religious adherence seems small, surveys show that around 70 per cent of people profess a belief in God. Many people’s morality is still tied to the traditional religious patterns.
We should strive, as my noble friend Lady Carnegy described so graciously, to live and let live, not to destroy the structures that have served us so well; to listen to each other, as we have here today. I believe that that will enable us to continue to live and evolve together—60 million of us in these tiny, tolerant Christian islands, with more trying to join us in their thousands day after day.
For me, faith is not constructive or oppressive; it is liberating and empowering. I believe that the structures of religion are valuable to society today, even if the spiritual content is not embraced by all. Such is the long history of the interaction of society and religion in Britain that many landmark events in life are still marked by a religious ceremony. The rituals of birth, marriage and death still attract many people who do not practise their religion. We all agree that society needs values, self-respect, discipline and respect for others. In what faith is that not the fundament?
I ask the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, to reflect how far our whole polity, our whole sense of what we are as a nation, our traditions of tolerance and many of the principles of care for the weak, the excluded and the outsider and of love of our neighbours are derived from the unique nature of the Church of England. Should we need any reminder of that as we reflect, as we did so recently, on the achievement of a great Christian Conservative, William Wilberforce, in the abolition of the slave trade? It is in the spirit of that unique and tolerant Anglican tradition that dissent, as here today, is accommodated as a challenge, not crushed in the dust, a challenge that means that we all have freedom to speak here, in which freedom the noble Lord spoke with such resonance.
To those of us with faith, there seems no shortage of space in modern society for those who scorn faith. Let us not build vain citadels to separate believers and non-believers. The word I believe in is the word of love. Surely, in the great mystery of life, that spirit can include, enrich and ennoble us all.
The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, spoke passionately about his disappointment in his Government and today challenged the Minister to disestablish the Church of England. We on these Benches will listen most carefully to the Minister's reply.
My Lords, I welcome this opportunity to join the debate and congratulate my noble friend Lord Harrison on the opportunity that he has created for a debate which has been unusually personal, typically profound but also provocative. It has been a very welcome opportunity and I think that the response from around the House will have pleased him and those noble Lords who embrace a humanist and secularist point of view. It has been an unusual debate and it has been extremely rich and generous.
My noble friend made a robust speech. I take some comfort from the fact that in the first conversation that I had with him about the debate he said, “You’re going to have an extremely hard job summing up this debate”. He was absolutely right. I did not know that he was going to challenge me to disestablish the Church of England at the same time. That is something that I shall take back to the department. It is also quite difficult to present a government view on some of the issues raised, not least by my noble friend Lady Massey. I must say that we have no position on some of what she said.
It is also extremely challenging, in a debate that has ranged from Wittgenstein to our current philosopher, Roy Hattersley, to address some of the issues. I do not think that I shall rise to the occasion. As for the hazards of meditation, I can say only that in the silence of a Quaker meeting, I find myself firmly fixed on the object in hand with no thought of how to advance my career.
This is a timely debate for many reasons, as the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, said, because the issues of faith and the rule of law have recently been very much in the public mind. In a society that is multi-faith, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, this tiny, tolerant island of which the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, spoke, it is quite right that we should not avoid or deny the need to have such a debate. The church and faith groups do not want to avoid having such a debate. The Archbishop of Canterbury, in a recent lecture on secularism and faith, spoke about the shared recognition of law, which provides for a basic trust that all voices are being heard in the process of brokering harmony. We have heard all those different voices today, which have ranged from the Lords Spiritual to the voices of secularism and humanism. We have heard about the search for harmony.
The Government must aim to let all voices be heard with equal respect, not least through the strengthening of the law to promote greater respect and social cohesion in all ways in our communities. Sometimes that debate takes place in a highly charged atmosphere. It is our task to ensure that those different perceptions and views can be held without risk. On the one hand, we have heard that some consider that our society is becoming more explicitly, even aggressively, religious. On the other hand, we have heard the view expressed with equal conviction and eloquence that Britain is becoming more secular, more materialist and more intolerant.
My noble friend Lady Massey and the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, alleged that religion is sometimes seen to cause and be at the root of conflict. I say right away that it is not belief that impacts so negatively on us or society more broadly, it is the actions and manifestations by small numbers of people who distort religious texts or hold fanatical views. It is essential that we make, understand and express those differences. It is here that the work of my department becomes crucial in building a common language, understanding and shared values between those different perceptions. I shall return a little later to what we are doing but, for the moment, let me just give an assurance to all noble Lords who spoke from the secular and humanist perspective. We fully acknowledge that the humanist tradition in this country has a long and honourable history and a positive contemporary role. I hope that the noble Lords who spoke from that perspective will rise to the challenge laid down by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey of Clifton, of how to promote that more positive role.
The noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, described the premise and evolution of humanism as an ethical choice. The impact of humanists has clearly contributed to the sum of human good and happiness in innumerable ways. Humanism has a proud history of almost three centuries. This debate is as much about our nature—possibly expressed, as it was by the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, as things that matter to us, or as the search, the instinct for spirituality or understanding mystery—as it is about the nature of our society, our roots, our culture and our futures.
The tension between belief and non-belief is profoundly historical and has shaped so much of the way we are today. From Dover Beach to Richard Dawkins, the ebb and flow of the contest about faith and religion is part of our evolving culture. We should reflect that after Dover Beach, which was published at the height of materialism in the Victorian age in 1851, came the anti-science movement of the 1880s and the search for spiritualism. So these fashions and understandings come and go and those tensions are at the heart not just of Christian traditions but of faith traditions generally.
My reason for exploring what lies behind and even beyond the debate, therefore, is to ask: what is the Government’s role in this? We must be clear, as noble Lords have been, that we must celebrate and respect the basic freedom to believe or not believe. Is it proper for government to be involved in what for all of us is primarily a private matter? For many centuries now, we have held that faith is a private choice. In large part, the Government have no role in changing or challenging that. However, the private realms described by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester, and the public squares, as others, not least the Archbishop of Canterbury, have pointed out, cannot be a neutral zone in matters of faith and morality because private faith sometimes has public implications, and the Government have a responsibility to ensure that the minority of people who do not identify with a faith are not, and do not feel, excluded from the mainstream political debate or uncertain about their rights. The Government certainly have a responsibility to ensure that people who do not identify with a faith do not have fewer choices or feel less able to live out their lives in the way in which they would choose, to contribute to the life of the nation, or to take opportunities wherever they arise.
The Government cannot always dictate the tone of the debate. Indeed, I listened with interest to what the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, said about this when he discussed his Bill. They can, however, moderate that tone. They cannot, and should not, seek to dictate the concerns expressed in and outside that debate. We have heard a lot about the notion of space today. We must make space for people, ideas and values from all traditions to contribute to that debate in a way that enables people to reflect a diversity of views, backgrounds and traditions. It does not help to achieve neutral space or mutual tolerance when the debate over faith and non-faith is conducted stridently or in an atmosphere in which it is only too easy to be misrepresented as an oppressed or misunderstood minority.
It is sometimes argued—the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester began to address this—that because it is difficult to argue with belief, we should not attempt to do so. That is wrong because strong faiths invite and welcome and are strengthened by argument. Argument is the way in which to expose misunderstandings and intolerance. This is an important debate because it also allows us to recognise shared values across a range of traditions—values that are shared by all faiths and by none: community, personal integrity, a sense of right and wrong, learning, wisdom, the love of truth, care, compassion, justice, peace, and respect for one another, for the earth and its creatures. Indeed, it was a shared act of reflection that inspired the Millennium Declaration. All that has become part of our political DNA. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York talked about the mischief that comes from polarisation. We can see the reconciliation of freedom and law in the evolution of our laws in this country, from the Magna Carta to our recent laws on belief and freedom. It is a tradition of which we should be proud.
In celebrating those traditions, we also celebrate the significant impact that the Christian tradition of this country has had on the way in which those traditions and freedoms have been shaped. Every faith has its own articulate and distinctive tradition of charity, community and social responsibility. The fact that the churches and the faiths have been on the front line in no way denies what the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, said about the moral and ethical motivation of non-faith groups in the voluntary sector. She was quite right to say so. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, talked about the social gospel in relation to the floods in Llandudno. We could all cite traditions from our own backgrounds. The Society of Friends, for example, has traditionally worked for peace over many years and is a very proud holder of that banner.
The bedrock of our freedoms is a framework of law—a range of statutory and legislative provisions that protect those who profess a particular religion as well as those who do not. Many noble Lords, such as the noble Lords, Lord Goodhart and Lord Wedderburn, spoke about that framework when they talked about the Human Rights Act, which is the vehicle for the rights from the European Convention on Human Rights to take their place in our laws. Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights makes it quite clear that everyone has the right to think what they will and believe what they choose. I was grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, for her exposition of that, and to the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, who challenged some of the aspects of that.
It is important to remember that Article 9 protects both non-religious and religious beliefs. It makes it clear that the right to express and to manifest one’s thoughts or beliefs is to be limited only when it is necessary to do so by law in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. The standard can be hard to achieve, but it is in that search and that tension that we find the things that enable us to recognise equal worth.
As a Government, we have a good record of promoting those principles of equal treatment, most recently in the Equality Act 2006, which prohibits discrimination against persons because of their religion or belief. The Act specifically includes lack of religion or belief in the protected grounds. It offers protection on an equal footing to everyone, whether atheist, theist or humanist—to anyone who bases their life around a serious philosophical belief. Part 1 of the Act gives the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights as much scope to support people of no religious belief who believe that they have been discriminated against on that basis as much as any other person. I am delighted to say that the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, is on the commission upholding those standards. Changes have occurred that have created more space in which to reflect the changing cultures of our society, as reflected in our important rites of passage. The courts already recognise that not all people wish to take an oath on a holy book before testifying and can ask to affirm. People are no longer forced to get married in a religious building or a registry office. The number of humanist funerals is increasing significantly. Those changes reflect a society that is asking for more choice.
We had the beginnings of a debate about broadcasting. I hope that my noble friend Lord Harrison feels that his opinions on the “Today” programme have redressed the balance of that programme somewhat. I was very grateful for the explanation offered by the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, of the influence that humanist groups have had on the Communications Act 2003 and the expectation that there will be a different, more expansive attitude. I hope that that will answer some of the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, but perhaps not. The freedoms that are reflected in the way in which we commission, fund and regulate our public services are really important. As the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, said, the question is, “What do you need?”, not, “Who will provide this?”. That is the crucial point.
I listened hard to what the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, said about the importance of all organisations that tender for public services. They must satisfy the conditions laid down by the local authority providing that service. The Government believe that the third sector is a vital component of a modern and healthy society. There are millions of acts of support, help, co-operation and selflessness every day. They are not confined to faith-based voluntary organisations, but there are 22,000 of those and they are a key part of that sector and are best placed to provide public services, so they should be able to bid for contracts on a level playing field, whether they are religious or secular.
Let me reassure my noble friend Lord Harrison that the Government do not fund or support the proselytising of organisations; they support the provision of strong, local services for all. Let me also address the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, and my noble friend Lord Harrison when they referred to the document, Working Together, which was published in 2001, and the work that we have done with religious groups to build a better understanding of public policy. This was not about giving privilege to religious groups; it was about being able to access and tap into an important resource—reaching into communities that are elusive and very hard to reach. It has encouraged faith groups to have more purposeful dialogue with government. I am pleased to say that the British Humanist Association agrees that the approach is coherent, and has acknowledged that it was not an exclusive process.
We also had the beginnings of a debate about faith schools. For some parents, faith schools will be the answer; for others, they will not. I listened to what my noble friend Lord Harrison said about the difficulty of finding a non-faith school. I have taken the best possible advice about this, but I am aware of no areas of the country where there is no choice in that respect. It is important that faith schools are not held responsible for ethnic or social segregation, but it is equally important to note—we are clear about this—that although we want parents to have choice, we also want to ensure that schools bring together children of different cultures and backgrounds. The Education and Inspections Act 2006 placed a duty on the governing bodies of schools in England to promote community cohesion. Ofsted will report on that contribution, which is an extremely important step.
Let me, in conclusion, reach into the wider work of government and the wider debate in promoting greater tolerance and community cohesion. How can we promote those shared values and perceptions which bring people together in common purpose rather than drive them apart? We are working across all sectors to create a shared sense of belonging in our country, to tackle racism and extremism through the work of the independent Commission on Integration and Cohesion and to consider how all communities can be empowered to improve cohesion. Faith-based and non-faith-based organisations play key roles in that. We support the non-faith organisations, including 49 which will shortly receive more than £600,000 to promote community cohesion. Among them will be the British Humanist Association.
I can give my noble friends Lord Harrison and Lord Graham the assurance that they seek: we consult with and involve non-faith groups whenever we can. My noble friend Lady Whitaker requests that all local regional and national bodies convened by my department on matters of religion, belief and community cohesion should have humanist representation. But she will be aware that the British Humanist Association was part of the religion and belief stakeholder group created by us. The British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society are active stakeholders in the development of the provisions of Part 2 of the Equality Act. The BHA acknowledges on its website the work that it does with the Government. We have a very rich and diverse range of organisations. The reason we do not engage with them all in the same way is not an exclusive choice, it is sheer pragmatism.
In this very positive, helpful and fascinating debate, we have explored some of the most profound issues that make us what we are and make our society what it is. I have stressed the role of government in creating space for debate, for mutual tolerance, for the harmony that we spoke of in the beginning and for all to live freely in the private realm while taking care in proper public duties in order to protect all members of society. We are a tolerant and inclusive society. We must build on, expand and celebrate those traditions. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Harrison and all noble Lords who spoke for the opportunity to explore those issues.
My Lords, it is my happy duty to thank all noble Lords, including the Minister, who have taken part in this debate, but I should report that the Church of England, fleet of foot as ever, has sought to suborn me already. Even as we were speaking, I opened my mail to discover that I have been invited to the national prayer breakfast. The final blandishment is that Members of the House of Lords are not charged for breakfast.
I thank sincerely everyone, particularly those who spoke in sympathy with me, but also those who oppose me. I especially thank my friend—I do call her my friend—the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for recounting her views and thoughts, and for reminding me that I, too, take sustenance from my family in this regard. The noble Lord, Lord Joffe, reminded me that although my wife and I are atheists, my wife has tremendous respect for her Aunty Florence who worked hard with Bishop Tutu in South Africa and for the Church of England. Even now when we visit churches, as we often do, to admire the architecture, my wife will light a candle on behalf of her beloved Aunty Florence.
I was very disappointed that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester gave the best speech. It was wise, constructive and helpful and I, too, have puzzled over those Papers for which I request. On a serious note, I look forward to taking up his challenge that we should shuffle papers together to try to build something constructive to demonstrate each point of view that has been expressed today. However, despite the right reverend Prelate’s honeyed words, I have to refuse his blandishments not to withdraw the Motion and therefore not to call for papers. Even were he to offer me a big breakfast, I now beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.