My Lords, with a general election in which reform of this House will undoubtedly feature only a few weeks away, discussion of the two British Humanist Association reports published in 2007 is pertinent. The first, entitled Quality and Equality: Human Rights, Public Services and Religious Organisations, provides us with a marker to calibrate the deterioration over the past three years in establishing greater equality in the world of employment. The second, entitled The Case for Secularism: A Neutral State in an Open Society, can guide us in that future reform of the House of Lords and the role of the church within it.
It is undeniable that in its present form, with 26 seats reserved for the Church of England Bishops, the House of Lords presents an odd face to the outside world. It is interesting to note that even within the 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion, only England still insists on an established church. This is a problem. As the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, warned some eight years ago in your Lordships’ House, when this subject was last debated,
“it is as bad for a Church to be seen as enmeshed in the state as for the state to be seen giving privileged eminence to a Church”.—[Official Report, 22/5/02; col. 770.]
Regrettably, in the intervening years the Church of England has continued unwarrantedly to enjoy and increase its privileges within the state—in education, in employment practices, law and public broadcasting—as statutory public services continue to be contracted out to religious organisations.
The consequences have been to imperil the take-up of public services and to encourage discrimination against users of such services and against employees who owe allegiance to another religion or to none at all. Most egregious has been the discrimination offered to the gay community. Career prospects have stalled for some attached to the wrong religion or to no religion at all. Religious harassment has had an open goal to shoot at, while the status of religious organisations has been undeservedly advanced under the cover of the public purse.
Uneconomic duplication in the provision of services is a constant danger, as is the division fostered within local communities by the separatist approach of the religious organisations using public money. In the current Equality Bill, for instance, the Government still ponder giving religious organisations the power to discriminate against gays, non-believers and believers of other faiths who apply for lay positions. The hesitancy over the sensible amendment from my noble friend Lord Alli, which would allow religious groups to conduct civil partnerships in their own places of worship if they so wish, is a further example of bowing to church pressure.
In the Children, Schools and Families Bill, religious groups have seemingly wrested back the control to teach children their versions of sex education. The Government’s feeble sticking plaster of a “balanced approach” will hardly dilute the ingrained homophobia and antipathy to sex redolent in the teaching practices of too many of our religious schools. Seventh-Day Adventists, for example, can still freely teach that abortion is a sin to be tolerated only in exceptional circumstances, like a pregnancy arising from rape. It is the lack of clarity and consistency in the teaching of sex education that continues to maintain our unwelcome reputation as being at the bottom of the class in Europe for unwanted teenage pregnancies.
It now appears that believing in a religion privileges those who have broken the law. A custodial sentence was recently set aside because the prisoner was deemed to have a greater sense of right and wrong, born of his religious belief. The fact that three out of four prison inmates declare themselves to be religious undermines that partialist philosophy.
Astonishingly, the BBC found itself taken to task by a member of the most recent Church of England Synod for failing to support religious broadcasting. This inventive thought was suborned by the evidence of the rampant but wholly unjustified doubling of religious output by the BBC. The new fad for identifying the religious allegiances of the contributors to “Any Questions”—three Roman Catholics and one Church of England on last Friday’s edition—as well as the scheduling of two “thoughts for the day” each morning also scotch that myth. Indeed, the shame of the continued ban on humanists contributing to “Thought for the Day” is only intensified by that privilege being afforded to the Pope, an offer masterminded by the unabashed Catholic Mark Thompson, D-G of the BBC.
I turn to the second BHA report, outlining support for a secular state in an open society. Some years ago Prince Charles suggested that when he came to inherit, he would like to be known as the defender of faiths. While overlooking humanists, he at least was recognising the very changed nature of contemporary Britain. We now live in a multicultural and multireligious Britain, where other religions challenge the established Church of England.
The noble Lord, Lord Morgan, reminded us in our 2002 debate that the Church of England is a mere fraction within a fraction, even within the declining Christian communion. It still has a position in our nation and society, however, that is wholly incommensurate with its numbers, and nowhere more so than in your Lordships’ House, where 26 privileged places are preserved. Other religions are gradually being represented here, including by our colleagues from the Muslim community and, more lately, the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, representing part of the Jewish community. The House of Lords is becoming secularised accidentally.
I believe that in the future reform of the Lords, all privileged places should go. If religious groups are to be present, they should be chosen in line with their current strengths, and humanists and atheists should also be acknowledged, given the growing numbers of our tradition. Professor Richard Dawkins and David Attenborough spring to mind. Indeed their wider interests would make a valuable contribution to this House.
I believe that the time has come for a secular state within an open society—an idea which has the support of many humanists and many among the Anglican Communion. Many Anglicans share the view that their history and tradition cannot alone justify their traditional privileges. These people yearn to proselytise Anglicanism with modern and contemporary arguments, competing against other religions and none.
The BHA case for secularism argues that we can no longer base society on a shared religion, but rather on shared values. A secular state, which is most avowedly not an atheist state, seeks to protect the rights of all citizens to hold their own beliefs, religious or otherwise. A secular state is assuredly an open and an even-handed state in which people’s participation in public institutions does not depend on their religious or non-religious convictions.
Can a society function without shared values? I suggest that one possible answer is to distinguish between the public and the private space. In the public space lie the shared values of tolerance—a willingness to accept differences and to allow others to pursue their own ideas and ideals—the political values of equal citizenship, freedom of speech and assembly, the right to vote and stand for public office, social justice, equal opportunity and the right to a fair share of the common resources of society. All these make up a wide consensus. Still, some may demur from this apple pie and motherhood, but I believe that even those opposed to the summary of liberal values might nevertheless welcome some formulation of the secular state, where they can reserve the right to proselytise in the public square that which they celebrate in the private circle. This formulation provides autonomy, letting people make their own choices about the most important things in their own lives. Secondly, it provides fairness to those who might otherwise—
I am afraid I will not accept any intervention because this is a timed debate and I prefer to use my time to say what I have to say.
It provides fairness to those who might otherwise have to bend their strongly held views to those who hold very separate and equally strongly held views. Finally, there is a pragmatic consideration that in such a society governed by tolerance, where inimical views spill into the public from the private domain, they may still be accommodated by some reasonable give and take exercised on all sides. I give as an example the debate over religious symbols. Sometimes I think we get in a muddle by denying someone the right to wear a preferred religious symbol; if it does not interfere with health and safety or offend other people, we could exercise a little more tolerance.
Sometimes it would be helpful in this debate on the secular state if some of those who oppose humanists and atheists did so with a less shrill voice than is occasionally heard, where typically we are termed “aggressive secularists”, for instance. It would be helpful if they learnt a little more about humanism, atheism and, indeed, secularism, because they are not all the same. It would also be helpful if they understood that the basis for our thinking is that we simply do not believe in something which does not exist. There are many reasons why we should try to find what one Member of this House talked about when describing himself as a wishy-washy liberal—the common elements that we share, religious or otherwise. I give as a practical example the preservation of our wonderful churches, which represent some of the best architecture in the land. That is typified in the case of Liverpool—the subject of our next debate—which is home to two of the finest and most interesting churches.
I make this plea: if we do not come together with a consensus—I think that a secular state would help in providing that—there are those of us who have reason to fear that the common liberal values most of us enjoy will be threatened by forces outside that can overwhelm us if we fail to take the opportunity to achieve a united front.
My Lords, I believe that your Lordships’ House is a debating Chamber, not a reading-out-of-speeches Chamber. Therefore, if my noble friend Lord Mawhinney or any other noble Lord wishes to intervene in my speech, even though I am allowed only seven minutes, I will happily give way, because I believe in debate.
I am extremely grateful to my noble friend. I was intrigued, if not impressed, by the point that the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, was seeking to make about the schizophrenia between the private and public sectors of life. As a follower of Jesus Christ, I believe that it is an integral part of who I am that I should try to practise in the public sector what I believe and practise in the private sector. I know that my noble friend shares similar sentiments and I would be grateful for his view on that point.
I am extremely glad that my noble friend should have intervened. Indeed, one of the two or three points that I shall make in my speech addresses exactly that perspective. My noble friend and I share those views and I agree with him.
The two documents that we are debating this morning represent, to me, a pretty wacky, hardcore, highly illiberal, campaigning sort of humanism. They point the way towards a society dominated by majoritarianism and not a more tolerant view of society, which I always thought that the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, in whose highly thought-provoking debates I have taken part before, really shares. I trust that he does not want to replace what he might see as any reactionary illiberalism with a new overwhelming, overbearing, liberal intolerance, any more than would, I suspect, the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, whose remarks on this subject I have listened to with respect in past debates.
When we talk about these issues in your Lordships’ House, it has become the fashion to declare faith, or lack of faith. I can date it exactly to 2 March, when during the proceedings on the Equality Bill, in moving an amendment of high importance on adoption society matters, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, crisply declared for Anglicanism. There and then, the floodgates opened and people were popping up and coming out all over the Chamber about their faith, or lack of it. For example, in a marvellous short speech declaring against the imposition of majoritarian views, the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, said that he was “not a religious person”.
There was one wonderful moment for the real connoisseur, the best declaration of all—again of Anglicanism—from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford. Some of us had suspected for some time, as he rose from the Bishops’ Bench, gorgeously attired in full episcopal choir dress, all billowing sleeves secured with black cuffs to match his black tippet, that he might indeed be an Anglican. We had taken the hint. So the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, whose speech I look forward to greatly, can accept that we have taken the hint in respect of him. For the avoidance of doubt, I had better come out and declare Roman Catholicism, while at the same time recognising, as the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, does, that people of faith have no monopoly of spiritual values, probity, morality or goodness. Indeed, I have a friend who is a model possessor of all of these virtues while being what I can only term a high church atheist in his manifest disbelief, and I admire him greatly for his strength of character.
Now I move to the point that my noble friend Lord Mawhinney raised in his welcome intervention. As the state moves from being a universal service provider to becoming more and more a service commissioner, it would be wrong to try to exclude religious bodies from being commissioned to provide services, as the British Humanist Association seeks to do, for the following three reasons. First, it would be rank, outright discrimination, plain and simple. Secondly, it is philosophically bankrupt and inept, for it assumes automatically that, while faith-based projects are not value-neutral, by definition secular projects are inherently value-neutral. That is nonsense. All bodies are rooted in a particular place or places and have a set of values. Indeed, the whole purpose of seeking to tap into the energy of civil society, as my noble friend wishes to do, as opposed to the impersonal state, arises from its rootedness in different narratives, traditions and identities, all of which are value-laden. At this time when all political parties, I thought, were seeking to promote diversity and choice, it would make absolutely no sense to prevent faith-based welfare providers from accessing government money, because some people like using services given in a faith ethos or by faiths.
Some recent words from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference are worth a quick ponder. Its document Choosing the Common Good, which was published earlier this month, states:
“The right to religious freedom means the right to live by faith, within the reasonableness of the common good, and to act by faith in the public forum”.
It goes on:
“Partnerships between Government and faith communities should be mutually respectful and permit these communities to act with integrity in the provision of public services for the common good. This has long been the case in the provision of education and the benefits brought by that partnership are substantial and clear”.
The one thing that I would like to hear from the Minister is a clear reaffirmation of the value, in the mind of the present Administration, of religious education provided by Muslims, Jews and Roman Catholics. I trust that the Government will not waver in giving a clear message of support for religious education from these and other groups, such as Hindus, Sikhs and whoever else chooses to set up a school. So I say a “Hear, hear!” to the sentiment that we just heard from the Roman Catholic bishops, which I am sure is shared by people of all faiths and people of no faith.
I will end by saying that I totally disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, much as I welcome his debate and respect him personally, that in the past five years religious groups have somehow advanced in their influence. To me it is the exact and total opposite: you cannot wear a crucifix to work, offering to pray for someone gets you suspended and Catholic adoption societies are getting closed down. Rampant secularism is what we face, of the most intolerant and illiberal sort.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, on securing a most thought-provoking—he has already provoked the noble Lord, Lord Patten, into the oxymoron of liberal intolerance—and particularly timely debate. Yesterday, the Minister John Denham announced that the Government have set up a new £1 million fund to help faith groups get their voices heard by government and public bodies. This is occurring just at the moment when other public services and local councils are facing real and deep cuts. Council tax will rise by the lowest amount possible since it was introduced and certainly well below the inflation level. It is extraordinary that the Government have £1 million to dispense in this way. In addition to that fund, the Government have set up a £50,000 social action prize fund to help publicise and reward faith-based projects, and only faith-based projects, that are finding new ways of meeting local problems, bringing people together and meeting the needs of local communities. This debate is therefore extremely timely.
This is a particularly interesting issue and I think that, essentially, there are two possible approaches to it. The first is that voluntary services, by which I mean the extra services, can be delivered by people who see that extra service to the community as part of their faith. That is an entirely valid approach which is much to be welcomed. The second is that public services should be delivered by public servants who are bound by a common public service code of values. That is what I understand as a public service.
I went to a Quaker school and, during my formative years, I learnt just what the first of those approaches—extra voluntary services delivered by people of great conviction—can mean. For me, Elizabeth Fry was perhaps the most powerful example of such an approach. In 1818 she became the first woman to give evidence to a House of Commons committee, on the conditions then prevailing in British prisons, and with her brother she persuaded Peel to introduce a series of prison reforms that ended with the Gaols Act 1823. As your Lordships will be aware, she was active not only in prison reform; they both also took up the causes of abolishing capital punishment and establishing hostels for people with nowhere to go. I am glad to see that there are still so many living memorials to her, particularly in Islington, where the Elizabeth Fry Institute and the Elizabeth Fry probation hostel are still located. I would therefore not decry this sort of effort made by people of faith, whatever faith it might be.
Perhaps my deep concerns about a model which relies on delivery by people of faith stem from my time as a district councillor. I remember a time when well intentioned councillors who wanted the best for their communities had the power to approve or disapprove housing allocations. Of course they tried hard to be objective and to allocate on the basis of housing need. Inevitably, however, they bore in mind what they believed was the best for their communities. That could include not housing those whom they regarded as undesirables or who they thought would not fit into the community. The ramifications were that the same people were constantly turned down despite their evident housing need, and their children suffered a life of constant moving through no fault of their own. I am pleased to say that we as a council got rid of that councillor discretion long before the Government decided to do so nationally. Those councillors were acting in good faith and on what they believed, but they were not acting on objective criteria.
My worries could be slightly lessened by the evangelical Faithworks movement, which has been heavily involved in contracting. It has produced a charter which calls for Christian groups to be non-discriminatory, principled and non-proselytising in how they operate. That might be adequate, except for the Government’s increasing propensity to make exemptions in law for faith groups on fundamental points of principle. The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, has outlined those very adequately today and we debated them very recently in your Lordships’ House. This debate is particularly timely because we have learnt that the Government are willing to make exception after exception on important points of principle. We need to be deeply concerned about that.
Earlier this week I asked a group of American students what their opinion was of today’s debate and they drew on the experience of the creationist element that has managed to take over swathes of the American educational establishment. That should sound a warning to us.
The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, outlined the dangers very well. I welcome these two helpful reports from the British Humanist Association. However, I wish that the conclusion of the second report had been even stronger precisely because liberal values are not wishy-washy. It concludes:
“We believe that the case for secularism is sound, that it can be defended with arguments”.
It should say that the case for secularism is overwhelming precisely because we want to live in a harmonious and tolerant society.
My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Harrison for introducing this debate so powerfully and for his thoughtful, non-aggressive support for humanism and secularism. I am very sorry to see that the noble Lord, Lord Mawhinney, has abandoned the debate after making his point as I think that he would have gained much from the other speeches, as I intend to do. I look forward immensely to the debate.
I shall first comment briefly on some international views that reflect the two reports we are debating. I shall then talk about education as a public service. I declare interests as a patron of the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association. I am also a former teacher and serve as a school governor.
The notion of aggressive secularism—I think that the noble Lord, Lord Patten, called it rampant secularism—perpetrated by some religious leaders is, of course, a nonsense. Secularism seeks neutrality from the state as regards different religions and beliefs, including non-belief and non-religious affiliation. Humanism maintains—as I do—that values, ethics and morality are not exclusively in the gift of religion. Individuals can, and do, develop moral codes that are equally valid and have a right to live by non-faith principles.
In the death of Dr Ashok Kumar MP, we have just lost a great humanist of Hindu and Sikh extraction. He said in response to a debate on faith schools in 2006, “I am against segregation”. He said that we do not want groups of people in society who believe that one religion is superior to another. He regretted that the then Secretary of State, Alan Johnson, was “slapped down” by the whole religious lobby. In my view the influence of religion on law-making is very disproportionate.
The European Humanist Federation has stated that the EU consistently favours the churches and religious organisations. Humanists are systematically excluded from negotiations. Christian churches are granted huge privileges—for example, financial—in European countries. Secularism or humanism does not, of course, seek to exclude those with religious beliefs from public life, but those beliefs should not be imposed on others. Public policy and laws should not be based on religious premises or arguments and religious people and institutions should not have a privileged position in society. All relevant human rights instruments, including the European Convention on Human Rights, give equal standing to non-religious beliefs and religious ones. This principle is unchallenged in legal circles but seems not to be recognised by many politicians and has not been implemented.
Education is an example of a public service that has been caught up in the religious controversy surrounding the growth of faith schools. The majority of these schools are run by the Church of England and other Christian denominations, often for good historical reasons. There are also increasing numbers of Muslim and Jewish faith schools. All this seems to be in the name of promoting fairness and equality. I believe that it has got out of hand, and what is more, the majority of the general public seem to agree. In an ICM poll for the Guardian, 64 per cent of people believed that schools should be for everyone, regardless of their religion, and that the Government should not be funding faith schools of any kind. Other polls suggest that people regard faith schools as divisive, are opposed to their expansion, and are against the state funding them.
It has been shown time and time again that faith schools actually decrease parental choice. The increase in faith schools replacing comprehensive schools has led to a situation where parents in some areas do not have the choice of whether to send their child to a faith school. I know that there are arguments that faith schools have a positive ethos, achieve better academic results, have better discipline and so on, but I would say to that: not necessarily. I shall quote from the Times Online:
“In some areas, schools employ exclusive and discriminatory policies”.
What worries me is the notion that faith schools encourage community cohesion. I cannot see this to be the case when children are divided up and removed from their communities. Equally, a school whose intake is of one religion only, as some are, cannot promote cohesion and respect for other communities in society because they are exclusive. Indeed, the report The Case for Secularism goes so far as to say that:
“In a plural society, people of all faiths and none have to learn to live together without their differences degenerating into destructive conflict … they [faith schools] encourage children to identify with their own separate communities and are thus liable to perpetrate a climate of suspicion and distrust”.
Of course there are excellent faith schools which are inclusive, but there are also excellent community schools. An excellent school depends on good leadership, good teaching, good resources and respect for the views of others, not necessarily on a faith base.
To return to my first points, ethics, a positive ethos and moral standpoints do not stem exclusively from religious faith. Public services or the state should be separate from religion while living alongside religions of all kinds. Politics, citizenship, equal rights and social justice are part of a civilised society. As my noble friend said, sometimes there is a distinction between the public and the private, so they should enable people of different viewpoints to live together in harmony. The Case for Secularism maintains that the state should be,
“neutral between those differing values and should not impose a concept of the good life”.
If only all states could do this, we might be spared some of the conflicts evident in our world today. In this country, I fear that we may create tensions unnecessarily by promoting religions as a solution to societal problems in the name of some sort of equality.
I hope that politicians of all parties will take note of this debate and of the reports introduced by my noble friend. I hope that we will henceforward proceed with great caution in considering the future of our society in relation to religion and its place in human rights and public services.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for sponsoring this debate and giving us the chance to consider philosophical issues that are important for the whole way in which our society develops. The Case for Secularism calls for ways in which,
“an increasingly diverse society can live at ease with itself in a spirit of equality and justice”.
I agree entirely with that ambition. The Case for Secularism, however, uses the words “secular”, “neutral” and “open” almost as synonyms—a neutral state in an open society. I want to argue that no state can be neutral and that it can and should be open. Neutrality is impossible. Here, for example, we frequently debate policies with a bias towards the poor and ways to defend the vulnerable. Those debates are value-laden, and rightly so. We do not want a neutral state.
Rather, we need a state that is in favour of values and where there is an encouragement for groups with different values to express them for the common good. Christians and others, including non-religious humanists, should be encouraged to take action in order to benefit others. The report, Quality and Equality, for example, acknowledges the part played by Christians in the work of hospices, which are among the great contributions of our generation to the common good. Hospices are supported by the state and many of them are an expression of Christian values about the importance of the quality of life to its end. That value is not solely Christian, and others will share it, but many of those hospices would not exist without the support and encouragement of the state for a faith-based enterprise. Quality provision in society comes from the shared values of particular communities and not simply individuals.
For example, Caring for Life is a charity based in Leeds that provides accommodation and employment for people with learning difficulties. Those who run it believe that fulfilment of life is found in Jesus Christ, and they share that with others. Quality and Equality would argue that its clients are vulnerable people who should not be exposed to Christian propaganda. But it is exactly because of their vulnerability that care needs to be shown, and Caring for Life can do that only in terms of Christian modelling. Quality and Equality seems to argue that it is acceptable to have Christian principles so long as you do not share them. That fails to understand the nature of faith, where the whole of life is lived in conscious obedience to God. Work for the common good springs not only from that, but is also integrally a part of it.
It is a will o’ the wisp to chase a neutral society. It is far better for the open state to support quality wherever it is found. I believe that that goes for education. Christians and others make significant personal and communal contributions to our state school system. Last week, I cut a ribbon at the opening of a new maths block at Abbey Grange Church of England High School in Leeds. Maths is taught according to the national curriculum. That block benefited from substantial financial contributions from Christian bodies. Churches give millions each year to the education of our children. They work for the common good.
If it were true that education in this country was reserved for Christians or Muslims and denied to others, that would indeed be wrong. But there is not a single example in Quality and Equality of education or social care being unavailable to the general public. Rather, the work of faith groups means that there is greater availability of services at less cost to the taxpayer. Often it is religious groups that provide services for the homeless, for those seeking a way out of prostitution, for those who are dying, and for vulnerable groups who need special care. It is right for those services and the values they represent to be supported by our state. Quality and Equality claims that 70 per cent believe that church and state should be kept separate, while 9 per cent disagree. But if you had asked people whether Leeds City Council should support the work of St George’s Crypt in its care for the homeless, I believe that you would have got a very different answer.
Moral values belong to communities as well as to individuals. I want now to reiterate and develop a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Patten, earlier in the debate. We demonstrated that on Tuesday, when we spoke of the values of this House as a whole in compiling the code of conduct, not simply of the values of individual Members.
The case for secularism is much too individualistic and fails to acknowledge the benefit of particular values expressed by groups and communities within our society. I welcome a society and a Government that encourage values and support those who express them, be they religious or humanist. I hope that our open society of a variety of convictions, personal and communal, will long continue.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Harrison for the opportunity to discuss these very relevant reports produced by the British Humanist Association. This is indeed a timely debate, with a new Equality Bill now before Parliament. During consideration of that Bill, secularist Members of your Lordships’ House have expressed concerns about the employment practices of religious groups contracted to provide social services to the public. As we have heard, the BHA report, The Case for Secularism, addresses these and other concerns. However, I will leave the detailed analysis and arguments to fellow humanists who are well represented in this debate.
I simply want to make some valedictory remarks, because I am standing down at the end of this Parliament, after serving five years as chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group. Noble Lords may be reassured to hear that that group is not motivated by hostility to religion. Indeed, I am pleased to see in her place the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, an active supporter, who often describes herself as a Hindu humanist—and India of course fights to sustain its proud secularist traditions. Our members include Jewish and Christian humanists, including one MP—a practising Anglican—who turns up at our AGMs to ensure that we are not short of the required quorum. This good Christian believes that humanists have an important role to play in Parliament through an all-party group, with the advantages that that brings when booking meetings and communicating with other parliamentarians.
However, as one would expect, most of our members are agnostic or atheist. Interestingly, our numbers have more than doubled in recent years, and membership now totals more than 100 MPs and Peers from all major parties and the Cross Benches in your Lordships’ House. This growth in numbers and the more active contribution of humanists in Parliament owe a great deal to the work of the British Humanist Association, including the reports that we are debating, and I want to outline some of that activity and support.
First, let me make clear that the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group is not formally affiliated to the BHA, nor is it signed up to all its priorities. As I hope noble Lords will have gathered, ours is a loose grouping that is able to accommodate all the idiosyncrasies that flourish here in Westminster. That said, on behalf of my humanist colleagues, I thank the BHA for the quality of its briefings produced in the first half of this Parliament by Andrew Copson, and latterly by Naomi Phillips. I also congratulate Mr Copson on his recent appointment as chief executive of the British Humanist Association.
The BHA’s thorough research helped many of us to make informed and better-argued contributions to debates, particularly on complex ethical issues which arise in this House by the year. In the field of human rights, the BHA also helped us to refine the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, the Equality Act 2006 and, of course, the current Equality Bill, which I trust will be passed in the last days of this Parliament without too much compromise. Some noble Lords with whom we have differed may feel that we humanists have had too much to say in controversies about education, but we make no apology for trying to improve the teaching on sex in schools, nor for our opposition to the teaching of creationism as science.
Most importantly, with briefing from the BHA, we were able to monitor and question some of the policies and practices of faith schools. In this contentious area, noble Lords should be aware that religious groups also support a secular approach to schooling. The BHA is a partner in the Accord Coalition, which advocates inclusive schools and is, in fact, chaired by a rabbi, Dr Jonathan Romain. Indeed, the BHA’s wider work makes it increasingly active across communities by consulting and co-operating with national and local government, broadcasters and public agencies.
Like our All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, the BHA also takes an ecumenical approach to politics. I spoke on the Labour Humanists Group platform at our Brighton party conference. I am told that the Liberal Democrat humanists staged a successful event at their party conference. There is now a Green Party humanist group, and I am particularly pleased to hear that there is a flourishing Conservative humanist group. All of this helps to explain why membership of the British Humanist Association has grown significantly in recent years and it now has a total of around 20,000 members.
Recruitment was probably boosted last year by the widespread celebration of the bicentenary of Charles Darwin, which also merited a debate here in your Lordships’ House. An Early Day Motion calling for Darwin Day to become a public holiday was put down in the House of Commons. I recall it with some sadness, because the EDM was sponsored by our colleague in the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, Ashok Kumar. As the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, told us, Ashok died earlier this week. He was a much-loved Member and will be much missed. All of us mourn his tragic death and our condolences go out to his brother Ravi and the Kumar family.
Ashok Kumar was also a scientist, and no doubt appreciated the observation made in the 18th century by the father of economics, Adam Smith, that,
“Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition”.
It seems very fitting that Adam Smith’s portrait should now ornament our banknotes, complementing that of Her Majesty, Defender of the Faith. That is a very British juxtaposition that Adam Smith’s friend and enlightenment philosopher, David Hume, an atheist icon, would surely have enjoyed.
I therefore conclude in the spirit of British enlightenment to which humanists and Christians contributed so much, with the hope that we can again find a common cause to advance a shared tradition of rational debate and tolerance in the defence of human rights and the pursuit of social justice. Naturally, in today’s Britain, we humanists would hope to work more closely with enlightened followers of all religions. I hope therefore that our All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, under a new chair in the next Parliament, can find ways of bringing together parliamentarians of all faiths and none to advance common agendas based on mutual respect and at least some shared values.
My Lords, it can be generally agreed that a secular state is one which is neutral between different faiths and beliefs. That was the definition in the admirable report of the British Humanist Association, and it was very much accepted by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds. Somewhat illogically for this purpose, the absence of religious beliefs counts as a belief. This neutrality requires the separation of church and state, which was one of the most important consequences of the Enlightenment, which I regard, in the words of Isaiah Berlin, as one of the best and most hopeful episodes in the history of mankind.
Indeed, it can be strongly argued that one factor which has held back the development of Islamic states is the absence of this separation. Likewise, perhaps the most encouraging recent development in the Muslim world has been the move towards democracy in Indonesia, the largest Muslim state, which would not have been possible if it were not for the fact that Indonesia does not have a theocratic constitution.
In Britain, however, the separation of Church and state, which as Voltaire and Diderot very much acknowledged and which contributed hugely to the Enlightenment, is not complete. The presence of the Bishops in this House is one example; the establishment of the Church of England is another. I suspect that deep down, right reverend Prelates themselves realise that whatever the historical justifications, today their constitutional role in the legislature is indefensible. While Members of this House are appointed, some Bishops may well justify their individual appointment. One has only to cite the contribution made by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth. But with the decline of religious belief in this country, especially in the number of active members of the Church of England, and the increase in the followers of other religions, the Bishops’ constitutional position is a glaring anomaly.
The other and more important failure in separating church and state is state support for faith schools. The main argument advanced against these schools is that they are divisive. That is certainly supported by the evidence of Northern Ireland. However, my main argument is more fundamental. For schools to teach children faith or belief is a basic contradiction of what education should aim to achieve. Parents, understandably, want their children to follow their faith. If they wish to bring up their children in their own beliefs, no one can deny them the right: but the role of schools is to teach children to think, to question and not to accept unquestioningly what their teachers, or the press, or the Government, or their church, may ask them to believe.
Children must be given the opportunity to choose their own beliefs. Schools should not indoctrinate. In fact, schools should do much more not only to teach science, but to teach understanding of the scientific method, which will help pupils to learn that knowledge must be based on the best evidence, and that knowledge is not dogma but tentative knowledge that may in time be displaced by a new view of how nature works, on the basis of more convincing explanations of the latest evidence. Schools should teach children to reason. Teaching them about the miraculous power of prayer to heal the sick, for example, is contrary to all reason and evidence and hardly promotes a rational approach.
Many religious schools—certainly many Church of England schools—do not indoctrinate. I went to a Church of England school and had to attend chapel daily. Most of us regarded chapel as a rather boring chore, but the singing was thoroughly enjoyable. Generally, the school strongly encouraged free thinking. Almost the only teacher who tried to inculcate religion was the school chaplain, a keen cyclist irreverently known as Cycling Jesus. Of course, Sir Humphrey might explain that Church of England schools are different because, as he once observed, the Church of England is primarily a social rather than a religious organisation—or was before the evangelicals got going.
Believers often tell us that teaching religion is to be nurtured because it provides a moral basis to education, and that without God there is no basis for morality. This often-proclaimed belief not only shows a degree of arrogance, but has no logical justification. It is arrogant because it suggests that believers are somehow morally superior, for which there is no evidence whatever. It is also illogical. To put it briefly, when the likes of Christopher Hitchens point out that the Old Testament God is nasty, bloodthirsty and vengeful, Christians reasonably answer that their God is the god of the Sermon on the Mount, which is one of the most admirable moral texts. Similarly, when critics of Islam quote bloodthirsty passages from the Koran, moderate Muslims point out that other passages show Allah to be tolerant and merciful. What both say is that to qualify as a proper god—their God, the real God—He must be good. He must qualify by a standard of goodness that is independent of the deity, because if He is not good, He cannot be the real God.
Schools should certainly teach children about religions, because they are an important part of our—and other nations'—cultural heritage. However, far greater emphasis should be placed on science teaching, not only because we need science for prosperity, but because science plays a much more important role in promoting the values of a civilised society than is generally acknowledged. Science has made the world more civilised. It is also one of the pillars of a liberal democracy. Because science rejects claims to truth based on authority and depends on the criticism of established ideas, it is the enemy of autocracy. Because scientific knowledge is tentative and provisional, it is the enemy of dogma and promotes tolerance. Because it is the most effective way of learning about the physical world, it erodes the superstition, ignorance and prejudice that have been at the root of the denial of human rights throughout history, whether through racism, chauvinism or the suppression of the rights of women. Teaching science is the opposite of teaching belief. It is the surest way of promoting the values of the Enlightenment and of a secular society.
My Lords, I, too, am glad to have the opportunity to participate in this debate, which I thank my noble friend Lord Harrison for introducing. I am a supporter of the British Humanist Association. I believe that secularism is the best system in a multicultural society in which we want everyone to feel that there is equality and justice for all.
We have recently been discussing the Government’s Equality Bill, which seeks to legislate for some of these aims. It should not be thought that secularism is anti-religious. I am not myself a believer in any of the main religions, but I know many to whom faith is important. They have a right under the Bill, and as part of our belief in human rights, to practise their faith without discrimination and, indeed, to proselytise if they wish to. However, religious and philosophical differences should not become divisive, which can happen when religious fundamentalism seeks to impose its beliefs and way of life on people who do not share those beliefs. I emphasise that I am talking about fundamentalism, as some mainstream religions have become more tolerant and have come to terms with a less traditional and more modern outlook.
I do not much like faith schools. I believe that they are divisive and have that effect on communities. However, they exist and they receive state funding, but they should not be permitted to discriminate against those who may not share their faith and should certainly not discriminate as far as concerns employees. They should not be able to insist that employees, except those specifically involved with instruction relative to the faith, should be bound by the precepts of a faith that they may not share. Employees have rights that must be honoured and which are provided by our legislation.
According to the press, the Pope, who is due to visit the country later this year, has been critical of our newly emerging equality legislation. Of course, he has the right to express his opinion. However, the many who feel as I do also have a right to insist to our Government that his views on our legislation should be entirely disregarded.
The British Humanist Association has produced a report on human rights in public services and religious organisations. The issue has arisen because of the apparent desire of the Government to contract out the provision of some public services to religious organisations. The BHA report concluded that there was little evidence to support the view that religious organisations offer any particular benefits to the supply and provision of public services. In the view of the BHA, there are no good reasons why public services should not be provided on a secular basis. Otherwise, there could be problems for users and employees, with a risk of discrimination and of infringements of human rights.
There has been some discussion of these issues during the passage of the Equality Bill. I am still not content that the issue has been resolved. We still need legislative provision to ensure that a religious organisation providing a public service cannot discriminate between service users on religious grounds or, indeed, on any other grounds, that it must respect the human rights of users and that it must have equality-based employment policies. It is very necessary that parallel public services for various religions should not be allowed to develop, as has sometimes been suggested by the more fundamentalist religious publicists. That would be unacceptably divisive in a multicultural society.
It must be made clear that the Equality Bill rightly establishes protected categories, which include sexual orientation. Discrimination against individuals on that basis, either as service users or as employees, cannot be allowed under our own or EU legislation. There has been a long and largely successful campaign in the past few years against discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender people. We cannot have those gains that that campaign has elicited endangered by discrimination. That is why the Equality Bill is so important.
The BHA report makes it clear that secularism does not pose a threat to anyone—quite the contrary. It enables religions and beliefs to exist and flourish. It seeks only to protect against discrimination those categories of people who generally are in a minority and whose vulnerability is deemed to require legislative support. That is what secularism is all about and we should all support it.
My Lords, I have been described as a Hindu humanist by the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, but I am actually a Hindu atheist. I am not and never have been a humanist and I have no intention of becoming one. I was very much welcomed by the humanist group, particularly as at that time I sat on the Tory Benches. The group was very short of Tories and I even got elected vice-chairman. When I pointed out that I was not a humanist, noble Lords said, “It’s all right, we are a broad church”. I attend meetings and I have met and heard some interesting people.
A number of things have not yet been mentioned and I feel that it is my place to mention them. I take a world view rather than just a British view of religion. All the faiths and religions that we are talking about are world religions. They have an impact on many countries, not just on this one. If we are talking about equality and human rights, have we given any thought to the situation of poor women in developing countries and how religion has impacted on their lives? By and large the Anglican Church is not so discriminatory. A lot of good work is done by not only that church, but other churches, too, in developing countries.
However, let us consider the Catholic Church—the Holy See. What is it doing to women? It preaches women’s human rights every day, but we are now drowning in people. There were 2.6 billion people in 1950, but there are now 6.8 billion. We expect that by 2050 there will be another 1.5 billion. Yet the Pope goes to Africa and says, “Don’t use condoms”. Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor said, “Don’t send condoms to Africa; send them antiretrovirals”. What does that mean? Make them ill first and then give them the medicines. We know very well that only about 6 per cent of people in Africa get antiretroviral drugs. It is not even possible for everybody to get the drugs. Surely it would be better to prevent people from getting sick first. I cannot understand why the Holy See and the Catholic Church are not moving into the modern day. They still seem to be living in the Middle Ages. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Patten, is not here, as he refers to the Holy See as head office. People like him should be telling the Holy See that it is time to change its policies on abortion and contraception. What happens to the poor women? One woman dies every minute of every day in childbirth. When did we last hear of a woman dying in childbirth in this country?
Religion should be a force for good, but it is not always so. As a Hindu atheist, I take my moral teaching from wherever I find it. The noble Lord, Lord Mawhinney, says that he follows in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. I remind myself all the time: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If we remember some basic teachings of any faith, we will not go wrong. When I used to work in the community and race relations, some of the worst hypocrites and racists were those who attended church every Sunday. They were very much against the newcomers. The churches rejected West Indians when they came to this country, so they formed their own. Let us not get carried away by the “goodness” of religion. It is not all good.
We have faith schools. Church of England schools were the only ones that taught poor children. Had they not existed, poor children would not have had any education. They are part of this country’s history. But why do we need to separate our children now? Do we not remember what happened in Northern Ireland? We do not have to go very far; we need only look at what is still happening there, across a small sea. Why should children be taught separately? They should be taught together so that they have at least one chance of getting to know one another and maybe developing a liking and respect for one another. I do not believe in faith schools.
A noble Lord said that Jewish schools are increasing. They are not; they cannot fill them. I have made inquiries into this. In fact, they are now taking children who are not Jewish, which is a very good thing. Church of England schools always take children who are not of that faith, but the Catholic schools do not—some do, but many do not. This country should not have schools that take children from only one faith. It is not in the interests of how we want to develop.
I have talked about the Catholic Church, but I have not said anything about the Islamic countries. Let us look at what they do to women. In this country, we now have 85 Sharia courts dealing with domestic issues and inheritance. Any boy reaching the age of seven must go to the father. That is the rule of the Sharia court and we just sit back.
The noble Lord, Lord Patten, said that the influence of religion is not increasing, but during Tony Blair’s time it did increase. He made it respectable for people to push the boundaries of the liberal, inclusive society in which we want to live. We have to think about that.
My Lords, I am delighted to be participating in this debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for securing it and introducing it with great energy and eloquence. I had hoped to take one line in this debate, but since it has gone almost entirely one way, I thought that I should tilt the balance and try to raise issues that are in danger of being ignored.
In recent years we have witnessed a clash between two kinds of dogmatism. For secularists, religion is at best a nuisance and at worst a source of positive mischief; religious people should therefore be kept out of public life or kept at as much a distance as possible. Religious people resent this and become aggressive, which further feeds secularists’ anxiety. They become even more anti-religious and a vicious cycle is born. What is the way out of that? That is my main concern.
A way out is to develop a kind of secularism that is sensitive to religious aspirations, that understands what religion is about and what it means for religious people, and to develop a view of religion that recognises the importance of secularism. That is a large philosophical and cultural debate. In my own field of moral and political philosophy, that is where the energies of a large number of people are currently concentrated—rethinking the traditional understanding of religion. Thanks to the Enlightenment, a particular view of what religion is about has become dominant. If one looks at a pre-Enlightenment way of understanding Christianity, one will see that that is not how it was understood. Even to equate religion with faith is something very peculiar to modernity. When one talks about religion, immediately questions arise. If you think of religions like Hinduism, for example, they have very little to do with beliefs and are primarily concerned with practice. If you think that religion has to do with God—well, Buddhism has nothing to do with God. It is agnostic, and Jainism is positively atheistic. When we talk about religion, it is important to bear this in mind and not to homogenise different systems of thought.
With that proviso, it is worth recognising that when one talks about religion, one ought to appreciate that it is grounded in recognition of a sense of mystery and a sense of finitude of human life. There are experiences that we cannot easily make sense of and we also recognise that as human beings we have certain profound limitations. In one form or another, religion is an attempt to come to terms with these two. It is in that sense a corrective to human hubris, and also a corrective to the illusion of human omnipotence and human omniscience.
If one therefore understands religion not in terms of God or of dogma but as a certain sensibility that recognises the finitude of human beings and which also recognises that there are large areas of human experience that we do not fully understand, then any well considered form of humanism should recognise it as an important and valuable dimension of human life. After all, humanism is concerned with human beings, and human beings—as I argued earlier—do appreciate that certain elements of human life include recognition of religion.
I am entirely in favour of a secular state—but what is a secular state? In the debates in India, where for the past 60 years we have been spending an enormous amount of energy in trying to understand what secularism is, secularism is basically about the relation between state and religion. This relationship can take any number of forms. If, for example, you had to install a wall of separation as the Americans have done, then the state will not be able to interfere with religion. And if it did not, it would not be able to abolish the practice of undecidability, or sati or many other things which derive their sanction from religion. So the wall of separation is out. A secular state is basically a state that pursues secular goals, is guided by secular public reason, and does not make its membership, namely citizenship, and the concomitant rights dependent on subscription to a particular religion. That is basically what a secular state is about.
The question is: why should the state be secular? There is nothing inherently good or bad about the state being secular. It should be secular because that is the only way in which certain important values can be realised. What are these values? There are three. The first is liberty of conscience, by which I mean respect for deeply held beliefs provided that they are rationally defensible. The second is equality of treatment—that regardless of whether one belongs to this religion or to that one, or to no religion at all, all should be treated equally. The third is that the state should be constituted so that all its citizens feel that they belong to the same community and no section feels alienated. These three—liberty of conscience, equality of treatment, and what one might call fraternity or a sense of community—are the three fundamental political values, and the secular state is the only state that is capable of realising them. On that we must insist and we cannot compromise. That does not mean that the state cannot and should not co-operate with religious institutions or that, if it were to do so, it would somehow lose its caste or get corrupted.
In modern society we face acute problems, and in solving those problems the state has its own limitations. Its administrative reach is limited, its moral reach is limited, it relies on certain motivations, and it is necessarily impersonal and bureaucratic. Therefore when there are problems where it cannot reach, we might need to rely on organisations that might be able to fill the gap. I can think of areas—spaces—where religious organisations might be able to deal with drug addicts or the rehabilitation of prisoners, or to foster better understanding between different communities and, in so doing, promote community cohesion. In other words, religion—with all its limitations, which I fully recognise; and I am not a religious person—can be a force for public good, and there are areas of life and groups of people for whom it can be an important source of motivation. In so far as it is a source of moral energy, it would be foolish for secularism or humanism to ignore it all together.
What therefore needs to be done is for the state to lay down certain basic principles or parameters within which public discourse and political action can take place. We can have religious schools. I am not particularly in favour of them but I know that they can promote certain important values and mean a lot to parents. But there are religious schools—I know of two Muslim schools for example—where art is not taught and music is not taught, because they go against Islamic principles.
The question therefore is for the state to lay down certain parameters, and as long as these parameters or standards are met, religious schools may be allowed to function. I would say the same about adoption agencies and lots of other things. Secular principles are absolutely crucial, but there is no reason why a good humanist may not engage in a critical dialogue with religious persons. After all, every view of the world has its limitations. Secularism has its own limitations and religion may be able to contribute something useful.
My Lords, I once had an alarming experience in Soviet Russia. In 1959 I was there as a tourist. I had reached Smolensk, which has a fine cathedral, so I asked the local Intourist office to get me a guide. I was provided with a real Soviet battleaxe who had probably killed an entire German regiment with her bare teeth. As we were coming out of the cathedral, she said to me fiercely, “Do you believe in God?”. I hummed and hawed and eventually replied, “I suppose I don’t, really”. “Well then”, said the battleaxe, “Why don’t you stay in the Soviet Union?” . She clearly thought that non-believers were persecuted in Britain. Of course, we are not. We have had equal rights ever since Charles Bradlaugh was allowed to take his seat in the House of Commons. But that is not the end of the story. A friend of mine once described himself as a non-practising atheist. That is what I was for a long time. I had been brought up as an Anglican—though my father was a non-practising Jew whose favourite meal was pork pie. My wife and I were married in church, we had our children baptised, and we occasionally went to church services though I kept my mouth shut when we got to the Creed.
Things have changed. When I was a law student in the USA 50 years ago, my friends and I laughed at the infamous Scopes trial, when, in the 1920s, a young schoolteacher in Tennessee was prosecuted for teaching his pupils about evolution. We thought that that was something entirely in the past. It never occurred to us that in the 21st century there would be millions of Americans who still believe in creationism. Nor did it occur to me at the time of the Cuban missile crisis that in 2010 we would find ourselves more worried by the acts of Islamic fanatics than by the threat of a nuclear world war.
Religion can of course cause harm as well as good. Religious hatred still exists, as has been shown in Northern Ireland, though I think it is fair to say that that is more about nationalism than about religion. Religious groups can be blamed for teaching such manifestly absurd concepts as creationism. The Roman Catholic church, and some evangelical Christian groups, also can be blamed, and I think should be blamed, for their rejection of contraception, which has enhanced the spread of AIDS, and as the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, has pointed out, has caused great hardship and suffering to women particularly in developing countries. Religion was also responsible for the death of nearly 3,000 innocent people in New York on 9/11, and for that of the 52 people who were killed here in this city some two years later.
It is not the role of humanists to go out and try to convert religious people to humanism; that is to turn humanism itself into a kind of religion. In a time of globalisation, however, surely we must all learn to live side by side. Education is by far the most important way of achieving that, which is why I entirely agree with every word that my noble friend Lord Taverne and the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, said about schools. I believe that the Government’s support of new state-funded faith schools was a profound mistake. Surely children who sit side by side in a school will understand more about each other than will those who have been to separate schools.
Religion must be taught in schools; it is an essential part of history—not only political and national history but the history of art, architecture and music, because so much early art is wholly religious. However, publicly funded schools should not teach that one church or religion knows the truth and that the others do not, or indeed that any religion is necessarily the truth. Religious faith is a matter to be taken up outside the formal structure of our schools, in Sunday schools and their equivalents in other faiths. It can be taught at home or, indeed, in schools on a voluntary basis, but it should not be part of the structure. This is a very valuable debate. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, on his Motion, and I am very happy to support him.
My Lords, for most of the time that I have been a Member of your Lordships’ House I have been supporting the existence of the humanist group, rather from the sidelines. Like the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, I shall briefly talk about the group itself. At the same time, I congratulate him on his term of office.
There were long periods, many, until his death in 2003, under the leading guidance of the late Lord Jack Dormand, who some of us remember, when even he was unable to get official recognition of the group as a proper all-party group. That was mainly because there were never enough members to fill the Conservative quota, despite the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, reminding us today that she was then a Conservative. She was punching above her weight, as she continues to do now as a Cross-Bencher. In those wilderness years, the group was still able to meet but did not have the privileges of an all-party group, for example, in advertising its meetings. For some time now, that has fortunately no longer been the case, and all-party support is assured with many distinguished speakers coming to talk to the group.
I am grateful to have my attention drawn by this debate to the two documents before us, which I might otherwise not have read. My remarks will be mainly prompted by the booklet The Case for Secularism, which is highly readable even though it was written by a committee. It appears to have been written by the humanist philosophers’ group which, I am afraid, might give me the licence to go off in a slightly more philosophical direction than is usual or ideal. This booklet argues very well the case for a particular form of secularism, and I am pleased that its preface says that not all humanists will be expected to support its contents. It is offering an invitation to debate those issues. In my opinion, it is really highlighting one level of secularism and inviting those with other beliefs to gather round and agree to label the discussions and debates that follow as secular; that is, using a secular framework by the consent of all.
I would claim that there is another, much deeper level of agreement and disagreement, which might distinguish the various participants in such debates and which, because of its deep and ingrained nature, sets up much greater and more fundamental differences between separate groups. These differences are often simply not addressed, as they are sometimes irreconcilable and difficult to articulate. For the reason that something can be reconciled, the simpler level of disagreement provides examples of what can usefully be discussed and might then lead to a harmonious and agreed outcome.
We might read about the discussion on when a religious cross might be allowed to be worn, or what type of burka should be worn, where secular reason is meant to hold the ring to provide an agreed outcome. Concepts such as private or public space are used, and one is aiming for a rational, secular framework and hoping that it causes a peaceful and harmonious outcome. While that particular version of secularism is obviously useful—and, as some might say, a start—for me it leaves much deeper divisions unanswered and, often, unaddressed.
To give a rather facile example, one of the minor skills of civilisation—one which is, in fact, quite complex and which we acquire without too much conscious thought—is to be able to walk down a crowded street without generally bumping into people. That is a useful and almost unconscious skill that makes life more harmonious and bearable, but what is going on inside the bodies and minds of other people that we avoid bumping into is another matter and at a different level. This booklet, then, shows commendably how an agreed secularism might make life more harmonious at a simpler level but, in my opinion, it does not address the more fundamental differences that humanism should also be able to highlight. That is where faith and religious belief come in. I do not think that humanism or secularism should try to compete at the same level as religious belief, especially when such beliefs rely on irrational or non-rational practices or traditions.
As a major aim, we secularists must encourage and emphasise a rational and reasoned response to what is presented to us, even though that might not be the easiest or most obvious way. In the long run, I believe that we have to rely on reason and—although I hesitate to say it in this age—science to arm our arguments. I hesitate about science because of the uses that it has recently allowed itself to be put to or pressured into. Having, as I warned earlier, talked in rather general philosophical terms, I realise that we are all living in the real world and that that is what the Minister is having to answer on, and rightly so. I do not criticise those who are trying to solve everyday problems in the real world. Finally, humanism and secularism have a serious and increasing role to play, but there is some way to go before we can claim the fuller coherence of our philosophy, to which we should aspire.
My Lords, this is a joy and a pleasure and we all congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, on giving us the opportunity to canter over this course. I am a member of the British Humanist Association, which I came to very late in life. When I was a Royal Marine—I was called up—one of the first questions the sergeant asked me was, “What’s your religion?” I asked, “What are the options?” He said, “Well, you can be a Roman Catholic, or Church of England or a Jew”. I said, “When I was a boy, I went to a local church hall and I was a member of the Boys’ Brigade”. He asked, “What religion was that?” “Congregationalist”, I said. “Right”, he said, “You’re an OD”, and so I asked “What’s an OD?” “Other denominations”, he said. In other words, I was the great unwashed; I did not have a firm place.
Religion as such has never played a major part in my life, but I have always acknowledged that what are called Christian beliefs—or that style of living, with the good Samaritan and all the other things that go with that—are the kind of precepts that I would like to feel that I try to live by, but without being moved. I tell some of my friends, who I know are deeply religious in the terms which your Lordships would understand, “I admire you, and I’m jealous of the fact that you have got that faith”. Invariably, they say to me: “We may be religious, but we are religious because of what we do”. In other words, they put into practice their religion but they are not necessarily over-religious. Over the past few years, we have come to recognise in society—it may be that the influx from overseas has sharpened and heightened this—that there is shrillness about divisions in attitudes. I am very uneasy about that.
In Edmonton, which I was proud to represent for a period, there is a little church, what I would call a happy-clappy church. It is mainly West Indian. Every year, they invite me along, and when I go, a lady who is a waitress in the House next door tells me to wait at the door. Then she marches in and says: “All stand. Here comes the Lord!” I march in and wave, and for five minutes there is pandemonium. Then, when they have settled down, we sing hymns.
That brings to my mind that when my mam used to have two hours off out of 168 in a week, she would go to the Women's Guild. When she came back, I would say: “What did you do, mam?” “Oh”, she would say, “we had a raffle; we had a cup of tea; we had a speaker; and we sang hymns”. That was her social intercourse; that was the way she could relax. I would hope that secularism should be heavily overlaid with tolerance and understanding. I have no great faith that either this House or anything that succeeds it in any shape or form will radically alter the attitude of the British people. If we are involved in anything, it should be the attitude of the British people.
I looked at the options open to me. My wife was a member of the humanists. I tolerated that, agreed with it, or I supported her. I did nothing untoward. When she died, she opted for what is called a green burial. There are burial sites all over the country, which are not graves in the sense that we know. She was buried on the edge of a bluebell wood 10 years ago, and the bluebells have grown over the ground in which she is buried. I have difficulty finding the slab of concrete, which was laid flat, not standing up. I go there and I do as any loving husband having lost his lovely wife would do. It provides me with the opportunity of thinking of the life that we led and the place where she is now. I do not know where she is. There are those who know for certain that when they die, they will go to heaven. I wish them well, and I hope very much that their ambition is fulfilled.
The shared values which this document tells us we should learn from are a valuable contribution to the system in existence. I once had the opportunity of going as a friend of Israel to the Middle East and the Holy Land. What almost paralysed me was looking at the scenes in the Holy Land. They were exactly what had been painted in the children's Bible which I had been given years ago. I was deeply moved in the knowledge that I was in a place that had given so much comfort, guidance and assurance to so many people. The last thing I would ever do is to knock either religion or people who follow it. I believe that there is a place for such attitudes. However, the percentage of the British people who have become apathetic towards religion is not diminishing. The number of churches of all denominations, but especially of the Church of England, is declining. They are being transformed, knocked down or sold. That must be a great worry. All I want to say to our good friends in the Church of England is that they have a fight on their hands to try to stem the tide of apathy.
My Lords, what a contribution to have to follow. It was terrific. I have agreed with my noble friend over many years about pretty well everything, but I have to say on this occasion that I am one of the members of the Church of England to whom he referred. I should also thank my noble friend Lord Harrison. He does us a service by enabling us to have such a debate, which I have not had in any other forum that I can remember. Long may he continue to do so.
I would have left this to be a conversation among members of the British Humanist Association had I not read the document, which I am grateful to my noble friend for drawing to my attention. What wound me up to think that I should say something were two sentences in the conclusion. It is a good idea to have a text; I am used to having that every Sunday and reflecting on it thereafter. This is what worried me. The conclusion states:
“It is hard to see how religious organisations could be involved in providing public services in ways that would benefit society as a whole … we maintain that all organisations involved in the provision of statutory public services should be secular ones”.
I do not agree with that and I am happy to say that my view is shared by a very prominent person describing himself as a secular humanist. He is a good and right honourable friend of mine—the Secretary of State, John Denham. He made a speech yesterday. It is very timely that we should be having this debate today, although that is probably by accident. I do not know Southampton, but I agree with him wholeheartedly. He said:
“In my own area, Southampton, we are fortunate to have diverse and vibrant faith organisations active in the community in a whole variety of ways. Helping provide essential services to the elderly; supporting parents having a difficult time, campaigning on behalf of the vulnerable and marginalised. Their involvement and enthusiasm contributes immeasurably to the health and strength of our community”.
I think that you could say that about pretty well any community in Britain.
The weakness of the document, although there is much in it that I agree with, is that it overlooks the involvement of faith communities, as we call them these days—obviously, I speak with such authority as I do about the Church of England—in not only providing vital public services today but developing what were originally new public services. Think about education. Think about hospitals. Think about hospices. They became universal public services later. That is unarguable; it is what happened. To take a random list—I could have made it very long had I wanted to—of groups involved today from all sorts of different religious bases, there is the Methodist Homes for the Aged, which co-operates with the state, locally or nationally, to provide services, the Salvation Army, which works with unemployed youngsters and the victims of domestic violence, the Jewish Housing Association, Hindu services for the elderly in one or more of our big cities, work with offenders leaving prison by Christian groups, welfare-to-work projects, debt advice work, work with hospices and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, mentioned, wonderful work in overseas development. The whole fair trade movement was substantially due to churches and the involvement of Christians in its early evolution.
There is a lesson to be learnt from that. Why are faith groups so good at doing such things? It would be churlish not to acknowledge that they are very good at them. The answer is that they reach parts that lots of other groups cannot reach and they do so in a practical, demonstrable way. Friends of mine who are clergy in the Church of England, particularly in deprived areas, often say that all sorts of people are involved in helping—teachers, doctors and social workers—but all too often it is the vicar or the priest, who does not go home somewhere else at the end of the working day and who lives in the heart of the deprived, if that is the right word, community, who picks up issues as and when they arise.
The role that the church plays at times of national tragedy cannot be overlooked. When dreadful things happen in our country—the Hillsborough tragedy, for example—where do people go? Often, it is the cathedrals and churches of our country that are filled on such occasions. I guess that my noble friend Lord Harrison is also a strong supporter of the state support that goes to cathedrals and churches. It goes to them not because they are beautiful buildings, though they may be, but because they are living places where people get joy, solace, comfort and inspiration. It is a good job that they do this and continue to do so, for the reasons that I have described: these are the places to which people go at times of difficulty and stress.
Time is short, so I will simply make one final point. We often hear about the imminent divide; we assume that this is a secular society and that the church is on the way out. Christmas services in 2008 were attended by 2.6 million people—in my book, that is not something that is on the way out. Given that people had to turn out from a nice warm room to walk through the cold winter’s afternoon or night and sit in a very often cold church for an hour to hear some music and listen to sermons of variable quality, that is not a bad turnout. I am not surprised that 72 per cent of the British public described themselves as Christian in the last census. That was self-definition, not some chap with a clipboard going around for an opinion; that is how people wished to see themselves described.
I conclude as I started, with the words of a secular humanist, my right honourable friend John Denham. In his speech yesterday, he said:
“To conclude, I know that there are still those who ask why Government should be interested in faith groups and vice versa. Why don’t we just leave each other in peace? I think the answer is clear. Politicians are interested in shaping society for the better. Faith is one of the powerful forces which shape society. Most people of faith are concerned for the human experience today, as well as spiritual welfare in the future. It’s natural and inevitable that we should be interested in each other’s views and want to work together”.
We can all say amen to that.
My Lords, I very much want to follow along the lines of what the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, has been saying. We are now a very secular society, but when it comes to issues such as life and death and the meaning of tragic death for a community, places of worship are very important. My wife and I stayed in Lincoln overnight driving between London and Saltaire the other month. As we got up in the morning, a captain who had been killed clearing mines in Afghanistan was being buried in the cathedral. The entire city stopped and the cathedral was full. This is still very much part of our national life; at the moment we have no alternative and it helps to pull us all together. As the right reverend Prelate said in his excellent speech, we need to remember that values are a matter for the community as well as for each individual.
I speak as a liberal. Liberalism as a tradition grew out of the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries and, on the continent, the reimposition of authoritarian rule by states closely linked to the Roman Catholic Church. Continental liberalism, as I learnt about it, was therefore strongly anti-religious and linked to the Freemasons; the revolution was as much against the Catholic Church as it was against authoritarian government. I was being briefed on liberal Judaism the other day and I was told that Napoleon opened the ghetto and thus provided the basis for liberal versions of Judaism to emerge. The Catholic Church in the 19th century set its face against modernity on the continent. The Pope not only declared himself infallible but issued papal bulls denouncing liberalism as a heresy. The Roman Catholic Church is still doing its best as a hierarchy to come to terms with a liberal and open society.
In Britain, the legacy of the Civil War left us with a rather different tradition: a broad and open established church and a large dissenting tradition that enforced a degree of toleration if we were to live together as a society. Out of that, a rather different English, British liberal tradition has grown, in which the overlap between church and state has not always been entirely clear. After the Irish rebellion of 1798, for example, the then Whig Government argued the case for the provision of public funds to train Roman Catholic priests in Ireland—against strong Tory opposition for years afterwards, of course. That was so successful in training Roman Catholic priests to understand the balance that one needed between church and state that, when they were inspected in the 1860s, the Vatican delegation accused them all of Gallicanism. I strongly support provision of state funding for the training of imams in Britain on exactly the same basis today. We need to help our new religious communities to understand how their established practices of religion need to come to terms with a shared understanding of the relationship between faith and the state.
At least this humanist report recognises that there are divisions in all faiths between a more liberal and a more fundamentalist or conservative approach. Liberalism as an approach, whether secular or faith-based, is something that we all need to defend. I am a liberal because as a choirboy I sat through umpteen sermons by on the whole very progressive members of the Church of England, which is how I acquired my strong political values: tolerance, respect for diversity and so on. But let us recognise that it is easier to be a liberal if you are well-to-do, secure in your identity, securely employed and within an established and secure community. Thus in the 1960s it was easy to be a liberal and easy to be a liberal Anglican. Now, in a much less secure world, fundamentalisms of all sorts—both faith-based and secular—are much stronger, just as in the 1930s the political, secular fundamentalisms of communism and fascism had a much stronger appeal. We find evangelicals within the Protestant churches and those dreadful fundamentalists in the United States, a fundamentalist tendency within the Roman Catholic Church and bitter fundamentalists within the Jewish, Hindu and Muslim communities. We need an alliance of liberals, humanists and religious liberals against fundamentalists of sorts—including, if I may say so after having been unhappy with some of the phrasing of one of these reports, against the most aggressive atheists and the most absolutist members of the National Secular Society.
I take the separation of church and state as a given. I was astonished by the intervention by the noble Lord, Lord Mawhinney. I thought that I remembered a text that said, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s”. That, for me, is one of the basic texts on the separation between church and state. Of course there is tension between public and private belief and between public and private life. I was unhappy with the way in which the report treated that tension, because it is a necessary and creative tension. Liberalism is always a set of arguments about the values on which we operate: the definition of our open society and the relationship between members of that society—the position of women, for example, on which liberalism, when it started, was pretty poor, as with everything else. We must continue to argue; that is the basis of an open and a liberal society.
The question for all of us is: how do we promote public debate on underlying values and on the moral dimensions of social life, of economic life and, for that matter, of life itself? If we want to be more than a consumer society, we have to tackle what the noble Lord, Lord Graham, described as “the tide of apathy” and to debate the underlying moral issues: the moral basis of capitalism and of social life of all sorts. My father spent 40 years working for a bank that had been established by Quakers and I am very sorry that it has entirely lost any sense of moral purpose, as has much of the rest of our financial sector. Indeed, we all need to redefine the moral basis of capitalism now.
There is a messy overlap between the state and society and now between the public sector and the voluntary or third sector. As public funds are cut, we will have to rely more on voluntary funds, which will make life much more difficult. I strongly agree with the report in its attack on the neo-conservative tendencies of Tony Blair in taking the American example and wanting to reintroduce a faith dimension rather aggressively into the provision of public services. We on these Benches oppose the expansion of faith schools; we want to see schools that are rooted in local communities. We recognise that a line needs to be drawn between public provision and private choice, but we also recognise that those with religious motivations do much in areas such as social care through hospices and services to old people and to street people; the Salvation Army does much for the homeless on our streets that is not otherwise provided for. Adoption is the most delicate and the most difficult area. There is also a great deal to be done in prisons and in the provision of probation. We find young men in prison without any system of values. They are completely lost and they somehow need to be helped as they come out of prison to reintegrate into society and to find a sense of purpose.
It is not entirely irrelevant to our debates that many of those who are most committed to making voluntary contributions to the community have a religious motivation. The question of motivation also comes up in the humanist report. We see much too little in our current society of the motivation to do more than look after ourselves and we should not denigrate the fact that those with faith are much more likely to think that they must also work for others.
In an open society, we live with creative tension about the boundaries separating the public and the private and the overlap between the secular and the religious. We live with a monarchy—a remarkably absurd thing in many ways, but we have it—and with an heir to the throne who says that he wishes to be a defender of all faiths. I attended service for the 50th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation in Westminster Abbey, and there, under the lantern, were representatives of Britain’s other faith communities: Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Zoroastrian and Baha’i. I thought that that was a splendid and wonderful thing to have. It was inclusive and it recognised that Britain is a society of many diverse communities. We want all of them to contribute to the common good. That is what we should be working towards.
My Lords, I, along with everyone else, pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for securing this debate. It has been fascinating, and, like all the best debates that I have enjoyed in my brief time in this place, it has slightly blurred the edges of the traditional sides of the House, which has been extremely welcome. I did not recognise any militant humanism or secularism in the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, presented his case. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, referred to Dr Ashok Kumar, with whom I traded seats in the other place for a number of years. I, too, found him to be a man of astounding character and of great and gentle humour. He was intelligent but always incredibly courteous, and he will be a real loss to politics and to his constituency.
It will come as no surprise to the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, when I mention that we on these Benches have been fairly consistent in our position on these matters and have not been able to muster sufficient Members to help the All-Party Humanist Group to get off the ground, for which I apologise. At the same time, I wish to present our case, which is this; we believe not that there is too much activity from faith groups in the public sphere but that there is too little. We believe that faith groups make a huge contribution to society at all levels, and their voices are to be celebrated and heard and their activities are to be encouraged and not discriminated against.
The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, listed many of the areas in which the impact of faith groups is felt by people in this society, such as in education, in which they have an outstanding track record. People go to faith-based schools not necessarily just because of their religious faith but because they deliver an outstanding education. They queue around the block to go to them. This contrasts very sharply with some of the education provision in some of our city areas in particular. They have been hugely successful in this area, as they have been in the care for prisoners when they leave prison, in the care for asylum seekers and in the care for the disabled. Mention has been made of international aid and development.
As the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said, faith groups are also interwoven into the fabric of our society. Church is where people get married, children are baptised, and people are buried; it is a focal point for the community. Our churches and faith communities are often the first and the last in our societies to provide compassion and social care, and they are to be encouraged on that basis. Moreover, some of what has reached the history books has been extremely welcome. We argue that, in recognising the driving force of faith, we also recognise the foundations of what we enjoy in our modern liberal democracy—it is not a theocracy; no one wants to live in a theocracy—whether it is John Locke’s concepts of freedom, democracy and social concern; the work of William Wilberforce to abolish slavery; the incredible work of Elizabeth Fry and the movement behind Sunday schools, which the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, mentioned; or the work of old Shaftesbury, of William Booth and of Josephine Butler. The list goes on. Internationally, there is the work of Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King. There is in all this an incredible, strong third dimension to their huge intellect and will: the physical, emotional and spiritual aspects that drive those people forward.
I totally endorse the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Graham, whose contributions, I am sure, are always enjoyed by those on all sides of the House. He said something very telling about faith communities; it is not what you believe, it is what you do. That is key to how faith communities engage in the public sphere. It is not so much what they believe, it is what they do. It is the effectiveness, or the lack of effectiveness, of what they do that should be the sole arbiter, in our view, of whether they are allowed to contribute to public service.
The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, referred to the fact that faith communities often contribute in a way which could be described as a public good. I think that that is true and that we should recognise that contribution. I was reminded of an interview that I watched one Sunday morning a few months ago with someone who, I suppose, would be classed as the archbishop of the humanist agenda, Professor Richard Dawkins. He was being interviewed by Adam Boulton, a very talented interviewer who often manages to get to a grain of truth, and they were talking about Darwinism. Adam Boulton asked whether Darwinism could be described simply as survival of the fittest. To that, Richard Dawkins replied, “Well, yes, it’s a bit crude, but it could be described as survival of the fittest”. Adam Boulton said, “Presumably, then, you must recognise that human society must be the most un-Darwinian society, because we care for the poor, we protect the weak and we ensure justice—this is profoundly un-Darwinian”. To that Professor Dawkins replied—it took me slightly by surprise—“I agree, human society is profoundly counter-Darwinian and thank goodness for that”. Quite who he was thanking at that point, I leave for theologians to muse over. He said, “I think it is a good thing that we live in a rather non-Darwinian society”.
Who could deny such a statement, when people have seen the carnage wreaked in our world by atheist regimes, whether by the Stalinist regime in Russia, the Nazi regime in Germany, Mao Tse Tung, Pol Pot—so many of these regimes. Much is done to question the contribution of religion, but we also need to recognise what happens when people place themselves in the place of God and how they then treat their fellow men and women. History would say that that is something which should certainly be considered.
I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, that atheism, humanism and secularism need to be discussed in schools and in fact they are part of the national curriculum. In religious education, there is a part which refers to them. I think that that is quite right and that the national curriculum needs to be respected in faith schools—I understand that it is—and in non-faith schools. It is important that people learn tolerance and respect for all views.
Moving briefly, since time is running out, to the reports presented to us here, my noble friend Lord Patten made a very powerful speech with which I found myself in complete agreement. He asked whether we could really believe that there is such a thing as neutrality in the public sphere regarding religious faith. That point was also made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds. I agree with this: it is not possible for people to have neutral or scientific politics without moral or religious commitments. I am arguing that it is not possible to decide questions of policy, law, justice and rights without presupposing some account of the good life. For religious people, that will be theologically driven. The role of government is to preference some notions of the good over others. In the words of the 2009 Reith lecturer, Michael Sandel:
“Asking democratic citizens to leave their moral and religious convictions behind when they enter the public realm may seem a way of ensuring toleration and mutual respect. In practice, however, the opposite can be true. Deciding important public questions while pretending to a neutrality that cannot be achieved is a recipe for backlash and resentment. A politics emptied of substantive moral engagement makes for an impoverished civic life. It is also an open invitation to narrow, intolerant moralisms. Fundamentalists rush in where liberals”—
with a small “l”—
“fear to tread”.
That sums up our position. In the area of equality, we say that faith organisations, which are driven by a sense of faith, should be able to attract people to come and work for them who hold to that particular view. In the same way, I am sure that, should the British Humanist Association ever be seeking a new chief executive, it would want somebody who believes in what it believes in. It would seem appropriate, therefore, and perhaps just a little bit generous, that one ought to allow church organisations and religious organisations to do the same.
In essence, we are not arguing that faith communities have a monopoly on compassion; of course they do not. However, they have done an outstanding job in our society, up and down this country—people will acknowledge that. This is not about discrimination against. It is about looking at the results which are delivered, not by politically correct inputs, but by socially advancing and community encouraging outputs.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for introducing this debate and I thank all noble Lords for their valuable contributions. It has been, at times, an intense and intellectually engaged debate. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I do not succeed in fully reconciling the spread of views that have been expressed. I welcome also the contributions from the British Humanist Association and the Humanist Philosophers’ Group, which are referred to in the Motion. These documents challenge the misconception that humanists and other non-religious people are anti-religious—a point made by my noble friend Lord Macdonald and endorsed by my noble friend Lady Turner—and although the Government might not agree with every single point, I recommend them as accessible and thoughtful contributions to public debate.
The Government welcome and support the important distinction made between a secular state and a secular society. The two are often conflated, but it is worth clarifying that the Government are in agreement with the Humanist Philosophers’ Group that we are striving collectively for people to be treated fairly and without discrimination, and to be joined together by those values that we all share. In my noble friend Lord Parekh’s terms, the key components of a secular state are liberty of conscience and equality of religion with all citizens belonging to the same community.
We recognise the importance of freedom of religion and belief—indeed, we have sought to guarantee it through equality legislation—and the value of having an open society with diverse religions and beliefs. To foster an open society, the Government have strengthened the legislative framework needed in a secular state to protect people from discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief or, indeed, lack of it. This includes The Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 and the Equality Act 2006. The present Equality Bill is intended to declutter the existing legislation, including that relating to religion or belief, and to strengthen the law.
Among the measures contained in the Bill is a new equality duty on public bodies which will bring together the existing duties on race, disability and gender and extend them to religion or belief, sexual orientation, age and gender reassignment. As noble Lords will be aware, the Bill will have its Third Reading in this House next Tuesday.
The Government believe that it is important to ensure that members of all faiths, and those of none, enjoy the same life opportunities and feel confident in working with people who have different beliefs, but shared values, to work together towards common goals. This is a pragmatic approach that respects people’s freedom within the law to express their beliefs and convictions, and our belief in active communities. Indeed, it is a key aim of the Department for Communities and Local Government to help bring about a society in which different belief systems, whether religious or otherwise, are equally understood, respected and valued.
As many noble Lords will know, in July 2008 we published Face to Face and Side by Side, a framework for partnership in our multifaith society. This was part of our overall response to Our Shared Future, the report of the Commission on Integration and Cohesion, and in particular, its recommendation that there needed to be more constructive relationships between those who are religious and those who are not. As the document itself says, we believe that the building blocks set out in Face to Face and Side by Side represent the key enabling factors for effective dialogue and social action involving people with different faiths and beliefs and those with none. We recognise that the commission’s highlighting of the importance of going beyond interfaith dialogue to encourage meaningful dialogue between people of faith and no faith and people of different ethnic backgrounds and cultures, has been echoed by those who feel excluded from the table of interfaith dialogue. It is aware that the key rubbing point for many interfaith forums is the role of people who profess no religious belief in this dialogue.
The British Humanist Association has itself been working to address that. The Government’s Faith Communities Capacity Building Fund funded the British Humanist Association to establish and support a network of grass-roots humanists to work and build relationships with statutory bodies and participate in groups that advise local authorities on matters of religion or belief. The project aimed to enable local humanists to network with faith and interfaith groups, to participate in groups convened by local authorities and to contribute towards good relations and community cohesion.
With individual faith communities there is often diversity, and there are challenges both for faith communities engaging in interfaith activity and for local authorities. It can be all too easy to take the simplistic route of conflating faith, ethnicity and culture, but faith is a distinctive category in its own right.
Some faith communities have much to offer in helping to eradicate disadvantage, and the Government seek to enable them to use that capacity for the wider benefit of society. More on that shortly, but our work with faith communities is not about privileging religious groups or discriminating against those with non-religious beliefs or no belief. It continues to be a priority of the Government to ensure that those with a non-religious perspective are also able to participate in constructive debate on policy issues and to inform the development of legislation. We welcome the opportunity to gain further insight into the humanist perspective and regard the regular meetings that my officials have with the BHA as a valuable opportunity for constructive discussion.
The Government want to see a Britain with strong communities where people with different beliefs get on together and are treated equally, but we do not believe that this kind of secular state is incompatible with one in which particular faith groups deliver certain services to their own group or to the wider community. We believe that what we might call “the faith sector” is a key part of the third sector.
The principle at the heart of faith communities—and, I should say, of humanists too—is service to others. This can be about working for a better quality of life in the local community or about global issues of justice or the environment. It is on the basis of this principle that the public sector can build a working partnership with faith communities to deliver services as varied as homeless shelters, youth clubs, health and social care, health advice and relationship counselling services. We have heard of others from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, my noble friend Lord Grocott and the noble Lord, Lord Bates—I think his expression was that often they are the first in and the last out. The days are gone when the public sector could delivery virtually all these services in a top-down manner, and if services are to meet the needs of communities then communities themselves have to be engaged. It is right sometimes to speak about the coproduction of services to help us describe the processes that may need to happen. This is also about efficiency and getting the best value for money, not measured in crude monetary terms but in terms of the best outcome for communities.
Then there are the buildings. With 54,000 places of worship in the UK, faith communities are essential providers of sacred and secular spaces for people to interact and pursue shared activity. These spaces are found in all parts of all our communities, from large cities to small rural villages. They are used by local people for local events and activities, and often function as the primary resources and buildings for community spaces and essential meeting places. They are supported by networks of experienced, willing volunteers.
I recognise some of the concerns that the British Humanist Association has so clearly articulated. It may be helpful for noble Lords if I deal in turn with a few myths surrounding the funding of faith-based bodies, a point touched upon by a noble Baroness, Lady Miller. Issues around the funding of faith-based bodies may underlie the reservations that are shared by many in local authorities, and thus can obstruct the fair access of such bodies to public funding and tendering opportunities as part of the third sector. My department issued a paper about these myths yesterday at a conference on faith and social action, a matter referred to by my noble friend Lord Grocott in his contribution.
One myth touches on the equality points I made earlier. It is sometimes believed, I understand, that faith-based bodies would not help people of whom they did not approve, like atheists or homosexuals. However, the equalities legislation is quite clear on this. All providers of goods, facilities and services to the public or a section of the public are obliged by law to provide services to all those who need them, irrespective of religion or belief, sexual orientation, gender or race. The Equality Bill presently before this House extends that to cover age as well. Faith-based service deliverers are no different in a service-delivery context from any other provider, a point made by my noble friend Lady Turner. Indeed, discrimination against faith-based providers in a tendering process could itself be illegal. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, made that very point.
It is sometimes argued that funding for a single group has negative implications for community cohesion. The fact is that although faith-based organisations can be funded to deliver services to a wide cross-section of the community, in particular circumstances they and other identity-focused, cause-focused or issue-focused bodies may be funded to work primarily with their own community.
It is not illegal for a local authority to contract with an organisation to provide a service to a particular community—for instance, kosher meals on wheels for Jewish old people—as part of service provision for the local population as a whole. Sometimes that can enhance service access to especially vulnerable groups in society.
Another myth is that funding will imply support for the religious views or doctrines of the organisation. Of course, such an implication would not be confined to faith-based organisations, and although the Government agree that local authorities and other bodies may want to include a disclaimer with any grant emphasising that funding does not imply support for an organisation’s views or doctrines, this implication is in any case unlikely to be drawn. Funding to organisations to deliver services does not imply endorsement of their overall organisational aims, whether they are religious or not.
Faith-based service delivery with public funding does not represent, as the British Humanist Association has suggested, an overly cosy relationship between faith and Government. It is about local government and other parts of the local state supporting those who are well placed to deliver the services that they are obliged to ensure are available locally. If other, non-faith-based third sector groups can offer the best service, the contract should go to them.
The separation of Church and state was raised by a number of noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, and my noble friend Lord Harrison. Noble Lords will be aware that the Government will shortly be publishing draft clauses on House of Lords reform, as has been reported in the press. Those draft clauses will cover the issues around the composition of the Lords. I remind noble Lords that the 2008 White Paper made it clear that if there were to be an appointed element in the second Chamber, there would be a proportionate number of seats reserved for Church of England bishops. The White Paper also stated that the Government were clear that if a reformed second Chamber were wholly elected, there should be no seats for Church of England bishops or any other group.
A number of noble Lords raised issues around faith schools—the noble Lords, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, Lord Goodhart, Lord Patten and Lord Taverne, my noble friend Lady Massey and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds. The Government welcome the contribution that schools with a religious character make to the school system, both as a result of their historical role and now as key players in contributing to the more diverse school system with the greater opportunities for parental choice that we see. Ministers are keen to ensure that all maintained faith schools, along with all maintained schools, comply with the schools admission code and admissions legislation to ensure fair access for all children, regardless of their background. We remain committed to supporting the establishment of new schools by a range of providers, including faith organisations, where local consultation has shown that this is what parents and the local community want, where the school is willing and able to comply with the requirements on all maintained schools and where this greater diversity will help to raise standards.
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, referred to spending on capacity building at this point in the economic cycle. We do not resile from that. She made particular reference to her experience of dealing with local authority housing allocations and the need for objectivity. That of course is absolutely right and indeed what equality legislation should ensure. My noble friend Lady Massey talked about morals not being the exclusive preserve of religion. I absolutely agree with that. My noble friend Lord Graham was making the same point when he spoke of his view of life and expressed, in a sense, a jealousy of those who were able to base their moral position on religion. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds spoke of some of the important services delivered locally in his area. That underlines the importance of access that faith communities can provide.
My noble friend Lord Macdonald gave us his view on the experience of the All-Party Humanist Group. I congratulate him on having achieved five years as its chair. It has been a particularly interesting time, especially with its growth of membership, as the noble Viscount, Lord Craigavon, pointed out in his contribution. The noble Lord, Lord Taverne, referred to the importance of teaching science in schools because it is, as he put it, the enemy of dogma. I do not disagree. I do not see that as being inconsistent with the teaching of religion and belief. The role of science in schools is clearly important. My noble friend Lady Turner said that religious and philosophical differences should not become divisive. I agree with her.
The noble Baroness, Lady Flather, moved us onto a world view with some very telling points about the impact that some religious approaches can have, particularly in poor countries and where churches are still opposing contraception, with all the devastating consequences of that in relation to explosions of population and increases in poverty. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, gave us some examples of the negative effects of religion, such as the bombings in London. I noted his opposition to publicly funded faith schools.
My noble friend Lord Graham talked about the basis of his moral beliefs, which he said were based on those of Christianity. He spoke movingly of his wife and her green burial and his support for shared values. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, referred to the voluntary capacity that faith organisations can bring to the delivery of services in our country. That is, indeed, very important.
Despite the important points of disagreement that may have emerged today, it is worth concluding on what I hope is a positive note. The British Humanist Association acknowledges the merit of a diverse society and in its publications recognises the contribution to British society of religious individuals, communities and organisations. I am sure too that religious people will recognise the contribution to this country of humanist individuals, communities and organisations. The concept of a secular state, in which religions and beliefs are treated fairly and in a way that does not disadvantage any group, is a helpful one that I am sure we can all support.
There must be no question that this Government recognise the central role which Christianity plays within wider British society. The Christian churches have had an immense historic influence in shaping society and continue to make significant contributions in a wide range of areas such as community development, education, social inclusion and heritage. However, in Britain today people identify with a range of religions and beliefs. Within each there are different degrees of practice and belief and just as we must never ignore our Christian heritage we must also recognise and celebrate the contributions made to our heritage by individuals with humanist beliefs and by our compatriots of Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and other faiths. Whether we use the language of secularism or equality or human rights, I hope we agree that the state must be even handed to all lawful religions and beliefs and should not disadvantage any sections of society.
It is important to ensure that people from all religious backgrounds—and those with no religion—enjoy the same life opportunities and feel confident in working with people who have different beliefs, but shared values, towards common goals. Today’s debate has contributed to the ongoing conversation on how we can foster such a fair society and has shown that the principle of a secular state, as described by the Humanist Philosophers’ Group, is not necessarily one which threatens religion. There may be continued debate over what shape such a secular state might take, but I hope the debate can continue and be as informed, thoughtful and as well reasoned as it has been today.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for his admirable summing up. We shall certainly look at that. In the past I have described myself as a member of God’s loyal opposition. I thank my colleagues who have contributed to God’s loyal opposition in expanding this debate. I also thank others who have spoken and, like the noble Lord, Lord Bates, I have to say how much I have enjoyed this debate and how much I have learnt from this debate. I shall go away and think ever more deeply about some of the issues that have been prompted by it.
I shall, if I may, make one correction. At no point were we offering a neutral society, one which offers neutered values. I hope I made it clear that the values I support are the general liberal values which I thought found echo around the Chamber.
I must apologise to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool who contributed so well to my debate regarding Liverpool’s title of Capital of Culture 2008. I am unable to stay for his debate which I know will be excellent. The last thing I can do to offer him a grand opening is to ask the House to withdraw the title of my debate.