Atheists and Humanists: Contribution to Society — Motion to Take Note
Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Conservative)
My Lords, as other noble Lords are leaving the Chamber while the handover is going on, it is timely for me to remind your Lordships that the next debate, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, is also time-limited. The same number of speakers is listed on this debate as well, so with the exception of the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, and my noble friend Lord Ahmad, all Back-Bench contributions are limited to seven minutes.
Lord Harrison (Labour)
My Lords, today we speak up on behalf of the silent majority, for those of us who do not attend any place of worship, whether church, mosque or synagogue. It is a silent majority, whose full contribution to British society has perhaps been unsung for too long. In contrast, we find that religious voices are ever more present, and sometimes shrill, in the public square. However, because atheism is a philosophical viewpoint, arrived at individually and personally, we are not given to marching in the street chanting, “What do we want? Atheism! When do we want it?
Now!”. As a humanist who senses that religion has neither rhyme nor reason, I believe that we should ensure that our needs and concerns are met and satisfied in that public square, as they are in the private armchair. For too long we have been silent, contemplative hermits in terms of our own cause.
Humanism is a non-religious ethical life stance based on reason, humanity, and a naturalistic view of the universe. As the non-religious proportion of the UK population increases, the contribution of humanists to British society also increases. While not all of those who are atheists would necessarily describe themselves as humanist, nevertheless a great many of those who are non-religious are essentially humanist in outlook. The increase in the proportion of the population which is non-religious is demonstrated not only by the 2011 census results, in which the non-religious element rose from 15% in the 2001 census to 25% in 2011, but also in the more recent British Social Attitudes survey published last year, which found that as many as 46% say that they do not belong to any religion.
Humanism is perhaps the default philosophical position for millions of people in the UK today, and millions of humanists in one way or another in their daily lives improve society by strengthening our democratic freedoms, involving themselves assiduously in charity work, increasing our body of scientific knowledge and enhancing the cultural and creative life of the United Kingdom.
The British Humanist Association is the national charity which works on behalf of non-religious people. Founded in 1896, it has more than 28,000 members and supporters and more than 90 local and special interest affiliates. The BHA campaigns for a secular state and on a range of ethical issues, puts forward the humanist viewpoint in public debate and lobbies the Government and parliamentarians. I am very pleased to see the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, in her place today, because she will recall that we managed to have a humanist amendment added to the same-sex marriage Bill.
The BHA also has a network of celebrants who conduct non-religious ceremonies which are attended by more than 250,000 people every year. Some BHA members also give up their time to provide pastoral support to non-religious people in hospitals, prisons and universities alongside the chaplaincy teams of those organisations. In my own borough of Camden that silent service of humanists has not percolated through to the NHS, which still believes that those of the non-faith tradition should be served by chaplains of all kinds of faiths.
The BHA campaigns for secularism, the separation of church and state and an end to all religious privileges. The work of humanists and atheists in campaigning for secularism has helped to make the UK a more tolerant, free and equal society. In a secular society, the state does not favour any particular belief system. Members of all religious faiths, as well as those who do not have a religious faith, stand equal before the law. A society in which everyone has equal rights and minorities do not suffer from discrimination is a tolerant and democratic one.
Humanists spent decades campaigning for the abolition of the blasphemy laws, which was finally achieved in 2008. Blasphemy laws place religiously-motivated restrictions on freedom of speech and should have no place in a democratic society. Humanists have had to campaign for personal freedoms in modern society that we now take for granted such as the legalisation of homosexuality, the ability to access contraception and women’s right to access safe abortion facilities. We wish the Church of England well in its ambition finally to have women represented on the Bishops’ Benches.
We campaign for a fully secular state, for the disestablishment of the Church of England and the removal of the Bishops from the House of Lords. We know that there are stirrings within the Anglican Church from people who take the same view. Perhaps it would be helpful to have a more equal distribution of those who profess religious faiths and those who do not—as with the BHA or the National Secular Society—on your Lordships’ Benches.
The BHA also campaigns to end discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief, and it welcomes, in particular, the recent decision by the Girl Guides to drop the reference to God in their membership oath. The BHA also campaigns on ethical issues, such as the right to an assisted death for the permanently incapacitated and incurably suffering. Humanists try to achieve a more cohesive society by campaigning against social division in the education system and, indeed, the social engineering of church schools. We believe that children and young people should be free of religious indoctrination and have the space to develop their own beliefs. We would welcome the church intervening in the clearly odd matter of parents who apply to church schools when they are clearly doing so simply to have access to those schools and not as a profession of faith.
Humanists and atheists are sometimes accused of being intolerant of religious believers and being unwilling to work with them to build a better society; however, we support the Fair Admissions Campaign, which calls for an end to religious discrimination in admissions to state-funded faith schools, and the Accord Coalition. We work with the Christian think tank, Ekklesia, British Muslims for Secular Democracy, the Hindu Academy and Rabbi Jonathan Romain MBE. The BHA also campaigns against the teaching of creationism and in favour of the teaching of evolution. We call for an improved sex and relationships education. Humanists also call for an end to the requirement for collective worship in schools and for the reform of religious education, so that pupils are given the opportunity to explore different religions and non-religious world views, including, of course, humanism. Some BHA members are already working with the Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education and local authorities.
It is often claimed that the religious are more generous and socially engaged than the non-religious. However, research by the Government, published in 2011, shows that the non-religious are just as likely as religious people to participate in civil society. The Citizenship Survey of April 2010 to March 2011 was published by the Department for Communities and Local Government.
It looked at civic engagement and formal volunteering in that period and found that there was no statistically significant difference in participation between those with no religion, at 56%, and Christians, at 58%.
Among the BHA’s most significant supporters from the world of science are its president, the physicist, broadcaster and author, Professor Jim Al-Khalili; the biologist and author of The God Delusion, Professor Richard Dawkins, a vice-president; physicist, Professor Brian Cox; geneticist Steve Jones; the former scientific officer to the Government, Professor Sir David King; and science writers such as Simon Singh and Doctor Adam Rutherford. We are all familiar with Francis Crick and the contributions of Bertrand Russell and the novelist EM Forster.
Humanist ceremonies, including weddings, funerals and naming ceremonies, are becoming more and more popular, and the BHA’s trained and accredited celebrants conduct ceremonies that are attended by more than 250,000 people each year. Humanist ceremonies are tailored to the lives of the people involved and are based on shared human values, but with no religious elements. This aspect of the BHA’s work is very important in a society in which a growing proportion of the population is non-religious.
I shall make some closing comments on a number of areas where I believe we humanists can aid society and improve its general workings. We could contribute, for instance, on “Thought for the Day”, on the “Today” programme, from which we are currently excluded. I think that this is an error; we are able, as others are, to provide thoughts for the day. We are told that all other broadcasting is sufficient to absorb that which we may want to say. There are, however, true problems for atheists and humanists that should be properly addressed, knotty problems that we have to confront. I believe that, in fairness, that should happen. I also point to religious broadcasting that is of a better nature, such as the “Sunday” programme, which my wife and I listen to regularly, especially when chaired by the excellent Edward Stourton, who never allows his Roman Catholicism to stand in the way of his forensic journalistic instincts. I was heartened to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, in a recent “Sunday” appearance, speak up against the persecution of atheists in Indonesia and Pakistan. I was grateful to her for doing so. The noble Lady has gone further by changing the name of her all-party parliamentary group to reflect beliefs as well as religion.
There are also other ways in which humanists can contribute to the general weal, some of which will help our religious colleagues directly. The chair of the Historic Churches All-Party Group, Frank Dobson, is an avowed atheist. In 2004, I led a debate in your Lordship’s House in 2004 asking Her Majesty’s Government what contribution they had made to the maintenance of the architectural heritage of England’s churches and their view on combining the function of churches as places of worship with other ways of serving local communities. I give one recent example from Chester, where we in the Labour Party recently selected our prospective parliamentary candidate for the general election in our local arts and craft Church of England, whose bells my wife and I listen to every
Sunday and practice Thursday. We may be atheists but we do not see why the church should have all the best buildings. I note that today the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury has said that he wants to use the church estate to promote credit unions in churches to oppose payday loans.
I conclude on a sad note and I ask the Minister if he will take this back. The Armed Forces Humanist Association is being prevented from attending the Cenotaph ceremony in November, and I and others have been campaigning for this for a long time. Last week, I received a reply from the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, which tells us that we cannot be represented there. We do not want to lay a wreath or anything like that; we simply want to be there. The noble Lord wrote that there is a very real issue of available space for accommodating any extra participants at the designated place where the ceremony takes place, which could impact on the precision with which the ceremony must successfully operate, despite the fact that the Zoroastrians are represented at that ceremony. Thus spake Zorathustra, but thus quaked the Government when they were asked to represent the whole of British society. I think, hope and believe that this debate illustrates that we, the humanists and atheists, have a very real contribution to make.
Baroness Whitaker (Labour)
My Lords, I intend to go rather farther back than my noble friend’s powerful speech. I congratulate him on giving us this opportunity to go a little wider and deeper than our usual deliberations. My thesis is that our idea of the good society has its roots in many traditions, some of which are humanism and atheism, and that the contribution of humanist thought is significantly underrated and denied its status in our education and our social policy. I declare an unremunerated interest as a vice-president of the British Humanist Association, whose causes my noble friend has so eloquently described.
By “humanism” I do not mean the Christian Platonism of Erasmus and his followers, although it is perfectly reasonable to call them humanists because that is what he called himself. For the purposes of this debate, I mean people whose ethical framework is unattached to religious belief. Strictly, I leave out later thinkers whose ideas chimed with humanism such as Montaigne, who would have courted death if they spoke in those terms. However, rather as early Christians thought Virgil was one of them, I hope that I can count Montaigne as sympathetic to the values of humanism.
Democritus, from fifth century Greece, was clearly an atheist. For our debate, perhaps his most significant contribution was his idea that there were systems which controlled how materials behaved—in effect, physics and chemistry. He also had a clear picture of the difference between subjective and objective perception. Both these extraordinarily modern-seeming theories offered an alternative to the supernatural and shamanic versions of the world available at the time. Bertrand Russell thought Democritus was simply lucky in his conclusions, but Lucretius, Democritus’s much later Roman disciple, gave a series of empirical arguments for the same beliefs. The great beauty of De Rerum
is its idea of a world determined by natural laws. It was astonishingly prescient—and, incidentally, was saved for our post-classical world by a Christian scholar. We do not acknowledge these two giants much as we go about our lives but we still stand on their shoulders, in Isaac Newton’s graphic phrase.
I should also like to claim the sceptics of the Enlightenment such as Voltaire, but more exactly he and some of his contemporaries were deists, so perhaps I may call them fellow travellers. There were certainly avowed atheists among them, such as Diderot and the German Matthias Knutzen, who proposed conscience and reason as the only guides to behaviour. We could also claim Spinoza, with his idea of the human mind. To jump a couple of centuries, we teach George Eliot and Thomas Hardy as civilised and penetrating writers, but do we acknowledge equally their atheist values? I think we could with advantage put John Stuart Mill’s pellucid Three Essays on Religion, which is actually about morality, on the sixth-form reading list.
Why does it matter to give humanism its due? After all, world views come and go. Who today respects the truths of Zoroaster—apart from the folk my noble friend referred to? Before some eminent Parsee Member of your Lordships’ House gets up to say, “Ahura Mazda lives”, perhaps I may hastily say that we should respect humanism, at least, because of the enduring nature of its tenets and, above all, their capacity to unite people of different faiths and none in common values.
What would this greater contribution produce? It would strengthen the part played in ethics by conduct. It might give some credit to a tradition that goes back even earlier than the Abrahamic religions—much earlier even than classical Greece—to the religious tolerance of Ashoka, the great Indian king of the sixth century BCE, or to the idea of human rights in the Code of Hammurabi three centuries earlier. It might draw a continuum from those milestones to the atheist inventors of the United Nations and its founding charter of human rights. I wish that this Government respected what human rights are really about, as their founders down the centuries have. Acknowledgment of humanist traditions of thought would help to put that in proper perspective. More emphasis on conduct rather than faith or revealed axioms would be beneficial in the education of our diverse society. It would make a better way to educate our children together to form one society, whatever their affiliation to a particular religion or belief.
I personally would not like to see too much downgrading of the status of religion in a secular society. The values of the great religions of the world are inestimable and it would be foolish to deny the fundamental role of Christianity in our culture, or of the one I am closest to: Judaism. The influence of Islam, especially from the Andalusian period, is underrated. The great religious patrons financed some of the greatest art the world has seen.
What I hope for is an understanding of the importance of ethics and morality that allows non-religious systems equal respect. I am heartened in this by occasional references by right reverend Prelates to those of faith and of none. I ask for an equal place in our counsels
and advisory bodies, and, most of all, in the education of our children. It should be the primacy of an ethical framework in our public policy, not the primacy of religion, that matters.
Of course people are entitled to draw a religious conclusion from the awe-inspiring features, and the challenges of evil, in our world. Those of us who grew up in the 20th century will have noticed the need for redemption. If some people over centuries, even millennia, have not found it right to fit that into a religious framework but have nevertheless developed the values that we honour, we should make sure that we know all of the shoulders we are standing on.
Baroness Meacher (Crossbench)
My Lords, I applaud the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for giving us the opportunity to consider this increasingly important subject. I make clear at the outset that I am not against religion, so long as religious believers adhere to the basic ethical principles of empathy and compassion. In my view, any Church of England member today would adhere to those principles. My other request is that people of religion should be open to the scientific method when they come to understand how the universe works, even if this requires them to adjust their belief in the supernatural. Where a religion departs from these principles—if, for example, adherence to a religious belief requires female genital mutilation—I part company with it, and I am sure that every noble Lord would agree with that view. That is the issue. Many religions have gone wildly off course over the ages.
To put my cards on the table, I would probably describe myself as a humanist Quaker. Yes, there are Quakers who do not believe in a supernatural God. I wonder how many people who call themselves Christian would also reject the idea of a supernatural God and would interpret the resurrection simply as symbolic of the human capacity for renewal—nothing more. I remember asking a very dear verger who worked with me on mental health many years ago, “Do you really believe the words of the Creed?”. He said, “I don’t really think I believe any of it, but I find it helpful to be in a spiritual place and to ponder on things other than the material, and other than the worries of today”. Was he really a Christian? If he was, perhaps for many Christians the term “Christianity” is synonymous with humanism.
One reason to promote humanism is the need to distinguish religious sects that subscribe to the basic ethical principles of humanity and those that do not. We cannot just assume that because somebody is religious, they have to be good, and if they are not religious they have to be bad. Another reason is the rapidly growing proportion of the population who are not religious at all. The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, referred to the figures. It is staggering that about half the population today do not have a religion. Religion is dying fast. Only one-third of 18 to 24 year-olds belong to a religion, compared with 72% of those over 65. Humanist values are thus absolutely vital to our society if we are not to decline into the amoral, brutish existence of which people speak.
The Dalai Lama has shown the way in his book, Beyond Religion. He argues that compassion is the most central instinct which enables human beings to survive and thrive. Compassion leads us to treat others as we would wish them to treat us—a central tenet of Christianity—that is, with concern, affection and warm-heartedness. The Dalai Lama—a lifelong Buddhist, of course—advocates,
“an approach to ethics which makes no recourse to religion”.
I find that very interesting and powerful. He argues for a secular ethics and sees no contradiction between that and his religious beliefs. Secular ethics, or humanism, is beyond religion, as the Dalai Lama suggests, not beneath or above it.
We now know from evolutionary biology and neuroscience that these values are innate in our biological nature. Humans survive and thrive only if they espouse these values. We need to promote these values within ourselves and in others. Many will say that they pursue ethical and humanist principles because of their religion. That seems fine to me; perhaps I part company with some of my colleagues in the Chamber today. Others work towards achieving compassion through mindfulness or meditation. That for me is good. I am not myself very good at it, but I believe that others are and greatly benefit from it. The important point is that we all agree on the humanist values by which the world should strive to live. It would be helpful if everyone also accepted the scientific method as the means to understand the universe, but I understand that not everybody takes that view. Humanists have campaigned for many of the great reforms of the past century, as the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, has already said.
I want to spend a minute to focus on another great humanist and, in my view, religious challenge over the next year—the Assisted Dying Bill. The principle of autonomy—the right of every human being to have control over decisions affecting their health and, indeed, their life and death—is perhaps the most fundamental ethical principle of all. I was chair of a clinical ethics committee for a health trust for some years and we had to consider some very complex issues for clinicians. The only way to be sure that our guidance would be in the patient’s best interests and satisfy the ultimate humanist principle of compassion was to put the autonomy of the patient at the centre of our debates.
The same applies to how we die. If patients who are terminally ill can make their own decisions about how and when to die, society cannot go wrong. Of course we need safeguards to ensure that callous and greedy relatives cannot in some way lead a patient to say something that they do not want to say, but those safeguards are in the Bill and will be in place if it passes. Last November, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain established Inter-Faith Leaders for Dignity in Dying, an inter-faith group of clergy who favour the aims of Dignity in Dying, including the Falconer Bill. This proposed legislation is not contrary to religion, and I hope that those on the Bishops’ Benches may be able to support us. A YouGov survey commissioned by Inter-Faith Leaders for Dignity in Dying found that 62% of people who identified themselves as belonging to a religion support the legalisation of assisted dying for terminally ill people with mental capacity. Only
18% were opposed. Most of us would lead more contented lives safe in the knowledge that we would not have to suffer beyond our endurance at the end of our lives.
The Bishop of Birmingham (Bishop)
My Lords, while I am still privileged to occupy the Bench of the Lords spiritual on behalf of the nation, I am delighted to say that the debate today is most welcome and I am honoured to follow the previous three speakers. They have given us the opportunity to hear the great deal of good that can and should be recognised, wherever we find it, whether in philosophy—the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker reminded us of the great traditions of humanist philosophy—or in science. I note the point of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, about the very serious business of assisted dying; I am sure that we will work hard on that together to get it right.
There is also the wonderful good that comes from humanists or atheists ringing bells. So often in society we appear to be motivated simply by our own interests, with the consequence that acknowledging good in others is interpreted simply as disloyalty to one’s tribe. Within the church, we are not immune to this problem. None the less, the Christian tradition points to the wider generosity; when Jesus was asked for an example of neighbourliness, he told a story about the Samaritan and not a good religious Jew, such as himself. I hope that, among many other themes, this debate will challenge intolerant tribalism in all walks of life wherever we find it.
While my Christian faith came alive in Idi Amin’s Uganda when I was 18, many of my closest friends are more comfortable with atheism or humanism. We have in common a desire to explore profound questions about life, meaning, the universe and everything else. We may have different views or come to different conclusions. We may even become stronger in our own conclusions. I should add that on the subject of the resurrection that my views on its veracity have not changed much since I was 18. We appreciate one another as seekers of truth and adventure together.
The contribution that people of various beliefs, religious or not, make to society is measured not simply by clearly held propositions—I do not doubt that we will hear more of those this afternoon—but by the actions that those beliefs inspire them to take. There are committed humanists, atheists, Christians, and those of other religions and faiths and of no faith, in every political party and independent person represented in this House and in the other place. As we have already begun to hear, members of the church work regularly, constructively and happily alongside humanists and atheists in pursuit of the common good. I am delighted that the noble Lord who has given us the opportunity to have this debate is making good use of his local parish church.
A difference is perhaps that religious people and religions usually offer a collective practice, in worship and social action, whereas one notices from time to time, in spite of the association, that humanists and atheists contribute more as individuals. This should not stop us working together, when we can be allies
one day and even if we are opponents another, achieving together what we can and learning from each other when we are opposed. The boundaries between belief systems are a good deal more fluid than most people assume. For example, there is a long and honourable tradition of Christian humanism, traceable back to the Middle Ages. The noble Baroness spoke of thinkers such as Erasmus. This tradition focuses on Jesus’s message about the basic moral significance of human beings. We tend mainly in modernity to see the opening up between theistic religion and humanism. I do not suggest for a moment that most humanists are closet Christians, but there are Christians who espouse humanist values in addition to the source of their own faith. In Nrimol Hriday in Calcutta you could see the work of Mother Teresa in caring for the dying, which was loving presence for its own sake for those needy people.
I wonder why the British Humanist Association, which has been mentioned with such strength, often adopts for instance such a strongly secularist approach, which would exclude religion from the public square. Everybody comes from somewhere and every position that we hold rests on beliefs of one sort or another. The massive contribution offered to society by atheists and humanists, no less than religious people, happens because good actions flow out of worthwhile beliefs and systems. Seeking to confine people’s beliefs to the private realm and expecting good actions to flow in public seems to me to get cause and effect rather mixed up.
As an example of the potential alliances in the public square, there is the service of registered humanist practitioners in offering humanist funerals, which the noble Lord has mentioned. The Church of England has been able to work behind the scenes with the British Humanist Association to find an approach to humanist weddings that would work for us both. There have been similar alignments between us on the important issue that has already been touched on in connection with freedom of speech. These give evidence that theistic religions and non-theistic belief organisations can inhabit the public square together for the benefit of all. There could be more examples if there were wide agreement that a society marked by plurality of religions and beliefs is a much more promising model than secularism’s attenuated understanding of the public realm.
I celebrate today the contribution of humanists and atheists to the common good. I revel in our common humanity, our shared commitment to society and the gift of friendship. Together we can go further and demonstrate not just ordinary respect but a much deeper appreciation, not mere tolerance but full participation in the needs of society and be grateful for living in such a society where people of all religions, or none, do not just nurture their beliefs in private but integrate them into a full, joyful, public intention in our endeavours to make the world a better place for all.
Lord Layard (Labour)
My Lords, I, too, greatly welcome this debate. I have to admit that I was a founder member of the Cambridge Humanists in the 1950s when I had
great hopes for humanism, but which I think have been only partly fulfilled. Humanism has done very well on the negative side in rebutting unreasonable beliefs and unreasonable laws but much less well on the positive side in providing a thriving and flourishing secular morality, which is what many of us had hoped it would do. I believe that that failure has had quite serious effects on our society because more and more people have abandoned a morality based on religion. It has not been replaced with anything as powerful or with the same emotional force as that provided through the churches, so the way has been left open for the increasing growth of a “me first” philosophy of life.
How can we reverse that? Two things are needed. First, there has to be a much clearer, more powerful expression of what humanists positively believe in—not what they do not believe in. Secondly, there have to be institutions which embody those beliefs. As the right reverend Prelate said, the churches provide the social support for religious belief. It is not easy to lead a good life on your own without social support. You are much more likely to do so if part of your identity is that you are a member of an institution committed to ethical living. We desperately need more such institutions of a secular kind that can support the majority of our citizens who are not practising members of a religion.
It is unclear to me exactly how these new institutions will develop and what they will look like. I am involved in an attempt to create one such institution, Action for Happiness, and I shall tell the House a little about it. We now have 30,000 members. The first thing a member has to do is pledge to live so as to create as much happiness and as little misery in the world as they can. The movement provides them with materials that can help in that endeavour. Increasingly, it aims to create real face-to-face communities that are more like the churches in their physical expression, or perhaps the early Christian cells, in order to help people to live in this way.
Action for Happiness’s ethical stance is very simple. It is really important that humanism develops a very simple ethical creed which can generate people’s energy, loyalty and commitment. It says, first, that everyone matters equally and, secondly, what matters about them is their quality of life as they experience it—in other words, their happiness. If you put the two together, you arrive at an obligation on each of us to try to produce as much happiness and as little misery as we can in the world. This is the most obvious foundation for a humanist secular morality which could carry our society forward.
Of course, it has much in common with the golden rule that we should do unto others as we would like them to do unto us. When it comes to what we should not do, both principles are very much in line. We certainly should not do what we would not like others to do to us. However, there is a difference in relation to what we should do; that is, how we should conduct our lives in a positive way to make the world a better place, as was just said. There are some problems about the golden rule and whether we should do to others what we want them to do to us. We may want them to get a job but that does not mean we should give them jobs:
it might not be practical. We need a more practical expression of how you can live positively. I cannot think of a better or more inspiring expression than that we should live to increase the happiness of those around us and reduce their misery.
Secular morality is not anti-religious, it is areligious. Of course, the areligious increasingly are the majority of adults in our country. When I have spoken to educators who have insisted that the view I put forward is contrary to two millennia of Christian education, I find myself saying something like, “If you want to teach morality on the basis that it is conformity to the will of God and you know that three-quarters of the people you are teaching will lose their faith in God by the time they are 20, how are you expecting them to lead moral lives? What support do they have for leading moral lives in their adult life?”.
As humanists, we need a firm view of what we believe and we absolutely need institutions. We need to see that our views are taught in schools and featured in “Thought for the Day”. However, much the most important remaining task is to build institutions which inspire and uplift people, and enhance their commitment to ethical living. I urge all humanists to turn their minds to building institutions for the promotion of secular morality. Obviously, they should be modelled to an extent on the experience of the churches and people should meet regularly. Through that they would uplift their spirits and strengthen their resolve to live well.
Lord Harries of Pentregarth (Crossbench)
My Lords, I, too, am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for an opportunity to speak in this debate and I put my name down to speak in an entirely positive manner. I believe that we should recognise and rejoice in what is good, wherever it comes from. I warmly welcome the contribution that humanists have made to our society. In its modern sense, I take it that the word humanism refers to a set of values focused on the well-being and flourishing of human beings without recourse to any kind of metaphysical foundation or goal. Humanists may be atheist or agnostic but their value system stands on its own. This is best described as secular humanism, which I take is what we are focused on in this debate. It can be distinguished from Christian humanism, which is grounded in a religious world view, although it shares many of the values of secular humanism.
The distinctive contribution of secular humanism to our society since the 19th century can, in general terms, be summed up in one sentence: it has opposed religious dogmatism when that dogmatism was seen to be blocking progressive social changes that we now all take for granted. Humanists can be found supporting all the great causes of the past 200 years from the anti-slavery movement to votes for women, as often as not working alongside Christians. So I warmly welcome that contribution. However, I have two questions to ask, which I do so as genuine questions, not in a polemical spirit. First, where do the values of secular humanism come from? Secondly, what is going to sustain them in the future?
The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s massive book, A Secular Age,addresses the first question. He argues against all “subtraction stories”, as he calls them, according to which modernity sees itself as having sloughed off or liberated itself from certain limiting beliefs. Instead, he argues that what we mean by a secular age, in which for the first time a self-sufficient humanism has become a widely available option, is the product of a long historical development which he traces back to the medieval age when new religious orders were founded specifically to live and work in cities. He continues the story through the Reformation, with its emphasis on the value of the lay vocation and lay work, and the development of secular life through to our own times. In short, what we value today in a secular humanist view of the world is an achievement brought about by a long process of predominantly Christian history. Secular humanist values did not simply come from nowhere.
The noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, mentioned George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, two novelists I hugely admire. George Eliot probably had a greater range of depth and sympathy than any other writer in the English language, yet until well into adult life, both were deeply devout and serious Christians. They lost their Christian faith but they kept their Christian values, or they kept values which they no longer regarded as specifically Christian. However, those values had been formed by some process. I make this point not to take any particular credit for the Christian church, whose record is of course mixed, but in order to sharpen up my next question: if these values are the product of a long, substantially Christian history, what will sustain them into the future? The Nobel prize-winning poet, Seamus Heaney, has said that, “Some kind of metaphysics has disappeared from the common life. I think we are running on an unconscious that is informed by religious values, but I think my youngster’s youngsters won’t have that”. If that is true, what can create, inspire, sustain and strengthen a durable moral consensus into the future? It is a genuine question to which for so many there is no clear or obvious answer, so it was very good in particular to hear the noble Lord, Lord Layard, address it directly with a degree of urgency and seriousness.
This leads on to my final point. Michael Sandel, the Harvard professor and Reith lecturer, has argued that for 30 years or more, our society has been dominated by a combination of social and market liberalism. In short, the value of free choice has been allowed to override and ignore all other values. In a series of brilliant examples, he shows that this is unsustainable and that our deepest instincts want a much thicker, richer set of values, for our public and our private lives. Our society is lacking a substantial and widely shared moral vision. I believe that secular humanists and Christian humanists could be allies in the task of moving our society away from the rampant individualism that now dominates our life. Of course there will be disagreements when it comes to spelling out in detail what that wider set of values consists of and what their policy implications should be—there will probably be some disagreement over the assisted dying Bill—but
such is the need of society for something better than we have now, those disagreements are worth facing and working through.
So I warmly welcome the contribution that secular humanism has made to our society, but in no polemical spirit I will ask this: what is going to sustain, nurture and strengthen its values in the years ahead? Finally, I note the need for a much wider, deeper and richer ethical framework for our society than the current relentless emphasis on free choice provides. I suggest that this is a challenge that secular humanists and Christian humanists might do well to try to meet together.
Lord Maxton (Labour)
My Lords, first, I thank my noble friend Lord Harrison for introducing this debate and for the very temperate way in which he did so. I am an atheist despite once receiving a birthday card from a sister-in-law which said, “I used to be an atheist until I realised I was God”. I do not even believe that. I am an atheist and a humanist, but I am now going to be slightly more divisive than has so far been the case. I am an anti-clerical atheist. I do not believe that history proves that the churches and religion have been good for the world. All right, it may be that I studied history and that I go back a long way. It used to be the case that churches hanged people in this country because they did not go to church. Even if you look at the record of the Church of England and that Bishops’ Bench over 200 years on, for instance, the abolition of capital punishment when atheists such as Bradlaugh were introducing that proposal, they consistently voted against it. They wanted to keep capital punishment right up until the end. I accept that the churches are now against it, but it took them a long time to come round to that.
We have just had riots on the streets of Belfast about—what?—religion. I come from the city of Glasgow, which is divided between two different Christian churches. If you look at the great movement for democracy throughout the Islamic world, what is stopping it from developing properly? It is religion and divisions within the Islamic faith. Of course there have been good Christians and of course there have been good people from all religions who have tried to help the poorest in our societies in any way they can. After all, I am a member of the Labour Party, which in part was formed by people who came from the Christian tradition and who wanted to help. Kier Hardie himself was an active Christian—a temperate one, I accept, because he never drank. Equally, however, they were always the minority rather than the majority.
Today we live in a much better society, not just in this country but throughout Europe and the western world, than we did in the past. We live in a society that looks after the poor and the elderly, and which helps those who are widowed early. I shall tell noble Lords a story. My own father was the director of a research institute at Oxford University and was at the professorial level. He died on
that has changed. It is interesting to note, although I am not making a direct correlation, but as our society has improved, so has religion declined. The number of people who believe has gone down and down as our society gets better and better.
It is an interesting fact that if you look at the countries which all the research shows have the lowest number of people who believe in religion, you will find that they have the lowest crime rates, the lowest levels of infant mortality, the best education systems and the best social security systems. They are, of course, Sweden, Denmark, Canada to some extent, Estonia and countries of that nature. In the United States, the states with the lowest crime rates and the best systems of education and so on are in fact those which have the lowest number of people who believe in religion. I am not making a direct correlation between the two, but it is difficult not to. The fact is that that is what is happening. I am sorry, but I do not believe that somehow we are living in a worse society now than we did; we do not, we live in a much better world than we had in the past. Society has improved as religion has declined.
I turn to one final point. We have not yet had the figures for the extent of religious belief in Scotland—where I come from—but it is likely to be in the region of a majority of people, or just under that, of non-believers. If you apply the same increase as in England, it will be a majority. If that is the case, surely we have to have major changes in public policy. We have to look at our broadcasting and our public broadcasting in particular—the BBC—and at which people we allow, for example, on “Thought for the Day”. Personally, I would abolish “Thought for the Day” altogether. I would not have humanists coming on and putting their case; we should just not have it at all. Why do we have a “Thought for the Day” on our public radio?
We have to change our education system. I know that it is no longer true but, when I was in education, there used to be one compulsory subject on the curriculum: religion. Surely, if the majority no longer believe, we have to look at the way in which the whole of our public policy is drawn up and change the way in which we look at society. I hope that that will be coming very soon.
Lord Morgan (Labour)
My Lords, I will make one point and one point only. Modern Britain has had the enormous benefit of not being torn apart by doctrinal or political conflict between the churches and unbelievers. That has been an enormous contribution to our social peace and very different from, for example, the situation in France, which is relevant as it is my wife’s country. She is a Huguenot—a Protestant—and the Huguenot community have suffered from the savagery of intolerant belief. There has been a long confrontation between church and state in modern France, including bitter assaults on the church by freemasons, republicans and socialists. The church itself has identified with nationalists, militarists and, during the Dreyfus case, anti-Semites. It is still evident today, in the disgraceful attacks on Muslim women in France in the name of secularism. This kind of intolerance is perhaps most notable in
Catholic countries but is also visible in Protestant ones—witness the role of the religious right in the United States.
Why have we been luckier? In my opinion, it is for two historical reasons. The churches have discovered how to retreat, while atheists and humanists have discovered how to protest properly. The church, as we know, had a virtual monopoly of civil and social power in the early 19th century in Britain. It was persuaded—or politically forced—to give way on issue after issue, such as admission to universities and religious rites. It retreated in its views on science, coming to accept evolution, and on social issues such as property rights and industrial relations. Most powerfully, as we discovered in this House recently, it has profitably retreated in its views on moral attitudes, most notably on the debate on gay marriage. The noble Baroness, Lady Stowell of Beeston, was able to appeal to the better angels of our nature as we considered that issue.
I have the honour of following the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, and one of the most remarkable retreats was in Wales, where the church accepted its own disestablishment and being seized out of the part of the province of Canterbury. The view of the Church in Wales—yr Eglwys yng Nghymru—as a Church of England in Wales is now completely out of date.
Equally, atheists and humanists have become much more effective in their approach. Beginning, perhaps, from a literary or philosophical emphasis—Diderot and the encyclopaedists have been mentioned—they added scientific triumphalism in the 19th century. Humanists assumed power in public life, for example John Morley, who famously described Gladstone with a large G and God with a small one. Atheists were forced to defend themselves—Bradlaugh did, for example, in order to take his seat in the House of Commons—and non-religious conscientious objectors were persecuted in both world wars. However, the more aggressive and divisive forms of protest were broadly rejected. Dogmatic anti-religious creeds such as positivism or Auguste Comte’s religion of humanity were not accepted and made little headway in this country. The emphasis, if one can so describe it, was on humanism—the value of the individual, the power of an individual’s moral quest for truth and the values of human brotherhood resulting from that—rather than on doctrinaire atheism.
I am very struck by the famous atheist George Jacob Holyoake, who chose in 1851 to describe himself as a secularist not as an atheist. He took part in a famous debate with Bradlaugh on the proposition: “The principles of Secularism do not include Atheism”. His heroes were humanist men of letters such as Erasmus and Montaigne, who have been mentioned today and who both of course declared themselves to be Christians. So it has been that humanists, as we have heard, have been able to act effectively with religious idealists in progressive crusades, from the anti-slavery to the anti-apartheid movements.
The outstanding product of that is the outfit to which 10 of the 17 speakers this afternoon belong—the Labour Party. It was hugely important, with all respect to my noble friend who just spoke, that the Labour Party did not lapse into the anti-clericalism of the
French or German socialist parties. The views of the Labour Party were pluralist. They ranged from the undoubted atheism of the Webbs, many of the Fabians and HG Wells, side-by-side with members of the Independent Labour Party in South Wales and in the West Riding, which brought in a Christian ethos. Nothing was more stimulating for the labour movement in south Wales than the religious revival of 1904. I make that point because I made it in my first book and nobody paid any attention, so perhaps 50-odd years on people will pay attention.
The Labour Party has had a series of Christian leaders, down to Gordon Brown. The one declared atheist I recall was Michael Foot, whose rhetoric and values were shaped by Cornish chapels. His values formed a bridge, I think, within the labour movement. In the social Christianity of our age, Tawney has been, I believe, our dominant philosophical inspiration. The Labour Party benefited from this. The whole range of creeds has worked for social justice. Now I hope they will work for the doctrine of human rights, which massively appeals both to humanists and to Christians. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is truly universal in that sense. I conclude by saying that modern Britain has found this confluence of faith an enriching experience. It has made it a healthier, more humane and more tolerant society.
Baroness Flather (Conservative)
My Lords, in this debate, which the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, has initiated, I feel that it is a great privilege to be able to speak about one’s views. We do not always get that opportunity. This debate is about the contribution that atheists and humanists have made to the United Kingdom and society—indeed, to the world, not just to the United Kingdom. We have never killed anybody in the name of atheism or humanism. We have never harmed anybody in the name of atheism or humanism. I think that is a good start.
If you look at religion and its history and consider how the world would have been without religion, what things would not have happened, and how would that have shaped us today? The noble Lord, Lord Maxton, has hinted and spoken about that, but I would like emphasise it. For a start, we would not have had 9/11, we would not have had 7/7, and we would not have a young soldier being beheaded on the streets of London. Those are just present-day events. We would not have the Crusades. We might not have had the great build-up of problems between Christians and Muslims. So many things have come about through religion that would not have happened. We would not have had the conflict in Northern Ireland, which has already been mentioned. We would not have had the Spanish Inquisition. We would not have had witch hunts. There are so many things about religion historically that are amazingly awful.
What has surprised me today is how few people are here to defend religion. People have not defended religion today; even the Bishops have been very gentle, kind and appreciative of people like me. What has also surprised me is that this debate has been much more about humanism than about atheism. We have not had
any real atheists speaking about their views. I am not a humanist. I was elected vice-chairman of the Humanist All-Party Group a few years ago, and I told the members then that I was not a humanist. They said, “Don’t worry, we are a broad church”. Make what you will of it. I am very happy to be with humanists, but I am not one. I resist belonging to any organised group, and that is probably what stops me joining the humanists.
I do not denigrate religion for its own sake, but I find that some of the things for which religion has been responsible are just too awful to think about. Another thing that has not been mentioned today, which I think is extremely important, is the treatment of women. How has religion treated women through the centuries, and how is it still treating women? How many religious people are standing up to fight against that? What is happening to women? We have honour killings, women being beaten and mutilation, which has been mentioned already. There is no end of things. You may say, “It is the Muslims”, but Catholics, particularly, are also greatly at fault. Every Catholic church in Africa says that it is a sin to have family planning or abortion. Children can be born and can die without food, but family planning or abortion must not be allowed. Where are the poor women to go? The men do not care. If a man in Africa has 10 children, he is seen as virile. He does not care whether his children live or die. I asked the new most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury to ask the Anglican churches in Africa to talk about family planning. He said, “I can’t tell them anything. They will think us a colonial power”, but he is the head of the Anglican Church and he should take responsibility to make sure that Anglican churches in Africa at least speak about family planning and look at issues about women’s suffering. For that alone I think religion is to be condemned, because no religion so far has supported women through the ages. If they had, women would not be in the position they are today. I make that point very strongly because it upsets me greatly to see what is happening to women in the world.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham talked about Mother Teresa. Really, Mother Teresa was stocking up for her sainthood. She campaigned constantly against family planning. She took the dying off the streets; what about helping the living? Did she help the living? No, she collected the dying. You have to help the living. You have to change people’s views if you really want sainthood. I do not think sainthood is for people who think about what they are going to get in the next world.
Time is running on, so I will take just a few moments to tell you about the atheists I have most admired: Bertrand Russell; James Watson—I sat next to him at dinner once; Warren Buffett—I have not met him, but I would like to; Jeremy Bentham; and John Stuart Mill, who was Bertrand Russell’s godfather. These people contributed to our thinking, to science and to making a better world. As far as creationism is concerned, the US is still struggling over whether creationism should be taught in schools; now there is also intelligent design, which says that something nudged the universe into creating humans or something like that.
Finally, I became an atheist when I learnt about the Holocaust and read that 3 million Jews had been treated like vermin, and God had not lifted his little finger. I thought, “No, I do not need a personal God”. If he could not save 3 million people, he is not going to do anything for me.
Baroness Massey of Darwen (Labour)
My Lords, I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Harrison has secured this debate, which is proving to be very challenging, and I thank him for his vigorous introduction.
I shall not dwell on the growth of humanism or its many contributions to democracy and civil society—blasphemy laws, humanist weddings and other secular celebrations, educational equality and so on—nor shall I list prominent humanists and their wise or witty sayings. There are too many of them. I shall look briefly at how humanist thought has contributed to making the world a better place—all in seven minutes.
First, I will reflect on why I became a humanist. I think it was, subconsciously, when I was at school, although I was not aware then, or indeed for many years, of the term “humanism”. I studied religious education at A-level and was thrilled by the language of the Bible—Old and New Testaments—and moved by stories of self-sacrifice, pride, humility, friendship, human strength and frailty. I studied other religions as well and began to question why so many of their histories included wars, revenge, killings, verbal attacks, prejudice and bigotry, all in the name of religious faith. Others have raised this already. Of course, I have since met many people of religious faith, including in your Lordships’ House, who consistently condemn violence and preach tolerance and equality and the need to work together as human beings for a just and fair society.
During my later days at school, I began to think that I had formulated, however imperfectly, a personal code—a secular morality, if you like—which came not from a single god or gods but from curiosity about the human condition, how we function in a problematic world without being constantly shaken by hostile events and how we need the support of other human beings in our struggle to express ourselves and behave with grace and honour. It is a core of respect or appreciation for self and others. It is a belief in humanity—the knowledge that when things go wrong, someone of good will can offer support.
I also studied English and had the joy of coming across EM Forster. Passage to India was one of the set books—were we not lucky? It is not only a novel about the struggle for tolerance; it is thoughtful, provocative, humorous and full of characters struggling to find their place in the world—except perhaps the wise and profound Mrs Moore. I read EM Forster avidly and over and over. It did not register with me at the time that he was a prominent humanist and vice-president of the Union of Ethical Societies. I was simply captivated by the beautiful prose and the themes; for example, class differences in Howards End, which is prefaced by the phrase “Only connect”. A Room with a View is also about connections and Maurice explores class reconciliation in a gay relationship.
According to Forster:
“The four characteristics of humanism are curiosity, a free mind, belief in good taste, and belief in the human race”.
I can do no better than that. Apart from Forster’s novels, I also came across his book of essays, Two Cheers for Democracy, which is humorous, challenging and profoundly human. The essay “What I Believe” contains the essence of what, to me, humanism is about. Forster begins with personal relationships, saying,
“One must be fond of people and trust them if one is not to make mess of life, and it is therefore essential that they do not let one down. They often do. The moral of which is that I must, myself, be as reliable as possible … reliability is not a matter of contract … It is a matter for the heart ... What is good in people—and consequently in the world—is their insistence on creation, their belief in friendship and loyalty for their own sakes”.
Perhaps his greatest statement on humanism is:
“I do not believe in Belief. But this is an Age of Faith, and there are so many militant creeds that, in self defence, one has to form a creed of one’s own … Tolerance, good temper and sympathy—they are what matter really, and if the human race is not to collapse they must come to the front before long".
Having a creed based on such qualities is, for me at least, important. I do not think that it is in self defence, however, that people become humanists, but because of a more positive force, or forces: the force of seeking to connect with others as human beings, of caring for the welfare of others and of celebrating the human condition without the medium of a god.
I now turn to a thinker and writer I have discovered in recent years—Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, until he stood down in 2000. In the last chapter of his book Leaving Alexandria— Alexandria is his home town, north of Glasgow—he describes walking among the Pentlands and musing on the loss of religion. He says:
“Was religion a lie? Not necessarily, but it was a mistake. Lies are just lies, but mistakes can be corrected and lessons learned from them. The mistake was to think that religion was more than human. I was less sure whether God was also just a human invention, but I was quite sure religion was. It was the work of the human imagination, a work of art—an opera—and could be appreciated as such”.
I am one of those who think that one does not need to have a religion to behave ethically and morally. Holloway challenges religion as an authority, saying:
“Authority does not prove, it pronounces; rules rather than reasons; issues fatwas. It refuses to negotiate.”
Authority—in my own words—can also create dependence, which seems to be a negative force.
I believe that throughout the ages, questions about religion have been more convincing than the answers. The Sufi master and poet Hafiz, quoted by Holloway, said:
“The great religions are the ships
Poets the life boatsEvery sane person I know has jumpedOverboard”.
There are clearly risks in jumping overboard. It is best to be a good swimmer, to have a reliable lifeboat or to be within hailing distance of the shore. I believe, with many humanist thinkers and doers, that the risk is mitigated by having helping hands supported by a
common belief that we can solve problems and help each other. Humanism faces challenges with the confidence that it is in each other that solutions are found and that in reaching for solutions we collaborate and grow stronger. That is why I am a humanist.
Baroness Warnock (Crossbench)
I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for having a second go, as it were, at this debate, on what I regard as an increasingly important subject. I shall not say anything that has not been at least suggested already by the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, and my noble friend Lady Meacher.
This is an increasingly important subject because religious belief is, as we have heard, declining so rapidly, and, at the same time, there is an increasing perception that, especially among the young, the idea of morally good or bad behaviour—indeed, the concept of morality itself—is rapidly withering away. It is tempting, therefore, to conclude that these two phenomena are causally connected. I believe that this is a dangerous as well as a false conclusion.
Before explaining why I think that conclusion is dangerous, I should say a bit about where I come from. I am not a member of the British Humanist Association. I consider myself to be a Christian by culture and by tradition. I frequently attend services of the Church of England, and one of my greatest passions is church music, as sustained in the great English cathedrals and colleges, as well as the great oratorios and passions. I do not want the Church of England to be disestablished, and I regard my loyalty to the sovereign as loyalty to the head of the church as well as to the head of the state. Having said that, I suppose I should confess that I am an atheist. I do not believe in the literal truth of the narratives of the Judaeo-Christian religion, nor do I believe that it is sensible or realistic to urge people to “return to faith”, as we are sometimes urged. Nor do I believe that you can be urged, or comply with the urging, to believe something that you simply do not believe.
Much as I admire many of my non-atheistical friends and often envy them, I believe that they sometimes pose a danger if they insist that lack of proper religious belief, by which I mean literal religious belief, is the cause of lack of moral sense. To put it another way, it is dangerous to society to suggest that without religion, or in the aftermath of religion as some people have suggested, there can be no firm moral values and no shared or common ideals that can be universally worth pursuing. Such despair of the possibility of a morality which is other than mere whim is dangerous because we may be forced into a false dichotomy: either a morality based on dogmatic transcendentalism, which can authoritatively dictate on what is right and what is wrong, or no morality at all.
I am not a great lover of the concept of human rights, and certainly not as a foundation for morality because I do not think that they can be that, but at least the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has given us a way of understanding that there are some evils that no human being should be subjected to by another. If we hear of a country which has “an appalling human rights record”, we know what such
evils are. We also know that morality demands that we do not perpetrate such evils and that we seek as far as we can to alleviate them when they are suffered.
I hold that the many atheists who live and work in this country can contribute to the moral improvement of society—I insist on that phrase: the moral improvement of society—not necessarily by preaching or forming groups but by all the time being good teachers, whether professionally or as parents and mentors teach. I believe that moral education is the most important and most urgently necessary condition for the improvement of society. I am afraid that I do not altogether share the optimism of the noble Lord, Lord Maxton. Things are in many cases very depressing at the moment, especially among the young, but we do not do good by suggesting that they return to faith. They cannot believe things that they do not believe, but they can understand that there is a morality which can be shared and ideals which can be aspired to by everybody. Therefore, I sincerely hope that the contribution to this moral improvement that we must all hope for is celebrated and acknowledged by atheists and those who believe in God.
Lord Soley (Labour)
In his very welcome and detailed introduction to this debate, my noble friend Lord Harrison gave many explanations of what humanists have achieved over the years and I will not add to those details. However, I want to support and expand on the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, about religions which claim to be religions of peace ending up fighting among themselves and killing large numbers of people. That problem has to be addressed, but I also want to consider why it happens. One of the reasons is that religion is similar to political ideology. If you lay down a set of assumptions, statements and beliefs that have to be accepted in order to become a member, you inevitably invite conflict and division. I am not a member of any humanist society, but I speak as an atheist and a natural humanist. The basic, underlying assumption of humanism, which is its strength and the reason for its great contribution, is that human problems are best solved by reason. If humanism made the mistake of trying to list the many things that would make you a humanist, it would risk doing exactly what happens with religion and some political ideologies. It would create structures where division and conflict become almost inevitable.
In debates like this it is useful to bear in mind that there is a difference between God and religion. You can believe in God without being a member of a religion. God is an idea: religion is a government structure and a social control structure. Neither of those is bad. I would absolutely agree with the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, about where religion comes from. To human beings struggling to understand a world with terrifying natural forces like thunder, lightning, earthquakes, volcanoes, the idea of God or gods was a very useful way of achieving social control. You needed social control because, in order to survive, you needed to co-operate. Co-operation needs social control, so you build on it.
If you then make the mistake of making all these assumptions things that you have to accept, nobody should be surprised if divisions rapidly occur.
One advantage of humanists is that not only do they not fight and kill each other in large numbers, they do not have problems about the roles of women and men, sexual identity, disability or any other similar thing. Trying to solve human problems by reason is the strength of humanism. I would disagree with my noble friend Lord Morgan that we have not had religious conflict. It may not be as bad as other countries but for a short time during the Civil War women had to cover their hair fully and were stopped in the streets by soldiers if they did not do so. The great advance brought by the Civil War to this country and the rest of the world was that it threw out the idea that the King was the representative of God on Earth. You no longer had the idea that you could not challenge your leader. In Iran at the moment, the Ayatollahs play that exact role. It will fail for similar reasons: ultimately, there will be a dispute about the correct interpretation. We get around that by having elections to throw out the person who thinks they have the right interpretation. If you are using a religious or God-based structure, you cannot do that. You have to rely on other things. It is amazing how we have, over the years, adjusted ourselves to this argument. I am a great fan of the sophisticated, politically astute sovereign, Queen Elizabeth I, who, struggling to prevent more and worse religious wars, came up with the wonderful phrase:
“I have no desire to make windows into men’s souls”.
She was trying to allow people to believe within a political structure which she had to manage but within which she opened up the possibility of tolerance. Such things are terribly important.
The problem for those who have an idea of God is not so much a scientific one. You can always move the boundaries back: the Earth was the centre of the universe at one time until that was disproved; the Earth was considered to be only a few thousand years old until that was disproved; and when we go back beyond the Big Bang, the boundaries will be moved again if you are looking for a scientific argument. The problem for people who believe in God is actually a moral one. The moral issue is that you have to accept that God created life in a form that has to survive off other forms of life. The malaria mosquito that stings the child is not doing it in order that the child can have a better life in future or can somehow rise above it; it is doing it because it has to survive and reproduce.
That was Darwin’s big contribution to us all; he showed that it was actually evolution. A question that has always fascinated me, and this is why I would have loved to have had an interview with Charles Darwin, is: why, when he realised the importance of evolution, did he suddenly go from being a religious person to being a non-religious person, or certainly a person who did not pursue religion, and go quiet about the whole issue? It was probably because he recognised that the survival of the fittest meant that life had been created—if that is what you believe—in a form in which it had to live off other forms of life.
That is the fundamental problem for anyone who believes in God, with or without a religion: it means that you no longer have a way of avoiding the problem that maybe yours is a cruel or, at best, a careless God, or something of that nature. A far better explanation is that in fact there is no God. The great strength of humanism and atheism, to my mind, is that they recognise that we do not need to worry about things like that so long as we recognise that human problems can be solved by reason. Built into that approach is the possibility of tolerance. I put this also to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries: tolerance is what takes you forward.
I do not share the rather dismal view of young people today; in many ways they are far better than my generation of the 1940s and 1950s. Obviously there are problems in some areas, but there are many good examples, too.
Viscount Craigavon (Crossbench)
My Lords, we should all be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for raising this subject and specifically for mentioning atheists in the Motion before us. I declare my position: I have long been an atheist, and for some many years have been a slightly fringe member of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group.
Some of us might remember when the late Lord Dormand tried to keep that group alive, but the problem that he had for quite some time, which obviously no longer obtains, was the difficulty of filling the required Conservative quota for all-party groups. For many years that defeated him and we were unable to be a properly registered group, but nevertheless we could hold meetings. The All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group is now in full health, as we have heard, and is well supported by the British Humanist Association, recently fresh from the achievement of inserting humanist marriage services into the same-sex marriage Act, with the invaluable help and persuasive skill of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, on which I congratulate her.
Fewer colleagues may also remember the late Baroness, Barbara Wootton, who was in the first group of female Peers in 1958. I remember the phrase, in recalling her being criticised, wrongly, for putting forward beliefs that she was told were able to be based only on the capital created by religion—or, rather, that she was accused of spending the capital passed down to us by religion. In those days, spending capital was rather more of a sin than it is today. I am not sure what has since happened to her formidable reputation, but she was fighting the battles of her time in the ways of that time. I mention such examples from the recent past as a reminder that, over time, we have successfully come a long way—for which I am not trying to take any credit.
The theme of most of what I want to say may be that it is no bad thing that we have moved away from previous certainties to what I would call constructive uncertainties—the rather amorphous humanist movement, on which it is sometimes difficult to get a firm handle, is testament to that. In his very good tour d’horizon the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, used a very nice phrase when he talked about those of humanist outlook.
I would also like to touch on the role of the church and faith, sometimes with the help of the work of Richard Dawkins.
A good example of such uncertainty is that provided to most of us by the extensive lobbying we recently received—from all sides—on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. The different moral and cultural interpretations of marriage were evident even before this Bill arrived and, as one who supported it, the institution of marriage is now even more fragmented, which may be no bad thing. In fighting for this new right of marriage, what was not quite so apparent were the downsides for all sexes of its overall success or failure rate, the divorce rate and the modern extent of cohabitation—maybe all approaching 50% now or in the next few years, as in many other countries.
We can all hope, imagine and wish for happy families, but the reality may be very different. We are probably all aware of the assertion that families—sometimes meaning marriage and family life—are the best context for the most successful upbringing of children. Without having time now to go into the detailed argument, I think that is a misguided and a logically misconceived reading of causation.
One area where Richard Dawkins has been particularly prominent is that of rationality and faith. I find it extraordinary when he is sometimes accused of proselytising as much as those with whom he disagrees—that is his methodology is no different from those whom he opposes and he is using the same methods as those he is accusing. We have had some sort of ambulatory religious orthodoxy for many hundreds of years but putting forward and sustaining beliefs is in a completely different category from questioning and challenging others’ beliefs. Faith and belief is for many a necessary and understandable support to their lives, however stable or uncertain. One issue is how such beliefs might usefully be questioned or challenged. In a debate such as this, where we have a Minister replying, there is a limit to the role of Government. It might be that their task is to provide a level playing field, but at the same time accepting a particular starting point or set of premises. Criticism of faith schools, for example, is a justified area of debate, where the Government can be encouraged to play a useful part.
The question in the census, with whatever shortcomings, on religion has provided evidence of an official decline in religion, which according to Richard Dawkins’ analysis still overstates the role of Christianity. The number of people who identified themselves as Christian in England and Wales dropped from 72% in 2001 to 59% in 2011; and the number of people who ticked “No religion” increased between those dates from 15% to 25%. The churches used the 2001 figure to claim support for their influence on public policy, but under Richard Dawkins’ analysis using opinion polls, three-quarters of those claiming to be Christian did not think that religion should have any special influence on public policy.
I realise that opinion polls have an indirect connection with what happens in the real world. An example relevant to this debate and debates in this House is the commonly accepted figure that more than 80% of the population support some form of assisted dying; but
that is currently not reflected in the political will shown in this building, nor in the unusually unanimous opposition by the Bishops of this House. On that point, I am not saying that the church should just follow opinion polls; but one of the genuinely redeeming features of the presence of the Bishops in this House is their ready ability to split their votes on both sides of some controversial arguments. I was pleased, too, that in replying to the mention by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, of the assisted dying debate, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham said he would work hard to get that right in the upcoming debates on assisted dying.
In conclusion, I hope that the atheist and the humanist movements will continue to challenge constructively some of the foundations of the orthodoxies we have inherited.
Baroness Turner of Camden (Labour)
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to my noble friend for introducing this debate and for the manner in which he did so. I am myself a secularist and a humanist. I was not always so: my mother was a Roman Catholic and I was baptised in that religion. I gradually grew away from it in my teens, became a supporter of humanism and have remained so.
I respect others who continue to adhere to their religions; that is a matter for them. My objections occur only when religious hierarchies attempt to impose their beliefs on those who do not share them. We saw some evidence of that during our discussions on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. We nevertheless went on to adopt it by a large majority. Humanists supported the Bill, but then most of us have been very concerned about the opposition to and frequent persecution of gay, lesbian and trans-sex people. We are delighted that the passage of the Bill indicates that we have moved on from the days of discrimination, and that era is over—at least, we hope so.
It is characteristic of humanism to believe in equality and goodwill between people, and therefore to be active in campaigns for human rights. It is gratifying to reflect on the improvements in women’s rights that have been made in this country during the past century. Many of the major religions—although by no means all—have opposed the campaigns that achieved these advances. Certain religions are still extraordinarily bad about women's rights. In this country, we have an equality law. I would oppose any attempts to introduce Sharia law or practice, which is sometimes suggested. Our law is paramount. It is intended to protect women. I do not agree that culture or religion should prevent us from attempting to intervene.
One particular case about which a number of us feel strongly is that of FGM—female genital mutilation. It is against our law but there have been no prosecutions so far, although it is known that it damages thousands of women. Culture and religion should not get in the way of seeing that basic human rights prevail. That is what I hope will happen with FGM.
Unfortunately, despite the commitment of secular, atheistic and humanistic people to human rights, we are often attacked. Attention is sometimes drawn to
despotic leaders who have claimed to be atheistic. Many of these depots, of course, were adherents of their particular religions, but their religions are not blamed for their misdeeds. Stalin is often cited as an example of a tyrant who was an atheist. Of course, he was originally trained as a priest and converted only late in his teens when his training had been completed. Many believe, as do I, that his earlier training conditioned his approach to politics, so you had a political line that could not be crossed because otherwise there would be damnation or worse. That was how Stalin conducted his politics.
When I was very young and I loved poetry, the writer I loved was Shelley, a wonderful poet and of course a writer who supported atheism, much to his own disadvantage. My noble friend Lord Morgan has already referred to a number of historically significant people who were also atheist and set examples to us all. However, there of course continue to be attacks upon secularists and atheists from time to time. Typical of these are some of the criticisms of Richard Dawkins, someone whom I personally admire. He has written successful books attacking religious beliefs, but not people. He has also written movingly about the Bible, the King James version, acknowledging its cultural significance and also praising the beauty of its language. Nevertheless, he is often attacked as some kind of atheistic extremist, which I think is very unfair.
As I have indicated, secularists and atheists continue to play a major role in social affairs, in opposition to discrimination and in favour of human rights. There have been some successes. We should continue with this good work.
Lord Warner (Labour)
My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend on securing this debate and pay tribute to his staunch commitment to humanism. I declare my interest as chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group. I should say that we need more Conservative members.
Belief is a very personal matter, heavily influenced by life experiences. I started off as a traditional working-class boy going to Sunday school and singing in the church choir, if you can believe it, although the main attraction of the latter was the payments for performing at weddings. Where did it all go wrong? Largely through education and, particularly, the reading and teaching of history: a hefty dose of Darwin, Crusades, Inquisitions and burning witches gets the questioning juices going. By the age of 15 I had total disbelief in any gods, apart from Denis Compton, or any creed based on the supernatural, an afterlife or organised religion. It looks to me as though an increasing number of young people in the United Kingdom are getting to this position as they move, quite swiftly in many cases, to reject religious belief. I should add that I have far more confidence in young people and their values than some have suggested today, particularly their capacity for mutual support of each other, which seems to me to be a strong, socially cohesive value.
The 2011 census shows the number of people identifying themselves as non-religious at 25%, up from 15% in 2001. Perhaps more significantly, people with no religion had a much younger profile, with four in 10 of those with no religion being under 25. The British Social Attitudes survey has shown an even sharper move away from religion, with 41% of people surveyed in the census year saying that they had no religion. The BSAS subsequently looked in more depth at religiosity. This revealed that in 2012 half the population did not regard themselves as belonging to a religion, with this rising to nearly two-thirds of 18 to 24 year-olds. Only 14% of people attend a religious service weekly.
Why should we take these data seriously? As the BSAS said:
“Getting an accurate picture of the importance of religion in people’s lives matters; not least because it influences the role of religion in policy making and public life, and helps guide the allocation of funding and resources”.
What is taking place in our society is generational replacement. Older, more religious generations are dying out and being replaced by generations without any religious beliefs. I hope that I can stick around long enough to see further progress.
The data suggest that Governments and parliamentarians should be more cautious about listening to religious interests when changes in public policy are under consideration. We all know what these policy issues are because they are debated often enough in this House—abortion, assisted dying, embryo research, faith schools, employment law, and discrimination. A whole raft of these issues regularly features. On the optimistic side, I think that we crossed a Rubicon in this House when many noble Lords drew on the views of younger generations in framing their views and casting their votes on gay marriage. Governments now need to pay less attention to the views of organised religions in the framing of public policy and treat them like any other pressure group. Their views should be listened to but given no more weight than any other set of interests.
The media, especially the public broadcasters, also need to think about these changes taking place in the beliefs of their viewers, listeners and readers. How does the BBC reconcile a head of religious affairs with a quest for younger audiences? Perhaps more controversially, what about the constitutional implications for the monarchy? How can a sovereign be crowned as a defender of the faith if not only a minority of the citizens do not hold that faith, but the majority have no faith at all? On current trends that could well be the situation before the latest royal arrival comes to the throne.
I am not a fundamentalist secularist but I have concerns about the growing tendency to shape public policy in response to religious interests when the evidence shows that our society is moving away from religious belief. Groucho Marx posed the question, “Would you want to join a club that let me in?”. I am very happy to be a member of a club that includes, among others, JK Galbraith, Aldous Huxley, Margaret Sanger, Robert Oppenheimer, Bertrand Russell, Jonas Salk, James Watson, Gore Vidal, Mark Twain, Philip Pullman and Sigmund Freud. I could go on, but I
thought that I would give noble Lords a list of personal heroes. It is a cause for celebration that more people in the UK seem to be moving toward that club’s membership. The data suggest that the tide of UK history is moving against religiosity and politicians, the media and the monarchy need to reflect on that.
Lord Taverne (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I apologise for speaking in the gap, but I realised only late last night that I had the opportunity to take part in this debate. I will add a few words about science, the discipline which, more than any other, depends on reason and regard for evidence. For me, the scientific approach lies at the heart of humanism as well as atheism.
We all accept that science has made us healthier and wealthier. What has been seldom acknowledged or realised is that since the Enlightenment, which it helped to bring about, science has played an essential part in making us more civilised. Science is the enemy of autocracy because it replaces claims to truth based on authority with those based on evidence and because it depends on the criticism of established ideas. Scientific knowledge is the enemy of dogma and ideologies and makes us more tolerant because it is tentative and provisional and does not deal in certainties. It is the most effective way of learning about the physical world and therefore erodes superstition, ignorance and prejudice, which have been causes of the denial of human rights throughout history. Science is also the enemy of narrow nationalism and tribalism and, like the arts, is one of the activities in this world that is not motivated by greed.
What can compare, for example, with the recent achievement of the Large Hadron Collider, a venture of collaboration by 10,000 scientists and engineers from 113 countries, free from bureaucratic and political interference? Those people put aside all national, political, religious and cultural differences in pursuit of truth and for the one purpose of exploring and understanding the natural world.
Without the contribution of science, which is, in my view, the rock on which atheism and humanism are built, we would be less inclined to be critical, tolerant and understanding and more prone to prejudice, bigotry and tribalism. We would be a less civilised society.
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon (Labour)
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lord Harrison for providing me with an opportunity to listen to a truly fascinating and wide-ranging debate. I regret that I did not have time to research and read about the religious and philosophical issues that have been raised this afternoon, but my appetite has certainly been whetted and my summer reading pile will certainly be added to as a consequence.
At the moment my head is spinning, but I know that I am proud to be a member of the pluralist Labour Party. I have not had time to clarify my own thoughts but I envy those noble Lords who are so sure
of their own beliefs or non-belief. I respect those of all religions and none but I do not respect intolerance in any shape or form, and I utterly condemn oppression and certain practices which are carried out in the name of religion.
I was brought up in the Church of England and it shaped much of my life and my values. However, I now find that I share the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Rees, who said in an interview after he had been awarded the Templeton Prize that although he has no belief he goes to church, which for him is,
“a common traditional ritual which one participates in as part of one’s culture”.
It truly is part of my culture. I love the words and the hymns and I go to church from time to time. There is a certain chapel with the most beautiful stained-glass windows in Gloucester Cathedral where I find solace, but I have no belief in a god or in an afterlife. Does that make me an atheist or a humanist? I do not know, but I certainly espouse the ideals of humanism, so perhaps I am a humanist who likes going to church and who delights in the Church of England’s compassion, companionship and culture. I feel comfortable, however, not having any sort of classification; perhaps I am like the verger mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. Like her, I certainly support the Assisted Dying Bill.
As this debate has confirmed, the distinction between humanism and atheism is blurred, but the universal values of humanism are clear—respecting and promoting freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law; celebrating human achievement, progress and potential; being co-operative, and working for the common good. Those are values that are of course shared by the great religions.
Baroness Flather (Conservative)
The noble Baroness said that the distinction between humanism and atheism is blurred. I think that humanism is a group activity, while atheism is totally personal—it is different.
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon (Labour)
I accept that, but many atheists are also humanists. I do, however, hear what the noble Baroness says.
We have heard this afternoon of many extraordinary British citizens who have made huge contributions to UK society—writers, scientists, philosophers—and today we celebrate the fact that they were atheists or humanists and have made very fine contributions. Most people, however, when learning the economics of Keynes, reading a novel by Ken Follett or Kingsley Amis, listening to a glorious piece of music by Vaughan Williams, or admiring the ceramics of Grayson Perry or a gown by Alexander McQueen, would not know that they were atheists. I was stunned, for example, when I looked at a list of great writers who were or are atheists and humanists, but that is my own ignorance.
There are millions of people today, as throughout history, who are non-religious and who believe that there is no afterlife and that the universe is a natural phenomenon. They conduct their good lives according to a moral code, without the aid of gods or scriptures, but on the basis of reason and humanity.
However, they have no idea that they are humanists. If there were greater acknowledgement of the vast contribution of humanists to our country, I wonder whether more people would consider themselves to be humanists and would, for example, opt for a humanist funeral for themselves or their loved ones. More than 600 couples in England and Wales already choose to celebrate their marriage with a humanist ceremony, so I am delighted that, thanks to the amendment tabled by noble Lords and passed in this house, couples of the same and opposite sex will, in the not-too-distant future, be able to choose a humanist marriage. I am proud that noble Lords, as has been mentioned, were able to achieve this in the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act. This Act opens up marriage to more couples who love and commit to each other, so it is fitting that it will also open the way for humanists to marry in a ceremony that reflects their own deeply held beliefs. I agree with noble Lords that the shift in opinion in our own House is the result of the influence of younger people who are free of the burden of discrimination.
For me, it is not people’s beliefs or lack of belief that is important, it is their values, the ethos that governs their life and actions, and the beauty or excellence of their creation. Christians, Sikhs, Jews, Muslims, and Zoroastrians delight in the music of Sir Michael Tippett, or are gripped by the novels of Iain Banks. Atheists and humanists love the poetry of William Blake and the architectural glories of our cathedrals. My late husband Stuart was an atheist. He had strong values and a clear moral code, with which he imbued our children, but he often read the King James version of the Bible; he loved the beauty of the language, while tending towards the Marxist view that religion is the opium of the masses. I do not accuse the church or any other religion of capitalising on poverty or ignorance, but it is a fact that, all over the world, many poor people and those who have little or no access to education cling to religion in the hope of a better afterlife.
One of the questions raised many times today is about the place and influence of religion in our society: does the fact that there is a shift away from religious belief, especially among the young, mean that our society is suffering in some way? There are many reasons why society is changing, often for the better, and why lives are becoming more difficult, but I do not think that lack of religion is one of them. Of course, I recognise the invaluable role that churches and religions play in bringing people together and providing support, especially for the vulnerable. However, that coming together must not result in intolerant tribalism.
While I do not doubt the ability of young people to support each other, which has been mentioned, I agree with the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, that perhaps humanists and Christians should work together in the search for a moral vision for the future, to counter the rampant individualism that has taken root.
It is rightly said, and was said during a debate on an Oral Question last week, that religious schools are often found in the most challenging areas and that
they provide an excellent education. This is true, but many non-religious schools are also found in difficult areas and provide an excellent education. While I salute the work of, for example, Church of England schools—there are many in my own forest community —any school with strong leadership can provide a safe microcosm of a good society in which pupils can learn and grow. In that short debate, noble Lords made important points about the crucial need for integrated education in order to ensure community cohesion.
History is littered with conflict between those of different faiths and between those of faith and those of none, but the existence of the 24-hour global media means that tensions elsewhere in the world have a powerful influence on our own communities, which as a consequence feel fragile. I worry that the proliferation of religious schools, including free schools, could mean that tolerance, understanding and community cohesion could be diminished. As the right reverend Prelate said, we must work together with respect, and we must respect each other.
Clearly, the shared values that underpin a school, together with the nurturing of tolerance and understanding, are of the utmost importance, as is the curriculum. I was interested to see that the new national curriculum published earlier this month includes in the primary curriculum for the first time a module on evolution. While this represents significant progress from the current national curriculum, which is to be warmly welcomed, the British Humanist Association points out that it is also a serious step back from the draft programme of study, which included a module on evolution in year four. I certainly support the Teach Evolution, Not Creationism! campaign.
In the past few years we have had debates in this House on freedom of speech and freedom of religion in relation to the Equality Act and, most recently, the same-sex marriage Bill. These freedoms are the cornerstone of our democracy. I was delighted to learn that in June the European Union council of foreign affairs Ministers adopted new guidelines to help the EU promote freedom of religion and belief in countries outside the EU. They protect the non-religious as well as the religious. They also protect the right to change or abandon one’s belief, and the right to freedom of expression, including the right to criticise or mock religion or belief. They commit to protecting individuals and individuals’ rights to hold beliefs, but not to protecting the beliefs themselves. Does the Minister agree that this implies that the European Union will recommend the decriminalisation of blasphemy offences in non-EU countries? I certainly hope so.
Many great atheists and humanists have been mentioned this afternoon, but I will end with a quote from Thomas Paine, a British citizen who made an invaluable and incalculable contribution to the world. In Rights of Man, he wrote that,
“my country is the world, and my religion is to do good”.
Amen to that.
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Conservative)
My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, on securing this most informative and interesting debate. As has been seen in the contributions of all noble Lords, it has been one of great reflection, certainly for me. Standing at the Dispatch Box, I feel that I am in something of a minority—not for the first time, I might add—as someone of faith. Various noble Lords mentioned where they were coming from. My qualification is that I am Muslim by faith and Christian by primary education. My two closest friends are atheists and I am a Member of a House that reflects our country, which is made up of people of all faiths and of none, of humanists and of atheists. Equally, I am a citizen of a country that allows people to profess, propagate and practise their faith freely, whatever beliefs they have—something of which we should all be tremendously proud. The noble Lord, Lord Soley, talked about Queen Elizabeth I. She set that structure for allowing us the freedoms and liberties that we enjoy today, and long may they remain with us.
This Government have rightly placed considerable emphasis on working effectively with religious groups and celebrating faith, and the contribution that people of faith make to local and national society. That perhaps means that we have had less opportunity to make clear our view that religious belief is not a prerequisite for public service. There are people who choose to follow a non-religious, atheist or humanist belief path who clearly have as much commitment to the public good as people of faith, and who are serving society in many different quarters and ways. The Government fully recognise and welcome their contribution to the life of our country.
This country is a stronger place because of the diversity of our beliefs and people, and the values that British people hold. Unlike other countries, we have in Britain no register of acceptable religions and beliefs. This is to be welcomed. We do not judge people on what they believe, but we respect them for what they stand for and contribute to our society and country.
Noble Lords have furnished many examples of public service by atheists and humanists, historically and in the present day. I have a couple of my own. The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies has a non-profit week, an annual event, during which it harnesses the enthusiasm and commitment of students to raise money for charities such as Children in Need, Amnesty International and Médecins Sans Frontières. Day in, day out, as the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, mentioned, there is the silent service of humanist chaplains providing pastoral support to non-religious people in hospitals, prisons and universities alongside our religious chaplains. This work is essential to ensure that non-religious people and those of no faith, and humanists and atheists, can get the support that they need in times of difficulty.
There are personal examples. In the spirit of the coalition, I look towards the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, who has declared that he has no religious faith, but who has the strongest respect for all faiths. I could see this when I attended an event with my right honourable friend and the honourable Member for
Tooting, the right honourable Sadiq Khan. We came together at this event as political parties and communities in the aftermath of the tragic murder of drummer Rigby in Woolwich, to demonstrate the solidarity of people across all faiths, cultures, communities and religions, and those of no faith, and to show that we stand together solidly in the face of extremism, and to fight it and all acts of inhumanity.
Diversity of religion and belief is well reflected in your Lordships’ House. We have heard some stirring contributions from atheist and humanist Peers. I make that distinction clear. I need only to look at the Bishops’ Benches again to recall the wise counsel of right reverend Prelates on many occasions. That has been demonstrated by the contribution today of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham. In recent years, Catholic and Free Church, Church of England, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish, Buddhist and Zoroastrian Peers, and humanist Peers and those of no faith, have constantly enriched the contributions of this House. Long may that continue.
This House is a microcosm of the society that this Government want to see: a place where individual freedoms are protected and that is open to all on merit, accepting of difference and where people of different backgrounds come together to achieve shared goals. The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, has served with great distinction as the chairman of the Economic and Financial Affairs Committee. If I may presume to guess his motives for doing so, it is partly because of his belief, which I am sure that the great majority of your Lordships share, that a strong code of ethics should underlie economic and financial dealings, privately and at the level of the state.
This code of ethics owes as much to ancient philosophy, with Aristotle arguing that those with wealth have a moral duty to maintain virtue in their business dealings, as it does to Judaeo-Christian thought. Adam Smith, another person who never invoked God in his work, laid the foundations for modern business ethics. Humanist thinking, as we have heard from various contributions—the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, mentioned George Eliot and Isaac Newton—has contributed greatly to the development of our culture over the centuries and continues to do so today. The noble Lord, Lord Warner, raised this issue as well. Given all these examples and precedents, noble Lords may wonder why the Government have frequently referred in public statements to the contributions of faith communities to public life but perhaps have not paid equal tribute to the work of humanists and atheists more generally.
Simply put, it is because those without religious beliefs are serving the community through a huge range of charities and initiatives but, for the most part, do not primarily identify themselves as atheists. Put another way, an individual with a humanistic or non-religious belief may choose to work in an international aid agency, for example, or for a homeless shelter but I doubt that many would argue that they are doing so because they are motivated by their atheism. They are doing so because they feel it is right and, in their view, plain and simple humanity to do so. That point was well made by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey.
In faith communities, people are working hard in countless churches and other places of worship, and in charities and community groups, to serve their neighbours and improve their local communities. They, too, are driven by humanity but in part are also inspired to do so by their religious faith. Yet as atheists or as a follower of religion, humanity belies our common values. It unites us. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, talked of a meeting of colleagues with humanist values and Christian humanists acting collectively. Perhaps I should extend that to all humanists: humanism lies, I would argue, in all faiths. I support that attribute. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, talked about moral education and the improvement of society, which is not the work of any one religion or community. As several noble Lords have said, it is a collective responsibility. This means that there is a distinctive, long-enduring and powerful well-spring of positive social action in all our communities.
This is not the place to talk in detail about the different forms of social action that faith communities are involved in, although it would not make sense for us as a Government to fail to take account of the fact that the churches, for example, have an extensive national framework of buildings, experience and volunteers that puts them at the very heart of service delivery to the homeless and others in need. We recognised that when we invested £5 million in the Church Urban Fund’s Near Neighbours programme, which uses the infrastructure of the Church of England to build productive working relationships between people of different faiths and none at a local level in five key localities in England, thus maximising the impact of faith-based social action and creating more integrated communities. I should note that beneficiaries of Near Neighbours projects are from all faith backgrounds and none.
As regards other Christian denominations, Catholic social teaching plays out in a wide range of projects linked and resourced by the Caritas Social Action Network. Through the work of the Muslim Charities Forum, my own Muslim faith, Islam, increasingly focuses on addressing social needs within Britain as well as abroad. The Hindu community has Sewa Day to focus on volunteering projects; the Jewish community has Mitzvah Day; and there are other projects.
There are those who perhaps feel that there is a hidden motive with religious people to get involved in social action—perhaps winning converts with the promise of a free bowl of soup. Unfortunately, this attitude lingers in some local authorities, where at times there is still reluctance to commission services from faith groups. The recent Faith in the Community report by the All-Party Group of Christians in Parliament shows that this view is very much a minority one, thankfully. These days, councils are generally keen to work with faith groups. However, even where local authorities have recognised what faith groups have to offer and have commissioned services from them, they are sometimes expected to be silent about their faith. Let it be clear that although local authorities are legally at liberty to impose such a condition, we do not regard it as reasonable.
In the Government’s view, it clearly is right that, if asked, churches and other faith groups should be able to be open about their religious motivation. The vast majority of faith groups delivering services seek to impose religious beliefs on no one. Indeed, it is reported that many actively avoid discussion of religion, as they know this can be a barrier to offering practical help to those in need. It goes without saying that where a charity or a community group is non-religious or indeed atheist by nature, it should stand exactly the same chance as a religious group of winning a commission from a local authority to run a service. If it has the skills and the experience, and can offer value for money, it should get the job. The noble Lord, Lord Layard, talked about happiness and the importance of different groups getting the right people involved. I am marked by one of my people who I have looked to for motivation. That is Mahatma Gandhi, who in his time said that:
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”.
As well as being inspired by religious beliefs to serve the community, faith groups and religious leaders have distinctive perspectives—let us say wisdom—that are of value to public discourse and policy development. That is why my noble friend Lady Warsi sits at the Cabinet table as the first ever Senior Minister for Faith and Communities, to ensure that these perspectives are being heard and that the contributions of faith groups are recognised. But, crucially, atheists and humanists bring important insights, alongside those of religious faiths, to issues around personal freedom and responsibility. My noble friend is also at the Cabinet table to defend the interests of people with humanist or secularist views who feel that their perspectives are failing to receive a fair hearing. The Government continue to meet the British Humanist Association, and I would be willing to facilitate a meeting with my noble friend if that would be helpful. Part of the role of officials in the faith team in her department is to put faith groups in touch with different parts of Whitehall as necessary, and of course this offer extends to secularist and humanist groups. For instance, officials have facilitated discussions over equalities issues, which several noble Lords have mentioned and in which I know humanists continue to take a strong interest.
In Britain, 25% of the population at the last census described themselves as having no religious belief, and that is their absolute right. Indeed, it was a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, in opening the debate. They are equally able to express their views freely but as the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, has just pointed out, that is not always the case abroad, where people with atheist views face very real persecution if they are open about them. The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, also made this point. Noble Lords will be aware that my noble friend’s Commonwealth role includes defending the right to freedom of religion or belief internationally, and that includes the right not to have a religion. I note what the noble Baroness said about the blasphemy laws that we see operating outside the European Union. Unfortunately, while one thinks that the defending of faith may be a good principle, the way they are applied
is deplorable, and certainly the Government stand ready to challenge them wherever we see abuses occur. I join with the noble Baroness in those sentiments.
The noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, raised the issue of freedom of religion. I can inform her that in December last year we held an international conference in London on freedom of religion or belief which specifically considered the rights of those with non-religious beliefs. Humanism, of course, is a belief system. My noble friend was commended by the chief executive of the British Humanist Association for emphasising that freedom of religion and belief also means freedom from religion. We also regularly speak out against violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief wherever and whenever these occur. We do so in the context of freedom for all, including the right not to have a religion. A violation of the freedom to believe or not to believe is an attack on us all.
Perhaps I may now pick up on a few points that were made in the debate, and I apologise to noble Lords if, due to the time restriction, I am not able to mention them all. The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, talked about an equal distribution of faith and non-faith representatives on the Bishops’ Benches. I, for one, would say that we have repeatedly seen the value of the contributions from the Bishops’ Benches. I also note that the representatives of the minority faiths have expressed their approval of the continued presence of Bishops in your Lordships’ House. For now, we can certainly see that we have across the House representatives of different faiths, albeit in a personal capacity.
The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, also raised the issue of the Cenotaph. I understand that at present there are no plans to review participation at the Cenotaph ceremony, but I am willing to take the matter up once again with departmental Ministers. He mentioned the Zoroastrians, but let me assure noble Lords that their participation last year was in recognition of their 150th anniversary, and was just a one-off.
The noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, raised the issue of the syllabus and religious education in schools, as did the noble Lord, Lord Layard, and the noble Baroness, Lady Royall. There is certainly no reason why a humanist presence should not be included in the standing advisory councils on religious education, which help set local religious education syllabuses. That is important to note.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham talked about encouraging religious people and atheists to co-operate. As I have already said, I quite agree with those important sentiments. Dealing with the society we live in today means encompassing people of all beliefs and, indeed, those with no belief.
The noble Lord, Lord Morgan, gave us insight into various developments in a very interesting contribution. He mentioned his book and his writings of 50 years ago and I hope that what has been captured by Hansard will revive the prospects for further sales of the book.
I turn for a few moments to an important point about religion that was taken up by the noble Baronesses, Lady Flather and Lady Massey, and the noble Lord, Lord Maxton. I would take issue with the suggestion that religion is the cause of many of our problems. If you look at religions and their pure scriptures, any
religion that seeks to promote terror or extremism is, frankly, no religion whatever. It is not so much the religion as that, unfortunately, in every faith you will find people who take a perverse interpretation and seek to apply it in their own way. We will continue to challenge any kind of extremism wherever we see it. I disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, on Mother Theresa—I believe that she was a selfless person who devoted herself to the cause of humanity and the cause of the living.
We have only a few minutes left. Other noble Lords raised various issues and I will of course write to them on the points that I have not been able to get to. The noble Baroness, Lady Flather, and other noble Lords talked about the oppression of women. The Government take this issue very seriously. Our record on tackling FGM is quite clear and the Home Office has launched a one-year pilot scheme, aimed at ending violence against women and girls in the UK. This is a real blight on the world and something that we need to see ending as soon as possible.
This has truly been a fascinating debate. It has been an eye-opener for me and, in preparing for the debate, I looked into humanism. I will reflect on a very personal point, if I may. As I said, Britain is an incredible country in which we respect people of all faiths and all beliefs. I end with a quote not from a famous person, but from my best friend—an atheist—on the day of my wedding, in his capacity as a best man. He said: “Tariq and I have known each other for nearly 20 years. During that time, there were occasions he sought to convert me to his faith of Islam. I, for my part, have, at times, sought to convert him to mine of beer and rugby. Neither succeeded, but we remain the closest of friends, based on the mutual respect of each other”. That has certainly been reflected in the debate today.
Lord Harrison (Labour)
My Lords, I hope I will conclude this debate in the spirit in which it has been conducted. I thank all who have contributed to such an interesting debate. My noble friend Lord Grocott could not be with us today, although I asked him, as he participated last time. He told me that he thought we ought to have this debate every year. We have had inspiration from the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, as to some of the changes we might make to the title of the debate. All I can say to the noble and right reverend Lord at the moment is that we atheists and humanists may seek answers but, more importantly, we seek questions.
I end by mentioning a family member, my wife’s aunt, Florence, who served with great distinction in South Africa, working for Bishop Desmond Tutu. She should have been a senior person in the church, but was not. My wife describes herself as an Anglican atheist, and whenever we go into the churches we so admire, we light a candle for Florence. I last did so when I went into Lichfield Cathedral last year. I did it not because I am a Christian but because she was a Christian, and a very good one too. In that spirit, I hope that we can continue the debate and the dialogue on future occasions, with my noble friend Lord Grocott in attendance, and with the same spirit as today.