Religion: Non-believers

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:37 am on 19th April 2007.

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Photo of Lord Harrison Lord Harrison Labour 11:37 am, 19th April 2007

rose to call attention to the position in British society of those who profess no religion; and to move for Papers.

My Lords, all my life, religion has all too frequently meant division and separation. At school, non-Anglicans were excluded from morning assemblies until prayers were said—an infelicitous image of separation lodged in the minds of young, impressionable boys. When my own children came of school age, my wife and I had to choose between sending them to the local church school or exporting them out of area and so separating them from their circle of friends in our closely knit local community. It scarcely rated as parental choice. When I came to this House, I once again found myself segregated as this Chamber—my workplace—is daily transmogrified into a church. We non-churchgoers troop in afterwards like guilty office workers returning from a quick inhalation of inspiration from the street outside. Perhaps those who wish to pray could copy our Muslim colleagues and use the private prayer room. Those are three examples of the regular experience of those of us who profess no religion and those non-churchgoers who are the silent majority.

It is time to speak up, especially as a more strident note is now sounding. The Anglicanism of my youth, more sedative than stimulant, now gives way to the harsher tones of those like the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York, who describes us as "illiberal atheists" and "aggressive secularists". We learn that to combat this perceived intolerant public atheism, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Roman Catholic Church and the Jewish leader will meet this summer in a holy alliance to plot the counterstrategy—a less than ecumenical approach. Indeed, it seems to me that the religious today do not lack leaders but they lack leadership.

Religious belief continues on its long-term decline in Britain, as the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York recently acknowledged on the "Today" programme. However, his remonstration of us non-churchgoers as the authors of this steepening decline is neither warranted nor deserved. My debate today seeks to rebut those charges and to tabulate those areas of public life where we feel unacknowledged, unprized and under-represented. I hope, too, to ponder on what government and the wider community might do to reflect better this modern and more secular Britain that is developing, in particular in its public policies and institutions.

In that, I call for fair play. I invite our religious colleagues to debate how we can find common ground to establish a new consensus. I offer my own credentials in this quest for consensus by reminding your Lordships of the debate that I led two years ago highlighting the urgent need for the church, the state and those of religious beliefs and none to unite, perhaps on a more equal basis, to save Britain's unparalleled architectural and cultural heritage revealed in the wealth of its parish churches and city cathedrals. I believe that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester, who is with us today, contributed to that.

I have unswervingly and religiously voted for the Government over the past seven years but I confess to qualms about their so-called faith agenda, which has the merit of being well meaning but whose consequences have all too often been ill directed. The Government fulfilled a 2001 manifesto promise to encourage co-operation between religious communities and themselves by publishing a paper entitled Working Together but their compass on promoting togetherness is too unsteady. They signally fail to canvass the views of non-churchgoers about religious matters despite the fact that, as the 2001 Home Office Citizenship Survey asserts, four out of five of us find that religious belief is not central to our self-identity.

Working Together is lax in the way in which it elevates obscure religious groups such as the Jains and the Zoroastrians to a significance way beyond their numbers. It too eagerly equates religious belief with specific ethnic communities, thereby overlooking the authentic non-religious views and needs of, say, our Chinese and Caribbean communities. It is seduced by using religion as a key to revealing other problems and opportunities. It passes over the myriad other groups and subsets who make up the mosaic of Britain and deserve to have their substantial and unique voices heard. Most egregious, though, is the omission of those for whom religion is either perfunctory or defunct—we the silent majority. The report compounds its diagnostic errors by proposing therapies that are dubious. The use of public moneys and resources to seek out and harvest the views of small, unrepresentative religious groups is problematic.

However, I am particularly perturbed by the Government's companion paper, entitled Building Civil Renewal, which apparently encourages civil servants to dilute the strength of the secular voice,

"by preparing to mount publicity and media-handling strategies to answer adverse criticism from the secular quarter".

That is neither wise nor even-handed. Groups such as the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association, of which I am a member, should be encouraged, not discouraged, from commenting on the development or the framing of relevant laws and policies. Had those groups been dispassionately asked and thoughtfully answered, some of the rough edges of legislation regarding religious hatred or religious schools might well have sat better with the very communities such laws are designed to serve.

However, let me turn to other, sometimes unintended incivilities visited on us, the non-churchgoers, arising from the muddled miasma of thinking about the role of religion in Britain today. Why on state occasions such as Remembrance Day is no representative from the non-religious community invited to attend the Cenotaph? How appropriate is it that the commemoration of those killed in London in the bombings of 7 July takes place in an Anglican cathedral, when such buildings have lost their once universal numinosity? Indeed, one of those murdered was a prominent secularist. Would a Christian be content with a humanist funeral if that was all that was on offer?

The various standing advisory panels set up by the Government to garner the views of religious groups forgo—indeed, avoid—the contribution that non-churchgoers might proffer. So too with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Religious Freedom Panel, bereft as it is of the humanist voice. Also, the chaplaincy services found in the armed services, in NHS hospitals and the Prison Service—important services offering comfort and advice—are provided exclusively by the church. Why should they not be extended beyond that? After all, our prisons are not overcrowded with regular churchgoers.

I harbour anxieties that the Government are devolving community services to religiously motivated groups and that that will further erode the clear principle that public funds should be disbursed in a non-discriminatory manner. A further discomfort is the fact that humanist marriage ceremonies—which I have had the privilege to be invited to and to preside over—are not recognised as a legal marriage. Why not? My view, for what it is worth, is that the churches should open up their premises to the wider community, who value the local church as a fine building redolent of the local community. Indeed, why should they not preside over humanist marriages?

My hair shirt itches on the question of public service broadcasting. "Thought for the Day" is a dusty desert in the oasis of political and current affairs reporting on the "Today" programme, but these days the even earlier "Prayer for the Day" strays beyond the bounds, as witness yesterday's unchallenged criticism of the Government's liberalising legislation on gambling. No one should be deaf to criticism, but I deplore the abuse of that unearned licence as the nation's reveille at 5.45 am.

The Government must redouble their efforts to ring-fence moneys provided for education in schools and other institutions, but that becomes an increasingly difficult task—indeed, a Sisyphean task—when a school is deliberately encouraged to develop a Christian ethos. I still believe in the principle of schools being charged with the clear task of imparting knowledge, skills and the ability to reason and think. Religion should be confined to the Sunday school. At the very least, religious education should restrict itself to the disciplines of history and the study of ideas. Neither school, hospital, prison nor public or community services should be metamorphosed into the vessels of promoting religion.

The Queen has done an outstanding job as our head of state, but is it not an unfair burden to place on her—or on her successors—that she should combine being head of state with the role of titular head of the church, especially given that belief in God is a very personal decision and not one that should be assumed or, for that matter, particularly expressed? I join those in the Anglican communion who believe that the Church of England should be disestablished. The Government should canvass views widely about the desirability and practicality of that.

I hope to hear the Minister's views not only on that but also on those other areas of public policy. I hope her response will be positive and that there might be a consensual meeting between those who represent the religions and our own people, so that we can strike a way forward that is both profitable and modern for a modernising Britain. I beg to move for Papers.