My Lords, I speak in today’s debate as a loyal member of God’s Opposition. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, for highlighting both the freedom of religion and the freedom of belief in the titles of this Article 18 debate and of the all-party group over which the noble Baroness so impressively presides. I also thank Christian Solidarity Worldwide, not only for providing me with excellent material concerning the persecution of atheists and secularists in Egypt and Indonesia but for its pastoral prison visit to Alex Aan, jailed in Jakarta as an atheist.
We atheists must show solidarity with our religious colleagues over religious persecution, especially at a time when atheists and secularists are increasingly joining the growing list of people persecuted worldwide for the beliefs they uphold, whether religious or otherwise. The horror of machete-wielding Islamists slaying humanist bloggers in Bangladesh recently was admirably highlighted by the brave Bonya Ahmed in her recent address to the British Humanist Association at the annual Voltaire lecture.
In the United Kingdom, many will be heartened by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent observation that religious freedom demands space to be challenged and defended, without responding destructively. This echoed Rowan Williams’s reservation in 2013 that sometimes UK and US Christians exaggerate mild discomfort over social issues such as pro-gay legislation while failing to emphasise systematic brutality and often murderous hostility practised by religious fanatics abroad.
I asked the Minister why humanists and atheists in Britain are still thoughtlessly excluded from contributing to Radio 4’s “Thought for the Day”. Why does the DCMS stolidly exclude the Defence Humanists, formerly the UK Armed Forces Humanist Association, from the annual Cenotaph commemoration? Do dead non-believers, fallen in war defending our cherished values, not deserve a silent vigil in the public square? And why are we conducting this debate in the House of Lords, which still reserves a privileged place for the state religion?
I encourage colleagues not to take the opportunity of the occasional ad hominem criticism of distinguished atheists such as Richard Dawkins. I ask the Minister to reply to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, about the FCO and whether we are promoting business and trade, which I thoroughly encourage. However, we should use some of our resources to ensure that we promote Article 18 in all its aspects. Can she also update us on what is happening with the blasphemy laws in Malta, and in Iceland, although it is not part of the European Union?
Finally, will Her Majesty’s Government ensure that the hopes and aspirations of non-believers like me are not suppressed by careless oversight when we take our rightful place in the public square?