Freedom of Religion and Belief — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:09 pm on 16th July 2015.

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Photo of Lord Alderdice Lord Alderdice Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 6:09 pm, 16th July 2015

My Lords, we have all been done a great service by the noble Lord, Lord Alton of

Liverpool, in obtaining this debate and giving us the opportunity not just to speak but to listen and think about these matters.

I, too, start by declaring interests. One is the research work that I do at Oxford University and the other is that of being, like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, a practising Christian—practising for many years but seemingly no nearer to expertise, but that is the way of these things.

I want not to go back over the many things that have been said by other noble Lords but to refer to some of my own experience in these matters. Very understandably, noble Lords have outlined the horrible evidences of religious intolerance and radical political belief which have led to horrible violence and which continue, seemingly ever worsening, all around the world. It is understandable that we focus on that because it raises our emotions of fear, anguish, hurt and sometimes even hate, but of course what we are speaking about there is the right to life, not just the right to a belief or a religious faith. In a way, we are both very privileged and a little disadvantaged by working in this place, where there is an enormous amount of tolerance. People are prepared to listen to each other and to accept great differences of belief of different kinds.

In passing, I say that we are foolish if we think that there is religious belief and unbelief. The truth is that people who do not have religious beliefs have beliefs of their own. Perhaps there has tended to be the notion that we can resolve a lot of these matters if we simply put religious beliefs into a private box and have a society where some other kind of belief—whatever it is—runs the show or has a prevailing effect. However, the truth is that religious faith, like any other kind of belief, impacts entirely on your way of being in the world and on your community and its way of being in the world. Thinking that somehow or other it is possible to say, “Well, that doesn’t really matter”, says something about your kind of belief; it does not say anything about whether you are a believer of some description. You cannot not believe: you have a set of views, and it is very important for us to understand that.

I come to this with my own background in a particular part of the United Kingdom. Sometimes people would like to forget that it is part of the United Kingdom because of some of the symptoms of behaviour there, particularly in relation to matters such as this, but I am afraid that it is. Maybe it reminds the rest of the United Kingdom of its history and background. Many of the things that are still troublesome in Northern Ireland were troublesome in the rest of the United Kingdom not so very long ago. Noble Lords would not expect me, from these Benches, to speak out particularly strongly in favour of the presence of an established church, although I have to say that in these last decades the Church of England has had a markedly positive effect, both in this Chamber and elsewhere. I particularly want to acknowledge the contribution of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester over many years. When I was Convenor of these Benches, I very much appreciated his work as Convenor of those Benches. I also want to mention the work of the most reverend Primate, who has taken a very strong line on these issues.

I got to know the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in his role as Liberal spokesman on Northern Ireland. Back then, we had to face up to the fact that people had sets of beliefs which led to very intolerant behaviour and attitudes to each other. If I had gone to university in this part of the United Kingdom in the latter part of the 19th century, before the Liberal changes to universities legislation, I, as a dissenter, would not have been able to take a degree at Oxford or Cambridge.

Therefore, on the question of how we deal with these matters, we have progressed in certain ways but I fear that we have not progressed as much as we would like to believe we have, because there is a certain liberal intolerance towards people with various kinds of religious belief. That is clear—it has been mentioned—and it is absolutely true. I have seen it among a number of colleagues in various places. The view is, “It really would be much better if people just piped down about those kinds of things because they can be put in a private box”. However, they cannot. It may be inconvenient and difficult but the fact is that these are matters that drive people and are of profound importance to them. We have to struggle with these questions. As we try to struggle with them, what kinds of things can we take into account?

We must understand that, when it comes to tolerance in these matters, we face a very difficult challenge. The challenge is to differentiate between matters that we usually consider all together. The question of fundamentalism transcends all kinds of beliefs, religious and otherwise. I would find it much easier to reach agreement with people of different religious views, and people whose views are not religious, who had a liberal perspective on these matters. I would find myself much more different from Christians, or others of any description, who took a fundamentalist approach to these things—including those who are fundamentalist atheists. This notion of the way in which we hold our beliefs is extremely important. The noble Lord, Lord Sacks, picked up an extremely important part of this, which is that secular authoritarianism has led, as a reaction, to religious fundamentalism. We must acknowledge and understand that, and that has not been easy to deal with. An example is Turkey, where it was easy to support a secular regime and then be astonished at the reaction.

Secondly, we must differentiate between fundamentalism and radicalisation and the use of violence and terror. These are not the same thing. The vast majority of fundamentalists may well be intolerant of the religious beliefs of others—fundamentalism and conservatism are very different things—but that does not necessarily mean that they support violence. Indeed, many of those who support violence, including people in Daesh, do not come to it from a religious perspective at all. When His Holiness the Pope came to Ireland and said on bended knee to Catholic nationalist republicans, “Stop the violence”, they took no notice of him. They did not pay attention because the actual driver was something quite different. In a long conversation with a leading figure in al-Qaeda many years ago, I was talking about religious tolerance and he said, “Wait a minute. My issue is not about religion. It is about political identity and political problems”.

So, as we try to explore these questions, we must hold back our emotions—because they are very strong—and think more deeply about these issues across the religious differences and across the differences between those who have religious faith and those whose set of beliefs is different. Therefore, to me, the most important question to the Minister is this: can the Foreign Office, DCLG and other departments of government give more attention and resource to thinking and research on these matters? That would deepen our understanding, so that when we respond—in all the difficult circumstances inside and outside our country—we may to do so with a depth of understanding that helps us to add to and make a difference to wider thinking about these matters, rather than simply reacting from our very understandable feelings.