Religious Persecution - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:26 pm on 11th July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Taverne Lord Taverne Liberal Democrat 3:26 pm, 11th July 2019

My Lords, that was a most interesting speech, and it certainly makes me want to look again at some of the recommendations. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Elton, on tabling this debate, because an extremely important issue is involved. To declare an interest, I speak as a humanist and, as such, I care as passionately about the persecution of religious minorities as of non-faith groups. I care equally passionately about the right of freedom of religion or belief to be realised by all. Therefore, I welcome the general tendency of the review, which shines a light on the persecution faced by humanists and the non-religious as well as faith groups.

I mention in passing that Ahmed Shaheed, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, said at a humanist conference:

“Humanists are attacked as viciously and brutally as any other groups. In many countries around the world, it is illegal to be non-religious or humanist. There are places where leaving the state religion is punishable by a prison sentence or death and also where those who express their non-religious or humanist beliefs can be deemed to have committed a crime of blasphemy and again face the death penalty”.

I therefore trust that the Minister will reassure us that the Government will implement the review’s recommendations as inclusively for the non-religious as for the religious. Further, given the persecution faced by the non-religious around the world, I ask the Minister to commit to establish a similar review into the persecution faced by the non-religious.

The crucial principle is tolerance and the issue is democracy. Both are relevant to this debate. The turning point in the history of civilisation was the Enlightenment, when the authority of the Church was dethroned as the arbiter of truth, evidence was installed instead, and science taught us that in our search for truth we should have due regard to uncertainty. It was memorably summed up by John Locke—not himself a humanist but a man of faith—who argued that the rights of the individual and of minorities and the rule of law were central principles of democracy. Let me quote one of my favourite passages in political philosophy from one of his books. The print is very small, so I shall have to read it carefully. He said that,

“it would, methinks, become all men to maintain peace, and the common offices of humanity, and friendship, in the diversity of opinions; since we cannot reasonably … embrace ours, with a blind resignation to an authority which the understanding of man acknowledges not … For where is the man”— this is key—

“that has incontestable evidence of the truth of all that he holds, or of the falsehood of all he condemns; or can say that he has examined to the bottom all his own or other men’s opinions?”

The Enlightenment promoted tolerance, which is absolutely essential to democracy. Locke was a founding father of parliamentary democracy. I am sorry to say that today’s Parliament has almost uncritically abandoned the philosophy of Locke and Burke in favour of the pernicious doctrine of Rousseau: the will of the people must always prevail. MPs have become delegates, not representatives, and now feel that they must vote as instructed by their party or, above all, as instructed by the will of the people in the referendum held more than three years ago. They no longer believe, as Burke argued so eloquently, that they should use their own judgment after hearing the evidence and argument. Many also clearly believe that party unity matters more than the welfare of the country.

As I said, that is not irrelevant to the debate. Our likely next Prime Minister is prepared to consider proroguing Parliament and denying MPs a vote to ensure that the will of the people prevails. Papers such as the Daily Mail denounce judges who dare to ignore the referendum verdict as “enemies of the people”. Please note: in Pakistan, for not dissimilar local reasons, a mob claiming to represent the true religion denounced a court ruling that Asia Bibi should not be condemned to death, forcing her to flee for her life to Canada. The will of the people and the dictatorship of the majority can be just as big a threat to individual and minority rights and faith as those who preach religious intolerance or populist autocrats such as Hitler, Mussolini or Erdoğan—all disciples of Rousseau. We in Britain should not be careless about how we treat democracy.