A 150 minute debate about the role of religion and belief in British public life is reviewed by Chris Street (President, Atheism UK, since June 2014). The House of Lords debate on Thursday 27th November 2014 was initiated by Lord Harries, a former Bishop of Oxford.
Lord Harries of Pentregarth spoke of the distinction between “Programmatic” and “Procedural” Secularism. He defined the phrase ‘Religion and Belief’ and talked about the 25% of UK citizens who are non-religious. Even more define themselves as spiritual, rather than religious.
“Procedural Secularism is what we must all accept, for it refers to a set of procedures, arrangements and rules of discourse that enable rational debate to take place and decisions to be made with everyone participating on an equal basis.
Programmatic secularism, however, has been perceived as an attempt to drive the religious voices out of the public square altogether, and this must be resisted, for the public square is quite rightly a crowded place where all voices need to be heard, including religious ones. As often as not, those religious voices will be translated into the shared assumptions of public reasoning, but this should not be mandatory.”
“I should stress that the phrase “religion and belief”, which is now the correct designation for policy in this area, has belief in it as well as religion, and that includes those who take a robustly secular view of life.”
“… the number of people who said that they had no religion—14.1 million or 25.1% of the population, up from 14.8% in 2001, making it the second largest category after Christianity. To this might be added the large number of people who prefer to define themselves as spiritual, rather than religious.”
Baroness Massey of Darwen confided she was a humanist:-
“I do not have a religion, but I have beliefs. I am a humanist and, as such, I believe that we, as humans, are held together by mutual human support, kindness, tolerance and creativity.”
Baroness Massey said that non-religious moral codes could be excellent. Religion had often divided society and often had indoctrinated vulnerable children.
“I believe that what holds a society together is human qualities and acts of kindness and respect that contribute to a moral code not necessarily based on religion. Religion has sadly too often divided individuals and societies, with tragic consequences and a mistaken confusion of education and indoctrination… I think that education should develop personal and social skills, good citizens and thinking skills based on dialogue and discussion rather than on one-dimensional doctrine. It should include consideration of all faiths, religions and beliefs. Regrettably, the Government do not seem to think so, and I wonder why.”
Lord Parekh argued that some religious beliefs were wrong and should be ignored. Bon-religious beliefs about racial & gender equality should be implemented.
“religion has to come to terms with certain fundamental principles of human morality. Religious beliefs should be respected, but what if they violate racial equality? What if a belief says that blacks should not be treated equally? We will say no, we will not respect that belief. What about gender equality? We will say no, it must be respected, no matter what your beliefs. It is striking that when it comes to sexual orientation, we seem to vacillate. Should gay couples be allowed to marry in churches? Should they be allowed to adopt? We say yes, but, at the same time, no.”
Baroness Falkner of Margravine insisted that some parents religious convictions about education of their children should be resisted. She suggests that faith schools are probably a bad idea.
“Of course we must ensure that parents’ religious and philosophical convictions are respected in the educational provision that the state offers. Article 2 in the Human Rights Act secures that but the demand for a religious education, wholly on parents’ terms, is an unreasonable and potentially divisive demand which must be resisted. It is also important to point out that Article 2 does not provide an absolute right. However outward-looking we may hope that all minority faith schools are, the fact is that they are one of the main points of contact for a child outside the home. When society allows them to be the vehicle for propagating and promoting segregation and closed-mindedness to mainstream values, it is surely right for the state to step in and correct that imbalance. It has been less robust in that integrating function than it should have been. In short, if future generations are to live together, they must learn together so, rather than facilitating the segregation of pupils along religious lines, we should be doing everything we can to ensure that children of all faiths and none are educated together in a respectful and inclusive environment.”
Baroness Falkner wants the law on daily collective worship in schools to be abolished.
“[wants an] end to the outdated law requiring all maintained schools to hold a daily act of “broadly Christian” worship. Such a law is unevenly applied and can reduce a broad and balanced approach, seriously undermining parents’ abilities to raise their children in accordance with their own beliefs.”
Baroness Falkner wants radical changes in education.
“It is important to recognise that organised religion has played a positive role in the development of state education in Britain. However, Britain’s religious landscape has changed radically since the Butler Education Act of 1944. We are both one of the most religiously diverse and least religious countries in the world. The time has come to look again at the role of religion in our nation’s schools and to be radical about that. Parents who want to give their child a religious upbringing are at liberty to do so, at home and wherever they worship, but it is not a reasonable demand of a national curriculum, where children’s independent interests and society’s longer-term cohesion should always be the priority.”
Lord Warner as Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group had heard testimony from the “original Trojan Horse whistle-blower”. He warned about indoctrination and abuse in some faith-based schools such as the not so ace, Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) schools:-
“we heard … from a young man [Jonny Scaramanga] who attended an Accelerated Christian Education school … [we were] truly shocked to learn what was going on in some of our schools in 21st-century Britain in the name of religious beliefs, and by the apparent inability of our legal and regulatory systems to safeguard our children from what can only be described as indoctrination and abuse … There is a network of 30 to 40 private ACE schools in the UK. The curriculum is a fundamentalist Christian one that originated in the United States. It is widely considered to be creationist, homophobic and misogynistic. The teaching materials used in these schools … is [often] in a comic strip format with characters that could only be described as risible if they were not being used to brainwash and indoctrinate young minds. It was very scary that the so-called science teaching was leading to certification that was being used to progress children to further education.”
Lord Warner insists Government must intervene in parents’ schooling decisions to ensure pupils get a ‘balanced and broadly based education’. The Government must not allow abuse and indoctrination of vulnerable children.
“These young men and many others have had appalling educational experiences, all in the name of the religious beliefs of their parents. They are our fellow citizens for whom our legal and regulatory processes are failing to deliver the “balanced and broadly based” education—that is the wording of the statute—that they are entitled to under our current education legislation. Parliament has made clear what sort of education children in this country are entitled to expect and that is likely to fit them for the world they are living in. That entitlement is not the narrow indoctrination of their parents’ beliefs enforced through closed communities. The children receiving such a narrow education are, in my view, being abused and deserve better protection than we currently afford them. It is arguable that this abuse is on a par with the kind of emotional child abuse in which the state has always intervened with parents in order to protect children from their parents’ excesses. This is a public policy issue that we need to debate and not shelter behind a screen of liberal tolerance of personal freedom of religious belief. That tolerance rightly extends from adult to adult but does not, in my book, extend to abusing vulnerable children trapped in households that deny them access to the balanced and broadly based education that the law entitles them to. We need to address some of these issues and not run away from them in the interests of the children who are vulnerable to these excesses and living in our society, some not many miles from this House.”
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon believes that faith is a force for good. He warned about secularism that attacks religion in all aspects and encourages intolerance. Instead, we should encourage British values. Because we are a Christian country, many of our values are founded in faith.
“I believe that faith is a force for good. An article in the Telegraph recently, written by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, warned of secularism, while it has a place, becoming so aggressive that it attacks religion in all respects and encourages intolerance towards others. I reinforce the Secretary of State’s words that the best response is to champion values that define our country, many of which are founded in faith. At heart, we are a Christian nation—from the established church in England to the language of the King James Bible, deeply woven into the fabric of our culture. But most importantly, we are, as several noble Lords mentioned, a place of justice and tolerance towards others. My noble friend Lord Alderdice mentioned that. Our defence of freedom, the rule of law and the evolution of our democracy have all grown from the seedbed of faith … The Government actively celebrate the vital role of faith in our national life, guiding the moral outlook of many, inspiring great numbers of people to do public service and providing help to those in need.”
Lord Ahmad insisted that religious extremism has no place in Britain – the Government is attempting to eradicate extremism in British life.
“I turn to the issue of extremism. Let me make it absolutely clear—I am sure that it is a sentiment shared by all—that extremism has no place in Britain and will not be tolerated. It creates environments conducive to violence and terrorism; it encourages segregation, disrespect for other cultures and restricted rights for women and for minorities. As my noble friend Lord Fowler said so passionately, differences, not just on gender or religion but on sexual orientation, cannot be allowed to destroy what Britain is today. … The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham and the noble Lord, Lord Warner, raised the Trojan horse issues arising in Birmingham. I assure noble Lords that the Government are supporting institutions to identify and confront extremist influences. For example, we are improving inspection regimes, strengthening the rules for schools and demanding more from universities to prevent radicalisation on campus.”
Lord Ahmad assured the House that the Government was developing a strategy to tackle extremism – which includes ensuring that religious moderates voices are heard.
“My noble friend Lord Alderdice talked about not oversimplifying interpretations of religion which can contribute to the risk of radicalisation and extremism. I assure my noble friend that the Government are developing a strategy for tackling extremism. We know that an important part of that strategy will be engaging with faith leaders of all denominations to ensure that the right voices, the voices of tolerance, moderation and respect, gain greater influence.”
Lord Ahmad recognised that faith schools could create division. Moderate voices would help to tackle online extremism, he said.
“The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, also talked about faith schools, divisions and extremism. I recognise the serious points he made in this regard. The counterterrorism Bill announced by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary this week includes important measures to tackle internet radicalisation by extremists and terrorists. We acknowledge the value and challenges of online. That is where faith communities have a role. The right voices, the moderate voices, the voices of respect, should come forward and beat that challenge on the internet.”
Lord Ahmad insisted that people beliefs: people of of faith and people of no faith – breath life into communities.
“In this ever-changing world we live in, one thing remains constant, and that is faith. It has survived the test of time and continues to breathe life into communities up and down the UK. We should be proud of how many faiths contribute to our national life today. What faith provides is unique, pure and, for many, irreplaceable. For millions, the faith they hold, whether based on the Torah, the Koran or some other source, is not only a personal, internal matter but a great motivator towards social action and a powerful impetus to change the world for the better.
Let us not forget those of no faith who feel equally as passionate about their position in society and who are equally passionate in serving humanity and their country. Those who expound a more secularist view also have deep respect and compassion and wish to make the world a better place.
“This is a view we all treasure to help build the Britain we all treasure. This is what the Government support and will continue to support because it is a key element of the kind of society we want to build. I have no doubt whatever that the world of faith and those who follow the true teaching and the true meanings of a peaceful faith will continue to do good, as has been the case for centuries, and will rise to the challenges of today in providing hope to millions, in particular in ensuring unstinting service to humanity.”
Lord Dubs criticised the presence of Church of England bishops sitting in the legislature as of right.
“If I had to set a pub quiz question it would be: apart from the House of Lords, in which legislature in the world is a block of seats reserved for members of a religion? Any takers?”
“Noble Lords: Iran.”
“Lord Dubs: Right. Most people do not get that.”
“I would be much happier if Bishops, who all make an enormous contribution to the work of this House, were here as Members of this House in their own right rather than as a block vote, a block of people, put in by one religion only. For example, the noble and right reverend Lords, Lord Harries and Lord Eames, and the former Chief Rabbi all make an important contribution to our debates but do so in their own right, not because they have been put in as part of a trade-union-style block vote. I am not suggesting that the Bishops all speak with one voice; indeed, it is sometimes very interesting to see them differ a little. However, there is a point of principle here as to whether only one religion should have a formal membership in this House.”
Lord Dubs warned about the divisiveness of religious-based schools. Faith schools were having a damaging effect on our society in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
“I speak as a humanist and an agnostic, but not as a person who is anti-religion. Indeed, there is a lot of good—without wishing to sound patronising—in many religious beliefs and teachings. Of course, Pope Francis has raised the level by saying some very important things with which I am certainly in agreement. However, I have also met bigots in the world of religion, especially when I was in Northern Ireland.”
“In Northern Ireland in particular, where the division of society is reflected in the way that children are educated. Even today, over 90% of children are in schools that are defined by one religion or the other. Integration would not solve all the problems in Northern Ireland, but the current system has had a very divisive effect. If children from one religion are there together, they do not meet children from the other religion and they tend to demonise them. That has had a very divisive effect on Northern Ireland. When asked, 70% to 80% of parents say that they would like the choice to send their children to either an integrated school or one of the other schools. That does not mean that they will all do so. Where there are integrated schools—I am still talking about Northern Ireland, of course—they tend to be oversubscribed and they provide a wonderful education. This is not to deny religion, but to say that we are going to be educated together as members of one community. I actively support the campaign for integrated education in Northern Ireland and hope that there will be more integrated schools there.”
In England, some religious schools are very good, partly because they are selective, said Lord Dubs.
“I understand that some religious establishments are very good and popular with parents. This is partly because they have a selective element within them; that is to say, they do well because they select rather than taking from across the catchment area as whole. However, I fear that the more religious-based schools we have, the more divisive will be the consequences. We only have to read what is said in the newspapers about schools—the noble Lord, Lord Warner, gave some examples—to see that they are having a damaging effect on our society and on the religions themselves. We should at least be able to stop the progress towards more religious-based education. I wish that we could turn the clock back, although that would be difficult at this stage. Many religious schools have an adverse effect on this country and on their local communities. At the very least they should be encouraged, as some do, to take in children of other faiths and other religions.”
Baroness Sherlock spoke about the role of religion in social action in delivering services saying that there were benefits and risks.
“the report from Demos last year looking at the contribution that believers and faith-based organisations make to our national life. It found that religious people in the UK are more likely to volunteer locally, to be civically engaged and engaged in charity, which has been established before. But, interestingly, they were also more likely to have higher levels of trust in other people and institutions and to believe that they could influence decisions nationally and locally, which is curious.”
Lady Sherlock said some of her best friends were atheists and humanists.
“I stress at this point that some of my best friends are atheists and humanists; indeed, some of my most respected colleagues on the Benches behind me fall into those categories. They are shining examples of people who give selflessly and sacrifice themselves in both service and giving to the cause. I mention that not to privilege faith but to counter some of the fears that can be expressed that faith can cause people to look inwards, whereas the opposite can be true.”
“Faith provides a unique underpinning to the commitment and motivation required to provide services, particularly to some of the hardest to help; faith-based services can be particularly effective in some areas; and faith groups and institutions provide valuable and important permanent structures in the local community, which can be used to aid social problems. … We need to learn from the strength of faith-based work but recognise that there are risks, both to the state and to the groups, of drawing faith-based groups into delivery. In the past, the state has sometimes sought to bank the advantages and mitigate the risks by somehow trying to separate the activities from the faith community, and that simply does not work.”
Lord Alderdice reminded peers that religion and religious belief has survived many attempts to erase it. Several former communist countries had effectively tried to ban religion. Religion is an essential component of the human condition, he said, adding that religion needs to be discussed and to be understood in both its advanced forms and regressive forms, such as fundamentalism and terrorism.
“At the time of the Enlightenment and afterwards, many liberal intellectuals thought that a few generations of education would mean that religion would effectively disappear. They also thought that we would all begin to get on together and aggression and violence would be managed and controlled by education. It is quite clear that although people of that disposition thought they were informing themselves through rational thought, it was much more about romantic wish fulfilment because the truth is that religion has not gone away and nor has violence and aggression. Indeed, even in countries where religion was effectively banned for a period, once that ban disappeared, we saw an enormous growth. In Russia, the development of the Orthodox Church is not only a question of numbers; it is massively affecting Mr Putin’s politics. The Financial Times recently reported that the factory that has produced more Bibles than any other in the history of the world is not in the United States of America as you might have guessed, or even—less likely—in Europe, but in China, a country where religion was not available to many people for a long time.”
“It therefore seems clear that religion is an essential component of the human condition and a group phenomenon. It is not something that is simply a matter of what individuals believe. A community may have a religious identity, while quite a large number of individuals may not have a particular religious proclivity, because it is part of the identity of the community. Once that identity starts getting shaken up in various ways, it can become very unpleasant indeed.”
“It seems also that this business of religion is not just a question of belief and here I point up and quibble with the wording of the Motion. Religion is, of course, about belief and faith but it is also about the way people behave—about rituals and structures. All these things grow and develop. Many social scientists now talk about the evolution of religion as part of the evolution of society. We know that these matters do develop: we move from simple, concrete ways of thinking about these things to more metaphorical ones. We do this in our ordinary lives as well. We move from rather simple, black and white thinking as children to more metaphorical thinking when we are older. If you do not appreciate that, you get into terrible trouble. For example, if I ask a nice young lady out for dinner I do not do so because I think she looks thin, underfed and famished: I want to spend time in her company. The food is, of course, still real and an important part of it but there is a metaphorical component as well. When individuals regress through illness they sometimes go back to more simplistic ways of thinking and cannot see the metaphorical. This happens in society as well so that as people developed a different way of thinking about religion—a broader, more thoughtful, more tolerant, more metaphorical one—it became possible to see different religious approaches as not being entirely antagonistic.”
“We have a problem here which impinges on society. When an individual or society comes under existential threat—when it believes that its group identity or future is under threat—it regresses to simplistic, black and white, dangerous, threatening ways of functioning in which the complexity of a society, with all its different components, disappears. This is true for the individual and for society. Amartya Sen talked about reducing back to a singularity. This is a very serious problem for a multicultural and multi-identity society such as ours. One of the difficulties about a Government who see all issues of religion merely as matters of private faith and belief, and who famously said they did not “do God”, is that they do not tend to give enough attention to the importance and complexity of these things, which are becoming more important to ordinary people, to thoughtful people and to societies as a whole.”
“We are finding an appearance of increasing fundamentalism, which is becoming radicalised into dangerous action as well. I welcome this debate, because I hope it also represents an increasing focus by the Government on the need to understand the complexities of religion, both in its more advanced forms and those of regression and dangerous fundamentalism.”
Lord Cormack hesitated to bore Lordships again on the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta in 2015.
“The charter said
“To no one will we sell … deny or delay … justice”
… In spite of all the things that divide us, certain things unite the great faiths that are represented in this country … include a sense of civic right and responsibility, a belief in the centrality of family life, a belief in the duty to help the weak and to give incentive and encouragement to the young—without destroying their innocence … It would be absolutely splendid if next year there could be an underlining of these things that we loosely called in a debate earlier this year “British values”. The adherents of virtually all faiths—be they Muslim, Sikh, Hindu or Jewish—can identify with those core values.”
Lord Blair of Boughton (former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Ian Blair) talked about what children thought about religion and the evils of religion and secularism.
“While the kind of exclusively narrow religious education described by the noble Lord, Lord Warner, is shocking and needs action to stop it, we should also be concerned with the basic lack of knowledge about not only Christianity but so many religions in many mainstream schools. Many children appear to be brought up in a world in which religion equates with danger, with Islam equalling mad-eyed bearded men acting with great cruelty, Christianity being something taught by Koran-burners in Florida, and Judaism being synonymous with the actions of the Jewish state.”
“As we all know, great evil has been done in the name of religion, but worse has been done in the name of the secularist creeds of left and right. We need to recapture and re-emphasise the essential compassion that lies at the heart of all great religions. If—and as a number of noble Lords have said, I think that it is an if—faith schools are to continue to exist, we should insist on all faith schools teaching comparative religion and emphasising their common compassion.”
“Imam Monawar Hussain recently addressed the Oxford diocesan synod. He pointed to extremist Muslim sects as having three characteristics: literalism of interpretation; the use of so-called “proof texts” without context; and the stated desire to set themselves apart by being more holy, faithful and certain than other coreligionists. Those of us from other faith traditions will recognise that analysis.”
“Tom Holland, the historian, wrote this August in the Sunday Times that the success of the Islamic State on the battlefield must be counterbalanced by defeat in the mosques, in churches and in seminars in schools of theology by emphasising commonality and compassion between religions. For the UK and much of Europe, that much is now urgent …”
Lord Harries concluded the debate, talking about the phrase ‘religion and belief’.
“A few noble Lords were worried about the words “religion and belief” in the title. I understand that, but the commission was advised that all the most authoritative documents in this field now use that phrase, which is why it was chosen.”
Lord Harries was unequivocal that valid criticisms of religion – for example in education and same-sex relationships matters – was justified.
“A number of noble Lords mentioned the positive role religion plays in our society at both local and national level. That was good to hear. Equally, there was a wide range of criticisms of the role of religion in education and, in particular from the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, about its attitude to same-sex relationships. Justified criticism of religion should be encouraged for the sake of religion itself. It is quite unequivocally in the interests of religion that justifiable criticism be encouraged.”
Lord Harries approved that humanists should be involved in challenging people who had an extremist faith. People of faith should build common ground with good people of no-faith, such as humanists. He quotes Michael Sandel of Harvard.
“I do not believe that humanism—many noble Lords are humanists—should be seen purely in negative terms as a criticism of religion. The word “humanist” goes back to renaissance times when all those who designated themselves humanists were Christians. For them, it meant not just a revival of classical learning but a belief in human flourishing. I suggest that the great national gathering recommended by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, which no doubt he would like to take place in Lincoln next year, should be a gathering not just of people with religious views but should include people from the British Humanist Society [he meant the British Humanist Association], as 25.1% of people in the country now define themselves as having no religion and many of those define themselves as humanists.”
“We have talked a lot about trying to build common ground between religions, but there is a need in our society to build common ground between religious believers and those who have no religion but regard themselves as humanists. This is particularly important at the moment because, as Michael Sandel has pointed out, for the past 30 years, our society has been dominated by a combination of social and market liberalism. In other words, people have believed only in one value: unfettered individual choice. This is because we lack any proper concept of the common good and what it is to be a good society. As he said, if as liberals we are frightened of getting into that debate because we disagree about it, “Fundamentalists rush in where liberals fear to tread”. I very much hope that this great national gathering will invite humanists and that we will be able to work at getting a much stronger, thicker understanding of what it is to live in a good society.”