Whilst the debate is far too lengthy to do justice to here, some highlights are reproduced from ’Hansard’ and the full debate can be accessed here.
In introducing the debate, Lord Harrison said…
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.
Later, he gave some interesting information…
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. (emphasis mine)
But perhaps his Lordship’s most worrying remarks relate to the Government’s attitude towards non-believers (and, incidentally, this Government’s aggressive use of ‘spin’ to obfuscate their intentions and/or actions)…
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,Naturally, the apologists for the Government contradicted His Lordship, as did sundry representatives of the Church of England, who sit in the Lords as of right.
“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.(emphasis mine)
Amongst some of the more quotable ‘bon mots’ were the following from those both in support and against Lord Harrison’s position; make for them what you will…
Baroness Carnegy of Lour:
Throughout history, and alas very much at this moment, religion has been and is at the root of terrible events and some of our most intractable problems…
It is therefore unsurprising that religion is often cast as a malign influence, as I think the noble Lord has cast it.
As I get older I simply get more convinced that there is no credible evidence for the existence of God and see no merit in believing the truth of something not supported by evidence.
The Archbishop of York:
…we are all essentially religious. The question is not whether we worship, but rather one of who or what do we worship. We give allegiance to something…
For me, religion is a narrative we all inhabit that makes sense to us of what would otherwise be nonsense.
Baroness Rendell of Babergh:
“I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars”.
Most of us would agree that it is this conflict between beneficence and omnipotence which makes belief impossible. There is no answer to it. We are obliged to own that something which was beautiful and once seemed an incontrovertible truth was acceptable only when magic was a reality and science a mystery.
Lord Carey of Clifton:
What is common to most religions is an acceptance of a creator who brought all things into existence and that this creator gives meaning, hope and life to everyone.
If those two opinions separate the believer from the unbeliever, we should not then assume that religion is necessarily the place of superstition, credulity and ignorance.
I find that some atheists seem to be unaware that their beliefs, too, are at best a faith.
I was rather offended by the comments of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, about the role that people without faith have played in doing good in the world. He is entirely and wholly wrong. We feel just as passionately as those who have faith about ensuring that society is just.
I am very uncomfortable with the 2003 Government policy of encouraging faith-based organisations to participate in public service provision.
Lord Wedderburn of Charlton:
This issue raises a question of human rights, because the European Convention on Human Rights, adopted in the Human Rights Act 1998, proclaimed in Articles 89 and 14 the freedom of religious belief and freedom, as interpreted by the Strasbourg court, of other beliefs—including, as it puts it, atheism or scepticism—to be human rights. This issue raises a question of human rights, because the European Convention on Human Rights, adopted in the Human Rights Act 1998, proclaimed in Articles 89 and 14 the freedom of religious belief and freedom, as interpreted by the Strasbourg court, of other beliefs—including, as it puts it, atheism or scepticism—to be human rights.
Humanism offers a coherent ethical structure which goes something like this. Life is finite and we must therefore make choices. We must take responsibility for these choices ourselves. Human thinking and human nature are so constituted that we want to justify our choices. We want them to be worth taking responsibility for and to be consistent, hence a system of ethics.
…humanists were at the forefront of some of our more recent progress. They were active in the founding of the United Nations and its agencies, that great leap forward in human rights…
I also want more space in this country for the non-religious universe. Faith is not the only basis for morality…
… when I introduced the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill in this House, the attitude and conduct of the faith groups and some of their members made me wonder whether their views and actions on some social issues deserve the respect that government and parts of society give them.
The church campaign [against the Bill] began with Archbishop Peter Smith, the Catholic Archbishop of Cardiff, announcing that it was the launch of the biggest political campaign by the church in its modern history. I was flattered that a small Bill that I had introduced should require such a campaign, given that modern history encompasses a number of wars, famine, poverty and a number of other very important issues. The campaign went on in an aggressive, emotional way. It was often misleading, it often relied on anecdote rather than careful research, and it was frequently plain scaremongering.
Time does not permit me to go into the details but typical was an article in The Catholic Times on2 April 2006, by a Father Francis Marsden, headed, “Legalising Euthanasia Turns Carers into Killers”. The reverend father thoughtfully attached to that article a photograph of 24 children who were murdered by the Nazis. Self-evidently, that had nothing to do with the Bill; it was, in my view, a disgrace and obscene.
The outcome was that a Bill supported by 80 per cent of the public was defeated by a campaign orchestrated by the churches.
The ultimate rejection of the Bill raised two questions. The first is: who do the church leaders represent on this issue? Research showed that 80 per cent of Catholics and 80 per cent of Protestants would have been in favour of the Bill. The second questions is whether it is right that church leaders should mount a campaign that was not even supported by their own laity, with the intention of imposing their beliefs on the majority of the population who do not share those beliefs.
No one would disagree with the belief of the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, that in a democratic state a person’s lack of religion should not lead to any kind of prejudice or deprivation. We agree that religious groups should be controlled in any misuse of their position.
Those who profess no religion have not yet evolved a common ritual and philosophy that appeals to the mass of the population.
The trouble is that humanism can seem too intellectual or remote.
For me, faith is not constructive or oppressive; it is liberating and empowering. I believe that the structures of religion are valuable to society today, even if the spiritual content is not embraced by all.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews):
… the Government have a responsibility to ensure that the minority of people who do not identify with a faith are not, and do not feel, excluded from the mainstream political debate or uncertain about their rights. The Government certainly have a responsibility to ensure that people who do not identify with a faith do not have fewer choices or are less able to live out their lives in the way in which they would choose, to contribute to the life of the nation, or to take opportunities wherever they arise.So there you have it, my dear anti-theist and misoclere friends. You have rights, providing you can convince those opposed to your views that you base your life “around a serious philosophical belief.”
Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights makes it quite clear that everyone has the right to think what they will and believe what they choose.
It is important to remember that Article 9 protects both non-religious and religious beliefs. It makes it clear that the right to express and to manifest one’s thoughts or beliefs is to be limited only when it is necessary to do so by law in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
As a Government, we have a good record of promoting those principles of equal treatment, most recently in the Equality Act 2006, which prohibits discrimination against persons because of their religion or belief. The Act specifically includes lack of religion or belief in the protected grounds. It offers protection on an equal footing to everyone, whether atheist, theist or humanist—to anyone who bases their life around a serious philosophical belief. Part 1 of the Act gives the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights as much scope to support people of no religious belief who believe that they have been discriminated against on that basis as much as any other person.
One is left wondering how the courts will interpret that!