The House of Lords held a debate on the non-religious today featuring a range of familiar prejudices about the positive qualities that are particular only to religion.
(Ex Archbishop of
Canterbury) Lord Carey of
Clifton (right) typified these when he exclaimed that:
“in my opinion, atheists are not renowned throughout the world for their commitment to the very poor, the starving and the needy. Whereas, as I have already indicated, believers have made and are making an effective contribution throughout the world, it will not do for others to rubbish that and then do little to make up for what they feel are its inadequacies. Those who have nothing but contempt for religion should heed the comments in the Guardian of 12 September 2005 by the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley. He is not known for his great belief in religion as such, but he says in the article that unbelievers are less likely to care for the poor or spend time with outcasts of society. create a better society.”
Fortunately Baroness Murphy came straight back at Lord Carey saying
“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.”
Others made comments in the same vein as Lord Carey for example the Archbishop of York quoted Lord Denning with the uncompromising
“Without religion there can be no morality there can be no law.”
Baroness Byford talked about her son who committed suicide:
“For him, faith was something that he could not grasp. I am sure that he would never have committed suicide if he could. It was not that help was not there, but, for him, it just was not possible. All I would say to those who will follow me is that we do need to have some faith, some hope for people, because, without that, other people like my son—who could not find it; it was not that he was not used to it, but he could not find it—will not lead fuller lives as they might otherwise do.
So while we must work together, which is immensely important, I still think that there is a real role for faith in this world today and, I hope, for many years to come.”
Although the pretext to this shocker was more about belief in something bigger than ourselves (which humanists subscribe to in a non-supernatural sense) but I clearly inferred that she meant we are lost without religious faith.
“There is also disagreement about the prevailing non-religious philosophy, stretching from Nietzsche’s superman to a vague humanism. By contrast, although religious adherence seems small, surveys show that around 70 per cent of people profess a belief in God. Many people’s morality is still tied to the traditional religious patterns.”
It wasn’t all bad though. Lord Judd said
“some of the finest, most humane, perceptive and principled, most socially committed, wise and decent people I have encountered have been among those who are agnostic, atheist and those just with no religion. Conversely, it would be madness to deny that the reality of the human story is that in the name of religion so much suffering has been caused, so much oppression and bigotry generated.”
Baroness Rendell of Babergh asked whether
“society morally better when “The Sea of Faith Was once … at the full”? If I am speaking mainly of Christianity in western Europe, it would seem not. The 20th century has been called the bloodiest and most savage humanity has ever known, but those preceding it were, in proportion, as violent and brutal…It appears that society is much the same when atheist as it was when godly.”
Hardly a ringing endorsement of secularism but neither a portrait of a world gone wrong without religion,. And humanist Baroness Massey of Darwen made generous statements towards religious individuals:
“I have admired brave stances by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, the former Bishop of Oxford, when he decried Section 28; and by the late Lord Sheppard, the former Bishop of Liverpool and a great cricketer, for devoting his lifeto the under-privileged. Such people and others like them would not deny rights to anyone, and would support diversity. I respect them as people, not as representatives of their faith.”
Fellow humanist Baroness Whitaker made a powerful case for ethics without religion:
“the idea that ethics can be unattached to a religious belief has ancient roots. It is a significant strand in our heritage which we have downgraded in comparison with faith-based morality, but which can offer help in many of our modem dilemmas….
…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, as those who knew Lord Ritchie Calder could testify. They were not against religion, simply apart from it. In the 1970s, long before the setting up of the Inter Faith Network, humanists took a lead in founding bodies like the Standing Conference on Inter-Faith Dialogue in Education and the Social Morality Council, together with people of faith…
She went on to argue
…I…want more space in this country for the non-religious universe. Faith is not the only basis for morality and I want to inhabit that culture, not in opposition to religion but in opposition to its monopoly.
…The website of the Department for Communities and Local Government says: “The traditions of all major faiths contain teachings commending the fundamental values of equality and respect which are so important to community cohesion.” It is not only the major faiths that commend these fundamental values—it is, at least as much, that great strand of non-religious belief that has carried them forward…”
Despite this clear Government line, Baroness Andrews’s summing up on behalf of the Government tried to make some of the right noises:
“We fully acknowledge that the humanist tradition in this country has a long and honourable history and a positive contemporary role.”
…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.
…This is an important debate because it also allows us to recognise shared values across a range of traditions—values that are shared by all faiths and by none: community, personal integrity, a sense of right and wrong, learning, wisdom, the love of truth, care, compassion, justice, peace, and respect for one another, for the earth and its creatures. Indeed, it was a shared act of reflection that inspired the Millennium Declaration.”
Although it’s significant that the Millenium Declaration was only endorsed by religious groups. Similarly the feeling still seems to be that in practice there is less need to engage with non-religious groups alongside the religious:
“My noble friend Lady Whitaker requests that all local regional and national bodies convened by my department on matters of religion, belief and community cohesion should have humanist representation. But she will be aware that the British Humanist Association was part of the religion and belief stakeholder group created by us. The British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society are active stakeholders in the development of the provisions of Part 2 of the Equality Act. The BHA acknowledges on its website the work that it does with the Government. We have a very rich and diverse range of organisations. The reason we do not engage with them all in the same way is not an exclusive choice, it is sheer pragmatism.”
Although the debate saw familiar negative stereotypes about non-believers it was important to have them aired and countered publicly and on record in Parliament. This will serve as an important milestone in the journey towards making it as unacceptable to say publicly that ‘only the religious can be moral’ as it would be to say ‘only Christians are moral.’ We will wait and see if the Government’s line changes significantly as a result.
By all accounts some religious leaders are mounting a council of war (so to speak) to consider the increasingly confident non-religious voice in this country. Lord Harrison said “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”
So we too must strengthen our efforts to undermine the belief that religion is the only route to an ethical life and a healthy society.