Examination of Witnesses (Questions 46
WEDNESDAY 2 NOVEMBER 2005
Ms Hanne Stinson and Mr David Pollock
Thank you very much for coming and welcome. This is really the
second part of our inquiry. We reported yesterday on the first
part. We are now looking at a number of areas, which we were not
able to go into in sufficient depth during the first part and
one of these is religious broadcasting. As you have seen, we have
just been talking to a multi-faith group before you. We certainly
have your written evidence, for which many thanks and we know
who both of you are. May I start the questioning with two general
points? You say that there is the clearest evidence that only
a minority of the population holds any genuine religious beliefs,
while the number explicitly denying religious belief is rapidly
growing. That certainly was not the flavour of the evidence we
were getting in the first session. Discuss.
Ms Stinson: Part of this comes down to how you
actually define what religious beliefs are and the extent to which
somebody has to be religious in order to be classed as belonging
to a religion or being religious or having some sort of religious
or spiritual feeling. There is an increasing number of surveys
which show rapidly growing numbers of non-religious people. Most
face-to-face surveys show at least 30 per cent of adults, going
up to 40 or 50 per cent and, with young people, going even higher,
up to a DfES survey which shows 65 per cent of young people not
having religious beliefs. I find it quite interesting that the
census can bring up a figure of 70-plus per cent religious when
other surveys will show, for example, that 40 per cent of the
population cannot actually name any of the four gospels.
Your appendix shows these surveys.
Ms Stinson: Yes, we show a number of surveys
in the appendix.
What about humanism itself. Is there any evidence that is becoming
ever more popular? How do you measure it?
Ms Stinson: We do not have any figures for the
number of humanists in the UK.
Is that a wise precaution? Why not?
Ms Stinson: No, it is actually that awareness
of humanism is very, very low and one might suggest that the BBC
is partly to blame for that. We find that a very large number
of non-religious people, when they come across humanism or when
they come across the British Humanist Association, actually say
they have been a humanist all my life, or for the last 20 years,
and they never knew that was what it was called. They are very
often very relieved to have found a group of people who actually
share their beliefs. We would estimate that a significant proportion
of the non-religious people within the UK are broadly humanist
in their outlook, but we cannot put a figure on it, because people
do not use the word.
One point which struck me, reading your evidence, was that you
said basically there are two major institutional examples of access
being granted to religion, the education system and the BBC. Then
you went on to say that between them they cause immense damage
to society. Why do you think that?
Ms Stinson: I genuinely believe that it does.
There are assumptions in very many circles, including the media
and the BBC, that we still have a religious society. We have people
who grow up being taught that the only source of morality is religion.
I have been told very many times that I may be a humanist and
I might claim that my morality does not come from religion, but
of course it does because I grew up in a Christian society. I
would very strongly challenge that: I do not think my morals do
come from religion, I think they come from my common humanity.
When you have a very large number of people who do not have religious
beliefs, including of course a large number of people who have
been brought up in a religion, but have lost their religious beliefs,
who have been taught that morality is based on religion, you have
a large number of people who then flounder while they try to work
out where their morality actually comes from. The religions are
very, very good at claiming that society is sliding into some
sort of immoral or amoral situation and blaming it on the reduction
in religious belief, when in fact it should be blamed on the fact
that those people who do not have religious beliefs maybe have
not been helped to formulate what their beliefs actually are.
Having said that, I do not actually think that the non-religious
are less moral than the religious anyway. If there is a problem,
it is that people have not actually had support to formulate what
their beliefs actually are.
"Immense damage" is a fairly strong criticism.
Ms Stinson: I do think it does immense damage.
It causes immense damage to society, because people are maybe
floundering as to what the firm basis of their morality is and
it causes immense damage to individuals who are forever being
put down. This particularly goes for young people who are being
told they cannot be moral because they do not have religious beliefs.
Q52 Lord Holme of Cheltenham:
I should like to explore why as non-religious, alternative, humanistic
value people you feel you are hard done by in BBC coverage. It
seems to me that there is an assumed value system in the BBC which
quite often irritates its critics, which is, if not humanist,
essentially humanistic. There seems to be a belief in enlightenment
and the perfectibility of society; there seems to be a belief
in rationality, there seems to be a belief in tolerance and diversity,
there seems to be a belief in respecting the planet. If you were
to do a value analysis of the implicit values of the BBC, I am
unclear that they would not at least substantially overlap with
a humanisticI shall not say humanistview of the
world. Certainly, rather than speculating what the value system
of the BBC is, if you look at their output, whether it is in terms
of news and current affairs or in terms of drama or in terms of
soap operas, I would find it extremely difficult to look at it
and say that those programmes did not by and large, over time,
mostly have a moral and humanistic underpinning. Forgetting the
fact that you do not like the religious people and you think they
are getting too much, what is it you object to in the run-of-the-mill
coverage of the BBC of whatever genre it is?
Ms Stinson: We heard this morning people claiming
that most of the output of the BBC was secular and this is something
we are told very, very often. When it comes to the values which
come across in the BBC, I would say that those values are actually
generally the values which are shared between the religious and
the non-religious because most values are actually shared between
both groups of people. The BBC regularly claims that there is
this little bit of religion and all the rest of broadcasting is
secular, hence that ought to be enough for us. We would say that
a small percentage is religious and all the rest is general and
is for everybody, and that the BBC is actually making the wrong
comparison when they link that small percentage of religious against
the rest as secular. What they should be doing is actually comparing
the small percentage of religious broadcasting against the non-existent
percentage of broadcasting about specifically humanistic, positive,
non-religious beliefs. I do not mean atheism; I mean positive
non-religious beliefs, because that is where the gap is.
Mr Pollock: Clearly the BBC's output is such
as you describe it: it is largely based on values which could
be described as humanistic. What we object to is neither that,
nor the existence of religious broadcasting which obviously provides
a valuable service for a minority audience, but one which values
it considerably. What we are objecting to is that the BBC is quite
deliberately ignoring the requirements which are placed on it
by the Human Rights Act as a public authority and by the Communications
Act in section 264 to treat equally religions and beliefs across
the spectrum. The European Convention on Human Rights says that
there should be no discrimination on grounds of religion or belief.
Case law has established that humanism counts as a belief. The
Government in its general policymaking accepts that humanism is
a belief. The Government in their own amendment to the Communications
Bill, when it was going through your House, said that the requirement
to provide programmes about religion needed to be extended to
cover religion and other beliefs. They mentioned humanism in that
context in the House. The BBC has ignored all of that. Our freedom
of information inquiry at the beginning of this year showed that
they had not generated a single piece of paper relative to that
quite significant change in their obligations. Nevertheless, without
having considered what the law required, they tell us constantly
that they are confident that their output meets the requirements.
What is lacking is anything which is parallel to that part of
religious broadcasting which is unmediated, Christians talking
Christianity to Christians, which amounts on Radio Four to over
three hours per week. There is obviously similar programming elsewhere,
but that is a key element of it. There is nothing ever like that
of humanists talking humanism to humanists. The result is, to
get back to My Lord Chairman's first question, that the very large
majority of the non-religious population, itself at least a large
minority of the total population, is unable to articulate with
any confidence their own life stance. They live implicitly humanist
lives. The essentials of humanism are a naturalistic world view,
a rejection of dogma and a morality based on consequences, mainly
for people and the planet. That describes the basic outlook of
the great majority of non-religious people in the country. Those
are the essentials of humanism. They do not know that it is humanism,
and they are not able to articulate it. When it comes to trying
to teach their children morality, they do not have the confidence
to do it. Very many non-religious people still send their children
to religious schools because they think that might give them a
grounding in morality. The linking of religion and morality, which
has no logic whatsoever, is constantly found.
Q53 Lord Holme of Cheltenham:
Forgive me, but this is a little bit like the trade union point
I was making to the religious representatives: in terms of industrial
demands you want comparability and you want a slice of the pie
and so on.
Mr Pollock: Yes, we do, so long as there is
religious broadcasting, unmediated, direct from religious leaders
to their followers, we do not see why we should be discriminated
Q54 Lord Peston:
I suppose I ought to declare an interest as an atheist, which
is much more extreme than you. I am still a bit lost. Dr Singh,
in his evidence earlier, made a point which we did not follow
up enough, which was that he wanted us to distinguish between
religion, by which I think he meant organised religion, and spirituality.
Would you accept that distinction as well?
Ms Stinson: Spirituality is a very, very difficult
Q55 Lord Peston:
Let me then say, for example, that I would have regarded both
David Hume and Bertrand Russell as deeply spiritual people; indeed
both have written very clearly about yearning for something more
but unfortunately there is nothing, that sort of thing. So the
distinction, at least in my mind, is very important and I wonder
whether that is your view.
Ms Stinson: It depends on how you use the word.
Very often it is used as though it is part of religion, with the
implication that you cannot be spiritual if you are not religious.
In the sense in which you have just used it, I think humanists
can be just as spiritual as any religious person; there is the
same sense of awe and wonder when they hear music or see a wonderful
view, all those sorts of things, or how nature actually works,
and in that sense just as spiritual; and that too is the important
element of broadcasting.
Q56 Lord Peston:
Therefore going back to My Lord Chairman's opening question to
you about your view on the damage religion does, you are arguing
really that it is organised religion which is doing the damage.
Ms Stinson: I was not actually talking about
the damage religion does.
Q57 Lord Peston:
I am sorry; you were saying the BBC does the damage. You are quite
Ms Stinson: It is the lack of broadcasting about
non-religious positive beliefs which I think is damaging. Religion
can be damaging in some circumstances, but basically we are not
anti-religious and we are not anti-religious broadcasting.
Q58 Lord Peston:
When Lord Holme of Cheltenham asked you about wanting a fair share,
you made the point that religionit seems to me and I agree
with youis of its essence dogmatic. I do not see how it
can be other than dogmatic and be a religion. I can then understand
programmes which put forward a dogma. What I have difficulty understanding
and therefore I am less exercised than you are, is how you could
have a programme which was non-dogmatic. In other words, if I
were asked to comment in two minutes on Thought for the Day,
and I take your point that you ought to have some ability to do
that, my problem would be that I would meander on for two minutes
explaining what the problem was. I would never get around even
to doing what they do, which is in the end lay down some piece
of dogma. I do not know why you want to get into that game at
Ms Stinson: We certainly do not want to lay
down dogma. There is a very clear place for exploring issues from
a humanist perspective and if you did have humanist Thoughts
for the Day they would be much more questioning and exploratory
and trying to pull out the underlying issues, very often the moral
issues, than the average Thought for the Day is.
Mr Pollock: May I give an example perhaps? Quite
recently, on the morning that Lord Joffe's Bill was going through
the House, Jonathan Sachs was on Thought for the Day giving
a strongly anti-euthanasia, anti-assisted dying thought from a
religious perspective. It would be perfectly possible to do a
humanist Thought for the Day which talked about the value
of life, wherein lies the value of life, why a residual life of
pain and no prospects for improvement might seem to a person to
lack value, and that there should be a permissive attitude towards
euthanasia. That would be helpful to a lot of people in the population
who are otherwise left only with a religious morality being voiced
on the air.
Q59 Lord Peston:
I was about to raise the subject of Lord Joffe's Bill myself.
Surely Lord Joffe's Bill and his case for it got an extremely
good airing on the BBC from very effective people? I agree that
they did not get that little slot that Jonathan Sachs got, but
no-one could argue surely that the case, exactly as you have just
put it forward yourself now, was not aired very fully on the BBC.
Ms Stinson: What happened that morning on Today
is that we had an excellent item on the Bill: we had Lord Joffe,
we had the Bishop, it was very, very even-handed, it was balanced
and both points of view, the religious point of view and Lord
Joffe's point of view were given a very, very good airing. I was
listening to that and I thought that it was a good balanced piece
of reporting. Immediately after that, or a couple of minutes after
that, we had a three-minute polemic on one side, which was totally
unmediated, which I felt therefore totally unbalanced that whole