Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60
WEDNESDAY 2 NOVEMBER 2005
Ms Hanne Stinson and Mr David Pollock
Q60 Lord Peston:
So it does bring us back to the view of Lord Holme of Cheltenham
that what you want is another three-minute polemic.
Ms Stinson: No; no.
Chairman: I think there is a question
of balance there. It might be useful if we took that specific
example with the BBC when they come.
Q61 Baroness Howe of Idlicote:
I should like to start way back. When you were making your introductory
statement it occurred to me first of all that the percentage of
humanists was quite small. The second point is: what about your
own lobbying for your organisation. Surely more could go on that
and would get it a higher profile. For example, do you start earlier,
in schools? Are you trying to get this thought about in schools?
If what you are saying is that the whole approach of morality
and ethical approach is really being ignored to the detriment
of how people develop, then this is a very good point to start.
Having said all that, it is not exactly the BBC, but it is what
we are talking about today. I should have thought you clearly
made a good case for why you should be included, why a non-religious
religion should be included in something like CRAC. What particular
role do you think they should be playing? Should they be there
to see that the situation you describe actually does not happen
or was better balanced?
Ms Stinson: May I start by responding on the
issue of schools and starting early? For many, many years the
British Humanist Association has been working together with religious
groups in order to improve religious education, and it has been
one of our major pieces of work for the last 40 years, if not
longer. Our aim there has always been not to get religious education
out of schools, but to make it better quality and ensure that
it covers and teaches a really good understanding of the different
religious beliefs and of non-religious beliefs. In fact I think
some very important progress was made quite recently with the
introduction of the national framework for religious education
which does now include non-religious beliefs and specifically
humanism. It is not compulsory of course, so we do not know to
what extent schools will actually pick that up, though there is
quite a lot of evidence that they are. We do see that as extremely
important and if all children do learn about other religions,
preferably with and from children with other beliefs, which is
why we are also opposed to separate education in faith schools,
which is a big issue which we obviously cannot go into, we think
that is actually extremely important. The other thing which is
extremely important is that the children who have non-religious
views, who express those in schools, have those views respected
and they are very often not. We get an awful lot of complaints
from parents who say "My little Johnny came home and do you
know what the teacher said to him?" and it was absolutely
outrageous. We hear it and it is absolutely outrageous. The teacher
will say they do not respect the child's views because they are
wrong. That is the sort of thing teachers sometimes say in schools.
That undermines children. I have forgotten the second part of
Q62 Baroness Howe of Idlicote:
It was really about the role of CRAC.
Ms Stinson: If the BBC were to take on board
that they have this responsibility to produce programming on religious
and on non-religious beliefs such as humanism, then I think there
would be a very, very obvious role for humanist representatives
on the CRAC; I see no question of it. The reason why we would
want it now is because, while a lot of religious programming is
perfectly acceptable and we have no problem with it, we would
want to feel that there is actually a mediating body which says
"If you're doing that, shouldn't you be doing this".
Q63 Baroness Howe of Idlicote:
If the percentage of those who are humanists, or those with non-religious
beliefs, is quite small, what sort of proportion would you be
Ms Stinson: I do not think I said that the percentage
of humanists is small. If the percentage of non-religious is 30,
40 maybe 50 per cent and we are saying that most of those people,
from the evidence we have, lead a broadly humanist life, even
if they cannot articulate it as humanism and even if they do not
call it humanism, then that is actually quite a large percentage.
I do not want to come here and say we should have so many hours
on Radio Four and so many hours on this or the other. It is, however,
important that there should be a regular slot which actually expounds
humanist views on particular topics; it would not be dogma, it
would be exploring issues. And there should also be some programmes
which actually explore it in more depth.
Q64 Lord Maxton:
Like Lord Peston I should declare an interest too. I am a member
of the all-party humanist group and I would go even further than
Lord Peston in declaring that I am an atheist, but I am also an
anti-clerical atheist in that I do not believe that religion is
beneficial to our society. If we look around the world at the
present time, religion is at the source of manynot all
but manyof the conflicts we see, even within our own country:
in Northern Ireland or where I come from in the west of Scotland.
It may be mainly in terms of football, but that is still there
and sectarianism is rife. That is why I believe that the BBC is
damaging our society, not quite in the same way as you do, but
because it is my view that it helps to sustain something which
is dying and gives it life support and it would be better for
the western secular liberal democratic world if it did die. Would
you like to comment?
Ms Stinson: I have some sympathy with that view.
I do believe that the BBC is artificially sustaining something
which is declining. Where I think I would take a slightly different
line is that I recognise that within our society religion is very
important to a percentage of the population. I would not want
to be so extreme as to say that those people should not have an
opportunity to hear that sort of view on the BBC. I should like
to see more of the sort of challenging programme that the group
which was here earlier was talking about, where there is really
in-depth analysis of some of the issues around religion. I think
that would be beneficial and I would support them totally on that.
I do see a place for religious broadcasting, obviously particularly
for those who are housebound, and until the churches improve their
distribution of material then that is good.
Q65 Lord Maxton:
At the end of the day, as in education, it is the job of the religious
organisations to provide the education. As I said to someone earlier,
a person who is housebound has often been a member of a church.
Surely they would much prefer to have a DVD or a video of the
church service taking place in that church on that Sunday, provided
by the church and often perhaps delivered by their own minister
or whoever might be in charge of that church. Is that not a much
better way of doing it than having this broad sweep of religion
Mr Pollock: If the BBC proposed abolishing all
religious broadcasting of the type I was mentioning earlier, religious
people talking religion directly to a religious audience, we would
not object. If it is going to continue, we should like to have
our share of it. It might be valuable just to go back to your
original question to illustrate the double stance of humanists.
As humanists individually, obviously we disagree with religious
views of the world and we think they are mistaken. We sometimes
think that they do harm. If religion disappeared gradually from
the world, we would think on balance that it would probably be
a better place. Our other stance is our stance towards living
in the community, in a society together with people who disagree
with us. There we support the sort of open democratic society
which respects rights, supports non-discrimination and so on.
Hanne is very busy at the moment on the steering group of the
Government's planned Commission for Equality and Human Rights.
We put a lot of our work into promoting the idea of non-discrimination,
of proper rights for all groups and respect between them. When
it comes to that, there is a need for broadcasting to reflect
the state of the world.
Q66 Lord Maxton:
I do not disagree with that. I believe entirely in the right of
anybody to believe in any religion but it seems to me that the
BBC and education do what in the Labour Party we used to call
positive discrimination. In other words, it actually positively
expounds that point of view rather than allowing the organisations
themselves to do the education.
Mr Pollock: That is the whole tenor of our evidence
to you. They are perhaps blind to what they are doing, but that
is exactly what they are doing.
Q67 Bishop of Manchester:
You might welcome a decline in religion, but the truth of the
matter is that on a world scale religion is growing numerically
and in influence. That is the situation we are in at the moment
and there is plenty of statistical backing to show that point.
I would accept some of what Lord Maxton says in terms of religion
being at the root of quite a lot of the problems; by no means
all and he did not say "all" either. It is quite clearly.
When that is the case, it is often because the violence, the conflicts
have been fed by ignorance and prejudice, which therefore to my
mindand I should be interested in your comments on thissuggests
that, far from putting religion into a ghetto slot on some separate
channel for those who want to watch it, it is actually increasingly
important to have well-informed and carefully put together programmes,
which enable people to be less ignorant and less prejudiced on
these things. I suspect that we would agree on that. Where I am
trying to tease out your position in all this, and you have said
a lot with which I agree, is that I am not quite sure on what
base you are building your particular viewpoints. One moment you
talk about non-religious beliefs and then we suddenly switch over
and you are talking about humanists. When Lord Peston says he
has non-religious beliefs, he comes to it from an atheistic viewpoint
and therefore would not feel presumably properly represented by
you. Here you are and it is very good to be able to engage in
this conversation, but what really is your, for want of a better
expression, power base? Can you legitimately claim to be speaking
for that quite wide range of people with non-religious beliefs?
In fact, if I may, I hope not unfairly, press the point, understandably
you said you would not be able to give a percentage of people
in the country who had humanist beliefs, either by recognising
themselves or not. Are you able actually to say what the membership
of the British Humanist Association is?
Ms Stinson: I am very happy to do that. At the
moment the membership of the British Humanist Association is just
over 5,000 individual members. There are also 50-something affiliated
groups around the country who are separate, so the membership
is not counted in that. That is a very small membership. If I
also tell you, that until I became the Executive Director of the
British Humanist Association I was not a member, even though I
have been a humanist all my life, that says something about why
people actually join an organisation.
Q68 Bishop of Manchester:
Yes, I could use that argument about the Christian church.
Ms Stinson: There is no pressure at all on humanists,
no expectation that they will join anything. People join the British
Humanist Association because they support our work. Whether it
is our educational work, whether it is our ceremonies or whether
it is our lobbying and campaigning, they do it specifically for
that purpose, not just in order to express their humanism. I was
interested in what you said about the decline of religion in this
country compared with the growth elsewhere, because I think that
is no doubt true.
Q69 Bishop of Manchester:
I do not think I expressed it quite like that.
Ms Stinson: When you said that, what instantly
came into my mind was that the number of religious people in this
country is declining. The influence of religion in this country
is growing and there is no doubt about that. The extent to which
the religions are consulted by the Government and by local authorities
and so on is growing. Their influence via the BBC is growing.
It is far more common now for the BBC to call in a religious person
in order to give a moral view, which is something of an issue
for us anyway, on a particular issue, whether it is stem cell
research or abortion or anything like that. The influence is growing
enormously and that is actually why, suddenly, although our membership
is still very small, it started growing because non-religious
people, who for a long time had not thought about religion very
much, leading their lives by broad and humanist principles and
not worrying about religion, are suddenly saying that they are
being influenced now by religion in a way they do not want to
be. They can see religion is influencing all sorts of things in
a way they do not want, such as Lord Joffe's Bill, where 82 per
cent of the population is actually in favour of legislation but
the religions are against it. They are asking why religion now
has all this influence, and that is a very large difference in
Bishop of Manchester: On a point of accuracy
there, not all those opposed to Lord Joffe's Bill are opposing
it from a religious viewpoint.
Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: And
not all those in support of it are not religious.
Ms Stinson: I accept that
Q70 Lord Kalms:
Would it be right to assume that you are a proselyte organisation?
Ms Stinson: No.
Q71 Lord Kalms:
You are not proactive in trying to encourage people to join your
Ms Stinson: We should like people to join our
organisation, but we are not interested in converting religious
people to humanism. Where we are interested is in supporting non-religious
people, who have broadly humanist views, to articulate those and
understand those more clearly. I do not think that is proselytising.
Q72 Baroness Howe of Idlicote:
On a point of clarification, may I ask whether you can be an atheist
and be a humanist.
Ms Stinson: Oh, yes.
Mr Pollock: Yes.
Q73 Baroness Howe of Idlicote:
You can. So as a hater of one religion or all religions you can
still be a humanist.
Mr Pollock: For humanists and for man in his
natural state almost, religion is an irrelevance. We do not define
ourselves by reference to religion. We define ourselves as the
people we are with the views we have. When it turns to defining
our answers to what are generally called ultimate questions, ours
are humanist answers. We share a lot with religious people because
they, like us, take these ultimate questions seriously. What is
the meaning of life? What does death mean? What should our purpose
be? What is the root of our morality and so on? Religion does
not obsess me. I do not define myself by my lack of religion.
Ms Stinson: I would say that both atheism and
agnosticism are negative responses to religion in the sense that
they are saying "I do not believe that". Either I definitely
believe that is not true or I do not believe it but I cannot actually
prove that it is not, and those are two different positions. Somebody
who leads their life by humanist principles has in a sense a negative
starting point; saying what I am not. Whenever I say what I am,
I say I am a humanist because I try to lead an ethical life on
the basis of humanist morality.
Q74 Lord Kalms:
May I come back to your submission? You make some very strong
points about a space in which to represent your views; I am not
arguing against that. In paragraph 32 you say very specifically
"We want the BBC to cease discriminating against non-religious
beliefs by recognising that they are part of the same spectrum
as religion and should be treated on equal terms". That is
not actually a very strong argument; in fact it is the weakest
argument in your whole paper. I do not quite see how you can say
that non-religious beliefs are in the same spectrum as religious
beliefs and you are asking now for equal time. It is a little
bit like saying that there is a pet lover programme on the BBC
and they should give equal time to those who dislike pets. The
two sides have nothing to do with each other: religious beliefs
are a powerful force in our society and non-religious beliefs
may well also be, if you argue with your 5,000 members, a powerful
force, but to equate the two is not a serious issue, they are
two separate, complete arguments.
Ms Stinson: No, they are not. I would say my
non-religious belief, my humanism, is as powerful a force for
me as a religious person's religious beliefs are. What we are
talking about is the way I view the world, or a religious person
views the world. It is a life stance, it is a basic philosophy,
it is the way we understand the world. Some people have a religious
way of understanding the world and some people have a non-religious
way of understanding the world, and on that basis it is a spectrum.
It is also recognised in the Human Rights Act that equates those
beliefs, whether they are religious beliefs or non-religious beliefs,
because it is the way we answer ultimate questions. That is the
distinction, that is the range, the spectrum of beliefs, which
is about the position you take on yourself as a person, on the
world, your world view, your life stance, your beliefs.
Q75 Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen:
You say that the BBC should cease discriminating against you.
Are you actually therefore saying that the BBC is deliberately
Ms Stinson: I think we have to assume that it
is deliberate because for the last 40 years we have been asking
them not to discriminate. The sort of answer we get back is the
sort of answer I alluded to earlier, that 90-odd per cent of the
output is secular. They have not taken on board the argument I
made just now, which is that there is this spectrum of views,
of world views, of life stances, on which they should not discriminate.
Yes, we do feel discriminated against.
Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen makes a very important point.
You say that the BBC is discriminating against you. What would
it take to persuade you that they were not discriminating against
you? What is it really? As this is a Committee about the BBC,
what is it you really want from the BBC?
Mr Pollock: That they should obey the law in
the Human Rights Act which tells them as a public authority not
to discriminate on grounds of religion or belief. The Communications
Act does something very similar. They persistently refuse to answer
our very strong case that they are in fact so discriminating.
The case is almost open and shut and if they provide three and
a half hours on Radio Four every week for religious people to
talk to religious people and never a minute for humanists to talk
about humanism to humanist people, then whatever the numbers are,
that is discrimination.
So you want not necessarily equality, but some kind of balance.
Mr Pollock: Yes; we would agree with Alan Bookbinder,
the head of religion and ethics, when he said that all the licence
payers are entitled to see their belief reflected back to them.
Q78 Bishop of Manchester:
If I may say so, if you are quoting him, he also went on to say
the 30 per cent who do not believe in god and lead effectively
humanist lives have acres of TV and radio time devoted to secular
Mr Pollock: To game shows, to makeovers, to
sport. Where? Where else?
Q79 Lord Peston:
Is one of the problems not that the religious side has an internal
pressure group in the BBC working away to fill up slots and the
non-religious side does not have the equivalent in terms of internal
Ms Stinson: And is not represented.
Lord Peston: I have always felt that
one of the real problems for the BBC is that if it wants to have
this internal religious department, then it really ought to have
some balance from others saying they want a programme, say, on
the great philosopher Spinoza who became non-religious as a result
of being excommunicated, but whose views clearly came in a sense
from the same set of problems as those who excommunicated him.