Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

I am not quite sure what I am saying. It may be that I would prefer the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, not to withdraw his Motion at the end of his debate. What I am really asking for is a programme in which we develop together a common vision of a society in which we face the fact that there are serious disagreements but on the other hand rejoice in the

19 Apr 2007 : Column 343

points of common life that we can create together and perhaps draw the sting out of a discussion that could otherwise easily turn into who is more marginalised than whom—a discussion that I would find regrettably unconstructive compared with the vision of the papers and the ring binder that the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, has put into my mind.

12.24 pm

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Harrison on initiating this timely debate. I declare an interest as chairman of the All-Party Humanist Group. Perhaps another relevant interest is that during 30 years working in television I was responsible for the production of religious programmes during periods at Granada and Scottish Television. As a non-believer I worked amicably with the religious advisers and produced a pretty wide range of programmes that were usually well received by viewers of all faiths and none. I hope to build on that experience of constructive collaboration and perhaps persuade colleagues who are religious to support my appeal today for television scheduling that is broadened to encompass ethical and philosophical as well as religious matters; scheduling that allows time for the systematic exploration of other belief systems such as humanism.

More specifically, this appeal is directed at the BBC, at its executive board and at the public appointees on the new BBC trust. The appeal to the BBC to update its approach to religious broadcasting is well-founded on recent legislation, parliamentary debates, Select Committee reports and ministerial statements, all of which informed the new BBC charter and the BBC’s agreement with Government. I am pleased to say that the All-Party Humanist Group, now with a growing membership of around 100 MPs and Peers, played a constructive role at all stages of the debates on broadcasting.

Our humanist focus in Parliament was how best to broaden the appeal of religious and ethical broadcasting, how to make it more representative and attractive, thus helping broadcasters in their mission of,

The humanist group helped to ensure that the Communications Act 2003 gave the BBC a duty to make programmes about “religion and other beliefs”. Indeed, the Minister in your Lordships’ House responsible for broadcasting in 2003, my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey, specifically stated that these “other beliefs” included non-religious beliefs. During the parliamentary business of the BBC charter renewal, my noble friend Lord Davies of Oldham confirmed, quite assertively as I recall, that parity of esteem should be granted to other beliefs. Some guidance on the nature of the new approach came from the report of the Select Committee on BBC charter renewal, ably led by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, which recommended that,

19 Apr 2007 : Column 344

The Select Committee also called for the “objective portrayal” and “wide definition” of,

Further, the Select Committee was,

With its new charter and structures in place, the BBC will now, I trust, respond to the needs of a changing society. When I first produced programmes 40 years ago, religious programmes were overwhelmingly Christian programmes. Today, BBC output must take account of the beliefs of several million UK citizens who are Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or Hindus. It surely is now time for this outreach in pursuit of broader understanding and tolerance to embrace the many millions more British citizens who are not religious believers but who aspire nevertheless to lead good lives. Those non-religious people can construct principled ethical frameworks from ancient, universal wisdom, from Confucianism or Stoicism, or from the Enlightenment philosophy of David Hume or John Stuart Mill, or indeed from the writings of philosophers today such as Anthony Grayling.

I accept that the recent increase in public interest in humanism is in part a reaction to the increased and sometimes threatening activism of religious fundamentalists. Naturally, we humanists are fearful of irrational fervour that rejects tolerance and refuses dialogue. However, we must not allow those very real concerns to dictate or distort the positive role that we might play in broadcasting, letting ourselves be defined as simply anti-religious. Humanists will resist being defined negatively and then no doubt having our demands for fair treatment fobbed off by reference to occasional atheistic essays by a Richard Dawkins or a Jonathan Miller, however worthwhile and thought-provoking those might be. The appeal on behalf of 100 or more parliamentarians and for countless freethinking viewers is much wider, as illustrated by this debate.

I encourage the new chairman of the BBC trust, Sir Michael Lyons, and the BBC director-general, Mark Thompson, to open a public dialogue on how best the BBC can update its approach to religious and ethical broadcasting to meet its new remit. I assure noble Lords that humanists would participate constructively to produce the kind of religious and ethical programming that would help the BBC in its vital requirement to sustain citizenship and civil society.

12.29 pm

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I have to thank the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, but I admit to him that I have never spent so long in preparing for a five-minute speech and then feeling that what I had put together was not what I was trying to achieve. He has, indeed, challenged us and I have to admit that at one stage I thought that I would not be able to take part in this debate.

I accept the views that the noble Lord has expressed and I accept that he has shown us in his

19 Apr 2007 : Column 345

contribution that a lot of his views are based on his family experience—and I suspect that most of us who are speaking will find that as well. He mentioned how his children had to go to the local Church of England school because it was nearer, although it did not really suit him. I would slightly challenge him on that; if that had been me, I do not think I would have done that if I really did not believe that there was goodness to be gained from that school. If it represented something against which I believed, I am certain that my children would not have gone to that school.

The noble Lord also challenged us on praying in this Chamber. I cannot always get in, but I feel that it is very much a part of the start of preparation. He said that we could do it elsewhere; but debates take place in this Chamber and that is why it is so important that those who have faith and who wish to participate are able to do so.

My journey is probably similar to many others—family, school, church and everything else. At one stage, when I was confirmed, I wanted to become a missionary. I thought that that definitely was my calling in life. Unfortunately, my later teens took me down a different road and I went through a period during which I certainly did not support the Church in the normal, regular way. But it has become an important part of my life and I wish to share that briefly.

I was delighted to be invited to become a canon of Leicester Cathedral, which is at the centre of a multi-cultural, multi-faith city—and we welcome people to the cathedral. But my normal routine practice has been with a small parish church, and I have the great joy to be one of the servers, because, to me, the most personal and private part of our faith is when communion is taken. For me, that is a bonus.

I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, if he has concerns about church schools, why do so many people—many of whom perhaps are not active in the Church—seek to send their children to those schools? The noble Lord needs to answer that question in some way. What is it about those schools and why do people choose them? My husband is a governor of Barleycroft, a primary school in the middle of Leicester. There are 17 mother tongues in that school and I cannot imagine the number of faiths that it copes with, but it tries to share. The importance of the debate today is to get a better understanding and acceptance for the good of the whole.

I turn now briefly to something that I have come across over many recent years. I have a great friend who has struggled with alcoholism. It is a huge problem, particularly at a time when people are at their lowest, for whatever reason—there is no self-belief, they see no way out of it. Alcoholics Anonymous has produced a little blue book. It is simple—and chapter 4 talks about agnostics. Clearly, some of those people have no belief. Through this book, the organisation tries to say to people, “We believe in a power greater than ourselves”. We could debate that, but that is not religion or faith in the purest sense, and it gives a person, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, has said, a chance to start somewhere. It is

19 Apr 2007 : Column 346

remarkable how that book and that approach to helping people to start to climb a mountain—to believe in themselves and in helping others—help them manage to overcome their problem. I am delighted to say that my friend will say that every hour, every minute, every day is another challenge to her; but if it were not for that book—and she at that stage did not have that faith—she would not have managed to come out of it.

Lastly, I share with your Lordships the whole question of religion for those who cannot find faith. It is not for everyone and I respect the views of the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, and other speakers. Many noble Lords know that, sadly, our son committed suicide in 1999. 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.

12.35 pm

Baroness Greengross: My Lords, perhaps I may start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for initiating this debate and to say how deeply I was moved by listening to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, just now.

I want to talk about something that is a little different—the vision of the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights, of which I am privileged to be a member. The vision of the new commission is of a Britain at ease with its diversity, in which all its people are treated with respect and fairly, and where they can be certain that they will be treated equally under the law—as embodied in the Human Rights Act, the Equality Act and the employment equality regulations. The Human Rights Act outlaws discrimination between people on the grounds of religion or belief. Two words are used in those Acts—“religion” and “belief”, which are obviously considered to be different or one word would suffice.

Non-religious beliefs are defined as spiritual or philosophical convictions which have an identifiable formal content—humanism being an obvious example. Unfortunately, the Human Rights Act has been slow to be fully enforced and to make its full impact in all the areas where humanists and other non-religious people need it to. Non-religious beliefs are of a single type in their legal aspect along with religious beliefs. They are legally equivalent to religious beliefs, but we have seen again and again that the implications of that are not being felt.

When the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights advised that, to be compliant with the legal requirement not to discriminate between religious and non-religious beliefs, Parliament should

19 Apr 2007 : Column 347

explicitly include “belief” along with “religion” in the current Charities Bill, the Government paid no heed to its recommendations. To comply fully with the law, non-religious beliefs must be recognised across all relevant public policy in their own right as having equal validity to religious ones. The implications of this must be fully realised in services, employment, marriage and so on—and in all areas where religion is currently an issue.

Part of the problem has been that until now there has been no real enforcer of equality and human rights law. I hope that that will soon change as a result of the CEHR and I hope that a fair approach to religion and belief will begin to be promoted as a result of its creation. I have been inspired in my life by people who live their faith—and they are of many faiths—and by people who do not have a faith and who believe that we should have total responsibility for our own moral codes. I hope that fairness and equal treatment under the law will be what we can all expect.

12.38 pm

Baroness Rendell of Babergh: My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Harrison on an original idea for this debate and on a fine opening speech. I begin by quoting the final lines of a poem;

To lie before us like a land of dreams, So various, so beautiful, so new,Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; And we are here as on a darkling plainSwept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night”.

Thus Matthew Arnold on Dover beach watched the receding tide of Christian faith, at a time when science was starting to assert its claims and people began to turn away from Christianity. Many of them, like me, began as Anglicans but lost their faith in youth or middle age.

The trappings of the religion we have lost remain dear to us. Let us take church music. Where would we be without Bach or Handel? What about the writings of the saints? I wonder how many times, with increasing enjoyment, I have read the Life of St Teresa of Avila and The Confessions of St Augustine. When I go to Florence, one of my greatest pleasures is to visit the Carmine to look at Masaccio's “The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden”, an event in which I emphatically do not believe. In the words of Thomas Hardy, an atheist but a “churchy” man, who loved ritual and church music:

Darwin wrote:

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

19 Apr 2007 : Column 348

seemed an incontrovertible truth was acceptable only when magic was a reality and science a mystery.

One of the great pleasures of my life was to attend morning service and to hear the most beautiful prose ever written in the English language. Its demise, to be succeeded by the New English Bible and the Alternative Service Book, put an end to that. Slowly, as the prayer book and King James Bible faded from use, so their language passed from the vernacular. It is rapidly becoming as though that language had never been.

When I was young, Bible and prayer book language permeated the speech of every Christian. However ignorant they might have been in other aspects, they were all in possession of this particular lingua franca. They understood when someone spoke of the Good Samaritan or the lilies of the field. Such obsolete words as “manger” had their own significance, as did “falling on stony ground”. Society was bound together by this language. In rural communities, someone who failed to understand it would have been regarded as strange and, oddly, among those who in other ways were barely literate, uneducated. Now, to the middle-aged, it is barely recognisable and entirely mysterious to the young.

Not long ago, a friend told me that he wondered what the world we lived in would be like if religious faith had not dictated the form that works of art must take. What would painters and sculptors have taken for their subjects in the absence of the Holy Family and the saints? There is, of course, no answer. We cannot even guess what we might have had instead of “The Last Supper” or the many depositions and resurrections. But if we had had more “Mona Lisas”, more assembled families and “The Marriage in Florence” instead of “The Marriage at Cana”, would that have made so much difference? As it is, painters put their friends and relatives into their pictures, thinly disguised as Mary Magdalene and St Peter, but these paintings brought people together and gave them a common bond as they came into the church—perhaps the only beautiful and gorgeous place they ever knew.

It seems to be true that, if God did not exist, we would have to invent him and that many who would call themselves atheists turn to other objects of veneration or are drawn to witchcraft, black magic, astrology and various types of divination. In Greece, I understand, a group of people have returned to the worship of the Olympian gods and sacrifice to Zeus and Aphrodite. Was society morally better when:

“The Sea of FaithWas 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. Arnold’s ignorant armies clashed by night then as now. Atrocities and massacres occurred when almost everyone believed in obeying the commandment “Thou shalt not kill”.

Are we better now? Not noticeably, although we may be more aware. Most of us know that we should not abuse children, commit perjury or steal, but we go

19 Apr 2007 : Column 349

on committing crimes that we no longer call sins. Lately, a child in London has been murdered nearly every week. There are still 7 million slaves in the world. God could not make us good but nor does his absence. It is strange that so many people declaim, when misfortune comes, “What have I done to deserve this?”.

The countries of Scandinavia, intensely Lutheran while Ibsen was writing, later became almost entirely secular. They are widely acclaimed as societies nearer to the ideal than any others and are held up as an example to the rest of us. Post hoc is not proper hoc, but the fact remains that, when Scandinavians were at their most devout in the 19th century, their peasantry was desperately poor and emigrating in droves.

It appears that society is much the same when atheist as it was when godly. It has lost a certain kind of cohesion—the comradeship of Bible language and church assemblies—but not the music, literature and art of Christianity, and there is no sign that it will.

12.44 pm

Lord Carey of Clifton: My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for introducing this debate on a very unusual topic, although I am sorry that he attacked the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York in the way that he did. I do not think that anyone should be attacked for holding strong views, and the Archbishop is greatly admired and respected for his. However, I agree with the noble Lord in finding common ground between us, and I hope that my contribution will help towards that end.

For me, the issue is largely about the kind of society that we all aim to create and how responsible listening and arguments might strengthen the building up of community. The debate hangs on the word “religion”, and thereby also hangs a problem. We simply cannot lump religions together in that way as though they mean the same thing; they do not. 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. Both the unbeliever and the believer are essentially handling the same data—the same raw material, of which Professor Brian Hebblethwaite posed the question: how do we best account for the data all around us? That is, how do we best account for the existence of a universe endowed with powers and laws when apparently none of this has to be? How do we account for the capacity of the fundamental stuff of the universe to evolve not only life and consciousness but also mind, intelligence and personality? I find that some atheists seem to be unaware that their beliefs, too, are at best a faith. Indeed, it seemed to me to be a lot to swallow that from absolute chaos, confusion, chance and futility have emerged intelligence, moral awareness, beauty and purpose.

I make those points to underline the fact that many intelligent believers are anxious to relate their

19 Apr 2007 : Column 350

beliefs to truths of different kinds. We are not all obscurantists or flat-Earthers. From these observations flow my concern that, in building a good, strong, free and secure society in which truth and beauty exist, we need to co-operate more—I think that that is the purpose of the noble Lord’s Motion—and to find ways to overcome barriers to our working together. It is certainly untrue that the voice of the humanist is silenced in our land; indeed, these days it is often harder for the Christian believer to be heard.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page