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The challenge breaks two ways. It is certainly true that those who profess a religion must realise their responsibility to contribute to the health of society. They must not impose barriers on freedom to think differently or compel their adherents to believe in set ways. That there is bad religion around cannot be doubted. We have only to consider what Sunni and Shi’ite believers are doing to each other in Iraq at the moment to see what evil can be done in the name of Allah Most Compassionate. The same could be said of Christianity in the past. But there is another side of religion: the vast majority of believers of all faiths are honourable, decent people who live by their creeds and want to make a better world.

By the same token, those who profess no faith or belief have a responsibility to put their own personal beliefs to work. If the profession of no faith simply leads people to assume that life is meaningless and ultimately purposeless, then its contribution to life is worthless and not worthy of debate in your Lordships’ House. But if the professing of no religion leads, as it often does, to humanism, it can make a great contribution to our world, and that should be encouraged. However, if I may be a little provocative, 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. He writes:

It is not my intention to score points. Our world has enough divisions without deepening controversy and taking attention off its serious problems. I believe that the Motion charges us all to move beyond using our freedom to disagree, to building a world where all believers and unbelievers may use their beliefs as building blocks to create a better society.

12.50 pm

Baroness Murphy: My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for raising this debate. I speak as a rationalist, agnostic—I shall not say atheist in the light of the comments of the noble

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and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey. It is not a particularly comfortable matter, but one reason to contribute to this debate is to stand up and be counted.

I was going to remain rather calm throughout this, but 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 want to spend my few minutes expressing concerns about the growing influence of religion on the delivery of public services. I am very uncomfortable with the 2003 government policy of encouraging faith-based organisations to participate in public service provision. Of course, I acknowledge that there are occasions when religious organisations or their representatives can reach those unreachable by statutory sector workers. I can cite a good example. In the Hassidic Jewish community in north Hackney in the early 1990s we had very low rates of child immunisation in the health service because of a myth that had grown up among the women in the community about its religious significance. Local GPs and health visitors tried hard to persuade, but it was the mobilisation of the community rabbis who finally nailed this myth and persuaded the women that immunisation was a good thing for their community and worked positively to their children's advantage. I was deeply honoured to work with them and am grateful for their intervention.

The crucial issue for me is whether religious service organisations compete on an even playing field for public service contracts, are explicitly committed to delivering services to people of all faiths and none without prejudice, disapproval or proselytisation, and whether they have employment practices consistent with public service values. I have three examples. The first is an organisation on which I served, and with which I was proud to be associated. For many years I sat on the board of Springboard Housing Association, established by a Christian minister with explicit Christian values. It continues to deliver housing services to scores of people with mental health problems, learning disabilities and to older people. It is true that in the early days we started our board meetings with a prayer, which took me as much by surprise as Prayers when I first started in this House but the ethos was established early that it would deliver services without prejudice or proselytisation. On its website there is no religion, but there is an exemplary statement of values and employment practice. It is a great organisation and I hope that it will continue to deliver public services.

During the 1980s and 1990s when I was a community psychiatrist in inner London, I saw homeless mentally ill people, particularly those with alcohol and drug dependence problems, sleeping on the streets rather than go into a shelter where they would be subjected not only to disapproval but rules drawn up to satisfy religious edicts. I am told that the Salvation Army is less rigid than it was, but its website

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did not give me comfort that those people would be as welcome as they should be.

An example that is more worrying is CrossReach, which was formerly known as the Church of Scotland Board of Social Responsibility. It employs more than 2,000 staff in 80 services stretching from Shetland to the Borders, providing care and support services for thousands of people. Indeed, it has an excellent reputation for the quality of care that it provides. I say that first of all. It has an annual expenditure of more than £45 million, of which more than 99 per cent comes directly from local government. It is overtly proselytising, its website is as embarrassing as Radio 4's “Prayer for the Day” and it makes quite clear that it reserves jobs in the organisation for those who share its particular brand of faith. The Scots are even less religious as a nation than the English or Welsh. I wonder what it feels like to have your social care delivered by this overtly missionary organisation.

How can the Government encourage local government to contract with religious organisations for public services? What guidance do they provide on mission statements and the policies that they follow before handing out public money for back-door ways of pushing beliefs that most people now find unbelievable?

12.56 pm

Baroness Massey of Darwen: My Lords, I am very pleased that my noble friend Lord Harrison has secured this debate. It gives us the opportunity to explore some important issues to which I hope we shall return, including the view that spirituality, mystery, values, a full life and concern for others are not the property of the religious alone.

EM Forster said in 1938 in a marvellous essay called “What I Believe” that to,

one had to believe in personal relationships. I agree with him. He went on to say that the,

Indeed, all types are entitled to respect, equal status and an equal profile. This does not always happen to those who profess no faith, as others have said.

Fundamentalist views in religion are largely responsible, of course. Wars, torture and discrimination are some by-products of religion as well as human venality. I want to consider attitudes towards sexuality and women in religion. Historical dogmatism still influences us, as do some rather bizarre attitudes. I have just read a book called Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven which tells of Origen, successor to Clement of Alexandria. Seeking Christian perfection, he castrated himself and declared that quite a few women indulged unceasingly in lust. Clement himself had earlier said that,

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Augustine, too, recommended control over sexuality, noting that some people can move their ears either one at a time or both together. Therefore, controlling the sexual organ with will should be possible. It is little wonder that there is confusion, embarrassment and guilt about sexuality.

Perhaps these examples are extreme, but it is true that attitudes to sexuality and sensible, healthy debate have been adversely affected by historical, religious attitudes. Extremism may appear ridiculous, but it is alive and well, and it is dangerous. It adversely affects those who do not adhere to its tenets. For example, recently an applicant for a post at a right-wing Christian college in Middlesbrough was grilled in the interview about his views on the Catholic Church, birth control and whether he believed in Noah's ark. This man happens to be a Methodist lay preacher. I was in the United States recently where it was reported that extreme members of a Baptist Church in Topeka had picketed burials around the country of American troops killed in combat in Iraq, claiming that their deaths were God's punishment for a nation harbouring homosexuals.

What is going on here? In his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins suggests that religion may be a by-product of something else. Large numbers of people,

They do indeed, and they often hide their prejudices behind professed religious faith. This prejudice shows itself in relation to sexuality, women, gay people, science and a host of other things.

People sometimes ask me, “Can you not accept that religion has inspired wonderful art, music, poetry and architecture?”, as referred to by my noble friend Lady Rendell. Well, not quite. Some great religious art, in its broadest sense, was initially condemned by religion, even defaced or destroyed. In any case, I argue that those artists were displaying a creative instinct rather than a religious one. I have immense respect for many courageous and humane people who profess a faith in your Lordships’ House. While I do not support the retention of the Bishops’ Benches, 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 life to the underprivileged. 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.

I still distrust religion in its fundamental form, and am proud to be a humanist. I do not feel threatened. We are a growing number, and a more vocal group. We have a valid and important contribution to make to society. We should be consulted, locally and nationally, on issues which affect society. I hope that politicians will take note. Does the Minister agree?

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1.01 pm

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: My Lords, I speak as a humanist. I agree with the position of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, and am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for introducing this debate. I do not wish to convert anyone, but I understand how difficult it is for right reverend Prelates even to understand the sort of position that humanists adopt; the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, who is sadly not in his place, was one.

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 9 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. Practical matters arise from that. The Government are bound by the standards which the Human Rights Act has adopted into our law. I will advert as quickly as I can to areas where the Government should take note and, perhaps, begin an inquiry or, as has been suggested, some dialogue with humanists, who suffer a number of disadvantages in a religious environment.

First, on broadcasting, everybody knows that you can hear “Thought for the Day” at a quarter to eight. The British Humanist Association asked whether some humanists without a belief in God could be selected for these talks, which are currently usually given by people who think that morality and a sense of behavioural conduct can be introduced only by those who believe in God. The BBC replied in correspondence, saying that it could not include such speakers. Why?

Secondly, on charities, a religious organisation automatically passes the first test imposed by the Charities Act 2006. Organisations for other purposes and beliefs do not. That is straightforward discrimination. On health, as noble Lords have mentioned, the National Health Service recruits chaplains; so do prisons. All of them are either Christian or some other faith. As I found, being in hospital a lot last year, no humanist chaplains appear to exist.

When Swedish doctors found that women were threatened by a plague of chlamydia, they organised distribution of condoms in the streets and backed explicit television programmes explaining their use. Could that happen here? I very much doubt it. I ask the right reverend Prelates who have spoken whether they will support a move to liberalise broadcasting in that respect from public service bodies, which are bound to a balance of religion and other beliefs. Then there is the Government’s structure of consultation, based on the paper Working Together in 2003. In fact, the standing advisory panels and other groups that control the consultative process include no humanists and no persons other than those who belong, with great respect, to religious organisations.

On education, we all know that a church school can be either the only primary school in a district, or certainly the best. I congratulate the Church of England on maintaining the quality of church schools, but when you see humanist parents going to

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church on a Sunday for perhaps the first time ever, certainly only for a short period, you know why: they wish to get some advantage for their child in school selection. I have personal experience of a great number of people doing this; it really does discriminate in society. More importantly, Church of England schools, for which a report was produced for the Archbishops in 2001, still aim to proselytise and convert. It is a problem in our society that schools based on religious faith must have a divisive effect. The new academies include an increasing number of aggressively religious schools teaching creationism. One such school states that its object is to instruct pupils that,

That is hardly an inclusive philosophy to put to children who enter.

Lastly, the justification for some of these things is, as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said in a recent debate, based upon the census of 2001. It stated that 72 per cent of the population ticked a box saying “Christian” in a long list of religions ending with “None”. That result has clearly been exploded by the Office for National Statistics. Other surveys have shown that the number of humanists in society with no religious belief is much higher than the Government state. I must end there, but I suggest that there are practical matters for ordinary people here which demand some inquiry or consultation from the Government with the British Humanist Association.

1.08 pm

Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, 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 modern dilemmas. I remind the House of my interest as a vice-president of the British Humanist Association.

I will not rehearse the many Asian, Greek and Roman thinkers, from the Indians of 700 BCE to Seneca in the first years of the Christian era who upheld this idea, but they are most interestingly analysed in Karen Armstrong's latest book, The Great Transformation: The World in the Time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah. She emphasises their focus on conduct. It is in this spiritual development of thinking about conduct that humanism belongs and has its origins.

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. The great schema of conduct like the Code of Hammurabi, the doctrines of Confucius and the Buddha and the precepts of the Old Testament prophets are great early ethical frameworks.

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Skipping a few centuries, the Enlightenment added a new chapter to the humanistic strand, growing as it did out of the evidence-based discoveries of the scientific renaissance, but, perhaps following the excesses of the French revolution, humanism later became publicly much less respectable. Although nobody tried to imprison Thomas Hardy, George Eliot or Joseph Conrad, the MP Charles Bradlaugh was sentenced to six months for refusing to take the parliamentary oath and had to speak from a barge just outside territorial waters to avoid arrest. I hope we know better now.

After all, 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.

Humanism can include many cultural bases. Jawaharlal Nehru said to George Bernard Shaw:

Perhaps I may put myself in the box of Jewish atheist, very attached to one of the precepts of the prophet Micah:

But other faiths would claim these values too and why not? I am delighted that the Berlin declaration published on 25 March by the German presidency reflects the broad sweep of Europe’s heritage and values and does not confine itself to the narrow Christian strain. I am also glad that this was supported by many religious groups and all those who think that church and state should stick to their separate roles.

I also 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. I do not think that makes me an aggressive secularist; but it does alienate me from aggressive proselytising. The website of the Department for Communities and Local Government says:

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. I think my noble friend’s department has government responsibility for non-religious belief as much as for religion and I hope she will listen with her usual perspicacity and push for more recognition for the non-religious approach. We are grateful for the grant of £25,000; but I think we would all benefit if local, regional and national bodies convened by the DCLG on matters of religion and belief and

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community cohesion had humanist representatives, who could more accurately reflect the beliefs and values of that large minority who do not profess a religion.

1.13 pm

Lord Joffe: My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for introducing this debate. I come to this debate with some hesitation because, although I am an atheist, I have always respected the Church of England for the courageous conduct of some of its clergy in South Africa during the apartheid regime, for its social and community work in the UK and for its stand on many human rights issues, and, of course, my admiration and respect for the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York is unbounded.

Sadly, however, 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 purpose of the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill was to prevent the unnecessary suffering of terminally ill patients. I imagined that, although there would be strong opposition from faith groups, they would show concern about the suffering and that, in their opposition, they would rely on well researched evidence, thoughtfully and calmly. I also assumed that they, as a small minority, would show respect for the 80 per cent of the public who supported the Bill. I thought that the church’s attitude would be similar to the way in which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester spoke earlier in this debate: calm, thoughtful and constructive. However, I was quite wrong. Compassion and respect for the views of the majority on suffering did not figure in that debate on the part of the opponents.

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