“I celebrate today the contribution of humanists and atheists to the common good. I revel in our common humanity, our shared commitment to society and the gift of friendship.”
On 25th July 2013, Lord Harrison led a debate in the House of Lords to take note of the contribution of atheists and humanists to United Kingdom society. The Bishop of Birmingham, the Rt Revd David Urquhart, welcomed the debate and the contribution of humanists and aetheists to the common good. He hoped that the debate would challenge intolerant tribalism and noted that people of faith, atheists and humanists had in common a desire to explore profound questions about life.
The Lord Bishop of Birmingham: My Lords, while I am still privileged to occupy the Bench of the Lords spiritual on behalf of the nation, I am delighted to say that the debate today is most welcome and I am honoured to follow the previous three speakers. They have given us the opportunity to hear the great deal of good that can and should be recognised, wherever we find it, whether in philosophy—the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, reminded us of the great traditions of humanist philosophy—or in science. I note the point of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, about the very serious business of assisted dying; I am sure that we will work hard on that together to get it right.
There is also the wonderful good that comes from humanists or atheists ringing bells. So often in society we appear to be motivated simply by our own interests, with the consequence that acknowledging good in others is interpreted simply as disloyalty to one’s tribe. Within the church, we are not immune to this problem. None the less, the Christian tradition points to the wider generosity; when Jesus was asked for an example of neighbourliness, he told a story about the Samaritan and not a good religious Jew, such as himself. I hope that, among many other themes, this debate will challenge intolerant tribalism in all walks of life wherever we find it.
While my Christian faith came alive in Idi Amin’s Uganda when I was 18, many of my closest friends are more comfortable with atheism or humanism. We have in common a desire to explore profound questions about life, meaning, the universe and everything else. We may have different views or come to different conclusions. We may even become stronger in our own conclusions. I should add on the subject of the resurrection that my views on its veracity have not changed much since I was 18. We appreciate one another as seekers of truth and adventure together.
The contribution that people of various beliefs, religious or not, make to society is measured not simply by clearly held propositions—I do not doubt that we will hear more of those this afternoon—but by the actions that those beliefs inspire them to take. There are committed humanists, atheists, Christians, and those of other religions and faiths and of no faith, in every political party and independent person represented in this House and in the other place. As we have already begun to hear, members of the church work regularly, constructively and happily alongside humanists and atheists in pursuit of the common good. I am delighted that the noble Lord who has given us the opportunity to have this debate is making good use of his local parish church.
A difference is perhaps that religious people and religions usually offer a collective practice, in worship and social action, whereas one notices from time to time, in spite of the association, that humanists and atheists contribute more as individuals. This should not stop us working together, when we can be allies one day and even if we are opponents another, achieving together what we can and learning from each other when we are opposed. The boundaries between belief systems are a good deal more fluid than most people assume. For example, there is a long and honourable tradition of Christian humanism, traceable back to the Middle Ages. The noble Baroness spoke of thinkers such as Erasmus. This tradition focuses on Jesus’s message about the basic moral significance of human beings. We tend mainly in modernity to see the opening up between theistic religion and humanism. I do not suggest for a moment that most humanists are closet Christians, but there are Christians who espouse humanist values in addition to the source of their own faith. In Nrimol Hriday in Calcutta you could see the work of Mother Teresa in caring for the dying, which was loving presence for its own sake for those needy people.
I wonder why the British Humanist Association, which has been mentioned with such strength, often adopts for instance such a strongly secularist approach, which would exclude religion from the public square. Everybody comes from somewhere and every position that we hold rests on beliefs of one sort or another. The massive contribution offered to society by atheists and humanists, no less than religious people, happens because good actions flow out of worthwhile beliefs and systems. Seeking to confine people’s beliefs to the private realm and expecting good actions to flow in public seems to me to get cause and effect rather mixed up.
As an example of the potential alliances in the public square, there is the service of registered humanist practitioners in offering humanist funerals, which the noble Lord has mentioned. The Church of England has been able to work behind the scenes with the British Humanist Association to find an approach to humanist weddings that would work for us both. There have been similar alignments between us on the important issue that has already been touched on in connection with freedom of speech. These give evidence that theistic religions and non-theistic belief organisations can inhabit the public square together for the benefit of all. There could be more examples if there were wide agreement that a society marked by plurality of religions and beliefs is a much more promising model than secularism’s attenuated understanding of the public realm.
I celebrate today the contribution of humanists and atheists to the common good. I revel in our common humanity, our shared commitment to society and the gift of friendship. Together we can go further and demonstrate not just ordinary respect but a much deeper appreciation, not mere tolerance but full participation in the needs of society and be grateful for living in such a society where people of all religions, or none, do not just nurture their beliefs in private but integrate them into a full, joyful, public intention in our endeavours to make the world a better place for all.
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon: …Diversity of religion and belief is well reflected in your Lordships’ House. We have heard some stirring contributions from atheist and humanist Peers. I make that distinction clear. I need only to look at the Bishops’ Benches again to recall the wise counsel of right reverend Prelates on many occasions. That has been demonstrated by the contribution today of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham. In recent years, Catholic and Free Church, Church of England, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish, Buddhist and Zoroastrian Peers, and humanist Peers and those of no faith, have constantly enriched the contributions of this House. Long may that continue…
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham talked about encouraging religious people and atheists to co-operate. As I have already said, I quite agree with those important sentiments. Dealing with the society we live in today means encompassing people of all beliefs and, indeed, those with no belief.