Lords Debate on Religion and Belief in British Public Life
A full transcript of the House of Lords debate on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, which took place on 27th November 2014, is below.
A video of the debate can also be watched on the UK Parliament website, here.
The speeches made by the Bishops of Norwich and Birmingham are also available on this website, here and here.
Motion to Take Note
Moved by Lord Harries of Pentregarth
That this House takes note of the role of religion and belief in British public life.
Lord Harries of Pentregarth (CB): My Lords, since World War II there have been huge social changes in our country, not least as they impact on the presence and role of religion in society. In the 2011 census there was a voluntary question about religion. This revealed the presence of 33.2 million Christians—59% of the country, down from 72% in 2001. At the same time, the Muslim presence was revealed as 2.7 million—4.8% of the population, up from 3% in 2001. Other religions also showed an increase. Hindus were up to 1.5% of the population and Sikhs up to 0.8%—the same figure as for a combination of all other religions, except for Judaism, which remained static on 0.5%
No less significant was the number of people who said that they had no religion—14.1 million or 25.1% of the population, up from 14.8% in 2001, making it the second largest category after Christianity. To this might be added the large number of people who prefer to define themselves as spiritual, rather than religious.
In addition to this, it is important to note post-World War II immigration, which brought people from the Caribbean and, later, from West Africa, resulting in thousands of lively black-led churches and a major black presence, for example, in the Anglican diocese of London. Between 2005 and 2012, 700 new Pentecostal churches were started, of which 400 were black majority led. In a similar way, immigration from eastern Europe has significantly boosted Roman Catholic and Orthodox congregations.
Therefore, the religious landscape is variegated and in many respects very lively. It is certainly very different from what it was in 1945. If we had to contrast clergymen in two brilliant TV series in which the clergy star to illustrate this difference, they would be the Reverend Sidney Chambers, Vicar of Grantchester, in the 1950s, and the Reverend Adam Smallbone as “Rev” in an inner-city London parish.
However, it is not just the presence of non-Christian religions and those who profess no religion that has made the difference. It is that religion is visible and agitative in a way that it was not before. It has a voice, or rather a variety of voices that want to be heard in the public sphere. They are not content to have religion confined to the inward and personal dimension. So it is, for example, that issues concerning the wearing of the cross and employment practices have found their way to the European Court of Human Rights, and there have been major issues concerning religion in schools, as we know.
In short, whether one likes it or not, religion is now a major player on the public stage in a way that could not have been envisaged perhaps even 30 years ago. There are of course a number of reasons for this in addition to the varied religious landscape. One is globalisation, which has taken people from societies in which they may have had a settled social identity to another where they have been in a minority and have developed a religious identity. This has had the effect of making religion a badge of identity at a time when the politics of identity have come very much to the fore. For all these reasons, it is therefore an area that Governments have to think about seriously, coherently and consistently across a whole range of policy areas.
It is also the reason that the Woolf Institute in Cambridge convened the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, of which I am a member, chaired by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. The commission has existed for a year, is now in the process of consulting widely and is intending to present a report to the new Government next year. In our consultation booklet we set out five major areas where we are looking for views—the law, education, dialogue and engagement, the media and social action. I am therefore delighted to have been able to obtain this debate and I very much look forward to hearing what your Lordships will say under any of those headings or any other.
A number of your Lordships who wished to speak in the debate today were, sadly, engaged elsewhere, but I quote one of them, the former Chief Rabbi, the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, who wrote to me to send his apologies. He said:
“Please, though, accept my deep commitment to the vital role of religion and belief in public life. It remains the most powerful shaper of civil society, a much needed source of altruism in a culture that seems otherwise to celebrate the self, and an unrivalled heritage of wisdom on the great questions of ethics and society that we will never cease asking as we strive to be true to our faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith”.
That said, I should stress that the phrase “religion and belief”, which is now the correct designation for policy in this area, has belief in it as well as religion, and that includes those who take a robustly secular view of life.
I wish to begin by simply setting out some basic principles on the basis of which I believe any Government should approach the formulation of public policy in this area. First and foremost, there should be equal respect and concern for all people, whatever their faith or belief, which includes respect and concern for the religious communities to which they belong. We are not isolated individuals but persons in a community, and those communities, which Edmund Burke called the “little platoons”, are integral to the make-up of our society. This equal respect and concern, which is asked of us all in our dealings with one another, is a particular obligation on the state in a society which is now as diverse as ours. This equality is not just tolerance; it means accepting and celebrating people in their difference. It is equality understood in an inclusive sense.
This equality is one of the marks of a secular society, but we need to be very careful about the use of that word secular. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Williams of Oystermouth, draws a helpful distinction between programmatic and procedural secularism. The latter is what we must all accept, for it refers to a set of procedures, arrangements and rules of discourse that enable rational debate to take place and decisions to be made with everyone participating on an equal basis. Programmatic secularism, however, has been perceived as an attempt to drive the religious voices out of the public square altogether, and this must be resisted, for the public square is quite rightly a crowded place where all voices need to be heard, including religious ones. As often as not, those religious voices will be translated into the shared assumptions of public reasoning, but this should not be mandatory.
Secondly, in the sphere of religion it is desirable that fellow citizens should try both to understand and to make themselves intelligible to their fellow citizens. This is a particular duty on public officials and educational establishments in a multifaith society: they must foster that and enable it to happen. This may have particular implications for policies in areas such as the training of imams from abroad, and it certainly has huge implications for education in our society, where there is such widespread religious illiteracy, together with many concerns about what is being taught, and—no less—how it is being taught.
Thirdly, public authorities should beware of privileging only certain forms of authority or religious representation. There are often groups, such as women, who need to be heard and who lack access to power. Public authorities should not replicate and reinforce oppressive practices that might be present in a particular faith community.
Fourthly, in a society in which we all have multiple identities, our identity as UK citizens imposes a duty to the state. While both Christians and Muslims, for example, will claim a higher loyalty, according to the tenets of their religion, this must not be interpreted as loyalty to a foreign power structure, as it was, for example, by some Roman Catholics in the 16th century.
Fifthly, in devising public policy we need to take into account where we are as a result of our history and culture. There is no neutral realm, and what we have now is a quite specific achievement that has been worked out over many centuries. It is a fantasy to think that there is some neutral secular blueprint existing somewhere else, which can simply be plonked down. Clearly, one feature of where we are now is the existence of an established church, and here of course I have to declare an interest as someone who has had the privilege and fulfilment of being a bishop in that church, serving society for my lifetime.
Many years ago, Professor Owen Chadwick pointed out that the relationship of church and state was a cord with a number of different threads. In recent years, some of those threads have been cut. To take just two examples, the church now has the freedom to order its own forms of worship and, in practice, to nominate those it wants as bishops. The point is that the relationship of the Church of England to the state has changed, is changing and could change further. It could change further in an inclusive direction that reflects our diverse society.
One feature of the Church of England that I would want to affirm is the way in which, in recent decades, it has taken the lead not only in building up good relationships with other faith communities but in exercising its historic position in a hospitable way. In the autumn of 2013, I had to preach at the service marking the beginning of the legal year for the western division in Bristol Cathedral. A similar service for judges, lawyers, magistrates and civic authorities takes place in every part of the country at that time of the year. In Bristol that year, both the high sheriff and the mayor were Muslims, the woman high sheriff being very devout. She asked that a passage from the Koran be read, including the key opening passage. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol acceded to her request, and it was arranged that the Koran be read in the cathedral when everyone had been seated and welcomed but before the actual Christian service began. It was a brilliant creative act of accommodation that made the Muslim high sheriff feel, as she said, warmly embraced but did not alienate the core congregation, or indeed Muslims or Christians, by a blurring of boundaries.
That principle of hospitality can and should be reflected in many public ceremonies, including the next coronation service. In a speech on 15 February 2012, Her Majesty the Queen said about the Church of England:
“Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country. It certainly provides an identity and spiritual dimension for its own many adherents. But also, gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely”.
That puts so well what the Church of England has tried to do in recent years and what I know it will continue to do in an increasingly inclusive way, while not assuming that it should always take the lead.
Lastly, the European Convention on Human Rights is now rightly a benchmark for our society. As we know from recent legal cases, there are occasions when some people feel that this clashes with a fundamental religious belief or right. My own view is that human rights should prevail in areas of dispute but that the law should be formulated and enforced with what the Equality and Human Rights Commission once termed “reasonable accommodation”. That seems to be in the spirit of the culture of the United Kingdom as, for example, compared with France. In other words, we accept so far as possible expressions of religious difference. There are certain fundamentals, of course, on which there can be no compromise so that any religiously based view in conflict with them must be overridden by that human right. However, on some issues there ought to be some scope for latitude.
As I said, religion is now a major player on the public stage that our parents would have had difficulty in imagining, and religion impinges on a number of key areas in our society, not least the law and education. For that reason, it is vital that any Government think clearly and consistently about their approach. What I have tried to do is to set out a few general principles that I believe should guide policy-making. I look forward to hearing what noble Lords have to say and in due course to the response of the Government. I beg to move.
Lord Fowler (Con): My Lords, I congratulate the noble and right reverend Lord on his speech. I agree with him about the importance of religion in our public life and I agree that religions have a variety of voices in the public and political debate and make an enormous contribution. I have never believed, as was once suggested, that, for example, the Bishops should be excluded from the most important political debates that we have in this country. But I suggest that there is a quid pro quo: politicians like me should not be excluded from giving their advice to the churches, particularly if it has the effect of making those churches more accessible to more people. As we approach World AIDS Day on Monday, I am thinking particularly of the position of gay people, which appears to present all kinds of problems and challenges to the churches.
The public have flooded to see the film about the life and death of Alan Turing, and rightly so. It is a powerful denunciation of the intolerance and bigotry that held sway 60 years ago when men were imprisoned for no more than being different. Doubtless, some come away with the comforting assumption that that was then and everything has changed, and that discrimination and prejudice have been banished—if only that were the case. The fact is that in almost 80 countries of the world, homosexuality remains a criminal offence. In cities from Moscow to Kampala, the criminal law applies. The only difference between the countries is the extent to which the law is enforced—imprisonment or even execution at one end of the scale and persecution and police corruption at the other. Let us be clear: even when the law is not enforced or when there is not a law at all, there are powerful social and community forces at play. Young gay men, for example, are forced to leave their homes because of the ostracism that their families would otherwise suffer.
What of Britain? Things in Britain have changed. Men are not prosecuted or imprisoned in the way that they once were. But if you ask any gay man whether prejudice still exists he will tell you that it does, in the workplace, in sport and in schools. There is absolutely no reason to be complacent. If there is one thing that we can do in this country to make amends for the Turing legacy, it is to take a lead and show an example in fighting discrimination and prejudice, not only in this country but around the world.
Not all the nations which discriminate will take note of our example, let alone change, but some might. Even more might—here I come to my point on religion—if we could persuade the churches to take a more courageous stand, frankly, than they do at the moment. In Britain, the best, I think, that can be said about the position is that churches are equivocal, cautious and not prepared, really, to go out in front. Overseas, the position is much clearer, but much more dire, as it happens, because the churches, the Anglican Church, and the Catholic Church—in Uganda, for example—actually support the repression there. The same is true, in Russia, of the Orthodox Church.
I shall relate this, very briefly, to World AIDS Day. The fact is that, at the moment, as should be remembered in the context of the Ebola crisis, 35 million people have died from AIDS. The annual death toll is 1.5 million and more than 35 million men, women and children live with HIV. The worst part of that statistic is that half those who are living with HIV do not know, because they have not been diagnosed. A major reason for that is that the barrier to testing is the discrimination and prejudice that take place around the world, not least in this country, I fear, where a quarter of those living with HIV do not know and have not been tested.
These are very important points which the churches in the world and in this country could do much to help and it would be infinitely to the advantage of the public here and overseas if the churches would now take a lead, proclaim the equality of all people and take that into every aspect of their own policies and conduct. I congratulate the noble and right reverend Lord on everything that he has said.
Baroness Massey of Darwen (Lab): My Lords, I thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for introducing this debate with such care and wisdom, typical of his work in this House, in the media and as a member of the clergy. I am delighted that the commission he mentioned has belief as part of its considerations.
I begin, as my pivot for the debate, with a quotation from an essay by EM Forster, What I Believe, written in 1938.
“What is good in people—and consequently in the world—is their insistence on creation, their belief in friendship and loyalty for their own sakes”.
As I say, that is my starting point. I do not have a religion, but I have beliefs. I am a humanist and, as such, I believe that we, as humans, are held together by mutual human support, kindness, tolerance and creativity.
The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, mentioned respect and concern. I fully agree. All these things are important in public life. The debate is set in the context of public life and I find that interesting. I suggest that behaviour in private life is a profound indicator of behaviour in public life. I would not trust someone who behaves badly in private life to behave well in public life. There may be exceptions. Institutions may express uplifting mission statements or mottos, but institutions are made up of people who think and feel. I guess that while institutions may attract loyalty, that loyalty is secondary to loyalty to family and friends.
The great poet, Dante, in his Inferno, condemned Brutus to the ninth circle of hell, not because of disloyalty to the state but to his friend, Julius Caesar. My point is that the quality of trust and love between human beings indicates what kind of institution, society or state we can expect.
I believe that what holds a society together is human qualities and acts of kindness and respect that contribute to a moral code not necessarily based on religion. Religion has sadly too often divided individuals and societies, with tragic consequences and a mistaken confusion of education and indoctrination. I think the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, who is sitting opposite me, would be on the same side in maintaining that education should develop personal and social skills, good citizens and thinking skills based on dialogue and discussion rather than on one-dimensional doctrine. It should include consideration of all faiths, religions and beliefs. Regrettably, the Government do not seem to think so, and I wonder why.
I believe that, as well as those qualities, we are inspired by creativity—art, theatre, music and literature—which is sometimes founded on religious faith and sometimes is not. They too have a role in private and public life.
We live in turbulent times. Institutions are being questioned: politics, religion, financial structures and so on. A glance at any day’s newspaper will show depressing headlines about child abuse, racism, fraud, relationship breakdown or violence, which are often described in lurid terms by the media. So what are we to do? Where do we turn for calm and stability? EM Forster said:
“One must be fond of people and trust them if one is not to make a mess of life”.
People sometimes let us down, which is all the more reason for us to behave with loyalty, sensitivity and dignity. For me, that is the core of public and private behaviour. I respect that, for some, religion will provide that compass.
In September, the British Humanist Association launched the “Thought for the Commute” poster campaign across London as part of an attempt to get humanist views on Radio 4’s “Thought for the Day”. There were four posters which used quotations from George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Bertrand Russell and AC Grayling, and the campaign attracted a great of attention. The quotation from George Eliot was
“Wear a smile and make friends; wear a scowl and make wrinkles. What do we live for if not to make the world less difficult for each other?”.
It seems to me that “What is it all for?” applies to public and private life and is what the noble and right reverend Lord is asking us to explore today.
Lord Alderdice (LD): My Lords, I, too, welcome the initiative of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, in bringing this debate to the House. I shall pull back from the question of the role of the churches and look more broadly at the question of religion and belief because some mistakes have been made in our understanding of these matters.
At the time of the Enlightenment and afterwards, many liberal intellectuals thought that a few generations of education would mean that religion would effectively disappear. They also thought that we would all begin to get on together and aggression and violence would be managed and controlled by education. It is quite clear that although people of that disposition thought they were informing themselves through rational thought, it was much more about romantic wish fulfilment because the truth is that religion has not gone away and nor has violence and aggression. Indeed, even in countries where religion was effectively banned for a period, once that ban disappeared, we saw an enormous growth. In Russia, the development of the Orthodox Church is not only a question of numbers; it is massively affecting Mr Putin’s politics. The Financial Times recently reported that the factory that has produced more Bibles than any other in the history of the world is not in the United States of America as you might have guessed, or even—less likely—in Europe, but in China, a country where religion was not available to many people for a long time.
It therefore seems clear that religion is an essential component of the human condition and a group phenomenon. It is not something that is simply a matter of what individuals believe. A community may have a religious identity, while quite a large number of individuals may not have a particular religious proclivity, because it is part of the identity of the community. Once that identity starts getting shaken up in various ways, it can become very unpleasant indeed.
It seems also that this business of religion is not just a question of belief and here I point up and quibble with the wording of the Motion. Religion is, of course, about belief and faith but it is also about the way people behave—about rituals and structures. All these things grow and develop. Many social scientists now talk about the evolution of religion as part of the evolution of society. We know that these matters do develop: we move from simple, concrete ways of thinking about these things to more metaphorical ones. We do this in our ordinary lives as well. We move from rather simple, black and white thinking as children to more metaphorical thinking when we are older. If you do not appreciate that, you get into terrible trouble. For example, if I ask a nice young lady out for dinner I do not do so because I think she looks thin, underfed and famished: I want to spend time in her company. The food is, of course, still real and an important part of it but there is a metaphorical component as well. When individuals regress through illness they sometimes go back to more simplistic ways of thinking and cannot see the metaphorical. This happens in society as well so that as people developed a different way of thinking about religion—a broader, more thoughtful, more tolerant, more metaphorical one—it became possible to see different religious approaches as not being entirely antagonistic.
We have a problem here which impinges on society. When an individual or society comes under existential threat—when it believes that its group identity or future is under threat—it regresses to simplistic, black and white, dangerous, threatening ways of functioning in which the complexity of a society, with all its different components, disappears. This is true for the individual and for society. Amartya Sen talked about reducing back to a singularity. This is a very serious problem for a multicultural and multi-identity society such as ours. One of the difficulties about a Government who see all issues of religion merely as matters of private faith and belief, and who famously said they did not “do God”, is that they do not tend to give enough attention to the importance and complexity of these things, which are becoming more important to ordinary people, to thoughtful people and to societies as a whole.
We are finding an appearance of increasing fundamentalism, which is becoming radicalised into dangerous action as well. I welcome this debate, because I hope it also represents an increasing focus by the Government on the need to understand the complexities of religion, both in its more advanced forms and those of regression and dangerous fundamentalism.
Baroness Warnock (CB): My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble and right reverend friend for introducing this debate and for the way he did so. I share some of the doubts about the use of “belief” in the wording. Humanism is not a kind of religion, though it may be a kind of belief. The terms of reference of the consultation are quite difficult to comprehend, but I shall not go on about that. However, the debate is timely because we are absolutely surrounded by the most appalling images of the horrors of fundamentalist religion. It is very useful to stand back and see the real benefits, to society and this country, of religion that is not of this kind. I will confine myself to one religion—Christianity—and to a relatively small aspect of that, namely the Church of England. We are extremely fortunate in this country to have the Church of England as our established church. The history of the Church of England has always, necessarily, involved finding a middle way.
That makes it an extremely unlikely hotbed for extremism of any kind, which is one great advantage that we have.
I want to concentrate on the fact that it is the established church. As other noble Lords have said, religion—whether you call it religion or spirituality—revives when it is depressed. It comes back again, as we have certainly seen in Russia. One of the most depressing things I remember about visiting Russia and Moscow for the first time in the 1970s was the existence of wonderful churches that were full of icons and atmosphere but were not used for their proper purpose. I was taken around some of them by a deeply religious woman who spent hours in prayer in every church, rather to the discomfort of my son and me. The fact that these wonderful churches were being misused was incredibly depressing.
There are two ways in which I deeply value the established church. First, the Church of England is, as I have said, a tolerant church. It does not probe too deeply into whether we are thinking literally or metaphorically. Secondly, it is woven into our culture, not just by aesthetic objects but by the law. We are part of a community that is headed by the head of the Church of England. That is a valuable and not likely to be forgotten aspect of our society.
One reason for that is that religion is not just a matter of belief; it is a matter of ceremony and ritual. The Church of England provides the means for the whole of this country to make use of the ceremonies and rituals which it so tremendously provides at times of grief, thanksgiving and remembrance, as well as at the passing of the seasons which are also celebrated. Those are all ways in which our country can come together as one. Of course, I am rather echoing the words of the Prime Minister, although I rather deplore his use of the word “evangelical”. I believe that this way of coming together to celebrate, or to mark grief and thanksgiving, is something that we would not have if we did not have an established church.
Part of the same thought is that the Church of England maintains—and has a duty to maintain—the most marvellous buildings, cathedrals, abbeys and parish churches all over the country, and they are used for their proper purpose. That may be less used now, but I do not think that that goes for cathedrals. Without the Church of England we would not have that continuing heritage, which includes within it the most incomparable heritage of choral church music.
The Lord Bishop of Birmingham: My Lords, I am grateful to my colleague, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for shaping this debate and for the remarks just offered by the noble Baroness. It may be a great surprise to many of our fellow citizens that public religious figures should be asked to play a part at all in 21st century society. However, the least surprised in the city of Birmingham are my interfaith colleagues. They expect the leaders and members at a local parish level and at a national level in what they regard as the indigenous national religion to play a full part in society and to articulate the needs, values and beliefs of those who have faith on things that are a matter of importance to the whole of society, whether they are faithful or not.
We have already referred to the great civic occasions and the local ones that are framed by public religious bodies, mainly the church. We have also noticed that members of religious organisations or bodies are outspoken in their views and can articulate particular things from an independent point of view. In public, it is a surprise these days that public figures such as bishops are still asked to say grace at institutional dinners. However, a certain amount of education is needed when asked for a grace that is secular, in the wrong use of the word. When asked about this grace, my young Muslim friend said, “Well, who are you going to be speaking to, Bishop, when you are saying it?”. These are matters of fact and I want in my remaining remarks to illustrate the liveliness and the practice of lived religion in ordinary communities across the country.
Beneath the surface of these public expressions of acts of worship in times of need and moments of outspokenness—people like the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, who has already been mentioned, or engagement in public debate with, for example, the mining industry, where the ethos of that industry has been engaging with people of religion for its future—lies the obvious observation that human beings are seen to have a spiritual, other dimension to their lives, other than just the physical and practically measureable. David Bentley Hart, in his The Experience of God, has a very good articulation that, adding to our natural way of life, there are other dimensions: being, by which he refers to God; bliss, by which he refers to our emotions and experience; and, of course, consciousness, that distinctive fact of human awareness and being. Perhaps that is why 700 lay Anglicans—only one small part of the religious life of Birmingham—chose to come together for a whole day to speak about how to tell their story of faith to one another and to others in their communities.
People of faith also have a very strong motivation simply to serve humanity and to care for the wonderful planet in which we are placed. Of course that is true of all walks of professional and public life, but it is particularly of interest when people put their faith into practice in the local communities, in their own spheres of influence. As ordinary people rise to the challenge of our current economic and social conditions, we see that, in our social inclusion process in Birmingham, which happens to be led by the Bishop—by myself—as a public independent figure, all sorts of things flowed out as a response to human need in the local communities. For example, a whole range of places of welcome were set up, as required by the local authority. Night shelters during this winter season sprang up locally because volunteers, particularly led by people of all faiths, wanted to serve in that way. Well-known street pastors serve across the city at night. Food banks are familiar to your Lordships, and it is notable that my noble and right revered friend the Bishop of Truro was asked to chair that commission. Money advice is being offered in all sorts of communities, particularly from places of religion.
Your Lordships are well aware that there has been a particular focus on Islam in Birmingham in the last 12 months. Now statutory bodies—as well as the Trojan horse review group, on which I serve with Muslims—are making attempts to identify and act in proper ways to respond. It is in fact the local people of faith who are gathering informally—gathering in particular ways—to develop a way of being that is going to make the most fundamental difference in changing our society.
Lord Parekh (Lab): My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for securing this debate and introducing it so well. I want to concentrate on two major points.
When we talk about religion, there is a danger of homogenising it, assuming that religion more or less takes the same form in all societies or that all religions are basically the same. In the United Kingdom, there are three crucial facts which we cannot afford to ignore. First, there is diversity between religions. That is not just plurality of religions—more religions than one—but diversity. They are differently structured. Some are community-based; some are individual-based. Some stress conduct; some are not terribly interested in conduct but stress belief. Some are globally connected; some are largely nationally confined. That is the first thing.
Secondly, there is diversity within religions. There is no religion that does not contain sects or diversity of interpretation. I do not have time to elaborate on this point, but it is also striking that for some, religion is a matter of faith, a taken-for-granted fact of life. For the younger generation, which has grown up in it, especially immigrants, it is a matter of identity: something that you wear as a badge of who you are and announce to the world, but you select bits and pieces of your religion. For yet others, religion is an ideology. In any religious community, you will have groups which appropriate their religion very differently.
There is also a third kind of diversity: different approaches to religion. Some people turn to religion because they are looking for an explanation of the nature of human existence and the place of human beings in the universe. For them, religion is primarily theology. For others, religion is primarily a matter of principles of conduct: how should one behave; what are the ideals of excellence which one should try to emulate? For them, religion is a matter of ethics. There are yet others for whom religion is neither a matter of metaphysics nor theology, nor of ethics, but largely a question of belonging: which is the tradition and community to which I belong? No beliefs or metaphysics are involved, simply a question of being at home within a particular community.
Those are the different kinds of diversity that obtain within our society. What follows? Two things follow. First, we should not make the mistake of thinking that all religions must be treated in the same way. If we do, given their differences, sameness can mean inequality. Secondly, we should not talk about religion in the abstract. Some religions in some modes can be terribly beastly. Some religions in some modes can be profoundly elevating. We need to be careful before we talk about the place of religion in public life or the fact that religions are doing valuable work.
It is also worth bearing in mind, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, pointed out, that when we talk about the great work that religions do, we always think of charitable activities, which look after the victims of our society. I have long waited to hear the radical voice of religion. If one considers Christianity, there is the driving of the money-changers from the temple. You find the same sort of thing in Judaism and Buddhism. The radical religious voice which tries to transform the economy and the social structure is rarely heard.
It is striking how, in a liberal democratic society such as ours, religion can easily be co-opted into an ameliorative function, looking after the victims of society but not challenging society itself. We need to be very careful when we talk about faith-based action. We tolerate faith-based action as long as it looks after the victims of society, but if it takes the form of radical challenge, such as occupying Wall Street, or whatever, we begin to think very differently.
My next point, which I shall make quickly, has to do with the way in which religion has to come to terms with certain fundamental principles of human morality. Religious beliefs should be respected, but what if they violate racial equality? What if a belief says that blacks should not be treated equally? We will say no, we will not respect that belief. What about gender equality? We will say no, it must be respected, no matter what your beliefs. It is striking that when it comes to sexual orientation, we seem to vacillate. Should gay couples be allowed to marry in churches? Should they be allowed to adopt? We say yes, but, at the same time, no.
That is where a crucial dilemma faces any liberal democratic society. We can insist on equality and say that, just as we want racial equality and gender equality respected, we want sexual orientation equality to be respected, but at the same time, we recognise that it has a different history and comes from a different tradition, and we try to accommodate it. That is precisely the point. The whole idea of accommodation is patronising. It is also administrative. It presupposes that there is one way of doing the right thing, but seeing that some chaps in our society complain, we try to accommodate them. I see that as a fundamental conflict of values. The question is how do we reconcile—not accommodate—those parties and create a society in which people holding basically different beliefs nevertheless feel respected?
Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick (CB): I am very grateful to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for introducing this vital debate. This has been a difficult week, in which we had the report on the activities of Michael Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo, and the radicalism, as the Home Secretary referred to it, of their lives, which brought about the tragic and evil death of Lee Rigby.
In the few minutes available to me, I want to do two things. First, I want to recapture the word radical—and radicalism—from being seen as negative. It enters the lexicon of common understanding as something we despise. As a follower of Jesus, I am convinced that the lifestyle he promoted and spoke of was radical. People criticised him for being associated with those who society despised. He made it clear that if you want to find life you must choose to give it away. He made it clear that the obsession of our day, which is the relentless pursuit of materialism, ought to be focused on the pursuit of the kingdom of God. These are radical truths, and if radicalism is to be seen as a negative and religion is to become known—and if I dare say so particularly Church of England Christianity, of which I am very grateful to be at times a member—for its tolerance and its mediocrity, then we have lost something profoundly essential. The very nature of faith allegiance, belief, and the love relationship that followers have with the one they follow requires radical living.
Radicalism, in our modern society, is seen as extreme. If you hold strong views—if you believe distinctly in certain values—that puts you on the edge of unreasonableness. However, that is exactly what would have been said of Jesus, and many of us are happy to line up with him. That radicalism is the pursuit of justice, the sharing of the commitment of one’s life, and the giving away of oneself. That is the radicalism that we need to discover in our century.
When I think of radical people I am delighted to mention two people who live in the noble and right reverend Lord’s own area of Oxford: two very dear friends of mine, Tom and Jane Benyon. In the last three years, these two people—one in their 60s, one in their mid-70s—have walked 1,500 miles to raise £2 million for the poorest people of the broken communities of Zimbabwe. Why does a former Conservative MP from another place choose to commit himself to the task of walking around England when he needs a hip replacement, in order to raise money for the people of Zimbabwe, for which he gets no gratitude from the British Government, let alone the Zimbabwean Government? It is because of his radical pursuit of the conviction that he says Jesus has placed on him and on his wife—the founder of the first food bank in Oxford, now a network of food banks; it is because the radical pursuit of Jesus, of belief, of conviction, leads you to defined and distinct actions.
The embrace of people on the outside is not about a tolerant place in which we can all feel easily comfortable, it has to be about a radical place in which we make distinct decisions to help those on the margins, to choose to act with justice, to receive those who have little and to give to them, even from our little. The Economist, just a few weeks ago, had an amazing report on the growth of the church in China—fascinating: 300 million committed believers, followers of Jesus, in China. It is amazing—almost more people than the population of the United States. However, the Economist concluded with a very interesting reflection: what, it asked, would kill this church dead? The answer was: if it becomes institutionalised, if it becomes a state-accepted church. In that case it will accept the tolerance required by the state and the system; it will lose its edge; it will give way to being simply an accepted mediocrity. It will no longer challenge its society. And so it will die. Let us get radicalism back into the agenda of our faith.
Baroness Falkner of Margravine (LD): My Lords, I start by thanking the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, for securing this debate and articulating it in such a timely and profound fashion. In the little time I have today I want to concentrate on the role of religion in education—in schools in both maintained and independent sectors—and to talk specifically about minority faiths in this context.
We probably have broad agreement that the civic purpose of education should be to prepare children for their role as equal citizens of an ethnically and religiously diverse liberal democracy and to encourage the development of their autonomy in order that they can grow to fulfil their potential as adults. However, too many schools are not delivering that kind of education. In these schools, we often see the rights of individual students subsumed into the forced homogeneity of “community” and “cultural” identities. When taken to its extreme, as we have seen in some minority faith schools, an emphasis on group culture has allowed communities to enforce their own values and traditions upon the children. We have had the Jewish Yesodey Hatorah girls’ school in east London being rebuked by the exam regulator, Ofqual, for redacting questions relating to human reproduction and evolution on exam papers. Nevertheless, the school defiantly continues to shield young girls from vital scientific knowledge, and now simply “advises” students not to answer exam questions which conflict with the school’s strict Orthodox religious beliefs. This school’s attitude is, I am afraid, indicative of a wider problem of faith-based schools narrowing the curriculum to suit their own particular religious ethos.
The recent Ofsted inspections of independent Islamic schools in Tower Hamlets also highlighted how students are left vulnerable to extremist influences focusing on conservative interpretations of Islam, at the expense of other important areas of the curriculum. At Mazahirul Uloom School, inspectors found that pupils were unable to tell the difference between Sharia law and British law—in particular, English law. All six of the independent Muslim schools inspected in that area were judged to be failing to provide pupils with,
“an appropriately broad and balanced curriculum”.
In one school, the curriculum was focused entirely on Islamic themes.
Of course we must ensure that parents’ religious and philosophical convictions are respected in the educational provision that the state offers. Article 2 in the Human Rights Act secures that but the demand for a religious education, wholly on parents’ terms, is an unreasonable and potentially divisive demand which must be resisted. It is also important to point out that Article 2 does not provide an absolute right. However outward-looking we may hope that all minority faith schools are, the fact is that they are one of the main points of contact for a child outside the home. When society allows them to be the vehicle for propagating and promoting segregation and closed-mindedness to mainstream values, it is surely right for the state to step in and correct that imbalance. It has been less robust in that integrating function than it should have been.
In short, if future generations are to live together, they must learn together so, rather than facilitating the segregation of pupils along religious lines, we should be doing everything we can to ensure that children of all faiths and none are educated together in a respectful and inclusive environment. For Liberal Democrats, that means an end to the outdated law requiring all maintained schools to hold a daily act of “broadly Christian” worship. Such a law is unevenly applied and can reduce a broad and balanced approach, seriously undermining parents’ abilities to raise their children in accordance with their own beliefs.
It is important to recognise that organised religion has played a positive role in the development of state education in Britain. However, Britain’s religious landscape has changed radically since the Butler Education Act of 1944. We are both one of the most religiously diverse and least religious countries in the world. The time has come to look again at the role of religion in our nation’s schools and to be radical about that. Parents who want to give their child a religious upbringing are at liberty to do so, at home and wherever they worship, but it is not a reasonable demand of a national curriculum, where children’s independent interests and society’s longer-term cohesion should always be the priority.
Baroness Howarth of Breckland (CB): My Lords, religion has been a powerful force for good and ill down the ages, both inside and outside its institutions. Perversions of faith have led its believers to sacrifice its own in the most terrifying ways, and so it continues today through the jihads. However, I want to begin by celebrating some of the good and, as a Christian, considering some of the forces that led to the huge reforms in our society. Within that, I congratulate my noble and right reverend friend Lord Harries on getting this debate and thank him for his constant care and capacity to put up with lesser mortals and help them with their thinking.
Who is to say whether the great reformers would have undertaken the work that they did, had they not been driven by a spiritual belief that it was what God expected and, knowing that service is perfect freedom, they expected themselves to achieve great things? I am a trustee and the vice president of Livability, an organisation formed from the merger of two great charities, the Shaftesbury Society and John Grooms. John Groom and Lord Shaftesbury were contemporaries, both men of huge faith, who used their wealth and influence to care for the poor and the disabled. Their work from 100 years ago continues through Livability, the largest Christian-based caring charity, where hundreds of disabled and elderly people are accommodated or looked after in their own communities. One of the roles that I undertake for the charity is chairing the safeguarding committee, ensuring an added layer of protection for the children and adults in our care.
All large organisations need to be particularly watchful and, where there are possibilities of harm, they must have systems that underpin the positive principles of their mission. We know that the expression of any kind of belief does not necessarily ensure that individuals will not harm others; indeed, in some cultures it does ensure harm. The long list of scandals that have shaken the Christian churches, as well as practices such as branding children as witches in some cultures and the justification of female genital mutilation by some clerics, are all negative testimony to what can go wrong with belief. Even if in nowhere else in our society, however, people of faith should ensure in all their institutions the protection and development of children and adults in need of care. That should include the promotion of equality between genders and in education, ensuring that children are able to develop their own freedom to think and consider all ideas.
Most Christian churches, if not all, are hierarchical, and hierarchies are about power relationships. Sexual abuse, which I want to mention, is also about hierarchical power. There are often other social phenomena that add to the dangers. Church life is intense, with combinations of faction and loving co-operation; no one ever thinks it is going to happen in their church, mosque or temple, so there is denial. Or there is the mistaken belief that the abuse was a mistake, that it will not happen again and that the perpetrator must be given another chance. Let us remember that Christians have forgiveness as one of the most important tenets of their belief system, and sometimes it clouds judgment. There is confusion between forgiveness, pastoral care and protection, both among individuals and in the institution itself. No one wants another scandal. So the perpetrator is given another chance, offends again and again, and the lives of children are again blighted.
The Church of England, however, is working hard to ensure that there is greater vigilance. Each community has a safeguarding officer with an expert at diocesan level to provide support and, where needed, intervention. The archbishops in the Church of England have set in place a whole new structure, both to listen to those affected by historical abuse and to ensure greater vigilance and better responses in the here and now. There remains much to be done but it is an excellent start. I declare an interest, as I sit on the safeguarding committee.
Jesus Christ championed children, women, the disabled and the poor, so it is down to those who profess to follow his example that we do the same—probably, radically. The positive role of religion and belief drives some of our highest aspirations and greatest achievements. It also must make us face the darkness where we find it and challenge and change it for the better.
Lord Cormack (Con): My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, and congratulating him on introducing this debate and the manner in which he did so. I should also like to say how moved I was by the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, who spoke particularly tellingly of the role of the established church, which I, like she, am glad to belong to. I feel strongly that the greatest strength of the established church is that everyone in England lives in a parish and is entitled to the services and ministrations of that church, whatever the individual belief. That places a particular obligation upon the Anglican Church.
I should like to make a specific suggestion in the brief time that I have available. I hesitate to bore your Lordships by referring to Magna Carta yet again, but we have its great anniversary to celebrate next year. The charter that said,
“To no one will we sell … deny or delay … justice”,
also gave a specific place for the church in England at that time. I said a moment ago that there is an obligation upon the Church of England to give leadership. In spite of all the things that divide us, certain things unite the great faiths that are represented in this country and, indeed, in this House. They include a sense of civic right and responsibility, a belief in the centrality of family life, a belief in the duty to help the weak and to give incentive and encouragement to the young—without destroying their innocence, which we debated in this House last night.
It would be a marvellous thing if next year the noble and right reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury and his fellow bishops could seek to bring together in a national forum the leaders of all faiths in this country, to work out a great charter for 2015 underlining the things that I have just mentioned, thereby helping to give to all our young people in particular a preparation for adult life and becoming full citizens—all acknowledging their rights and responsibilities. When I was a young boy, everyone accepted —whether or not that acceptance was accompanied by religious belief—the basic tenets of the Christian faith: certain things were right and acceptable and others were not. Since those days this country has developed into a pluralistic society, but one in which the Church of England still has a fundamental role—as does the Church of Scotland in that other part of the United Kingdom, although cast in a different mould.
It would be absolutely splendid if next year there could be an underlining of these things that we loosely called in a debate earlier this year “British values”. The adherents of virtually all faiths—be they Muslim, Sikh, Hindu or Jewish—can identify with those core values. If religion is indeed to continue to play a constructive and fundamental part in our national life, we need to focus attention on those things which are,
“true … honest … lovely … of good report”,
to quote the prayer book. I therefore take this opportunity to appeal to noble Prelates on that Bench, and through them the hierarchy of the Church of England, to try to take a real initiative and give leadership that is not based on superiority but on equality, and that reaches out especially to our young people, but also to the old and vulnerable, at a time when we will have the opportunity to commemorate the foundation of the rule of law and civil liberty in this great country of ours.
Lord Warner (Lab): My Lords I, too, am grateful to my near neighbour, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for securing this debate and for his excellent introduction. On a personal level, I am also grateful for his continuing tolerance of my robust secularism. I declare my interests as the chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group and my appointment as Commissioner for Children’s Services in Birmingham. Following the excellent speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, I want to focus on some of the issues of public policy raised by recent experiences of the practices in some extreme faith-based schools.
At a recent meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, we heard from the original Trojan horse whistleblower at Park View School in Birmingham, from a former Haredi Jew who grew up and was educated in Stamford Hill in Hackney, and from a young man who attended an Accelerated Christian Education school and is now doing a PhD studying experiences of ACE schools. I have to tell your Lordships that “ace” is a bit misleading as a description of those schools. The parliamentarians at the meeting, from all political parties, were truly shocked to learn what was going on in some of our schools in 21st-century Britain in the name of religious beliefs, and by the apparent inability of our legal and regulatory systems to safeguard our children from what can only be described as indoctrination and abuse.
I will say a little about what we heard about the ACE and Haredi school experiences. There is a network of 30 to 40 private ACE schools in the UK. The curriculum is a fundamentalist Christian one that originated in the United States. It is widely considered to be creationist, homophobic and misogynistic. The teaching materials used in these schools that were presented to us certainly supported this view. Much of the material is in a comic strip format with characters that could only be described as risible if they were not being used to brainwash and indoctrinate young minds. It was very scary that the so-called science teaching was leading to certification that was being used to progress children to further education.
The insularity of children in the ACE schools was repeated by the descriptions of education in a Haredi Jewish school. Here was a young man who literally had to escape from his community at the age of 18, having had no education in this country apart from religious study and despite speaking no English, because his so-called education had been conducted in Yiddish. This young man, now in his 20s, is a smart, articulate campaigner trying to expose the fact that more than 2,000 boys from this sect are being educated today in illegal unregistered schools. He struggles to understand why we collectively seem unable to safeguard children from his experience.
These young men and many others have had appalling educational experiences, all in the name of the religious beliefs of their parents. They are our fellow citizens for whom our legal and regulatory processes are failing to deliver the “balanced and broadly based” education—that is the wording of the statute—that they are entitled to under our current education legislation. Parliament has made clear what sort of education children in this country are entitled to expect and that is likely to fit them for the world they are living in. That entitlement is not the narrow indoctrination of their parents’ beliefs enforced through closed communities.
The children receiving such a narrow education are, in my view, being abused and deserve better protection than we currently afford them. It is arguable that this abuse is on a par with the kind of emotional child abuse in which the state has always intervened with parents in order to protect children from their parents’ excesses. This is a public policy issue that we need to debate and not shelter behind a screen of liberal tolerance of personal freedom of religious belief. That tolerance rightly extends from adult to adult but does not, in my book, extend to abusing vulnerable children trapped in households that deny them access to the balanced and broadly based education that the law entitles them to. We need to address some of these issues and not run away from them in the interests of the children who are vulnerable to these excesses and living in our society, some not many miles from this House.
Lord Singh of Wimbledon (CB): My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for securing this important debate. As a Sikh, I see religion—I include beliefs such as humanism—as commonsense guidance on how to meet the many challenges of trying to lead a responsible and meaningful life.
Unfortunately, not everyone sees religion in that way. A year ago in a debate in this Chamber, religion was blamed as being “out of step” with society. To me, that is a bit like someone complaining that his sat-nav was not following his directions. The argument for banishing religions to the margins of society would carry some weight if secular society was seen to be leading to a fairer and more contented and peaceful society. But all the evidence is that it is not. Every day in this House, we have Oral Questions on the lines of, “What are the Government doing about this or that concern?” The general response, couched in elegant terms, is, “We are doing a lot more than the previous lot when they were in power”. This is not a criticism of government. The truth is that Governments can, at best, only put legal boundaries around unacceptable behaviour; they cannot make us better people.
I will give some examples. Monday was International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. The need to have a day to remind us that women often suffer violence and gross abuse itself shows that all is not well with society. It was also mentioned that 77 women in the UK had been killed in domestic violence. There was reference to a Troubled Families programme—another reminder that all is not well. A report in the Times this week revealed that a staggering 230,000 people in England and Wales are going through divorce each year, with a devastating effect on children. Two-thirds of children whose parents separate, often in acrimonious circumstances, are driven to drugs and alcohol abuse, eating disorders and poor performance in schools. Our current obsession with “me, my rights and my happiness” can have a devastating effect on those around us in this and other areas.
Religious teachings are essentially preventive. Without such teachings we tend to look to sticking-plaster solutions. Today, the response to domestic violence is to build more refuges. The response to drunken and loutish behaviour is, “Let’s extend licensing hours”; to rising drugs problems, “Let’s legalise the use of drugs”; and, to an increasing number of people in prisons, “Let’s build more prisons”. Let us extend this line of thinking to the behaviour of little junior who greets visitors to the house by kicking them in the shins. Solution: issue said visitors with shin pads as they enter the front door.
Whenever I am asked to do a “do-it-yourself assembly”, I throw the instructions to one side and quickly put the pieces together with nuts and bolts to spare. I then stand back to admire my handiwork and see it all skewed and ready to fall apart. Then, and only then, I turn to the book of instructions. We have become a bit of a do-it-yourself society in the way in which we have thrown our religious instructions to one side in constructing remedies to social problems that ignore deeper issues of right, wrong and responsibility—the essence of religious teachings. Jesus Christ taught that, “Man does not live by bread alone”. Bread, the material side of life is important, but there is much more to living than mere material existence.
The Sikh gurus taught that we must live in three dimensions at the same time: reflecting on and living core ethical teachings; earning by our own honest effort; and, thirdly and most importantly, that we have a responsibility to look to the needs of those around us and the well-being of wider society. That putting of others before self is something that we need constantly to be reminded about, rather than living our current obsession with “me, my rights and my happiness”. Yes, religion is an important ethical sat-nav, but we must remember to keep it switched on and to follow its sometimes demanding directions towards a fairer and more peaceful society.
The Lord Bishop of Norwich: My Lords, like other noble Lords I am very grateful to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for securing this debate. I notice that the commission of which he is part is considering how religion may contribute to,
“greater levels of mutual trust and collective action, and to a more harmonious society”.
I will address the reference to mutual trust, especially with regard to our public life, which is far from well. The level of cynicism about our political structures and politicians finds reflection in an all too common assumption that many people in public life are not to be trusted. That is true for religious leaders, too, and for almost anyone in the public eye, and it generates cynicism about the state itself.
In the United Kingdom we need a much more elevated understanding of what the state is called to be—and here, religion has its part to play. Too often, for want of that, we are reduced to sterile discussions about British values, which seem largely to consist of tolerance and queuing, although I have certainly been in queues which were not the least bit tolerant.
In this House the Throne is the symbol of the one person in public life who is called to embody the nation. William Temple, who thought and wrote much about the place of religion in public life before his untimely death during the Second World War, said in 1928, intriguingly, that the public at the time did not regard King George V as head of state. He wrote that the King was,
“the impersonation of the Community—a greater thing. When the King opens Parliament, we see the Community, in his person, calling on its servant, the State, to discharge its functions”.
Therefore William Temple spoke of the state as the servant of the community of the nation.
Service, in the Christian tradition, is a vocation. When Jesus washed the feet of his disciples he reversed the power relationship between the teacher and his followers. Two thousand years ago, service never made you great; it was a sign of your enslavement. These days, by contrast, everyone wants to do us a service. The so-called service industries are often thought to be one of the strongest parts of our economies. The supermarkets fall over themselves in wanting to be of service to us, yet we know that they are very powerful organisations. When businesses, politicians or even bishops say that they want to be of service to the people, they do not always convince.
The state is seen by many people as powerful, heavy and inert, and not on their side. Many people in our society see religion in much the same way. Yet in many faiths, the image of a journey or a pilgrimage is the metaphor for life, and for Christians the journey is towards the kingdom of God. The Prayers in this Chamber may be unchanging every day, but every day we also pray that God’s kingdom will come. Even in Parliament, we have no abiding city.
That is a crucial perspective on all political institutions and social constructions, too: they are all penultimate at best. The quest, as always, is for a better society. We should not be satisfied with what we have constructed—not through cynicism, though, but through aspiration. One of the roles of religion in public life is to witness to that quest for a better world and to recover a spirit of trusted service and intergenerational solidarity. Edmund Burke, whom the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, referred to earlier, defined the state as a partnership between,
“those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born”.
As I look at the long lists of rectors and vicars in so many medieval churches in Norfolk, I am reminded of the inheritance and continuities of faith. Then I look at the children and families who come to Messy Church within them—I suspect that that has never been mentioned in this Chamber before—and I see novelty in religious practice. We need places with a visible continuity between past and present that have hope for the future.
When people gather together for worship, they form moral communities as they acknowledge their weakness and seek forgiveness. They serve each other and the wider community, and seek to build trust between each other and beyond. There are tens of thousands of such churches and other groups that build such cultures of trust in our country. They are not all religious, not by any means, but religion is significant within them.
When we speak of broken states in our world, what has broken down is trust. No state can fulfil its vocation to build a culture of trust between its citizens if they do not build cultures of trust among themselves. Therefore the role of religion is to build cultures of trust. There will be no trust in any state or in public life if we do not first build it among ourselves.
Lord Dubs (Lab): My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for making this debate possible, and I am delighted to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich. I agree with a lot of what he said, but I think he would be dismayed if I agreed with everything—he knows that I will not.
Without wishing to add an element of levity, if I had to set a pub quiz question it would be: apart from the House of Lords, in which legislature in the world is a block of seats reserved for members of a religion? Any takers?
Noble Lords: Iran.
Lord Dubs: Right. Most people do not get that. I will come back to that issue in a moment.
I speak as a humanist and an agnostic, but not as a person who is anti-religion. Indeed, there is a lot of good—without wishing to sound patronising—in many religious beliefs and teachings. Of course, Pope Francis has raised the level by saying some very important things with which I am certainly in agreement. However, I have also met bigots in the world of religion, especially when I was in Northern Ireland.
I will talk about two things: the role of religion in the House of Lords, and education. I believe in an elected second Chamber, but that is some way ahead. I would be much happier if Bishops, who all make an enormous contribution to the work of this House, were here as Members of this House in their own right rather than as a block vote, a block of people, put in by one religion only. For example, the noble and right reverend Lords, Lord Harries and Lord Eames, and the former Chief Rabbi all make an important contribution to our debates but do so in their own right, not because they have been put in as part of a trade-union-style block vote. I am not suggesting that the Bishops all speak with one voice; indeed, it is sometimes very interesting to see them differ a little. However, there is a point of principle here as to whether only one religion should have a formal membership in this House. If Bishops were appointed differently, that would not affect the basis of the Church being established. Actually, it would be of benefit to the Church of England if it were not an established church, but, that is perhaps a debate for another day.
I will say something about education, and I very much endorse the views of my noble friend Lord Warner. I came across this issue in Northern Ireland in particular, where the division of society is reflected in the way that children are educated. Even today, over 90% of children are in schools that are defined by one religion or the other. Integration would not solve all the problems in Northern Ireland, but the current system has had a very divisive effect. If children from one religion are there together, they do not meet children from the other religion and they tend to demonise them. That has had a very divisive effect on Northern Ireland. When asked, 70% to 80% of parents say that they would like the choice to send their children to either an integrated school or one of the other schools. That does not mean that they will all do so. Where there are integrated schools—I am still talking about Northern Ireland, of course—they tend to be oversubscribed and they provide a wonderful education. This is not to deny religion, but to say that we are going to be educated together as members of one community. I actively support the campaign for integrated education in Northern Ireland and hope that there will be more integrated schools there as time moves forward.
I turn to education in this country. I understand that some religious establishments are very good and popular with parents. This is partly because they have a selective element within them; that is to say, they do well because they select rather than taking from across the catchment area as whole. However, I fear that the more religious-based schools we have, the more divisive will be the consequences. We only have to read what is said in the newspapers about schools—the noble Lord, Lord Warner, gave some examples—to see that they are having a damaging effect on our society and on the religions themselves. We should at least be able to stop the progress towards more religious-based education. I wish that we could turn the clock back, although that would be difficult at this stage. Many religious schools have an adverse effect on this country and on their local communities. At the very least they should be encouraged, as some do, to take in children of other faiths and other religions.
Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve (CB): My Lords, I, too, thank my noble and right reverend friend Lord Harries of Pentregarth for initiating this debate on such an important range of topics.
I want to say something about the importance of the ways in which we think about and approach differences in religion and belief in public life. An obvious starting point is to turn to the relevant rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and to consider how these differ from the much more frequently discussed rights to freedom of expression. I declare an interest as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is doing detailed work on these rights and their implementation in law and in institutional life, but nothing that I shall say here draws on that work. What I shall try to say will be more elementary.
Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights is very closely modelled on Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance”.
As with most other rights proclaimed in the European Convention and in other fundamental documents, Article 9 is not an unqualified right. The second part of the article lists ways in which this right may legitimately be limited specifically in order to respect other rights and matters of public interest. It runs:
“Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”.
Nevertheless, Article 9 articulates a profoundly important and distinctive right that matters for addressing religion and belief in public life.
I want to make three points. First, this right is the successor to the great traditions that established the importance of religious toleration in north-western Europe, above all in Britain and the Low Countries in and following the Reformation. Today, toleration is often interpreted in a tepid way as no more than a matter of putting up with something, so as to demand no more than mere indifference. Unlike my noble friend Lord Hastings I take a more radical and classical view of toleration. Nothing could have been further from the view of the early protagonists of religious toleration than the thought that it was something tepid or mere indifference. They thought of it as a profoundly, excruciatingly difficult virtue—a duty not to repress belief or to persecute others, even when their beliefs were taken to be profoundly wrong and subversive.
When Oliver Cromwell famously wrote in 1650 to the Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland with the words:
“I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken”,
he was acknowledging that tolerating others’ beliefs can be enormously hard because we may find it impossible to imagine that our own beliefs could be mistaken. Toleration became central to the history of Europe and, subsequently, of human rights, not because it was a matter of indifference but because it was profoundly difficult and yet a duty.
I suggest that this is something that we forget at our peril. When we need to engage with others, whether their beliefs are religious or secularist, it is not enough to refrain from persecuting them or to be indifferent to them. Toleration demands more. It is incompatible with dismissing or deriding others’ beliefs or treating them with condescension. Genuine toleration requires respect for others and the effort of intellect and imagination to grasp what they say.
Article 9 is important for two further reasons. It is not merely a right of self-expression. That is Article 10—a right to freedom of expression that includes the freedom to hold and impart opinions, which is a familiar part of our public culture and protects individual and press freedoms. However, it does not address the right to protect and manifest religion or belief,
“alone or in community with others and in public or private”.
Such manifestations, both shared and private acts of worship and ceremonies, are central to religious observance. So Article 9 is not a right that protects the expression of just any belief or opinion that a person may happen to hold and want to express. For that, Article 10 would be enough. Article 9 is narrower in its scope. It is intended to protect life-orienting systems of belief rather than mere opinion, however idiosyncratic or objectionable. Those who hold highly controversial views on matters such as sexual activity with children, or the desirability of various sorts of revolution, may appeal to Article 10. Their mere holding of those views will not in itself be prohibited, but manifestation alone or with others often is criminalised.
Article 9 is demanding in a final way. It protects the freedom of each person to change his or her religion, a right that is far from secure in many parts of the world where apostasy is still treated as a crime and barbarous treatment is inflicted in the name of religious orthodoxy. We think of the persecution and suffering of Christians in parts of the Middle East and elsewhere. Much blood was shed to achieve toleration, and we should not forget that.
Lord Stone of Blackheath (Lab): My Lords, there is a vital role and a need in public life for those principles of compassion, understanding and spiritual enlightenment that are at the heart of religions and their associated beliefs. Yet, particularly as I work in the Middle East, I often find a disastrous disconnect of religion and belief from the feelings of heart, mind and soul that they should engender. As the noble Lord, Lord Singh, said, in public life we have a choice. We can either act selfishly, thinking first of me and my family and my tribe and what I want now and for the next week or the next year, or, with a little more open heart and mindfully, we can proceed with a higher level of consciousness, thinking of the impact of our actions on all beings for all times.
This mindfulness and higher consciousness is at the heart of most religions and the great traditions of the East. Although one does not need to have a religious belief, many of the sustained religions and philosophies have methods, rites and ceremonies that are designed to enable one, through contemplative practice, to engender in oneself such mindfulness. Mindfulness is complexly defined because it is an experience and not a theory. In Judaism, Taoism, Buddhism and other traditions, one cannot speak of it. It is known to be ineffable.
When he spoke on the Parliamentary Estate last year, Jon Kabat-Zinn put it simply as: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way, on purpose and non-judgmentally, to the unfolding experience moment by moment”. Evidence shows that even short periods of mindfulness practice reshape neural pathways, increase the areas associated with kindness, compassion and rationality and decrease those involved with anxiety, worry and impulsiveness.
A religion and belief in one’s private life may help one in public life; it is not easy to maintain this mindful state in public life, but those who have these beliefs, by adhering to certain practices and communal ceremonies, can experience a heightened state of consciousness to connect with something greater than their habitual selves, which puts them in a state where compassion and empathy come to a fore, values come before self and one is better able to see and understand other people’s points of view. However, there is a danger here, as articulated by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill. Believing that your particular religion or belief is the only path is an illusion. These rituals and rites are not ends in themselves; only when you use them skilfully does mindfulness arise.
I cite some examples in public life, starting with my own field of business and philanthropy. In Oxford this month, wealthy American investors, foundations and philanthropists, under the umbrella of the Cavendish Global Forum, with the help of an enlightened international “connectress”, Amber Nystrom, met some great people who were developing various social enterprises aiming to do the most good across the world. The US impact investors wanted to ensure that their money could flow into good things that would benefit all beings for all time yet still have a commercial return. They know that a belief in a higher purpose can help to make enterprises grow faster and prosper.
In education, I have spoken before about the successful Mindfulness in Schools project, a collaboration with psychologists at Oxford, Cambridge, Exeter and Bangor universities. It is an eight-week course written by teachers for teachers; the curriculum has been translated into eight languages and is being taught effectively in 38 countries. In health, mindfulness has been verified by NICE to be more effective than drugs and other therapies for many mental and physical illnesses. In the criminal justice system, mindfulness is used effectively for criminals, victims and police.
Finally, pulling this all together, we have here an active, vibrant All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness, which has been asked to present its work to the German and Dutch Parliaments as well as to the Knesset and other Parliaments. The APPG is currently writing a report to be ready in January for a strategy in the UK for mindfulness in education and health—we will give this evidence to the new mental health taskforce—the criminal justice system, business and government.
Religion and belief have important roles to play in public life as long as they are being used to engender mindfulness. On the flipside, mindfulness in the absence of some of these rich, centuries-old traditions and religions can be limiting. I ask the whole House to take note of the report on mindfulness strategy in the UK, which will be completed next year. Perhaps we might have an interesting debate here on that subject in your Lordships’ House.
Noble Lords might want to try mindfulness for themselves. The APPG has arranged that on every Tuesday on the estate, Chris Cullen from the Oxford Mindfulness Centre runs classes that take an hour and a half once a week for eight weeks. There are separate classes for Lords and MPs in one session and for staff in another. Some 115 Lords, MPs and staff have taken part and have enjoyed and benefited from these sessions in the past 18 months, and we are about to start session in the spring.
Lord Blair of Boughton (CB): My Lords, I need to declare an interest in that I am a trustee of the Woolf Institute for the study of relations between the Abrahamic faiths, and I gave evidence to the commission chaired by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss.
In the few minutes that I have, I want to talk about ignorance, starting with ignorance of the Christian heritage in the UK. Last week that was reinforced for me by a recent commentary by an education correspondent in a very reputable newspaper, which I shall not name, about government proposals for the religious studies GCSE that it must include the study of two faiths. The example given by the journalist was that schools would now have to teach Judaism and Islam and another school would now have to teach Christianity, including Catholicism. Until recently, my concerns about this have been about the loss of civic identity and education. I read English literature at university and I just do not understand how anybody could read Milton, Herbert, Hopkins or Eliot without an understanding of Christian history or theology. That does not seem to me to be really the point.
Since 9/11 and all that has followed, that ignorance has become much more dangerous. While the kind of exclusively narrow religious education described by the noble Lord, Lord Warner, is shocking and needs action to stop it, we should also be concerned with the basic lack of knowledge about not only Christianity but so many religions in many mainstream schools. Many children appear to be brought up in a world in which religion equates with danger, with Islam equalling mad-eyed bearded men acting with great cruelty, Christianity being something taught by Koran-burners in Florida, and Judaism being synonymous with the actions of the Jewish state.
As we all know, great evil has been done in the name of religion, but worse has been done in the name of the secularist creeds of left and right. We need to recapture and re-emphasise the essential compassion that lies at the heart of all great religions. If—and as a number of noble Lords have said, I think that it is an if—faith schools are to continue to exist, we should insist on all faith schools teaching comparative religion and emphasising their common compassion.
Imam Monawar Hussain recently addressed the Oxford diocesan synod. He pointed to extremist Muslim sects as having three characteristics: literalism of interpretation; the use of so-called “proof texts” without context; and the stated desire to set themselves apart by being more holy, faithful and certain than other coreligionists. Those of us from other faith traditions will recognise that analysis.
Tom Holland, the historian, wrote this August in the Sunday Times that the success of the Islamic State on the battlefield must be counterbalanced by defeat in the mosques, in churches and in seminars in schools of theology by emphasising commonality and compassion between religions. For the UK and much of Europe, that much is now urgent, and I hope that the work of the Woolf Institute in producing this report will be helpful to that end. I commend it to the House.
Lord Haskel (Lab): My Lords, I thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for his debate. He may remember a debate about faith and public life many years ago. Then the debate was about economics, and how to divide up the cake, what faith told us about dividing up the cake and how it should be done. How times have changed. Now faith in public life asks us who we are, how we live together while celebrating our diversity, and how compatible our diverse faith is with Britishness—or is diversity a threat? Economics has given way to identity, and this is complicated by the possibility of individuals holding multiple identities; the change in family circumstances brought about by increasing physical mobility; the rise of “blended” families; and the rapid renewal through generational change.
The Institute for Jewish Policy Research, of which I am the honorary president, did a survey about Jewish identity and found how identity mainly begins at home and then at school. I join my noble friends Lady Massey and Lord Dubs in their concern about how we have allowed faith schools to celebrate diversity, which has in fact caused division by enabling communities to close in on themselves. The noble Lord, Lord Warner, and the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, showed how different faiths and schools set about curtailing contact with other faiths and the rest of the world outside their community. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Blair. Intolerance arises from genuine ignorance and a lack of experience of the other. With identity playing such a crucial part in our lives, schools will have to reflect society. I think that the Woolf consultation will find that public opinion is moving towards reduced autonomy and faith schools will have to become a lot more mixed.
Digital faith communities are now an established part of public life. Religious leaders have their own active social media sites, with thousands, and in some cases millions, of followers. The Bible has its own Facebook page, and there are sites encouraging people in Britain to come together and pray for those less fortunate. Yet, because of perceived threats, public opinion on a free and open internet is changing. Tuesday’s proposed quick-passage Bill shows a hardening of attitudes here in Parliament.
That has happened because there are also extremist faith sites—I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, will note that I am careful not to use the word “radical”. Those sites preach intolerance and hatred. Their owners are difficult to trace, and may well be outside this country. Again, liberal values are under threat.
I support liberal values. Indeed, I belong to the liberal Jewish community—so I spoke to Rabbi Danny Rich, the senior rabbi and chief executive of Liberal Judaism. He agreed that faith-based organisations ought to be involved in social and political action, in accordance with adherent interpretations of their faith. Sensibly, he told me that he hoped that disagreements between and within faiths would be handled in accordance with Britain’s democratic values. Rabbinic decision-making is traditionally based on the view of a majority, after reasoned debate—but with the minority view being recorded, which means that we do not impose our views on others. Indeed, we try to be a blessing on others, as the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, has said.
Rabbi Danny Rich and I both felt that the current system of civil and criminal law in the UK is satisfactory in relation to issues of religion and belief. We would prefer that religious courts did not involve themselves in the civil law, and that religious communities did not seek to use the civil law to solve issues that their own religious authorities do not have the courage or the will to resolve. For example, Liberal Judaism accepts civil divorce, in the sense of not requiring people to undergo any further religious divorce procedure. In the same way it accepts same-sex marriage, because it is the law of the land—and that is the way it should be.
Baroness Sherlock (Lab): My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my interests in the register: I am a former commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. I am also a former chair of the Chapel Street Schools trust and a current chair of Chapel Street Community Fund, a community interest company. I am also a practising Anglican, but just a lowly back-bencher; I have no responsibility at all for anything the church may do.
I add my thanks to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, for giving us the chance to debate this issue. I also pay tribute to his work in this area, and his scholarship, for which I have been very grateful over the years. His speech was a wonderful opening to the debate. I was interested to hear about the work of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life. I commend the Woolf Institute for its interest, and I wish all the commissioners well in their deliberations. I hope we will have the opportunity to debate their findings in this House when they emerge in due course.
I shall try to address some of the areas of challenge that the noble and right reverend Lord set out for us as I go along, but it will be a challenge in itself to respond to the extraordinary range of speeches that we have heard. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, who observed that it is interesting that we are debating this issue at all. Fifty years ago, the idea that in 2014 Parliament would still be discussing the importance of religion and belief in public life would have seemed improbable at best. Then, it was assumed that by now religion would have withdrawn quietly from the public stage, and certainly from any involvement with the state. Believers would have dwindled in number and any religion that remained would be essentially a personal and private activity.
I remember that in 1968 the acclaimed sociologist Peter Berger said that by the 21st century,
“religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture”.
Thirty years later, he said that,
“the assumption that we live in a secularised world is false: The world today, with some exceptions … is as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever”.
Futurology is a difficult game, and one should not laugh. I am still waiting for my personal jetpack, as promised in the “Tomorrow’s World” of my childhood, and it has yet to materialise. So I understand and I sympathise with Peter Berger. It is a real lesson to all of us that if we think that today is a lesson in what tomorrow will look like, that is simply a challenge to our own concerns and our inability to look into the future.
If secularisation is no longer the certain shape of the future, that leaves some significant questions about the role of religion and belief in our public life, including how we respond to the growing importance of identity as a marker—a point made by my noble friends Lord Haskel and Lord Parekh, as well as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries. I do not have answers to all these questions, but they are incredibly important. I shall be very interested in the degree to which the Minister can help us along and the commission can lead us in the future. I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Blair of Boughton, for highlighting the key issue of ignorance of religion as one of the drivers of our inability to know how to respond to the new importance of religion in our public life. I hope we can come back to discuss that again.
So what should be our attitude to the role of religion in public life? I think that we should start by honouring our heritage. Earlier this year, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury notedn that our systems of ethics and justice, the protection of the poor, and most of how we look at society have been shaped by, and founded on, Christianity. As he pointed out, however, that view was shared by other faith groups. He quoted Farooq Murad of the Muslim Council of Britain, who said:
“No one can deny that Britain remains largely a Christian country”.
It is important to recognise that heritage.
The role that the established church still plays has been highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock. But of course, the relationship between religion and public life has altered a lot over time. The most reverend Primate himself acknowledged that, in terms of regular churchgoing, this is not a Christian country as it used to be not that many years ago—but, as he put it,
“the language of what we are, what we care for and how we act is earthed in Christianity, and would remain so for many years even if the number of believers dropped out of sight (which they won’t, in my opinion)”.
So I hope we can all accept that the Christian religion has played a formative role in the development of our life and identity as a country. That is not, of course, to say that acceptance of the dominant British values presupposes an acceptance of the beliefs and practices that helped to form them. I will be interested to see the Minister’s reaction to the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, that a new Magna Carta for the future might be a way to take this debate forward.
The history of Christianity in Britain also underpins some of our public institutions and services, particularly the history of schools—a subject that has been raised by a number of noble Lords. I shall have to contain myself here, because, as I should also declare, I am doing my PhD, incredibly slowly, on church and state through the medium of church schools. The result is that I probably know more about the history of church schools than is strictly socially acceptable, so I shall try to stop myself going on too much about the subject.
I first went into that area because I wanted to know why we had all these faith schools in our state education system. Then, of course, I discovered, as one so often does, that it was the other way round. Britain entered the 19th century with no mass education at all, and a couple of voluntary bodies created a very large number of schools. The National Society, which set out to create a church school in every parish, set up 12,000 schools in 40 years, many of which are still going nowadays. They were paid for by individual subscriptions. So essentially, the basis of our mass education was set up by the churches and the state system grew around that. That organic process that underlies so much of British life is something we need to recognise and understand to make decisions about going forward.
A legitimate question was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, as well as by my noble friends Lord Warner and Lord Dubs and others: what is the ongoing role of faith schools now, in modern life, especially in the state sector? There is always a variety of interests to be balanced. How much does one want educational homogeneity or heterogeneity? How important is parental choice? What is the impact of faith schools on community cohesion? What are the limits of what can be taught in a school? If faith schools were all private, how might that affect cohesion and the state’s ability to regulate and inspect them, compared with what it does at the moment?
On that last point, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Williams of Oystermouth, made an interesting point, which I think it is worth quoting in full:
“If the choice appears to be between systematically secular schools in the public sector and explicitly sectarian schools privately resourced, the dangers should be obvious … Religious conviction becomes something fiercely guarded from the light of public discussion or scrutiny; the way in which it relates to other areas of life and thought can only be looked at in ways that are not publicly accountable”.
That is food for thought, but it also presupposes well run faith schools with high-quality social, moral, spiritual and cultural education. Will the Minister tell the House what steps the Government are taking to support the ongoing development of that? Labour remains supportive of the continuing presence of faith schools within our state system, but it is of course essential that they, like all schools, teach a broad and balanced curriculum and equip their students to live alongside students of all faiths and none in our society.
I will touch briefly on the role of religion in social action. Some noble Lords may have seen the report from Demos last year looking at the contribution that believers and faith-based organisations make to our national life. It found that religious people in the UK are more likely to volunteer locally, to be civically engaged and engaged in charity, which has been established before. But, interestingly, they were also more likely to have higher levels of trust in other people and institutions and to believe that they could influence decisions nationally and locally, which is curious. I stress at this point that some of my best friends are atheists and humanists; indeed, some of my most respected colleagues on the Benches behind me fall into those categories. They are shining examples of people who give selflessly and sacrifice themselves in both service and giving to the cause. I mention that not to privilege faith but to counter some of the fears that can be expressed that faith can cause people to look inwards, whereas the opposite can be true.
The report highlighted some interesting cases studies. My noble friend Lord Stone of Blackheath may be interested to know about the London Buddhist Centre. He may already know about Breathing Space, which uses mindfulness to tackle mental health problems and addiction. The Near Neighbours programme, run by the Church of England, is effective in bringing neighbours in diverse areas together to work for the common good. Birdwell’s conclusions in this pamphlet were interesting: faith provides a unique underpinning to the commitment and motivation required to provide services, particularly to some of the hardest to help; faith-based services can be particularly effective in some areas; and faith groups and institutions provide valuable and important permanent structures in the local community, which can be used to aid social problems.
There is real food for thought there for policymakers and service designers. We need to learn from the strength of faith-based work but recognise that there are risks, both to the state and to the groups, of drawing faith-based groups into delivery. In the past, the state has sometimes sought to bank the advantages and mitigate the risks by somehow trying to separate the activities from the faith community, and that simply does not work. The research shows that.
On community, if Britain is not secular, it is also clearly not solely a Christian country any more and the relations between the various communities are crucial. However, I see some encouraging signs here. I see increasing evidence of religious communities tending to facilitate community-wide dialogue of the kind that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham described. When I went with the riots panel to Birmingham in the wake of the 2011 riots, I was hugely impressed to see the group that he chairs bringing together people from right across the community—from different faith, ethnic and local groups—to work together to tackle their problems. We were all hugely impressed by what we saw there.
Another example would be community organising, which brings together the members of mainstream churches with other religions but also with trade unions, parent bodies, homeless charities and a wide range of organisations. London Citizens is the most notable example, but it was the experience of its members that brought together ideas such as the living wage, which have gone on to be so successful. However, one of the things that citizen organising taught us was to recognise that talking about difference is not necessarily a problem and ignoring it does not necessarily work. When it comes to religion, particularity is everything. It is by talking about our own individual experiences and differences that we get to understand one another and go on to make a difference. At a time when, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich reminded us, politicians are struggling so hard to engage with people, finding faith-based organisations and talking to a wide range of communities might give us a lesson that we can all learn.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con): My Lords, I join all other noble Lords in thanking the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, for bringing this debate to the House today. It is an important issue. In doing so, I pay tribute to his enduring contribution to promoting our national heritage and his work, particularly with the Woolf Institute—a point also acknowledged by other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Blair. I warmly welcome the Woolf Institute’s consultation and look forward to the report next year. I thank the noble and right reverend Lord for his hard work in ensuring that this consultation is shared widely among those of all faiths and none. I also welcome his reference to the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, who could not join us today and I particularly welcome the contribution that he has made to the promotion of understanding faiths across the board.
We should never lose sight of the most significant element of any faith—what it means to each person of any faith. Faith touches on matters of great, fundamental importance to the individual—questions of eternal significance. I assure noble Lords that the role of government is not to intrude on those questions, but rather to assert boldly the right of each person to hold his or her own beliefs. Therefore, religion and belief are topics that governments should always approach with great sensitivity—a point well made by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, and my noble friend Lord Alderdice in their contributions. However, governments have a profound responsibility to provide a just and tolerant framework of laws that enable people of different faiths or of no faith to live side by side. That is a great strength of our nation. Too often, diversity is thought of as a weakness; nay, it is indeed a strength of our great country
Many noble Lords, including the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham, reflected on our Christian heritage—a heritage that has been built over 14 centuries. Earlier this year, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister used his Easter address to speak about the importance of Christianity and Britain’s status as a Christian country. Speaking from personal experience of our country, my foundation in education was at a Church of England school. That did not make me less of a Muslim or more of a Christian, but it taught me a profound respect for beliefs, religions and traditions. It is a tradition that we should continue with. I feel strongly in that regard.
I believe that faith is a force for good. As the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, reminded us, many a prophet of yesteryear would be regarded today as radical as they were then. Let us not forget that they set the ball rolling in terms of teaching greater compassion and wrestling with the things that we are still wrestling with today such as the abolition of slavery, which was very much their pretext. I agree that people of faith sometimes need to wrestle back certain terms to ensure their true meaning.
An article in the Telegraph recently, written by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, warned of secularism, while it has a place, becoming so aggressive that it attacks religion in all respects and encourages intolerance towards others. I reinforce the Secretary of State’s words that the best response is to champion values that define our country, many of which are founded in faith. At heart, we are a Christian nation—from the established church in England to the language of the King James Bible, deeply woven into the fabric of our culture. But most importantly, we are, as several noble Lords mentioned, a place of justice and tolerance towards others. My noble friend Lord Alderdice mentioned that. Our defence of freedom, the rule of law and the evolution of our democracy have all grown from the seedbed of faith.
It has been interesting to see the role that faith has played in helping our immigrant communities to integrate into British society. As Minister for communities, including faith and integration, I wrestle with the challenges that communities pose. Since time immemorial and even in the past 100 years, communities of different cultures and faiths have settled here. Yes, we have had a few challenges and we have had ups and downs, but we have determined together to emerge and we have done so as a more resilient, stronger and more diverse nation, and we shall continue to do so. We need only look at the Christian community, with the migration of the Irish and Polish communities, which have seen a strengthening of practice at Catholic mass.
Turning to this Government’s record of engagement, my noble friend Lord Singh of Wimbledon—I call him my noble friend because we share Wimbledon in our titles—mentioned one Government saying that they had done more than another. I think that we can agree across the Chamber that this is about recognising what others have done and building positively on those foundations for our future. But I am mindful of the fact that this Government have taken certain actions in recognising minority communities—and, indeed, minority communities within minority communities. I was delighted to join the Secretary of State at the Hounslow Big Iftar with the Ismaili Muslim community, which is a great example of what is best about being British and proud of your faith—great company, food and music and concern for humanity, which is what we find across many faiths.
My department also has a strong record of engagement with the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, a community that has provided a beacon of hope, perseverance and charitable giving in our country. In addition to the Secretary of State’s visit to their Tower of London event marking the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, I recently took part in their annual peace symposium. The event brought together more than 800 people and amplified the Ahmadiyya community’s resounding and heart-warming maxim, “Love for all, hatred for none”.
It was an honour also recently to meet Dr Rajesh Parmar, of the International Siddhashram Shakti Centre, and Satya Minhas, of the Hindu Council UK and the Metropolitan Police Hindu Association, at the International Siddhashram Shakti Centre in Harrow earlier this month, an occasion to mark the sterling and often forgotten contribution of soldiers of minority faiths who served so gallantly in the First World War. It has also been a great pleasure, in my first few months in this role, to meet some of the key people in British faith circles today. Prominent among those were the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury and Cardinal Nichols the Archbishop of Westminster. I look forward to my meeting in early December with the Chief Rabbi. These people are at the apex of their respective faiths and I look forward to working with them as we look at some of our challenges, building on how faiths can work together.
My noble friend Lord Cormack talked about the church and its ideas for a new charter in celebration of the anniversary of Magna Carta. The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, alluded to this as well. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that perhaps a sign of the importance of the role that the Bishops play is the fact that my noble friend directed his question not to the Minister on the Front Bench but to the Bishops on the spiritual Benches. I look forward to working with them as an extension of my work in this area. Again, that underlines the importance of faith communities and, as many noble Lord recognised, the diversity of faith representation in this House.
I turn to the church communities and their role. Let us not forget that the heartbeat of many communities up and down the country is the parish church, where people go not just to worship but to raise money for charity, take part in recreational activities and, indeed, socialise.
Let me assure all noble Lords—I shall come on to the challenging issue of extremism in a moment—that I recognise the importance of education, a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, my noble friend Lady Falkner and the noble Lord, Lord Blair. I am sure that noble Lords are aware that the Government have opened a consultation on the teaching of faith at GCSE and A-level. I encourage all noble Lords to contribute to the consultation, which I believe closes on 29 December. I feel a bit like the noble Lord, Lord Stone, plugging the mindfulness course—I am sure that that was also noted by many a noble Lord and that they will be lining up to sign up after this debate.
Parish churches are joined by many places of worship and faith communities in weaving the moral fabric, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, said, of what Britain is today, providing comfort to those who feel isolated, responding in times of trouble to relieve hardship and building communities of trust. Ultimately, the crucial element in building a society which is cohesive is that of respect. The Government actively celebrate the vital role of faith in our national life, guiding the moral outlook of many, inspiring great numbers of people to do public service and providing help to those in need, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham reminded us.
This has been most apparent through some of the work this Government have been directly supporting. Our integration policy and projects aim to break down barriers, emphasise local action and bring people together—celebrating what we have in common rather what than divides us, as my noble friend Lord Cormack said so eloquently. Recognising the catalyst of building on the hard work that happens not just in countless churches but in mosques, temples, gurdwaras and synagogues, as well as in many church and community halls, the Government are working together with communities locally to set in motion successful projects for further developing effective, friendly, working and respectful relationships between people of different faiths and none, so as to tackle social challenges.
We have therefore invested, for example, £8 million in the Church Urban Fund’s Near Neighbours programme. I notice that my noble friend Lady Eaton, who is involved in that project, is in her place. That programme is using the Church of England parish system to build productive local relationships between people of different faiths in areas of high deprivation. Only last month I was fortunate enough to visit the city of Bradford, a diverse city of many faiths, where I saw several social action projects on the ground, including one of the 721 Near Neighbours projects happening in England and Wales. The “Thank U Bradford” project, led by the energetic Pastor Ben Ayesu, is taking asylum seekers around Bradford to clean up the town in terms of graffiti, changing perceptions in people’s minds. Such projects encourage cross-cultural and cross-faith friendships while enabling participants to make a positive contribution to the local area.
I also had the opportunity to meet representatives of Bradford’s Muslim community, including the very dynamic Imam Asim, as well as representatives of various Sikh communities in the area. In addition, the Government are supporting the Together in Service programme, launched last year, to further strengthen faith-based social action throughout the country. We are investing more than £300,000 in this programme over two years. There are 43 projects now running, from Nottingham to Blackburn and Ealing. The list is quite extensive.
Perhaps nowhere is this reflected more than in our recently celebrated national Inter Faith Week. I am pleased to say there were more than 200 organised events across the country during Inter Faith Week in 2014, with more events still being reported. The noble Lord, Lord Singh, talked about interfaith matters with great compassion and great presence, as he always does. He talked of the satnav of religion. I say to him, and I am sure that many of all faiths would agree, that we may have satnavs of different models, which probably tell us to take different directions, but we hope that the starting point and the end point are always the same.
Poignantly, at this time of year, we remember those who gave their lives on foreign battlefields. We must not forget those from the Commonwealth who fought so bravely for our country. I was pleased to have been part of We Remember Too, a project to acknowledge and commemorate the role of soldiers of minority faiths, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Zoroastrians and others, who answered the call to arms. We remember and commemorate the bravery of the likes of Frank Alexander de Pass, Darwan Singh Negi and Khudadad Khan, the first soldiers of the Jewish, Hindu and Muslim faiths to receive the Victoria Cross as a result of brave activity during the First World War.
Highlighting the part played by the 400,000 Muslims —it is pertinent in the modern age to reflect on that—who fought for Britain in the First World War, for example, is one of the ways this Government are committed to showing that you can be proudly British and proud of your faith. I am testament to this; I am not self-conflicted and, in my case, I am proud of my faith in Islam. We recognise that people of all faiths are crucial to Britain’s history and British life today, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, mentioned.
The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, talked about the reading of the Koran in the cathedral. Let me share with noble Lords that during the recent Big Iftar, the month-long celebration of Ramadan, we saw Jewish synagogues open their doors to the community for the opening of the fast. That is the strength of our country. Our many faith groups live and breathe alongside each other; indeed, they give oxygen to each other, showing the extent of diversity in our great country. Together we are one family and that is where we reveal our greatest strength. As we build a strong nation, united in our belief in the primacy of our shared values, while celebrating the fact that our differences enrich us, as the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, said, we challenge those who have no wish to contribute to our society or, worse still, to disrupt and attack our very way of life.
I turn to the issue of extremism. Let me make it absolutely clear—I am sure that it is a sentiment shared by all—that extremism has no place in Britain and will not be tolerated. It creates environments conducive to violence and terrorism; it encourages segregation, disrespect for other cultures and restricted rights for women and for minorities. As my noble friend Lord Fowler said so passionately, differences, not just on gender or religion but on sexual orientation, cannot be allowed to destroy what Britain is today.
Turning to some specific questions, the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, and the noble Lord, Lord Singh, talked about the international day of non-violence—perhaps it is apt that I answered a Question on that a few days ago. I commend my right honourable friends the Home Secretary and the Education Secretary for their work in this area. We are working across government to ensure this issue is given full focus.
The noble Lord, Lord Warner, talked about indoctrination and abuse in schools, including elements of extremism. I agree with his assertion about the value of a broad-based education and commend the work he does. I remember answering a debate on the contribution of humanists to our great country.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham and the noble Lord, Lord Warner, raised the Trojan horse issues arising in Birmingham. I assure noble Lords that the Government are supporting institutions to identify and confront extremist influences. For example, we are improving inspection regimes, strengthening the rules for schools and demanding more from universities to prevent radicalisation on campus.
My noble friend Lord Alderdice talked about not oversimplifying interpretations of religion which can contribute to the risk of radicalisation and extremism. I assure my noble friend that the Government are developing a strategy for tackling extremism. We know that an important part of that strategy will be engaging with faith leaders of all denominations to ensure that the right voices, the voices of tolerance, moderation and respect, gain greater influence.
My noble friend Lady Falkner of Margravine spoke passionately about faith schools and education. It is essential that all schools prepare children for modern life. The recent Ofsted reports highlighted important failings in some Tower Hamlets schools. The Government are working with local school leaders and governors to ensure that children are not put at risk by the rise of extremism.
The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, also talked about faith schools, divisions and extremism. I recognise the serious points he made in this regard. The counterterrorism Bill announced by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary this week includes important measures to tackle internet radicalisation by extremists and terrorists. We acknowledge the value and challenges of online. That is where faith communities have a role. The right voices, the moderate voices, the voices of respect, should come forward and beat that challenge on the internet.
In my last few minutes, I shall turn to a few other points that were raised. My noble friend Lord Fowler spoke passionately about extending what we do internationally. It is important that the Government play their role. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, also spoke with great expertise and insight. The right to equality of belief must be afforded to all. It is deeply regrettable that religious minorities, including Christians, are suffering great persecution around the world. The Government are committed to supporting the fundamental human right to freedom of religion or belief abroad, and we stress to Governments around the world the importance of respecting universal human rights, including religious rights, and the rights of all minorities, as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, pointed out. The Government have taken a strong lead in promoting equality and challenging prejudices abroad.
Recently, I had the honour and the emotional experience of going to Auschwitz-Birkenau. As I stood on that barren land, it reminded me of some of the challenges that confronted faith communities from someone who sought to eradicate a particular faith at a particular time. Britain has stood strong against such tyranny and will continue to do so. In the process of countering extremism, whether tackling anti-Semitism or anti-Muslim hatred, projects such as Tell MAMA, Remembering Srebrenica and the £2.1 million we allocate to Auschwitz-Birkenau ensure that these issues are not taken off the agenda. Strength in the face of adversity is something that all faiths give us as well as the strength to overcome tyranny. Standing in the barren grounds of Auschwitz just two weeks ago reminded me how far we have come and also of how important it is to continue to eradicate bigotry in all its forms.
In this ever-changing world we live in, one thing remains constant, and that is faith. It has survived the test of time and continues to breathe life into communities up and down the UK. We should be proud of how many faiths contribute to our national life today. What faith provides is unique, pure and, for many, irreplaceable. For millions, the faith they hold, whether based on the Torah, the Koran or some other source, is not only a personal, internal matter but a great motivator towards social action and a powerful impetus to change the world for the better.
Let us not forget those of no faith who feel equally as passionate about their position in society and who are equally passionate in serving humanity and their country. Those who expound a more secularist view also have deep respect and compassion and wish to make the world a better place.
This is a view we all treasure to help build the Britain we all treasure. This is what the Government support and will continue to support because it is a key element of the kind of society we want to build. I have no doubt whatever that the world of faith and those who follow the true teaching and the true meanings of a peaceful faith will continue to do good, as has been the case for centuries, and will rise to the challenges of today in providing hope to millions, in particular in ensuring unstinting service to humanity.
Lord Harries of Pentregarth: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. There was a wide range of contributions, some very analytical and thoughtful and others which were very deeply felt about particular issues. I shall not mention noble Lords by name, but I thank the Minister for his clear personal commitment to this area.
A few noble Lords were worried about the words “religion and belief” in the title. I understand that, but the commission was advised that all the most authoritative documents in this field now use that phrase, which is why it was chosen.
A number of noble Lords mentioned the positive role religion plays in our society at both local and national level. That was good to hear. Equally, there was a wide range of criticisms of the role of religion in education and, in particular from the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, about its attitude to same-sex relationships. Justified criticism of religion should be encouraged for the sake of religion itself. It is quite unequivocally in the interests of religion that justifiable criticism be encouraged.
I do not believe that humanism—many noble Lords are humanists—should be seen purely in negative terms as a criticism of religion. The word “humanist” goes back to renaissance times when all those who designated themselves humanists were Christians. For them, it meant not just a revival of classical learning but a belief in human flourishing. I suggest that the great national gathering recommended by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, which no doubt he would like to take place in Lincoln next year, should be a gathering not just of people with religious views but should include people from the British Humanist Society, as 25.1% of people in the country now define themselves as having no religion and many of those define themselves as humanists.
We have talked a lot about trying to build common ground between religions, but there is a need in our society to build common ground between religious believers and those who have no religion but regard themselves as humanists. This is particularly important at the moment because, as Michael Sandel has pointed out, for the past 30 years, our society has been dominated by a combination of social and market liberalism. In other words, people have believed only in one value: unfettered individual choice. This is because we lack any proper concept of the common good and what it is to be a good society. As he said, if as liberals we are frightened of getting into that debate because we disagree about it,
“Fundamentalists rush in where liberals fear to tread”.
I very much hope that this great national gathering will invite humanists and that we will be able to work at getting a much stronger, thicker understanding of what it is to live in a good society.