The House of Lords “doing God” – or, at any rate, debating religion

On Thursday 22 November Lord Singh of Wimbledon (better known to Radio 4 Thought for the Day listeners as Dr Indarjit Singh) initiated a short debate in the House of Lords on Religion in the United Kingdom. Following is a summary of some of the more interesting contributions.

Lord Singh felt that the pressure to keep religion out of public debate was bad in itself; but what was worse was the fact that some within the different religions reacted by withdrawing from involvement in daily life. That disconnect between the practice of religion and the challenges and concerns of daily living was totally contrary to the central teachings of religion – though the fact that some misused religion to pursue power or to justify cruel or discriminatory behaviour made it easy to understand why religion had such a bad public image.

For some life had never been so good; but for others that was not the case – witness the record prison population and the number of children in community care every year. Limited amounts of money could address social problems but the real problems went much deeper: an example was the rising rate of divorce and separation. Nor was better citizenship training necessarily the answer: “citizenship” looked at society as it was and taught children to conform to transient and sometimes questionable social norms. Religion, however, frequently challenged such norms. For example, in the 1950s accommodation adverts in shop windows would often say: “No blacks or coloureds”. That was accepted by the culture of the time but opposed by religious teachings.

In a multi-faith society we had to move beyond superficial “niceness” to active promotion of common values that benefited society. The one God was not interested in religious labels but in the way people behaved. The well-being of society started with the family and a recognition of the importance of marriage as a committed relationship in which the couple was prepared to endure difficulties to ensure a stable and positive environment for children. Though different lifestyles were rightly respected, we could not afford to ignore the harm done to children by transient and selfish relationships.

In recent years the Government had made tentative attempts to engage with faith-groups through various committees. Unfortunately, the nature of that engagement was often reflected in the name of the initiatives: “Prevent”, for example, had been geared to preventing religions making nuisances of themselves. What was needed was a greater enabling focus that helped religions to work more fully with secular society.

Several contributors talked about the charitable work of religious organisations and their contribution to social cohesion. Perhaps Lord Popat was nearest the mark when he suggested that the debate on the role of religion in society was, in effect, asking three questions:

  • What do people think the current role of religion in society is?
  • What is the actual role of religion in society?
  • What do people want the role of religion in society to be?

His own answer was that the nature of faith and religion inspired people to be better human beings but, though religion could have a very positive impact on society, far too many conflicts had their roots in religion and far too often the tone of religious organisations was divisive, exclusive and outdated. Religions needed to make sure that they were relevant to society.

Lord Bilimoria, a Zoroastrian Parsee, noted with sadness that religion was declining in the United Kingdom. He was suspicious of talk about “tolerance” of faiths and communities. People should be celebrating each other’s religions and faiths; and no relationship could exist without mutual trust and respect. He understood that the present Government “did do God”. But was it doing enough to encourage and promote religion and religious faith? Could it do more? What religions did more than anything else was to promote integrity and values. Religions were not about rituals or “doing things right” but about “doing the right thing”.

Various contributors mentioned the current dispute about the charitable status of the Preston Down Trust but Baroness Berridge devoted her speech to it.

She said that she had family members in the Hales Exclusive Brethren, which was not to be confused with any other Brethren group. The Hales Brethren held to the doctrine of separation, so Exclusives could not live in semi-detached houses (because they shared a party wall with non-Brethren), could not eat with non-Brethren or have them as friends, could attend only Brethren schools and work only for Brethren businesses. Attending university was banned. It was a very controlled environment in which to live and grow up and preliminary research suggested that the mental health outcomes for former Exclusive Brethren were poor.

She suggested that there should be a church-led inquiry into the Exclusive Brethren – and since the Brethren maintained that the various assertions about their activities were without foundation she assumed that they would welcome such an inquiry. Groups like the Exclusives could certainly exist in a liberal society; but whether they should be charities was open to doubt. While the Charity Commission’s religion and public benefit guidance needed to be clarified, clarification was also needed on the outer limits of what was acceptable behaviour for religious groups.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine, speaking as a secularist, upheld everyone’s right to their religion or belief as well as their right to change or abandon it. Religions had just as much right to express their views as anyone else; but those views should not be privileged in the framing of law and public policy unless specifically related to policies of non-discrimination. Secularism was becoming more widely understood and recognised as important in a multi-faith society.

Separating religion and the state enabled those of all religions and none to participate as equal citizens. Same-sex marriage was an example. Liberal religious groups, the non-religious and probably many individual Anglicans and Roman Catholics wished to proceed with same-sex marriage but the Churches were seeking to restrict the freedoms of others by opposing it. Similarly, polls taken during the Pope’s visit suggested that only somewhere between 8 per cent and 15 per cent of Roman Catholics agreed with their Church’s official doctrine on issues such as contraception, homosexuality and abortion. She very much regretted the repeated rejection by the House of Lords of assisted dying legislation and stem cell research and was convinced that the rejection had been on religious grounds in spite of the fact that public opinion took the contrary view. Religions should not have privileged positions from which to restrict the freedoms of others – something that they did far too often.

Lord Sacks, the soon-to-retire Chief Rabbi, said that religion was often misunderstood as a strange set of beliefs and idiosyncratic rituals, both of which we could jettison without loss. A better way of understanding religion, even from the outside, was as a sustained education in a life lived beyond the self.

All the world’s great religions taught their adherents the importance of making sacrifices for the sake of others. Religious groups were building schools and hospitals and networks of support long before the state did so; and research showed that regular worshippers were still more likely than others to donate to charity and, generally, to be “active citizens”. Religiosity as measured by attendance at a house of worship was a better predictor of altruism and empathy than education, age, income, gender or race. The social implications of this were immense. Moreover, religions were a counter to a culture that sometimes seemed to value self over others, rights over responsibilities, getting more than giving, consumption more than contribution and success more than service to others.

In reply, the Minister for Minister for Faith and Communities, Baroness Warsi, made the following points:

  • The Government believed that religion played a vital role in British society and celebrated faith and faith communities’ contribution to society.
  • Faith communities made a vital contribution to national life:  she agreed with Lord Singh that the state was there when things in society went wrong but religion was there from the outset to stop them going wrong in the first place.
  • The 30,000 faith-based charities in the UK made a huge difference at home and abroad – for example, research showed that people of religious observance were more likely to be volunteers.
  • The Government wanted to help build effective, co-operative working relationships between people of different faiths, through funding for the Inter Faith Network for the UK and the Faith-based Regeneration Network.
  • The Government was committed to maintaining the status of religious education as a compulsory subject in schools: religious education was fundamental to children’s learning.
  • The Government remained committed to the provision of collective worship in schools.
  • Freedom of religion was a fundamental human right and the Government defended the right of people to follow a faith and to express that faith, free from discrimination, intolerance or persecution.
  • In 2010 the Government made it a requirement for all police forces to record anti-Semitic attacks and was funding tighter security measures in Jewish faith schools.
  • The Government was funding the Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks programme and had established the cross-government Anti-Muslim Hatred group to respond department by department to the growing problem of anti-Muslim hatred.
  • The Government had changed the law to allow councils to continue to hold prayers at the beginning of their meetings if they so wished.
  • The Government believed that “faith should have a seat at the table in public life”: not as a privilege but as a strong contributor to public debate.

She concluded:

“When I first set the tone for this Government’s faith agenda in 2010, declaring that we would ‘do God’, many warned that this was something that a Government Minister should not say. Two years on, I am heartened to see that so many Ministers have got behind this agenda, and our actions demonstrate the importance that we attach to the role of religion in British society”.