I was delighted to take part as an interviewee for the Balancing Beliefs project run by Manchester and Nottingham Trent Universities. The project is shedding much needed light on how the law can ensure that everyone’s religious and ethical beliefs receive appropriate recognition, protection, and respect. You can read more about the projects and see the other interviews here.
How would you describe your personal identity in terms of ideology or faith?
I don’t think I have a particular identity, but if you asked me about my beliefs or worldview, I would obviously say humanist. I work with a lot of religious people and their answer to the question about identity is easier than mine, they can say Christian or whatever. Whereas with me it depends what the question is really getting at, so if it about belief in God I would say that I am an atheist, if you asked about beliefs about politics I would say Socialist.
If you had to tick a box on a census form what would you tick?
No Religion, because that’s the question on the census form, but I’ve never had a strong identity in belief terms. I think the interesting thing about humanists is that probably don’t, the word describes beliefs rather than identity. Since humanism had been more widely known, more people have taken that on as an identity. But I think that a lot of humanist would say that they had a world view which was quite permeable, dynamic and that identity was quite a divisive concept in this context.
Is this a worldview you grew up with, or something which you adopted as an adult? What made you choose it, or choose to remain within it?
Absolutely, my parents, grandparents, great grandparents all had a humanist world view. I wouldn’t say that I made a conscious decision about that, I don’t think that people do about beliefs, I think that they either believe things or they don’t and retrospectively they justify them. I suppose there was never any reason to change the fundamental worldview I had been raised in the light of. I met religious people in the later stages of school, but they weren’t conviction religious people, they were just people whose parents had a religious identity so they had one. It wasn’t until I was at university that I met seriously religious people and I just thought that they were pretty extraordinary really. They were really crazy and it was obviously madness, so I was never really enticed by this, it was never really plausible to me. When I was at primary school, it was in the Midlands, it was a very multi-ethnic area, they were children from all sorts of different backgrounds, and post-industrial too, so the white-working class community that I am from were fairly secular. The youth groups around were all secular, my primary school didn’t do any of the Christian things they were obliged to do by law so I never really encountered religion at that point. By the time that I got to secondary school my academic interests were all about the Classics, and if you immerse yourself in that world there is no Christianity there either. And then the social networks I developed at university all precluded the possibility of taking religion seriously. And I still don’t take it very seriously.
The positive side of it, the more my life has gone on the more I deeply feel that the world view that I was raised in is not merely factually correct in terms of its statements about the universe, it is actually extremely beneficial in terms of its statements about the importance of human beings and connections, and more and more I value the human element to life, connecting with other people.
Do you think that Great Britain is an equal and tolerant society, particularly in relation to religion and belief?
I think that by and large it is an extremely tolerant society, I think that because of our cultural history people are inclined to toleration in the sense of indifference, we are willing to let people keep on with their own stuff as long as it is not bothering anybody else. In terms of religion and belief I don’t think that it is very equal, certainly not. It is very clear for example that people with recognisable Muslim identities are heavily discriminated against in employment and the media. There is economic inequality and the extent to which religion is a proxy for ethnicity is debatable, but we all know the studies which have been done where people send it identical C.V.s with names suggested different ethnic and religious origins, and receive very difference responses on that basis. I think that Christianity is massively privileged in law. I think that we are socially tolerant. So for example, the idea that the Westminster Parliament would ban the burka is crazy.
How easy is it to live in accordance with your beliefs?
For me it is very easy, because I am middle class, comfortable and don’t have children. But were I not in those three categories it would be different. Thinking of friends who have children it is very difficult for them in terms of what their children are going to encounter at school for instance, prayers, they experience this and then come home and ask what’s this about Jesus. And because these things are compulsory they can’t take their children out of them without having them essentially marginalised in some sense from the school setting. Getting them into school in the first place is hard because so many schools are run by churches. If I was unemployed or reliant on Social Services or welfare services it might be difficult. A lot of the cases we have had are where their welfare program has been contracted out to a religious organisation and they find themselves in a setting where they are very uncomfortable. There are obviously employment restrictions on non-religious people, if they are in the education sector or contracted out public services.
Has humanism influenced the world’s understanding of human rights?
Oh absolutely, I think that there is a direct correlation between the prevalence of humanist beliefs and attitudes in not just the western world but the world. Humanist thought has been extremely influential. If you see human rights as constantly evolving from the Enlightenment onwards, obviously humanist thought has played an important part. If you see human rights as a reaction to the enlightenment project, equally there is a humanistic element in the reaction. I think that the pragmatic element of human rights is quite humanist and quite English humanist, the idea that rights are not natural but can be created and put in charters and enforced by law.
Are there any ways in which the BHA has a practical influence on human rights?
Yes, we have always been heavily involved. We were part of the campaign for the Human Rights Act and strongly supported that, we were very involved in the establishment of the Equality and Human Rights Commission as it now is. And we have a delegation to the Council of Europe, to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, we work with other NGOs to hold governments to account. We draw the vast majority of our campaigning discourse from human rights. We are part of the collation to have the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child incorporated into domestic law. Norway has done it. I think that is the only specific campaign we are running right now, but all of our campaigns are underpinned by human rights.
Do you think that human rights are generally respected by public bodies the UK?
No! Not at all. The biggest failure of the Human Rights Act has been one of guidance and public sector culture. On the fact of it the important thing is that you can secure these rights by going to law, but even better is the fact that on the face of it compliance should suffuse our public sector in a way which makes these values real. But our schools, hospitals and care homes are not suffused with the culture of human rights. There was not enough political will or money behind it to make it real.
Do you think that public bodies interfere too much or not enough in the lives of citizens, in general and in relation to religion in particular?
You can’t make a general principle, the line between liberty and human rights will be drawn in different places in different situations. Coming to the area of religion and belief, I think that there is legitimate intervention by the State in the lives of children, in the educational sphere the State has a legitimate interest in retraining of the freedom of parents and I think that we don’t do that enough. They are children who ought not to be with their parents or in particular schools. I think that some of the Charedi Jewish schools we have encountered, they are certainly not compliant with the UNCRC, in terms of the limited education those children are getting and how restricted they are in terms of making choices in later life and being free.
Can you give some examples of the kinds of cases you were referring to in which people had had their rights infringed by receiving services from providers with religious links?
Yes, so a woman who was long term unemployed and got shifted onto a new welfare to work type stuff, which had been contracted out to a multifaith but faith based organisation. The sessions were held in rooms with things on the walls which were offensive in her eyes, particular to women. The actual trigger for her getting in touch with us was that there was a lot of homophobia, she had a gay son, and so the sessions which were being run, largely on things like how to write your CV etc., were being run by people from religious organisations, and they were saying things about gay marriage being introduced, joking and saying it won’t be long before you can marry a pig. These and similar unsavoury things were being said and as a result she had refused to attend the sessions and she therefore had her benefits stopped. The job centre who was contracted with this organisation were not sympathetic. We believed that she would have a case, but with the current nature of religious exemptions from the Equality Act, not her case but other cases perhaps would be difficult to bring. There was a contract for providing counselling to women who had been trafficked. This was taken from a very specialist, only woman run project and given to the Salvation Army. There wasn’t a good explanation for this decision, the Salvation Army won’t let people of the same sex share a bed in their hostels. They have said on record that they will not comply with the Human Rights Act and if that was a requirement to take on public contracts they would stop taking on public contracts. Unfortunately the government solution Act, was to say that okay the Human Rights Act does not apply. It is a huge problem that if the services which you receive are not provided directly by the State, but are contracted out, the HRA does not apply. Contracting out creates new inequalities, because for example, a Job Centre would never have tolerated that kind of language.
Do you think that living in a Parliamentary democratic society is positive?
Liberal democracy is the humanist ideal, so I am very happy with that.
Do you believe that you have an obligation to vote?
Yes, one of the things about being in a political community is your obligation to your fellow citizens, and your connections with them, them having on a good life depends on how you vote and you having a good life depends on how they vote. The interdependence of human beings which is part of any fully worked out humanist view is best expressed in the concept of the political community.
Is it appropriate that Parliament has the final say in the making and changing of law? Is this desirable, should the judiciary have power to strike down legislation?
I’d be very happy, it’s very difficult for any British person to question Parliament Sovereignty. But if the HRA were to be amended to give the judiciary powers to strike down legislation within certain limits, I would be happy. If you had a human rights respecting culture, where people would be inclined to hold Parliament to account for not acting on a declaration of incompatibility, then the declaration of incompatibility might be enough.
We had a case recently, we were intervening parties in the Tony Nicklinson case on the right to die, we were asked by the court to produce a draft declaration of incompatibility were the court minded to grant one (in the end they weren’t). In the final judgment the court did say that this is not something which we can’t rule on, but Parliament has not been given the opportunity to debate this, and they should have the chance. If they do not, we are not ruling out the possibility of a declaration of incompatibility in the future. I think that there is negation between government and Supreme Court as well behind closed doors.
I think that in practice Parliamentary Sovereignty does not rule the roost, even now, even though it is informal and unwritten.
Do you think that Parliamentary democracy is sufficiently inclusive?
I don’t think that Parliamentary democracy is inclusive enough for anyone. It’s currently not working as democracy because we get governments which most people have not voted for all of the time, the voting system and voter turn out combined mean that Parliament is not a representative chamber. Religion has nothing to do with it.
Do you think it is problematic that the Second Chamber is unelected?
I don’t think that there should be bishops in the House of Lords ex officio, I think that that privilege in the Constitution is wrong. Also I think that the intermingling of religion and the state is wrong. I don’t think that the hereditary principle is ever right. As for life peers, at that point I would stop and say that I don’t think that the question is how should we reform the second chamber but whether we should have it. We should ask how we should legislate. Decide what stages laws could go through before being enacted and then decide whether to have a second chamber. I think that prelegislative scrutiny would be preferable to an elected chamber. Also reforming the House of Commons is much more in need of reform it’s totally broken.
I suppose that we don’t need to ask again about your views on the bishops in the House of Lords?
Boot them out!
Their claim to speak on behalf of people of all faiths?
That’s a lie!
Their claim to speak on behalf of the most deprived sectors of society?
That’s a lie too! You only have to look at their speaking and voting record. When 72% of Anglicans are in favour of assisted dying and 100% of bishops voted against it. When an Equality Act is going through Parliament which includes clauses on socio-economic equality and the only clauses they speak on are the ones about gays to try to stop them from having to employ them, I don’t think that the argument which they are launching is very persuasive! Of course they claim to speak for other religions, it’s the only thing that gives them any security, they are a dying religion. They have more pupils in State schools they control then they have worshipers in their churches on a weekly basis.
Do public bodies in general respect the will of Parliament expressed through legislation?
They sometimes do and sometimes don’t. Government is too powerful in the UK, Parliament has never taken care to circumscribe its power.
Do you think that humanists are appropriately and proportionately represented in public life?
Probably yes, there is an all-party Parliamentary humanist group, and there are many more members of Parliament with those views than are willing to join the group. And quite a lot of lawyers and judges are inclined towards humanist thought.
Do you think that there is enough distance in Britain between the judiciary and the legislature?
I think that socially speaking they have got a lot in common, they are all part of the same social class as social mobility seems to be becoming less of a thing. Not because the barriers to others have been raised higher, but because other people are not interested in becoming politicians and lawyers. There is too much similarity between the people in both of those worlds. Constitutionally I think that there should be more separation, as we have said there should be empowered to strike down legislation.
How does the BHA seek to challenge decisions which it perceives as problematic?
We make use of a very broad range of lobbying tactics, we work with government and parties, we submit evidence to select committees, engage in strategic litigation when appropriate and also intervene in cases where we think we have something to say. I expect that individual humanists do the same in their own private lives, I think that they are probably quite engaged as a demographic.
Do public bodies have a good understanding of, and are good at meeting, the needs of humanists?
It’s a no. The end of life in healthcare…..moral and spiritual care. When hospitals and hospices are thinking about people’s needs at the end of life, they often fall back on a religious template and ask if they want anyone with them at the end, meaning a priest or a rabbi. Instead of asking the kind of questions which they should ask, what has been particularly important in your life? Is there anyone you want with you at the end? A person, patient centred question. Of course if someone really wants their rabbi they can still say. It has been more of a problem in England since the responsibility for this kind of pastoral care has moved from nursing, into equality, so people have been asking what do Jews want, what do Muslims want? I think that humanists who want to be catered for in other public bodies face equal challenges. I think because the religion and belief question still treats religion as the norm, whereas over 50% of people in England and Wales are not religious and that category itself carries considerable diversity and that is very difficult for public bodies, getting down to the granular level of individuals, rather dealing with categories. And that is a problem for humanists because they are individuals…..as is everybody, but maybe more so.
Is it important for you always to act within State law?
I do not find it problematic to live within the bounds of the law, although I have broken the law many times and I think that in every case I have been justified in doing so, because the law was immoral. I broke the law when I was young, when I first had sex, because the law of consent was very unequal. I probably wasn’t thinking of civil disobedience at the time. There are all sorts of laws which everyone has broken, about drugs or sex or speeding. Because sometimes law are immoral or irrelevant.
Do you think that the Rule of Law is applied equally in UK society?
I think that there is a real problem with the Rule of Law, it is a big concept, there is a problem because we don’t have the sort of equality within our society which would enable the rule of law to be genuinely fair. All criminal justice systems are populated by people with their prejudices. I think that our stop and search policies are not compatible with the rule of law, and probably create oppression narratives amongst certain groups which are harmful.
Are there any legal rules which currently have a negative impact on your ability to live your life as you would choose?
I don’t know. No…I think I disobey the laws I don’t agree with….and they are not enforced in a way which gives me a problem. That is the kind of security which my background has given me.
Is there anything which you would like to add?
Education law, no one has ever gone through it with a view to seeing whether it is compliant, it’s not by the way. The UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief when she came to the UK brought load of violations up and the government just ignored her. Collective worship, employment discrimination, curriculum, home-schooling……I do think that the contracting out issue is a big one. The power of the Church of England, people don’t take it seriously but they are part of the deep State, their political power is significant, they don’t get everything that they want, but they can block a lot of things, and they have a lot of authority particularly in their chosen specialist subjects of health and education.