House of Lords debate the non-religious

Peers this morning are debating the position of the non-religious in Britain today.   Against the background of an increasingly faith-based approach by government, Lord Harrison of Chester , a member of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group and distinguished supporter of the British Humanist Association, has called the debate to bring attention to how the many non-religious people in Britain are affected by this policy.

Polls and surveys consistently show that many if not most people in the UK do not define themselves as religious. 63% of people in an ICM poll last December said they were not religious, and a survey of 12-19 year olds for the DfES in 2004 showed 65% saying they were not religious. Only a minority of marriages are religious ones, most people are not baptised, fewer than a million people go to church each week, and in a MORI poll last year, the domestic group most people thought had too much influence on government was ‘religious groups and leaders’.

For the last ten years, however, the Government has privileged religion and religious representatives in a way totally at odds with these facts about British society.

Welcoming the debate, BHA Chief Executive Hanne Stinson said, ‘A proper consideration of these issues is long overdue.

‘The increase in the number of state-funded religious schools and a drive by the Government to hand over other public services to religious groups have alarmed people, both religious and non-religious, who are committed to equality, non-discrimination and social cohesion.   These moves all disadvantage those whose beliefs are humanist rather than religious – non-religious parents cannot get their children into their local state school because it is a faith school or they can only get them into a faith school and find their beliefs and values denigrated at that school; non-religious teachers lose out on promotion and employment prospects; non-religious citizens seeking access to a service may feel marginalised by the religious ethos they encounter and non-religious professionals in these sectors are disadvantaged in the job market.

‘These concrete instances of growing disadvantage are set against a background of Government being increasingly keen to take a ‘multi-faith’ approach to issues such as community cohesion and intercultural dialogue – an approach which, though lazily assumed to be inclusive, in fact excludes the many non-religious people in the UK as well as the many religious people for whom religion is not their main concern in matters of identity.’

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The All Party Parliamentary Humanist group is a cross party group of over 100 MPs and peers whose purpose is to monitor matters of interest to humanists in Parliament and respond as appropriate. Over the last year the group has grown rapidly – increasing from just over twenty members to just over 100.

The British Humanist Association (BHA) supports and represents the non-religious in the UK and is the largest organisation in the country campaigning for a secular state. The BHA has a long history in working for an open society, working in education to improve beliefs and values education in particular, and in the provision of non-religious ceremonies.