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Baroness Whitaker

Former civil servant, Labour life peer since 1999, vice-president of Humanists UK

I want more space in this country for the non-religious universe. Faith is not the only basis for morality and I want to inhabit that culture, not in opposition to religion but in opposition to its monopoly. I do not think that makes me an aggressive secularist; but it does alienate me from aggressive proselytising.

Janet Whitaker has been an active member or the Parliamentary Humanist Group and supporter of humanist causes in the House of Lords. She told Humanists UK:

WhitakerEver since I was at (a Christian) school I preferred humanism and I joined Humanists UK not long after I returned from graduate studies in the USA. As a child I found the religious presentation of sin and virtue uncongenial and as an adult I found the humanist perspective on morality, with its emphasis on reason, persuasive and attractive.

I have come to the conclusion, however, after much voluntary and public work in the field of race relations, that the contribution of the major religions to our culture and their current importance to very many individuals means that non-religious people should respect and value religious affinity. I ask as a humanist that devout people of all faiths should accord the same respect to those whose values are not based on faith. As a working peer, I put these points publicly where they are relevant. My main interests are international development and human rights.

She moved an amendment to repeal the blasphemy law in the Anti-Terrrorism Bill of 2001 (Lords Hansard 28 November 2001 col 433ff) and has proposed amendments to various Bills (Communications Bill, Asylum Bill, Charities Bill 2005) to extend their protections to “belief” as well as “religion”. She mentioned Humanists UK in the debate on the second reading of the Bill which sought to outlaw incitement to religious hatred in 2005, and moved BHA-inspired amendments to the Equality Bill in its third reading in the House of Lords in November 2005.

In July 2006 she moved an amendment to the Education and Inspections Bill which would have compelled faith schools to teach the locally agreed Religious Education syllabus:

In the interests of time, I restrict myself to discussing the amendments in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, dealing only with the curriculum for religion, beliefs and values. I add ‘beliefs and values’ to ‘religion’ because the amendment would broaden the statutory definition of religious education so that it better reflects the more inclusive approach of the 2004 non-statutory national framework for RE produced by the QCA, which the right reverend Prelate commended. That framework referred to ‘religions and beliefs’ and explicitly recommended that ‘other world views such as humanism’ should be studied. I declare an interest as the vice-president of Humanists UK.

The amendment goes on to require voluntary-aided schools with a religious character to follow the locally agreed syllabus for RE rather than their own, putting them in the same position as voluntary-controlled schools with a religious character… I hope that that makes it clear that we are not in any way seeking to deny parents with children at voluntary-aided faith schools the right to have their children receive religious instruction, but are seeking to ensure only that all children in all maintained schools have an entitlement to know broadly what the range of accepted religious and non-religious beliefs are all about.

Of course, not all locally agreed syllabuses are as broad, balanced and inclusive as they might be, but at least they are subject to an overall structure for the diverse views that they should introduce children to, and they will, one hopes, become even more inclusive as the influence of the non-statutory national framework on RE trickles down to the local committees that set the RE syllabuses.

In an ideal world, there might be a national curriculum subject of beliefs and values that educated all our children about all our important religious and secular beliefs, underpinned by a thorough education in the universal human rights that the UK has committed itself to in the international human rights instruments. That would be the national basis from which different religions and beliefs would take their own path in the curriculum.

As it is, we have citizenship education, which includes some human rights education as a part of the national curriculum, and religious education which is also compulsory for all maintained schools, but is not part of the national curriculum. It is the fact that RE is not a part of the national curriculum that this amendment seeks to mitigate. That is why voluntary-aided faith schools do not need to follow the locally agreed syllabus of RE as other maintained schools do, but may follow a syllabus of their own. It also means that the quality of locally agreed syllabuses across the country is fairly patchy, with no common standard. So, requiring voluntary aided faith schools to follow the agreed local syllabus rather than their own would at least mitigate what might be the effects of allowing some faith schools to teach an unbalanced curriculum of religious education, something that many people fear. It would ensure that our children have the opportunity to know what the full range of our heritage of values and beliefs is while learning the particular perspectives of their own.
( Lords Hansard 18 July 2006: Column 1192)

In a debate in the House of Lords on 19/4/07 on “the position in British society of those who profess no religion” she said:

My Lords, the idea that ethics can be unattached to a religious belief has ancient roots. It is a significant strand in our heritage which we have downgraded in comparison with faith-based morality, but which can offer help in many of our modem dilemmas. I remind the House of my interest as a vice-president of Humanists UK…

Humanism offers a coherent ethical structure which goes something like this. Life is finite and we must therefore make choices. We must take responsibility for these choices ourselves. Human thinking and human nature are so constituted that we want to justify our choices. We want them to be worth taking responsibility for and to be consistent, hence a system of ethics…

… humanists were at the forefront of some of our more recent progress. They were active in the founding of the United Nations and its agencies, that great leap forward in human rights, as those who knew Lord Ritchie Calder could testify. They were not against religion, simply apart from it. In the 1970s, long before the setting up of the Inter Faith Network, humanists took a lead in founding bodies like the Standing Conference on Inter-Faith Dialogue in Education and the Social Morality Council, together with people of faith.

Humanism can include many cultural bases. Jawaharlal Nehru said to George Bernard Shaw: “We are both atheists but the difference between us is that I am a Hindu atheist and you are a Christian atheist.”.

Perhaps I may put myself in the box of Jewish atheist, very attached to one of the precepts of the prophet Micah: “to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly”.

But other faiths would claim these values too and why not? I am delighted that the Berlin declaration published on 25 March by the German presidency reflects the broad sweep of Europe’s heritage and values and does not confine itself to the narrow Christian strain. I am also glad that this was supported by many religious groups and all those who think that church and state should stick to their separate roles.

But I also want more space in this country for the non-religious universe. Faith is not the only basis for morality and I want to inhabit that culture, not in opposition to religion but in opposition to its monopoly. I do not think that makes me an aggressive secularist; but it does alienate me from aggressive proselytising. The website of the Department for Communities and Local Government says:

‘The traditions of all major faiths contain teachings commending the fundamental values of equality and respect which are so important to community cohesion.’.

It is not only the major faiths that commend these fundamental values — it is, at least as much, that great strand of non-religious belief that has carried them forward…. I we would all benefit if local, regional and national bodies convened by the DCLG on matters of religion and belief and community cohesion had humanist representatives, who could more accurately reflect the beliefs and values of that large minority who do not profess a religion.”

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