By Lord Warner
On 25th July the House of Lords debated the contribution of atheists and humanists to UK society. There was a big turnout of atheists and humanists showing their distaste for organised religion through the ages even if they liked cathedrals and church music. I felt quite sorry for the solitary bishop who went out of his way to be nice to humanists. The Minister replying was a much too kind to religion for my taste and felt obliged to defend the Government’s decision, very unusually, to appoint a Minister for Faiths.
Belief is of course a very personal matter and many speakers told their personal stories. Although I was sent to Sunday
school and sang in a church choir, education soon got religion out of my system. A hefty dose of Darwin, the Crusades, the Inquisition and burning witches plus the implausibility of the Old Testament made me an atheist by my teenage years. The shift to humanism is easy once you abandon the idea of a supernatural force and an afterlife because it is an appealing belief system. What’s not to like about a philosophy that espouses reason, ethics and justice as a basis for human beings to make their own decisions and give meaning and shape to their lives without the need for organised religion imposing rigid creeds? The latest data suggests the younger generations are figuring this out.
The 2011 Census shows 25% of people identifying themselves as non-religious, up from 15% in 2001. Perhaps more significantly people with no religion had a much younger profile with 4 in 10 of those with no religion under 25. The more sophisticated questioning of the British Social Attitudes Survey in 2012 shows an even greater shift away from religion with half the population saying they do not belong to a religion, with this proportion rising to nearly two-thirds of 18-24 year-olds. This shift is significant because as the Survey said: “Getting an accurate picture of the importance of religion in people’s lives matters; not least because it influences the role of religion in policy making
and public life and helps guide the allocation of funding and resources.”
What is happening – almost unnoticed – is that older more religious generations are dying and being replaced by less religious generations. Some of us will be pleased by this and others less so. For Governments and Parliamentarians it
suggests that they should be more cautious about the weight they give to religious views when changes to public policy are under consideration. Examples of issues this applies to are abortion, assisted dying, faith schools and curriculum content, discrimination issues, employment law and public funding for religious organisations.
For the media they also need to think about this shift away from religion among their viewers, listeners and readers, especially the public broadcasters. Closer to home do we really need so many protected places for bishops in a reformed House of Lords? Perhaps more controversially what are the implications for the monarchy? How can a sovereign be crowned as a defender of the faith or even faiths if the majority of the citizens have no faith at all? Perhaps the BBC should grant a humanist a slot on “Thought for the Day” to air these questions?