How would you describe yourself in terms of religious identity?
I call myself a humanist.
It wasn’t a tradition in which I grew up. My parents were not religious. My father had residual Christian beliefs, to the extent that when a brother of mine decided that he was Christian, my father was willing to go to church with him, but that didn’t last very long. My first contact with religion was at school. I just didn’t have any concept of it before I went to school and at school, suddenly, all these children were kneeling with their hands together praying… and I thought ‘what the hell is this?’ I knew right from the start that it had nothing to do with me, but I went along with it. At the age of 13 or so I thought I ought to take it more seriously and I decided that I had to read the Bible. I started from the beginning and got up to Exodus before deciding it was a waste of time… I’ve become quite familiar with a lot of the Bible, but certainly I haven’t read the majority of it. So, I have never had any doubt about rejecting religion. When I was in the sixth form a close friend decided to get confirmed in the CofE and I remember sitting for hours after school talking to him and trying to understand why… but the first time I came across Humanism was when I was at Oxford. In my second term I went to an interesting meeting that happened to be run by an organisation called the Humanist Group and I realised then – I found out what humanism was… “this is what I have always been! There is a word there for people like me!” And that was – to some extent still is – a very common thing for people who came to the humanist organisation in Britain to say:”There are people like myself; I’ve always been like this… I didn’t know Humanism was the word.”
Do you think that GB is an equal and tolerant society, especially in relation to religion and belief?
On the whole I think Great Britain is a tolerant and equal society in relation to religion and belief. Evangelical Christians are trying to make out at the moment that they are being persecuted, but there is remarkably little evidence of this, effectively none, and even the more liberal bishops have said ‘it is nonsense to say that we are being persecuted’. Persecution is something very different. As far as non believers are concerned, obviously there are elements of discrimination built into the system in which we live, in the laws in which we live under, but on a day to day basis people are very tolerant.
Are there any challenges to living in accordance with your beliefs? If so, are they social, political or legal?
For me personally there are no challenges as a humanist in British society, except for those that I seek and which I try to do something about in my capacity as semi-professional humanist, but for some people like me, obviously there are challenges. If I went into hospital, there would be religious chaplains, particularly CofE, to provide pastoral care, but I would be extremely lucky if I went into a hospital with any sort of arrangements for humanist visits to patients. The situation is similar in prisons. There are Christians, and Muslims and other religious chaplains available in prisons and in the armed services as well. Then, the other area where there is discrimination is of course education, and also discrimination against non-believing teachers. With a high proportion of senior posts reserved for Christians (mainly either Catholics or Anglicans) their promotion prospects are limited basically by virtue of their beliefs.
How does Humanism regard Human Rights?
Human rights are almost the essence of Humanism. It unreservedly embraces the idea of human rights. This is the only life we have and humanists feel that the best approach to life is to make it good for everyone and human rights are an important part of that. In terms of organisation, the BHA backed the HRA when it went through and we were involved in the preparation for its implementation in what became the EHRC. Our then Director (we don’t now have a Director but a Chief Executive) was a member of quite a small steering group convened by the relevant Government Department… and this group of people advised on the way the Commission should be set up (though Trevor Phillips ignored all their work when he was appointed as EHRC chair). But there was a representative of each of the key strands, e.g. disability, race, and so on… and we actually managed to get two people onto that group for religion and belief, one for the religious and one for non believers, and our Director was one of those members. The other was a Muslim. So, the Catholic and the Anglican Churches were dependant on a humanist and a Muslim in that group!
Does Humanism have a practical influence on Human Rights at present?
One involvement I personally have is that the EHRC has set up, as part of its overdue attention on religion and belief, a series of working lunches that Rowan Williams chairs, in which I represent the humanists. It is a personal invitation rather than an organisational one, but I go there as a trustee of the BHA. I think we have had four of five of these lunches, and there are still four or five to go: so that is one contribution… the idea is to inform the EHRC’s thinking about the ways equality and human rights bear on religion and belief. There are clearly a lot of unresolved question, about the extent to which freedom of religion and belief can conflict with non discrimination and equality, questions brought about by cases such as Eweida, McFarlane, etc. Otherwise, in the BHA we continue to take a keen interest in cases that raise matters of religion and belief, and we use the HRA in a lot of our arguments when the BHA goes to court, as we did for example in the Nicholson case on assisted dying in the Supreme Court… Our case was based entirely on human rights. In fact we are generally very active indeed in our use of the Act.
Do public authorities generally respect Human Rights?
I am tempted to say that HRs are not upheld by the Government and other public bodies, but this has to be qualified. They are bound by the Act and they go through the motion of conforming with it and they win most of their cases when they are challenged in the courts. Of course, the [Coalition] Government is always threatening withdrawal from the Convention, and therefore the Council of Europe. I would see that development with enormous concern. It is not the traditional conservative view. The traditional conservative party is represented by people like Kenneth Clarke and Dominic Grieve. They increasingly speak out about human rights. It is a populist stance that the Government is taking under pressure from the right: from UKIP and from their own right wing. It is very worrying.
Does the State get the level of intervention correct when it comes to people expressing their beliefs?
I don’t think public authorities interfere in individuals’ lives. Clearly the State in a constitutional sense is committed to the Anglican Church and that bears a great deal on what is termed the dignified side of the Constitution. But when it comes to the everyday matters then it is really only in questions like I mentioned before – chaplaincy in prisons, hospitals and the situation in schools – where the State in the shape of the law or institutional arrangements intervenes… but they are not very significant in the daily lives of most individuals.
The State should interfere only when the actions of individuals based on religion or belief are a threat to other people. That is a contested boundary, but the State in the shape of the law, rather than the Government, should step in to protect other people’s rights. One of the contested areas is of course the rights of children vis a vis their parents. It is the whole question of the emerging competence of children to make their own decisions, which clearly comes before they reach the legal age of majority. That is a matter that bears on questions of education. One of our objectives is to get the right of withdrawal from religious worship extended from sixth formers to younger pupils… Of course, we want to go further than that and abolish school collective worship altogether..
Is it a positive thing that we live in a Parliamentary democracy?
There is no alternative system to democracy. I embrace Churchill’s view: it certainly has disadvantages, particularly when populist causes run away and you get moral panic and bad legislation, but it is still the best system.
Do you believe that you have a personal responsibility to vote?
I do feel I have a personal responsibility to vote. I am tempted by the idea of compulsory voting. It is difficult, because then the ‘don’t care’ vote will count as much as those of people who really care, and are passionate about their commitment. However, I think that the way things have been going in the last few decades with falling participation rates is a threat to the future of democracy and therefore, I am coming more and more to the idea that compulsory voting is necessary.
Should Parliament have the final say in making and changing law?
Would you like to see a judiciary able to strike down legislation?
On balance, I wouldn’t like to see an empowerment of the judiciary (as it happens in the States or continental Europe). I think the balance of power we have is nicely geared towards a sensible result. I am afraid that if we had a system where the judiciary could actively strike down laws, on the one hand they would be more hesitant to do so, and on the other, it could create even greater resentment than we have now about unelected judges. I think the way the HRA is drafted very nicely maintains the unwritten Constitution which we have in this country, of the Queen in Parliament making the laws, but with human rights which limit the powers of Government. The idea of a declaration of incompatibility, forcing the Government to face up to problems, is I think a desirable one, and the one that for example we may be coming to in the field of assisted dying. We lost in the Supreme Court, but the Court made quite clear that Parliament had to sort out the unsatisfactory position and if it fails then the Supreme Court may be willing to intervene and make common law in the area in the future. Our legal advisers are in fact saying that the time may be coming for another challenge.
An understanding of democracy as the will of the majority of the people is problematic in itself. The idea of democracy as majority rule is difficult. There is much more that goes into the notion of democracy, in terms of the need to accommodate different people, in human rights terms, in economic terms, etc. The system that we have relies too much at the moment on the second Chamber in the HofL for some of those interests to be articulated. The HofC is a constant disappointment when you look at it: very heavily whipped, h2 party discipline… and the attention it gives to legislation, scrutiny of bills, is very shallow. The real scrutiny is usually in the House of Lords. So, a move to ‘perfect’ our democracy by bringing in an elected second House is actually a threat to democracy… It would lead to party discipline extending throughout Parliament and to Government being more in control than it is at the moment. As to particular groups which find it more difficult to articulate their views, they are the underprivileged… both religious and racial minorities, and economically deprived groups. It used to be the case that the Labour Party could speak out on behalf of the working class… those days are gone. So, there are big problems.
Does it concern you that the House of Lords is not elected?
I would be in favour of an appointed House. The HofL is very largely appointed at the moment. The irony is that the only elected element is the hereditary peers! They should go, there is no justification for them at all. I feel happy with the presence of life peers… what is wrong at the moment is not the appointed nature of the Chamber, but the fact that the parties dominate the nomination process; and the way the present Government has increased the size of the House is ludicrous – the saving grace is that many of them don’t bother to turn up. But when you look at the actual performance of the Upper House, there are lots of experts taking their role very seriously, and from lots of different points of view. There are quite often very well informed debates. I am h2ly in favour, and technically I disagree with the BHA’s view, as in the past our position was in favour of an elected second Chamber. My view is that there should be an appointed House, the members being appointed through an Appointments Commission of some kind, to which party nominations for a limited number of places have to go.
How do you feel about bishops in the House of Lords?
Bishops in the HofL: there is no justification for them to be there at all. The fact that some do some useful work is by the way. There would be nothing to stop a sensible number of bishops or members of other religions being appointed on the basis of their merits, but we already have that… with former Archbishops, whose appointments are customary rather than by right. Clearly there is no objection to religious people sitting in the House of Lords, but sitting there by right is not acceptable. The establishment of the CofE is something very difficult to get grips with. On the one hand, it is only to do with certain constitutional practices, such as the coronation and that kind of thing. Technically the presence of bishops in the House of Lords is not a matter of the establishment of the Church. It is a separate right going back to medieval times, nothing to do with the CofE establishment. That said, the reality of the establishment of the Church is that it has huge privileges of access and influence, which it exercises quite vigorously behind the scene, as we have become aware of in recent months. The CofE despite their very moderate public response in the consultation of humanist marriage, lobbied behind the scenes to make sure it was killed off… we also know through inside sources that they are very much involved in the exclusion of Humanism from the GCSE syllabus, despite its being overwhelmingly popular across the religion and belief field, from the religious representatives in the RE field to all the educational people. They all thought that RE had to include Humanism and that near unanimity was disregarded by the Government and we understand that it was largely as the result of the lobbying behind the scenes of the CofE. They did their best, but failed, thank goodness, to prevent an inclusive revision of rules for chaplaincy in the NHS, and the recent guidelines have opened the way for humanists to be involved… nothing has happened yet but the guidelines are now in place. Having said that, we gather that the CofE has been manoeuvring behind the scenes to prevent that the guidelines being put into practice. So, their influence is all pervasive.
Douglas Hurd, who used to be the Foreign Secretary, in his Memoirs refers to how convenient it was for Lambeth Palace to be just across the river from Whitehall so that if he had any doubts about some foreign policy, the Archbishop could always pop over and talk to him. That’s access!
Do public authorities respect the will of Parliament expressed in legislation?
I think on the whole we are a very law abiding people. It is very rare that local authorities deliberately ignore the law. It came, during Thatcher’s time and back in the days when very left wing parties ignored constraints on their spending… but that is extremely rare. There are conflicting views about what some duties really entail, but on the whole I think that local authorities are law abiding bodies.
How do you feel about devolution?
Devolution within Britain is a really tough question because of the disparity in size of the units that make up Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It has to be measured for the different parts of the UK and this raises the issue of England, which is prominent, and the extent to which the English get pushed around by the Scots in particular, which is very much, as you know, in people’s minds at the moment. I think the British Government is going the right way in talking about major devolution to large metropolitan authorities, such as Manchester. They will go in a similar direction elsewhere: there may be a postcode lottery, as the press always calls it, but in so far as it brings decisions closer to where people are, it will tend, I hope, to promote democratic participation in decision making about important things that local authorities at the moment have no power over. At the moment local authorities are just extended branches of the central Government, with very limited powers. So, no wonder people are not very interested in them. These new units, with more powers and greater accountability therefore… they could be more interesting and it could become a more thriving democracy, but it is very far from certain the way things are going.
What is the Humanist view on the responsibilities which come with power?
I am not sure that Humanism has anything special to say to people in authority in any way different from other ethical systems or religious beliefs. Clearly, Humanism does say to people in authority that they have to act responsibly, they have to act within their powers, and within the spirit and not just the letter of their powers. So, humanists are very concerned about the extent of corruption, the extent of self-interest in decision making and so on, and we would wish to see a h2er accountability for Government, preferably through Parliamentary means. Our select committee system is slowly developing towards better accountability for the Government. It is better than it used to be in my youth, for example, but it has a long way to go.
I think on the whole we humanists are reasonably represented in different public bodies. In the two Houses of Parliament, I think we have 120 members, more in the Lords than in the Commons, more amongst the Labour and Lib Dem members than amongst the Conservatives. We are able to make an impact in Parliament when we want to. Members of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group in the Lords have organised at least two special debates in the last few years to draw attention to the humanist contribution to public life and so on. I think on the whole we are OK in Parliament. I think there is still a tendency not to belong to a humanist group on the right in politics. I am quite convinced that there are more Tories who are humanists than those who acknowledge it. The other overwhelming truth is that if you look at the population as a whole, asking people if they are humanists, actually those who know the word are not many… one of our big problems is getting across that Humanism is not some dreadful cult: it is just a descriptive label for the way many people actually are. Do we have a particular contribution to make to standards in public life? I think in so far as you take humanist principles seriously, we have an important contribution to make, but I wouldn’t want to say that is exclusive. Other beliefs can contribute as much as us.
Do you think that there is enough distance between the judiciary and the legislature/executive?
The judiciary are, by international standards, pretty independent from the executive in Britain. It is a frontier that always has to be policed and guarded, and typically you can see the dangers when for instance a judge conducts an enquiry on a politically sensitive matter. So often, the Government, the powers that be, get the benefit of the doubt and there is occasionally even a stitch up. There have been judge-led enquiries in the past about controversial matters that have proved disappointing because of that. However, in their traditional role I think our judges are very good on the whole.
I think at the moment the governments we have in this country tend to be slightly overpowerful, but there is a danger of going too far the other way. One of the big questions about electoral reform in the shape of some move towards proportional representation is the risk of government being left too weak or of minorities becoming too influential. I think, as I said before, the way we need to go is through h2er Parliamentary scrutiny of government and making a totally backbench career in Parliament more rewarding, so that people can see that path as their calling or ambition, not always wanting to get into government. I think that way it could work. I would like to see a h2er role for backbenchers. There are just a few MPs over the years who have stood out as principled backbenchers. Tam Dalyell and Dennis Skinner are good examples. Not only on the left, there are also people in the right, like David Davis, though he was in Government for a while. If you somehow could structure life in Parliament so there would be a rewarding career as a backbencher rather than that just being a stepping stone towards government, that would be a good move.
Is it important for you to always act within the law?
I certainly wouldn’t rule out civil disobedience on principle. Yes, I would be prepared to contemplate that as a possibility in extreme circumstances. As a matter of fact I have never come near to civil disobedience in my whole life, but that is the consequence of living in a country which is well run and where the laws are tolerable, even if you disagree with them.
Do your beliefs require you to speak out on behalf of others?
In principle, my beliefs require me to speak on behalf of all the weak and all the vulnerable. It is more a matter of practicalities. There is so much injustice and so many weak and oppressed… Within the limits of my energy and time, I do get involved in that sort of thing. You cannot get involved in everything, but I think it is something that matters.
Do you think that the Rule of Law is applied equally in GB? Do some groups experience prejudicial or preferential treatment?
I don’t know too much about many of our European neighbours in terms of rule of law. We do better than Italy, for instance. On the whole, I think there is respect for the principle in Great Britain, and its roots here go back many centuries. It was there before Magna Carta with the principle that the king rules according to the law and has limits on his powers. It is very deeply rooted. On the other hand, it is clear that some privileged groups get away with quite a lot before the law catches up with them. There are too many examples of corruption… I am trying to think whether religious groups get away with things in terms of the rule of law. I think on the whole they don’t. Sometimes it is the law which is the problem rather than the way it is applied. I really need to think more about that question.
Has the increase in police powers in recent years been necessary or excessive?
I think there is a need for special powers for the police, but the present ones are far too extensive, and I think that is a major concern. Advanced technologies are creating real problems, because they are providing previously unimaginable powers for the Government (e.g. surveillance) and we are still in the process of working out what safeguards we need. At the moment I am worried about the powers which the Government has, or security services and police have… there is enough concern about it to hope that a system will emerge which is tolerable.
Is there anything which you would like to add on this topic?
Clearly, the Churches have a privileged position in education which is mainly historically determined. It is vigorously defended by them. I have been drafting a booklet that the BHA will be publishing soon about the history of the CofE in education and in two sentences, the XIX century saw a battle between the CofE and the Non-Conformists about control over education, and they kept the Government out, because every proposal Parliament considered to improve the standards of education for the masses was seen by one of the two groups as favouring its opponents, and so between them they defeated every key proposal for reform until 1870. And from then on, there was a huge expansion of religious schools under the terms of the Act itself, before the new school boards were instituted and started setting up schools… Until then the Churches had an opportunity to fill in the gaps in provision and they did so with such vigour that in the first 10 years after 1870 there were more Church school places added to the system than board school places. But the second phase is the present, when the CofE is vigorously exploiting its position to extend its influence even into the community school sector. And all Governments have been complacent – indeed complaisant towards what the Church is doing. So, we are seeing at the moment an extension of the influence of religion on education, rather than a retreat, and the Church of England specifically and explicitly says that its own future lies in its schools. This is a major concern. Church influence extends to academies and free schools, and even community schools, and we are not making progress… so, that is a big area of concern.
Faith schools without a doubt tend to be a source of social segregation, even in ethnic terms insofar as there is a h2 correlation between some religions and ethnicity. Sikh, Hindus schools, etc, are divisive that way, and socially it has been shown that any form of selection on any criteria at all, let alone religion, tends to be exploited by middle classes. So, as well as religious divisiveness, you have social and ethnic divisiveness as well.
David Pollock has been actively involved in the humanist movement since 1961 when he joined the Oxford University Humanist Group, David Pollock is a member of the boards of the British Humanist Association (1965-75 and 1997- ; chair: 1970-72) and of the Rationalist Association, publishers of New Humanist magazine, (1979- ; chair: 1989-91). He was President of the European Humanist Federation from 2006 to 2012, chaired the Advisory Board (of NGOs) to the European Parliament Platform for Secularism in Politics and set up the network of NGOs known as the Alliance for a Secular Europe. He currently represents the International Humanist and Ethical Union at the Council of Europe. He takes a special interest in public policy and campaigning, particularly on the place of religion and belief in society in a context of human rights, equality and non-discrimination. He has written on various aspects of the subject, has spoken at EU, European Parliament, Council of Europe and OSCE conferences, and has given evidence to committees of both the United Kingdom Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. He drafted the successive amendments to the Bill on same sex marriage designed to give legal recognition to humanist marriages that finally led to the Government’s agreement to consult on the proposal with a view to changing the law by regulations. He was given the Distinguished Service to Humanism Award at the 2011 World Humanist Congress in Oslo. His website is at www.thinkingabouthumanism.org.