How would you describe your beliefs and identity in relation to religion?
I would say that I am definitely not a religious person in the sense that I follow a religion… I would say I dip between believing in a higher power and believing in absolutely nothing whatsoever. I dip in and out of those things. It is something that I think about quite a lot, but every time I think I almost change my mind. If I were pushed to choose I would say that there is probably no sort of God, or after-life, but we are just things… as this coffee is a coffee. However, there is certainly a doubt in my life about it.
I would put myself in the agnostic category.
I wasn’t brought up religiously at all. I don’t think my mother had any sort of religion whatsoever. I’ve never spoken with my grandma about religion… My dad…. I think his mother changed from Catholicism to being a Jehovah’s Witness… He and I have discussed this. He believes in a God, but he is not sure about how He is…. I was never brought up in religion.
The only religion with which I have been in frequent contact is Islam, because I had quite a lot of Muslim friends, and now I look back at it, I think it was more of a way of finding an affinity with them, and also in comparison with other religions in the UK, Muslims are much more in tune with their religion. So, a lot of my Muslim friends… I actually have several… talk a lot about Islam and about religion beyond Islam. I was curious about it and we had lots of discussions about it… That must have been the closest I have been to religion… and also my girlfriend for 10 years was a Muslim… I dipped in and out about becoming Muslim. When we thought about getting married, she said that I would have to embrace Islam. I stated that I didn’t have a problem with that, because if you don’t believe in a God, what is the harm of filling in a form? That was my attitude towards that. In that situation, it would have been purely for convenience, rather than for genuine conversion.
Do you think that GB is an equal and tolerant society?
I think in comparison with other countries Great Britain is a tolerant and equal society in relation to religion and belief. It is difficult to have a completely equal society in terms of attitudes. It would be almost impossible, but I think we do a very good job of it. However, there are certainly problems… The answer depends on where we look at.
Are there challenges to living in accordance with your beliefs? If so, are they social, political or legal?
As an agnostic, there are no problems whatsoever in Great Britain. I am probably not the best person to judge whether the majority of people my age are believers or agnostics/atheists, as the majority of my friends are Muslims and of ethnic minorities. They are more inclined to religious beliefs. So, in my circle I am absolutely an exception. But in my experience of white British people I would say most people are agnostics.
Do Agnostics have a practical influence on human rights?
I really wouldn’t know the influence of agnostics on human rights in contemporary Britain. The main thing that comes from mainstream society is basically the idea that Britain is an impartial society. Whether that happens in reality is a different thing, but the principle is that everyone is equal and they are free, unless they are not harming or offending anybody else.
I don’t think the British State intervenes more than it is necessary in the lives of individuals. It does a relatively good job in policing religious beliefs. It is a very difficult task. I don’t have a lot of sympathy with politicians on many areas, but when it comes to religion and belief, it is a minefield, as I think it is difficult to allow someone to practise their belief, whilst maintaining a sense of identity in Britain… On the whole, they get the right balance. I don’t have a problem with that.
How do you feel about faith schools?
Faith schools? Well, that is a difficult one. To be honest with you, because of my upbringing I always think it would be better for a child to be taught about all types of religion and then be able to make their own mind about religion. I have been given that option and I don’t think it has done me any harm whatsoever… However, I completely understand as a parent, if you have a proper belief, if you really believe strongly in something, it is probably the most important thing in your life… the idea of allowing your child to be indoctrinated in something else, it would be horrible for you. So, it is a difficult one… Sorry, I feel I am sitting on the fence here.
Should religious groups be given exemptions from discrimination law?
In the B&B case, on reflection, I think the court got the right balance. I understand it is a private body, but my thoughts on it are that as soon as I hear about a case like this, my immediate thought is… well, I don’t think that is correct: the gay couple shouldn’t have been put in that situation. But then I think, that is probably me, because I don’t have any problem with homosexuality. Let’s then look at it from their point of view. They have a strong belief, it is their private business… Why shouldn’t they be allowed to express their religious beliefs? However, I would be very surprised if it were written in a religious scripture that you cannot offer a room to a person because of his/her sexual orientation. Is that harmful to others? I would be very shocked to hear that the Bible says something like that. Therefore, I would say that they have been overzealous and so, I think the courts got it right.
Does the State get the balance right in intervening in the lives of citizens, especially when it comes to religion and belief?
There are certain situations in which the State should intervene (in the lives of individual citizens) without a doubt. The State must intervene if somebody is going to harm others. Again, for me that is very easy to say. It is more difficult in situations in which one group is offending another group. If a certain religious group doesn’t like another religious group or a religious State, as it happens in Israel, for example, then you get to the minefield of free speech… again, I’ll have to sit on the fence!
What contribution can the world of sport make to human rights? For example in terms of role models and discrimination?
Probably the response of sport authorities to practises such as homophobia is lukewarm. Probably the only real I have looked into is the football sport bodies, because that is really the only sport I am interested in. I think the response has been lukewarm indeed. Homophobia is rooted in football sport. I wouldn’t say racism is. I have been in many games and it was not an issue. I know there have been incidents, but isolated. Xenophobia? I don’t think so. In Man United the opposite is true. In Man United we are very much against England and the National Team. We are Man United. We don’t care if there are eleven foreigners in the team. If you win, you win. A lot of other clubs and the further south you get, they are much more interested in England as a national team. I think it depends on the club and if anything, my club, Man United is the opposite to xenophobia. I don’t think Man United fans are particularly patriotic or have a reputation for being patriotic. I am sure there are some who can keep their loyalty to both England and Man United. Another club I remember… Liverpool… I think they have a song that says they are Scousers, not English. I don’t know why, but that gives me a lot of pleasure for some reason.
You can be a patriot, without being xenophobic or anything else. Sports should be a role model for society, especially football, as it is so mainstream, but on the other hand it is played by people who are usually, not always, from less educated backgrounds. Players are young men, who are usually interested in the normal things that young men are interested in: girls, etc. Then, how can we really expect them to be role models? There are two different arguments for this. I wouldn’t say I am in fitness on a mission to get the country healthier. However, I think that health and fitness are crucial in terms of happiness that can be provided to society. I think in the UK we have a ridicule attitude towards food, a very bad relation with it… People would think fitness is about aestetics… I would say the aestetics are the bonus of getting into fitness. The main thing is health. If we could motivate people, we could obviously say ‘you would certainly look better, you would look more attractive if you exercise… However, that should be the bonus. The real benefit you get from fitness is health, longevity, happiness in terms of your body working how it should work, mentally, a calmer, happier person….
Is living in a democracy positive for you? Does it make it easier to live in accordance with your beliefs?
Living in a democracy is a good thing. I wouldn’t prefer an alternative system. However, there are certain things to be said for the ideas of communism, socialism and maybe not dictatorship, but there are things to be said for it. I think, because democracy is obviously the best choice, sometimes in Britain we don’t think about these things enough. I don’t think it is so obvious. There are arguments for a different system.
Do you believe that you have a duty to vote?
I have only voted once because I was forced by my mother… On the little I have thought about it, I know that people have died for the right to vote, but I also think we have the right not to vote. I have only voted once. I don’t think I shall be voting again, simply because I really, really don’t believe that any of the politicians I listen to… I haven’t listened to any politician in any great length, none of them have really convinced me… they are more interested in power than in helping the country.
How do you feel about the presence of bishops in the House of Lords?
I didn’t know there are bishops in the House of Lords, but I think it is ridiculous that they can speak on behalf of the voiceless of our society. I don’t really think I have an opinion about bishops in the House of Lords. I know you have interviewed Rowan Williams. Whenever I listen to him, he makes a lot of sense to me. He is an extremely intelligent person and despite the fact that I don’t believe, he seems to have a very balanced view… The idea that somebody like him is in Parliament is absolutely fine. However, I am aware that I am only focusing on one person… So, in general I am not comfortable with the idea…
Should Parliament have the final say in making and changing law? Or should the judges be able to strike down legislation?
I feel the will of the majority has to speak louder and has to be respected (referring to the tension between Parliament and the judiciary). It is a very British principle.
How do you feel about the EU and devolution in Wales and Scotland?
I am embarrassed to say that my views on the EU are that I was happy to be in the EU because I liked the idea that I could go to work in Spain or Italy. I like the fact that travel restrictions are very limited… There are certainly problems with certainly cultures, and the fact that they can come to this country may create some problems. However, I think on the whole I enjoy living in an ethnically diverse city and country. It has enriched my life and so I am perfectly happy with it.
It doesn’t bother me at all that Wales and Scotland have devolved powers… I think I don’t know enough about the subject. I don’t think this subject is affecting me or the people I care about… Therefore, I should look more into it and find out. I wouldn’t have cared if Scotland had decided to break up with England.
Do you feel that politicians are representative of society as a whole?
If I am honest, I don’t know the religious beliefs of the members of Parliament…let me put it this way. I don’t care what their religious beliefs are and I hope I don’t have to care about what their religious beliefs are. I hope I can relax whilst thinking that MPs are not going to bring their religion into it when decisions are made.
Are our judges sufficiently independent?
I only had to be before the courts once. I am sceptical about politicians and the police… About the judges? I have never thought about it, if I am honest, but I would say that I probably trust the judicial system. I don’t have a problem with judges.
How do you feel about religious education in schools?
I had to follow RE in the school system… I quite enjoyed it. I thought it was interesting. I think it came a bit too early for me, I would have benefited more later in life. I enjoyed learning about different religions, etc… The only thing that I can say looked a bit odd to me is that I have a clear memory in primary school, singing religious songs, prayers… I am having this memory now. Definitely, we had to sing religious songs and I think that is inappropriate… Why did we have to sing religious songs?
Is it important to you always to act within State law?
On personal grounds there are situations in which I would feel compelled to disobey the law. There are certain laws which I don’t think are necessary. There are certain times when I could break the law from a moral or ethical position or from my own pride as a man… If there were somebody I cared about, and she was offended by something which somebody said, then I would break the law, maybe for them, maybe for myself. Maybe it would be just my pride and my ego (on reflection), and not necessarily to protect the girl, but also to impress her. On a general basis I accept the rule of law in the vast majority of occasions.
Is the Rule of Law applied equally? To some groups experience preferential or prejudicial treatment?
In general, our legal system is fair.
Do your beliefs require you to speak out for the weak and vulnerable?
If I could a way to help the weak and the vulnerable, then I would… but maybe I am not being honest, because I don’t think my position in society is sufficiently powerful to help the society, other than giving help through charities. I don’t think I have the standing for it. I have never campaigned because I have never felt strongly enough. I have never written to my MP because I have never thought that something was so unfair that I needed to act upon.
How do you feel about the general increase in police powers and state surveillance?
The rule of law is not applied equally to everyone in British society. I think the UK compares well to other countries though. So, my view is more positive than I first stated. However, there are some issues. Ethnic minorities experience more problems. They are more likely to be stopped and even though, it may be common sense to do that, I think that is also wrong and against our non discrimination principles.
I don’t think racism within the police has been dealt with properly, and I think what happens in the police and in general, in society, is that the target has shifted. It was usually people of Afro-Caribbean descents and it is now people of Middle Eastern descents.
Islamophobia is still unfortunately embedded in some quarters of our society.
I don’t think Britain is a fair country. I think it is fair in comparison with other countries. It is difficult to say where the police should be provided with more powers to deal with terrorism. It is a very difficult question. There is obviously a threat of terrorism to the UK and I think that if we knew the whole scale of it, we would be even more scared. At the moment, a lot of it is quite rightly kept out of the public eye… However, I think giving powers to the police… the problem we have is that the people working for the armed forces and police, I don’t believe, are sufficiently educated or intelligent enough, if I can be completely honest, to deal with these situations with moderation. It is very difficult. On the one hand, we have this menace. On the other, the people who are trusted with these powers, I don’t believe, are sufficiently educated or grounded to deal with the situation fairly. I trust the judiciary, less the politicians… and certainly at the very bottom the police.
Is there anything which you would like to add?
The thing that interests me a lot is the different attitudes between people in metropolitan cities such as Manchester, London or Birmingham, and smaller towns, and I mention that, because my main friend who is an actor, he is shooting a film in Hull at the moment… he is of Pakistani origin and he has been this week subject to racial abuse, and we have discussed quite a lot the difference in attitudes in a place like Manchester and a smaller place. I think sometimes Manchester can be racist, but I think it is in a completely different level. The more I see, the more I feel that some white working class people are very annoyed, very angry, and unfortunately, racist.
Racism is not a thing of the past. It is absolutely nonsense. In the incident which I am describing the person who was screaming at my friend starting saying ‘UKIP, UKIP, UKIP’… So, racism is not a thing of the past.
Thomas is an experienced fitness instructor working in the north of England, with a wide range of expertise and client base.