Professor Ronald Hutton

by | Jul 18, 2017 | Education / Academia, Interview | 0 comments

How would you describe your religion or ideology?

My religious and ideological identity, at least ideology with reference to religion or spirituality is a private matter. And this is a deliberate and important stance, because I frequently play a role as an expert witness and commentator to the caring services, the police and the criminal justice system as an expert on modern paganism. And it seems perfectly clear that my testimony is regarded as more valuable if I am regarded as a neutral party and do not express and views of my own.

Do you think that Great Britain is a tolerant society, particularly in relation to religion and belief?

I think that Great Britain aspires to be a tolerant society and equal society. And it does better than most societies do, to the extent that it is not a confessional state, even to the extent that Israel is. On the other hand there is a social stigma connected to less familiar kinds of religion. If somebody adheres to unfamiliar religious systems it is taken as a sign of disrespect or unreliability on their part. So someone who is a modern pagan is in more or less the same position as somebody who was a Quaker in the 17th seventeenth century. You no longer in danger of direct persecution in the sense of being beaten up or locked up or having your children taken away, but you are very unlikely to be trusted with a responsible position in commerce, industry, government or education.

How does Paganism regard human rights?

I think that the increasing acceptance of paganism as a legitimate though not very respectable religious position, has enhanced human rights in Western societies in general. I think that if it had have been continued to be stigmatised, it would have counted as a failure of human rights in the West.

Do you think that human rights which apply to all citizens are a good or a bad thing?

I think that human rights that apply equally to all subjects are a good thing.

Are there any ways in which Paganism has a practical influence on human rights in contemporary Britain?

Pagans have needed to campaign hard on particular issues for the last 30 years. They have been regular contributors to radio and television debates on the nature of religion. They [Pagans] have managed to win a place on interfaith fora, especially in Scotland which is more liberal in this regard than England. Druidry has got itself formally recognised as a religion by the charity commissioners. All of these are milestones towards a broader and more inclusive definition of religion on the part of the British state. I have had some small personal victories. I played a part in getting a schoolteacher in Essex reinstated in his job, after he was suspended from it, merely because he declared himself to be a pagan. This was in 2000. In 1997 I gave testimony to a Crown Court in Southwark, which resulted in the judge dismissing the jury in a case against a Druid chief, who was charged with carrying an offensive weapon, merely because he bore his ceremonial sword in a public space. I think these are victories for civil rights.

Do you think that human rights are generally respected by public bodies in Great Britain?

I think that the official institutions of the United Kingdom are extremely respectful of human rights, I would add the Established Churches, especially the Church of England to that record. The abuse of human rights in religious matters tends to be informal, it consists of attitudes taken by the public when encountering unfamiliar thoughts, in abusive remarks, in mockery. Similarly in off the cuff remarks in public positions. For example in the mid-1990s I took part in a famous radio program which still endures called the Moral Maze. I was not appearing as a pagan, merely as an expert in paganism. But even my explaining that paganism had legitimacy as a belief system drew an almost unrelenting series of hostile comments from the Christians who made up the entire panel, apart from one atheist, David Starkey, who ironically was the only sympathetic person. I stuck to my own views, and at the end the chair (who is supposed to be neutral) commented on my apparent survival by saying that Pagans were such silly people that the whole issue really didn’t matter. That to me is an abusive comment, and made by a distinguished broadcaster from the chair of a radio program to dismiss a whole faith position.

Do you think that the State intervenes too much or not enough in the lives of citizens?

I think that in theory the State has the right amount of intervention. In that it only interferes if people in religious groups appear to be misbehaving. The problem is the definition of misbehaviour. Until recently if a pagan was accused of a crime, which fortunately was rare, the police would automatically search their home and seize all of the books and equipment related to their religion to be presented in court as evidence Of their bad character. Now usually when a pagan is accused of a crime, the police bring in an expert witness to reassure the public that pagans are not inherently criminal.

When should the State interfere with citizens expressing their religious convictions?

The public authorities are justified in intervention when anybody commits an act which conflicts with the criminal and ethical code of this country. I am thinking of the abuse of children accused of witchcraft, I am thinking of female circumcision OR enforced marriage. These are infringements of civil liberty as we conceive of them in this country. In these cases I think that the intervention of the State is entirely permissible.

Do you think that living in a Parliamentary democratic society makes it easier or harder for pagans to live in accordance with their faith?

The only form of government which I could conceive which would be more protective of pagan rights than a Parliamentary democracy would be a one-party state consisting of pagans, but the world has not produced one of those since the Roman Empire, so it is not a situation which is conceivable in practice.

Does Paganism impose a personal responsibility to vote?

I think that the voting behaviour of pagans reflects that of the electorate as a whole, some are more politicised than others. One should not forget that democracies can be persecuting societies and within my lifetime, homosexuals and people of a different colour were submitted to quite serious persecution. I am glad that public opinion has changed. But since that public opinion governs a democracy, it is entirely dependent on how liberal that opinion may be.

Should Parliament have the final say in making and changing law? Should the judiciary have a greater role?

I think that the UK system works as it is, if only because at times judges do interpret law in ways that the government finds inconvenient. Freedom means having a system of checks and balances and a division of power between executive, legislature and judiciary is sensible. Just as to have a constriction which balances monarchy, aristocracy and democracy prevents any of those from becoming tyrannical.

Do you think that an understanding of democracy as the will of the majority is problematic for memories? Are they barriers to participation for some groups in our society?

I have not seen any sign that people who are part of the general culture of the British but happen to have unusual religious opinions experience any barrier to participation. If a separate religious identity is part of a different ethnic identity and the people concerned are not fully assimilated into British culture then there could be difference and quite serious problems.

Do you think it is problematic that members of the upper House are not elected?

I think that it is the main justification for the House of Lords that its members are not elected, and it thereby provides some sort of holding power against public opinion at any one time, giving the public a chance to consider and to affirm its beliefs if needed. The House of Lords is an essential check against public opinion being swept away by hysteria at any given moment, as IS the Monarch above. And the House of Lords is far more inclined to question what the House of Commons does than the Queen is, so I think that it is essential. Most mature political regimes have a two house system, which the upper house not quite as amenable to short term public opinion as the lower. I think that the House of Lords fulfils that well.

What do you think of the Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords?

The presence of bishops in the House of Lords is problematic. I think that it is increasingly becoming anomalous I cannot see now that the representatives of one Christian denomination can speak for the very wide spectrum of faiths and indeed religious positions which do not require faith. I cannot imagine that they would even know about the span of religious positions concerned. I think that there should be no religious groups represented in the upper house or there should be more. Since I find it difficult to think how all of the religious groups in our nation could be represented in a single chamber and that the House of Lords is now bigger than it has ever been before it is probably better to remove religious representation from the Lords.

Do you think that public bodies try to respect the democratic will of Parliament as expressed through legislation?

Most public bodies that are not under the direct control of the government can carry out delaying policies, but in the last analysis the government can enforce its will if it is determined to do so. However, I am a little concerned about the nature of government inference, the reach of central government is greater than ever before. It is regularly interring in the life of QUANGOs, of arm’s length government bodies in a way that it has never done before. Its attempts to ensure minimum standards of education, means that it is now interfering in independent schools in a way that it never has before. And although it is probably necessary for it to do this in order to secure civil liberties, it means that we need to scrutinise the motives and the empowering ideology of central government more closely than it has hitherto.

Is it good or bad that some decisions effecting the UK are made by EU institutions and the devolved assemblies?

I’ll take those in reverse, I think that devolution has to be the price for the continuation of the United Kingdom, there is no other course of action, and the result is going to very messy. It is raising acute questions about the relationship of England with its own people, and with the other component partners, to which there are no easy answers and I think that this is going to become a more and more complex, divisive and contentious issue.

The relation with Europe is different, because we have now voted to withdraw. I have no myself found at any point that a ruling by the EU has seriously offended my sense of how a civilised society should behave.

What does paganism teach about people with power?

Paganism ignores politics for the most part, as pagans have never held power anywhere in modern times, it is essentially a private faith and tries to avoid having a public face as much as possible. It is essentially a backroom, back garden RELIGION and tries to avoid identification with national politics. What it does identify with instead are moral issues, mostly related to ecology. So you are likely to find pagans involved as pagans in public demonstration in relation to road building schemes, fracking, exploration and contentious quarry development.

Do you think that pagans are appropriately and proportionately represented in public life?

I think that the insights of pagans do have a particular contribution to make to modern society, if only because pagans are acutely interested in the female side of the divine and the inherent divinity of nature which are less well explored if at all in other religions. Pagans are at present not represented in the political system at all, I don’t know of a single pagan MP and if there is a pagan member of the House of Lords then their views are strictly private. This is a weakness of modern paganism and one of its striking features is a lack of a representative in any powerful position. We do not seem to have a single leading industrialist, leading business person, or leader of the judiciary OR the medical system who openly professes paganism.

Do you think that there is enough distance between politicians and the judiciary?

I think that there is no obvious correlation between the actions of the judiciary and the actions of political masters because occasionally they clash. There are occasions, and I am thinking of judicial reviews and enquiries, when the judiciary have been too hasty to endorse the official line, but there is no consistent pattern here. A fear is that the judiciary is far more swayed by a contemporary majority mentality. And as the judiciary tends to be made up of older people, it is not as bad as it was, but there is still a tendency for it to be out of touch with advanced liberal opinion in our society.

How should the exercise of government power be regulated?

I think that the present checks and balances are sufficient, provided that they are correctly applied.

How do pagans challenge decisions which they perceive as problematic?

Because the position of pagans is so weak, its political activity is concentrated into two areas. One is trying to secure greater acceptance and toleration by society, and the other is fighting the cause of particular pagans who have badly treated because of their paganism. And generally speaking pagans have been successful with both of those targets. What they now RECORD is a kind of repressive tolerance which is much harder to eradicate, I think that time is on their side but there are not in a position to do much more than ask for the minimum level of acceptance.

Would you say that public bodies have a good understanding of the needs of pagans? Is the understanding better in some areas than others?

I don’t think that any of those bodies understand paganism any better than others. In many ways the press and the mass media who reflect and inform public opinion are the crucial bodies. The police who can decide whether a pagan’s life is made tolerable or intolerable. The caring services who when a pagan is sick and disempowered in hospital can make them feel supported or persecuted in their religion, the education system who can treat pagan children equally or make them feel different. These are the vital groups and on the whole they pay very little attention to the judiciary, legislative and the executive and operate much as laws unto themselves.

Is it important for you always to act within secular law?

I have myself witnessed occasions on which I would regard a breach of the law as morally acceptable. For example in demonstrations where people have blocked access to military installations in order to draw public attention to the controversial nature of the innovations taking place there. For instance, the delivery of cruise missiles to bases in Britain in 1981 and the general escalation of the Cold War at the time. This was an issue which divided British society quite considerably. I think that it was entirely permissible for people to carry out non-violent direct action and to be prosecuted and to refuse to pay the fine. I think that the right to demonstrate is entirely permissible and if it breaks the law the right to prosecute is entirely permissible, not least because it gives them a further platform for their views. I chose not to break the law myself in those demonstrations but I morally support those who do. I also have qualms about the nature of public demonstration, for example I remember a demonstration against racism in London, I think that it was in Wood Green in the 1970s, when the National Front, an openly racist organisation marched with legal right through the streets and anti-racist protestors blocked their path and refused to let them through. I find it really hard to form a judgment on that. On the one hand the right to protest was being blocked, which was an infringement of civil liberty, on the other hand the blocking of the right to protest drew attention to the fact that the group concerned was advocating limitation on civil liberties. These are very difficult areas.

Are you aware of any pagan groups which are actively campaigning to change the law?

I am not sure whether this would be a change of law, but the big issue in which pagans currently engage in is the protest against fracking and related forms of intrusive geological exploration and extraction. Many pagans feel very strongly about this and they have drawn attention to this by obstructing the access points of the companies involved in the investigation process, thereby causing the police to come and remove them. I have very mixed feelings about this. I joined the campaign against the NEWBURY bypass in the 1990s, but I joined them by campaigning publically and chairing public meetings in which other people spoke against the principle. I did not join in campaigns which obstructed the developers, but friends of mine did and these proved to be extremely effective. By breaking the law, by hampering the legitimate publically permitted work of the developers, they made the scheme so expensive that the government called off several schemes which would have had a similar effect. And that is an example of direct action having a considerable impact, and one which I would support. So I have an uneasy feeling that technical breaches of law may sometimes be justified, provided that they do no injure other human beings or their equipment.

Does paganism require its followers to speak for the weak and vulnerable?

I don’t think pagan ethics induce a necessity to speak on behalf of the weak and underprivileged who are not pagan. What they do induce is tolerance towards other religion, with the pagan ethic of self-expression with the minimum of suffering. And if a recognition of the right to believe differently is inherent in paganism, I think that it is a contribution to civil liberty.

Do you think that the Rule of Law is applied equally in Great Britain?

I find that the performance of British public bodies in dealing with religious and ethical minorities, and I’m thinking primarily of pagans, has improved greatly in recent years. We have gone from a situation in which pagans suffered ill treatment based upon completely unfounded political and religious prejudice, repeatedly. There has been a considerable improvement. In the last analysis it all depends on public opinion. I think that the position of pagans is weaker and worse in most other European countries, especially those in which public professions of the established faith are stronger. On the other hand, I think that the Czech Republic is an example of a nation which is more tolerant than the United Kingdom, if only because the Czech Republic has surpassed the United Kingdom in being the most secular state in the Western world. Pagans there are not regarded with considerable respect, but they are not treated as a nuisance or a threat because there is no residual traction in Czech culture of anti-pagan traditional beliefs. Pagans are seen, if they are seen at all, as nice but silly people who believe in harmless things. The real problem in Britain is that a residual feeling that because pagans are not Christian, and in many ways Christianity defined itself against paganism, there is something inherently menacing in paganism. It’s not just that it is unfamiliar or different, but it harks back to some very deeply embedded hostile images in Christian society, which have no place in a liberal, multi-ethnic, multi-faith, polyvalent modern democracy.

Should the police be subject to the same rules as other citizens?

I think that all latitude to the police or the armed forces when dealing with civil unrest should be concerned entirely with the criminal law, I do not believe that religion should play any part in that. That is generally what is happening: on the whole terrorists are tried and convicted as terrorists not as Muslims. On the other hand the police instinctually target certain groups. Black young men are searched more than other groups, people of Islamic faith are under scrutiny for terrorist offences more than other groups. What is remarkable IN the animosity against paganism, is that pagans have been innocent of any anti-social behaviour whatsoever, and yet pagans are still be targeted.

Are you aware of any legal rules which have a direct impact on the freedom of pagans to practice their faith or ideology?

I have not observed any current laws which have a detrimental impact There were laws in the past which might have done if pagan ritual equipment were to be regarded as offensive weapons, but this was headed off. Had those pagan initiatory groups, which had scourging as part of the initiatory ceremony been regarded as illegal in terms of abuse of others, in a criminal ruling which criminalised people engaged in sadomasochistic practices, that might have interfered. In practice, to my pleasure and surprise, society was too sensible for that. So that at present the law was in a good position. The problem at present is that paganism has achieved toleration, but it has not achieved respect. That has an inevitable impact on anyone who professes it.

But that is not about the legal framework as such, that is more a social question?

I think that it would be difficult to pass a law that made mockery and offence against people’s religious position. That would effect freedom of speech, it might criminalise certain cartoons for example. On the other hand, the freedom to mock or abuse someone who has a different belief from you is a form of persecution and a very effective one, and it will continue as long as we (in my view rightly) uphold freedom of speech over protection of the weak.

Is there anything which you would like to add?

No, I have ruthlessly injected everything that I thought to be of relevance in my answers to your questions. The major intervention I made was to introduce the press and the caring services, the truly significant bodies which impact upon religious belief, rather than the formal institutions of government.

Ronald Hutton is Professor of History and Associate Dean of Arts in the University of Bristol, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, the Society of Antiquaries, the Learned Society of Wales, and the British Academy. He represents both history and archaeology on the Board of Trustees which runs English Heritage, and chair of the Blue Plaques Panel which awards commemorative plaques to historic buildings. He has published fifteen books on aspects of political, social, cultural and religious history, including a monograph on the English Civil War, a narrative history of the Stuart Restoration, a biography of Charles II, a survey of what is thought about the pagan religions of the ancient British Isles, two large-scale studies of the history of the ritual year in Britain, an analysis of Siberian shamanism, the first history of modern paganism in Britain, and a survey of the treatment of Druids in British culture over the centuries. He was formerly a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and has been at Bristol since 1981.

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