Faithworks debate

NSS KEITH PORTEOUS WOOD’S SPEECH TO FAITHWORKS
LAMBETH, 21 NOVEMBER 2005

"Is faith in public life good for Britain?"

I doubt if we’ll get through this evening without someone mentioning the census and the 72% of Christians. I’ve just been re-examining the methodology as part of the consultation for the next Census. Government statisticians and academics realize that the 72% answer equated to the religion of up-bringing or cultural Christians, not the very much lower figures that would have resulted from asking for “current religion”.

Rather more relevant figures come from the Home Office Survey on Religion (no 274 ).
Religion is ranked only ninth in characteristics important to our identity.

Or the BBC Soul of Britain survey (extract given in the Appendix):
When asked “Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion? Over half said “No”.

On judging right from wrong respondents were asked which of the following have been the main influences in your life? The minister of religion came almost last - 7th out of eight possibilities suggested.

I conclude that there is little enthusiasm for religion and little respect for religious leaders, and the purveyors of faith.

In complete contrast, religion has a disproportionately high influence in public life in Britain.

Britain is the only western democracy to give clerics the right to sit in its legislature. Secularists consider this to be undemocratic and discriminatory. Yet the Royal Commission studying reform seems set to move further in a theocratic direction. Instead of recommending the abolition of the bench of bishops, they want to add religious representation for other denominations and faiths.

Oxford University’s Professor Iain Maclean says of their recommendations. To do this “a total of 77 [peers] will be needed to represent all faith communities. …. At worst, this could leave the Appointments Commission with only 53 crossbench places to fill with representatives of anything other than faith communities.” That would make the House of Lords more akin to a synod than a legislature. The democratic answer is to achieve a quality by no ex officio religious appointments at all.

These bishops used their position in the Lords in 1999 by trying desperately to exempt religion from the Human Rights Act. Fortunately the Commons overruled them.

And whenever anti-discrimination legislation is mooted, the first call we hear is for the religious to get exemption. Ironically I think it is often the religious who are most likely to discriminate, especially on sexuality.
It is also ironic that it was the that Church engineered a massive exemption in the (anti-discrimination) Employment Regulations on sexual orientation, given that the proportion of clerics that are gay is generally agreed to be very much higher then in the population as a whole.

This seems cruel and has resulted in some of those working for the church to be very worried - indeed, frightened, people. I know. I’ve met some of them.

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A third of publicly funded schools in this country run by religious bodies. In vast areas of country especially rural areas parents have no alternative but to send their children to church schools and many are very upset about it.

And it is no wonder. The Archbishop of Canterbury has told Anglican schools to act as small churches, encouraging them to hold confirmation and communion services.

The Government is pressing for more and more faith schools, including for minority religions; ultimately – given most minority faiths are practised by ethnic minorities - this will lead to educational apartheid. This is frightening prospect leading directly from publicly funded faith schools.

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Why is the government considering handing large tranches of our social services over to religious bodies to manage with public funds?

Maybe it is the promise of cheap labour, or simply to ingratiate themselves to the faith communities, but there are some serious questions to be asked.

Will the faith communities discriminate in employment paid for from public funds? Yes. They demand to do so.

Will they discriminate in services provided from these public funds, or make conditions such as evangelizing a condition of acceptance?
We have examples of both in this country already.

Are the religious any more likely to be volunteers than the non-religious? No.
Indeed, the Home Office’s recent Research Study 274 found that levels of both civic participation and volunteering were higher for those without a religious affiliation than those that have. This means that the non-religious volunteer as much if not more.

Having said that, we do appreciate what is done by religious charities, and we believe that in most instances the work is valuable and worthy.

I worry even more about faith based welfare run by minority faith groups of those in their communities. There is a false assumption that all of those in these communities are willing believers, but some are seeking to escape an overbearing religious control - and faith based welfare forcing them to go back to places of worship is the last thing they need.

What I am here to oppose is the idea that what religious people offer is somehow ‘special’ and therefore has to have special privileges even when these are being bankrolled by public funds.

And not all religious welfare has been as good as that which has been described here this evening by Faithworks. There are also some spectacularly bad examples – when religion really holds power:

Look at the Catholic run Magdalene Laundries in Ireland and Scotland – institutions that were virtually slave camps for young women who displeased the church by either getting pregnant out of wedlock or merely because they were regarded as ‘fallen’ or had the potential to be so. Incredibly the last one only closed around a decade ago.

I don’t want to dwell on clerical child abuse, but let’s not evade the fact that it has been on a breathtaking scale over a very long time. These despicable criminal acts are compounded by a corporate cover-up to the very highest levels, and the additional abuse of telling the accusers they were liars and refusing them treatment, far less compensation.
And just this week I saw a headline in a Washington paper “Despite Huge Profits, Catholic Hospitals Gouge Uninsured”. Catholic hospitals in the US made $2 billion profit in the last year, largely on the back of charging uninsured Latino Catholics far more of their operations than those people who were insured .

Appendix

The Opinion Research Business (ORB)

BBC ‘Soul of Britain’ Questionnaire ©
Sample: 1000 randomly selected respondents in Great Britain
Fieldwork 25th April – 7th May 2000
1000 telephone interviews
S/2022

(Extract)

19 When it comes to judging right from wrong which of the following have been the main influences in your life? (MARK UP TO 3 MENTIONS)

83 Mother
72 Father
20 Relatives
21 Friends
22 School
13 School teacher
9 Minister
8 Media
15 Other (WRITE IN)
2 Don’t know

* Gallup Poll New Society April 1987

20 Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?
2000
48% Yes
51% No
1% Don’t know