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Ringing in the change

Lyndonharrison4x3.jpgLyndon Harrison on why it’s time to celebrate the contribution of humanists and atheists to UK society

It was certainly a truism 30 years ago to say that the Labour Party owed more to Methodism than Marxism in its inspiration. Perhaps that formulation must itself change as those of us who are non-religious grow within the party and outside.

Judging by the number of Labour peers who have subscribed to my balloted debate on the contribution of atheists and humanists to UK society, this may well be true.

Following the resounding success of the recent Same Sex Marriage Bill, led on our side by Jan Royall, Glenys Thornton and Waheed Alli, Doreen Massey and I – helped by the British Humanist Association (BHA) – were pleased to record our own success. We argued for Humanist Celebrants to be acknowledged in due course with the responsibility of officiating at humanist marriages.

My debate – which takes place later today – will trace the rise of non-believers and humanists and explore the implications for modern Britain. According to the British Social Attitudes Survey, almost half of us owe no allegiance to any religion.

Non-believers are now at the helm in campaigning for a secular society, where State and Church separate and religious privileges are annulled. The repeal of the blasphemy laws illustrate our changing country. The standing-down by right of the 26 Bishops in the House of Lords would also be a welcome step to canvass broader voices from the religious and non-religious communities. Perhaps, to include some professed atheists and humanists perhaps. And we are campaigning also to reverse the unwelcome influence of religion in the school system – a system itself undermined by parents wrongly professing religious belief in the hope of entering their children into these schools. This is something the Church itself should disavow. 

The roles played throughout society by the many significant scientists, writers and others who are also humanists and atheists should certainly be celebrated. But they could make an even greater contribution if only their voices were heard more authentically in national media (we are perversely excluded from Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’ slot); or they were given room at public events, such as the Cenotaph Memorial Service – where the fallen dead contain many a non-believer.

We can however, also forge common cause with wiser religious colleagues. I include in this my own debates in past years underscoring the magnificent architectural heritage of our cathedrals, churches and other religious buildings falling into desuetude as congregations dwindle and disappear. We must act as a society to preserve and enhance the best of our built environment, often putting it to new purpose. 

Indeed, in Chester recently, the local Labour party chose our new prospective parliamentary candidate from a shortlist of five in a crowded church – the very same church whose Thursday evening bell-ringing practice my wife and I love to attend. 

Lyndon Harrison is backbench Labour Peer and a member of the British Humanist Association

Published 25th July 2013