Johann Hari: Get bishops out of our law-making

Is Nick Clegg even going to abandon his atheism, and give the forces of organised religion yet more power over us?

Share
Related Topics

Here's a Trivial Pursuit question with an answer that isn't at all trivial. Which two nations still reserve places in their parliaments for unelected religious clerics, who then get an automatic say in writing the laws the country's citizens must obey? The answer is Iran... and Britain.

In 2011, the laws that bind us all are voted on by 26 Protestant bishops in the House of Lords who say they are there to represent the Will of God. They certainly aren't there to represent the will of the people: 74 per cent of us told a recent ICM poll the bishops should have to stand for election like everybody else if they want to be in parliament. These men use their power to relentlessly fight against equality for women and gay people, and to deny you the right to choose a peaceful and dignified death when the time comes.

And here's the strangest kicker in this strange story: it looks like the plans being drawn up by Nick Clegg to "modernise" the House of Lords will not listen to the overwhelming majority of us and end these religious privileges. No – they are poised to do the opposite. Sources close to the reform team say they are going to add even more unelected religious figures to parliament. These plans are being drawn up as you read this and will be published soon. The time to fight is today, while we can still sway the agenda.

But let's step back a moment and look at how all this came to pass. The bishops owe their places in parliament to a serial killer. Henry VIII filled parliament with bishops because they were willing to give a religious seal of approval to him divorcing and murdering his wives – and they have lingered on through the centuries since, bragging about their own moral superiority at every turn.

Pore through the history books and you'll find they opposed almost all of the progressive changes in our history. The Suffragettes regarded them as such relentless enemies of equality for women they set fire to two of their churches.



According to Christopher Hitchens, though I haven’t been able to source this quote elsewhere, in 1965, the then Archbishop of Canterbury (Michael Ramsey) scorned the people who were campaigning for nuclear-armed countries to step back from the brink, on the grounds that "a nuclear war would involve nothing more than the transition of many millions of people into the love of God, only a few years before they were going to find it anyway". A previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, is reported to have said something similar a few years earlier and it may be that these sentiments should be attributed to him instead. In 2008 the incumbent Rowan Williams, said it would be helpful if shariah law – with all its vicious misogyny, which says that women are worth half of a man – was integrated into British family courts.



In 2008, his successor, Rowan Williams, said it would be helpful if shariah law – with all its vicious misogyny, which says that women are worth half of a man – was integrated into British family courts.

Today, the bishops claim they are really motivated by concern for the poor and vulnerable. But which two bills have brought them out to vote in largest numbers in recent years? The first was to vote against the Equality Bill, which finally criminalised discrimination against gay people in the provision of services to the public. The bishops rallied and railed to keep it legal for people to effectively hang signs saying "No Gays" outside their shops, charities and hotels. They even threatened to shut down services helping the poor if they were required to give them to gay people – suggesting their much bragged-about opposition to poverty is pretty shallow.

The bishops' second greatest passion is to prevent you from being able to choose to end your suffering if you are dying. Some 81 per cent of British people believe that if you are terminally ill and can't bear to live any longer in an agony that won't cease, you should be allowed to ask a doctor to help you end it. If you believe this is "evil" – as the bishops do – that's fine: you can choose to stay alive to the bitter end, no matter how awful the pain becomes. That's your right. But for the bishops, that's not enough. They want to impose their conviction on the rest of us. They don't even speak for their own followers: the polling consistently finds huge majorities of Christians support euthanasia too.

The bishops didn't turn out to protect the poor and vulnerable. They turned out to hurt them. The Right Rev Lord Harries of Pentregarth declares he is there to show "Parliament is accountable not only to the electorate but to God". This is a surreal situation: Britain is one of the most blessedly irreligious societies on Earth, yet we are on a lonely shelf with Iran in handing a chunk of our parliament to clerics. The British Social Attitudes Survey, the most detailed study of public opinion, found that 59 per cent of us say we are not religious. And remember: even 70 per cent of Protestant Christians say it's wrong for the bishops to have these seats.

Nick Clegg promised before the election he would introduce a 100 per cent elected House of Lords – which would obviously mean an end to the bishops' privileges there. Yet now people close to him say he is going for only 80 per cent elected, with the bishops remaining on the undemocratic benches. And it gets worse. People close to him whisper he is planning to add even more unelected religious figures: an imam, the chief rabbi, and others, in pursuit of the multiculturalism the Prime Minister just disowned. So we may soon have the bizarre sight of an atheist Deputy Prime Minister expanding the number of unelected religious figures in our parliament in the name of "modernisation".

Last week, David Cameron gave a speech telling British Muslims – rightly – that they had to support "equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality... This is what defines us as a society. To belong here is to believe in these things". Yet he has been a key defender behind the scenes of retaining the bishops in parliament, even though they explicitly oppose "equal rights regardless or race, sex, or sexuality." They refuse to allow women to hold the top jobs in their organisation. They demanded an opt-out from laws banning discrimination against gay people, to allow individuals to express their "conscience" – a loophole so large it would render the law meaningless. Using Cameron's logic, they oppose "what defines us as a society" and do not "belong here", yet he is keeping them in a position of great unelected power. It seems his "muscular liberalism" only applies to people with brown skins.

The atheists and secularists who are campaigning for democracy are consistently branded "arrogant" by the bishops and their noisy cheerleaders. But who is arrogant here? Is it atheists who say that since we have no evidence about how the universe came into being, we should be humble, admit we don't know, and keep investigating? Or is it the bishops, who claim that they not only "know" how everything was created, but they know exactly what that Creator thinks, how he wants us to have sex, and which pills we can take when we are dying? What could be more arrogant than claiming you have a right to an unelected seat in parliament to impose beliefs for which there is no evidence on an unbelieving population?

None of this has to happen. We do not have to accept our laws being formulated by people we did not choose and do not support. But Nick Clegg needs to be pressured, fast. He has spent the last nine months shedding every principle he ever espoused. Is he now even going to abandon his atheism, and give the forces of organised religion yet more power over us? Mr Clegg, in the name of the God you and I don't believe in - step back from the bishops.

The National Secular Society: www.secularism.org.uk/join-and-renew.html

The British Humanist Association: www.humanism.org.uk/support-us

j.hari@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/johannhari101

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project and Quality Manager

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is an independent ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Sales Executive - OTE £20,625

£14625 - £20625 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This role is for an enthusiasti...

Guru Careers: Financial Controller

£45 - £55k DOE: Guru Careers: A Financial Controller is required to join a suc...

Recruitment Genius: Fertility Nurse

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join the ho...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nicky Clarke has criticised the Duchess of Cambridge for having grey hair  

Letting one’s hair turn grey would be the most subversive Royal act

Rosie Millard
 

London’s foreign money bubble is bursting – but will we be better off?

Chris Blackhurst
Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'
Singapore's domestic workers routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals

Singapore's hidden secret of domestic worker abuse

David Cameron was shown the country's shiniest veneer on his tour. What he didn't see was the army of foreign women who are routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals
Showdown by Shirley Jackson: A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic

Showdown, by Shirley Jackson

A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic
10 best DSLRs

Be sharp! 10 best DSLRs

Up your photography game with a versatile, powerful machine
Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

Solved after 200 years

The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

Sunken sub

Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

Age of the selfie

Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

Not so square

How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

Still carrying the torch

The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

...but history suggests otherwise
The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

The bald truth

How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

Tour de France 2015

Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

A new beginning for supersonic flight?

Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash