I’m glad Alan Bennett quoted Ronald Eyre in his play The Habit Of Art because Ron was one of those brilliant minds (double first at Oxford) who struggled with religion. He came from Mapplewell, near Barnsley, a miner’s son, with chapel habits. He produced an entire TV series on religion – it wasn’t good. He couldn’t let go of the idea that `there was something in it’. `Not just comfort, Robert… is it?’ What should I say? In the end I just said, `Well…’ So, with love and homage to a dear man, here’s what I submitted to The Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life (which went public to-day). Hope it doesn’t make you sing a bum note, Ron – up there with the angels!
Dear Sir or Madam,
I should like to make the following observations for you to consider and share:
Religious belief should be a private matter.
We have to defend freedom of speech and thought at all times.
It follows that any view held by an individual or group must be allowed.
BUT… no view should ever be forced on other people. Persuasion is acceptable.
But civil society should not allow an individual or group to force their beliefs on anyone.
Nor should we accept that any idea or belief be imposed by financial sanction or any other sort of intimidation.
The law of the land should protect Civil society – all of us – from attempts to enforce ideas and intimidate us into accepting them.
Religion is founded on a belief in the supernatural.
No evidence exists in the United Kingdom to support a view that events happen through supernatural means. No evidence exists that the physical laws we rely on to conduct every aspect of our lives have been contradicted or broken.
It follows that many religious narratives are validated entirely by assertion from believers. Often, these assertions have been repeated for many years, sometimes hundreds of years, and are therefore taken to carry authority and therefore to be true. The same beliefs in the supernatural are often supported by writings, many of them ancient, and these also contain assertions for which there is no evidence.
Many of these asserted supernatural ‘truths’ differ greatly from religion to religion and can be the basis of conflict.
There is a powerful argument, therefore, that no public money should be diverted to any field – educational, institutional or political so as to fund personal, private or group religious convictions.
The proseletysing religious groups should fund themselves.
At school and university religion should be investigated as an aspect of human culture. No religion should be privileged in favour of another.
Morality derives from the intricacies of living together. We are group-living animals and forced to regulate our social interactions.
It is, therefore, dishonest to teach that out of date religious texts can help us to conduct modern lives. They should be offered to students and anyone interested as historical background for understanding how we got where we are.
It would be helpful if we all – and especially the media – stopped adopting a deferential tone in the presence of the devoutly religious. It is patronising and insincere and sustains the fiction that to believe something for which there is no evidence is especially praiseworthy.
We should treat religious people as part of our everyday social fabric – with no special privileges. It will help the public to make up their minds objectively regarding the merits of any case put by religious people of all kinds.