How would you describe your personal identity in relation to religion and belief?
I believe in the stories that help us make sense of the world. So I believe in the need for belief but I don’t necessarily believe in the things that are believed in. So the ritual of belief is important, I think that as a race, as a species or as an animal that really the only thing that distinguishes from any other animal group is our ability and need to tell stories. No other animal can do that This need for story is fundamental to the human experience and religion is fundamentally the telling of stories that try and make sense of our own experience of us.
Did you grow up with this? Why did you adopt or retain this position?
I grew up with an atheist father and a Christian mother. And we were taken to church,, I was born in Bristol and we were taken to church as children, but when I was 3 and my siblings were older we were taken to live in Northern Ireland in 1971, and my mother stopped taking us. From that point on I wasn’t brought up with any religious upbringing other than knowing that my mother in the past had gone to church. We moved to Australia when I was 7 and I don’t think that she began going to church again until I left home.
Is GB an equal and tolerant society, especially in relation to religion and belief?
My experience is really between the UK and Australia where I spent most of my growing up years. I think the UK makes a reasonable effort towards human rights and religious freedom. I wonder sometimes if a lot of that is generated by EU legislation and the question of what happens if we don’t stay within Europe becomes more concerning. I wonder if a lot of the equal rights we currently enjoy are to do with being connected to and being a member state of Europe, so would be concerned if England or the UK were to leave Europe.
Now we have voted to leave, it is unspeakably concerning and depressing that the level of racist and religious violence has gone up so immediately and openly. We have lifted the lid on a deeply entrenched resentment and racism that I hadn’t recognised as being so widespread when you originally interviewed me.
I live within a particularly diverse community and with an Orthodox Jewish community up the road, at the top of our street is a big mosque and obviously there are Christian churches around the place as well. It’s a very ethnically diverse but religiously diverse area. On a day to day basis…my day to day experience of it seems to be that people can live quite happily harmoniously side by side with each other. I don’t feel so rose-tinted about this anymore, post-Brexit and the rise in racist hate-crime, but the neighbourhood I live in gives the appearance at least of being tolerant and successfully diverse. But I am aware of course that I don’t belong to one of the religious or ethnic groups who feel under more negative gaze from various elements of the media and society so it is easy for me to see harmony from my more privileged or protected perspective .
How easy to live in accordance with your beliefs? Are there challenges, and if so, are they social, political or legal in nature?
I think I’m in a very privileged position. I can believe what I believe. I used to go to a church of England church where the nature of my belief didn’t matter to anyone – it was a welcoming space, and gave room for the story and ritual of faith which I value. And it’s a church where my daughter was Christened, with a Muslim godfather, and my mother was buried. It connects me quite closely to my mother.
How do secular ideas regard human rights?
By saying everyone regardless of religious belief – or none – is equal before the law, all people are seen as equivalent which seems vital in terms of establishing of doctrine of human rights rather than one which is built around particular belief systems. I’ve directed a play about Eleanor Roosevelt and she – I hadn’t realised this, but she was the first US representative to the UN and sat on the committee to establish the universal declaration of human rights. There’s an interesting bit in the play when they’re to come up with the phrasing, how do you phrase it, and, the choice of the phrasing is so specific to take in all people. So the difference between being born rather than created is significant, human rather than man which was common parlance at the time was really significant. So that notion of creating something with a secular ideology rather than through anything that has religious connotations seems quite fundamental to the way that declaration was put together.
How do you feel about faith schools?
if you have a school of any complexion whether it’s a faith school or a free school or whatever, but if you have a school that limits the children’s education and denies them access to things that we understand as a society to be useful things for children to learn about and children in the mainstream are being taught about, including things like evolution, gender equality and sex education then I think that’s really problematic. I think that a good social education is important, a good scientific education is important, a good cultural education is important, a good personal education is important. I don’t share concerns about faith schools per se indoctrinating or inculcating a certain kind of belief system – in part because in my son’s experience it didn’t do that (he went to a very diversely mixed C of E school), which is obviously purely anecdotal. But where schools are teaching a narrow doctrine and not a pluralist curriculum I have serious concerns, whether they are faith schools or free schools or independent schools or any other kind of schools.
Should religious bodies be granted exemptions from discrimination law running their internal affairs?
I think that’s part of a really big conversation, and I don’t have an answer, In a pluralist society, is it necessary to allow people within that society to make their own rules, within certain confines? Obviously there are local and national laws that everyone must abide by but within that is it the nature of pluralist society that you have to or should allow people within special interest or religious groups to be self-governing to a certain extent because otherwise you are damaging the essence of pluralism? I don’t know it’s a question, it’s not an answer.
Do you believe that you have a moral obligation to vote?
Absolutely, I think voting should be compulsory. I come from a country where voting is compulsory, in Australia it is, so you do it. You have the option, and I say to students when I bang on about it, you’ve got the option to spoil you ballot paper if you don’t want to vote for an individual or a party. You can spoil your paper in protest but you can’t not turn up, because that is an abnegation of your responsibility.
How do you feel about the EU and devolved assemblies?
I’m pro-Europe and think that our membership and participation is a good thing, I think that a lot of the fear seems to be about scapegoating, trying to find a common enemy to cope with economic circumstances, because of the collapse in 2008. I can see where people emotionally are coming from, and it’s drummed up by the right wing press, massively irresponsibly, this anti-European, anti-international, mentality with no understanding that this England is mythical. It always has been a country in flux, influx of migrants from all round the place, that’s how it’s made up, generation after generation of people from all different parts of the world, and that’s to the good. This notion that you can go back to an era when everyone was the same culturally is inane.
What do all citizens owe to the rest of society?
Everyone has a responsibility to the society and community in which they live. from behaving in a civic and thoughtful and neighbourly way to keeping the rules of the country that are there to protect everybody. So don’t drink drive, pick up your litter, say hello to your neighbours and if you know your dog bites muzzle it. Trivial examples but what I mean is from the smallest to the largest civic rule comes the well being of a civic society. It doesn’t matter where in society you sit, the responsibility to behave as a member of society rather than to to sit outside it in a individualistic way is fundamental to society working.
Do our current politicians and leaders reflect composition of society?
(I answered this before Brexit when Cameron was still PM.) Well you could start with the cabinet, all the evidence is to the contrary, it doesn’t reflect the constitution of society at all. In terms of gender, class, educational background, social opportunity, religious background, on every grounds the cabinet/government is inthe main made up people from privilege, wealth and a white male constituency What can be done about it I don’t know….go back to the beginning. Look at the accessibility of politics to people from all backgrounds, I think that quotas are a good thing, I know that some people don’t like that. But I think that they’re probably really necessary to bring in a diversity of voices.
Have you ever felt so strongly about an issue that you have campaigned to change it?
Yes, lots of thing. As a student involved in student activism, peace, environmental and feminist movements. Protests, demonstrations, petitions, organising concerts as a teenager. More recently much less so. It was quite a big part of my life as a teenager and then through university and my 20s. I still join demonstrations on occasion – it is a long time since I organised one.
Is it important to you always to act within state law?
Tricky. Instinctively I think I am bound by the Rule of Law and in general the Rule of Law provides a mechanism by which society can function peaceably. That said, I think there are countries where I’d say that the R of L is immoral and unethical and counter to human rights and religious freedoms. I would hope that I would have the courage to make the right moral choice. But truthfully I don’t know that I would be brave enough. ,In this country that is not very often put to the test. The closest I can think of is that if I’d lived in the country at the time I’d have gone and camped out on Greenham Common. That would be the kind of example, but I wasn’t here at the time. I wouldn’t participate in any kind of violent action, but peaceful action to try and stop it. For instance when they were trying to move the missiles in and out of the base, then yes I would have been willing to break the law. And other actions on moral grounds of that sort then yes, sometimes laws need to be broken.
Do your beliefs mean that you feel a moral duty to speak out for third parties?
Yes, don’t everybody’s beliefs tell them this? Do I always act on them, no, I fail at it all the time.
How do you feel about the general trend towards an increase in police powers in recent years?
The terrorism legislation is concerning. A couple of years ago we had some neighbours working in their garden., a Muslim family. They had ordered a large load of nitrogen fertiliser and got it delivered – many bags of it. Another neighbour called the police who came and looked into it. They were gardening – if the neighbour who had called the police had got to know the people who lived over the street from him he could have asked them himself. This isn’t about police powers obviously but it is about a rise in anxiety which I don’t think is abated by knowing the police have extended powers for investigating and holding terrorism suspects. If the police have a legitimate concern they should be able to investigate it, but the widespread surveillance culture and paranoia is detrimental to social cohesion and mental health. If you spend the whole time thinking that the person next to you is plotting against you it doesn’t do much for society or for your own peace of mind.