How would you describe yourself in relation to religion and belief?
I would describe myself as an Atheist. It was the outlook in which I grew up. I wasn’t baptised. My parents didn’t bring me up in the Christian faith. Interestingly, my father was not baptised either, but my mother was a Lutheran. I didn’t attend religious classes in school… I only did in the first few years, but afterwards they introduced classes for non religious people or minority religions and they were called ‘Ethics’, which in Germany, where I grew up, were compulsory. I haven’t really changed my mind about it. I have thought about it, but I don’t see any reason why I should believe in God.
I think everyone has doubts, but if we leave aside reasonable doubts which even religious people have about the existence of God, I think I am an Atheist. Of course, everyone can regard himself as an Agnostic… is there a minimal possibility for the existence of God?… but on balance, I would say I am an Atheist. There is no belief or organisation for Atheists. I don’t think the NSS and the BHA are that representative. They are very ideologically driven. I would say that most people don’t care that much. They want to get rid of certain religious biases and so on, but that is probably not the view of the majority of Atheists and Agnostics in this country.
Would you describe GB as an equal and tolerant society, especially in relation to religion and belief?
I do get the impression that Britain is an equal and tolerant society in relation to religion and belief. I know both England and Scotland, and I think Great Britain is quite a liberal country. The basic outlook is liberal. Of course, in every society you have issues about religious freedom, but on the whole it is fairly… it treats religions equally despite the established Church that we have in England. Religion doesn’t seem to play a key role in everyday life of people and politics. So, we don’t really see very many politicians declaring to be religious and they keep that topic out of the public domain. They treat it as a very private thing here and everyone practises freely their religion here.
Have you ever faced any challenges living in accordance with your beliefs? If so, have they been legal, social or political in nature?
I have never faced any challenges whatsoever as an Atheist in Great Britain.I am not sure about the specific Law and Religion debate, but in society as a whole some Atheists have been very prominent, particularly people like Richard Dawkins, who has been very vocal. There are well-known politicians who are openly Atheist, and that doesn’t seem to do them any harm. Maybe thirty years ago it would have been an issue. Atheists are shaping the public discourse and they are having an influence. They are just part of a more liberal outlook maybe…
Do you think that legally enforceable human rights which apply to everybody have been positive for our society?
Human rights are a very good thing for British society.
Do you think that public authorities generally get the balance right between freedom and protection when it comes to intervening in expression of religious belief? Can you think of cases where there have been issues?
I couldn’t point out one single example, but when you see the cases before the courts, it is usually religious people who complain about being forced to do something in their jobs which is against their religion, not accepting gay people in bed and breakfasts, etc. They don’t tend to be brought by Atheists, but by religious people. The Atheist dimension doesn’t seem to play a role here. Atheists and Agnostics don’t rely on a particular faith to live their life, so they are more neutral, unlike you have some vociferous Atheists fighting religious symbols, for example. But for people like me, this is not an issue. I think for majority religions like the CofE and the RC Church it is not an issue either, but if you are a minority religion, and for instance you don’t want to work on the Sabbath, someone will have to make arrangements for you, whereas nobody will have to make arrangements for somebody like me.
Do you think that public bodies generally respect human rights?
I think human rights are on the whole generally respected by the Government and other public bodies. We are not in a society where human rights are violated on a regular basis, but of course it happens. The State infringes human rights, probably less in the religious dimension. More about data protection, extradition of people… maybe there is a religious element in that… but on the whole I think human rights are complied with.
The UK is relatively similar to Germany. The basic German outlook is less liberal than Great Britain, when it comes to liberty as a concept, but on the whole, I think, human rights are not violated. What the Germans are not very good at is non-discrimination. The UK is quite advanced in that sense. In the UK we are very aware of discrimination, especially in an university context.. In Germany that is not ingrained in practice and in people’s minds. In Germany you hear language which is discriminatory. It is not just the linguistic element. You never know what people may think because we are in a very PC culture. Overall however when it comes to human rights and liberty, there are not many differences between Germany and the UK.
It is difficult to say… I have never had any interference by a public authority. I find it difficult to answer. My choice is a liberal one… let people alone, and I think that is what happens. We don’t have much supervision of the State, but what we have here is an awful lot of CCTV and data collection. We don’t really know what they are doing with all this. I don’t think they are doing very much with it, we don’t know… Sometimes you get these shock revelations… there was this terrorist plot and we have only found out now … and only because the terrorists were stupid we have found it out. It is a very difficult balance to strike. People who are working on anti-terrorism would like to have many more powers and be able to interfere much more in people’s lives, but I don’t think they are interfering massively.
When should the State intervene to limit the expression of religious beliefs?
I think, generally speaking, the State has a duty to protect others. Your own freedom ends when other people’s freedoms start and I think that is the most important and often neglected aspect of freedom of religion. We have the freedom not to be indoctrinated, but no freedom to be really at all affected by somebody else’s religion. We have freedom not to be forced… that is where the State has to intervene. It depends on where you are. If you are in a school environment, for instance, you have children with specific religious persuasions and they may be bullying another kid, maybe because they are from the same ethnic background, then I think the State should interfere. And of course, if a person is preaching hatred, the State must interfere.
Do you regard living in a democracy as a positive thing? Is there any system of government which you prefer?
Of all forms of Government, democracy is the best way to ensure that we have a liberal and accepting society. Of course, democracies have the in-built disadvantage of being representative of majorities mainly. Minorities, ethnic or religious, can have the situation in which the majority legislate against religious freedom and we tend to accept this in democracies, as minorities could persuade the majority. However, for very small minorities this is not really an option. For instance, Muslims in the UK, will never be able to be a majority and they will need protection. That is why we have the interplay between human rights and democracy. Human rights being, or can be, anti-majoritarian in their nature. That is why we need human rights in a democracy.
Do you feel that you have a duty to vote?
As a citizen, I think I have a duty to vote. We have a civic responsibility to vote, because we are part of this society. I am sceptical about the Australian way. I am not sure that compulsory voting is the solution. People should have the choice. Abstention is also a choice, but generally speaking, there is a lot of choice on the ballot paper anyway.
Should Parliament have the final say when it comes to making and changing law? Would you like to see the judiciary empowered to strike down legislation?
I can see the arguments for PS. I don’t think it is opposed to JR of legislation. The courts don’t make new laws. I think the judiciary should be kept, there should be very limited grounds on which the judiciary could (strike down primary legislation). I think HRs violations are the obvious one. I wouldn’t empower the judges too much. In the USA and Germany we see very powerful courts – the Constitutional Court in Germany and the Supreme Court in the USA, and in the USA it is a particularly bad example because it is very politicised and the USA you can predict the judicial decision and the outcome of the case. Germany is better than that, but the German Court has a lot of judicial powers and they don’t have a really well formulated political doctrine. They would say that they can question issues, such as the bailout for Greece, and this is problematic, because that is a question which has nothing to do with law, and there is not a right/wrong answer. That should be simply dealt with by Parliament.
Is majoritarian democracy a problem for minorities? Are there some groups who face barriers to participation?
I think we have problems in Great Britain, as the voting system is highly problematic. Under the FPTP system, the Government with the majority, with a relatively small portion of the votes, has an absolute majority in Parliament. That is problematic. Also when you look at the composition of Parliament, I think Britain has one of the worst representations of women in the world, and the way people are selected to be candidates, especially in safe seats, depend on local associations which in principle are democratic, but on the other hand they favour patterns of representation: upper-middle class white men tend to be over-represented. So, I think we have an under-representation of women and some ethnic minorities, as well as working class people. That is striking. Very few of our MPs don’t have a degree, for example. That is remarkable, but I think that is probably the same everywhere in Europe… professionalization of politics is a real issue. People who haven’t worked elsewhere before joining the political life are rare.
Does it concern you that the House of Lords is not elected?
If we believe in a democracy, an unelected Upper House is problematic, as they are appointed, some of them are hereditary… but on the whole they are not elected. Someone has decreed that they should be there. They still have a lot of powers, despite the Parliament Acts, and the HofL has powers to stop bills, and therefore there is a democratic deficit. Of course there is the other argument… the House of Lords is a more neutral, advisory body… it is something different from the HofC, but in my view it is still fundamentally undemocratic.
How do you feel about the presence of bishops in the House of Lords?
I don’t think having bishops in the House of Lords is a very good idea. Of course, Governments are trying to appoint representatives of other religious groups to counter-balance that. On the one hand, Atheists and Agnostics are not appointed this way…. I think it is problematic. State and religion shouldn’t be mixed. I think it is a formal thing. I don’t know to what extent bishops really have a proper influence. However, if you think of the bill on assisted suicide which was introduced in the House of Lords, I think the Lords Spiritual had a lot to say. Maybe it is a good idea, maybe it is not, but I think the Church should not be really institutionalised this way. The Church should be outside Parliament, as any other group or body.
Maybe it is true that the CofE speaks on behalf of others, but it is an arrogant statement. Why would the Church claim to speak on behalf of the homeless, rather than other groups?
Do public bodies generally respect the will of Parliament, as expressed through legislation?
Generally speaking, public bodies must uphold the law. If it doesn’t happen, it has to be checked why. It transpires at times that somebody has made a mistake…. Then we have JR… or someone has not expressed his will very clearly.
How do you feel about the EU and devolution in Wales and Scotland?
Generally speaking, some decisions should be taken at a supranational level. There are a number of reasons for this: 1. We live in a globalised world and some decisions cannot be taken effectively by a country alone. Great Britain is not big enough. It is not like the USA, it is not so powerful and it must come together with other countries. Of course, you could have a debate about what decisions should be taken. There are some reasonable arguments for some decisions not to be taken at supranational level, but if you are dealing with trade, certain free movement issues, I think it makes sense to make these decisions at supranational level and of course those decisions are not taken without the UK taking part in them. It is important to realise that the Council of the EU has representatives of the UK and that the European Parliament has UK European MPs. Those decisions are not ‘undemocratic’. 2. A second aspect, particularly if you have a mainly centralised country, as the UK is, is that a certain separation of powers… that the powers are taken away from the powerful is not necessarily a bad thing. One of the big arguments for European integration, is if you think of northern England or Wales is that a lot of funding comes from the European Union, and of course the Eurosceptics will say that they can provide that funding themselves, but the question is whether that can be really provided, and in a centralised State like the UK there is evidence that money comes from the EU. The Council of Europe is a different matter. The Council of Europe doesn’t really take any decisions. The ECtHR is the only body which makes meaningful decisions… six or seven decisions a year affecting the UK, which is something the UK Court could have done as well… the Court of Strasbourg has the final say and this is right, because a same level of protection across Europe is then guaranteed. It is in the UK’s own interest and I don’t have any problem with it.
When it comes to devolution, I think we also have the separation of powers argument here. Taking away powers from Westminster and giving it to regional governments. Is it a good thing? I am not convinced the way it has been done in the UK is the best. Maybe the nature of British mindset and politics is that you don’t plan things, and you make ad-hoc decisions and things develop organically. Now we have huge powers devolved to both Scotland and Wales… more to Scotland than Wales. On paper Germany is more advanced because it is a federal State, but in practice Britain, particularly Scotland, is way ahead. German States don’t have so much power, whilst Scotland has an enormous level of powers. The problem we have at the moment is English votes for English laws, a question which nobody seems to be able to resolve. Devolution to England or to English regions? This is something which needs to be thoroughly discussed.
Do you feel that Atheists and Agnostics are proportionately and appropriately represented in public life?
I don’t know if Atheists and Agnostics are proportionately and appropriately represented. I don’t see any reason to think that they would be under-represented. Nowadays your religion is irrelevant to be a member of Parliament. Maybe 20 or 30 years ago being an Atheist would have an issue particularly in the conservative party, but not anymore. The PM is not an Atheist, but a very loose CofE, but certainly not practising. This is not really an issue any more. One thing that Atheists can bring to public life is that they usually have a much more neutral outlook than religious people do and they can identify, hopefully, whether certain behaviour is acceptable or not. Other people would present their religious views as an argument. Some Atheists may think religion is completely irrational, because their own decisions are based on rational values… but these would be radical Atheists. Liberal Atheists would not rule out religious people like that. The Atheist approach could also work to the benefit of minority religions too, as it would bring a liberal outlook to the public arena and would prevent them from being subject to some hard religious rules.
Do you think that there is sufficient distance between the judiciary and politicians in GB?
One of the things which strike me about Britain and I know it is an impression… Great Britain is a big country, but the elite that occupies and makes important decisions, in the judiciary, Government, etc, is very small. They have basically gone to school and university together. A lot of people know each other in this London elite, maybe it is 1000 people… There is something wrong in a country this size. Of course, if you are in a smaller country, this is unavoidable, but in a country the size of Great Britain that shouldn’t happen. In Germany this doesn’t really happen. People who are elected to Parliament and high offices may not have known each other before they reached those offices. This is a problem which the UK… inclusiveness, we referred to this earlier. It can’t be that even whole families occupy jobs… that is ridiculous. It could happen, but we have so many dynasties of upper middle class people running the country. It is ridiculous. I think the judiciary try to be as independent as they can. Judges would not normally accept private invitations from politicians. There is a certain degree of independence, but again they all know each other, they are in the same social circles and this is really a problem.
Do you think that the current system of checks and balances between the executive and the legislature is working effectively?
It is a tricky one. In a Parliamentary democracy, in which the executive is formed by a majority in Parliament, you are bound to have a weak separation between Parliament and the executive. So, the legislative power to hold the Government to account is reduced because of the whips and so on, and we still conceive the Government as being the majority in Parliament… Obviously, if Parliament were a real free chamber where each idea that the Government has could be debated and everyone spoke with his conscience, it would be very different. Parliament is very much controlled by the Government though. I don’t disapprove of it… I think it is ok if you have general elections, but there could be some amendments. I don’t think the solution lies in Parliament. What strikes me is how easily the UK Government can implement legislation here. It is very different in Germany. There are so many tiers in Germany that say, introducing a policy that changes education, for example, is impossible to do it very quickly. It is a very slow process in Germany. In Britain we need to be aware of how powerful the executive is and we have to ask ourselves whether this is right or wrong. I think it has many advantages as people’s will is implemented, but at the same time the Government has only been elected by 1/3 of the people and so it is not that representative. And secondly, we have to think of any counterbalance that maybe necessary… maybe the empowerment of the HofL, with a completely different composition from the House of Commons could be a possibility, perhaps a more powerful judiciary….
Are there any issues which you feel so strongly about you have campaigned on?
I haven’t tried to change anything. It is probably not easy to make yourself heard in this society. I suppose if you want to change policies, and it has something to do with your beliefs system, maybe you would think of joining the NSS for example and see whether they support you or maybe join a political party.
Have your beliefs been understood and respected when you have had dealings with public bodies?
I can’t really imagine in what situations my Atheist beliefs would have to be catered for by public bodies such as hospitals or schools.
Do you believe that it is important to act within the law?
Generally speaking, I am a law abiding citizen, perhaps with some exceptions like speeding. Generally speaking, I think there is a moral obligation to uphold the law and there should be very good reasons not to comply with the law. I suppose there could be situations, in extreme cases, in which one would have to break the law (killing someone in defence). I can’t imagine any situation where I would actually break the law for purely moral reasons. There are people who refuse to pay taxes, for instance, if those taxes are used for a war, and that can be a moral decision, but that is a tricky one. I don’t think we can do that. If we live in a democracy we need to accept those decisions, whether or not we like them, because they have been made on our behalf.
Do your beliefs mean that you feel that you have a duty to speak out for third parties in need, especially the vulnerable?
I would speak out on behalf of people who are voiceless and there is a moral duty there. I don’t think it has nothing to do with being an Atheist.
Do you think that the Rule of Law is applied equally to everyone in society? Are there some groups which experience either prejudicial or preferential treatment?
On the whole, the RL works reasonably well. Decisions are not made on the basis of personal preferences. However, there are situations in which certain minorities are in disadvantage because of the way the system works. Our system is very much based on Christian principles and works for the benefit of people with a Christian background. You don’t have to be Christian necessarily. It’s enough if you have been brought up in a Christian country. So, we don’t work on a Sunday and we work from Monday to Saturday. For some groups it is more difficult. I can imagine for some religious groups it is more difficult to find a job on these grounds. Is that a RL problem? You could certainly argue that, but I think that is just an example of how our laws are built around the life of the majority of the country and that has as a consequence that certain groups are treated differently. That does not mean that they are treated unlawfully, but they are treated differently, no doubt. You could say that certain people seem to get away with things more than others. There is one particular problematic aspect, which is access to justice in the UK. It is extremely expensive in the UK compared with other countries. In many cases it is not worth to go to court, because the cost risk is so enormous that even if you are suing for a substantial amount of money.
How do you feel about the general increase in police powers and state surveillance in this country over the past 15 years or so?
In this country people don’t seem to have a big problem with data collection. The continental experience, which is different… in Germany, for example. You cannot see all these CCTV cameras… some people would love it, but it doesn’t happen.
Are there any laws which you personally find restrictive and would like to see changed?
There is nothing that really tends to bother me very much. I don’t think I would want to change much law and I don’t have much experience of the Criminal Law… I don’t really know if there are any rules which are affecting my freedom. I can’t really think of any examples, to be honest.
Is there anything which you would like to add?
As you know, one of the great challenges in our modern society, and I can’t find an answer for, is how far we can guarantee freedom of religion. For relatively extreme groups which are not really part of society, one has to accept that, it is their choice, and I think that is fine generally speaking, but the most important aspect is how far we can accept this as a choice for the children of these people. These are questions involving parental responsibility. The State has to make sure that children are making a free choice…. Changing a religion is part of religious freedom, maybe one of the dangers is religious schools and the question about whether we should or shouldn’t have them. I am very sceptical about them. If we have state schools, I don’t think it should encourage religious schools because they can lead to segregation. It really depends. Some schools, such as CofE can be really open, but encouraging Muslim, Jewish, Catholic schools, as a way to segregate people… becoming extremely problematic, isolating people… which is a real shame, as one of the beauties of modern societies is diversity and pluralism. If you are in a religious school you may not be encouraged to accept diversity. The other issue, particularly in Catholic schools, is making rules which are so difficult to comply with, that only educated parents will be able to meet. I am very sceptical about religious schools in general, as you can see.