One of the most notable achievements of the Enlightenment was the separation of Church and State. Where this succeeded in removing religion from a dominant constitutional role, it promoted democracy, tolerance and freedom – except, of course, where the state itself became the new religion.
When religion and politics continue to be inextricably mixed, they make the world a much more dangerous place. Conflict between Sunni and Shia, for example, has torn the Middle East apart. Wherever theocracies rule, democracy and liberty are suppressed. What is particularly worrying at the present time is that changes in Turkey, and more recently in Malaysia and Indonesia, show a new international trend of regression from secular democracy to theocratic autocracy.
Of course, religion no longer plays a dominant part in the United Kingdom. But separation of Church and State is far from complete and the House of Lords sets a bad example for democracy. The only other case of any country in the world which gives unelected clerics automatic representation in its legislature is Iran!
One of the most serious effects of the continuing mix of religion with our politics is on education. It gives the Church of England special access to government. This bolsters its strong support for faith schools, which are increasing in number and in diversity, at a time when fewer people than ever describe themselves as religious. The experience of Northern Ireland demonstrates that religious schools divide rather than unite. By contrast, the dramatic decline of the political influence of the church in the Republic of Ireland has made it a more tolerant country.
Schools should teach children to think for themselves. Why, then, encourage schools which select them on the basis that they are Catholic, Protestant, Muslim or Jewish children? It would be equally absurd to treat them as Conservative, Labour or Lib-Dem children.
We should complete the separation of Church and State which would ensure that no one is privileged or disadvantaged because of their beliefs. The House of Lords also desperately needs reform to make it more democratic and credible – and smaller. That is why I will introduce a Private Member’s Bill to the House of Lords today, drafted with the assistance of the National Secular Society, as a small but useful step towards these aims.
If nothing else, my bill would be a popular reform. Polls show that 62 per cent of the public think that no religious cleric should have the automatic right to sit in Parliament – and only 8 per cent would let them retain their seats.
Dick Taverne is a Liberal Democrat peer