An open letter to Gary Streeter MP

In response to local MP Gary Streeters' comments suggesting that it is Christians who do most to help the poor and disadvantaged, Plymouth Humanists have issued this open letter to him:

Dear Mr Streeter MP

We were shocked by your recent statements about the non-believers in your constituency, and have felt compelled to react to what we believe to be unfair and inaccurate allegations levelled at a large proportion of your constituents and future voters.  Although it is difficult to be precise about the exact make up of South West Devon, we do know, for example, in Plymouth just under 33% of people described themselves as having no belief in the last census.  This is generally reflective of the country as a whole.  Looking to the future, our next generation of voters are even less religious, with a Department of Education survey in 2004 finding 65% of 12 to 19 year olds classifying themselves as not religious (despite state financing of religious schooling). 

To so casually dismiss the efforts of these non-believers to benefit their local communities does them an injustice.  For example the local Humanist group in Plymouth raises money for charity and does community work, such as having a monthly clean up in Warleigh Point Woods.  Our efforts are modest, but we don't have the vast resources of the churches (for example, an article on the BBC website states in 2011 the Church of England's asset fund rose to £5.3bn, while the Catholic Christian Brothers Investment Service managed £6.6bn).  We also do not have the luxury of full time employed organisers running activities locally.

This however is not the point.  While non-believers tend not to do charity and community work wearing their 'non-believer' badge, they do get involved in a wide variety of activities and groups.  Having organisations that are specifically for religious people who want to do voluntary work seems counter-productive and exclusionary, which is why there is such a large number of non-exclusive charities and NGOs.

For example there are many specifically secular organisations that do good in the community that I am sure you are aware of, such as the Lions Club and the Rotary Club. We imagine they might also have something to say about your comments. Additionally many organisations are specifically open to all, such as the Red Cross and Oxfam.  One could continue to list countless organisations that keep religion out of their operations, focusing solely on helping others.  Surely you must recognise that it is not just Christians making a positive contribution, and that atheists and people from other religions are enthusiastically digging in to make a difference.  Perhaps a more accurate view of the world is that: good people do good things regardless of whether they are religious or not.

To continue…

When you said "Most of the good things in this country come from our Christian heritage", you seem to be implying that Christianity has a near monopoly on 'good', forgetting the countless numbers of people from other religions and of no religion that have produced the great and the good.  We will leave the other faiths to bring to your attention their champions, but will remind you of a few well know 'good' Humanists and non-believers: Mary Wollstonecraft, Clement Attlee, Claire Rayner, Alan Turing, Crick and Watson, Arthur C. Clarke, John Maynard Smith, Charles Darwin, Peter Higgs, Brian Eno, Stephen Hawking, Douglas Adams, Paul Dirac, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Richard Carlile, Thomas Paine, David Hume, the list goes on.

Again, however this is not the point.  It is not surprising that so many people were Christians in a country that had the death penalty for blasphemy until 1676, put its last person in prison for that ‘crime’ in 1921, had its last successful blasphemy prosecution in 1977, banned a film for blasphemy as late as 1989, and only finally got rid of its blasphemy law in 2008. Additionally, access and privilege to many British institutions was dependent on professed Christian faith. The UK is not historically a friendly place for non-believers, and for many religious status was a default - inherited from their parents in much the same way as their hair or skin colour.

To help you and others who think that non-believers make such a small contribution to society, Plymouth Humanists are currently running a survey to look at atheism and how it relates to 'good' works.  (Details of the survey and the opportunity to take part can be found on our website www.plymouth-humanists.org.uk)

Of the 149 respondents so far, one can see from the non-believers that 87% (rising to 90% selecting for just Plymouth and South Devon) stated they did some kind of community or charity work on a voluntary basis and 42% stated they did some kind of paid community or charity work.  What was more interesting is that 94% of non-believers said that if a charity/community group was specifically religious it would make them less likely to get involved; similarly 77% of religious respondents said that if an organisation was specifically atheistic it would make them less likely to get involved.  Although this is a somewhat informal survey one can see just from these results, that non-believers do get involved in community and charity (perhaps in large numbers); and perhaps more importantly labelling a group by its religious or non-religious affiliation is discourages involvement.   

If the motivation of people running these groups is to do more 'good', then relinquishing the Christian label and ideology you are so proud of would be a great improvement.  This also raises the wider question of the increasing use of religious groups to provide public and community services, such as the Redeeming Our Communities group that has a growing presence in South West Devon and the rest of the country.

Finally dismissing those who disagree with your beliefs by describing them as militant atheists demeans both us and you.  Ignoring the question of how one can militantly not believe in something, it's worth looking at the category that you are putting dissenters in: put the word militant in front of the following words and it paints a particular impression: Christian, republican, nationalist, Muslim.  It’s difficult to see an honest comparison.

The approach you (and others) are taking is divisive and leads to the exclusion of people like ourselves as has happened in the area previously and will continue to happen unless non-believers are a recognised valued and equal part of the community.

It's impossible to believe that Humanists are the only group that want our leaders to use facts, evidence and compassion to make decisions, unfettered by ideology from one particular religion. And perhaps see us all as equally worthy.