When the Scottish Parliament convened in 1999 its first major debate was whether to have prayers or not.
Unlike the Welsh National Assembly which has none, and the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly which has two minutes of silent reflection, the Scottish Parliament decided, against some strong lobbying, for exclusively Christian prayers, to have multi-faith weekly four-minute Time for Reflection (TFR) involving outside contributors that would be inclusive of the range of beliefs in Scotland.
Introducing the successful motion Tom McCabe (Labour) stated that “the critical underlying principle is that it will allocate time to all the main beliefs held in Scotland. The aim is simply to reflect the diversity of our country as it is today”.
The fears expressed in that debate by some MSPs, that organised religion would come to dominate this weekly event have come to be realised. The 2011 census revealed that 56 per cent of Scots said they had a religion but 87 per cent of contributions to TFR since May 2011 have come from representatives of religious denominations.
In my petition, I suggest that religious organisations’ contributions be restricted to 50 per cent of available events in line with their population support. This would leave 50 per cent to the half of the Scottish population that reported to the recent Westminster Faith Debates survey that they are “not religious or spiritual” and the 37 per cent of Scottish census respondents who said they had no religion.
I have also suggested that atheists should have a quarter of the available appearances since surveys show that those “who do not believe in god or a higher spiritual power” have now risen to this proportion of the Scottish population.
These proposals will help the Scottish Parliament to live up to the TFR guidelines which state that contributions “will be consistent with the principle of equal opportunities for all”. The UK Equality Act of 2010 is also relevant since it grants equal legal status to all forms of religious and other beliefs which include atheism. The Scottish Parliament needs to think through and amend its practices in relation to TFR.
Some people might object to quotas but they are operating in TFR. Each year, the Church of Scotland gets the most appearances, the Roman Catholic Church is the second most frequent sect and Christians get the biggest share with 70 per cent of appearances compared to 54 per cent in the 2011 census.
The petition can be inspected and supported at www.scottish.parliament.uk/GettingInvolved/Petitions/equaltimeforreflection
• Professor Norman Bonney is honorary president of Edinburgh Secular Society