My reflections on the Scottish Parliaments ‘Time for Reflection’

Scottish-Parliament3This article examines the history and development of ‘Time for Reflection’ (TfR) since the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament from 1999 until the present. By comparing and contrasting an analysis of the make-up of the contributions with the demographics of the Scottish population this study will conclude that current practices of ‘Time for Reflection’ over-represent minority faith views and Christianity and do not take into consideration non-religious views which represent a majority of the population, TfR contributions are also mainly done by men. I will also explore the question of wither it is useful to consider religious affiliation at all when analysing contributions to TfR.  I will then offer suggestions for the Scottish Parliament and activists from non-religious belief groups, such as secular humanists.

N.B. This article does not discuss ‘Time for Reflection’ in relation to Scottish schools.

When the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999 it presented a rare new opportunity to design a legislator from scratch, of particular interest was how to recognise religion therein, or at all. There was initial discussion of whether to adopt a Westminster model which relies on Christian prayers or to follow the model of the Welsh Assembly which has a secular system where there is no religious acknowledgement at all, as it happens it was decided that the Scottish Parliament will adopt a multi-faith/belief system to reflect a broad range of views/beliefs and faiths in Scotland (Bonney, 2013).

Motion S1M-131 on ‘Time for Reflection’ was moved by Tom McCabe MSP and was agreed on 9th September 1999 on a division by a majority vote of 92:7 (with 13 abstentions). Interestingly, although the motion did say that “In essence, what is recommended is that time for reflection should comprise mainly Christian prayers…”, it is unclear is this is reference to the recommendations from the consultation on TfR or if it represents the aims of motion S1M-131. In contrast, the motion and subsequent debate went on to stress the need for TfR to “…reflect and respect the views and beliefs of as many of Scotland’s citizens as possible.”

It is interesting to note that Alasdair Morgan MSP specifically raised the issue of non-religious involvement in TfR when he said, “By definition, people who have a faith tend to be more organised than are those who have no faith. Is it the intention of the motion that on occasion, people from non-faith organisations, such as humanists, will be asked along?” With Mike Russell MSP (future Cabinet Secretary for Education) replying, “Yes, the Humanist Society of Scotland is on the list of organisations that have been consulted and it will be involved, and that is important.”

Another interesting contribution was made in that initial debate by future First Minister of Scotland Alex Samlond MSP who said;

“We must not just tolerate: we should be proud of an inclusive approach that is different from that which many institutions have had in the past.”

So, the first simple question is – has the Scottish Parliament’s approach to TfR lived up to the grand aspirations of its genesis?

The table (below) shows a TfR vs Census SP tablecomparison of the contributions made during TfR as a percentage of the total, in comparison to the percentage of religious beliefs reported in the 2011 Scottish census (for clarity I have combined ‘did not answer’ category in the 2011 census data with ‘No religion’ in the table).

It is very clear from this data that although the representation of members of the Church of Scotland appears to be relatively well represented (if we assume that TfR is representative only of religious belief), the Roman Catholic Church slightly over-represented but to no significant degree. Interestingly the ‘no religion’ category is vastly under-represented, with 43.7% of the population being represented in only 9.1% of contributions. Minority faith positions such as Judaism and Islam are vastly over represented, indeed Judaism is overrepresented by a factor of 32! For brevity I have not broken down categories of Christian further than Roman Catholic and Church of Scotland – although a full list of references and comparison charts covering all 4 Scottish Parliamentary sessions can be found at the bottom of the article.

Interestingly the Scottish Parliament do recognise ‘Humanist’ as a separate category, although I have chosen to include humanist contributions in the ‘no religion’ category as not being a ‘religion’ there is no comparable census data available. There have only been two humanist contributions since 1999, despite Mike Russell’s clear wishes that they be included.

I have created a composite graph (below) which illustrates the problem better.

TfR vs Census SP bar chart

This graph shows the TfR contributions made (as a percentage of the total contributions) in blue, against the current patterns of religious belief as measured by the 2011 census in orange (again I have combined ‘did not answer’ category in the 2011 census data with ‘No religion’ in the graph).

In this graph, it is very easy to see the massive under-representation of non-religious beliefs as well as the over-representation of minority religious faiths.

There are, however, signs of progress though. In the first session of the Scottish Parliament (1999-2003) there were no non-religious speakers at all, however by the time of the second session (2003-2007)  there were 14 contributions on a non-religious nature. This, on the other hand, may simply represent a change of categorisation on behalf of the Parliamentary Bureau.

Gender equality in ‘Time for Reflection’

The Scottish Parliament is currently composed of 129 MSP’s, with 45 women and 84 men (35%-65% split). This is the subject on going discussion and debate.

What is very interesting is that there has been, as far as I can see, no comprehensive study of the contributions made to the Scottish Parliament under TfR in terms of gender equality – so I did it. The results are stark.

This series of charts (below – click to enlarge) shows a comparison of all four Scottish Parliamentary session with an average on the right.

Sex differences in TfR

So, despite the best wishes of Parliamentarians that TfR would “…reflect and respect the views and beliefs of as many of Scotland’s citizens as possible.” they have only managed (in their best year) to achieve female representation of 29% (blue), with the lowest being under one quarter in Parliamentary session 3.

Is it useful to think about ‘Time for Reflection’ in religious terms?

My initial motivations for conducting this review were a result of the initial findings of over-representation of religion, and significant under-representation of non-religion. What I found when I reviewed the TfR contributions in details made this more complicated however. Each contribution to TfR is allocated an ‘organisation’ category which corresponds to a particular religion or belief category. However this category does not necessarily reflect the nature of the contribution, but the speaker.

Also, because TfR is open to any range of speakers, not just religious or non-religious belief groups, it is difficult to see if analysis by religious demographics is appropriate at all. Take for example a situation whereby a local environmental group contributes to TfR, as this group is a non-religious group it contributes to the statistics for ‘no religion’. However, it is not clear wither this should be seen in the same category as a contribution from a humanist speaker, who could be more accurately described as ‘non-religious’.

There are also likely to be a broad range of contributions, such as that from Reverend Ernest Levy (of the Jewish Community) who spoke about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor. Although Rev Levy was representing the Jewish Community, there is no doubt that the reflections of a Holocaust Survivor are of great interest to all of Scottish society, regardless of faith or belief – in a way that one particular kind of denominational prayers might not be.

There are also numerous examples of excellent contributions to TfR which seem to have no religious character at all, such as that of Queen Anne High pupils William Seaborne and Ruth Laird who spoke about their experiences of visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp on 21st January 2014, or Peter Kelly of the Poverty Alliance who spoke on 20 November 2013 about the 1 million homes in Scotland affected by fuel poverty, and there are many more examples.

So it seems that there are a number of reasons why religious labels might be inappropriate to apply to certain aspects of TfR. It remains the case however, that ‘non-religious’ contributions remain under-represented, and so until and unless that is addressed, analysis by religious/belief affiliation will be a useful guide.

What should non-religious activists do?

There is an argument put forward by some secular campaigners (not all!) that non-religious activists should avoid participation in TfR, in order that they do not be accused of becoming another ‘ism’. This critique is often made against humanist organisations as part of an ideological argument that sees humanist involvement as duplicitous in the privileged position of religion in society. The argument says that humanist organisations seek to benefit from religious privilege by positioning themselves as an alternative, but equal partner in state affairs. I do not believe this is a very well thought through argument in relation to ‘Time for Reflection’ in the Scottish Parliament.

Firstly, although in practice there does seem to be a heavy weighting of TfR contributions towards a religious perspective, there is no data currently available to suggest that non-religious speakers are being rejected. Instead, when I last spoke to Deputy Presiding Officer Elaine Smith MSP, she made it quite clear to me that the Scottish Parliament does not have enough female, or non-religious TfR contributions, but that she simply couldn’t find interested parties. So although there may be a significant lack of non-religious input, I think this is mainly caused by lack of awareness or willingness on the part of non-religious activists to put themselves forward for the task.

Secondly, if the objection of some secular campaigners is the privileged representation of religious perspectives, then surely attempts made by non-religious activists to level the scales would be welcome. Even if some belief that the eventual course of action should be to remove TfR altogether, that does not rule-out non-religious involvement, indeed the two campaigns could run concurrently without any need for conflict. This objection is an example of where ideology overcomes principle. I think a pragmatic approach to TfR is much more beneficial. Even if the abolishment argument was to be convincing, I think the numerous examples of non-religious and secular contributions from school pupils, and indeed Holocaust survivor Rev Levy make the case for abolishment practically impossible.

Lastly, the potential benefits of TfR to the promotion and celebration of non-religious beliefs are as yet unrealised. TfR, as it was originally intended, should be a platform for the citizens of Scotland to promote, provoke and challenge, as this example from Professor AC Grayling (below) showcases.

What should the Scottish Parliament do?

It seems quite clear from the previous comments, that clarification is required about the religious nature of the contribution from each speaker. The Scottish Parliament would be much better, in my opinion, referencing both the religious or belief body which is representing and the topic/nature of the reflection.

Processes for recommending someone for a TfR session remain unclear, and no data is available on who has applied versus who has been successful, this could be overcome by creating a specific application process on the Scottish Parliament website, and making this anonymised data available to interested parties.

In conclusion, I would like to issue a call for more atheists, humanists, secularists and all other non-religious activists to get involved and nominate themselves – or others – to participate in Time for Reflection.

I was nominated by Elaine Smith MSP in November 2013, and am currently waiting on word from the Parliamentary Bureau of when I will become the third ever humanist contributor to the Scottish Parliament.

Please click the button below to contact your local representatives.


References and comparison charts for all four Scottish Parliamentary sessions.

Contributions to ‘Time for Reflection’ 1999-2003

SP TfR s1

Contributions to ‘Time for Reflection’ 2003-2007

SP TfR s2

Contributions to ‘Time for Reflection’ 2007-2011

SP TfR s3

Contributions to ‘Time for Reflection’ 2011-Present

SP TfR s4

6 thoughts on “My reflections on the Scottish Parliaments ‘Time for Reflection’

  1. VG (sociology?) There’s one graph, combined with a histogram (vertical, but there are other horizontal histograms), but the others are ‘pie charts’! S

  2. Well done, Gary. This is an issue that Humanists should pursue. The gross disparity between the allocation to religious representatives and that to non-religious representatives is a glaring injustice. Humanists and Secularists should be demanding a fair share of TfR and we should be writing to our MSPs to complain.

    One aspect of your analysis bothers me, however. You subsume all the ‘Did not answer’ under ‘No religion’. There is no justification for doing that and it could be said to be a way of inflating the ‘No religion’ percentage. It is better to keep those categories separate (particularly if you are going to use the ‘No religion’ percentage as a lever to change TfR practice).

    1. Thanks Les.
      The reason that I decided to lump ‘did not answer’ with ‘no religion’ was that I wanted to demonstrate that there are a lot of people out there who do not declare their religion. I was not trying to suggest that they are not religious, but that one cannot assume they will necessarily have themselves reflected by a religious TfR contribution.
      I think there is still a strong argument which says that TfR should not be seen in religious terms at all.
      All I was trying to say is that there is a large proportion of the Scottish population for which we can claim that religious TfR sessions do not necessarily reflect their beliefs.

  3. Gary, when we are complaining about under-representation in TfR, it is better to argue on the basis of figures that truly represent our case. Laying claim to all the people who did not answer increases the non-religious percentage from 37% to 43%, but it weakens our case because it offers a diversion to those who oppose proper representation for the non-religious. They will latch on to this dubious claim and create a fuss over ‘false accounting’ in order to divert the argument away from the injustice that we are trying to put right. The people who did not answer might all be Jehovah’s Witnesses, for all we know, and so they should not be added to the non-religious percentage. We have 37%. That is plenty – more than one third of the population, but only one ninth of TrF speakers. The non-religious are grossly under-represented.

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