On the use of the term ‘spiritual’

Another response to the ‘spirituality’ debate, this time from Alan Rogers.

 All religions of whatever variety try to find words which imply virtue and special qualities and which are accepted without question. Politicians do the same. American politicians use ‘America’ and ‘the American people’ in this way, as does Tony Blair use ‘family values’. The word ‘spiritual’ might once have meant simply ‘relationship to God’ but now it is a Humpy Dumpty word which means whatever the speaker wants it to mean. Thus, whenever someone uses the word ‘spiritual’ to me I have to ask, ‘What do you mean by “spiritual”?’

—Dorothy Rowe, world-renowned psychologist and writer


Jeremy Rodell of the British Humanist Association wrote an article in August defending the use of the term ‘spiritual’ by an atheist for describing emotional response to a variety of circumstances. I disagree.

Jeremy Rodell cites the experiences of looking at the night sky, seeing a superb mountain vista, being moved by great music and serving an ace in tennis as examples of spiritual experience. I struggle to see what these experiences have in common that requires an umbrella term and, if one must be used, why it should be the highly inappropriate word ‘spiritual’.

I am well aware of these experiences. I live in rural West Wales. We may not have many gin-clear nights but we are spared the far too prevalent phenomenon of light pollution. Looking up into that awe inspiring sight I am acutely aware of a sense of privilege. To be alive and aware at this time and place, to be the beneficiary of over 3 billion years of evolving life, to have received an education which allowed me to read the science which established the scale in space and time of the observable universe, such that I can see and understand what this spectacle means, is a privilege which I have done little or nothing to deserve. Where I live I am surrounded by beautiful scenery and have been fortunate enough to visit some of the greatest landscapes our planet has to offer. I enjoy music. The constructions in the syntax of melody, harmony and orchestration created by the greatest talents of my fellow man are pleasurable, joyous and often moving.  To link these disparate experiences seems to me to be an artificial and unnecessary device. They each affect the senses and the mind in different ways. To name all these experiences with a word like ‘spiritual’ conveys the impression that they are outside human mental processes. In fact there is little evidence of permanence or universality in these things. The night sky was once the source of superstitious fear. Some still follow the idiotic utterances of astrologers. Mountain scenery was, a few centuries ago, regarded as oppressive and ugly. Not until the Romantic movement was established did the appreciation of such landscapes develop. Music too has its fashions. I know this myself since I appreciate virtually nothing written after Elgar and Holst. I simply do not understand the language, the syntax of modern composition.

So I think the need for a universal term is not demonstrated. Worse by far is the choice of ‘spiritual’ for this unnecessary purpose. Let us firstly dispose of the homographs.

The phrase over the pub door ‘licensed to sell wine and spirits’ does not mean that you will necessarily receive spiritual guidance within. The root of the word spiritual is ‘spirit’ with the meaning of a supernatural presence within or without the human body. Inside it is a soul. Outside it is a free soul or a ghost.  The concept of material body and supernatural soul (spirit) is called Cartesian Dualism by philosophers. In 1949 Cartesian Dualism was put to the intellectual sword by the Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle in his book The Concept of Mind. He proved methodically that Cartesian Dualism was bunkum. Subsequent research in neuroscience completely vindicates Ryle. The computational theory of mind has removed the need for a supernatural explanation of mind every bit as much as the theory of evolution has removed the need for a supernatural creation of the species. A modern scientific view of mankind is that we have a body including a brain and nervous system and that the mind emerges from the working of these physical components. The mind is what the brain does. We see the placebo effect and the possible benefits of holistic medicine because the body and mind are one integrated system – necessarily, since they evolved together.

The followers of received religion which affirms the possibility of an after-life have no alternative but to suspend disbelief and visualize an immaterial soul which can escape the physical body upon death. They need the concept of spirit and the word ‘spiritual’ in order to sustain this self deception. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines spiritual as: Of spirit as opposed to matter; of the soul especially as acted upon by God, holy, divine, inspired…. It has recently become very noticeable that religious leaders find the word “religious” inadequate. They refer pompously to “the Religious and Spiritual Life of the Nation”. I think it would be unkind to steal this word from them at a time of their greatest need.

Jeremy Rodell admits that the word is ambiguous. I think that this is due to its use being stretched to breaking point. I will give what I think is an important example later. He quotes the Church of England opposing an atheist or humanist contribution to Thought for the Day and seems to think that, if we can convince the C of E and the BBC that we have ‘spiritual’ experiences, they will graciously allow us to contribute; that we must present our beliefs as quasi-religious. I think that is too high a price to pay for five minutes of air-time. Personally, I would rather we concentrated on getting Thought for the Day renamed as Religious Platitude for the Day.

But the most dangerous result of the use of ‘spiritual’ from my own experience is its use in the NHS. Remarkably Jeremy Rodell quotes the NHS use of this term as a justification for the non-religious use.

The ambiguous use of the word ‘spiritual’ has been seized upon by the College of Health Care Chaplains. Despite the impressive academic name the CHCC is a branch of UNITE the union. This is an example of the trick I mentioned previously of using Religious and Spiritual as a cover, a smoke screen, for justifying the extension of religious interference into a wider sphere than that of the dwindling number of Christian adherents.

As I mentioned earlier I live in Wales. In 2010 the Welsh Government produced a set of documents called Standards for Spiritual Care in the NHS Wales.  In fact the documents were written by the CHCC (in fact mostly copied from the CHCC sister organisation in Scotland) and signed off by the Minister for Health in Wales. These documents contain the following ‘definition’ of spiritual care. From the Standards for Spiritual Care in the NHS Wales 2010 we have an attempt at a definition of spiritual care.

Spiritual Care and Religious Care

The document Service Development for Spiritual Care in the NHS in Wales (2010) differentiated between spiritual care and religious care:

Spiritual Care in usually given in a one to one relationship, is completely person centred and makes no assumptions about personal conviction or life orientation.

Religious Care is given in the context of shared religious beliefs, values, liturgies and life style of a faith community.

Spiritual care is often used as the overall term and is relevant for all. For some the spiritual needs are met by religious care, the visits, prayers, worship, rites and sacraments often provided by a faith leader or representative of the faith community or belief group.

Spiritual care can be provided by all health care staff, by carers, families and other patients. When a person is treated with respect, when they are listened to in a meaningful way, when they are seen and treated as a whole person within the context of their life, values and beliefs, then they are receiving spiritual care. Chaplains are the specialist spiritual care providers.

Notice the sentence within the definition of Religious Care: Spiritual care is often used as the overall term and is relevant for all.

From this point on there is total confusion about these terms Religious Care and Spiritual Care. When we use one do we mean both? In the end there is a further definition following ‘Spiritual care can be provided by all… ‘and the whole thing simply becomes a requirement to be kind and empathetic. This should be in the job description of every health care worker in contact with the public and doesn’t need to be labelled ‘spiritual care’.

If we had only the definition of Religious Care ‘…shared religious beliefs, values, liturgies and life style of a faith community’ and an expression of the need to treat patients with humanity and with empathy then a great deal of the nonsense about ‘spiritual care’ could be eliminated.

In the past four financial years every chaplaincy post funded in the NHS Wales has been held by clerics. Of these 97.4% were for Christian clerics.

The care delivered in this time, at a total cost of over £5 million, has been religious care. I hope the chaplains are kind and empathetic towards all patients that is, or should be, a responsibility for all NHS staff in contact with patients. The chaplains are trained clerics and are in hospitals to provide religious care. The use of the word ‘spiritual’ is obfuscation. We really must not allow ourselves to be a party to this deception.

In the Standards for Spiritual Care Guidance document (2010) the Acknowledgements section is as follows (my comment in square brackets):-

Rosemary Kennedy, Chief Nursing Officer    [A political appointee]

Rev. Peter Sedgewick

Rev. Alan Tyler

Rev. Chris Lewinson

Rev. Peter Gilbert

Rev. Cliff Chonka

Rev. Wynne Roberts

Rev. Edward Lewis

Rev. Robert Lloyd-Richards

Rev. Lance Clark

Imam Farid Khan

Carol English UNITE    [The College of Health Care Chaplains is a branch of UNITE the union]

Steve Sloan    UNITE

You will notice that the Standards for Spiritual Care Guidance have been prepared by clerics (as it happens, exclusively male clerics), their trade union officials and a political appointee of the Welsh Government. I can find no reference to a consultation with the public or with hospital patients. I understand that a letter was sent to the Royal College of Nursing which received a brief, formal reply.

Could it be any clearer that hospital chaplaincy is about delivering religious care and the use of the word ‘spiritual’ is an attempt to justify the use of tax payers’ money for this purpose? That’s what I personally think is going on.

In Wales, we have a Charitable Chaplaincy Campaign intended to save £1.3 million of NHS Wales budget for nursing and medical use by encouraging organised religion to set up a charity to fund this service. I contend that the use of the Humpy Dumpty word ‘spiritual’ by the non-religious muddies the waters, allows it to be used unchallenged by organised religion and obstructs our campaign.


Losing my religion – how my ‘faith’ school nurtured an atheist

Children are naturally curious.

Children are naturally curious. But they’re also susceptible and impressionable. Emma C Williams shares her experience of education in a ‘faith’ school – but does it match up to yours?

My school was proudly old-fashioned. Questions were viewed with suspicion and contempt, especially in the context of religion. We were not allowed to study RE as a subject, since exposure to a variety of religious views would have ‘confused’ us. Instead, we had Divinity with the School Chaplain: we read passages from the Bible and he explained them.

My parents were deliberately neutral in their stance, and so I came to my religious schooling with a completely open mind – in many ways, an easy convert. I was profoundly respectful of what I assumed were the sincerely-held beliefs of those around me and I would bow my head during prayers. I was utterly fascinated by the ritual of Chapel, and knew all the traditional hymns; I can still sing most of them all the way through, much to my husband’s consternation, and can recite the Creed, some of the Psalms, the Lord’s Prayer and several others.

While I would listen with interest during the Sermon, it took me a long time to realise that I was pretty much the only one doing so. On an increasing number of occasions I would find myself enraged by the message that we had been given in Chapel, or puzzled by the hypocrisy of our situation. If Jesus said to ‘sell all thou hast and give to the poor,’ what were we doing in an expensive boarding school? Did God honestly care how I performed in my exams – didn’t He have something more important to worry about? And why on earth did I have to pray for the Queen? Ignored by the staff and ridiculed by my peers, it became clear to me that most people neither listened to nor cared about the lessons that we were taught by the Reverend. Even he didn’t seem to care that much. Yet when I questioned the charade, I was bullied for it – by students and some of the staff.

Atheists are often accused of being ‘angry’ and I guess it’s hard for believers to comprehend the unpleasant mix of condescension, prejudice and paranoia that some of us have faced, growing up in a society that tends to equate faith with morality. Soon after I started attending school, I went to a meeting that was announced for ‘all students who are not Christians.’ In my innocence, I failed to realize that this was a euphemistic way of gathering our tiny handful of Muslim students so that their non-attendance at Chapel could be agreed. The Housemistress nearly fainted when I showed up, the only girl in the room without a headscarf. She asked me what on earth I was doing there, so I explained that I didn’t believe in God and was therefore not a Christian. She told me not to be so ridiculous, said that my views ‘didn’t count’ and sent me away. That was probably the first time that I felt really angry.

Despite the pressure (or perhaps because of it – I was a rebellious child at heart), I became more and more convinced during my childhood that an unswerving acceptance of a bundle of ancient writings made very little sense. In addition, a school rife with bullying was a fine place to observe that religious beliefs have no effect on a person’s humanity. Over the years I watched some of the worst bullies in the school pass through their Confirmation ceremony, in which they agreed to ‘turn away from everything which was evil or sinful.’ Some of them became servers in Chapel. My distaste for the whole sham increased, and by the time I reached University I was thoroughly relieved to be away from it.

Yet given that we’re all a product of our experiences, I sometimes wonder what kind of person I would be had I not attended such an old-fashioned ‘faith’ school. I fully support the BHA’s campaign against them, as in principle I believe that every child should have an education that is free in every sense – not least free from indoctrination and prejudice. Yet for me, my experiences shaped my convictions – and not in the way that the school had intended. Maybe I’m unusual, but if my story is anything to go by and you want to nurture an atheist, then I guess you proceed as follows: send them to a ‘faith’ school, ladle on plenty of hypocrisy and tell them not to ask questions. The result may surprise you.


‘Militant atheism’

Blogger Christian Franz shares his strongly-worded, individual perspective on charges of ‘militant atheism’ in Britain and elsewhere, and more besides.

Is there really such a thing as militant atheism? Photo: Ashley Basil

Is there really such a thing as militant atheism? Photo: Ashley Basil

If you believe what some politicians would tell you, the UK is developing a new problem; a social evil so menacing that it threatens to eclipse ‘Islamophobia’ any day now: militant atheism.

There is a certain progression to be observed: first come accusations of ‘special rights’, then we hear dire warnings of a slippery slope, invariably ending in persecution of religious people and death camps for believers, run by – you guessed it – militant atheists.

This calls for some explanation – on more than one account: by and large, ‘militant atheists’ are about as threatening as ‘fundamental hippies’. Coining the phrase is demonstrably an attempt to tarnish a term of non-description (‘atheist’) by combining it with a word evocative of conflict, violence, automatic weapons, scimitars, and death: ‘militant’. And yet, this attempt is about as successful in suggesting lethality as the term ‘combat doe’.

The most ‘militant’ of atheists was Christopher Hitchens. He earned that distinction by publicly assailing men of the cloth with remarks as cutting as ‘you are an idiot!’

The world’s second most ‘militant’ atheist would be Professor Richard Dawkins. Soft-spoken and infuriatingly polite, he’s known for book signings where, on occasion, he brings along a sharp pen.

So it’s not by their actions that militant atheists have gained the ‘militant’ epithet; there is a decided lack of streets overflowing with blood, no posters yelling ‘massacre those who insult atheism’, and to my knowledge no atheist has yet blown up a church on the grounds of advancing atheism.

So, for better understanding, we need to turn to the source. Recently, a number of British exponents have complained about the exploits of militant atheism:

In a highly publicized BBC-produced episode of The Big Questions (and a same-day publication on their web page), Voice For Justice UK speaker Lynda Rose raised awareness about the alarming fact that militant atheism is the reason why Christians are now persecuted in the UK.

A few days later, UK Minister of Faith (an office I have difficulty mentioning while keeping a straight face  it’s way too Phythonesque) Baroness Warsi voiced similar sentiments.

Shortly thereafter, Prime Minister David Cameron went on record saying that living in a religious country was easier for people of competing faiths than in a country run by (presumably militant) secularists.

And just a few days after that, former MP Anne Widdecombe  in a strangely pre-emptive evocation of Godwin’s Law bemoaned the fact that today Christians have it more difficult to live in the UK than Nazis.

What is going on here? From a rational thinker’s point of view it surely seems as if they left a lot of lead in the pipes feeding the drinking fountains of Westminster Palace. Let’s take a closer look.

VFJUK’s Lynda Rose complained:[i]

But now, apparently, the newly claimed sexual rights of a minority are being prioritised over all other traditional rights, to the extent that ‘religious’ rights are now being assigned a separate, and seemingly subsidiary, category.

It’s a bit disconcerting that Lynda – who is a lawyer – makes this mistake: there are no ‘rights of a minority’. She was referring to a couple in the UK who had their existing right to their sexuality enforced. Lynda not only makes it sound as if a sexual minority (gay people) have special rights; she then asserts that there is something called ‘traditional rights’. First, of course, there are no special rights, and in fact, everyone has the same rights. And further to this, no civilized country in the world recognizes ‘traditional rights’. After all, once it is determined that something is unethical (such as slavery, or the right to discipline your disobedient wife), it is done away with, all ‘tradition’ be damned. ‘Traditional’ never trumps ‘just’. Most importantly, though, there scarcely any special rights attained only through adherence to a particular religion in the UK, restrictions on ascending to the throne notwithstanding. Today it is one law for all. Or at least it should be, anyway.

What we do see here – and we’ll see this again – is the feeling of entitlement: people are loath to give up privileges that they used to have. In this case, it is the privilege of imposing one’s own view of sexuality on others, something which Christianity has enjoyed for over two millennia, but has now been curtailed.

We next turn our attention to Minister of Faith, Baroness Warsi. In trying to make sharia law more acceptable in the UK, Warsi first remarked that[ii]

There is no doubt that the word ‘sharia’ carries huge challenges in relation to public relations. If you talk about anything [related to] ‘sharia’, the first vision people get is chopping off of people’s hands, having four wives and all sorts of unusual practices which, in today’s world, are not compatible with the values which we live by.

Above is an astute observation. The word ‘sharia’ does have a bad reputation: much like the words ‘apartheid’ and ‘Spanish Inquisition’. Personally, I believe that this is well deserved, on all accounts.

Now, Warsi, for reasons fully understood, complains that acceptance of ill-reputed Sharia law into UK’s courts is impeded by secular fundamentalists[iii]:

The most aggressive post I get is [sic] from people who are secular fundamentalists.

Of course atheists are vehemently opposed to these ideas, ideas that would introduce superstition and medieval morals into present-day jurisdiction – but I would submit that vehement opposition is to be expected not only from ‘militant atheists’, but from everyone who can count to eleven without having to remove a sock.

Warsi’s efforts to impose her preferred version of law are frustrated by people who do not share her ideology. She believes that she is entitled to bring Sharia law into UK’s courts, and spots the enemy among what she believes to be militant atheists – those people who publish so many ‘aggressive post[s]‘.

Not being outdone by amateurs, David Cameron enters the fray asserting that[iv]

it is easier to be Jewish or Muslim in Britain than in a secular country.

The reason? Militant atheists, of course. He goes on to extol the virtues of a religious society  blithely ignoring that each and every social advance of the past two hundred years has come at the cost of lives among humanists, and in the face of strong opposition from the Church. To me it seems as if Cameron is building up a straw man and defending religion for one reason only: because the devout in his constituency are starting to grumble that their privileges are being taken away, that they can no longer tell the gays what to do.

More frighteningly, though, Cameron concludes his speech with this:

Greater confidence in our Christianity can also inspire a stronger belief that we can get out there and actually change people’s lives, and improve both the spiritual, physical, and moral state of our country, and even the world.

I guess it does take a pesky militant atheist to point out that if you replace ‘Christianity’ with ‘Islam’, Cameron would be saying exactly what the Taliban and Boko Haram are saying: they, too, believe that by stronger adherence to belief, that by following scripture more closely, this world will become a better place. The Taliban in particular are quite explicit about this; they state that their intent is to improve this world by changing the way people behave: by making them stronger believers.

Changing people’s lives based on faith is a terrible idea. Ask any woman in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. When we talk about ‘improvements’ based on religion, we almost always talk about restrictions: no gay marriages, no abortions, no women’s education, no blaspheming, no work on the holy day, etc. The more confidence people have in their religion, the more likely they are to impose their religious ideology on others. Ironically, there is only one group who can’t do that: (militant) atheists – who, by definition, don’t have a religion.

Ann Widdecombe’s rant takes the cake, though[v]:

Christians now have quite a lot of problems, whether it’s that you can’t display even very discreet small symbols of your faith at work, that you can’t say ‘God bless you’, you can’t offer to pray for somebody, if it’s an even bigger stance on conscience that you’re taking, some of the equality laws can actually bring you to the attention of the police themselves.

So I think it is a very difficult country now, unlike when I was growing up, in which to be a Christian, an active Christian at any rate.

A former MP, Ann has unfortunately developed a distinct habit of being economical with the truth. She did so when during the ‘Intelligence Squared’ debate she claimed that everyone who joined the Waffen-SS had to sign away their religion. The exact opposite is a documented, fact. People who joined the SS had to sign a paper stating that they were gottgläubig  believers in God  and affirmed that they were not atheists.

Widdecombe does it again here when she claims people can no longer wear religiously-themed jewelry, say endearing well-wishes, or promise piety to other people.

In reality Ann is angry at another fact: she has lost the privilege of an automatic religious bonus. People now openly scoff when someone offers prayer as ‘help’, and do not look impressed when someone openly wears a crucifix, crescent, or Star of David. Her importance and status as an openly devout believer have diminished – which is what irks her. In short, she’s angry that she’s become unpopular, and wants to assign blame.

That, in short, is what ‘militant atheism’ is all about: a scapegoat for one’s own misgivings and shortcomings, a scapegoat for the perceived injustice of privileges revoked, a scapegoat for being called upon one’s own moral failings.

Well, at least the believers are staying true to form – if there ever was an Abrahamic ritual, it’s the scapegoat.

Is it really that simple? Are politicians really trying to shift the blame from them to a minority? After all, much of what was said is monumentally stupid. Wouldn’t the political elite be more careful to avoid putting their foot into their collective mouth? Obviously, no. The reason for that, though, can be explained:

As we know, any sufficiently advanced stupidity is virtually indistinguishable from religion. That is what is tripping up politicians: they are increasingly coming down on the wrong side when they try to decide: ‘Is this still stupid or already religion?’

And then they do something ‘militantly’ stupid.


[i] “Human vs. Religious Rights“, No Blogs, No Glory 

[ii] “Sharia-conform blood diamonds“, No Blogs, No Glory 

[iii] “Sharia’s bad rap“, No Blogs, No Glory 

[iv] “Come on, Cameron!“, No Blogs, No Glory 

[v] “MP’s race to IQ bottom“, No Blogs, No Glory 

Christian Franz is a secular blogger and the author of No Gods, No Glory – Unpreaching the Choir. You can also visit his blog , No Blog, No Glory – further unpreachings.

Infographic: Is Britain a ‘Christian country’?

Last Monday the British Humanist Association coordinated an open letter, signed by more than 50 public figures, including authors, scientists, broadcasters, campaigners and comedians, who wrote to the Prime Minister to challenge his statement that Britain was a Christian country.

The story dominated the news agenda for the past week, and today the BHA has released an infographic which compiles statistics on the current state of religious identity, belief, and values in contemporary Britain. You can view the graphic below:

2014 04 28 LW v5 Infographic Christian Country

An atheist Scout leader on the recent promise changes by the Scouts and Guides

Atheist Scout leader Ralph Parlour presents his own personal view on the recent reforms made by the Scout Association and Girlguiding UK.

Scouts take the promise at Brownsea Island, Dorset

Scouts take the promise at Brownsea Island, Dorset. Photo: Tim Ellis.

On the 1st of September 2013 and the 1st January 2014, the British Guide and Scout Associations respectively changed their promises, opening both movements to atheists and humanists.

The promise is a central and important aspect of both movements, and all who wish to become members have to make it. The changes made are quite radical given the religious origins of both movements. Before these changes, all guides, irrespective of their own beliefs (or lack thereof) had to promise to ‘love God,’ and scouts had to promise to ‘do my duty to God.’ Even more importantly, the Scout Association has lifted a formal ban on atheists becoming full leaders. Although the ban was not strictly enforced and many atheists like me were already leaders, it is a relief to no longer have to hide my (non-)belief, or to have to ‘cross my fingers’ when making the promise.

Now instead of saying to ‘love God,’ all Guides now promise ‘to be true to myself and develop my beliefs.’ The Scouts however have taken an alternative approach and instead of completely throwing out the old religious oath, they have introduced a new promise that atheists can choose to say instead. ‘To do my duty to God,’ in the revised promise, has been replaced with ‘To uphold our Scout values.’ It is however the case that the religious oath will continue to be the default, so most new members will continue to take the religious oath, while atheists can request the secular alternative.

The Scout Association’s reforms have been widely supported, even by religious figures. Paul Butler, Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, said that ‘In enabling people of all faiths and none to affirm their beliefs through an additional alternative promise the Scout Movement has demonstrated that it is both possible, and I would argue preferable, to affirm the importance of spiritual life and not to restrict meaning to arbitrary self-definition.’

There has however been some resistance to the changes made by the Guides. The main contention is that, unlike the Scouts there is no option to choose a religious oath. There are several Guide groups that have refused to adopt the new promise and continue using the old, religious one. While I have found no article from any major newspaper or website critical of the changes made by the Scouts, the reforms in the guides have come under considerable criticism, especially from the conservative Right. The Church of England General Synod, on 12th February 2014, passed a resolution saying that ‘girls and women of all ages in the Girlguiding Movement should be able to continue to promise to love God when enrolled,’ and Alsion Ruoff, a member of the Synod, claimed that the change is ‘rank discrimination,’ and that it is part of  the ‘further marginalisation of Christianity in this country.’

Girlguiding UK has offered a concession, saying that Guide troops could, if they choose, have their own religious pre-amble to any swearing in ceremony, and say something like ‘In the presence of God I make my Guide Promise.’ But it is still too early to know whether this concession will be acceptable to critics.

These changes should rightly be seen as a victory for secularism and an advance against superstition. These changes will strengthen both youth movements, the Scouts especially, making them more appropriate to an increasingly secular nation. But while claims of discrimination are obviously spurious (given the favourable treatment of religious institutions, especially the Church of England), the Girl Guides do seem to have been heavy handed in response to groups refusing to adopt the new promise. The First Jesmond Guides for example have been threatened with expulsion from Girlguiding UK if they do not conform.

In an ideal world, not only would the secular promise be the default but there would be no religious promise at all. Despite this, I think it is important to not force people, atheist or theist, to make a promise they are not comfortable with.

Additionally, the relationship between these uniformed youth groups and organised religion is deep, so to sharply turn these groups secular could cause significant harm. Many groups, my own included, meet in a church hall and are not charged for the privilege. Without such an available, and low-cost meeting place, it would be much more difficult to keep the troop afloat financially and I have no doubt that many troops would close without the aid of churches. Both organisations do considerable good, and benefit not only their members but society in general. So an overzealous approach that harms the organisations, even if born of good motives, would be like cutting off the nose to spite the face.

The heavy handed approach taken by Girlguiding UK has damaged the organisation and has alienated some lifelong members. As a lifelong Scouter, I feel that it would be preferable to accommodate some heterodoxy, in order to keep the organisation unified, strong and better able to continue the valuable work they carry out.  All this controversy within the Guides is, ultimately, over one sentence, albeit a very important sentence, so I wouldn’t have thought it too difficult, or too offensive to the sensibilities of secularists, to allow Guides the same choice in promise as the Scouts.

Ralph Parlour is an Atheist Scout leader.

Convincing others of reality

by John Watts

Photo by BWJones

Science lets us know what’s real. But letting others know, and advocating why this is important, isn’t always easy.

How do we best convince mankind that any belief can only be deduced from proven reality, not vice versa, reality from unproven belief? Since religion is thus irrationally entrenched, this in essence is the problem for humanists.

As man’s knowledge of the world grows at an accelerating rate, we have overwhelming humanist arguments to present; so, without necessarily adding anything new, let us be clear on the following. Even the best of believers cannot produce any real objective evidence for their beliefs, but when pressed they usually eventually admit that the existence of God is objectively unprovable. They then insist their subjective, imagined or mental experience is equally valid. This is refuted of course by the continual retreat of faith in the light of new knowledge. Galileo and Darwin and a host of rational seekers forced the faithful to discard certain subjective beliefs. The faith of each age therefore must reflect truth from the real world or die.

Ask them to define what they actually believe and you will be lucky to get an unequivocal reply, since that gives to easy a target; but you can usually tie them down, often to the survival of the soul after death. Here we are on strong ground from both traditional and new views. Firstly and obviously, Hell (exquisite torture for eternity) is not just unjust; it is infinitely unjust to sinners who exist for only a speck of eternity. How can they accept that? So if there is no Hell, can there be a Heaven? Only a little intellect shows that one requires the other. Secondly, every construct in our universe is born or evolves, lives a span, then dies: from the very small to the most complex. This is even the universe itself, we are now told. Mortality is assured for everything without exception; except man! How likely is that? Well, at least it should make them think.

Of course as man has created, lost and created again innumerable gods, to assist him to escape them is difficult. We are not playing on a level pitch. The slope against us is man’s very desire for simple answers, for guidance, for meaning. It is his fear of the unknown. All these are claimed to be simply supplied by a magic doctrine, derived from primitive times, but given enough credence by annexation of man’s best attributes, Morality and Beauty, to counter justified scepticism. Who cannot experience the emotional charge of Faure’s Requiem in one of our wondrous cathedrals? Few indoctrinated from the cradle will seek to leave this for rational truth that is implied to be a godless, and therefore wicked, cult.

Well, of course Morality and Beauty were created by, and so belong to, humanity and not God. There is no comparable art or beauty in the Bible or elsewhere in the Church which has not derived from man’s intellect. So let us make sure we proclaim this.

We need to consider everything to be effective advocates of rational enlightenment, so it is important to share and exchange views. We need also to bear in mind that success here is best achieved by a clear and positive presentation of our belief rather than negative criticism of the Church, however obvious the target. I think this ought to be the British Humanist Association’s prime objective.

I believe we can show how humanists have answers to all the fears that beset mankind, which religion claims only they provide. Does anyone feel there are any areas that Humanism cannot address successfully?

John Watts is a long retired financial adviser living in Somerset, an enthusiastic humanist, and a writer and poet keen to support humanist ideas.

Humanism and the hereafter

A humanist funeral ceremony.

A humanist funeral ceremony: family members and friends meet to celebrate the life of a deceased love one. 

It seems that primitive man, everywhere and in every culture, had an instinctive belief in some sort of existence after death.  For the primitive psyche perhaps there was no other way to come to terms with the dread and mystery of death.  As the traditional religions evolved, elaborate myths were created, claiming that every man had an immortal soul that survived his bodily death.  In a master-stroke (deliberate or otherwise) traditional religions linked the fate of this immortal soul with good behaviour in this life. Ordinary people, conditioned as they were from early childhood to adapt to regimes of earthly reward and punishment, readily accepted this vastly magnified scheme of reward and punishment that extended into eternity.  Morality, which really had its roots in human nature, became a prisoner of reward and punishment. ‘RAP morality’ (reward-and-punishment morality) is perhaps a good name for it.  RAP morality gave religion an iron grip on the lives of people. As Sam Harris says in his outstanding book, The End of Faith: “Without death, the influence of faith-based religion would be unthinkable.  Clearly, the fact of death is unbearable to us, and faith is little more than a shadow cast by our hope for a better life beyond the grave.”

              Unspeakable atrocities were committed by the medieval Christian church in the name of saving souls.  Russell tells us that “The Spaniards in Mexico and Peru used to baptize Indian infants and then immediately dash their brains out; by this means they secured  these infants went to heaven..” and goes on: “In countless ways the doctrine of personal immortality in its Christian form has had  disastrous effects upon morals…”  The horrors of the Inquisition are too gruesome to describe.  In our own time we have the phenomenon, in the Iran-Iraq war, of children being used for clearing minefields.  They, and their parents as well as the commanders who let them get blown up, evidently believed that ample rewards awaited these children in paradise. (It must, however, be mentioned that reliable firsthand accounts of the use of children in human wave attacks are rare.)  Suicide bombings are an everyday occurrence in Palestine, Iraq and Pakistan. So problems arising out of a belief in life after death are very contemporary and very real.  And the tragic growth of suicide bombings has given them a wholly unexpected twist.  How differently William Empson’s Ignorance of Death reads today!

“Heaven me, when a man is ready to die about something
Other than himself, and is in fact ready because of that,
Not because of himself, that is something clear about himself.
Otherwise I feel very blank upon this topic,
And think that though important, and proper for anyone to bring up,
It is one that most people should be prepared to be blank upon.”

            In most humanist statements, there does not seem to be a pointed reference to the issue of life after death.  This could be because the humanist rejection of the supernatural also entails the rejection of the idea of an immortal soul or life after death. However, the Memorandum of Association of the Indian Humanist Union (June 12, 1960) does state: “Though Humanism is not identified with any views about the factual question of life after death, it does not accept the goal of salvation. It is content to fix its attention on this life and this world.  It is concerned with the preservation and furtherance of moral values in all relations and spheres of life, and with the building up of a better and happier human community.”  Narsingh Narain has elaborated this further:  “…There is no need for us, as Humanists, to consider the evidence for and against human survival.  For whether we survive or not makes no difference to our practical ideals.  Moreover, the craving for a future life is unhealthy, if only for the simple reason that our wishes can make no difference to whatever the fact may happen to be.  Belief in a future life was not based on evidence.  It was an expression of faith arising out of a certain mental background.  The important thing is to outgrow that mental outlook, not to disprove survival, or to rule out faith altogether.”

            The problem is that, while this position will be seen by humanists  as being eminently  logical and pragmatic, it will do nothing to induce the ordinary believer in traditional religions (to whom life after death is a fact) to re-examine his world-view.  The Humanist Movement came into being to provide an alternative to traditional religions, and its main task is to address the major factors which have given traditional religions such a grip on their adherents.  Of these, the two most powerful factors are:  belief in a personal God; and life after death.  Sam Harris is right when he says: “What one believes happens after death dictates much of what one believes about life, and this is why faith-based religion, in presuming to fill the blanks in our knowledge of the hereafter, does such heavy lifting for those who fall under its power.  A single proposition – you will not die  -  once believed, determines a response to life that would be otherwise unthinkable.”

            Humanism cannot afford to remain ‘blank’ (or agnostic) on this issue; just as it is not agnostic about a personal God.  We must affirm that there is no scientific evidence for personal survival after death.  However, death does not have to be equated with non-existence; although Hume (reportedly in a conversation) held that there is no more difficulty in conceiving my non-existence after death, than in conceiving my non-existence before birth, and no reason to be distressed by either.  We can look upon our existence as being of two kinds: conscious, and consequential.  While my conscious existence ceases with death, my consequential existence does not. In many different ways and in many different spheres every individual’s life interminably affects the future.  This thought gives one responsibility and hope, and a sense of worth.

Great essays in the humanist tradition: ‘Evangelical Teaching: Dr Cumming’ by George Eliot

George Eliot, as painted by Samuel Laurence, c. 1860

George Eliot, as painted by Samuel Laurence, c. 1860

In the first of a series, HumanistLife brings you a great essay from the public domain.

Born Mary Ann Evans, George Eliot was a remarkable person. Not only did she pen brilliant novels such as Middlemarch, she was a fierce and formidable essayist.

Even in her personal life, she defied the oppressive Victorian morality of her day to live with her married boyfriend, the philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes.

Today Eliot is buried in Highgate Cemetery in an area reserved for agnostics and dissenters. Since her death, many great men and women have been inspired by the excoriating wit of her essays; the influence of her non-fiction is especially evident in writers like Christopher Hitchens.

The below essay is called ‘Evangelical Teaching: Dr. Cumming’, a scathing attack on the intellectual dishonesty of the clergyman Rev. John Cumming, and in which Eliot expresses in clear and beautiful language her own humanist perspective.

Beware only one thing: she writes in long paragraphs.

[Read more...]

Alternatives to Religion: A collaborative project

by Nicky Hilton

Irreplaceable humanist archives, are being rediscovered as part the Alternatives to Religion Project. The material, described by the National Archives as having the potential to ‘transform research and understanding of alternatives to religion’ includes items created by the British Humanist Association (BHA), Conway Hall Ethical Society (CHES) and the National Secular Society (NSS). The current phase of the project is funded by the National Cataloguing Grant Programme and will see historic material from all three organisations catalogued, preserved and made publicly available.

As the professional Archivist implementing this phase of the project, I’ve come across a huge array of items since I started work on the collections in April. The archives consist of official records, such as minutes, deeds and annual reports, as well as campaign material, plans, correspondence and photographs.

My favourite items from the archives are those which convey the changes to thinking of those pioneering agnostics and Unitarians who established the Ethical Movement and laid the foundations of Humanism.

Tracing the origins of Conway Hall Ethical Society through the archives, the researcher will soon encounter minutes and ledgers of Parliament Court Chapel, Artillery Lane. The records evoke a time when this progressive East London congregation (led by William Johnson Fox from 1817), were still navigating the boundaries between dissenting religion, agnosticism and humanism. The congregation met from approximately 1807 until 1824 and although Christian, the congregation were non-conformists, and described in some reports as Universalist. A natural leader, Fox gradually led his congregation away from Christianity to rationalism and presided over the move in 1824 from Parliament Court Chapel to the purpose built South Place Chapel (near Moorgate Station). The official minutes from this time convey a simple shift away from describing the attendees as ‘the congregation’ to the word ‘members’. From this point, the members of South Place Chapel continued to move away from established religion, but it was the arrival of another charismatic leader, Dr Stanton Coit in 1888 which finally saw a complete break from Christianity. The archives record that Coit was appointed Lecturer (no longer Minister) and presided over the change of the organisation’s name from Chapel, to Religious Society, and finally to Ethical Society.

In the British Humanist Association Archive there is further evidence of this gradual, but confident break from religion. As well as leading South Place Ethical Society, Dr Coit was a member of the Ethical Union (forerunner of the BHA) and his vision for the Ethical Movement created some of the most interesting items in the archives. For example, Coit’s scrapbook reveals his unwavering commitment to relieving the plight of the Victorian working classes, not through salvation, but by education and self improvement. His Neighbourhood Guilds, a type of trade union based on locality rather than employment, attracted international attention because of the socialist undertones and atheism. This desire to support people within an ethical framework also led Coit to establish the unique Ethical Church at Bayswater. Occupying a former Methodist Chapel, Coit saw his non-religious church as a template for an inclusive, secular, Church of England. Photographs of the interior of the building show the lectern from where Coit gave his Sunday lectures. Behind him stood an engraving which could easily be taken from a modern work of Humanism: “Thanks to the human heart by which we live”.

The material mentioned here is just a tiny fragment of the total collection. These archives are a treasure trove of humanist, secular and ethical activities, with more untold stories waiting to be uncovered by researchers. Cataloguing of CHES and BHA archives is continuing, and the records of the NSS are due to be started in the new year. Highlights of the Alternatives to Religion project so far are displayed on the project blog at: http://alt2religion.tumblr.com/   which is updated weekly. You can also search the partial BHA catalogue at: http://www.bishopsgate.org.uk/Library/Library-Catalogue ; and the partial SPES catalogue at: http://www.conwayhall.org.uk/catalogue

Nicky Hilton is the Archivist for the Alternatives to Religion Project.

Countering pessimism

[W]e see, surrounding the narrow raft illumined by the flickering light of human comradeship, the dark ocean on whose rolling waves we toss for a brief hour; from the great night without, a chill blast breaks in upon our refuge; all the loneliness of humanity amid hostile forces is concentrated upon the individual soul, which must struggle alone, with what of courage it can command, against the whole weight of a universe that cares nothing for its hopes and fears.
From “A Free Man’s Worship” by Bertrand Russell

How full is this glass?

How full is this glass? Vir Narain muses on consolation and optimism.


Bertrand Russell was a courageous and defiant man who would not hesitate to discard a comforting belief – perhaps even if he suspected that it was true.  Along with other humanists, he wanted people to have the courage to give up the comforting religious myths about a caring and loving God and face life as it was.  As Narsingh Narain said: “Our ancestors solved the problem of pessimism (in so far as they did solve it) by convincing themselves about a future life guaranteed by the existence of a merciful and all-powerful God.”   So “… belief in gods produced an unintended result by restoring that optimism which is natural to life but had suffered disturbance as a byproduct of man’s mental evolution.  It was more necessary to regain that optimism than to achieve external results.  A life weighed down with chronic fear and anxiety would lack the spirit and the power to face and survive misfortunes.  In comparison the lessening of the severity of the misfortunes themselves was not so important.”  Russell conceded that: “… belief in God still serves to humanise the world of nature, and to make men feel that physical forces are their allies.”

It is very important, but practically impossible, to avoid using words such as hostile, friendly, pitiless, uncaring etc. when discussing the relationship of man with nature.  It is perhaps best not to attempt it here.  Russell talks of “humanity amid hostile forces”.  Carl Sagan says:  “The universe seems neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent.”  Narsingh Narain says: “Let us have the courage to accept the fact that the universe does not care for us, for the human race or for life.”

I shall argue that there is an element of exaggeration here; perhaps as a reaction against all the religious nonsense about a loving and caring God.  If humanity was surrounded by hostile forces, as suggested by Russell, it would not have survived even for a nano-second.  The anthropic (a needlessly anthropocentric misnomer) principle cannot be lightly dismissed. The very existence of life shows that the laws of nature are pro-life which, of course, entails being pro-death as well.

“The philosophy of nature” says Russell “must not be unduly terrestrial; for it, the earth is merely one of the smaller stars of the Milky Way.  It would ridiculous to warp the philosophy of nature in order to bring out results that are pleasing to the tiny parasites of this insignificant planet.” (Emphasis added).  But these tiny parasites are, as far as we know now, the only living beings in this unimaginably vast universe. And size is not everything. Isaac Asimov tells us: “Man’s three pound brain is the most complex and orderly arrangement of matter known in the universe.” In any case, we cannot escape being terrestrial when dealing with the relationship of life with nature, with the philosophy of life. The Philosophy of Life is a subset of the Philosophy of Nature.

According to Russell, “Optimism and pessimism, as cosmic philosophies, show the same naïve humanism; the great world, so far as we know it from the philosophy of nature, is neither good nor bad, and it is not concerned to make us happy or unhappy.  All such philosophies spring from self-importance, and are best corrected by a little astronomy.” Even if optimism and pessimism are ‘cosmic’ philosophies: they have an exclusively human context and deal with human attributes.  A little biology – rather than a little astronomy – might be more helpful in understanding the relationship between life and nature.

The astonishing facts of evolution which has produced so many, and so diverse, near-perfect forms of life; the incredibly complex immune systems which are constantly fighting to protect each individual   creature from infectious disease; the delicately poised and infinitely complex ecosystem which holds these life-forms in balance and, above all, the miraculous emergence of creatures which are capable of abstract thought, all point to the life-promoting processes of nature. The pessimistic view that nature is hostile or indifferent to life as such is not supported by the facts of science.  Also, this view promotes an unhealthy man-versus-nature mindset: nature is to be conquered or subdued.

Narsingh Narain quotes Colin Wilson as saying: “… the task of Humanism is to attempt to destroy pessimism wherever is appears”. This is an important task which is becoming more difficult with the passage of time. Increasing urbanisation and industrialisation – among other conditions of modern living – are leading to unprecedented levels of angst and alienation.  Presenting a needlessly gloomy picture of nature does not help.

As the half-full/ half-empty glass cliché shows, pessimism and optimism represent two mutually exclusive attitudes which are not necessarily fact-dependent. Only a robust and positive attitude in the face of adversity can enable us to cope with the vicissitudes of human life. As Narsingh Narain says: “Let the tender-minded continue to hug the old delusions or invent new ones. For the tough-minded, stoicism is the only dignified answer.”  Iris Murdoch’s observation: “Anything that consoles is fake.” is largely true.   But the belief that nature supports life is not a consoling myth.  Even down to the level of the individual, as our immune system shows, nature is at work to preserve life up to a point.  Inevitably, it withdraws this support in the fullness of time. This shows nature’s triune character as creator, preserver and destroyer.

Even without the idea of an uncaring or hostile nature, the challenges to man’s fortitude are enormous.  If this idea no longer seems to conform to the facts as we know them now, it should be discarded.  Homo Sapiens must guard against becoming Homo Ingratus