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

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:   which is updated weekly. You can also search the partial BHA catalogue at: ; and the partial SPES catalogue at:

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

A humanist perspective on the “Common Ground” conference

Common Ground: A Conversation Between Religious Believers and Humanists on Values and Ethics” was a conference in Glasgow in November co-sponsored by the UK and US Provinces of the (Catholic) Xaverian Missionaries. Speakers included Chris Stedman, author of Faitheist – How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious and Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University. Jeremy Rodell is Chair of South West London Humanists and was one of seven delegates from the BHA and the Humanist Society of Scotland. They also included Rory Fenton, AHS President and the BHA’s Dialogue Officer.

Here’s Jeremy’s input to the “Common Ground” conference blog.

The “Common Ground” conference: a humanist perspective

As a humanist living in London, it was a bit of a surprise to get an email from the British Humanist Association asking if I would like to attend a conference in Scotland organised by Catholic missionaries. I’m glad I said “yes”.

This was a bold initiative by the Xavierian Missionaries to find “Common Ground” across one of the most important fault-lines of western society, especially here in the UK. I did not need convincing of the value interfaith dialogue involving humanists – I was already involved in it. But I left the conference convinced both that more could be done and that what we’re doing today could be done better.

The conference itself was, of course, an example of dialogue in action. I had never met a missionary before and, if I’d thought about it at all, would probably have come up with the caricature of a Bible-bashing neo-colonialist. What I found were thoughtful people who had made major practical contributions to the lives of people in the countries where they’d lived – in one case helping to end a devastating civil war. That doesn’t make me more comfortable about Christian proselytization, but it certainly provides a more nuanced perspective. Equally, I don’t think many of the religious people present had met a humanist before. There were a lot of fascinating and enlightening conversations.

My main “takeaway” was that, at its core, this is all about human relationships. If people from different backgrounds know each other and have listened carefully enough to understand where the other person is coming from – and perhaps have worked together for a common cause – then it becomes almost impossible to demonise “The Other”. That doesn’t mean they will agree on everything. What Chris Stedman referred to as “Kumbaya” interfaith, where everyone loves one another and genuine differences are suppressed, has limited potential. But we were able to demonstrate at the end of the conference that, once trust has been established, it is possible to articulate conflicting views on controversial issues while maintaining mutual respect.

Chris Stedman, author of Fatheist, who spoke along with Jeremy Rodell

Chris Stedman, author of Faitheist, who spoke at the event.


However, we shouldn’t be naïve. There are people within almost all religion and belief communities who have no interest in dialogue – they know they’re right and at best want either to isolate themselves, or to argue, and at worst to impose their views by force. They’re just not interested in listening and understanding people they consider to be “the enemy”. On the other hand, there are people in these same communities who understand that we live in a plural world in which mutual understanding is essential for peace, and where it is often possible to find common ground with those with whom we disagree. We learned from Chris Stedman that Eboo Patel, the US-based founder of the Inter Faith Youth Corps, refers to the divide between these two types of people as the “Faith Line”.

Those who organise and turn up to a conference on dialogue between believers and the non-religious are, by definition, on the liberal side of the Faith Line. But the fact that we don’t directly reach the hard liners doesn’t invalidate the exercise. They can only be reached, or perhaps faced down, by more open-minded people from their own belief backgrounds – people on “our side” of the line. It is by dialogue that we can all become better informed and feel better supported in advocating the interfaith approach within our own communities.

So what does that mean in practice?

Firstly, we need to get past some of the issues of language. Humanists don’t really like the term “interfaith”, or “interfaith dialogue”, which sound excluding, as Humanism isn’t a faith. But we need a term for dialogue between people with differing religious and non-religious beliefs, and “interfaith” is very widely used. Humanists should not be afraid to use it too. But we need the help of religious people to ensure that it’s understood to cover “faith and belief” not just religion.

More significantly, the conference demonstrated a misunderstanding over the meaning of “secularism”. I understand it to mean a level playing field, in which people are free to follow their religious and non-religious beliefs and practices – provided they do not erode the freedom and rights of others – with no particular group or organisation having privileges over others. In a secular society, freedom of religion and belief is protected. Like most humanists, I think that’s a good idea. Unfortunately, too often the term has been used to mean “anti-religious”, not helped by the fact that there are some atheists who, as well as advocating secularism, would also like to see the end of religion. The result was that many of our religious colleagues at the conference thought that, when humanists say we want a secular society, we mean one in which there is no religion. It was something of an “ah-ha” moment when everyone realised that was not the case.

Secondly, “doing interfaith” needs to be more than sitting on a committee, useful though that may be. It needs to involve more people from different backgrounds getting to know each other, maybe in informal settings, through social media or – ideally – through shared community activity. That doesn’t necessarily mean creating a new organisation or activity, but rather finding something that is fun, stimulating and has a doable objective.

At the risk of gender stereotyping, it’s useful to be aware that men and women may come at interfaith, and especially the involvement of the non-religious, from different angles. Callum Brown’s academic analysis suggests that changes in women’s lives have been the main driver of the significant move away from religion in the UK since the 1960s. But he says that arguments about science and rationality have not played the key role here – “community” factors have been much more important. The implication for interfaith work is that the more cerebral type of interfaith dialogue about ideas may, on average, be more appealing to men than women, who may be more attracted by practical community activity. Both have a role to play.

Coming from the south of England, it was interesting to find that Scotland – which is probably less religiously diverse than London – seems to be way ahead in terms of official recognition of the importance of interfaith dialogue and inclusion of the non-religious, as well as providing practical help on how to make it work. “Belief in Dialogue” is an official publication by The Scottish Government providing a “good practice guide to religion and belief relations in Scotland”. Its introduction is written by Sister Isabel Smyth, Chair of the Scottish Working Group on Religion and Belief Relations, who was among the conference attendees. In it she links the need for dialogue back to the values of wisdom, justice, integrity and compassion which we saw inscribed on the Scottish Mace when the conference visited the Parliament in Edinburgh. These are shared human values – no humanist would disagree with them.

“Belief in Dialogue” is clear about the involvement of the non-religious: “The need to recognise the equal legitimacy of every community to exist in Scotland is enshrined as a human right, and by this we need to think about community in the broadest sense of the word. While most religious communities have established formal structures, non-religious communities and groups have considerably fewer formal structures but still need to be seen as communities in the sense that those who advocate such beliefs are bound by the beliefs they share.” It goes on to provide practical ways of building interfaith relationships which anyone can use. You can download it free from The Scottish Government website.

The rest of us would do well to steal its thinking.


Jeremy Rodell is Chair of South West London Humanists, the humanist representative on two local interfaith forums, and a humanist speaker for 3FF, an interfaith charity which provides panels of speakers from different religion and belief backgrounds to schools in London and elsewhere. He’s currently co-chairing a local dialogue between humanists and Catholics in Twickenham, following a major dispute about a new Catholic ‘faith’ school with exclusive admissions. If you want to know more, email

What’s in a name?

by Mike Flood

Photograph: GreenConnect Images

The Freethinker has recently published an interesting article arguing the case for new terminology to substitute for ‘atheist’ when describing the ‘new world view’ that has been evolving since the Enlightenment . The article reinforces the case I made in my last HumanistLife piece about the confusion surrounding the use of the term.

The author, Jeff Haley, argues that we need a term that can be “easily understood and used by everyone” and “complimentary inoffensive terminology to label the older worldviews so that we can talk to people who hold these views and cause a minimum of emotionally distracting insult.”

Haley dismisses the term ‘naturalistic’ — whilst it nicely contrasts with the word ‘supernatural’, it also “connotes the essence of the old worldviews much more than the essence of the new”. He also rejects the term ‘scientific’ because it would mean, amongst other things needing to change the generally understood meaning of ‘scientist’. His proposal is ‘evidist’, and or an ‘evidistic’ or ‘evidal’ worldview, with the labels ‘traditionalists’ or ‘intuitivists’ reserved for those who hold the ‘old worldview’.

The article is already causing waves: Barbara Smoker has applauded Haley’s neologism as better than ‘sceptics’ (which is “too equivocal”), ‘atheists’ (“solely negative”), ‘secular humanists’, (“inexplicit”), or ‘brights’ (“distastefully arrogant”). However she prefers the adjective ‘evidistic’, and the noun ‘evidism’. Another correspondent has suggested ‘innovist’. And no doubt there will be more…

But not everyone is convinced: “Whatever label we atheists use, we’re hell-bound unbelievers, so why mince around the subject?” And whilst recognising the confusion and ignorance over the word ‘atheist’ — and much more so over ‘humanist’ and ‘agnostic’ — another contributor argues that “throwing a word like ‘evidist’ into the mix will exacerbate the confusion”.

What kind of atheist are you?

by Mike Flood

At Milton Keynes Humanists’ monthly meetings, we are always pleased to welcome new people, and many come with questions about atheism — “What exactly is an atheist?” “How does atheism differ from agnosticism?” and “How do you define humanism?” So we thought it might be useful to prepare a note to explain these and a host of other terms that one can come across in the media or rationalist, freethinker, skeptic or secular literature.1 We do this with some trepidation because there is as yet no consensus about many of the terms in use and no agreed definitions, indeed many terms incorporate or encompass others.

Basically, an atheist is someone who does not believe in a supreme being or other immaterial things.2 The term appears to have been first used in the 18th Century. A humanist is someone who has a positive approach to life and a strong concern for human welfare, values and dignity (ie “an atheist who cares”).3 Agnosticism is different: it is a statement about knowledge rather than belief — the view that the truth of metaphysical claims regarding theology, an afterlife, or the existence of god is unknown or inherently unknowable. When asked “Do you believe in god?” an agnostic or ‘ignostic’ (see below) would say “I don’t understand the question. How do you define god?”

But there are many different kinds of atheists, and this can be confusing: we find frequent reference in the media to ‘militant atheists’, ‘fundamentalist atheists’ and ‘anti-theists’ — terms sometimes lumped together as ‘new atheists’.4 These labels are invariably scornful and uncomplimentary and are regularly attached to people like Richard Dawkins who actively campaign against religion or religious influence in public life.5 But this is only the tip of the lexicological iceberg: in this paper we’ve explored a number of other (less pejorative) terms.

We start with ‘implicit’ and ‘explicit’ atheism, terms coined in the late 1970s by George Smith. Smith defined ‘implicit atheism’ as “the absence of theistic belief without a conscious rejection of it”, and ‘explicit atheism’ as “the absence of theistic belief due to a conscious rejection of it” — it should be said that many non-believers would not recognize ‘implicit atheism’ as atheism at all, preferring to use terms such as ‘skeptic’ or ‘agnostic’.

Then we have the idea of a ‘passionate atheist’ — “someone who considers God to be their personal enemy”, as distinct from ‘ordinary atheists’ “who do not believe in God” (the distinction was floated by Freeman Dyson in 2006); and Christopher Silver and Thomas Coleman have proposed a different classification after carrying out a survey of non-believers:

  • intellectualatheists/agnostics’ — people who “seek information and intellectual stimulation about atheism” who “like debating and arguing, particularly on popular Internet sites” and are “well-versed in books and articles about religion and atheism, and prone to citing those works frequently”;
  • activists’not content with just disbelieving in God, this kind of atheist / agnostic wants to “tell others why they reject religion and why society would be better off if we all did likewise”; they also “tend to be vocal about political causes like gay rights, feminism, the environment and the care of animals”;
  • seeker-agnostics’ — “people who are unsure about the existence of a God but keep an open mind and recognize the limits of human knowledge and experience”;
  • non-theists’ — “people who do not involve themselves with either religion or anti-religion”; and
  • ritual atheists’ — people who don’t believe in God, do not associate with religion, and do not believe in an afterlife, but still “find useful the teachings of some religious traditions.”

Silver and Coleman’s full list also contains ‘anti-theists’, which we have already encountered — people who “regularly speak out against religion and religious beliefs” who “view religion as ignorance and see any individual or institution associated with it as backward and socially detrimental.” The late Christopher Hitchens described himself as ‘anti-theist’ rather than atheist.

Yet another classification was proposed by Rabbi Sherwin Wine in his essay ‘Reflections’:6

  • ontological’ atheism — “a firm denial that there is any creator or manager of the universe” (ontology is the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being);
  • ethical atheism’ — “a firm conviction that, even if there is a creator/manager of the world, he does not run things in accordance with the human moral agenda, rewarding the good and punishing the wicked”;7
  • existential atheism’ — “a nervy assertion that even if there is a God, he has no authority to be the boss of my life”;
  • agnostic atheism’ — “a cautious denial which claims that God’s existence can be neither proven nor disproven, but which ends up with behaviour no different from that of the ontological atheist”;
  • ignostic atheism’ — “another cautious denial, which claims that the word ‘God’ is so confusing that it is meaningless and which translates into the same behaviour as the ontological atheist”;
  • pragmatic atheism’ — “which regards God as irrelevant to ethical and successful living, and which views all discussions about God as a waste of time.” (Pragmatic atheism is also known as ‘practical atheism’ of ‘apatheism’).

And we conclude with ‘positive atheism’, which to some will sound like an oxymoron. Positive atheism — also called ‘strong atheism’ or ‘hard atheism’ — asserts that no deities exist. It contrasts with ‘negative atheism’ (‘weak atheism’ / ‘soft atheism’) which covers all other types of atheism wherein persons “do not believe in the existence of a creator but do not explicitly assert there to be none”.

Some may consider ‘brights’ in the United States as ‘positive atheists’, although technically they represent a rather broader church — the Brights Movement was founded in 2003 to promote “civic understanding and acknowledgment of the naturalistic worldview, which is free of supernatural and mystical elements”.8 But the term has not been widely adopted, not least because many think it suggests that people who profess a ‘naturalistic worldview’ are more intelligent (ie ‘brighter’) than non-naturalists, and this does little to promote tolerance and religious multiculturalism…

Positive atheism appeals to many Humanists because it helps dispel the cold, negative or false image of atheism that is often promulgated by senior clerics or fundamentalist Christians / Muslims. Perhaps the greatest proponent was Goparaju Rao, affectionately known as ‘Gora’. “Atheism is positive”, said Gora, “because the moment faith in god is banished, man’s gaze turns from god to man and he becomes socially conscious.”

Gora propounded the positive atheist position at the inauguration of the First World Atheist Conference which he co-founded in December 1972.9 “The essence of atheism,” he said, “is the freedom of the individual (and) freedom releases the immense potentialities of human imagination, initiative and effort that lay suppressed under theistic faith. The mood of supplication and complaint, inherent in prayers to god and petitions to government, has no place in the atheistic way of life … Atheism liberates humans from all kinds of bondage and restores the lost dignity to the individual to stand on his feet as a free and responsible person.”

Inevitably many (most?) non-believers are uncomfortable with the label ‘atheist’ and would like to do away with the term altogether — as Sam Harris puts it: “We don’t need a word for someone who rejects astrology. We simply do not call people ‘non-astrologers’. All we need are words like ‘reason’ and ‘evidence’ and ‘common sense’ and ‘bullshit’ to put astrologers in their place”. “And so,” he concludes, “it could be with religion”.

1 Rationalists consider science and reason as the best guide for belief and action. Freethinkers are unwilling to accept authority or dogma, especially religious dogma. Skeptics are inclined to question or doubt accepted opinions.Secular denotes attitudes, activities and things that have no religious or spiritual basis, and secularism, strict separation of the state from religious institutions with people of different religions and beliefs being equal before the law.

2 The use of Big G in ‘God’ and little g ‘god’ in this article is entirely deliberate and reflects the use by the original authors.

3 Humanists do not believe in god and prefer the scientific theory of evolution to explain why we are here. We also accept responsibility for our own lives and believe that when we die that is the end; there is no after life.

4 New Atheism is the name given to the ideas promoted by a handful of modern atheist writers who have advocated the view that “religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.” The term is commonly associated with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, who are collectively known as ‘the Four Horsemen of New Atheism’.

5 Morgan Matthew has pointed out that “It’s rare to walk anywhere in public and not see some religious advertisement every few moments. Imagine if the cause of non-belief were promoted to even one hundredth this degree? Theists would be totally outraged.”

6< In his day Rabbi Wine was a highly controversial figure: not only did he coin the term ‘ignostic’ but he went on to found a number of humanistic organizations in the US, including (in 1969) the Society for Humanistic Judaism— a movement within Judaism that emphasizes secular Jewish culture and Jewish history as sources of Jewish identity rather than belief in God.

7 People who believe in the existence of a supreme being / creator that does not intervene in the universe / people’s affairs are usually referred to as ‘deists’. Some people describe themselves as ‘fideists’ — they see faith as independent of reason and that it is superior at arriving at particular truths. They have faith that there is something larger than human consciousness.

8 The other main aims of the Brights Movement are to create an Internet constituency that will: gain public recognition that persons who the ‘naturalistic worldview’ can bring principled actions to bear on matters of civic importance; and educate society toward accepting the full and equitable civic participation of all such individuals. In principle, the Movement encompasses atheists, agnostics, humanists, skeptics, and members of religious traditions (like Rabbi Wine) who observe the cultural practices without believing literally in a deity. We should add here that there is enormous prejudice and bigotry towards atheists in the USA: indeed studies show that “atheists are arguably more distrusted and despised than any other minority”. They “seem to represent everything about modernity which Americans dislike or fear”.

9 Not to be confused with the ‘World Humanist Congress’, also held every three years, but starting much earlier (in Amsterdam in 1952). The next Congress will be in Oxford in August 2014 and hosted by the British Humanist Association.

Mike Flood is Chair of Milton Keynes Humanists. He works on grassroots development in low-income countries.

Humility and Humanism

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

                                                      T.S. Eliot, ‘East Coker’

I think it can rightly be claimed that the humanist movement essentially represents a revolt against certitude.  For the early man, in the face of mysterious happenings, unexplained phenomena and hidden dangers, the quest for certitude was a basic psychological necessity – essential for survival.  In our times the growth of scientific knowledge has changed all that.  Mystery and dread of the kind that the primitive man faced have been taken out of our everyday lives; but the habit of assertive certitude, and its offshoots, authoritarianism and intolerance, remain.  Where this habit has survived almost intact is among the followers of traditional religions, but others are not immune to it. Not even Humanists.

Narsingh Narain wrote: “It seems to us that the most objectionable feature common to all religions is not supernaturalism but authoritarianism, that is, the attachment of finality and infallibility to their teachings.  The latter’s ancestry is not traceable to the primitive man’s personification of the forces of nature, but to the formation of an authority-accepting centre in the human mind, as part of the mechanism of psychosocial evolution, and its subsequent exploitation alike by rulers, priests and others.  This authoritarianism is the more harmful and dangerous as it has not been confined to the religions; its influence has been much more pervasive — authoritarianism and its offshoots, dogmatism and fanaticism, are to be found everywhere in the world today, and we feel that the primary function of Humanism is to help in the transition from an authoritarian to a non-authoritarian society in all spheres of life” (emphasis added).

One distinctive feature of Humanism is its emphasis on the tentative nature of all knowledge.  As Clive Bell said: “Only reason can convince us of those three fundamental truths without a recognition of which there can be no effective liberty: that what we believe is not necessarily true; that what we like is not necessarily good; and that all questions are open.”

This is intellectual humility; and it is an indispensable part of the Humanist outlook.  On the other hand, we have the ‘true believer’.  “The true believer”, Arthur Koestler said, “moves in a vicious circle inside his closed system: he can prove to his satisfaction everything that he believes, and he believes everything he can prove.”  For the true believer anyone who holds a different belief is by definition wrong, deluded.  It has to be admitted that this attitude can be found among traditional religionists as well as Humanists and atheists. “This glow of conviction”, says Michael Ruse “is directly antithetical to humanism in the more generous sense, but it dogs ‘Humanism’.”  Thus, he adds, “One finds the enthusiasm of the true believer, and this encourages a set of unnerving attributes: intolerance, hero-worship, moral certainty and the self-righteous condemnation of unbelievers” (emphasis added).

Don Evans says:

“As with religious and secular humanism, there seem to be two mind sets in approaching and understanding of religion: (1) religion is an intrinsic part of human nature and can no more be expunged from that nature than sexual desire or the need for society, and (2) religion is an unnatural imposition on human nature which should be dispensed with.

“Humanists today are far from resolving this conflict of approaches, although it is possible that further developments in psychology and anthropology may shift the balance one way or the other. Humanists in the first camp, whether religious or secular, are far more tolerant of religious manifestations generally, and are more concerned with preventing excesses and abuses than with achieving total abandonment of religion. Humanists in the second camp, often considerably more vocal, seem to have a perpetual grudge against anything religious and seem to be in a constant state of warfare against any and all signs of religious sentiment.”

There are indications that “Humanists in the second camp” are gaining ground. They see religion as an unmitigated evil.   Christopher Hitchens says: “Religion looks forward to the destruction of the world…. ” and goes on: “It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance, and other infantile needs). Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion.” This kind of strident humanism provokes a response in kind. According to R Joseph Hoffmann: “… by the early years of the twenty-first century movement humanism gave birth to a more uncompromising form of radical secularism in the form of the new atheism with its anti-God and oddly Orwellian postulate: All religion is evil. Some religions are more evil than others. Before God can be disbelieved in, as Christopher Hitchens argued in God is Not Great, he has to be roused from his slumber, bound, tried, and humiliated for his atrocities. If he is not available, his avatar, the Catholic Church, will do.

“Movement humanism as it has evolved is not really humanism. Or rather, it is a kind of parody of humanism. A better name for it would be Not-Godism. It’s what you get when you knock at the heavenly gate and no one is home.”           

Walter Lippmann was undoubtedly right when he said: “In the great moral systems and the great religions of mankind are embedded the record of how men have dealt with destiny, and only the thoughtless will argue that that record is obsolete and insignificant.” Humanism must not cast itself thoughtlessly in the role of an enemy of religion.  It is a successor of religion; and has, in fact, been born of what Lippmann has called the “higher religions”.  The real enemy of Humanism is a dogmatic and aggressive approach to beliefs.