Parenting without religion

Aniela Bylinski discusses her journey to Humanism.

A parent's work is never done, the saying goes. Photo: Marina del Castell.

A parent’s work is never done, the saying goes. Photo: Marina del Castell.

As a new parent in 2009 my world opened up to a new way of life. I had a baby which was reliant on me for food and shelter, care and affection.  After a few months of getting to know my baby and getting into a new routine which worked for both of us, well mainly her, I started to think about what I was going to tell her, what my truth was, and what her truth might one day be.

I made conscious decisions to be her sole carer for the first 12 months at least, and to support her emotionally and physically as much as I could, without taking away her independence.  I also reflected on my own childhood and made decisions about which bits were good or bad, what I might use myself or not.

People around me were having their children christened and becoming part of a church or religious community, but that is not what I wanted for my children or my family.  I would have liked to have been able to find a community which was consistent with my non-belief in god but unfortunately it did not exist, or so I thought.

I was asking myself questions about morality such as; if I don’t believe in god then how will I fit in with other families, how will my children be perceived?  What will I teach my children about telling tales, being good and working hard, what difference will it make if they are bad, if god didn’t exist?  If I don’t have my child christened what will that mean for her and her school place?

I decided that I did not want to be peer pressured into supporting a community which I did not agree with, just because it was the only one available.  I had difficulty articulating my non-belief without offending people and decided to research other options which could be available to me.

I did know that I wanted my children to grow up to be open minded, critical thinkers, to question what they were told and not just accept things as a fact.  I didn’t want to put any fear into them and didn’t think they had any sins which they needed to be cleansed of from birth.  I knew I wanted them to be brought up to use logic and reason.  But where was the community in the UK in 2009 which could provide this for me?

I looked around on the internet and found some fantastic books to read ‘Parenting Beyond Belief’ and ‘Raising Freethinkers’.  These books were like a breath of fresh air, they explained how you can raise children with ethics and values confidently, without a god, they explain how you can talk to your children about death without a heaven, and they give good examples of how to tackle religious holidays. The list goes on; disciplining, sex education etc. There are loads of practical guides and exercises which you can use to teach your children how to wonder and ask questions.  It also gives permission to say ‘I don’t know’ and gives you the opportunity to explore the world with your child.  These books gave me the confidence to go out into the world of religion and say I’m not religious, my children may or may not be and that’s OK.

More importantly though the books lead me to Humanism and in particular the British Humanist Association.  When I visited the website it reinforced what I already felt about living a life using logic and reason, to benefit the whole of humanity, I know now this was my truth.

Assisted Dying: Who Makes the Final Decision?

by Lesley Close

Assisted Dying: Who Makes the Final Decision, by Lesley Close, published 12 February 2014.

Assisted Dying: Who Makes the Final Decision, by Lesley Close, published 12 February 2014.

Eleven years ago this month I was helping my brother, John Close, to prepare for his death. He was 55 and coming to the end of his life because he had motor neurone disease, diagnosed two years earlier.

John had seen the story of Reg Crew, the first Briton whose journey to Dignitas was publicised. He told me, by typing with one finger at a time on his computer, ‘That’s how I’d like to go when my time comes.’

My response was to confirm that his life was his to deal with as he saw fit. I told him that I would do everything I could to help him achieve his goal of a peaceful and dignified death at the time of his choosing.

That’s how I came to arrive in a tiny flat in central Zurich at three o’clock in the afternoon on Monday 26th May 2003. John was only the seventh British person to have Dignitas’ help to die, so we had no idea what to expect from the experience as the last day of John’s life unfolded.

It was hard to accept that John was dying of MND, but it was comforting that he could be in control at the end of his life. With Dignitas’ help, my dear brother obtained the peaceful and dignified death he sought, but it did not happen at the time of his choosing. As well as fitting in with Dignitas’ plans, John had to travel to Switzerland while he still had sufficient bodily strength to undertake the journey. There was no question about his mental strength – like everyone who has made that journey to have help to die, John was a strong determined individual.

That’s an important characteristic – nobody is being compelled to go to Switzerland against their will. People who are suffering intolerably as their lives come to an end because of terminal illnesses are looking for – and finding – the information they need to contact Dignitas and are making their own plans to undertake that final journey.

The statistics from Oregon, where assisted dying has been legal since 1997, confirm that the option of an assisted death appeals to individuals for whom being in control is very important, predominantly college-educated people.

I thought I knew a great deal about the subject of assisted dying when, a year ago, I started writing the personal stories which form half of the book published by Peter Owen on 12th February, Assisted dying – who makes the final decision? but I learned a huge amount by editing the chapters which appear between my own. I was previously ready to debate the subject with anyone but now I feel armed to refute almost every objection which is raised to changing the law.

I have learned the importance of challenging people who say things like ‘In the Netherlands people no longer trust their doctors’ and similar things intended to make an audience doubt the wisdom of changing the law here. I now ask for statistics to back up those assertions. There aren’t any!

Unless and until someone shows me a different way to solve the UK’s problem of intolerable suffering at the end of life, I will campaign to change the law to something like the Oregon ‘model’. Assisted dying works there and Lord Falconer’s Bill contains even more safeguards than Oregon’s legislation. Doctors in that state are not regarded as murdering monsters and the rest of the medical and social care system works perfectly well. And Oregon has not been consumed by hellfire… which brings me on to my final point.

I have never yet heard an argument against assisted dying that I have not been able to refute, other than those which are based purely on the dictates of a person’s religious belief. Everyone who, like me, has no such belief – as well as those people with faith who can reconcile their faith with assisted dying – should assert the need for individual choice in decisions about their death. I do not want to dictate how anyone should see out the end of their life and I believe we should all be shown the same respect.

Lesley Close is the author of Assisted Dying: Who Makes the Final Decision?, released 12 February 2014. She works as a design company administrator, and is the sister of the late John Close.

Homeopathy, celebrities and marketing

By Lee Turnpenny

Photo by Philippa Willitts

Those who subscribe to the cult of homeopathy tend to be afflicted with a continually confused attitude to the concept of evidence. On Weds 25 November 2009, the House of Commons Science and Technology Sub-Committee convened for an Evidence Check on Homeopathy. Amongst the ‘witnesses’ was Dr Peter Fisher, Clinical Director and Director of Research at the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital (now the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine). Dr Fisher unashamedly described the process of succussion (forward to 11:06). In case you’re not familiar, this is the action of vigorously shaking/striking a vial of liquid in order to activate the memory of a substance (ie, the ‘remedy’) that has been diluted out of it, whilst simultaneously detoxifying the effects of all the other stuff the water will inevitably have come into contact with (because water is promiscuous stuff).

The Government Response to the Committee’s report concluded overall that:

By providing homeopathy on the NHS and allowing Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency licensing of products which subsequently appear on pharmacy shelves, the Government runs the risk of endorsing homeopathy as an efficacious system of medicine. To maintain patient trust, choice and safety, the Government should not endorse the use of placebo treatments, including homeopathy. Homeopathy should not be funded on the NHS and the MHRA should stop licensing homeopathic products.’

However, despite this concurrence, the Government then weasel-y left it to Primary Care Trusts to decide whether to continue wasting NHS funds on homeopathy, under the sopping guise of patient ‘choice.’ (Homeopathy enjoys sympathy among MPs – including from the Secretary of State for Health.)

The majority of homeopathic products licensed by the MHRA are registered under a 1992 Simplified Scheme that prohibits ‘indications’ – ie the associated description of disease/conditions, and medical/therapeutic claims thereon. These MHRA regulations on the advertising of medicinal products thus inform the Advertising Standards Authority, which on 1 March 2011 widened its scope to encapsulate marketing/advertising on UK websites. And thereafter received copious complaints about the online claims made by an array of homeopaths/homeopathy organisations (to the extent that it requested abeyance). The ASA contacted the complained-of advertisers – and those UK bodies that represent homeopaths and homeopathy. Its letter explicitly states:

‘You must remove any content from your website that claims directly or indirectly that homeopathy and homeopathic products can diagnose/treat/help health conditions.’

This letter (well worth a read, by the way) also informed addressees that their sites were under surveillance, with three months in which to comply with guidance on the marketing of health-related products and services, as stipulated by the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP).

During British Homeopathy Awareness Week back in June last year I took umbrage with various homeopathy organisations’ cheap, egregious, fallacious resort to endorsement by celebrity, including (to take just one) the British Homeopathic Association. The British Homeopathic Association’s ‘Celebrity Photography Project’ comprises quite fetching images of partaking celebs ‘… holding the source material of one of the homeopathic medicines that has helped them’ . If I’ve piqued your interest then, rather than take up word space here with quotes, I urge you to peruse for yourself this Goof’s Gallery.

I’m sure these celebrities are being ‘genuine’, in that they believe what they say. (After all, they subscribe to a belief system for people who like to feel all “Speh-shull.”) But I found this puzzling. Doesn’t that ASA letter apply to ‘… those bodies that represent homeopaths and homeopathy in the UK…’? Which must surely, I figured, encapsulate the British Homeopathic Association. Indeed, the Association’s website proudly boasts:

The British Homeopathic Association exists to promote homeopathy practised by doctors and other healthcare professionals.’ (My emphasis in bold.)

I therefore decided to flag this up to the ASA, because, to my eye, these celebrities are not only making/implying ‘… claims directly or indirectly that homeopathy and homeopathic products can diagnose/treat/help health conditions’; but they also imply ‘indications’ for these products, the majority of which are listed as registered under the MHRA Simplified Scheme (which prohibits indications). The ASA letter contains a paragraph I find particularly pertinent here:

Please note that testimonials from patients (which must be genuine) that imply efficacy for homeopathic treatment do not constitute substantiation but may give a misleading impression that efficacy is proven. Therefore it is essential that any testimonials also only make general references to an improved sense of well-being.’

Clearly, these celebrity statements constitute patient testimonials which imply efficacy for (unsubstantiated) homeopathic treatments. It appears to me that this project overall constitutes website content that (at the very least) ‘… claims directly or indirectly that homeopathy and homeopathic products can diagnose/treat/help health conditions.’ Which, to reiterate, are ‘Claims you cannot make’ under the CAP Code, as applies to advertisers, ‘… as well as those bodies that represent homeopaths and homeopathy…’.

The ASA declined to pursue this apparent anomaly. I had also written to the MHRA, whose guidelines also prohibit celebrity endorsement, but was informed (even though the remedies named by the celebrities marry with product names in its registration listing) that it only concerns itself with direct advertising of specific homeopathic medicinal product.’ As the BHA is not itself selling products, its celebrity endorsement falls outside the MHRA remit, as it constitutes promotional material, and on which it suggested I contact… the ASA. However, the ASA is likewise adamant that this complaint does not come under its remit (in apparent contradiction of its own letter) because the British Homeopathic Association is not itself directly supplying or transferring goods. So much for acting in the public interest.

Why does the British Homeopathic Association (and many other homeopathy-promoting bodies) seek testimonials, or mine for quotes, by celebrities? Just when does ‘raising awareness’ become ‘promotion’ become ‘advertising’? Although NHS support for homeopathy is on the wane (as of the end of last year, only 15% of PCTs were continuing to fund it), public money on this inefficacious ‘rubbish’ continues to be wasted, as chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davies recently reminded the CST committee. And in order to circumvent the ASA’s imposition on the advertising of their wares, homeopaths and homeopathy organisations such as the British Homeopathic Association have resorted to the patronising logical fallacy that is the appeal to celebrity (presumed) authority. Although the British Homeopathic Association does not itself (as far as I am aware) supply products and services, it represents – and promotes indirectly on behalf of – those homeopaths/homeopathic product providers who do. As the latter are covered by the ASA remit and can no longer legitimately advertise, the British Homeopathic Association is, it seems to me, exploiting a loophole – through the under-the-radar guise of ‘awareness-raising’ celebrity testimonials, which, in my opinion, are in contravention of the CAP Code.

As if a ‘senior homeopath’ spouting aqueous nonsense without compunction to a parliament committee is not ridiculous enough. What we have here, in effect, is a situation wherein, if you sell or provide certain dubious products and/or services, but are barred from making claims as to their efficacy, you can happily watch your representative umbrella organisation, which does not itself directly supply/sell/provide those products/services, make those claims indirectly on your behalf. Hence this permitted proxy-promotion of indication-prohibited, homeopathy products through a bunch of docile celebrities. A snake-oil-lubricated loophole.
First published in The Leicester Secularist,  (Jan 2013: see: