Our humanist High Court win changes everything – except, perhaps, the GCSE

Yesterday the High Court ruled that the UK Government’s subject content on GCSE Religious Studies in English schools is unlawful. The ruling was as a result of a case brought by three humanist families, with support of the British Humanist Association (BHA). It reflects the views of 90% of respondents to the earlier consultation on the subject content, as well as the Religious Education Council and a wide range of RE academics, consultants, advisors, professors of philosophy and religious leaders.

The ruling focussed on paragraph 2 of the content, which reads ‘By setting out the range of subject content and areas of study for GCSE specifications in religious studies, the subject content is consistent with the requirements for the statutory provision of religious education in current legislation as it applies to different types of school.’ It was this paragraph that was deemed by the judge to be ‘a false and misleading statement of law, which encourages others to act unlawfully.’

Since the decision two erroneous narratives have emerged that it would be worth quickly debunking. One, pushed by the Department for Education, is that the ‘judgment does not challenge the content or structure of that new GCSE, and the judge has been clear it is in no way unlawful. His decision will also not affect the current teaching of the RS GCSE in classrooms.’ [Full stop.]

And the other is the countervailing narrative that the GCSE subject content needs to be rewritten and that this will be massively disruptive for exam boards, teachers, and students.

The problem with both of these narratives is that they are all about the GCSE, when the case wasn’t really all about the GCSE at all. It was about the rest of RE as a whole. Let me explain.

What the decision has done is firmly established the fact, based on the European Convention on Human Rights, that Religious Education (and not Religious Studies), outside of faith schools, must be neutral, impartial, objective and pluralistic. RE must treat the principal religious and non-religious worldviews in this country equally (other than Christianity, which could have a greater share of coverage). If a syllabus has a certain level of coverage of Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism, and Buddhism, then it must now give similar priority in its level of coverage of Humanism. This clearly has big implications for agreed syllabuses, schools, and Academy chains in setting their RE curriculum content. (And while the case focussed on England, there’s no obvious reason why the ruling doesn’t also bite across the rest of the UK.)

Where the GCSE comes into it is that most routes through the GCSE content are not inclusive of non-religious worldviews, due to the decision of the Government to prioritise religions over non-religious worldviews in the content (because, in its words, ‘as these are qualifications in Religious Studies, it is right that the content primarily focuses on developing students’ understanding of different religious beliefs’). The consequence is that if a school just teaches the GCSE as the entirety of its key stage 4 RE (as is quite common), and in so doing it doesn’t major on those few bits of the GCSE content that are inclusive of non-religious worldviews, then it has failed in its RE obligation to be pluralistic in what it has taught.

But paragraph 2 ‘permits’, indeed ‘encourages’, in the judge’s words, schools and others to believe that just teaching the GCSE, even when not including any detailed non-religious content, is sufficient to meet schools’ RE teaching obligations as a whole at key stage 4. This is why paragraph 2 is ‘a false and misleading statement of law, which encourages others to act unlawfully’. The DfE now needs to rectify this (e.g. by amending paragraph 2, or otherwise making the situation clear such as through supplementary guidance).

And so we come back to why the DfE’s press statement is misleading – the DfE is guilty of a sin of omission. Yes, strictly speaking it is right that the content of the GCSE does not have to change (other than in the way I’ve just explained). But if your school is not a religious school, and it does not currently teach non-religious worldviews on an equal footing to the major religions, then the rest of your curriculum now needs to change. And this is a much more significant consequence than any changes to the GCSE might be.

(The countervailing narrative, meanwhile, that the GCSE will now need a major rewrite, is simply wrong. The DfE could choose to majorly rewrite the GCSE to make it inclusive, but the court hasn’t compelled it to and its own responses make it clear that it isn’t minded to do that.)

This is a change for the better: all the usual contemporary justifications for teaching about religions in the school curriculum – the contribution of such teaching to our cultural and historical knowledge, and its contribution to building mutual understanding and hence community cohesion – logically also apply to teaching about non-religious worldviews as well.

The British Humanist Association, for its part, is very much looking forward to working with schools, SACREs and agreed syllabus conferences to improve the inclusivity of RE in this area, for example through http://www.humanismforschools.org.uk/, our school volunteers programme, and in partnership with the 150 humanists who are members of SACREs across England and Wales.

For more information, the BHA has produced a fuller briefing clarifying what the decision said and its implications.

Why non-belief is gaining ground… even against Islam

As scepticism and materialism replace blind faith, more people than ever worldwide are opting for atheism, argues Conservative Humanists patron Matt Ridley.

Fifty years ago, after the cracking of the genetic code, Francis Crick was so confident religion would fade that he offered a prize for the best future use for Cambridge’s college chapels. Swimming pools, said the winning entry. Today, when terrorists cry ‘God is great’ in both Paris and Bamako as they murder, the joke seems sour. But here’s a thought: that jihadism may be a last spasm — albeit a painful one — of a snake that is being scotched. The humanists are winning, even against Islam.

Quietly, non-belief is on the march. Those who use an extreme form of religion to poison the minds of disaffected young men are furious about the spread of materialist and secularist ideas, which they feel powerless to prevent. In 50 years’ time, we may look back on this period and wonder how we failed to notice that Islam was about to lose market share, not to other religions, but to Humanism.

The fastest growing belief system in the world is non-belief. No religion grew nearly as fast over the past century. Whereas virtually nobody identified as a non-believer in 1900, today roughly 15 per cent do, and that number does not include soft Anglicans in Britain, mild Taoists in China, lukewarm Hindus in India or token Buddhists in Japan. Even so, the non-religious category has overtaken paganism, will soon pass Hinduism, may one day equal Islam and is gaining on Christianity. (Of every ten people in the world, roughly three are Christian, two Muslim, two Hindu, 1.5 non-religious and 1.5 something else.)

This is all the more remarkable when you think that, with a few notable exceptions, atheists or humanists don’t preach, let alone pour money into evangelism. Their growth has come almost entirely from voluntary conversion, whereas Islam’s slower growth in market share has largely come from demography: the high birth rates in Muslim countries compared with Christian ones.

And this is about to change. The birth rate in Muslim countries is plummeting at unprecedented speed. A study by the demographer Nicholas Eberstadt three years ago found that: ‘Six of the ten largest absolute declines in fertility for a two-decade period recorded in the postwar era have occurred in Muslim-majority countries.’ Iran, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Bangladesh, Tunisia, Libya, Albania, Qatar and Kuwait have all seen birth-rate declines of more than 60 per cent in 30 years.

Meanwhile, secularism is on the rise within Muslim majority countries. It is not easy being a humanist in an Islamic society, even outside the Isis hell-holes, so it is hard to know how many there are. But a poll in 2012 found that 5 per cent of Saudis describe themselves as fully atheist and 19 per cent as non-believers — more than in Italy. In Lebanon the proportion is 37 per cent. Remember in many countries they are breaking the law by even thinking like this.

That Arab governments criminalise non-belief shows evidence not of confidence, but of alarm. Last week a court in Saudi Arabia sentenced a Palestinian poet, Ashraf Fayadh, to death for apostasy. In 2014 the Saudi government brought in a law defining atheism as a terrorist offence. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government in Egypt, though tough on Islamists, has also ordered two ministries to produce a national plan to ‘confront and eliminate’ atheism. They have shut down a café frequented by atheists and dismissed a college librarian who talked about Humanism in a TV programme.

Earlier this month there was yet another murder by Islamists — the fifth such incident — of a Bangladeshi publisher of secularist writing. I recently met one of the astonishingly brave humanist bloggers of Bangladesh, Arif Rahman, who has seen four colleagues hacked to death with machetes in daylight. He told me about Bangladesh’s 2013 blasphemy law, and the increasing indifference or even hostility of the Bangladeshi government towards the plight of non-religious bloggers. For many Muslim-dominated governments, the enemy is not ‘crusader’ Christianity, it is home-grown non-belief.

The jihadists of Isis are probably motivated less by a desire to convert Europe’s disaffected youth to fundamentalist Islam than by a wish to prevent the Muslim diaspora sliding into western secularism. In the Arab world, according to Brian Whitaker, author of Arabs Without God, what tempts people to leave the faith is not disgust at the antics of Islamist terrorists, but the same things that have drained church attendance here: materialism, rationalism and scepticism.

As the academics Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman wrote in an essay eight years ago: ‘Not a single advanced democracy that enjoys benign, progressive socio-economic conditions retains a high level of popular religiosity. They all go material.’ America is no longer much of an exception. Non-believers there outnumber Mormons, Muslims and Jews combined, and are growing faster than southern Baptists.

Whitaker found that Arab atheists mostly lost their faith gradually, as the unfairness of divine justice, the irrationality of the teaching, or the prejudice against women, gay people or those of other faiths began to bother them. Whatever your origin and however well you have been brainwashed, there is just something about living in a society with restaurants and mobile phones, universities and social media, that makes it hard to go on thinking that morality derives exclusively from superstition.

Not that western humanists are immune from superstitions, of course: from Gaia to Gwyneth Paltrow diets to astrology, there’s plenty of room for cults in the western world, though they are mostly harmless. As is Christianity, these days, on the whole.

I do not mean to sound complacent about the Enlightenment. The adoption of Sharia or its nearest equivalent in no-go areas of European cities will need to be resisted, and vigorously. The jihadists will kill many more people before they are done, and will provoke reactions by governments that will erode civil liberties along the way. I am dismayed by the sheer lack of interest in defending free speech that many young westerners display these days, as more and more political groups play the blasphemy card in imitation of Islam, demanding ‘safety’ from ‘triggering’ instances of offence.

None the less, don’t lose sight of the big picture. If we hold our resolve, stop the killers, root out the hate preachers, encourage the reformers and stem the tide of militant Islamism, then secularism and milder forms of religion will win in the long run.

Matt Ridley is a journalist and Conservative Party peer who is a member of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group. This piece originally appeared in The Times newspaper.

Football: religion for humanists?

Five days shalt thou labour, as the Bible says. The seventh day is the Lord thy God’s. The sixth day is for football.
Anthony Burgess

For many fans of the 'beautiful game', football isn't just a sport, it's a way of life. Photo: Jon Candy.

For many fans of the ‘beautiful game’, football isn’t just a sport, it’s a way of life. Photo: Jon Candy.

I am sure you have felt it too, that feeling of the numinous and the transcendent? Perhaps you feel this way when you gaze up into the night sky? Perhaps when you solve an extremely difficult mathematical question? Maybe when you step into a museum? I hazard that at some point in your life the hairs on the back of your neck have risen at moments such as these. As a humanist I am often told that this experience is solely a religious one. If that is true, I and millions of other secular humanists must therefore confess that we too are religious. Football is my religion and it may also be yours.

Perhaps you are a football fan, but do not share this view? Let me convince you.

2014 11 13 LW v1 Matt Healy

The 1795 singer, young humanist, and BHA Patron Matt Healy equates football with ‘the warmth and wonder inhumed within the pursuit of the truth’.

The late Terry Pratchett once said: ‘The thing about football – the important thing about football – is that it is not just about football.’ He was absolutely correct too. Football is not simply twenty two people kicking a ball of compressed air for ninety minutes across a green field. Football is about community, football is about passion, and most of all football is about winning.

Supporting a football club has a lot in common with adopting a religious faith. As with religion, once you have chosen a football club you instantly become a part of that community; a community which may more accurately be described as a tribe. I wager any person who doubts this comparison ought to attend a football match and witness the fervour, the chants and the rivalry, not between opposing football teams but between opposing fans. To witness the shared, very public grief felt by football fans whose team has just been relegated or that has just lost in the cup final, is comparable only to the faithful on St. Peters Square upon the death of a Pope. In the face of oppression, as with religion, football can bring a community together. Often the most fundamental of football fans are those who have suffered the most because of their emotional attachment to their clubs. This suffering, like all suffering, can inspire hope in even the darkest of times.

Football tribalism induces a passion in people not seen since the days when the Church ruled medieval Europe. To this day historians debate the reasons why thirty thousand people suddenly left behind their homes and their families and migrated to the Near East. The general consensus is that religious tribalism in these people invoked such strong feelings of passion that they were compelled to migrate because of the calling of Christ. This migration is called the First Crusade. We may think that we are far removed from the days of Church ruled Europe. We would be wrong. Each week millions of people across the world travel hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles to watch a football game. For these people football is their ‘religion’.

“Each week millions of people across the world travel hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles to watch a football game. For these people football is their ‘religion’.”

These dedicated fans do it because they have an emotional attachment to their team. They cry when they lose, and feel delirious when they win. Football like religion is about hoping your team you have chosen to support will win. The difference with religion in this case is that the winning in a religious sense only takes place after your own demise. Religious people hope that their faith is the one true faith. They cannot all be correct, that would be absurd just as absurd as two opposing football teams each winning in the cup final.

Football possesses many of the virtues of religion and I have only outlined three, but naturally it also embraces many of the vices too. With tribalism comes violence and hatred, with losing feelings of despair and emptiness. Football is religion for humanists but what I would also say is that football encapsulates the very humanity of sport. I feel that it is for this reason why in all our millions we go to such great lengths to watch those twenty two people kicking a ball of compressed air for ninety minutes across a green field. It is the drama of a last minute goal that wins you the league, or the beauty of seeing Lionel Messi come closer to the divine than any other human that has ever lived. It is the sportsmanship too: how can we forget that tragic day that Fabrice Muamba’s life was saved by a heart surgeon sitting in the home stand who rushed onto the pitch to rescue an opposing player?

Football can be like a religion to humanists, I say, but it is also so much more. Football is a celebration of humanity. As with any celebration often there are those who work tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure that humanity can be celebrated. Perhaps you wish to be one of these people? If so, then the Young Humanists are for you. I look forward to seeing you at one of their excellent launch parties very soon!

In the sweep of its appeal, its ability to touch every corner of humanity, football is the only game that needed to be invented.
Bobby Charlton



Martin Smith, Young Humanist and former Secretary of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS), and Manchester United fan.

Young Humanists is the 18-35s section of the British Humanist Association. Find out more about what they do and how to get involved at younghumanists.org.uk.

Non-Prophet Week, and why humanist charity matters

All this week, young humanists are raising money for good causes. The BHA’s student section, the AHS, is hosting its annual Non-Prophet Week, and the International Humanist and Ethical Youth Organisation has launched its Better Tomorrow humanist charity drive.

In this article, AHS Secretary Caitlin Greenwood writes about the importance of humanist giving.

Schools in Uganda greatly benefited from last year's Non-Prophet Week

Schools in Uganda greatly benefited from last year’s Non-Prophet Week, as organised by non-religious students at universities across the UK and Ireland

Charity is often considered to be a uniquely Christian virtue, which is a tradition dating back at least to Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas stated that charity was the love between god and man, and between man and his neighbour. The 1822 New Catholic Catechism reaffirmed this, saying ‘Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbour as ourselves for the love of God.’ While some other Christian traditions have defined charity in a more restricted way, better reflecting the modern definition, they are in a somewhat of a minority worldwide.

The origin, then, of ‘Christian charity’ seems to be a conflation of a specific theological term, with a more generally used definition. But what of all those Victorian philanthropists, wasn’t their charity directed by Christian morals? Andrew Carnegie, perhaps the most famous philanthropist, was a member of a Presbyterian church, and surely he stands for so many others, too numerous to name? (Leaving aside, of course, the fact that Carnegie avoided theism for the first half of his life, and joined the church well after beginning his philanthropic efforts.)

Unfortunately, it is not quite so simple as all that. Simply wanting to do good does not mean one automatically does good. Victorian interpretations of Christian teachings often extended to the moral value of the working classes. They were not people simply fallen on hard times, but were worse than their clear moral superiors, the upper and middle classes, whose philanthropic duty was to reform them. In 1868, the Radical MP John Roebuck claimed his lifelong aim was ‘to make the working man as [. . .] civilized a creature as I could make him’. This set the tone for much of the philanthropy that was to follow over the next several decades.

Moreover, this moral superiority was not intended, entirely, to be levelled by charity. The New York Times in 1937 stated: ‘So the education in giving goes on from generation to generation. It is not merely the gift that counts or the help that is given the neediest; it is the acquainting of the families year after year, as children grow into youth and youth into manhood and womanhood, with the conditions about them and the cultivation of the habit of giving.’ Charity was conceived of as a permanent virtue, a sticking plaster to be applied to the topic of inequality. While campaigners throughout the 19th and 20th centuries did fight for – and achieve – a genuine reduction in inequality, it was rarely achieved through any kind of charitable giving.

The situation whereby charities, and charitable giving, actually perpetuate a problem rather than solving it, continues to this day. Consider, for instance the way unqualified people flocked to Haiti in 2010 or Nepal in 2015. These people all wanted to help, and were clearly willing to sacrifice their time and money. Unfortunately, their presence mostly served to slow down the aid efforts, rather than help them. The same could be said for the donated goods, many of which ultimately went to waste. A New York Times article from 2013 calls this ‘Philanthropic Colonialism’, the product of uninformed philanthropists thinking they know best, and actually making things worse. And in these cases, people really did think they were trying to help.


“…it can be easy to say that charity work is our moral responsibility. However, we also emphasise reason and evidence in our thinking to be an effective force for good.”


But what does all this have to do with Humanism? Well, for me, a part of the humanist worldview is an understanding that we have a moral responsibility to our fellow beings and to alleviate suffering and difficulty wherever we find it. As a consequence, it can be easy to say that charity work is our moral responsibility. However, we also emphasise reason and evidence in our thinking. If we want to be an effective force for good in the world it makes sense to start by working out which channels provide the most efficient ways to reduce human suffering. We at the AHS agree with the principles underlying the growing social movement known as effective altruism. Effective altruism is about trying to maximise your positive impact on the world not just through choosing charities that have the highest return in good achieved for resources invested, but through other aspect of your life such as your choice of career.

The AHS (The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular student societies) is the national umbrella organisation for student societies in the UK and Republic of Ireland. Each year, we hold ‘Non-Prophet Week’, in which we encourage our members to raise money for a particular cause. During last year’s Non-Prophet week we raised money for the Ugandan Humanist Schools Trust, an organisation which provides a secular education in a country riven with religious tensions. Our total was £2784.60, and by far the most ‘charitable’ act came from Jess Barnes from Nottingham, who took sponsorship from other students to shave her head, raising £620 and then donated the hair to a charity which provides wigs for cancer patients!

This year, we have chosen to support Give Directly, a charity which simply transfers cash to extremely poor people in Kenya and Uganda. A breakdown of their processes can be viewed on their website. Give Directly exemplify transparency in the process of charitable giving. But the really great thing about Give Directly is their evidence base. The approach of offering cash transfers, as opposed to microloans or other forms of aid, seems to be one of the most effective ways of reducing suffering, both in the short and long terms. Cash transfers have been shown to increase children’s nutrition and health in the countries of Malawi, South Africa and Uganda, and more broadly to increase access to education. In the long term, one study found that men’s annual income five years after receiving transfers had increased by 64%–96% of the grant amount. There is also no evidence that cash transfers significantly increase consumption of alcohol or tobacco- which is perhaps what those Victorian philanthropists would have expected. Instead, the money might be invested in the upkeep of a house, in some new equipment, or in sending some members of the household to school. There is also good evidence that many people save at least part of the money as security against future financial difficulty or for later investment.

Give directly are also continuing to collect data to be studied by social scientists, which may, in turn, help further identify ways of reducing inequality permanently, and having a direct impact on people’s lives. You can find out more on their website and at Give Well.

If you fancy supporting Give Directly, and us through Non Prophet Week, you might enjoy hearing about how our President, Richard Acton, will be wearing a colander on his head all week, or how Treasurer Luke Dabin will have his legs waxed in public. If acquisition is more your thing, I’ll be making humanist pants, and I can guarantee you’ll get yours in time for Christmas.

Why parents shouldn’t support ‘Operation Christmas Child’

What could be the harm in sending a Christmas gift to a child in need? At this time of year, schools all across the country are taking part in the Christmas Box appeal, and the task is superficially noble: ask your child to fill a decorated box with toys and essential items and the charity will deliver them to a child who is living in poverty. It’s a tangible, personal way of giving, and it’s immensely popular.

But Operation Christmas Child is run by Samaritan’s Purse, a huge and zealous organisation led by Franklin Graham, son of the famous evangelist Billy Graham. Not only is the organisation openly homophobic, it seeks to proselytise in a manner that most people, including liberal Christians, find unacceptable. As a humanist, I am naturally disquieted by the idea of people performing evangelical work with the intended purpose of conversion; but I am positively offended when this work is performed at the expense of vulnerable children in desperate situations across the globe.

Several other charitable organisations and reputable businesses, including the Cooperative, have withdrawn their support for Operation Christmas Child.[i]  The charity Save The Children has questioned its effectiveness and expressed concerns about the use of evangelism in the context of people in need. Some leading teachers’ Unions, including the NASUWT,  have pointed out the difficult position that schools are placing themselves in when they support such charities without giving careful thought to their stated mission. But despite all of this, hundreds of schools will still take part in Operation Christmas Child this year, unwittingly supporting the work of a right-wing evangelical organisation, with little or no idea of what it stands for.[ii]


It is clear from the Samaritan’s Purse website and Franklin Graham’s social media pages that the organisation has a homophobic agenda. Recently Graham has been raising funds to support Aaron and Melissa Klein, who not only refused to provide services for a lesbian couple in their bakery in Oregon but even quoted Leviticus at a member of the couple’s family. It gets worse. Following consumer complaints posted online by the couple and leading to intervention by the Oregon Department of Justice, Aaron Klein sought support from others by publishing the discrimination complaint on his Facebook account, including the names and shared address of the complainants. This led to the couple receiving homophobic verbal attacks and death threats; they were even concerned that they might lose their foster children (whom they have since adopted). The couple pushed ahead with legal action and the Kleins were ultimately ordered to pay $135,000 in damages for the emotional suffering that they caused. Franklin Graham’s version of events is that the Kleins are conscientious objectors who have ‘done nothing wrong’. He uses their story to fuel resentment against equality laws and curry favour for the ridiculous notion that US Christians experience ‘persecution’, something which seems to have become something of an obsession for him.

This is just one example of the organisation’s homophobia as it seeks to uphold ‘the Biblical definition’ of marriage.  Samaritan’s Purse has also given considerable financial support to the campaign against marriage equality in the USA and Graham has made his own homophobia abundantly clear both in his words and in his deeds. He’s also got some startlingly ignorant opinions about gender.


Many UK representatives hotly defend Operation Christmas Child and claim to have seen no evidence of evangelism or of the accusation that the boxes are distributed with ‘strings attached’. These people are either disingenuous or incredibly naïve. A cursory glance at the charity’s own website provides a wealth of evidence that the explicit, stated purpose of Operation Christmas Child is to convert the child who receives the gift and to encourage them to convert their families. The mission statement says that ‘every gift-filled shoe box is a powerful tool for evangelism and discipleship – transforming the lives of children around the world through the Good News of Jesus Christ’. As one of the representatives in India puts it in this promotional film, ‘children become the harvesters’ for Jesus.  Religious literature is distributed, often in the children’s own language, and this is the charity’s own description of how it is used:

Some of the evangelical literature sent with shoeboxes to impoverished children

Some of the evangelical literature sent with shoeboxes to impoverished children

‘Through The Greatest Journey discipleship programme, boys and girls can become faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Samaritan’s Purse developed The Greatest Journey as a dynamic, interactive Bible study for use in countries around the world where Operation Christmas Child distributes gift-filled shoeboxes. Wherever possible, children receiving shoeboxes are invited to enrol on The Greatest Journey; 2.8 million children have enrolled on this programme since the curriculum was first developed in 2008.’

Many schools either downplay or indeed appear completely ignorant of this aspect of the charity’s work, and UK representatives of Operation Christmas Child will claim that the spreading of the word extends no further than a small booklet of bible stories that may be handed out with the boxes. This is simply not true, or at least it is not true in all cases. Much of the literature used by Samaritan’s Purse demonstrates a clear and direct attempt to convert the young, and the charity aims to enrol children in their brainwashing programme wherever possible.

Numerous critics have observed that Samaritan’s Purse volunteers overseas are often more interested in conversion than provision. According to the President of Operation USA, an international relief organisation, Samaritan’s Purse organised a religious festival after the hurricane in Nicaragua in 1999 and pressurised local churches into taking thousands of children to a baseball stadium in Managua to hear Graham preach; at a time when resources were scarce and people were in desperate need, the money could have been so much better spent on basic supplies and rebuilding work rather than on proselytising. In 2003 the organisation was criticised in the New York Times for holding prayer meetings before it provided help to the people of El Salvador to build the temporary homes that had been provided by US Government funding; interviews with some of the locals reveal that volunteers had distributed religious literature and asked them to accept Jesus Christ as their saviour. Samaritan’s Purse also funded the distribution of Arabic Bibles in Iraq after the war and sent hundreds of volunteers into the country  with the mission of bringing Muslims to Christ. In 2008 they compromised both government-funded aid and diplomacy by attempting to convert Muslims to Christianity following the tsunami in Banda Aceh. After the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, the organisation was criticised in the liberal press for pouring money into evangelising rather than into aid; Graham claimed that the people of Haiti’s spiritual needs were the most urgent concern for his organisation, and he was supported in his endeavours by the ever-delightful Sarah Palin.

One of the reasons why so many people in the UK are completely oblivious to the extreme agenda of Samaritan’s Purse is that it is deliberately not promoted here, to the extent that many earnest and well-meaning volunteers remain blissfully unaware of its sinister nature. This is an excerpt from one of the organisation’s own statements about their UK-based operation, and it implies that there may well be practices that even those who work for the charity in the UK are completely unaware of:

‘Please be assured that the commitment of Samaritan’s Purse to evangelism is as strong as ever. … However, there is a difference in the way the boxes are processed in the UK for overseas shipment. The UK program removes all religious items … and forwards any Christian literature to our National Leadership Teams working in countries where shoebox gifts are distributed, so the Christian literature can be used with children. … The Gospel is also presented locally as part of the distribution of the gifts, and wherever possible, children are offered a Gospel storybook written in their own language called The Greatest Gift of All. Many children are also invited to enrol in a 10-lesson follow-up Bible study program, and upon completion receive a New Testament as a graduation gift.’

In the USA, where evangelism is broadly accepted and commonplace in many parts of the country, the evangelical message is better understood both by donors and by volunteers. In this country, most volunteers and participants in the scheme cling to the notion that if they haven’t seen it then it doesn’t go on. Do not be fooled – it does.

Suggested alternatives

If your local school is irretrievably wedded to the idea of a Christian shoebox scheme, the BHA advise that Link to Hope don’t distribute any literature with their boxes. The Rotary Club also runs a similar scheme and they at least have a proven track record when it comes to providing worthwhile aid within the developing world.  But most charities with a genuine desire to bring change to the developing world and to lift children out of poverty now reject the Christmas box model; donors may well have the best of intentions, but sending a shoe box full of gifts is ultimately a grossly inefficient and environmentally questionable way to give. If your school would like to back a more effective scheme with tangible outcomes you could suggest that they look at those run by Plan UK, Oxfam, Save the Children, Aquabox or Good Gifts.

[i] The delivery service DHL have withdrawn their support, as have the South Wales Fire service. Oxfam have also made it clear that they do not support this organisation. Even some Christian organisations  and individual Christian volunteers are detaching themselves from Samaritan’s Purse due to concerns about the extreme nature of the message.

[ii] Many websites state that concerns have been raised by the Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education (SACRE). While they offer no national policy on Operation Christmas Child, it has certainly been discussed at local SACREs across the country and some SACREs, for example in Cambridgeshire, have written to their local schools about the concerns. Minutes from the Isle of Wight group describe Operation Christmas Child as “a long-standing issue” yet one that they don’t consider to be their concern, which seems pretty extraordinary. In Surrey, our SACREs have spoken to local representatives of Operation Christmas Child and seem to accept wholesale their reassurances, which they give here. They have not investigated further.

Happiness on display

Time is truly running out now to take part in the BHA’s 2015 Happiness Photography Competition.

The comments on this post from Facebook shows a snapshot of what we’ve been receiving since advertising the competition, which promises prizes worth £300 and the chance at having your work exhibited in a central London gallery.

For a chance to win, entries must be with the BHA by 15 October. Please read entry requirements closely and apply at happyphotos.org.uk.

My eye-opening Humanist Weekend

Young Humanists graphic designer Kathleen van Geete reflects on a spirited weekend of humanist discussion and debate in the Netherlands.

UK delegates to the IHEYO Humanist Weekend arrive in the Netherlands

UK delegates to the IHEYO Humanist Weekend arrive in the Netherlands

In early August, I was lucky to be one of several humanists despatched to the outskirts of Eindhoven in the Netherlands to represent the Young Humanists, the 18-35s section of the British Humanist Association, at a special Humanist Weekend event organised for young people like us from around the world. It was organised by the International Humanist and Ethical Youth Organisation (IHEYO), the youth wing of the the International Humanist and Ethical Union, and its purpose was straightforward: to get to know each other better and discuss our role in the humanist movement.

Before we left for the reclusive Dutch woodlands, each of us had the chore of trying to convince our friends, families, and colleagues that we were not embarking on an initiation escapade to some remote cult gathering. In fact, our weekend was quite the opposite. Once we arrived at De Kievit, our lodge for the duration of our trip, and met up with humanists from other parts of the world, it was obvious that our discussions and activities would keep well away from all things spiritual, fanciful, and superficial.

It all started with a challenge. The weekend’s organiser, Dutch humanist Lenart Kolenberg, presented our theme for the weekend: to consider the Amsterdam Declaration of 1952 – the first international statement of its kind, setting out the values and principles of contemporary Humanism – and to consider what, if anything, we would add to it. This was a daunting question, but the weekend’s lectures and discussions would all serve this theme, we were assured. And then Lennart asked us something else, with something of a grin on his face. He wanted to know whether we as young humanists – ranging in age from older teenagers through to young adults, all at different stages in our lives – considered it our job to ‘save the world’.

We had the pleasure of hearing from five enthusiastic speakers. Kicking all our hangovers out the door first thing on Saturday morning was Leon Korteweg, who drilled down into the subject of ‘Wikipedia activism’. His work, through Guerrilla Skepticism, aims to provide accurate and well-cited information about Humanism and related topics to Wikipedia pages. Due to Wikipedia’s status as sixth most popular website in the world’ , Leon’s group aims to ensure that all information about humanist and skeptic topics on the online encyclopaedia are accurate and, importantly, verifiable, in as many languages as possible. A secondary aim for the group is to ensure that new pages about notable humanist and non-religious topics are added to the encyclopaedia where necessary, to promote public awareness of these topics.

In a later talk, the BHA’s Campaigns Manager, Richy Thompson, joined with IHEU Director of Communications Bob Churchill to offer some insights into the work of both organisations over the past 12 months and their lives own as ‘professional humanists’. Richy spoke about the BHA’s campaigns on various secularist and public ethical issues in the last month, such as its campaign for a compassionate assisted dying law, to promote understanding of Humanism through schools, and to raise awareness of issues around the state funding of religious schools and quack medicine such as homeopathy.

Bob spoke about IHEU’s development into a formidable international humanist society in its own right, engaged in international lobbying through organisations like the UN and the Council of Europe, as well as through in-depth research like the annual Freedom of Thought Report. Guests at the Humanist Weekend also learned about the pivotal role IHEU played in supporting Bangladeshi humanists and atheists under threat from religious extremists. Just a day previous, the Bangladeshi blogger Niloy Neel had been brutally killed in his own home. Niloy was one of 84 humanist writers marked for death in a prominent ‘hit list’ circulated among Islamic extremists in Bangladesh. IHEU helped to coordinate activists on the ground in Bangladesh and, working with international groups like the BHA, break the story about Niloy’s horrible murder. It offers similar support, in many cases directly to individuals under threat, in places like Malaysia and Egypt as well.

One delegate asked Bob how we, as young people, could help to support the humanist cause, particularly around complex international issues like these. Bob’s advice was enlightening. In his role at IHEU, Bob has had a hand in the formation and development of a number of humanist societies, including successful national humanist groups in Africa. His reasoning was simple: focus on effectively managing your own small local groups. Religious extremists, out to do harm, tend to form incredibly well-networked and professional groups. Even slick terrorist organisations like the Islamic State began as small hives of well-trained, dedicated activists. Humanists need to provide an opposite force to these evils. Even small voluntary tasks for larger organisations in your area can assist the cause dramatically, Bob explained. While some campaigns will not necessarily need voluntary assistance in the beginning, they can grow rapidly and come to rely on the work of volunteers. He gave as an example of this, the End Blasphemy Laws campaign, launched earlier this year shortly after the Charlie Hebdo killings, which has already helped to stimulate repeals in two European countries, and the Freedom of Thought Report, which has become an increasingly effective diplomatic tool and which is assembled with the help of dozens of international volunteers.

Active socialising, shall we say, on Saturday night led to a rough start on Sunday for everyone, but our speaker, David Althaus, roused us with a stirring talk on ‘Effective Altruism’. He asked his audience to consider how best it could give money to help the most people and make the biggest impact, which to me seemed to figure with Lennart’s original question of us on the Friday: what more can humanists stand for? What can we do to ‘save the world’? The topic was controversial, raising a number of questions about assumptions of effectiveness. As a group, we were forced to ask ourselves: which charities did we feel were the most active and beneficial to society? Could these be ranked, as many are by effective altruist groups like Giving What We Can? The audience was divided, but it seemed like our hunger for solving ethical issues and being a force for good in society had been stoked.

Our final speaker Hannah Blok initiated a careful discussion about technology, particularly in the context of dangers to our human rights: breaches of security, Internet surveillance, and the increasing commoditisation of personal data. Her advice to us, as activists working in different groups all over Europe, was to consider our procedures and data management activities carefully. Hannah described herself as suspicious and meticulous, and seemed to encourage us to be the same. It seemed we were agreed, as a group, on the subject of privacy. Privacy was paramount. Our members and activists were precious to us, and to the goals we hoped to achieve. We had to set ourselves a high challenge: to approach, with open arms, the potential uses of new technology to grow our organisations and expand our footprint, while being mindful of the human beings whose lives are described in the data this technology will gather over time.

I found the whole experience electrifying. I spent the weekend surrounded by people whose goals and interests were similar to my own, but who were all thoroughly individual, unique, and even challenging. We discussed everything. We inhaled subjects like marriage law, and its variances from state to state. We probed national politics and international issues and learned from each other’s experiences of both. Invariably, things on our mind came up a lot. Children, and child-raising. Our local groups’ activities. Our campaigns, and how our emphases on these seemed to vary from country to country. Penal reform, education. But there was real human connection, too. There was the sheer joy learning about how people’s ways of living and thinking could be so similar, and yet so different, throughout Europe. Most of us walked away not just with a wealth of knowledge which we could take to our own organisations, and to humanist campaigning, but a deeper and richer understanding of what makes us so similar, so different, and what unites us as humanists.

Bob and Richy had said something in their session which struck me, and it went through my head again as we left De Kieveit. They said how their careers in Humanism had much less to do with arguing against religion than questioning, and improving, the cultural and political frameworks to which their lives were anchored. Humanism was not a response to anything. It was – and had to be – a mission statement, a challenge, a call for a better way of living and running our societies.

It was then I realised that this what Lennart had been getting at, when he first sat us down with our copies of the Amsterdam Declaration. Why bother to make a ‘declaration’ anyway, I suspect many of us wondered. But it had become clear to me, over wine and long discussions, over fireside chats and the smell of forest pine: Humanism was a movement of people concerned with the betterment of our world. Not with creed or class, or race or religion, or any of these distractions, but a society built on solid ethical principles like respect for individual dignity and recognition of our place in a human community. It was about seeing the world for what it is, and acknowledging that while our lives are temporary, our world will outlast us.

All in all, I’m extremely grateful to everyone who organised the conference, which filled me with so much zeal to give more to the movement (and more of my time to Young Humanists in the UK!)

But enough from me. Here some wordss from other Young Humanist delegates sent to Eindhoven:

The Humanist Weekend in Esbeek was a great chance to meet new and interesting people. I had never been to an event like this, and didn’t know anyone prior to boarding my plane, so I was suitably anxious. However, the humanist youths from all over Europe made me feel welcome, and I felt I could initiate a conversation with any of them. This trip has inspired me to give more of my time to the Young Humanists in the UK, and has also helped me realise how successful humanism can be in a society, like the Netherlands. Although I managed to get stung on the lip by one of the many wasps, there were many great discussions and conversations between everyone, and I enjoyed every minute of it!
Dan Forder

Firstly I’d like to say thanks to the organisers, Remmelt, Jorg, Els,Lennart and anyone else at the forefront. Thanks to everyone else including the people in the background, the speakers and of course to all the attendees who made it a great weekend by simply being typically humanist. Talks, intellectual (and sometimes not so intellectual) discussions, good weather, games, alcohol and nice people, how could a weekend get any better?! A couple of my favourite talks over the weekend were by Leon Korteweg about Guerrilla Skeptics and learning more about the work IHEU and the BHA do from the talk by Bob Churchill and Richy Thompson. Since I’ve got back my Facebook friend total has increased and my knowledge of humanist groups and endevours has widened. Definitely something I’d like to do again next year!
James Fogg

It was fantastic not only to be part of the weekend, but, for the first time ever, to be part of a delegation of 18-35s representing the newly formed Young Humanists UK. We all thoroughly enjoyed being part of a bigger conversation, and look forward to playing our part in the worldwide humanist project. If you want to be part of the next delegation, get in touch.
Alice Fuller

The case for critical thinking in schools

Samuel Fawcett argues for instilling a healthy degree of scepticism in our young people.

Society is made in the classroom. Teaching young people how to think critically is essential to an open, progressive society. Photo: Ilmicrofono Oggiono

Society is made in the classroom. Teaching young people how to think critically is essential to an open, progressive society. Photo: Ilmicrofono Oggiono.

The United Kingdom is a credulous nation. Polling carried out by Ipsos Mori in 2013 showed that the general public are wrong about almost everything. From welfare, to crime, to immigration, public perceptions are a long way from the actual facts. It would seem that people are similarly susceptible to pseudoscience. YouGov polling shows that 39% of Britons believe that homeopathy is an effective treatment for illness and 20% that star signs ‘can tell you something about yourself or another person’.

So why are we so wrong about stuff? The reasons are manifold, and there is no simple remedy. Obviously the media plays a large role in shaping our perceptions about popular issues. It is no coincidence that the levels of immigration are believed to be higher than they are and the migrants themselves perceived to be morally degenerate when two out of three of the nation’s most-read papers push vehemently anti-immigrant rhetoric. However, to a certain extent these publications are simply catering to pre-existing prejudices, knowing that by doing so they will increase sales. When it comes to pseudoscience, many people are distrustful of large organisations, seeing them as removed, malicious and esoteric. Hence people are more likely to trust a friend offering them homeopathic pills than they are ‘big pharma’.

This disjunction between perception and reality is a key area in which Humanism can play a big role. At the heart of our movement is the desire for humans to live rational and harmonious lives. Obviously we do not seek to force everyone into a life of rigid, sceptical thinking – ‘we cannot live by reason alone’ as Sam Harris said. It is of no particular consequence to us if someone gets comfort from believing their deceased partner is watching over them or their horoscope will improve their sex life. But there is quite clearly an issue when lack of inquiry leads to the bigotry and spite which saw 50% of people agree with Nigel Farage’s view that immigrants suffering from AIDS should be denied NHS treatment for five years.

So what can we do about it? Obviously no one is going to shut down the Sun or the Daily Mail, and, much as it would save me a considerable number of blood vessels, it would be wrong to do so. Likewise, we cannot simply change fundamentals of human psychology. However, I believe that we can change people’s views without doing the impossible or betraying Enlightenment values of freedom of expression. To do so, we need to give people the tools to analyse, dissect and discuss from a young age.

Earlier this year I was talking with one of my French lecturers about what he thought of teaching in the UK. Instantly he replied that he hated it, and that he felt as though he were an activity leader rather than a tutor. He complained that we are not taught to think, but simply to regurgitate. A strong criticism, but one which I believe is grounded. In my own academic experience, I was never encouraged to question until university. Indeed, questioning was in effect discouraged at secondary school.  Even in A-Level Law, my class was told to learn the essay answer to the question on Law and Morality ‘almost off by heart’ and repeat it in the exam in our own words. I do not think it is obtuse to ask that Law students be asked to seriously consider the moral implications of law-making rather than what the AQA exam board believe will score you the most marks.

This lack of inquiry needs to be remedied by schools and colleges internalising critical thinking skills as a key part of their teaching. Some would say that this would be too dull and complex for students to take on, but I do not believe that is true at all. The ‘naïve young idealist’ stereotype exists for a reason, being that younger people tend to be far more sceptical than their elders, and are more than happy to question authority. Why don’t we utilise their healthy scepticism?

An obvious first step is replacing Religious Education with the broader ‘Philosophy and Ethics’ specification which OCR have been trialling. This subject would still teach about the world’s religions, but would also include the basics of philosophy. It would be a perfect course to bring in the ideas of bias, argument and evidence. But we must not be content with simply adding a topic to the curriculum. All academic subjects should be taught with an eye on why we know the facts that we do or how we can analyse the ideas put forward; from looking at the power of language used by politicians and the media in English lessons, to how science must be its own fiercest critic if it is to be useful.

Correctly done, such an approach does have the potential to change how people think. Studies in France have shown that there is no correlation between people’s belief in pseudoscience and their level of scientific education. However, they did find that when people were taught the method behind science rather than just the facts, their acceptance of pseudoscientific beliefs fell sharply.

It is pivotal that our students come out of education with a critical mind that can take things at more than face value. Humanists desire a society where people treat each other respecting their worth as individuals rather than seeing them as hate groups that have been homogenised by misconceptions and unfair portrayals. Likewise, we do not wish to see people beholden to superstitious or fundamentalist ideas that can be damaging both physically and psychologically. Making our education system one that teaches scepticism rather than credence would not make this society a reality, but it would go some way to creating it.

Samuel Fawcett is the Deputy Editor of Anticipations, the magazine of the Young Fabians. He tweets at @SamFawcett92.

A ‘Clash of Symbols’: 50 years on from the design that carried Humanism around the world

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In this anniversary year of the Happy Human symbol, BHA Communications Manager Liam Whitton explores the humble origins of a symbol for Humanism seen all over the world today.

Back in 1965, the British Humanist Association had one simple request of its members: to create an internationally recognisable symbol of Humanism.

Clash of Symbols close up

The short piece which started it all… (from Humanist News, April 1965)

Little did the Association know, when it ran an ad in the April 1965 edition of Humanist News, that it would be creating a symbol which would stand the test of time.

The editor of the newsletter, Lindsay Burnet, described the BHA’s needs plainly:

A Humanist symbol has often been the subject of discussion, and is no easy prospect for the designer. Practical requirements are that the symbol should be simple, capable of being reproduced as a line-drawing, and that it should be readily identifiable – but not with any well-known trademark.

Lindsay’s letters say that the BHA received around ‘150 drawings… varying in size from one inch square to one 20 x 15 inches. Submissions included ones from Australia and Mexico and one from a Canadian firm of undertakers!’

Clearly many people had been animated by the promised prize of five guineas(!) but a majority of the entrants were, in truth, less than great. From ‘time to time’, Lindsay recalled, staff would ask his opinion of a new image and he would say ‘Not much.’ But soon came the winning drawing, by one Dennis Barrington. The response to it was instantaneous and unanimous: they had found their winning symbol.

The winning design, by 'Dennis Barrington of Sussex'

The winning design, by ‘Dennis Barrington of North London’

The effect was electric, the common reaction of most of us who saw it for the first time. The artist was Dennis Barrington of North London.

The winning design was then announced in Humanist News two issues later, in its July-August edition. It described the winning entry as follows:

The successful entry, reproduced here, was felt to be outstandingly the best. It is simple, attractive and relevant. Everybody will find his or her own significance for it, for one of its good points is that it is not restricted to one interpretation. I think of it as a personable and happy anonymous gentleman, but to one member of the Committee it recalled an engineering section!

It was no doubt this universalism which stood the logo in good stead; and by the next edition of Humanist News it was firmly established as part of the official design of the newsletter. But it did not end here. Other international humanist groups soon adopted this logo for themselves, and the International Humanist and Ethical Union was already 13 years old by this time. Not many years on from 1965, humanist organisations across Europe, Africa, and America were using the Happy Human in their logos.


Not a winning design: the Superhumanist (taken from Humanist News, September 1965)

It’s known that Barrington was already a successful designer. He had won several design competitions by the time he designed the BHA logo, and specialised in producing murals, collages, and assembles, but for the most part he earned a living as a window-dresser in London, where he lived with his wife and two children after living for fourteen years in Rhodesia. What was remarkable about Barrington’s involvement was that the Association very nearly missed him. He had only recently arrived in the UK and discovered the BHA in January that same year thanks to an ad in the Observer; had he not joined as a member when he did, he would not have seen the call for a new symbol!

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Early web era BHA logos, from humanism.org.uk

By 1980, his creation was already truly established; there were Happy Humans (then known as the ‘Happy Man’) established in Holland, the USA, and South Africa. It was emblazoned in letterheads from all corners of the world in letters to UN ambassadors and to newspaper editors and government ministers; on the buildings of fine humanist organisations, certainly across Europe; and then not too many years later, on some of the earliest websites of any UK charities or civil society groups.

The logo for the Uganda Humanist Schools Trust, one of many organisations in 2015 around the world motivated by a humanist worldview

The logo for the Uganda Humanist Schools Trust, one of many international organisations motivated by a humanist worldview in 2015

As is often the case it’s easy to overlook precursors and originators and see the story as beginning with Dennis Barrington’s design. But as Lindsay Burnet said when the competition was first announced, the idea of a symbol of Humanism had been widely discussed.  To think that for over a dozen years, the International Humanist and Ethical Union could have operated with no symbol of its identity as it worked across continents and language barriers is remarkable.

Tom Vernon, in his days working for the BHA. Long before finding fame with the BBC, he had already made history when he commissioned the competition that would one day produce the Happy Human.

Tom Vernon, in his days working for the BHA. Long before finding fame with the BBC, Vernon had already found a place in history when he commissioned the competition that would one day produce the Happy Human.

The charge to come up with a logo is largely credited to one Tom Vernon, who ran the competition to find a symbol. For his involvement, Vernon, then the BHA’s Press and Public Relations Officer, had already found a reason to be remembered in the years after he died, but in any case would later become a popular BBC radio broadcaster, known to millions for his travelogue series Fat Man on a Bicycle. Before finding notoriety with the BBC, Lindsay Burnet joked about Tom’s place in the annals of history, saying ‘he qualified perhaps as “the onlie begetter” of the Happy Human symbol’.

Incidentally, Tom’s competition is the inspiration for a new BHA competition launched 50 years on, which like his, daringly aims to find visual images for a concept which can be hard enough to pin down in words. In May, the BHA announced it would be hosting a competition for the modern age: a photography competition for all ages, asking for photos which symbolise all that it means to be happy.

But while Tom was heavily involved in the competition and in the process which found the logo, it should also be remembered as a story of two Margarets. In a 1980 letter to the same publication he once edited, Lindsay Burnet rebuked himself for omitting an important piece of the story in his previous write-ups. Shortly before Tom’s competition, BHA member Margaret Dootson had presented a motion at the BHA Annual Conference that steps should be taken to find a symbol, and her motion was seconded and championed by another Margaret, the psychologist Margaret Knight. Knight was already well-known to post-war Britain for her BBC radio presenting, and for shocking the nation with her (now uncontroversial) suggestion that religion and education should be kept apart.

With Knight’s support it was quickly passed, and this ‘set in train’ the process of poring over dozens and dozens of designs in what seemed like an impossible task: creating a symbol which, with time, would come to stand for the whole of the human endeavour, and for all it meant to be in charge of one’s own destiny.

‘Wherever Humanism is to be found in the
world, the symbol is to be found.’
–Lindsay Burnet, Humanist News, November 1980

Special thanks to Nicola Hilton at the Bishopsgate Institute for helpfully providing scans of archived BHA documents going as far back as 1965.

The evolution vs creationism debate, like you’ve never encountered it before

April saw the launch of Goodbye God?a graphic novel that explores evolution vs creation and calls for an end to the teaching of creationism in schools. Written by me, Sean Michael Wilson, and illustrated by long time luminary of the British comic book world, Hunt Emerson, it’s a 120-page book published by New Internationalist and made with the help of both the British Humanist Association (BHA) and the American Humanist Association (AHA). The book demonstrates how a concern for humanism, science, and reasoned logical thinking is crucial for the development of society.

The BHA's own Richy Thompson is featured as a character in Goodbye God.

The BHA’s own Richy Thompson is featured as a character in Goodbye God.

What is a graphic novel, I hear you ask? Or perhaps not, as the term, introduced in the late 70s, has become quite well known by now. Essentially its a word coined to get over the image of comics being just for kids. Which they never have been, that was just a silly cliche. And we humanists should be all about overcoming miss-information and cliches, yes? So, in the last 30 years or so the medium of the graphic novel has come to mean comic books for adults. And no, that does not mean pornography! It just means stories using text and visuals, on sophisticated themes, that adult readers can enjoy.

Why do this as a comic book? Well, actually the Goodbye God? book is more like an illustrated guide, rather than a traditional comic book or graphic novel. There are very good reasons to have the illustrated format. In recent years there has been quite a bit of research into how the visual and text mixture we find in comic books is a more effective way of conveying complicated information than text alone. For example,  Kobayashi’s 2011 study in Sophia University concluded that: ‘The findings indicated that the visual aid reduced the learners’ cognitive load in reading and promoted the retention of the text…’ So, comic books, graphic novels, whatever you want to call them are both an enjoyable way of taking in complicated information, and probably a more effective one.


Sean Michael Wilson: What book on critical of religion could be complete without a few appearances from Christopher Hitchens?

In part one of Goodbye God?, we look at creationism vs evolution. We consider some of the key aspects of what both are. We have a list of key claims from creationists and a cartoon version of the BHA’s very own Richy Thompson goes through them, one by one, noting the faults in argument and the mistakes in conclusions.

Later in the chapter Richy also takes us through the situation as regards the teaching of creationism in UK schools and the significant campaigns of the BHA in this area, the successes, but further work that needs to be done in the independent school sector. We also look at the situation in the US education system, with a cartoon Roy Speckhardt, of the AHA, making an appearance, as we consider the twists of terminology of US creationists reframing their approach as ‘intelligent design’ or ‘teaching the debate’.  Philosopher Stephen Law of the University of London and the Centre for Inquiry UK is in chapter one also, as we begin to broaden the focus to look at some of the ways that irrational belief systems are introduced and promoted.

In part two, the book pans out yet further to consider several aspects the negative impact of religion, with several well known humanist’s making an ‘appearance’, in illustrated form, to tell us about various related points. These include Richard Dawkins’ key points from his ‘letter to my daughter’ noting that we should be suspicious of reasons for believing things that rely on mostly on authority, tradition or revelation. We also have Democrat and author Sean Faircloth’s ‘10 points for a secular America’ shown in illustrated format for the first time.

We have some wise words from the BHA Chief Executive, Andrew Copson, regarding the important place played by humanists in the national cultures of the UK and USA. Then, what book on critical of religion could be complete without a few appearances from Christopher Hitchens? In Goodbye God?, we see him complaining about the horrendous idea of ‘compulsory love’ for god, laying down his infamous challenge regarding the question of morals and ethics, and of course, throwing in a few of his jokes! Hitchens, indeed, was keen on graphic novels, having recommended them in a couple of his own books. He also wrote the introduction to Joe Sacco’s graphic novel about the Bosnian war.

The book is designed to mix the serious points with humour, and the excellent illustrations of Hunt Emerson balance up the considerable textual parts with their artistic charm. It also includes back text sections by the BHA and the AHA, telling us more about the kind of work they do, and more about the issue of teaching evolution in schools. We also have an introduction by Professor Lawrence Krauss, who comments there that: ‘If our society is to function at its best, no notions should be sacred, beyond questioning, including religious notions. That is why we need books like Goodbye God? to help expose both religious and scientific nonsense that can get in the way of sound thinking, and to help produce a healthier and happier world with public policies that properly address the challenges of the 21st century. ‘

So, if you are interested in a unique way of presenting various issues of concern to humanism, in a way that is visually appealing yet still sophisticated, check out the Goodbye God? book.  More can be seen at seanmichaelwilson.weebly.com/goodbye-god.html.