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 newspaper, 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 Denis 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.

Superhumanist

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!

19982001 logos

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.

No...

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.

The state of cyberbullying in 2015

At HumanistLife, our guest authors explore contemporary issues from a humanist perspective. In this piece, writer Daniel Faris asks: what can be done about the epidemic of cyberbullying? 

Cyberbullying is impacting more and more young people. Photo: Fixers via Flickr

Cyberbullying is impacting more and more young people. Photo: Fixers via Flickr

Earlier this year, Monica Lewinsky – yes; that Monica Lewinsky – gave a TED talk in Vancouver in which she explored cyberbullying – that is, bullying that takes place on the Internet.

When the news of her affair with US President Bill Clinton broke in 1998 – right when the Internet was growing into what it has become today – Lewinsky became the first person, she says, to become a victim of cyberbullying. She went to bed one night completely unknown, and then there she was the next day, the subject of headlines and tabloid fodder all around the globe for the next few months.

As time passed, Lewinsky faded from the national spotlight. But she still had a life to live and now, at 41, she’s reclaiming her narrative by speaking about how cyberbullying is a serious problem in the developed world. During her TED talk, Lewinsky said she decided to get involved in the movement to end cyberbullying after hearing about the death of Tyler Climenti, a student at Rutgers University, who killed himself after being cyberbullied about his homosexuality.

‘Public humiliation as bloodsport has got to stop,’ Lewinsky said. ‘Just imagine walking a mile in someone else’s headline.’

Why cyberbullies do it

If we agree with Lewinsky, cyberbullying has been around for about 17 years. Bullying, however, has almost certainly been around as long as human beings. Still, there’s a difference between cyberbullying and the more ‘traditional’ methods.

When a kid says something mean to another kid’s face, the bully gets to see the victim’s reaction with his or her own eyes. Assuming the child isn’t sociopathic, he or she is bound to feel at least a morsel of regret about hurting someone’s feelings.

Now migrate that bullying over to the digital world, and aggressors no longer have to deal with witnessing the negative consequences of their behaviors. With nothing discouraging them from cyberbullying, many bullies’ digital tactics can be even more ferocious.

How prevalent is cyberbullying?

Some groups purport that more than 40 percent of teenagers in the United States have been victims of cyberbullying. But slice that cross-section even further and you’ll find a particularly grotesque statistic: Eight out of every 10 students in the LGBT community are victims of cyberbullying.

On the other hand, those who employ more traditional research methods have concluded that roughly 25 percent of US students have been the victim of cyberbullying, with 16 percent of them admitting that they have been the aggressors.

It doesn’t matter which numbers you choose to agree with; they’re both higher than we’d like them to be. And make no mistake: this issue is hardly exclusive to the United States; a poll of 10,000 youths, conducted by nobullying.com, indicated that 7 in 10 young people worldwide have experienced cyberbullying. They went on to discover that Facebook is home to more online bullying than any other social network; 54% of poll respondents indicated that they had experienced cyberbullying on the site.

Managing the problem

While it’s certainly awful to hear any story that involves a young kid taking his or her own life because of bullying, rather than going on the offensive and trying to eliminate what is a very innate characteristic in children, it’s important for parents to educate their kids and remind them that they’re loved and that words are just words. Yes, people say mean things online. But isn’t that just the nature of the world?

Instead of trying to prevent our children from experiencing life – the ups and the downs, the sadness and the happiness – there’s an emerging tendency to go overboard when it comes to ensuring their safety and well-being. While these parents are certainly well-intentioned, it’s more important to be able to deal with criticisms, failure, and meanness than to act as though such things simply do not exist in the world.

Since we will never completely stop bullying, no matter how hard we try, it doesn’t really make much sense to brand cyberbullying as an ‘epidemic’ simply because the Internet wasn’t ubiquitous 20 years ago. It’s a problem, yes; but the solutions aren’t as simple as we’d like to pretend.

Lessons learned

While many in the media might want everyone to believe that today’s kids can’t walk five feet without getting cyberbullied, kidnapped, or assaulted, the truth of the matter is that kids have learned to deal with the adverse realities of life for millennia. It’s unfortunate that some kids have to be made fun of and picked on, but so long as kids are kids, there are going to be some bad apples in the bunch who are going to push their luck.

But here’s an underreported factoid: young people are increasingly coming to their parents when they’re cyberbullied. Word has gotten out, and people are talking. Bullies have fewer and fewer opportunities to hide behind their devices as they poke fun at their peers, and some who are caught are even facing serious legal troubles.

Cyberbullying is a problem, but so is virtually everything else. Kids watch too much TV. They don’t eat the right foods. They stay up too late. They are too busy. They don’t have enough to do. They have too much homework. The curriculum is not challenging enough. And so it goes.

The remedies for cyberbullying reveal that this is a human issue – not a partisan, religious, or sectarian one. Religion, for example, while purporting to teach us to ‘treat others as we would be treated,’ continues to fail us in real-world issue pertaining to social justice. Humanism, in existing solely in the material world, and concerning itself with objective values, can better speak to the ‘value and agency‘ of human beings – that is, the founding tenets of the humanist movement. In other words: a Christian may tell us that cyberbullying is wrong because God would frown on it. A humanist, meanwhile, will maintain that cyberbullying is wrong because it’s wrong. Objective truths.

Only one of these worldviews is capable of instilling the value of personal responsibility. The other defers to the supernatural as a deterrent.

But here’s another truth: As long as kids are allowed to communicate amongst themselves, they are going to pick on each other. To make sure their children don’t become victims of cyberbullying, parents need to maintain an ongoing and open dialogue with their kids, consistently reminding them to not take things said on the Internet too seriously. Parents should also let them know the kinds of trouble they’ll find themselves in should they decide to harass one of their peers. The more active parents are in their kids’ lives, the less likely we are to hear stories about cyberbullying. It’s as simple as that.

ShineonHu – In the light of Humanism  

Anna Beniermann discusses the new ShineonHu humanist art project coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Happy Human, the international symbol of Humanism.

A screencap from ShineonHu.com, spotlighting the BHA origins of the Happy Human symbol

A screencap from ShineonHu.com, spotlighting the BHA origins of the Happy Human symbol

Out of the darkness a warm light – streaks of yellow, orange and red – like flickering flames, flowing lava or glowing embers. Amidst the gleaming flames the red figure of a person stretching their arms up high. The Happy Human, the international symbol of the humanistic organisations, stands on a most aesthetic centre stage. Several carefully positioned layers of painted glass create a three-dimensional setting with a spatial effect that a picture cannot capture. Standing before one of these works, the viewer becomes enmeshed in the depth of light that shines through symbols of peace and human rights.

ShineonHu is an art project that puts the practice of Humanism in focus. The creative and technical mind behind ShineonHu is the designer and visual artist Pete Stary. For over three years the humanist has been producing illuminated objects of art in his own atelier. Gradually the idea developed that rather than decorative forms he could set meaningful symbols in the steel and between the layers of glass.  ‘My way of working makes it possible to combine the pieces with a message that reflects a worldly philosophy important to me personally.’

Floating in some of the lights is the delicate tracing of a pair of glasses.  Below them stands the caption OneDollarGlasses. The OneDollarGlasses is an idea of the German teacher Martin Aufmuth by which impoverished people anywhere in the world should be able to afford a pair of glasses and thus be able to work and provide for their families. All those projects that offer practical aid from and for human beings to make the world a better place belong on the stage that Stary has set with his light art:

‘Just like onedollarglasses.de, theoceancleanup.com or aliteroflight.org there are hundreds of other such vitally important projects that are all based on the same equations: On good people with a great character who use their intelligence, creativity and gumption to make others aware of injustices that should be removed. People who offer solutions – unconventional, idealistic, original. These ideas I want to gather. I want to point them out. Projects like these should not be just projects. They should represent the standard of an enlightened individual.

‘I can’t do anything near the same as these people who have launched these three immensely valuable projects. But I could perhaps produce works that raise awareness of such efforts and encourage a new way of looking at things.’

Each light sculpture in the art project ShineonHu is a unique work of hand-painted glass. They are all delivered with an integrated USB flash drive that can be inserted in a steel backing. The drive contains a collection of texts, pictures, videos of exactly those world-wide projects that direct us in the “right direction”; these can also be found on the webpage of shineonhu.com. The collection is expected to expand continually, not only through the cooperation of people who refer relevant themes to the art project.

‘I want to be able to expect more from mankind.’

These light sculptures are an appeal, both emotional and intellectual – an appeal to the voice of humanity and reason: ‘I am furious with the human species. We would be capable of so immensely much more if we could only learn to live together. If we finally respected life itself in all its aspects. Life, ourselves, this planet.’

Voicing criticism on religious or political systems and structures is an important thing to do; however, criticism alone does not enable us to act. Practice-oriented Humanism requires us to become conscious of the human situation in each individual and to recognise that there are some fundamental flaws out there. The purpose is not to establish utopias or regulate behaviour, but to perceive that genuine alternatives already exist which each and every person can engage in. To present possible fields of action, to become a sounding board where future-oriented ideas and goals can be shared with one another and sent out into the world – that is what this artist wishes to do.

‘I’m not able to love my great-great grandchildren because I don’t know them. But I do know that I love my child. And I know that my child will love its child. And that one, again, will love its child. And this in turn its own. And here we stand in this chain, which represents a positive reality for each of us, and let everything go to shambles because we’re too simple-minded to communicate and because we simply don’t feel like thinking things over, or, we don’t give those minds that definitely are capable of thought a platform so that we can listen to them. Hans Rosling, for example, is a person who presents solutions and it’s shameful how few even know who he is.’

In their uniqueness and beauty the humanistic lights capture attention. They provide an opening for conversations on sensible topics that might otherwise never be touched upon. Stary’s hand-made illuminated sculptures illustrate the central message of compassion with such clarity, depth and beauty that they raise hope for change. Perhaps their warmth can motivate some people to stand up and resist what can often be a cold reality.

 

‘I have this crazy idea that with the right blend of a good heart and healthy dose of common sense you could set a few things in this world off in the right direction.
—Pete Stary

The sound of silence: humanists defy extremists in Dhaka

Bangladeshi blogger Isthiak Ahsan writes about the extreme peril faced by those writing about Humanism and secularism in Bangladesh.

Busy streets of Dhaka, like those where humanist bloggers Avijit Roy, Ahmed Haider, and Washiqur Rahman were slaughtered in the open

Busy streets of Dhaka, like those where humanist bloggers Avijit Roy, Ahmed Haider, and Washiqur Rahman were slaughtered in the open

I am just another Bangladeshi seeking to build his life in this country of 140 millions, going through everyday struggle. Struggle – we have had many and they seem endless. However, the people of Bangladesh (once claimed a top place in the global happiness index) are not used to complaining; they never were. They wish for lives full of peace and dignity. They want to see their country run democratically and justly.

This land and its people were famous for decades for communal harmony and respects for all people of different faiths and beliefs. In the past, beginning from the Pakistani period (Bangladesh was the eastern wing of Pakistan), Bangladeshis stood still against oppression, communalism, and fanaticism. Bullets, tanks, bombs couldn’t stop the freedom loving people of Bangladesh from claiming what is legit, what is right, what is fair. The result was amazing and incredible. Today, 21 February is observed as the international mother language day, owing to the martyrdom the young Bangladeshis embraced. And also, most of all, independence, we won it after spending nine months under occupation, rape and genocide. Three million Bangladeshis sacrificed their lives. Yet, we don’t find it too expensive; freedom, dignity, and respect are always earned at a price. To us, this is what it takes for democracy: religious freedom, freedom of speech, and equal rights for every inhabitants residing in this land. Our original constitution never included a state religion. It championed secularism as the pillar of the newborn state of Bangladesh. Because of this, we were well on our way towards becoming a country that would treat its citizens equally regardless of their gender, religion, caste and belief.

‘Our original constitution championed
secularism as the pillar of the newborn
state of Bangladesh.’

With time the paved path faded away. Unfortunately for us, our rulers failed to stick to the motto based on which a great nation saw its dawn. They indiscriminately and incessantly used religion to buy cheap public sentiment. Or, in some cases they behaved as though ‘blindfolded’ to keep political momentum in their favour. When you are detached from your values, your morals you are due to be doomed. That’s what we can see in today’s Bangladesh. In recent months, bloggers who have been written against extremism, war criminals, and expressing their thinking on matters like religion have frequently been attacked. Many of them were hacked to death in broad daylight. Unfortunately, our government, as always, has failed to take a firm stance against these sorts of atrocities. There is no case where the perpetrators were brought to justice or given exemplary punishment. No wonder, then, that extremists do not refrain from carrying on such gruesome killings.

‘The intensity of extremism is gradually
spoiling all our achievements.’

The intensity of extremism is gradually spoiling all our achievements. For instance, as per as the UN index, Bangladeshi women are doing better in all fields including education and employment in comparison with their counterparts in India and Pakistan. Last year, a fanatic faction called Hizb ut-Tahrir raised a demand calling for end of female empowerment! If their demand was met, women would be reduced to little else but machines which give birth and raise children. The fanatics would not dare to think that the GDP of Bangladesh today, the second highest in South Asia after India, could be achieved without the contribution of Bangladeshi women. They work hard all day and night to feed their families, and at the same time, they take care of an entire household. If we refuse their contributions, if we held them back, Bangladesh will never be self-reliant. Grameen Bank, founded by Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, is the only institution in Bangladesh which has achieved the feat of winning the sole Nobel prize for our country. About 90% members of this organization are women from all around Bangladesh.

Some bloggers who have been killed for raising these issues were blamed for blasphemy attributed on them by the extremists. There have even been attempts to justify these killings claiming that the bloggers crossed a line by hurting the religious sentiments of les gens. OK, I take it that many of their ideas might be hard for others to consume; sometimes they are sensitive. But, is it really permitted to kill someone for their writing? Leaving aside freedom of speech, what does Islam itself tell us about it? I think a story from Prophet Muhammad’s life should be a reminder to the faithful. During his cumbersome days in ancient Arabia, when the prophet first began to preach Islam, he was being tortured and laughed at. One day, an old woman spread thorns all over the way he would travel. The prophet on his way found it very difficult to keep walking and his feet were hurt. But he didn’t utter a word against the old lady, who vehemently opposed Muhammad’s preaching of Islam. The story goes, this continued for days and the prophet never did any harm to the old woman. One day, he saw that the path he would walk on was clear; there was no sign of thorns. Instantly, he rushed to the old lady’s house and found her sick in bed. There was no one to take care of her. The prophet could have killed the woman instantly to avenge all the miseries imposed upon him. But he didn’t do so. He took care of the woman like his own mother and made her stand on her feet again.

There is a saying that you can kill a person but not his ideas. The more you try to suppress an idea, the stronger it becomes. Students, intellectuals and freethinkers are uniting to defy threats and torture. The extremists thought it would be enough to kill someone to bury the ideas he or she conveys; but what they miss is that by doing so, they are igniting the spirit of secularism more than ever.


Isthiak Ahsan is a student, freelance writer, and humanist.

What did the ruling in the London Oratory case actually mean?

On Friday in the High Court, Justice Cobb handed down the latest judgment in the long-running saga that is the legal dispute over whether or not the London Oratory School’s admissions policy complies with the School Admissions Code. The case started just over two years ago when the British Humanist Association submitted an objection, and the latest decision pertained to the legality of a determination issued by the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) that was issued last summer. The school challenged ten different aspects of that determination.

Some parts of the press reported the judge’s decision as a ‘win’ for the Oratory, with the school describing its challenge as ‘successful’ and its head quoted as saying that ‘The Judge’s decision supports us in continuing to preserve the School’s ethos and serving Catholic families throughout the whole of London.’ But a thorough reading of the decision leads us to three different conclusions:

  1. The judge’s decision was, in our view, wrong in several places.
  2. At any rate, the school actually has largely lost the case, only generally winning in places that do not mean it can change its admissions policy back to what it was before the whole saga started.
  3. And even in places where the school won, the decision was often that the OSA’s reasoning was flawed. This does not necessarily mean the OSA’s conclusions were wrong and in fact in a few areas the judge ruled that a fresh decision must be taken – i.e. the case is not yet over yet.

So the school has really won very little at all.

 

In total the school was found by the OSA to break the Admissions Code in 105 different places. The school only challenged a handful of these, leaving the vast majority unperturbed. The main impetus for the school’s challenge was the decision that the school could no longer have a ‘Catholic service criterion’ as part of its admissions arrangements. This required three years of service to the Catholic church or other associated activities, with priority given on the basis of things like flower arranging. This was found to be uncompliant with the Code for a number of different reasons, including paragraphs 1.9e) (giving priority on the basis of practical support to a religious organisation), 1.9i) (taking into account religious activities not laid out as permitted by the school’s diocese), 1.8 (unfairly discriminating on the basis of ethnicity and social background) and 1.38 (not having had sufficient regard to the diocesan guidance).

In judicially reviewing the OSA’s decision, the school did not even challenge the finding with respect to paragraph 1.9e), so never had any hope of getting a ruling that fully contradicted the OSA’s decision in this area. On top of that, the school lost its challenge under paragraph 1.9i). This means that the main areas where the school won actually will have no impact on its admissions criteria: in effect it still has to change them in the way the OSA determined last year.

So we can see already that in the vast majority of cases, including with respect to the ‘Catholic service criterion’, the decision taken against the school has already been found to stand.

Beyond that, it is worth going through each of the school’s ten areas of challenge, with our three conclusions in mind.

(1) Failure to ‘have regard’ to the Diocesan Guidance

Paragraph 1.38 says that ‘Admission authorities for schools designated as having a religious character must have regard to any guidance from the body or person representing the religion or religious denomination when constructing faith-based oversubscription criteria’. The OSA found that the School had broken this, in part because ‘paragraph 1.38 is given greater force in relation to faith-based oversubscription criteria generally by paragraph 1.9i of the Code’, which says that the school must not ‘prioritise children on the basis of their own or their parents’ past or current hobbies or activities’, except when taking account of religious activities, as laid out by its diocese. If the school had properly had regard to the guidance, it would not have broken paragraph 1.9i).

In reaching his determination on this issue, however, Justice Cobb did not mention the role of 1.9i) at all (only considering it later under the school’s third challenge) and instead only focused on 1.38 and the meaning of ‘have regard to’, going through a range of relevant case law. Here he found that the OSA applied a too stringent test (in deciding that any reason for departing from the guidance must be ‘good’ and ‘compelling’), and therefore, while finding that ‘the School’s approach to the relevant test was also flawed’, he concluded that the OSA had not correctly found that 1.38 had been broken.

As a result he ruled that there will ‘need to be a further determination of the School’s approach to the Diocesan Guidance, its compliance with para.1.38 of the Admissions Code, and the adequacy of the reasons for departure, applying the appropriate test.’ So the school has not yet won here but only triggered a further case.

(2) Socio-economic discrimination

Paragraph 1.8 of the Code says that ‘Admission authorities must ensure that their arrangements will not disadvantage unfairly, either directly or indirectly, a child from a particular social or racial group.’

The London Oratory School is highly socio-economically selective. As we wrote in our paper which we submitted to the case in May 2014, the January 2013 School Census records that 6.6% of pupils are eligible for free school meals, compared with 38.7% in its middle super output area (i.e. immediate vicinity), 40.8% in the neighbouring MSOAs, 42% in its local authority, and 26.1% across London as a whole. The Fair Admissions Campaign’s map ranks this disparity between the school and its area as making it the ninth most socio-economically selective state secondary school in England.

Justice Cobb, however, starts off by agreeing with the adjudicator that there is ‘some inherent social selection of school candidates within the Catholic population as a whole’, before going on to find that ‘the data relied on by the School showed that six of the eight schools with similarly high percentages of Catholic pupils had similar levels of pupils entitled to free school meals to the School’. This, surely, simply shows that such discrimination is common amongst oversubscribed Catholic schools.

However, Justice Cobb also found that the adjudicator did not show that it was the faith-based oversubscription criteria that were causing this discrimination, nor that it was unfair. It seems to me to be quite obvious that if we first agree there is ‘some inherent social selection of school candidates within the Catholic population as a whole’, and then we select Catholics, then that faith-based selection is going to cause socio-economic discrimination. But no matter: the more significant point is that the decision did not address per se the conclusion that the school is socio-economically advantaged. It unambiguously is. It only found that the case had not been properly set out.

Finally, the school also argued that it was unfair that it had not seen the adjudicator’s evidence around socio-economic advantage prior to the determination. The judge agreed with this. I do not agree: 1. The BHA submitted such evidence during the course of the case, which the school chose not to look at; and 2. At any rate it is easily available in the public domain. The school should have been aware of these statistics; that it was not was negligent on its part.

(3) Catholic Service

To reiterate, paragraph 1.9i of the Code says that the school must not ‘prioritise children on the basis of their own or their parents’ past or current hobbies or activities’, except when taking account of religious activities, as laid out by its diocese. The judge correctly rejected the school’s challenge to the finding that the ‘Catholic service criterion’ breaks this paragraph. This essentially means that the success of challenges 1 and 2, above, are symbolic victories.

It is worth noting that the judge incorrectly states that the OSA ‘declined to state whether this criterion also breached para.1.9(e)’, when in fact the adjudicator did find that this paragraph was also broken.

(4) Catholicity: Parent or Parents

The fourth challenge by the school was to the OSA’s finding that its arrangements were unfair in requiring two Catholic parents to both be religiously observant.  The judge agreed with this finding with respect to the school’s 2014 admission arrangements. But he disagreed with respect to the 2015 arrangements due to the new statement in the 2015 arrangements that references to ‘parents’ should be read as ‘to one parent if the child resides with only one of the parents’. But this new statement does not deal with the case where the child has two Catholic parents but only one is observant: this child/observant parent is put at a disadvantage to a child who only has one Catholic parent. The judge got this wrong in a way that threatens the widely established principle that ‘faith’ schools can only require one parent to be religiously observant, something that is a very basic question of fairness. The Code might now need clarification.

(5) Request for parents’ baptismal certificates

The school asks for parents’ baptismal certificates. The OSA said that this breaks paragraph 2.4 of the Code where it says that the school must not ask for ‘any personal details about parents and families, such as maiden names’ – as maiden names will be revealed by baptismal certificates. But the judge ruled that 2.4 ‘is not to be read in such a way that would place a Governing Body in the position of being unable to apply a legitimate oversubscription criterion in practice just because it was prevented from requiring the necessary evidence’ – and therefore the request could stand. I do not agree that this is a correct reading of 2.4 and think the Code could now do with being clarified.

However, the judge also writes that this part of the decision is dependent upon the ultimate outcome of challenge (1) above, i.e. ‘is dependent on a future finding that there is a clear and proper reason for departing from the Guidance in these respects’ – as if the school did not have good reason from departing from the diocesan guidance in this area, then the oversubscription criterion is not legitimate so paragraph 2.4 does in fact apply. So this is only a preliminary finding.

(6) Previous Catholic education

In its arrangements the school gave priority to those attending Catholic primaries in 2014, and then those having received a Catholic education (including through primaries) in 2015.

Paragraph 1.9b) says that schools must not ‘take into account any previous schools attended, unless it is a named feeder school’. Paragraph 1.15 adds that ‘The selection of a feeder school or schools as an oversubscription criterion must be transparent and made on reasonable grounds.’ The school was found to break both of these paragraphs of the Code.

The judge upheld the decision with respect to 1.15, but overturned it with respect to 1.9b) on the basis of the reasoning that ‘the primary information sought from the candidate’s parent(s) is whether the candidate has attended a Catholic School (not which school), even though the name of the school is requested as proof of that education’. This seems to me to be an extremely strange reading of 1.9b) – taking into account a type of school (e.g. all Catholic schools) is still taking into account previous schools attended, even if the specific individual schools are not taken into account. Perhaps the Code now needs clarifying in this area.

The judge also writes that ‘there is no prohibition within the Admissions Code… upon a Governing Body asking the name of previous schools’. But paragraph 2.4 says that schools must only ‘request additional information when it has a direct bearing on decisions about oversubscription criteria’. So in fact there is such a prohibition.

At any rate, this is again a departure from the diocesan guidance, and the judge again writes that this part of the decision is dependent upon the ultimate outcome of challenge (1) above, i.e. ‘is dependent on a future finding that there is a clear and proper reason for departing from the Guidance in these respects’. So again this is only a preliminary finding. But what is more the school sought to justify its taking into account Catholic education by reference to canon law. Therefore such consideration plainly falls under the remit of paragraph 1.9i). It is not laid out as permitted by the diocese for a school to take into account Catholic education as a religious activity. This fact is not discussed in the judgment and could well be grounds for a future successful challenge to the school’s admissions arrangements, if such a criterion continues to have a place in them.

(7) Choristers

(8) Statement of ‘Medical and social need’ on Religious Inquiry Form

(9) Parents’ signature(s)

These three challenges concerned points of clarity and the judge concluded that the OSA’s determination was fine. However in the third (allowing two parents to sign the form) he wrote that the adjudicator’s determination ‘verges on the pedantic’. I do not agree: as a matter of fairness it is important that schools make clear throughout that only one parent is considered in religious oversubscription criteria.

(10) Consultation on admissions criteria

The last issue related to whether or not the school consulted parents of 2 to 18 year olds, which is required by the Code and regulations. The OSA wrote that the school had ‘no evidence … which … constitutes a meaningful attempt to bring the school’s proposed arrangements to the attention of the group in question’. The judge did not agree with this, and so quashed this part of the decision, but did agree that insufficient steps had been taken and so rejected the school’s reasoning. This therefore is a partial victory for the school at best.

Conclusion

As can be seen, therefore, in almost every case where the school won, the victory was partial, temporary, and/or of no practical consequence. In this light the school’s statement that the judgement was a great victory on its part was erroneous. This fact should be reflected in its subsequent admissions arrangements.

Polls consistently show we’re not a religious country. So why don’t our politicians get it?

The numbers are in (and have been for a while). Can politicians really keep insisting this is a 'Christian country'? Photo: Chris Combe.

The numbers are in (and have been for a while). Can politicians really keep insisting this is a ‘Christian country’? Photo: Chris Combe.

Elected officials to this day continue to cite the Census to make the point that Britain is a ‘Christian country’ or a country made up principally of Christians. The Census statistic of 59% is used to justify all sorts of privileges granted to the religious in Britain today, including the widespread handing over of public services and schools to religious control and the place of unelected bishops in our legislature, not to mention the recurrent exceptionalising of Christian contributions to our shared cultural life. But is that statistic true? Is it any good?

The likely answer is no, and any demographer can tell you why. By asking the leading question  ‘What is your religion?’ in the context of a series of questions about ethnicity and cultural background, the Census leads to higher numbers of people identifying themselves with their family or cultural religious background, and for the most part not with that they actually believe, feel they belong to, or practise.

The Census statistic is used to justify all sorts of privileges granted to the religious in Britain today. But is it any good?

Most other rigorous surveys will tell you a different story – the story of a very diverse Britain united for the most part by common values which straddle the ‘religious divide’. The most recent of these surveys was by YouGov this April, and it found that around two thirds of Britons, when asked, would say they are ‘not religious’.

The April poll, commissioned by the Sunday Times, asked the question ‘Would you describe yourself as being a practicing [sic] member of a religion?’ and found that 62% of the general public said ‘no’. Christianity polled as the second most popular option, accounting for 33% of the public. And it’s by no means a one-off. Most polls of the last decade have given very similar results.

This majority ‘not religious’ figure has been found repeatedly in recent years. A recent example of this trend is the Survation poll last November, which asked ‘Do you consider yourself religious or not religious?’ and found that 60.5% of Brits are the latter. These figures are in turn consistent with year-on-year polling from the British Social Attitudes Survey, which finds that around or slightly over half of the population is in fact non-religious (and that 42% Brits identify as Christian) when it asked ‘1. Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion? 2: If yes: which?’. A YouGov poll in April 2014 also found that 50% of Brits were non-religious, and that three quarters of the population were ‘not religious or not very religious’. Very similar results in 2011 and 2012, and numerous others, overwhelmingly reinforce the pattern.

We can say with some confidence that half of Brits are non-religious

Equally, the one third figure for believing Christians has been found time and time again. A YouGov poll for the Times in February this year found that only 55% of British Christians ‘believed in God,’ bringing the total proportion down from 49% of Britons who say they are Christian to around 23% for ‘Christians who believe in God’.  A 2013 YouGov poll which asked how many people in Britain believed in the central tenet of Christianity – that Jesus of the Nazareth was the son of God – found a figure of 30%. It’s that same figure again – around a third

In most aspects of their jobs, politicians look closely at these sorts of surveys when making policy decisions, or when attempting to win over new voters with popular initiatives. They know, and statisticians can tell you why, that the margin of error on these things is usually around 1-3%. So I feel we can say with some confidence that half of Brits are non-religious (only 4% of ‘nones’, according to the Times/YouGov 2015 poll, ‘believe in a god’) and that beyond that, two thirds are ‘not religious’ – in the sense of not seeing religion as very important or not practising. It’s a widespread trend: only 30% of Brits are believing Christians, and only 6% or fewer Brits go to church on a given Sunday.

Much more importantly, three quarters of Brits say they are opposed to public policy decisions being influenced by religion

The Census result would suggest that three quarters or more of Brits, cutting across the religious divide, would cite some sort of Christian cultural background, but this is a broad group indeed – both Justin Welby and Professor Richard Dawkins would say they are culturally Christian! Much more importantly, three quarters of Brits say they are opposed to public policy decisions being influenced by religion – with 92% of Christians agreeing that the law should apply equally regardless of religion.

Politicians trotting out the old Census figure to justify handouts or, engaged in cynical vote-grabbing, should remember that most of us want to be treated equally and want a level playing field – including by opposing ingrained religious privilege, such as by opposing  ‘faith’ schools and bishops in the House of Lords. Of course, politicians are not won over by opinion polls alone, and most are wary of the power of religious institutions, whose views tends to be a bit more traditional than those of their flocks. But change is inevitable, and on the way – the fact that the next generation rising through the ranks is overwhelmingly non-religious could well promise to erode the power of churches over our elected representatives.

Under 35 and non-religious? The word that best describes your worldview might be ‘humanist’

James Fogg, in this guest post on HumanistLife, discusses the increasing popularity of the humanist perspective among young people, as well as the broad popularity of BHA campaign areas within that demographic.

Your views on various issues, and the rational, empathetic approach you took to get there? It has a name. Photo: Jacob Bøtter

Your views on various issues, and the rational, empathetic approach you took to get there? It has a name. Photo: Jacob Bøtter

I believe many people, young and old, are unconsciously living a humanistic lifestyle. Never before has Humanism been so unconsciously prevalent in the lives of young people. According to the latest British Social Attitudes Survey, two thirds of today’s young people between ages 15 and 34 say they have no religion, and this means that they are happily finding their own way… without need for religious guidance. If you’re in this demographic, many of your friends will probably be humanists as well, often without realising. In fact, the UK population shares a great deal of common ground when it comes to a ethical issues and questions – and many of them will take a decidedly ‘humanist’ approach to answering these questions. When it comes to these sorts of questions, the views of the public at large, and young people in particular, align with those of the British Humanist Associations and its portfolio of campaigns.

‘Faith’ schools

With 51% of the British population identifying themselves as non-religious, we can safely assume a large proportion of children will not be brought up in a religious home. However, one third of state-funded schools are ‘faith’ schools, and children are sometimes very susceptible to misinformation. As they regard schools as places of education they may automatically assume all that they are taught is fact-based. We of course know better. But needless to say, religion is not fact-based. It is riddled with flaws including archaic doctrines, irrational behaviour, illogical thesis, and mythical beings.

The only place religion should have in schools is in the History and Religious Studies curriculums – it is of course right that young people learn about major world religions. But it’s wrong to teach them that any religion is literally true, as can be taught in ‘faith’ schools.

A Guardian poll in 2005 for example, found that 64% of people surveyed opposed state-funded faith schools of any kind. I firmly believe there is no such thing as a Christian, Islamic, Jewish child or otherwise. All children are born blank slates, without knowledge of custom or religion, until their minds are introduced to religious ideas or indoctrination, at home or in schools. Opposition to ‘faith’ schools is one area where the BHA and humanists generally act as prominent voices for the views of a wide swathe of people in Britain.

Equality and human rights

Human rights, covering things like the right to know our own minds, to express our own thoughts and beliefs, the right to education, a fair trial, freedom from slavery etc. are universal. We have these rights by dint of being human. Human rights are a bulwark against inequality, prejudice, and oppression. Equality and human rights are one and the same thing, and it is these simple truths as to the basic rights we require to live our lives – as encoded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – which best encapsulate what it means to be free, to be human, and to be who you are with confidence and without worry.

 Marriage equality

The YouGov/Sun Poll from 2013 found that three quarters of people aged 18-24 supported the right of same-sex couples to have legally binding partnerships, referring to civil partnerships. Many more polls since have found broad support for same-sex marriage and civil partnership rights across the population, and consistently among young people. Humanists and the BHA have a strong history on this issue, and one they can be proud of. For example, humanist organisations around the world, including the BHA here in Britain, have been at the forefront of campaigns for marriage equality. I believe we can look forward to a time when ‘coming out’ of the closet and perhaps even concepts of sexual orientation are regarded as old-fashioned.

Assisted dying

This is a sensitive subject for many people. It raises many questions about ethics and the level of control we have over our own lives, and it’s a subject I feel passionately about. People should have the right to die. It’s as simple as that. I hope I live long enough to decide how I go, and if not, I hope I go out in style. Around 80% of the British population support a change in law allowing the terminally ill help to end their own lives. The current law mandates relentless suffering, and makes no concessions for the right to autonomy. Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill is an important piece of proposed legislation, and has been a lightning rod for a much-needed wider discussion around this issue. The BHA advocates for anyone suffering an incurable illness, who has made a committed and uncoerced decision, to have an assisted death should they want one. This, I believe, is the most ethical position and it is one motivated by a humanist perspective on ethics.

For me, that’s what Humanism is all about: rational thought and compassion working for the benefit of everyone. For the purposes of illustration I have chosen just a handful of the BHA’s campaigns. There are more, and there is plenty more good work to be done.


James Fogg is a volunteer at Young Humanists, the new section of the British Humanist Association for 18-35 year olds. Young humanists are invited to the launch party taking place in London on 27 March – find out more at www.younghumanists.org.uk/launch. You can follow Young Humanists on Facebook and Twitter.

Why Humanism and feminism go hand in hand

For International Women’s Day (8 March 2015), Cordelia Tucker O’Sullivan explores the profound unity of Humanism and feminism.

Supporters of feminist, anticlerical activist band Pussy Riot outside the Russian embassy in London. Photo: Sean Comiskey.

Supporters of feminist, anticlerical activist band Pussy Riot outside the Russian embassy in London. Photo: Sean Comiskey.

‘Why feminism and not just humanism?’ is a question often invoked by closet misogynists attempting to highlight some imagined incoherence or hypocrisy embedded in the feminist ethical perspective. It is a question which lacks the intended effect, given that it incorrectly defines both Humanism and feminism, but does actually provoke some deeper questions about the historical and philosophical relationship between the two. So, even though the questioner is at best ignorant and at worst bigoted, there is a silver lining.

So what is the difference? Feminism is defined most commonly (and I believe most accurately) as ‘the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of equality of the sexes’, whereas a humanist believes in the authority of the scientific method in understanding the world, rejecting the supernatural (including a belief in god), and in seeking to live an ethically fulfilling life on the basis of common reason and humanity, challenging religious privilege in the public sphere. Not only does the inquirer demonstrably rely on ill-defined terms for their criticism of modern feminism, they clearly have not done their research – the overlap between feminist and humanist beliefs and goals is deep and significant.

To start, the suffragette movement in both the UK and the US was against a background of voracious defence of male privilege by the church, an idea found in bountiful supply in the Bible (among other religious texts). The claim was that god created women as inferior to men, and it is part of god’s plan that it remains that way. Jesus, the earthly incarnation of god, was also a bloke – if he existed at all. We of course can’t relegate this archaic attitude to the past, as the Church of England consecrated its first female bishop in January this year. It therefore seems natural, or even obvious, that there would be a significant overlap between humanist and feminist objectives and beliefs.

In fact, two out of three leaders of the suffragette movement in the US were explicit ‘free thinkers’ (a term used to denote those who reach ‘unorthodox’ conclusions about religion), who criticised the church for their institutionalisation of discrimination against women. The British Humanist Association (BHA) holds an emphatically pro-choice position on the issue of abortion, and actively campaigns for reproductive rights for all women. Diane Munday, the feminist campaigner who lobbied successfully for the passing of the Abortion Act 1967, numbers among their patrons. The BHA and other humanist organisations actively campaign for the provision of human rights to all, and support progress in the direction of women’s substantive emancipation worldwide. Evidently, these are both issues which feminists typically support (I would be slightly confused if I came across a feminist who was ‘pro-life’, let alone who thought that women’s emancipation was no big deal!).

So what exactly is responsible for this extensive common ground amongst feminists and humanists? At first glance, it looks like it might be mere coincidence that those of both ethical stripes pursue similar political goals. Humanists criticise the abortion prohibition because it is grounded in religious exceptionalism, as such the non-religious ought not to be compelled to comply, whereas feminists are more concerned with the woman’s right to choose, and the rights she enjoys over her own body. This is superficial. To get a more coherent and profound analysis of humanism and feminism, we must look to the moral bases of each, which, as it turns out, they have in common. Humanism grounds morality in the welfare of humans and other sentient beings, seeking moral guidance on the basis of our common reason and humanity. As such, the right to autonomy is of paramount importance, as it is a central feature of living a good human life – whatever that entails for the individual (that’s the point). Therefore, a humanist considers the legalisation of abortion a moral imperative not just because it respects the beliefs of the non-religious, but because it is a matter of respecting one’s right to self-determination. Similarly, coherent feminists are not misandrists, they seek equal rights for men and women on the basis that both sexes have the ability and the right to lead self-determining lives for which control and ownership over one’s body is a necessary component.

So, in response to ‘why feminism, and not just Humanism’ I say this: the only real difference between the two is an explicit denial of the existence of a deity for humanists. What these philosophies share is a deep commitment to equal rights, non-discrimination, and the right to self-determination and autonomy, and that is what is really important.


Cordelia Tucker O’Sullivan is a master’s student in political theory at the London School of Economics and a public affairs volunteer at the British Humanist Association.

Bigger fish to Fry?

Forget the problem of evil, argues Matthew Hicks. Why aren’t we getting more het up about injustice and human suffering?

Last week saw a media storm over an interview with Stephen Fry. During the interview (embedded below), Fry was asked: ‘What if you’re wrong? What would you say to God if you found you were at the pearly gates?’ Fry said that he would ask this benevolent, compassionate, all-knowing God what bone cancer in children was all about before becoming reservedly enraged about the level of suffering on this planet against a backdrop of a supposedly benevolent, compassionate, all-powerful, and all-knowing being.

Fry’s response was by no means novel, but he articulated himself sufficiently well that people either identified with it or took disagreement with it strongly enough to result in millions of shares and retweets . What stuck out to me however, was not his articulacy or verbosity, but rather his rage at injustice and suffering in the world today, an emotion which was almost palpable.

The question posed to Fry was a narrow-minded, both philosophically and spiritually, and Fry very eloquently answered back in those same terms. But it was the narrowness of Fry’s response which has led to people from both ends of the belief spectrum rushing in to claim an intellectual or spiritual high ground.

With Fry’s rage about suffering so effectively bypassed by those responders, I would like to ask a question. If we are so concerned with the nature of this dilemma, and so many of those with faith or lack thereof are, then why can’t we find it in ourselves to stand alongside Fry in this rage regardless of our belief?

The realms of the supernatural and the rational can fight all they want, split verbal hairs and claim immaturity and narrow-mindedness on the other’s part.  Any one of us can detail the insides of our navels over this issue and wait sneeringly for a response. If we do that however, and jump on the difference of opinion rather than share in the rage of injustice, then we are no different from an allegedly all-powerful, all-compassionate God who sits on his divine derrière.

We live in an age where we who have access to Fry’s interview (and the ability to share it) have a comprehension of the world and its affairs that is unprecedented in history. We are as close to an all-knowing animal as we can get right now! And through the Internet, we also now have the ability to change so much that which is unjust. We are not ourselves all-powerful but as men and women, we have countless opportunities to effect change through democratic activity.

‘For me the evil of inactivity is so much more malignant than the evil of difference of opinion.’

My point is that rage spent on attempting to reverse injustice and suffering is much more productive than rage spent on pointless debate. Are we not better off expending energy on real issues at stake in the world today through channels such as scientific research, foreign aid, and the promotion of human rights? Surely that is a more worthwhile display of our better human qualities than arguments which have no benefit except to fuel the ego of those arguing their point.

Whether there is a divine being is irrelevant to the point in hand. What Fry’s response encapsulates is a sense of anger that we all feel and identify with at some level regardless of belief.  Of course highlighting our differences is so much easier than seeking common ground. To do the latter would open up a whole can of worms with regards our sense of responsibility toward our fellow humans. For me the evil of inactivity is so much more malignant than the evil of difference of opinion.

As Martin Niemoller said:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.


Matt Hicks can be often found touring Devon with a bag full of songs and his ukulele. He blogs at The Wooden Duck.