Systematic discrimination against the non-religious is happening all over the world. And Britain faces a crossroads.

‘Systematic discrimination; in flux.’

That is how the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) described the United Kingdom in its annual Freedom of Thought Report, which arrived last week for Human Rights Day on 10 December. It is the authoritative annual report into the legal status of and discrimination against the non-religious around the world.

In Saudi Arabia, atheism is now ‘terrorism'; in Malaysia, ‘humanism and secularism as well as liberalism’ have been singled out by the leader of the nation as prime causes of moral degradation. In 13 countries, atheism is punishable by death. This represents one end of the spectrum, and it would be tempting on the basis of this comparison to view Britain as a paradise for non-believers. But the reality isn’t quite so; only nine countries support full legal equality for religious and non-religious alike, IHEU finds.

As in previous years, the UK has been given an amber rating, signifying ‘Systemic Discrimination’, because of entrenched problems such as discrimination in admissions and employment by state-funded ‘faith’ schools, the presence of established churches in England and Scotland, and reserved seats for bishops in the House of Lords.

The UK was also one of only a handful countries this year to receive the special ‘In Flux’ rating because of conflicting signs about the future of discrimination against the non-religious in Britain. Despite the distance we’ve travelled to ensure that most non-religious people can live happily, confidently, and without harassment in their everyday lives, systemic problems remain, and 2014 was a year of marked attempts to politicise issues around religion or belief, as well as for claiming special significance for Christianity in Britain. And in parts of the country such as Northern Ireland, religious influence over politicians still remains the primary roadblock to sexual health rights for women and marriage rights for gay people.

The BHA will of course continue to work towards a secular state ensuring equal treatment of everyone, regardless of religion or belief. You can help this work by becoming a member, if you haven’t done so already, or by encouraging your friends to sign up. Your membership directly empowers our work financially – running campaigns can be expensive – just as your support infuses our work with energy and vitality.

Remembering our common humanity: a story from Afghanistan

‘Although in some things we are opposed, we share an irreducible humanity.’ Julian Sheather reflects on a touching tale of human compassion. 


Afghanistan. Photo: Ricymar Photography.

A friend recently sent me a news story from Afghanistan. As a slanting light can show hidden dips and lines in a landscape, so the story gradually revealed the knots and burrs of some of my half-buried prejudices. The story was about an Afghan psychiatrist, Nader Alemi, who practices in Mazar-e-Sharif, a major trading city in the north of the country. The city was taken by the Taliban in 1998 and they overran much of the surrounding countryside. At the time, Alemi was the only psychiatrist in the north of Afghanistan who spoke Pashto, the language of the majority of Taliban. For more than three years, with at least the tacit agreement of their commanders, thousands of Taliban fighters made their way to his consulting rooms. And what they bought to him during those years was the terrible psychological fall-out of war. The minds of these men were broken by it: lonely, scared and depressed, many of them admitted to a longing for death.

As I read about the damaged minds of those Taliban fighters I sensed the falling of that oblique light. The image of the Taliban I had absorbed – abbreviated and buckled by the media – did not have room for such ordinary human vulnerability. If I thought of them at all then it was as men trained from birth, like mountain Spartans, to be a warrior caste – inured to hardship and brutality, not degraded by warfare but born to it, nurtured by it. And to this I added, from out the ever-present stock of received ideas, the impregnable shield of a fundamentalist Islamism: for me the Taliban were the militarised dervishes of an orientalising fantasy.

But despite the furious and repellent ideology of the Taliban, the men that found their way to Alemi’s neutral and forgiving consulting rooms were suffering from the ordinary human consequences of combat. Mullah Akhtar, second in command to the Taliban’s spiritual leader, Mullah Omar, habituated to the horrors of front-line combat, was delusional and hallucinating. Powerlessness fed depression: men had given over their fates entirely to their commanding officers and had no idea whether they would see the day out. Despite being depicted as men with medieval minds intent on burying the modern world, and despite seldom having seen a doctor before, they had no problem with modern psychiatry. Perhaps they reached for it as if it were a lifeline.

No doubt there were times when Alemi struggled with the men who were ravaging his country, but he held to the humane dictates of his professional codes:

I used to treat the Taliban as human beings, same as I would treat my other patients…even though I knew they had caused all the problems in our society…Sometimes they would weep and I would comfort them.

Taliban orthodoxy prohibits the education of girls, but while Alemi tried to heal the minds of Taliban fighters, his wife, Parvin, ran an underground school designed to do precisely that, for up to a hundred girls at a time. Given that Alemi was trying to hold the minds of their fighters together, the Taliban turning a blind eye to a modern psychiatrist in their midst is understandable. Parvin’s was maybe the greater risk. But somehow both she and the school survived. Some of her pupils have gone on to become doctors and engineers. There was that slanting light again.

When I read that news report, along with the slight unknotting of a prejudice or two came a strange shuffle of thoughts that revealed to me some of my deepest commitments. It is commonplace that ideas and beliefs rigidly gripped will divide us. The ways of the Taliban are about as remote from mine as I figure contemporaries can get. But one can condemn a regime, an inhuman ideology, while still acknowledging the humanity of those who promote it, or who are held, one way or another, physically or mentally captive by it. Although in some things we are opposed, we share an irreducible humanity. And so that oblique light came from somewhere. It had its origins in a set of humane practices that all humanists can celebrate: in the scientific medicine that can distance itself from conflict and quietly focus on a suffering human being; in the feeding and forming of young and growing minds through educating the whole human being. And in the belief, or call it a hope, integral to journalism at its best, that a news story set down in northern Afghanistan can open the mind, however slightly, of someone sitting at his desk in a very different city several thousands of miles away.

Support for humanist marriage is broad and overwhelming – so why is the Government delaying?

As the Government continues to delay reporting on the legalisation of humanist marriages, we are seeing increased expressions of the political consensus in favour of it. Two dozen members of the House of Commons today have signed an Early Day Motion to urge the Government to move towards legalisation. They already include MPs from Labour, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, Green, Conservative, and even SNP making a rare venture into English and Welsh matters. They include Christians as well as humanists, and there are more signatories to come.


This is a follow-up to a triple cross-party strike from a Labour, a Liberal Democrat, and Conservative MP on 11 November, who pressed the justice minister from three corners of the chamber as to what was taking the Government (which had originally told the British Humanist Association that the whole issue might be taken care of by about eight months ago!) quite so long:


And on 4 December the Labour front bench, who were forced to compromise on humanist marriage at the time of the Marriage Bill last year when the Government threatened to delay same-sex marriage if the case for humanist marriage was taken to a vote, were showing their frustration:


And it’s not just in the Commons. Last week, on 1 December, there was a mini-debate in the House of Lords in which there was not a single voice raised against humanist marriage and in which, again, there was cross-party support from Labour, Conservative, and Liberal Democrat, as well as independent peers. Again, support crossed belief lines with Christians such as cross-bencher Baroness Butler-Sloss also urging the Government to get on with legalisation. She and Baroness Thornton got pretty much as forthrightly critical of the Government as it is possible to be in the polite atmosphere of the Lords:


Unfortunately, it does seem that the Government is just not listening. Even when the subject was raised directly with the Prime Minister by an MP of his own party at Prime Minister’s Questions on 19 November, there was no answer forthcoming on the substantive matter of humanist marriage, just the same ‘wait and see’ response, while Parliamentary time between now and the next general election bleeds away:


When the Marriage Act was going through Parliament, it was clear that there was majority support for the legalisation of humanist marriages in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The British Humanist Association, though obviously much much smaller and poorer than the wealthier and more powerful lobbies against humanist marriages, at least was able to make its arguments and expose the disingenuous ones of critics in the light of day. Now that the matter is being considered behind closed doors, there is no such opportunity.

All that can be done is to state yet again the case for legal recognition, against which no coherent or just case has ever to this date been made.

In England and Wales, members of literally dozens of religions from Scientology to Methodism and from all the denominations of Judaism to the Spiritualists and the Aetherius Society (Yes – honestly!) can all have a legal marriage in the place most special to them, conducted by one who shares their beliefs, and in the form that embodies their most deeply held beliefs and values. Those with humanist, non-religious beliefs and values don’t have the same choice.

In Scotland, where humanist marriages are legal, they have proved hugely popular – so popular that they have contributed to a growth in marriages overall. Giving legal recognition to them in the whole of Britain would be fair, inexpensive, easy, uncontroversial, and beneficial for both individuals, wider society, and the economy. What can possibly be being discussed behind closed doors that weighs against all that?

10 tips for a happy humanist Christmas

Marilyn Mason’s 10 top tips for humanists this festive season.

'Christmas' is a time for family and friends - and to overidentify it with Christian tradition specifically, or to fret about the name, is a waste of time. Photo: Josn McGinn.

25 December and thereabouts has been a special time for celebrating with friends for thousands of years. Some would say that to overidentify the holiday we call ‘Christmas’ with Christian tradition, or to fret about that name, is a royal waste of time. Photo: Christmas Eve dinner by John McGinn.



Accept that Christmas Day is what we call 25 December and you’re not going to change that, any more that we humanists can rename Easter weekend, Eid, Divali, Passover… Enjoy the fact that it’s the one day of the year when almost everything is shut, you can’t shop, almost no one goes to work, the roads are empty… Relax.


Send a card if you want to keep in touch with friends at this time of year — as many people still prefer a hand-written card to an email. But if you think they wouldn’t appreciate a physical card, send an e-card instead and give the money you would have spent on cards and postage to a worthy (secular) charity like the BHA (or wherever you like). If you want to support a charity and send a card to your loved ones, then a great way to do that would be to buy the from the BHA’s range at 80p a card (in packs of 10).


Keep present-giving simple: give to those who need stuff, come to an agreement with those who don’t (which is most people past their youth). There is nothing particularly virtuous in buying things that people don’t need which will probably end up in a charity shop – you could cut out the middle-man and give the cash to charity instead.


See friends and family when it suits you and them — don’t get too hung up on 25 December (remember Christmas is no big deal for humanists). Most people have several relatives they feel obliged to visit on Christmas Day – make life easier for them by opting out of the competition for their presence and see them another time.


If you’re on your own over the holiday, just think — you can eat what you like, watch what you like on television, read a book, go to bed as early or late as you like… Relax.


Eat, drink, and be merry, but pace yourself. You don’t have to drink alcohol at breakfast time or eat Christmas pudding, mince pies and Christmas cake all on the same day – or at all. You don’t have to cook or eat turkey or Brussel sprouts if you don’t like them. Admittedly this is harder when you are a guest, but tiny helpings may help!


Feed the birds, and enjoy watching them eat the inevitable leftovers


Go for a walk somewhere lovely on Christmas or Boxing or New Year’s Day — roads will be empty if you time it right, and few other people will be out. Be prepared to wish the few a Happy Christmas and New Year.


Take pleasure in in singing. Not all Christmas songs or carols are religious, and music of all kinds can be very uplifting.


Focus on enjoying yourself. Christmas can be a pleasantly sociable or self-indulgent time of year if you don’t get too caught up in the competitive consumerist rush. Relax.

Humanist Hero: Joss Whedon

Here Liam Whitton writes about his admiration for writer-director Joss Whedon

There are few bigger names in entertainment today than Joss Whedon, who steered Marvel’s The Avengers to box office record-breaking success in 2012.

For his fans, this day was inevitable. Many of us had watched — or in my case, grown up on — Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and knew as early as then what a remarkable talent Joss Whedon was.

Buffy's enduring popularity hasn't just changed televisions, but several other mediums as well. Art by Jo Chen.

Buffy‘s enduring popularity hasn’t just changed television, but several other mediums as well. Art by Jo Chen.

What was also apparent to many, although perhaps many wouldn’t know it by name, was the extraordinary humanist quality to Buffy, and which can be found throughout Whedon’s work.

An obvious theme in Whedon’s work is the empowerment of women. But Whedon’s feminism is only a constituent piece of his larger, more encompassing humanist philosophy. Buffy, crudely summarised, is about a young woman with supernatural strength and physical attributes who fights the forces of evil. What elevated the show above its television forebears and contemporaries, and which continues to make it a seminal work of TV-as-art, is the programme’s relentless focus on the inner lives of its characters. The writers on the show were told to write with one question in mind: how does Buffy feel? From this spawned a rich show of complex characters encountering philosophical problems as often as social ones, making some of the most fully realised drama in all of fiction, and spawning an entire academic sub-field known as ‘Buffy studies’.

Whedon’s other themes are capitalism and greed, as explored largely in Angel, Dollhouse, and the comic book Fray; the fundamental dignity that comes with personhood, explored through Dawn and Connor in Buffy and Angel and as the central premise of the show Dollhouse; and secular explorations of redemption, as seen in all of his shows, where characters who have done terrible things attempt to make amends for their actions, and all learn in various ways that redemption is never finished, and that simple human compassion motivates the most profound and honest sacrifices.

Andrew West has written for HumansitLife about his love of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry before, and BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson has written admiringly of Roddenberry as well. Star Trek‘s popularity with humanists is partially rooted in its optimism for the human race, and its almost Utopian depiction of a universe where the Humanism Roddenberry so passionately felt has motivated humankind to explore, develop rational scepticism, and foster cooperation, all to great success. And I myself have written on Doctor Who‘s humanist themes, particularly in the form of its non-human main character the Doctor, a firebrand humanist with one advantage the rest of us don’t have — he knows much more than we do about the world (which is often used to justify the show’s forays into fairly fantastical heights of speculative fiction). But neither of these programmes achieve what Joss Whedon has consistently done throughout his work, which is to present Humanism and explore its implications in a world where essential human problems share the scale of epics.

Whedon’s worlds are alive with Humansim despite these worlds often not being humanistic or physical materialist in conception. In Buffy and Angel, the characters confront monsters, demons, witches, and deities, and accept that these things exist. They have a good reason to believe these things exist which we do not: in Buffy and Angel they really do. The ‘soul’ is a major plot device in both those shows as well, as it accounts in a nebulous and nonspecific way for the presence of morality. An early Angel episode, ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin,’ even suggests that the absence of a ‘soul’ explains true human psychopathy. Yet as both those shows go on, Whedon becomes increasingly interested in using the supernatural framework of the show for exploring the human problems we all really face, and to advocate the evidence-based and compassion-led approach to ethics we should be using to make decisions our daily lives.

From the beginning, Buffy used the supernatural to generously provide metaphors for all manner of social issues. Often the personal struggles of a character would be reflected in those of the monster of the week, or some atrocity in a character’s past would contain meaningful wisdom the audience could apply to another person’s present-day dilemma. Good fiction has long done this: the most successful novels take a chosen theme and stretch it into every line of dialogue, every visual motif, make their pages blossom with insight into the world. With cinema and theatre, the visual and textual have long been aligned in this effort, but until Buffy, television was a odd-man-out, a place for episodic dramas about buddy cops and the like. Buffy itself quickly moved from ‘high school’ themes to more mature ones. Season one’s ‘Invisible Girl’ provides a fairly mundane example of this: high school social alienation (and the fact that Sunnydale High sits above a Hellmouth) literally makes a shy girl turn invisible. By its later seasons, Buffy was commenting on the same theme with all the deftness of a poet.

Buffy‘s most fantastical and high-concept episodes are probably season four’s ‘Hush’ and season six’s ‘Once More, With Feeling,’ a silent episode and a musical respectively. The musical television episode had been pioneered for the modern age with Xena: Warrior Princess (several times in fact) before then, but it was ‘Once More, With Feeling’ which set the bar for TV concept episodes to come. In both ‘Hush’ and ‘Once More, With Feeling,’ Whedon’s characters, who are otherwise known for their verbal dexterity and linguistic playfulness, struggle to express themselves. In ‘Hush,’ they fail to articulate and say what they truly mean, and gradually find through the silence which has enveloped Sunnydale that in fact, language can be a barrier to honest communication; a hindrance rather than a tool. When the silence ends, Buffy and her boyfriend Riley sit in awkward silence, failing to at all express what they truly feel.  In ‘Once More, With Feeling,’ subtle characterisation and running plot threads in the character’s emotional lives come to the surface when the people of Sunnydale find themselves living in a musical. For all their exposed personal dilemmas, Buffy’s is the greatest, and it is the tortured character of Spike who must remind Buffy (through song) of her reason for living, despite her life-as-hell experience with severe depression:

Life’s not a song
Life isn’t bliss
Life is just this
It’s living
You’ll get along
The pain that you feel
You only can heal
By living
You have to go one living

…echoing Buffy’s own advice to her sister Dawn, in the previous season. You see, Buffy’s depressed in season six because she died, went to Heaven, and came back against her will. But her realisation in the season five finale ‘The Gift’ was that her love of her sister was a gift, and to sacrifice herself to save her sister’s life was her personal privilege. ‘Death is your gift,’ Buffy was told prophetically earlier in the season. She struggled to understand what that meant, if anything, before later arriving at a subtler understanding of life and death, and how one cannot have true meaning without the other. A humanist message in itself. ‘The hardest thing in this world is to live in it,’ Buffy counsels Dawn. Even in the supernatural world of Buffy, Whedon systematically undermines the supernatural to force the characters to explore the world as we ourselves face it.

The best example of this is in Buffy’s sister show Angel, when the beloved character Winifred ‘Fred’ Burkle dies in ‘A Hole in the World.’ The literal hole of that episode aside, which was a actual cavity running end to end through the Earth, the central ‘hole’ encountered was an emotional one for the characters as Fred died, possessed and eaten out from the inside by the ancient demon Illyria. In the ensuing episode ‘Shells,’ remembering Buffy’s aforementioned resurrection, Angel travels the world looking for a quick fix to the problem, before learning that Fred’s ‘soul’ was ‘consumed in the fires of Illyria’s resurrection.’ The hole in their world then becomes that much deeper, and I remember being 14 at the time it aired and really being hit powerfully for the first time by the reality and permanence of death. It made Buffy’s sacrifice (which for her, was to an unknown end) carry the same weight in subsequent rewatchings, and deepened my admiration for non-religious people who risk their lives for the good of others. It also reminds me of the Greek proverb: ‘A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.’

Another example of the undermining of religious supernaturalism in Buffy is that ‘Heaven’ is probably just another alternate dimension (called ‘hell dimensions’) of the infinite number which exist in the the show’s multiverse: merely an especially benign type of the world, among many more of infinite horror, and several others such as the World Without Shrimp and the World With Nothing But Shrimp. When the character Cordelia goes to one such heavenly dimension in Angel, she finds it is simply inconsolably boring, and later the characters learn that the heavenly beings behind Cordelia’s ascension are really just as nasty as the demons they typically encounter down on Earth — except relentlessly mean-spirited in their pursuit of a bigger-picture, consequentialist ‘good’, providing a healthy rejoinder to that Christian maxim that ‘God works in mysterious ways.’ In Angel, gods work in mysterious ways because they’re dicks. Or rather, because sometimes people are. Angel‘s deities are just another set or kind of fallible people, and in Whedon’s world, the bigger and tougher of us always face greater propensity to be bullies.

For all she’s seen, Buffy remains an agnostic atheist: unconvinced that the supernaturalism of her world means anything. Not that it’s mentioned much; it’s sort of inconsequential to her life of kicking butt and stopping evil. ‘The jury’s out,’ she says, when asked if there’s a (Judeo-Christian conception of) ‘God’ early on in season two.

Dollhouse was perhaps Whedon's darkest television show, set in a science fiction universe full of bad people abusing one another. But it also explores hope.

Dollhouse was perhaps Whedon’s darkest television show, set in a science fiction universe full of flawed and sometimes extremely devious people abusing one another. But it also explores hope.

Whedon’s later series Dollhouse is very much rooted within a materialist universe like the one we really live in, and is as much as anything else about human corruptibility, and mankind’s negative traits, including (through a science fiction lens) the world or prostitution, sex trafficking, organised crime, and how badly we treat the mentally ill, the disabled, and the less fortunate. Unlike Buffy and Angel, there is no ‘soul,’ no secret sauce to the human experience outside of our material bodies. We can be uploaded, downloaded, altered all through changes to the electrochemical states of our brains, as new hardware allows brains to be treated like hard drives for minds. And yet even so, as main character Echo goes on, she cobbles together a personhood formed from fragmentary fictional and borrowed identities which is just as valuable and ‘real’ as any of the ‘real’ people with real personalities she encounters. When humankind is given greater power and propensity to abuse, humankind abuses it (which is perhaps the show’s sole environmentalist message), but even so, it is only people — in all their diversities — who can champion and stand up for all that is good in the world, too.

They do so in spite of impossible odds. In Angel season four, the character of Gunn is told that by a shady character that higher powers manipulate their lives to such a degree that their active choices carry little weight; he presents a free will problem we’ve probably all thought of before. We’re all shaped by forces outside of ourselves. Some big, some small. Can free will exist in a deterministic universe? Gunn makes, as best he can, a passionate plea that our choices still matter. Like Sam Harris would say, even in a world without free will, we can still find meaning in our lives, and make our decisions count.

Similarly, in season two’s ‘Epiphany,’ Angel, who spends much of his long life on one crusade or another, always reaching for the grand gesture which will redeem him in his own eyes and in the eyes of others, reflects on finding meaning in a universe with no ‘cosmic plan’, and no certainty. He concludes, in his titular epiphany, which is presented as a milestone for the character’s development:

If there’s no great glorious end to all this, [and] if nothing we do matters… then all that matters is what we do.

It’s really no surprise that Angel’s ‘mission statement’, and the character’s last words (which closed out Angel‘s five-year run) are ‘Let’s go to work.’ Whedon symbolically had Buffy repeat the line in the concluding issue of Buffy‘s first canonical comic book season five years later, reflecting the fact that these two heroes are united by the same basic purpose. They separately arrive at the conclusion that your good work is never finished. Good work is their shared duty simply because it needs doing; no more, no less. Whedon’s characters are unlikely ever to arrive at the paradisiacal future of Star Trek, or the easy happy endings which characterise Doctor Who, but still they continue, hoping to plant oak trees for future generations.

Unlike Roddenberry’s vision, in which humankind has on the whole shown its best possible face, the characters in Dollhouse face the fullest extremes of human deplorability and summon up the strength to fight it with the only weapon they have: their humanity. (That and advanced fighting skills.) In Whedon’s shows, religion is not the enemy of Humanism, but nor is it really on the agenda (or of any interest) to any of its crypto-humanists. Instead, they are tackling the world in all its complexity and all its difficulties, across dimensions of class, creed, (species,) gender, and health. Whedon depicts the world at its worst and people at their best. And when they’re at the best, they’re grappling with the world as it really is, in all its difficulty and strangeness, and still finding the strength and motivation to go on in their Humanism.

Spread festive joy this holiday season with special, quirky humanist cards

The latest in the popular series of BHA ‘Christmas’ cards was announced last week, and I for one think they’re a great way for humanists to take part in all the festive celebrations going on this winter… with a bit of a wink and a nod.

When we announced it on Facebook, there was a little consternation over the word Christmas, but I tend to feel — personally, anyway — that Christmas is a perfectly good word for referring to this time of year. I certainly don’t treat Christmas as an especially Christian holiday any more than I treat Thursday as an especially Thorian one. Maybe you’ll disagree — feel free to tell me I’m wrong in the comments.

The BHA’s latest Christmas card depicts Charles Darwin’s ‘Tree of Life’ as a coniferous, snow-capped Christmas tree, with little references to his life and work on the card as well. It’s a beautiful design which we’re very pleased to be able to add to our growing collection of alternative seasonal cards.


However you, or your family, or your friends and loved ones, celebrate this time of year, for many it will probably involve writing to those you can’t be with and getting together with those you can for a meal or maybe an exchange of presents, as people have done in this part of the world going back thousands of years. A humanist ‘Christmas’ card lets you take part in the merriment, and cheekily put your own personal stamp on a staple tradition.

And feel good about yourself, too, as sales of cards are a source of funding for the BHA’s charitable activities. Ahead of 2015, and with all the ambitious projects we have ahead of us, your support of our work continues to be invaluable.

In addition to the tree card (pictured above), we’re also still selling our popular ‘There’s definitely a Santa,’ Fibonacci spiral, Christmas/Saturnalia ambigram, and ‘Santa Darwin’ cards at the BHA store, and you can get yours today in time for Christmas if you buy yours now.

A6_Greetings_CardCharity FibonacciA6_Greetings_Carddefinitely a santa

‘There are no atheists in foxholes': How this humanist approaches Remembrance Day

How do remember the dead?

How do we remember the dead? Matthew Hicks argues for an inclusive approach to remembrance.

Death is something I think about a lot. For any serviceperson or family member of a serviceperson, it is impossible not to. We are currently leaving a decade long period where friends, colleagues, brothers, sisters, mums, and dads have been repatriated injured or in boxes on a weekly basis. My job as a nurse within my current specialism requires exposure to a lot of people who are face terminal illness or are so ill that they might not respond to active treatment. That doesn’t make me an expert on dealing with death as a person. Indeed a friend recently suggested rightly or wrongly that I might have seen too much.  I honestly couldn’t tell you what the best way to deal with death is apart from talking about it as much as possible and prior planning if at all possible. What I do know however is there are ways not to deal with death and there is a phrase which comes back to haunt me numerous times which provides the perfect example

‘There are no atheists in foxholes.’

The following response to this statement is not a flag flying-exercise for atheism or indeed for Humanism as such. There are enough flaws in this statement to make it unsuitable for those even of faith as much as those who have none.

I don’t actively tell people that I subscribe to a humanist way of thinking. In my work, to do so would be inappropriate. I’ve sat and held the hands of a lady who was days away from dying who felt the compelling need to tell someone about her faith in God.  I’ve had to inform a wife that her husband didn’t make it and then listen and comfort her when she said God didn’t listen to her prayers. I have met Wiccans, Pagans, Hindus, and non-religious patients who have all faced their own journey. My overwhelming feeling as someone who has regularly nursed at the bedside of the dying is that, most of the time, people experts in their own passing. That is, with the right support, most people meet their end with dignity and wisdom in a similar way that many mothers meet childbirth: with a kind of default, inbuilt instinct. That is, of course my opinion and not something that I can verify by statistics or evidence. My viewpoint is that all people are naturally spiritual (for want of a better word).  That is: we all have a developed tendency on a lesser or greater level to consider and respond to the universe around us creatively and meaningfully. To encourage someone to be more spiritual is like trying to persuade a squirrel to be more squirrel-like. Often when people approach death, the barriers, inhibitions, and social expectations that get in the way of addressing that issue are no longer present. To that end, many of these people gain an approach to their situation that those of us who are left behind cannot even begin to comprehend or touch. Sometimes we are left behind before the loved one has even passed away.

It is for this reason alone that I have an issue with the title statement. I have heard it many times. I have heard it from (thankfully only) one hospital chaplain. I have heard it from many people who have asked me outside of work, how I think about death as someone who doesn’t believe in an afterlife. I have heard it from members of various faiths who seem to think it is evidence for the existence of ‘God’.

The issue here isn’t whether or not there’s a god. The issue here isn’t who does or doesn’t think about a god when they are faced with the end, either suddenly or protractedly. There may well be research that shows that many people do turn to God. I deliberately haven’t studied these things because for every person who finds a way to express themselves by turning to God there will be someone somewhere who expresses themselves without doing so. Everyone has the right to approach their end in whatever way they wish without those around them making assumptions about the need for faith that serve no other purpose than to ease the nerves of the person making them.

Arguably religion or ‘faith’ is a matter of language more than belief. In the UK, the stock, standard way (over the last millennia at least) has been to ponder one’s existential circumstances through prayer to a personal god. Until very recently it has been the standard for teaching children to understand their place in the universe. Many young people growing up will adopt a faith, but, increasingly these days, many will not. Some people may only adopt the language of faith, without the belief bit, out of a fondness for its narratives and conventions. Either way, it is quite understandable then that some people, when faced with a sudden realisation of likelihood of death or danger, might try to make sense, or find easy comfort, through the impossible. Fearing the inevitable, they might even pray. And yet, many atheists in foxholes will experience no such ‘reversion to type’. They are settled and comfortable in their understanding of what death really means. For many humanists, it is this same knowledge which has given meaning to their lives. The language of religion isn’t just unappealing to them; it is empty, devoid of explanatory or consolatory power.

These days, more and more people grow up without exposure to religious traditions. More and more people are making sense of their place in the world without religious faith or language. Many people even find faith in beliefs, religions or traditions that sit outside of traditional theistic belief structures. For all intents and purposes these people too can be considered atheists. To assume that everyone, in the face of danger, will turn to a god is almost like assuming people will begin speaking in French. It is an unrealistic and very unhelpful assumption.

For many people therefore, confronting death isn’t a trigger for turning to religion. God is no longer the ‘default’ cultural setting, after all. That goes not only for those who are dying but for those who are left behind. Many people will bow their heads quietly on 11 November against the white noise of a prayer from a representative of a faith they do not belong to or affiliate with in any way. During Remembrance, or an occasion which reminds us of loved ones who are dead, we sit in our own personal or collective foxholes. Each one of us whether religious or non-religious has the right to negotiate with the cultural and philosophical resources we have grown up with, or have adopted, without being made to feel that our approach somehow falls short of a gold standard.

Wouldn’t it be something if we could find a common language through which we could collectively remember the fallen, one which fulfils and refuses to compromise with our need to honour loved ones in a personal way?

Matt Hicks is a nurse in the Royal Navy as well as being one of the RN Service Representatives for the Defence Humanists. In his spare time, Matt can be found touring Devon with a bag full of songs and his ukulele. He blogs at The Wooden Duck.


Peter Tatchell: My journey to Humanism – how I made the transition from dogma and superstition to rationalism

Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell writes about the story of his journey to Humanism. This article was originally published in Humanism Ireland under the title ‘My Journey from superstition to rationalism.’

Peter Tatchell: Why I'm...

Peter Tatchell: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is proof that humans don’t need a god to tell right from wrong, and something we as humans can be proud of.

Organised religion is the world’s greatest fount of obscurantism, prejudice, superstition and oppression. It has caused misery to billions of people for millennia, and continues to do so in many countries. So how come I was once in thrall to it?

Nowadays, I am a human rights activist motivated by love and compassion for other people. I do evidence-based campaigning, based on humanitarian and rational values.

But I once had a very different perspective. Indeed, I grew up in a devout evangelical Christian family in Melbourne, Australia, in the 1950s and ’60s. My mother and stepfather (with whom I spent most of my childhood) were prim and proper working class parents, with very conservative views on everything. The Bible, every word of it, was deemed to be the actual and definitive word of God. Their Christianity was largely devoid of social conscience, more Old Testament than New. It was all about personal salvation.

According to our church, some of the worst sins were swearing, drinking alcohol, smoking, dancing, sex outside of marriage, communism, belief in evolution, not praying and failing to go to church every Sunday. All my extended family was of the same persuasion. Naturally, I also embraced God.

But in secondary school, aged 13, I began to think for myself. I remember a rather smug religious education teacher who one day gave us a lesson in faith. He argued that when we switch on a light we don’t think about it; we have faith that the room will light up. He suggested that faith in the power of God was the same as faith in the power of electricity to turn on a light.

Bad analogy, I thought. What causes a light to go on when one flicks the switch is not faith; it is man-made electricity and wiring – and this can be demonstrated by empirical evidence. The existence of God cannot. This set my mind thinking sceptical thoughts.

This nascent doubt was not, however, strong enough to stop me, at the age of 16,from becoming a Sunday school teacher to six year olds. Being of an artistic persuasion, I made colourful cardboard tableaux of Biblical stories. The children loved it. My classes were popular and well attended.

The first serious cracks in my faith had begun to appear the previous year, 1967, when an escaped convict, Ronald Ryan, was hanged for a murder he almost certainly did not commit. At age 15, I worked out that the trajectory of the bullet through the dead man’s body meant that it would be virtually impossible for Ryan to have fired the fatal shot. Despite this contrary evidence, he was executed anyway. This not only shattered my confidence in the police, courts and government, it also got me thinking about my faith.

According to St Paul (The Bible, Romans 13:1-2), all governments and authorities are ordained by God. To oppose them is to oppose God. But why would God, I asked myself, ordain a government that allowed an apparent injustice, such as Ryan’s execution? If he did ordain it, did God deserve respect? And what about other excesses by tyrannical governments? Did God really ordain the Nazi regime? Stalin’s Soviet Union? Apartheid? And closer to home, the 19th century British colonial administration which decimated, by intent or neglect, the Aboriginal peoples of Australia?

I began to develop my own version of liberation theology, long before I had ever heard the phrase. During the 1960s, the nightly TV news was dominated by footage of the black civil rights struggle, led by the Baptist pastor, Martin Luther King Jr. His faith was not mere pious words; he put Christian values into action.

This is what Christianity should be about, I concluded. Accordingly, at 14, I left my parents’ Pentecostal church and started going to the local Baptist church instead. Alas, it was not what I expected – not even a quarter as radical as Martin Luther King’s Baptist social conscience. A huge disappointment.

Undeterred, I began to articulate my own revolutionary Christian gospel of ‘Jesus Christ the Liberator’, based on ideas in the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the Good Samaritan.

This soon led me into Christian-inspired activism for Aboriginal rights, as well as against the death penalty, apartheid, the draft and the Vietnam War. I linked up with members of the radical Student Christian Movement. In 1970, aged 18, I initiated Christians for Peace, an inter-denominational anti-war organisation which organised a spectacular candlelit march through Melbourne, calling for the withdrawal of Australian and US troops from Vietnam.

At the age of 17, I had realised I was gay. From the first time I had sex with a man I felt emotionally and sexually fulfilled, without any shame at all. This positive experience overwhelmed all the years of anti-gay religious dogma that had been pummelled into me.

Amazingly, I never experienced a moment’s doubt or guilt. I reasoned: how could something so wonderful and mutually fulfilling be wrong? Instantly, I accepted my sexuality and was determined to do my bit to help end the persecution of lesbian and gay people.

By the time I turned 20, rationality finally triumphed over superstition and dogma. I didn’t need God anymore. I was intelligent, confident and mature enough to live without the security blanket of religion and its theological account of human life and the universe.

Accordingly, I renounced religion and embraced reason, science and an ethics based on love and compassion. I concluded: we don’t need God to tell us what is right and wrong. We humans are quite capable of figuring it out for ourselves. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is proof of this. It’s not God-given dogma and intolerance, but a fine example of high moral values, without religion. Bravo!

The art of ‘losing faith’

Where does one find meaning when they have lost their faith? That is a question that has been posed to me on numerous times as someone who was once a fully signed up member of an evangelical church who now lives within a non-religious, humanist spiritual setting.

It is only as I approach my fourth decade of life, 20 years after leaving the church that actually I realise this question has a lot wrong with it. So much so that it has possibly contributed to my taking so long to get comfortable within my own skin as a human being without a god.

The problem with the term ‘losing faith’ is that it originates from where you have come and from those whom you have left.  It is all too easy to make the assumption that this is an adequate description of someone whose previously deep belief system has been rocked and shattered to the point of non-existence. It is a term which potentially prolongs the bereavement process that a person goes through when they leave the structure of their religious community; their friends, and sometimes family, along with an underlying belief structure. A term that focusses on loss and distracts from the fruits gained.

The big misunderstanding here is that both parties i.e. those leaving and those who are being left behind, put faith in the notion that he or she who leaves religion is abandoning a bedrock of holistic security to jump into a chasm of chaos on every level. The ‘stray sheep’, ‘prodigal son’, or ‘fallen’ has left behind meaning, a moral compass, cosmic stability. Often the feeling that is ingrained in someone leaving a religion is that they are disobeying the laws of the universe itself and are therefore no longer allowed to play a part in it.

This however is just not the case on many levels. Doubt in a belief or a theory or anything you rely on is not unhealthy. It is not a sign of lack of faith but of intelligence and spiritual maturity. When someone who has come from years of adopting their parents’ faith suddenly wake up one day to find they do not believe it, it doesn’t mean they have been cosmically neglected. It means they are entering into a realisation that to continue in life with someone else’s projection of the universe is unwise, unreal, and dishonest.

My point is that faith actually is not ever lost in this process. Faith is a tool we use to gauge personal surety of the things we trust. When we redefine the parameters of what deserves our faith, when we scrutinise what we know and how it can be applied to the universe around us, we are actually tending to ‘faith’ in a diligent and mature way. We are certainly not losing it.

The other assumption is that when you leave a religion, you have to leave everything behind. A bit like leaving your company and all the bonuses and perks right down to your beloved stapler.  Leaving religion doesn’t work like that because no religion, regardless of what it professes, holds the monopoly on morality, ethics, kindness, or truth. Indeed it is only on leaving some of these groups that it becomes clear that they have little grip on any of these things.  Often people leave the faith of their birth because they realise that they cannot fulfil the full extent of their sense of compassion towards their fellow humans or indeed animals. Religion doesn’t give you your license to be kind or be compassionate. In fact should there be a god, then surely your existence at his/her hand is authority enough for you to promote kindness without needing to use their name to do so. Surely you are already an expert in compassion if you have been made, as some beliefs profess, in the image of an all compassionate being.

Often one leaves their religion because it’s a coat that just doesn’t fit any more. That may be because of what you do or don’t believe, but often it is simply because you are no longer able to respond to the language of that faith.

Sat here now, I honestly cannot recall the time I stopped believing in God. I suspect I never believed in one. Rather, I realised gradually that the language used to portray god and respond to the universe was a human construct and not a cosmic or divine one. Man makes his god in his image. It is never the other way around. Islam in part recognises this by not allowing images of Allah; Judaism recognises this by restricted the names given God. I didn’t stop believing in God so much as the language and the concept surrounding God merely became impotent. It lost its relevance to the point that to even question whether or not such a being existed was irrelevant. God, if you like, imploded as much linguistically as philosophically.

The trick then of moving up and outwards in your faith is not to find another set of beliefs but merely to find a language which you find you can respond to fully. That may involve another set of beliefs, it may not. Belief or lack thereof is so much less important than the community in which you embed. Often a person moves from their religion because, for them that community is no longer fit for purpose. It no longer bears the fruit of compassion and love that it professes to deliver. That has nothing to do with belief but everything to do with the human qualities of compassion. If a community lives with a language of love and compassion but then uses it as a set of euphemisms for oppression, staleness both in its human interaction and its language sets in. ‘Falling away’ then becomes a noble act rather than a sinful one.

A few of us have found some sort of home within Humanism. I like not knowing. I like testing everything I think I know is true. I like my world being rocked if at the end of it it makes me a better person. My embedding within Humanism is not to embrace the certainty of science but certainty of its processes. The aspiration to be humble enough not to assume knowledge but wrestle with it until it’s the closest thing that resembles the truth for that brief moment in time. It is the excitement that comes with being proved wrong only to find something more true. It is the fruits of doubt. Humanism doesn’t fulfil that in itself. It’s not a package you sign up to and find sudden fulfilment. It’s a process and an attitude one can adopt. It is a tool to help you aspire to being the best person you can be. Humanism isn’t the answer, it just demands you ask the right questions whilst showing compassion and respect to those around you. That approach leaves me free to respond to the world around me with a language and creativity which is true to itself whether its in the way I act or whether I’m blurting out beatles songs on my ukulele. These are my voice, my actions, my accountability my blank canvas. At this stage then it is difficult to recall what it was I ever thought I’d lost.


Matt Hicks is a nurse in the Royal Navy as well as being one of the RN Service Representatives for the Defence Humanists. In his spare time, Matt can be found touring Devon with a bag full of songs and his ukulele. He blogs at The Wooden Duck.

Happily Godless

Tony Akkermans shares a short excerpt from his book, Happily Godless.

Happily Godless: Tony Akkermans shares his thoughts on Humanism, and much else, in this book, released 29 August 2014.

Happily Godless: Tony Akkermans shares his thoughts on Humanism, and much else, in this book, released 29 August 2014.

Once upon a time there was, in the Western world at least, but a single god. Closely defined with clear-cut attributes. Omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, omnibenevolent. In fact so many omnies that from here on in I shall refer to him as Omnigod. I am talking, of course, about the god of the Bible and the Koran, the creator of heaven and earth. A hands on god who controls every happening here on earth, who is compulsorily worshipped in school assembles, who is at the heart of church services, who hears prayers and who, if they cross themselves in good time, makes footballers score goals.

For some two thousand years this father figure god has had a very good run for his money. He has been feared and worshipped unfailingly and his every capricious move has been meekly documented and accepted. But things are changing. All is not well with Omnigod. Wicked, troublesome rationalists have started ganging up on him. They have been pointing out major weaknesses in his lifestyle, such as the total lack of evidence for his existence. This is greatly worrying his self-appointed representatives on earth. All the great minds in the churches have got together in a telephone box and have racked their brains over a proper line of defence. After Herculean metaphysical labours, laced with much prayer, they have come up with the solution: Omnigod must be given a makeover.

A collection of brand new words and phrases have been brought to bear. Out goes the Omni and in comes the obfuscation. God is now the ‘Ground of all Being’ he is the ‘Ultimate Reality’. He is unfathomable, ineffable and unknowable. He is woollier than a champion sheep. Let Dawkins try and shear him now. The trouble is that if rationalists can’t get to grips with such an elusive customer, then his befuddled apologists can’t either. As Freddy Ayer has said in Language Truth and Logic: if things are unknowable there is no point in entering into further discussion. After all, unknowability and nothingness have much in common. So ‘Blurry God’ as I shall dub this ineffable creature won’t let the religious off the hook. Nice try Don Cupitt, Paul Tillich and the rest, but it must be Omnigod or nothing.

But boy, oh boy is Omnigod on thin ice these days! When he was the idol of the desert tribes his fiefdom was restricted to the sun, the moon and pancake earth. The size of real estate a god worth his salt could manage. But, it turns out, the acreage has grown. Let me give you two remarkable statistics: there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on all the beaches of the earth. And more staggering still: light from the exploding star GRB 090423 has taken 13 billion years travelling at the speed of light to reach us. (To give you an idea of the magnitude of 13 billion you would not reach that number if you counted uninterruptedly for more than 400 years). Bearing in mind that a single light-year represents a distance of 6000 billion miles this would tend to hint at the insignificance of our otherwise so self-important little planet earth.

Within this mind-numbingly huge universe there must be many other civilisations that would demand God’s undivided attention. Think of the trillions of prayers that must be answered or arbitrarily ignored; and if you are a football fan think of the all the wonderful goals scored with God’s help on all the pitches in the galaxies. The theologians have the answer (if they don’t they always make one up): God is Omnipotent and moves in mysterious ways. But so does Santa Claus in his annual toy deliveries. For centuries men of God have been explaining the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing. There is a choice here: resort to increasingly contorted explanations or simply conclude that God is imaginary.

Omnigod’s biggest bugbear of course is the problem of evil. For human induced catastrophes such as murder, mayhem and war, Omnigod’s apologists think they have found a clever get out clause: free will, it’s the people’s fault, God is off the hook. This expedient may be sufficient to mollify the unthinking flock but cuts no ice with rationalists, who are in the habit of thinking things through. The free will idea goes as follows: God is in charge of the boardroom decisions while we, the minions on the shop floor, may decide the petty detail. If we get it wrong we must carry the can because God is too busy with the bigger picture. But this convenient division of responsibility must have its limits. There must be a point where certain misdemeanours by the workers are of such a magnitude that they endanger the corporation’s survival and can no longer be ignored by the MD. Free will and Omnigod’s overall control are mutually exclusive. If Omnigod allows the Germans the free will to vote for Hitler and he also allows Hitler the free will to murder six million Jews, then Hitler is running the show and Omnigod is a cowardly bystander pretending not to notice. Would it not have been the decent thing to zap Adolf with a heart attack?

To crank this up a little further I have devised the ultimate freewill test. Suppose a deluded Ayatollah, wishing to meet his 72 virgins in paradise or an Armageddon-crazed redneck fundamentalist, hoping to be raptured soon, managed to get hold of an arsenal of nuclear weapons and employed his acolytes to plant devices in all population centres of the world and that all the bombs were connected by mobile phone signals to his hideout, where he is sitting with his finger poised over the button. Ready to blow God’s beautiful creation to smithereens. (a fanciful scenario I admit, but you get my drift). The ultimate moment of truth. Would God strike him dead or would he have to shrug his shoulders and say: “well, I have granted this person free will – do your worst; no exceptions to my scheme, nothing I can do about it”? At that point theologians must stop waffling and make up their mind. Either they must say that God would act to stop the earth’s destruction or they must allow that a mere human being has become more powerful than God. If, as I suspect, they would argue that God would act, they would have to face the follow-up question: if he can act now, why not in Auschwitz, why not in Dunblane? Why not in thousands of other dreadful scenes of human suffering? And if God cannot or will not act, where is the justification for all the centuries of worship and prayer?

Tony Akkersmans is the author of Happily Godless: Humanism for a Better World, which is available to buy on Amazon.