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Humanists mourn Sir Bernard Crick (1929-2008), Vice President of the BHA

The British Humanist Association (BHA) mourns the death of its Vice President, Professor Sir Bernard Crick, who died on 19th December 2008 at the age of 79. Involved in the humanist movement for forty years, he was one of its best-known and influential members.

Andrew Copson, BHA Director of Education and Public Affairs said:

Bernard Crick, in his defence of politics, his advocacy for toleration and cooperation – a rebuke to fundamentalisms of all sorts – and his support for a shared society, shared schools and a shared future for all humanity, embodied the humanist ideal of great thought and great deeds going hand in hand.

1969 saw Crick’s first public engagement for the BHA at its conference at the Royal Festival Hall on creating an open society.  He gave a paper advocating the virtue of toleration in the ideal state saying, “the most important thing about living in any complex and reasonably civilized community is to perceive it is pluralistic”. He urged that people of different beliefs should learn about those with different beliefs as part of their school curriculum, and that people of different beliefs could cooperate for the common good. In the decades that followed, these concerns all recurred in his work and that of the BHA.

Crick’s humanist morality was robust and deep: he saw that “morality depends on reasoning and instinctive sociability” (lecture to the 2005 BHA conference) and had that expansive and universal vision of morality which distinguishes the greatest humanists.  Expressing this sentiment in Essays on Citizenshipin 2000, he said, “The crucial test of ethical values is whether they apply to strangers, and those afar, not just in our midst.”  In 2003 he  was a signatory to a joint letter to the Prime Minister and national press calling for the 12 February birthday of Charles Darwin to be made a national holiday. 

He was a great advocate of Humanism as a moral endeavour – actively working for good. He saw this as especially vital in a time of fundamentalisms: “We live in a time of increased religious fanaticism both in the Christian and Muslim worlds. The extraordinary spectacle of Pentecostal churches in the US joining with the Catholic Bishops against abortion and homosexuality and therefore in support of President Bush at the last election.  The Muslim demonstration of the Supreme Sacrifice: the suicide bombers in Iraq, a phenomenon not known since the Assassins of early Medieval times.  Humanism is firstly, denial of religious orthodoxy and intolerance; secondly, denial that morality depends on religious belief; but thirdly, positive assertions that reason and tolerance are the bases for freedom and human brotherhood – The Brotherhood of Man.” (Lecture to the 2005 BHA conference).

Like many humanists of his generation, it was in the shared endeavour of politics that Crick believed that religious and non-religious people could cooperate for the common good: We must cooperate on the practical politics of the common good, In our country we are inherently pluralistic, unlike the heresy of French secularism, our church was made by compromises with each other long ago, and now the majority of our population are in all practical terms non-believers.  We must assert the secularity of politics and citizenship but in doing this we should not assume that all believers would differ from us.  We should be as respectful of sincere error, even of weird superstitions, just as moderate Christians Jews and Muslims are – or can be – of each other.  Unnecessary antagonisms weaken the moderates and strengthen the fanatics who thrive on direct antagonism.” (Lecture to the 2005 BHA conference).

Although he was an advocate of toleration and mutual understanding between those of different religious and non-religious believers, he was implacably opposed to any notion that one religious or philosophical group should ever use impose their beliefs on another by force a fierce advocate of politics as a secular enterprise. His defence of citizenship as secular at “Faith, Community and the Common Good”, the 2003 Humanist Philosophers’ conference, was an invigoration for all those present.  Most recently, he was a signatory in March 2007 to the Brussels Declaration which called for a secular Europe to “affirm the worth, dignity and autonomy of every individual, and the right of everyone to the greatest possible freedom compatible with the rights of others. We support democracy and human rights and aim at the fullest possible development of every human being.”

Well known for introducing the curriculum subject of Citizenship to English schools, he had lifelong interests of many sorts in education and was an opponent of faith schools and a supporter of inclusive and shared community schools, such as those proposed by the BHA.  He remained involved in work to promote secular education almost until his death and as late as September this year became a patron of Accord – the campaigning coalition uniting religious and non-religious people to lobby for reform of state-funded faith schools.

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