Jim Al-Khalili named President-elect of British Humanist Association

14 December, 2012

Jim Al-Khalili, incoming President of the British Humanist Association
Jim Al-Khalili, incoming President of the British Humanist Association

Physicist, author, and broadcaster Jim Al-Khalili has been appointed as the next President of the British Humanist Association. He succeeds journalist, broadcaster, and social justice campaigner Polly Toynbee to take up the position from January 2013 and will serve a three-year term as the Association’s eleventh president.

The son of an English practising Christian mother and Muslim father, Jim was born and raised in Iraq, but left that country with his family in 1979 to come to England at the age of 16. His academic career has been in theoretical physics but he is best known publically as a popular and accomplished science communicator, whose books have been translated into over 20 languages. In spite of his parentage and his descent from an Iraqi Ayatollah, Jim has been a humanist since his teenage years.

Welcoming Jim’s appointment, BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson said, ‘As well as being an academic scientist at the forefront of humanity’s quest to know the universe, Jim is also a brilliant communicator. His popular broadcasts and books have made some of the most cutting-edge and complex scientific advances accessible to millions. It is that capacity in particular that makes him a perfect choice to speak to the millions of British people who share the humanist approach to life but have not heard the word “humanist” and don’t realise that it describes what they believe. We all look forward to his time as president enormously.’

Welcoming her successor, outgoing President Polly Toynbee said, ‘It has been a joy to be president at a time of such prominent activity and unprecedented growth for the Association. From the Atheist Bus Campaign, to the massive increase in our education and ceremonies work and our increasingly dynamic advocacy work, we have gone from strength to strength. I know that Jim will enjoy a period of equal growth and success and hope he enjoys his time as President of such a wonderful and sorely needed institution.’

Jim Al-Khalili, accepting the appointment, said, ‘I am excited to be the BHA’s next President. It’s a real honour and I hope I can do the position justice, especially when I look back on some of its illustrious past presidents. Following from Polly Toynbee is a particularly daunting prospect as she has been such an influential and respected voice in British intellectual life over several decades. Her uncompromising stance on secularism and social democracy have been exemplary and I know she leaves the post with the BHA stronger than it has ever been in its 116-year history.

‘Like so many people who are not religious, I have often felt offended by the misguided notion that people require a religious faith to provide their moral compass in order to lead a good life. Reason, decency, tolerance, empathy and hope are human traits that we should aspire to, not because we seek reward of eternal life or because we fear the punishment of a supernatural being, but because they define our humanity. Only in recent years have I come to appreciate that all those qualities I have tried to espouse are precisely what defines Humanism.

‘My scientific training has given me a privileged rationalist view of the world and I have dedicated my life to trying to understand the workings of nature and our place in the universe using scientific reason. This has engendered in me a strong sense of awe and wonder in the world, which my cells are so fleetingly a part of, that goes far deeper for me than anything religious faith can offer.’

Previous Presidents of the British Humanist Association have included jazz musician and author George Melly, agony aunt and broadcaster Claire Rayner, comedian and broadcaster Linda Smith, cosmologist Hermann Bondi, anthropologist Edmund Leach, and evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley. On departing as President, Polly Toynbee will join distinguished humanists such as philosophers Simon Blackburn and Richard Norman, and scientists Lewis Wolpert and Richard Dawkins as a Vice President of the BHA.


Hi-res images of Jim are available at humanists.uk/about/our-people/president/jim-al-khalili/

1. More About Jim Al-Khalili

Professor Jim Al-Khalili OBE is professor of Physics and professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey. His academic career in theoretical nuclear physics began with a postdoctoral research fellowship at University College London, after which he returned to the University of Surrey, where he was appointed as a lecturer in 1992 and where he continues to teach and conduct his research in quantum physics. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics and an Honorary Fellow of the British Science Association. He has been a Senior Adviser to the British Council, Vice President of the British Science Association and a past judge on both the Samuel Johnson book prize and the Art Fund prize.

Jim is best known to the public as a popular science broadcaster and author and was the youngest ever recipient of the Royal Society Michael Faraday Prize for science communication in 2008. His books have been translated into over 20 languages and include Black Holes, Wormholes and Time Machines, Nucleus: A Trip into the Heart of Matter, Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed, Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science, Paradox: Nine Great Enigmas in Physics and the forthcoming Quantum Life: How Fundamental Physics is Revolutionising Biology.

His television series include Shock and Awe: The History of Electricity, Atom, The Big Bang, Chemistry: A Volatile History (BAFTA nominated), and Science and Islam. He is the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s weekly programme, The Life Scientific.

The great-great grandson of an Ayatollah from the city of Najaf, and the child of a devout English protestant mother and a Shia Muslim father, Jim was born and raised in Iraq, but left that country with his parents in 1979. He lives with his wife, Julie, in Southsea and has two grown up children at university.

2. More about the British Humanist Association

Founded in 1896 as the Union of Ethical Societies, the British Humanist Association (BHA) works for a world where everyone lives cooperatively on the basis of shared human values and respect for human rights and where non-religious people are confident in living ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity.

30,000 members and supporters and over 60 local and special interest affiliates trust us to promote Humanism; provide services, support and representation to the non-religious; and promote a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

Our policies are informed with the support of over 130 of the UK’s most prominent philosophers, scientists, and other thinkers and experts and we seek to advance them with the help of over 100 parliamentarians in membership of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group.

Our hundreds of trained and accredited celebrants conduct funerals and other non-religious ceremonies attended by over hundreds of thousands of people each year.

3. More about Humanism

Throughout recorded history there have been non-religious people who have believed that this life is the only life we have, that the universe is a natural phenomenon with no supernatural side, and that we can live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. They have trusted to the scientific method, evidence and reason to discover truths about the universe and placed human welfare and happiness at the centre of their ethical decision making.

Today, people who share these beliefs and values are called humanists and this combination of attitudes is called Humanism. Many millions of people in Britain share this way of living and of looking at the world, but many of them have not heard the word ‘humanist’ and don’t realise that it describes what they believe.

It is one of the main purposes of the British Humanist Association to increase public awareness of what Humanism is, and to let the many millions of non-religious people in this country know that, far from being somehow deficient in their values, they have an outlook on life which is coherent and widely-shared, which has inspired some of the world’s greatest artists, writers, scientists, philosophers and social reformers, and which has a millenia-long tradition in both the western and eastern worlds.

We also hope to give greater confidence to people whose beliefs are humanist by offering resources here and elsewhere that can develop their knowledge of humanist approaches to some of the big ethical, philosophical and existential questions in life.