Whatever comes next: our commitment to a fairer, more secular Britain and Europe

27 June, 2016

Following on from last week’s historic vote, much about the future of the UK and of Europe is, for better or worse, profoundly uncertain.

As a non-partisan, charitable organisation, we did not take a side in the EU referendum, apart from encouraging a more democratic debate from all quarters. In that same enthusiastically democratic spirit, it falls to us to ensure that as humanists we play a critical role in steering this country through the difficult moral and intellectual questions ahead of it.

As humanists, and collectively as members of the BHA, we have an important role to play. As the UK undergoes a prolonged period of national reorientation and, potentially, of reorganisation, it will be the task of movements like ours to ensure that the progress we have made in fighting for human rights and equality in Britain in recent decades is maintained, in whatever new legal settlement emerges. Humanists have always been at the forefront of fighting for the ‘open society’ (the concept was developed by humanists) and we will re-dedicate ourselves now to that work.

We also have the special responsibility of fighting against forces on the religious right which will, no doubt, look for opportunities to solidify their vision of a ‘Christian country’ as a result of our present and future political turmoil.

Outside of our political life, the UK has a great deal of healing to do. The referendum debate exposed and legitimated some of the ugliest aspects of British society, and we are deeply concerned by the spike in racist, xenophobic, and nationalistic incidents since Friday. We will work to challenge hate and repair divisions however we can.

It is true that few if any votes on such substantial matters in the history of democracy have been so narrowly decided and exposed such seemingly irreconcilable visions within a single community. The gulf that has opened up or been exposed in our country is significant, but it is not entirely without precedent and it is not unbridgeable.

As rational, open-hearted people, we have a duty to work together with those of different viewpoints on life’s major questions to close the gap. And we have a great resource of moral strength to help us in that, drawn from thousands of years of human history and understanding. In challenging times, the values we need most are those of reason and honesty, empathy and compassion, and respect for democracy and the rule of law.

Humanists do not own these values, but we are their consistent and loyal champions. We must continue to be so, and now more vigorously and passionately than ever, as we enter a new era in our national history. We must act as standard-bearers of the Enlightenment.

And while Britain leaving the EU will, of necessity, have an enormous impact on the means and methods by which the BHA can engage on pan-European issues, one thing it does not change is our commitment to the humanist movement in our continent. In 1952, together with Dutch humanists, we were the first to join in founding new international humanist organisations to replace those that had been shattered by fascist proscriptions and the totalitarian onslaught on civil society that Europe had suffered. Since the 1990s, we have stood together in the European Humanist Federation with humanist organisations re-establishing themselves in countries freed from Soviet oppression. In the last 25 years, we have worked within EU institutions in support of our vision of a secular and egalitarian continent and, although the withdrawal of the UK from those institutions will force our own withdrawal from them, we will remain engaged with the separate Council of Europe in support of their founding values of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Our commitment to Humanism in Britain and the wider world is best served by our taking an active role in the European humanist movement and we will continue to do so.

All in all, we stand at the beginning of a profound journey. Let us stand together, and work together, to ensure that this time of political realignment is a thoughtful one which will bring us closer to our dream of a secular state ensuring human rights, equality, and happiness for all people.