Humanists in foxholes: Roger Hutton discusses Defence Humanists, Remembrance Day, and Humanists in Government

26 August, 2020

At the end of a long career in the Civil Service, we spoke to Roger Hutton about his time working at the Ministry of Defence and in particular, his work with Defence Humanists, the Humanists UK section representing non-religious people in Defence, veterans, and their families.

Hi Roger, you’ve just come to the end of a long career in the Civil Service. Could you tell us about your role in Defence Humanists and how that role fit into your time at the MoD?

Yes, I left my post as Director International Security in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) at the end of July, and am just settling into the very different rhythm of retirement. I was senior champion for the ‘Defence Humanist Network’, the internal support network for serving non-religious and humanist military personnel and Ministry of Defence civilians, for about five years. The Defence Humanist Network is slightly distinct from Defence Humanists, the wider community group which is a section of Humanists UK, but there is obviously a large overlap in the Venn diagram of those groups and most of their events are held jointly.

I was one of several appointed faith and belief ‘champions’ in the Ministry of Defence, and my role was to provide a voice at the senior level in discussions on support to serving non-religious and humanist personnel. There is a thing in the military called the ‘moral component’ – how you motivate people to fight – and clearly what someone believes (in our case, for example, that you only have one life) is crucial to how the armed forces provide moral motivation.

There are an increasing number of non-religious and humanist serving personnel, and I believe that the better the Defence Humanists can support them in their often challenging work, the stronger, in simple terms, is our nation’s defence.

When did you first call yourself a humanist?

I had been calling myself an atheist for many years, though I recently came across something that I wrote a couple of decades or so ago in which I referred to humanism, so obviously I knew of the concept. The real awakening for me was when I saw an advert for the Defence Humanists AGM, went along and realised I was among like-minded people. It took a while to get used to the term ‘humanist’, but I resolved early on that, to normalise a term like that, you have to use it routinely, which is what I did and still do.

Over recent years, I’ve come not to like the term ‘atheist’. A serving friend of mine said that he didn’t like being defined by what he didn’t believe in, so I’ve adopted that approach. ‘Humanism’, as a positive belief system, defines me, not the rejection of something I’m a very long way from believing in.

In 2018, humanists were invited for the first time ever to participate in the Remembrance Service at the Cenotaph. What did this mean for humanists in Defence?

One of the early objectives of humanists in Defence was to be able to commemorate Remembrance in our own way. With the support of the Department, we achieved this, initially in a small way, but each year getting bigger. It helped to raise our profile across the armed forces, but also proved a powerful emotional outlet for those who were fortunate to attend, a means to remember those who had given their lives or made other sacrifices in the defence of their country. I was privileged to speak at each of these events, and we have also been lucky to have Andrew Copson and Professor AC Grayling speak as well.

At the same time, and building on this, it meant a great deal for humanists in Defence when representation at the national commemoration at the Cenotaph was first granted in 2018. As Defence Humanists and Humanists UK patron Dan Snow has often pointed out, the Cenotaph was designed by Edwyn Lutyens as a secular memorial, given the range of faiths and beliefs represented by those who fought in the First World War. It gives real heart to serving non-religious and humanist personnel to see someone representing their beliefs – and thanks to Andrew for doing this – at the heart of that national event.

Given the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, we expect this year’s Defence Humanists secular remembrance event to be conducted virtually. We regard this as a great opportunity to raise awareness and to involve many more people. No doubt Humanists UK will share further details in due course.

Have you had any other memorable experiences through your involvement with Defence Humanists over the years?

I always look forward to our annual meetings, not just because we discuss such a fascinating range of topics, but also because it’s great to see so many friends again. As I mentioned previously, we’ve also been very lucky to have some great speakers at humanist events in Defence, drawn from Humanists UK’s patrons. The comedian Tony Hawks, for example, spoke about the humanist life (including the many life lessons from his famous trek around Ireland with a fridge) and Dan Snow gave a talk about remembrance.

In 2018 I was also privileged (as one of two representatives of Defence Humanists) to attend a major Royal British Legion event in Ypres, Belgium, to commemorate the last days of the First World War. What was particularly interesting to me was that, while some religious figures were involved, the content of the event was more or less entirely secular. And visiting the Royal Commonwealth War Graves Commission site at Tyne Cot, and standing beneath the Menin Gate, were stark reminders of the terrible cost of conflict.

What sort of role does Defence Humanists play in the lives of personnel and veterans?

It’s immensely important that non-religious and humanist serving personnel and veterans have access to support from people with a similar outlook; it’s part of the ‘moral component’ in Defence that I mentioned before.

‘Service life’ presents many challenges, and it is just good knowing that there are people out there who understand. That can mean just getting together, sharing ideas and experiences, talking about what it means to live as a humanist. Increasingly, serving humanists can access services from trained celebrants in uniform to commemorate major life events, or can be signposted to where such services can be accessed. All of these things mean a great deal to armed forces personnel, but also to Defence civil servants, who feel part of a massively positive, growing community.

What would you like to see change in how humanists operate in the armed forces?

The area in which we need to make more progress is pastoral support. As much as I admire the work of Christian chaplains, often in very difficult circumstances, there is something quite binary about the different ways religious and non-religious see the world. Even the popular chaplaincy term ‘all faiths and none’ suggests a view that humanists are somehow lacking something, which of course we aren’t.

In the Netherlands, they have had humanist pastoral support in their armed forces for 55 years, and the Belgians, Norwegians and (most recently) the Australian Navy all provide good models for this too. We’ll continue to work with the Department to move towards non-religious pastoral support, and I’m confident that, in the fullness of time, we’ll achieve it.

You were also very involved in setting up Humanists in Government, which links up humanists in the MoD with humanist civil servants in other departments. What is the rationale behind the network? 

I could see that the humanist network in Defence was relatively mature, but that there was a bit of a gap in this respect across wider government. I discussed this with a number of colleagues, and we went about setting up the Humanists in Government network. I was keen not to take a leading role – there was still a lot to be done in Defence – so I was very pleased when my good friend Jon Benjamin stepped forward as champion. Jim Al-Khalili and Andrew kindly hosted the launch event.

There has been a burgeoning faith and belief discourse across government in recent years, and the Humanists in Government membership wanted to ensure that a humanist voice was heard. I learned a lot from working with other faith and belief groups, and it was a good example of finding common ground.  At the same time, I was always struck by the close alignment of the Civil Service Code, with its principles of integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality, with humanist values, particularly the emphasis on reason, logic and science in understanding the world.

And finally, if someone was starting out in the armed forces or the Civil Service today and curious about getting involved, what advice would you give them?

First of all, of course, make contact with either the Defence Humanist Network, Defence Humanists, or Humanists in Government! Through them, you’ll be able to get involved in events, in strengthening the non-religious voice and in making sure that the armed forces and the Civil Service remain among the best, most stimulating places you can work, anywhere – which I firmly believe to be the case. On a personal note, and working alongside my successor as senior champion within the MOD, Air Vice Marshal Rich Maddison, I plan now to devote my energies to being President of Defence Humanists, and so hope to revitalise Defence Humanists so that more people can become actively involved.


Defence Humanists brings together service personnel, veterans, Ministry of Defence staff, and their families to represent the interests of the non-religious in the armed forces. It organises events and community activities for its members and leads Humanists UK’s participation in Remembrance Day events and similar activities around the UK.

See also Roger Hutton’s piece ‘The Humanist Factor’, written for the Civil Service blog for World Humanist Day 2018.

See our 2019 story, ‘Humanists take part in all national Remembrance Day ceremonies across the UK

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 85,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

As well as supporting Defence Humanists, Humanists UK has a long commitment to the right to conscientiously object.