Hi Pippa, what inspired you to become a humanist pastoral carer?
It was a somewhat impulsive response to seeing an advert on Facebook looking for people who could support people in difficult times from a non-religious perspective. I think I was looking for a challenge that was outside of my comfort zone and something new to try. Going into a prison seemed to fit both those things.
Why, in your view, is humanist pastoral care important?
I have long thought that religion and religious people don’t have any kind of monopoly on being moral or thinking deeply about the world and how to live well within it. I went to religious schools as a child and even then can remember thinking, ‘Hang on, I don’t need god or the bible to tell me the right way to behave, I can work that out for myself’. I personally have never felt the need to make sense of the world through a faith or membership to a religion. I like to read, and listen and think, and take what makes sense to me and use it to help me live the best way I can. At times we all need some help and support, and I’m not someone who appreciates being told what I should or must do. I believe that others who also don’t necessarily have faith in a higher power, or a belief that a particular text holds all the answers, would like help and support from people who won’t give them some pre-prepared or formulaic answers.
I come from a scientific and professional background. I’m somewhat conditioned to want to be ‘qualified’ in whatever I do. Non-religious pastoral care is the ‘new kid on the block’ when it comes to institutions, and can be regarded as lacking in depth and gravitas by those who are more used to pastoral care coming from religious, usually Christian, chaplaincy. I was keen to do something which allowed me to bring more depth and confidence to the role. I love investigating and thinking about big existential, human, ethical issues and the course allows me to indulge in this while also applying those issues, to individuals through pastoral care. I was worried that my lack of philosophy, humanities, and arts background might be an issue but I’ve really enjoyed being exposed to so many new ideas and theories about the world and how we live. Having some years (lots!) and experience of life and interacting with people, together with all the experiences of the others on the course, has made learning, and the important unlearning, very rich and rewarding.
What do you think are the most desirable qualities for a humanist pastoral carer?
Probably compassion and curiosity. One of the most valuable things I’ve taken away from my first year is that we need to challenge ourselves and unlearn many things which we thought we knew. In fact my definition of wisdom is now the ability to realise how much we don’t know, and that so many of the assumptions and short cuts we use about ourselves and others are not true. If we can set aside, or at least be aware of, our preconceived ideas about others or their situation – and use an open, kind curiosity to find out what life is like for them – then that seems like a good starting point to offering support and the metaphorical, or real, holding of someone’s hand.
Tell us about providing pastoral care in a prison setting.
It seems obvious to say that a prison is a very different and difficult place to be. Many things have surprised me about the prison. I have been able, in a relatively short space of time, to feel comfortable walking about on my own and interacting with prisoners. Like most people I had never set foot in a prison before, and found the prospect of being ‘let loose’ inside one without a personal bodyguard daunting. It was really important that I had another volunteer with me both physically and to talk to afterwards. We loosely come under the umbrella of the Prisoner Development Unit (PDU) rather than the chaplaincy department, as would be more usual in English prisons, where those offering humanist or non-religious pastoral support are included within the chaplaincy team. This has meant that we have had to feel our way around and work out for ourselves how to make contact with prisoners and identify how best to help those who need it.
What have you learned through volunteering as a pastoral carer?
I’ve learned I can do something that I wasn’t sure I could and that is up-lifting. My ideas about what is hard about prison have changed, I used to think arriving in prison would be the worst thing that could happen, but actually for many people I think leaving prison can be worse. For some: the security, predictability and support that prison can provide is easier than the lonely or complicated lives they have outside. Many prisoners come from chaotic, difficult, bereaved and traumatised families and have problems with mental health and addiction. There are times when it is hard to listen to and witness distress and the inability to change the reality for some people can weigh on you. But when you feel that you have helped by listening or even by having a ’normal’ conversation about non-prison topics it feels worthwhile.
How does pastoral care related to view of life as a humanist?
I’m a rational person who strongly believes that the world can be explained, mostly, by science. But I’m also happy that there is much we cannot explain, yet, and the human experience in all its mystery and the natural world in all its wonder are truly amazing and they are what makes life worth living. I know that feelings come from the most incredible interaction of electricity and neurotransmitters in the brain but they also can’t merely be reduced to that explanation, they are important and ‘matter’. It ‘matters’ therefore how we treat people and how we live our lives.
In addition to the campaign for recognition of non-religious pastoral care as an important resource, I feel strongly about assisted dying. That I, and others, should be able to use the best that medicine and medical care has to offer when I am unwell but be unable to use them when I am dying or need to stop pain or suffering seems unreasonable. I make no presumptions about what the choices of others should be but I also don’t want others to presume about what choices I should make for myself.
Pippa, thank you for speaking with us.
It’s good to talk, so we’re here to listen: Interview with humanist pastoral carer Ciarán McWilliams
Hi Ciarán, what first drew you to humanist pastoral care?
After being diagnosed with multiple autoimmune diseases, I had to endure many long stints in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast. I was approached by a wonderful Christian chaplain, we discussed many things and when I explained I was non-religious he offered me the support of a humanist pastoral care volunteer. She was amazing – a fantastic listener, empathetic, comforting, open and honest, and an absolute pleasure to be around. I didn’t even know that non-religious pastoral care was a thing and I had to know more. She put me in touch with Northern Ireland Humanists. I became a member, and once I was out of hospital, I applied to become an accredited pastoral care volunteer for the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network (NRPSN).
How does pastoral care relate to your view of life as a humanist?
Offering emotional and spiritual support to others in need, being with other people when they ask for it, then sharing that moment in time with them is a very basic summary of pastoral care. My own view of life as a humanist is knowing time is precious and none of us can escape death. I believe we have one life, this life, and that we must live in the here and now. We should live our best life, but also be there for others too, because all we have is each other. Pastoral care volunteering allows me as a humanist to accomplish this and more.
Why, in your view, is humanist pastoral care essential?
It is important that religious folk are afforded the right to have a representative from their own belief system present if they need pastoral care. However, our NRPSN accredited volunteers are trained to offer support to anyone regardless of belief. As we know from the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, the number of people moving away from religion is growing and the need for humanist care in the community has never been greater. My own personal experiences of receiving pastoral care from religious chaplains was mixed – some good and some unfortunately terrible – whereas pastoral care from someone with similar or the same beliefs and worldview was life-changing for me.
I’ve been a member of Ophir RFC for thirty years. In that time I’ve been a player, referee, committee member, coach, and youth convenor. Ophir RFC is an old club that traditionally only catered for adult mens’ teams, but over the last decade or so, the club has slowly started to grow, meaning we needed to move to a new facility. This growth – the new state-of-the-art sports facility and complete club transformation in the last two years – has changed Ophir RFC into a vibrant, diverse, and inclusive community for all. My experiences in the Youth Convenor role was one that required me to step away from the rugby pitch and be more involved with the club as a community, and on many occasions my pastoral care training and experience was needed. With the club’s growth, it was felt by club officials that we needed someone to facilitate a role of offering support to the players, coaches, and wider community. With knowledge of my other roles for the NRPSN, the club asked me to be their first pastoral care and welfare volunteer. The role will require me to offer emotional support to the members of Ophir RFC and the wider community as it is needed.
Can you tell us more about why it is important that non-religious pastoral care is available for sports teams in Northern Ireland?
Currently there is only one sports team in Northern Ireland offering non-religious pastoral care – Ophir RFC. If any other sports teams believe they need this support it is undoubtedly something we at the NRPSN should explore.
Traditionally, the role of a sports chaplain has always been held by one specific religious representative (almost exclusively Christian), and very much based on prayer, which is perfectly fine if there is a need. The problem is that this role will likely aggravate others. An accredited non-religious pastoral care volunteer will give emotional and spiritual support for everyone who needs it, and while the four largest religious denominations jockey and compete against one another here in Northern Ireland, a neutral and progressive approach is always likely to work, especially if that approach caters for everyone.
When did you first begin to identify as a humanist?
I’ve been a humanist my whole life, I just didn’t know it. In truth, I had heard of humanism but didn’t know much about it. I called myself an atheist until 2015, but when my life was turned upside down and I was medically retired at 42 years of age, that changed. After getting support from a humanist pastoral carer and having a lot of time in hospital, I started reading up on humanism online. I joined Humanists UK as a member and started regularly attending Northern Ireland Humanist monthly brunches. Meeting so many like minded people (many of whom quickly became friends) and becoming an active volunteer locally, I started to identify as a humanist.
Which Northern Ireland Humanists campaign is closest to your heart?
I’m passionate and support all our campaigns locally here in Northern Ireland, but as regional coordinator for pastoral care for both Northern Ireland Humanists and the NRPSN, obviously the campaign closest to my heart is: equal access and funding for non-religious pastoral carers. Northern Ireland Humanists has trained a number of non-religious pastoral carers who are ready and willing to volunteer in hospitals and prisons. However, their inclusion in local ‘chaplaincy’ teams is at the discretion of the resident chaplain. We have, however, managed to get access to Maghaberry prison, offering pastoral care for all prisoners who ask for it – over 200 to date.
Ciarán, thank you for speaking with us.
Charlie Barnes, pastoral carer and Manchester hospitals’ Volunteer of the Year: an interview
September 30th, 2020
Photo credit: Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust
Charlie Barnes is a humanist volunteering as a non-religious pastoral carer at the Manchester Royal Infirmary, providing valuable support as part of the hospital’s chaplaincy team. He is also the recipient of the Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust Volunteer of the Year Award 2020 – given to individuals who work ‘tirelessly and generously to help improve NHS services, facilities, and support for patients’. We caught up with Charlie to talk about his role as a non-religious pastoral carer, his views as a humanist, and winning the award.
Hi Charlie, what first drew you to volunteering with the NRPSN?
I had been a member, but not a very active one, of Humanists UK for a number of years. Just as the time to retire from paid work was approaching, I heard about the opportunity to do a weekend course with the Non-religious Pastoral Support Network, and for the first time saw the chance to become actively involved in humanism – rather than simply giving financial support. I attended the course in York in December 2016, and realised immediately that I had found the right place for me.
How does pastoral care relate to your view of life as a humanist?
Pastoral care in a hospital context has made me realise how we are all bound together as humans, how much our needs and fears are common to all of us, and very often how superficial our apparent differences are. The differences between those of faith and those with none, or between one belief system and another, although they can occasionally cause real passion and anger, are mostly far less apparent than the common need for help, empathy, and support, to which everyone should be equally entitled.
Why, in your view, is humanist pastoral care essential?
Given the universality of these needs, the pastoral care offered in hospitals should be available, and should be seen to be available, to all patients and staff equally. Religious chaplains do a fine job but are often called to look after their own, and the system of referrals in place in a hospital works well – so that every Catholic gets to see a priest. But the inevitable downside of this is that those with no particular religious affiliation fall through the cracks, and often don’t get visited at all. There is also a lack of awareness of non-religious pastoral care. The very idea of non-religious pastoral care is still a novelty for most people, so the likelihood of a patient asking for it, or the staff recommending it, is very low. I would like to set up a system whereby every single person admitted to hospital is visited by a pastoral carer during their first week, to make them aware of the care and support that is available to them, from a diverse and inclusive team. It would then be their choice whether or not to pursue the contact.
Congratulations on winning your recent award. Can you tell us more about it?
Last summer I had heard rumours that I had been nominated for an award of some sort, and it gradually emerged that one of my colleagues in the chaplaincy team had nominated me as Volunteer of the Year 2020. I am of course delighted to receive the Volunteer of the Year Award, it’s a big thrill and I take it as a compliment to the whole team. If it raises the profile of the NPRSN and what the team does – that can only be a good thing!
What have you learned from your experiences with the NRPSN?
I’ve learned that the vast majority of people are good, brave, and optimistic, even when faced with pain, illness, and death, and that these qualities are every bit as apparent in those with no faith as in their religious counterparts. Atheism is not a word I hear very often – it has too much finality for most people – but the idea that people are somehow drawn to religion when confronting their own or their loved one’s mortality is simply not the case! The scenario of an atheist specifically requesting non-religious care still doesn’t happen very often, as they don’t know the care is there, but in any case I would much rather be there for everyone.
I am very lucky working in a team of chaplains who almost unreservedly respect my position and my views on where chaplaincy could go in the future. I have learned that the importance and significance of religious differences gets far too much press; the people I work with are good, kind, committed people, and that matters to me far more than any doctrinal differences that might separate them. A hospital is an environment where everyone is helping with the healing process, not an opportunity for proselytising, and everyone on the team knows that.
I look forward to getting back to work, and if this award does anything to raise the profile of the NRPSN, and to demonstrate the value of having a non-religious pastoral carer in the team, then I am proud to have helped with that.
If you are interested in training to be a non-religious pastoral carer, please contact our Head of Humanist Care, Jessica Grace, on email@example.com.
Humanists in foxholes: Roger Hutton discusses Defence Humanists, Remembrance Day, and Humanists in Government
August 26th, 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.
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.
A commitment to be there for people: Interview with humanist pastoral carer Joanna Mutlow
July 28th, 2020
Joanna Mutlow is a humanist working as a non-religious pastoral carer at Rotherham, Doncaster, and South Humber NHS Foundation Trust. She is also a board member of the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network (NRPSN), which trains and accredits pastoral carers across the UK, and is the regional coordinator for pastoral carers in the Yorkshire and Humber region. We spoke to her about her work as a pastoral carer on the frontlines during the covid crisis.
Hi Joanna, what drew you to working with the NRPSN?
A few brushes with acute care made me aware of the need for a listening ear alongside body-focused medical care. After a bit of searching, I came upon the work the NRPSN were doing to be included in pastoral and spiritual care services (also widely called ‘chaplaincies’) and I signed up for the training, which was challenging and pragmatic.
I felt I’d found a shoe that fitted exactly and the mystery of what to do as my ‘twilight career’ was solved. It took a little longer to negotiate myself a volunteer placement in a hospital as my enthusiasm and motivations were not of the religious kind (which many chaplaincy departments have come to expect), but I got there and have since gained an employed position in another mental health trust.
How does pastoral care relate to your view of life as a humanist?
Pastoral care is all about kindness and respect to others. It is about non-judgement of others’ choices and situations and a commitment to be there for people by listening carefully and acknowledging what they are telling you.
It is a way to actually enact my belief as a humanist in valuing others, appreciating their diversity, supporting human resilience, and making meaningful connections. It is easy to get disorientated or lost in a healthcare setting and it can prompt a deeper reflection on life; I am continually humbled and impressed by what people share with me and how varied our conversations can be. Meeting these people also reminds of the precariousness of our one life, and the importance of living well each and every day.
Why do you think humanist pastoral care is essential?
Non-religious pastoral care is sadly not available in many healthcare settings. This is because there are not yet enough people trained to take up these roles, but also because there is some reluctance (even hostility) to take on non-religious people into traditional chaplaincy teams.
The data, however, suggests that one half of the UK population are non-religious and since chaplaincy posts are funded by the NHS, there is an equality issue here. Non-religious patients and staff are not likely to contact services if they are perceived to be exclusively religious, or if support is exclusively delivered by religious chaplains. But non-religious people do have the same needs to discuss their worries and concerns, their existential questions, and their search for meaning and purpose.
These discussions most often work best with someone who shares a similar worldview, who is not worried about your soul – someone who is not going to offer to pray for you and is not trying to solve or explain your situation using their own faith. It is not as easy as ‘leaving out the god bit’. I urge anyone using healthcare services to check first of all that their admission information on belief is correct, and secondly to ask for a visit from a humanist or non-religious pastoral carer. Asking the question can help shift the mindset that chaplaincy is an exclusively religious domain.
You’ve been working as a pastoral carer at an extraordinary time just recently. What can you tell us about how it’s been during lockdown?
My Trust has taken a very proactive and rational approach to the pandemic and one decision was that all who could should stay away. Unfortunately, the pastoral and spiritual care team fell into this category, and it has been a difficult job to do remotely. We do not yet know when we’ll be allowed back physically into work. [At some other NHS Trusts, humanist pastoral carers are working on wards once again.]
I’ve used some of my time to write a book about humanist pastoral care, thinking about how to ‘demystify’ it for religious colleagues with examples of what we might actually say to a patient, prisoner or student. On more than one occasion I have been asked how I do the job without prayers and scriptures, and this book will answer that question. I was also thinking about what I didn’t know before I started, and how more examples of our responses might have helped me, so the book also has contributions from other pastoral carers and will be useful in our NRPSN training. Writing it has been a very reflective and consolidating experience, affirming of what contribution humanists can make in pastoral and spiritual care.
During lockdown, I was also awarded my accreditation to deliver funerals as a Humanist Ceremonies™ celebrant, with my final assessment involving me delivering a practice funeral at home behind an upturned coffee table lectern. The overlap between being a celebrant and pastoral care is an area of real interest for me, whether delivering contract funerals in a hospital or helping people with terminal diagnosis to plan their funerals. Networking with Humanist Ceremonies™ and pastoral care colleagues has been an important part of lockdown. There is such a sense of common purpose, enthusiasm and good intention amongst us that inspires me.
What have you learned from your experiences with the NRPSN?
I have learned that human diversity is immense. That people have led extraordinary lives. That you can never judge a book by its cover. That human resilience is incredible. That the NHS is a precious safety net that holds us together, in body and in mind, but which needs critical investment and support. That hostility to humanism needs to be challenged as it is based on misunderstanding and protectionism – we add to pastoral and spiritual care services, we do not take away. That there are religious colleagues who recognise this and are NRPSN allies, ready to help create inclusive pastoral and spiritual care services.
Joanna, thank you for speaking with us.
Refugee Week: Interview with humanist Hamza bin Walayat
June 19th, 2020
For Refugee Week, Humanists UK has interviewed Hamza bin Walayat – the young humanist who in 2018 was famously rejected for asylum on spurious grounds by the Home Office – on his experience of the asylum system and what it’s like to be a refugee.
At the time, Humanists UK took up his case and successfully fought for reforms of the UK asylum process for claimants fleeing persecution on the basis of their religion or non-religious beliefs.
But let’s go back a bit further in time and ask you about your story. What is the situation like for humanists in Pakistan? When did you first realise you weren’t safe any more, and how did you feel at the time?
The situation for the non-religious – including humanists – in Pakistan is pretty bad. It is one of the worst countries to be a humanist. So bad in fact, it’s simply not possible.
Leaving Islam in Pakistan is a crime that carries a death sentence. Saying or writing anything that could be interpreted as against Islam, or just being non-religious, is considered blasphemy – a crime which carries the death penalty. Though shocking to someone living in the UK, it is not necessary that evidence is presented in order to bring a charge against someone – an allegation is enough for you to be arrested and charged. As we have seen in the case of Asia Bibi – a Pakistani Christian woman who spent 10 years on death row after being convicted of blasphemy – it does not matter if you are guilty of the offence or not. There is always the threat of vigilante violence even when granted impunity. I have followed her case in the media and was pleased that she is safe and has been granted asylum in Canada.
I grew up in a very conservative Islamic family in Pakistan. I was required to pray and fast as a child. Even though I knew from a young age that I did not believe in God or agree with Islamic teachings, I was forced to learn and practise. The more I learnt, the more questions I had. When I asked questions, I would be beaten by my teachers and father. I was told that there was something wrong with me for doing so. Gradually the dismissals turned into threats. I resented being made to pray and used to find excuses so I wouldn’t have to do it. In order to stay alive however, I learned not to ask questions and to stay quiet.
When I came to the UK, I felt like I was alive! I felt free from religion and I was no longer forced to attend mosques or pray – I could explore my own beliefs without fear of violence. In search of my own identity, I studied various other religions but nothing made sense. During my search, I came across humanism and it was a light bulb moment! I finally had a term I could describe myself with – ‘humanist’.
I applied for asylum in the UK because I received death threats from my family and the wider community in Pakistan when they found out that I had left Islam. My father is an influential and well-connected military officer, so for me there was no question of me staying in Pakistan. The threats would follow me no matter where I went – I felt helpless and scared and I contacted authorities for help.
How did it feel when the Home Office initially rejected you following that now-famous interview?
I was devastated and scared for my life – I felt helpless and very angry. My claim was rejected because I was asked in my interview to prove my humanism by naming Greek Philosophers who were humanists. My claim for asylum was rejected because I did not name Plato or Aristotle (who were not even humanists as confirmed later by 150 philosophers). I am sure you will agree that this is an unfair way to assess whether someone is genuinely an apostate – revealing a much bigger problem with the way non-religious cases were handled by the Home Office and a general lack of understanding about non-religious people, their beliefs, and the issues that apostates face.
When this initially happened, did you feel supported by other humanists?
I received remarkable support from Humanists UK who started the ‘Save Hamza’ campaign. This had a huge impact not only on me in my asylum case, but on kick-starting wider reform within the Home Office to improve the standards and knowledge of their asylum assessors.
Humanists UK created a petition which had 12,500 signatories and co-organised a joint letter signed by 150 philosophers around the world which was hand-delivered to the-then Prime Minister, Theresa May, and also sent to the then-Home Secretary Amber Rudd MP. My case, which was eventually raised in the parliament, led to a major and largely successful campaign for reform of how the Home Office deals with non-religious asylum seekers, including new compulsory training for assessors on religion or belief claims.
In 2019, you were elected to the Board Trustees of Humanists UK. There’s quite a nice arc to your story: from the Home Office questioning if you were really a humanist… to helping run one of the world’s most high-profile humanist organisations. Do you see yourself as bringing any particular insights or perspectives to the Board?
It is an honour to support Humanists UK and most importantly to get a good understanding of the challenges faced by the humanist community. Due to my direct experience of being an apostate and campaigning both in the UK and internationally, I believe I bring a unique insight to the Board. I am passionate about the cause which makes it incredibly rewarding! It can’t get much better than that.
What else have you been doing since you got your permanent leave to remain in the UK?
I volunteer for Faith to Faithless, organising apostate socials and providing peer support in Greater Manchester where I live, and I have trained as a non-religious pastoral carer. It gives me a real sense of accomplishment.
I have also given talks in various parts of the UK on various subjects, and given the national and international media attention I received as a result of my case, I have become a point of contact for fellow apostates. I also work with a homeless charity in Manchester and during the pandemic, I’ve further volunteered as a community responder to support the local effort.
I am also pursuing a career in computer science!
Hamza, thank you for your time.
The pleasure is mine. Thank you for saving my life.
Humanist heritage: Unearthing the rich history of humanism in the UK with Madeleine Goodall
March 30th, 2020
Madeleine Goodall is Humanists UK’s new Heritage Coordinator, leading our Humanist Heritage Project, celebrating the 125-year history of Humanists UK.
Hi Maddy. Can you tell us a bit more about your work?
As Humanist Heritage Coordinator, I am working on a project to research, share, and celebrate the long history of humanism in the UK. We’re building a website to share this heritage, and coordinating a programme of events next year to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Humanists UK. This means tracing the development and influence of humanist ideas from their earliest emergence to today, identifying those whose life and works have exemplified a humanist value system, and highlighting individuals who have contributed to a deeper understanding of the world and humankind.
Tell us more about the Humanist Heritage Project
Next year marks 125 years since Humanists UK’s foundation in 1896, as the Union of Ethical Societies. In the course of my research I’ve been especially inspired by humanist women, many of whom fought hard for change but have been little remembered.
Lillie Boileau (1870-1930), for example, was arrested in 1909 alongside other members of the Women’s Freedom League attempting to present a suffrage petition to Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. Boileau was a devoted member of the Ethical Union for over thirty years, helping to found its Women’s Group, and described by Gustav Spiller as ‘one of its most intelligent, loyal and sympathetic collaborators.’
Another active Union member was May Seaton-Tiedeman (1864-1948), who was, despite her own happy marriage, a ‘courageous and indefatigable campaigner’ as part of the Divorce Law Reform Union, unfairly eclipsed by more famous figures like Arthur Conan Doyle. In fact, after the Matrimonial Causes Act 1937 was passed, which extended the grounds for divorce to include cruelty, desertion and incurable insanity, Arthur Denner Howell Smith (also an Ethical Union member) wrote to The Times to protest the absence of Seaton-Tiedeman’s name in coverage of the bill’s success. Attempting to set the record straight, he described how for ‘25 years, in season and out of season… Mrs. Seaton-Tiedeman has worked for divorce law reform, sparing neither her health nor her purse.’
These women and so many others, motivated by their humanist values, challenged societal norms and battled for reform, risking reputation, reprimand, and even imprisonment.
What aspirations do you have for the Humanist Heritage Project?
Humanism’s heritage is deeply intertwined with all kinds of major historical changes, and populated by innumerable influential and well-known individuals. While it’s exciting to showcase these, I’m particularly looking forward to bringing to light some of the lesser known stories and forgotten figures. The archive at the Bishopsgate Institute holds minute books, annual reports, programmes of events, and personal collections associated with the various ethical societies which made up the Union of 1896.
Within these are names like Ernestine and Herbert Henry Mills, an enamellist and doctor, who were members of the West London Ethical Society from 1899. Ernestine (1871-1959) was an accomplished artist, who produced pieces for suffrage societies like the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and the Women’s Freedom League (WFL), held today in collections at the Museum of London and the V&A. She also created a memorial plaque for Stanton Coit’s so-called Ethical Church, commemorating the life of Zona Vallance (writer, suffragist, and first secretary of the Union of Ethical Societies – essentially, Andrew Copson’s earliest predecessor as Chief Executive) who died at just 44 in 1904. Dr Herbert Henry Mills (1868-1947) was the family physician of the Pankhursts, as well as serving on the advisory council for the National Insurance Act of 1911, which helped to pave the way for today’s welfare state.
Membership lists of the societies also include figures like the later Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald (an early chair of the council), the author Leslie Stephen (father of Virginia Woolf), and people like Emilie Holyoake Marsh, whose involvement with the Union is often little mentioned in their biographies, if at all. These individuals were drawn to the societies’ stated principles of living a ‘good life’, which rested ‘on no external authority, and on no system of supernatural rewards and punishments, but on the nature of man, as a rational and social being.’ These guiding values inspired significant efforts towards reform, innovation, and social change, and these people are very much a part of the humanist story.
Do you have any favourite finds?
This could be a long list, but as a devotee of ephemera, I do have some favourite items from the archives. George Jacob Holyoake’s 1842 arrest warrant on charges of blasphemy is a striking document, and serves to underscore the horror with which his comment that he ‘would place the Deity on half pay’ was received. I also love the 1850 letter from Eliza Sharples (previously joined in a ‘moral marriage’ to radical publisher Richard Carlile) in which, expressing to Thomas Cooper her ineptitude in the business of running a coffee house, she nevertheless stands by her guiding motivation, stating: ‘I must ever have for my motto “Free Discussion” let happen what may.’
What attracts you to humanism?
Like a lot of people, I was a humanist long before I described myself as one. I have never been a believer in any religious sense, but have always felt strongly that we should live compassionate, thoughtful, and engaged lives, and that death being final gives the life we have now its ultimate meaning. Learning more about the long and active history of humanism in the world, as well as what Humanists UK does today, has confirmed that I am very much at home in humanism.
How can people find out more about the Humanist Heritage Project
The Humanist Heritage website will launch later this year, so please do pay a visit when it’s up and running. In the meantime, if you have any thoughts, insights, or suggestions, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Advancing humanism in Wales: an interview with Kathy Riddick, Wales Humanists Coordinator
March 25th, 2020
Kathy Riddick is the Wales Humanists Coordinator, working on the behalf of the non-religious in Wales to promote humanism, a secular state, and equal treatment for everyone regardless of religion or belief. We spoke to Kathy about her work, this year’s celebrations of the 100th anniversary of disestablishment, and what this means in a plural, diverse, modern Wales.
Hi Kathy! Can you tell us a little bit about Wales Humanists and what it is you do for them?
Wales Humanists is part of Humanists UK. All members of Humanists UK in Wales are considered part of Wales Humanists. We are the national section whose focus is specifically representing the needs of non-religious people in Wales. As well as coordinating and developing the different services we provide, we represent the non-religious to stakeholders in Wales in relation to devolved issues such as education and health. We work to support lasting change for a better society, championing ideas for the one life we have in all areas of public life in Wales.
This year Wales Humanists is celebrating the 100th anniversary of Welsh disestablishment. What significance does this anniversary have to humanists, and to Wales more broadly?
The enactment of the Welsh Church Act in 1920 led to sweeping and meaningful changes in Welsh society. Wealth, powers, and property that had resided within the established Church of England were redistributed to local authorities and universities, empowering civic institutions for the benefit of communities across the country. 100 years later, tolerance and pluralism have taken root in this modern and confident nation. You can really draw a line in history from the passing of that Act to the modern, inclusive polity that is Wales today – in a way, it marked the beginning of the story of devolution, as much as it was a secularist reform driven by public demand.
Today Wales benefits from a devolved Assembly instituted as a secular body and an opening, flourishing, and diverse civic sphere, reflecting a country where belief and identity, like language, is plural. There are real contrasts to be drawn between how politics is conducted in Wales and how it is in England in particular.
Wales, however, doesn’t have a completely secular framework. Despite our successes in education, such as changes in legislation for non-religious views to be given equal treatment in school curriculum, we are still campaigning to end collective worship and state-funded faith schools. Through our work, we’ve found there is strong support for equality and human rights across all demographics, including the right to freedom of religion or belief. When the Welsh Assembly was established in the late 1990s, it was done in keeping with the pluralistic and secular ideals that were argued for in 1920. And that’s really led to a lot of distinctiveness and a great deal of positives. There are no prayers before meetings (unlike in Westminster), Assembly Members affirm rather than swearing in on a religious book at the start of each term, and there is no special place for religious representation in the Senedd. It’s a much more level playing field.
But as I said, undue influence by some religious groups over government policy still persists, including in devolved areas such as education and health. We want to ensure the original intent of the Church Act is fully implemented, with inherited laws and practices reviewed and changed to embed the freedom of religion and belief we support here in Wales.
As many of the AMs I’ve spoken to about our celebrations have said, civic pluralism and really secularism is part of who we are, and the way we do things. The anniversary is an opportunity to celebrate that.
Where exactly does religious privilege persist in Wales?
The first thing to note is that Wales is the least religious part of the UK, 58% of the population is non-religious according to British Social Attitudes Survey! So while the non-religious do get more of a hearing here than in the rest of the UK, it’s really astonishing to see just how many times this very large demographic gets overlooked.
While education law is changing to recognise non-religious beliefs as equal to religious beliefs in the new curriculum, it is disappointing that the law requiring daily Christian collective worship in all schools, which originated in a law passed in England in 1944, is not being addressed by the Welsh Government. A petition on this issue had widespread support and there have been calls for reform from both sides of the Assembly. The law needs replacing with one mandating inclusive assemblies for all. It’s quite out of step with today’s society and has been called out by the United Nations for breaching the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Schools with a religious character also still receive significant public funding, but can still select 100% of their intake based on faith. They can even discriminate by belief in employment. These schools can also teach ‘denominational RE’, i.e. a one-sided and doctrinaire religious view of open-ended philosophical and spiritual questions. The Welsh Government is also removing the right to withdraw from RE in 2022, so in faith schools there is a potential for very significant breach of children’s human rights.
One area where Wales actually lags behind England is pastoral care. All Welsh hospitals have chaplaincy teams led by Church in Wales (Anglican) chaplains, who are free to appoint teams in their own faith. This means non-religious patients cannot access the same level of pastoral support. A report by Marie Curie in 2018 on Diversity in Palliative Care highlighted the need for non-religious pastoral care for non-religious patients but this has not been carried across to NHS Wales. NHS England guidelines have also long recognised the need for non-religious pastoral care.
And finally, marriage law represents something overlooked by devolution – meaning Welsh politicians haven’t had the opportunity to address inconsistencies or problems in the law at all. Marriage law in Wales is tied to England, so Wales like England doesn’t allow legally recognised humanist marriages, as are found in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Ireland, and Jersey. This disadvantages non-religious couples as to their choice of ceremony, they must have two separate ceremonies to gain legal recognition, unlike religious couples who can be married by just their religious representative.
How can people get involved with grassroots humanist campaigning in Wales?
Many ways! We always need help from volunteers, through helping to lobby AMs and MPs, sitting on local SACREs, school speaking, training as a pastoral carer, or attending local group meetings to work to improve communities. Get in touch to discuss how you would like to help out – email@example.com.
Inclusive education for all: an interview with Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Dr Ruth Wareham
January 21st, 2020
Dr Ruth Wareham is Humanists UK’s Education Campaigns Manager, leading our national campaign for an open, inclusive education for all. We spoke to Ruth about state-funded faith schools, and the segregation, division, and discrimination they engender.
The campaign points out that faith schools are responsible for promoting social division and disadvantaging poorer families. But how exactly do faith schools disadvantage children, parents, and teachers?
Because faith schools are legally allowed to select pupils based on religious background, this inevitably promotes divided communities. But in fact, the evidence shows that it goes much further than this. Religious selection is responsible not only for segregation of children by nominal faith, but also by ethnicity and family income.
I speak to parents who have been affected by this every day – unable to jump the necessary hoops to get into a local, state-funded school because so many or all of their local schools are faith schools. The law allows faith schools to send families who don’t share their faith ethos to the back of the queue for state-funded places. It’s patently unfair.
Faith schools discriminate against teachers in very much the same way as well – because of faith-based recruitment practices, hard-working teachers are also potentially shut out of a job in over a third of state-funded schools in this country.
In the UK, 80% of young people and 75% of people of parental age are not Christians. That’s very different from the 1940s, when most people happened to be Christians. So nowadays church schools no longer match the needs of modern society – and even perpetuate discrimination. And yet nothing has slowed their expansion; governments keep backing faith schools to open, even when local demand is for inclusive community schools.
We also have new evidence from the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and the University of Bristol that shows that religious character doesn’t produce higher grades. The reality is that discriminatory selection processes allow faith schools to select pupils from more advantaged backgrounds. Once you take this into account, their overall attainment score drops dramatically. It can’t be said that faith schools ‘produce better results’ – it’s a myth.
We also know that as a society we need to be doing more to promote cohesion and integrated communities. Ultimately, children with different religious or belief backgrounds will only learn to understand one another and build mutual bonds of trust if they are given the opportunity to learn alongside each other every day. Artificially segregating children according to their parents’ beliefs just seems absurd. The UK is one of only four developed countries that does this through state schools – along with Ireland, Estonia, and Israel.
What is the alternative to faith schools?
We already have the beginnings of a really good alternative to faith schools in the community schools that we see up and down the country. Of course, these schools are not entirely inclusive just yet – we would need to see the back of the outdated requirement for a daily act of ‘collective worship‘, and for RE to be fully inclusive of non-religious worldviews like humanism for that to be the case. But I would still point to these schools as examples of integration working well and doing its job. Simply by providing a curriculum that is largely objective and suitable for pupils regardless of their background, as well as opening their doors to all, these schools show that another way is entirely possible.
Are you a humanist? How did you come to find out about humanism?
When I was working as a teacher in my 20s I found that my non-religious beliefs didn’t square with practices such as collective worship in school assemblies. I started to become interested in the way children were taught about moral issues, and found it deeply concerning that they were being taught controversial ideas about the existence of god as factually true. This drew me back into study, and it was during my PhD that I began to identify as a humanist. Alongside my academic research, I actually used the Humanists UK website because it was a really great resource for data and other information about faith schools. It was through Humanists UK that I realised there was a whole community of people who not only share my non-religious perspective, but who also care about living a good, moral, and ethical life without god.
Bespoke and handcrafted ceremonies: an interview with Northern Ireland Humanists celebrant Stewart Holden
October 31st, 2019
Photo courtesy of CrazyHappyLove Photography
We spoke to Stewart Holden – the celebrant network support coordinator in Northern Ireland. He spoke to us about the joy of conducting humanist ceremonies, why they’re becoming increasingly popular, and their bespoke, personal, and intimate nature.
Hi Stewart. What is a humanist celebrant?
A humanist celebrant writes and conducts non-religious ceremonies such as weddings, funerals, and namings, where the focus is entirely on the couple getting married or the person whose life is being honoured and celebrated. For every type of ceremony, the celebrant will meet the couple or family to ensure that they deliver the most personalised and bespoke ceremony possible.
Why are humanist ceremonies becoming increasingly popular?
More and more people are beginning to realise that you can mark significant moments in life with a ceremony that is meaningful, personal and beautiful, but also non-religious. Often, people who have experienced a humanist ceremony are far more likely to choose one for themselves. They are voting with their feet!
Tell us about some of your unique experiences and ceremonies.
I was fortunate to conduct the first legally recognised humanist wedding in Northern Ireland last year, following Laura and Eunan’s ground-breaking case (and wedding) the year before. In an amusing juxtaposition of events, the wedding took place on the same day the Pope was visiting Ireland for the first time in 40 years. Every wedding I’ve ever done has been unique and enjoyable. In the last twelve months I’ve conducted weddings on the SS Nomadic [pictured] in blazing sunshine with hundreds of tourists watching from afar, on the stage at Queen’s Film Theatre in Belfast, and ankle-deep in sand at Harry’s Shack on the beach in Portstewart.
Tell us about your work as the head of the celebrant network in Northern Ireland.
In addition to conducting weddings and funerals, I have an administrative role to ensure all of the celebrants in our network (currently 23 of us) have the support they need to fulfil their roles to the best of their ability. We have regular group meetings and share ideas and experiences all the time, so no celebrant is ever working along. For funeral work it’s especially important to have a support system of colleagues who are there to advise, or sometimes just to listen.
What’s the best feedback a celebrant can receive?
The best compliment is when you’re asked to return to a family more than once. I did a wedding two years ago, and the bride asked me to conduct her father’s funeral nine months later. I was then booked to conduct a funeral of a terminally ill man who attended that first funeral himself, and he asked me to do his when the time came. I’ve now been booked by that man’s son to conduct his wedding next year. It’s an honour to get to know families this way.
What attracts you to humanism?
To me, the term ‘atheist’ simply means not believing in a deity, but you can’t define yourself by something you’re not. Humanism is the next logical step; you’ve accepted there’s no proof of a god, so what is important to you? We are social creatures and we all need a sense of community, and in my experience the people in Northern Ireland Humanists are the nicest people around.
Which Humanists UK campaigns have been closest to your heart?
I am overjoyed that same-sex marriage is now legal in Northern Ireland! And I’m of course looking forward to conducting beautifully intimate and bespoke legal weddings for same sex couples too. It truly is a historic time for Northern Ireland, and as a humanist celebrant, I feel privileged to be entwined with that history in a very unique way. But there is, of course, still work to be done. I’m also a firm believer in the need for education reform. 93% of children in this country are still educated in either Protestant or Catholic ethos schools, and although there can be a mix of children inside the school, the curriculum is still overwhelming Christian. Nowhere more than in this wee country should it be the case that children are taught how to think, not what to think.
Inclusive and objective: RE from a humanist perspective with teacher Lisa O’Connor
July 31st, 2019
We spoke to Lisa O’Connor – member of the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education (NATRE) Executive and representative of Humanists UK on the RE Council. We discussed why rigorous RE is essential, how humanists can help make it more inclusive, and why humanism should be taught about as a positive, and rational non-religious approach to life.
Hi Lisa, why is it essential that children are taught a broad RE curriculum?
Young people have to make their way in a world where people have different beliefs, and being able to navigate this matters greatly. As an atheist and a humanist, I obviously don’t believe that a god exists, but religion undeniably does. It impacts the lives of young people on a daily basis. Without broad and rigorous RE lessons it’s easy to perceive religion as monolithic and fixed, but this is uninformed and unhelpful both for religious and non-religious students alike. I think it’s really important for young people who are religious to begin to understand the way that historical, cultural, and political factors impact belief and practice within their own traditions. It’s equally important that young people with non-religious worldviews develop an understanding of religion and the impact of religious devotion and expression on believers.
What obstacles do we face in having humanism taught about on a par with religions in RE in England and Wales?
It’s important to note that due to what’s known as ‘local determination’ there is no one single RE curriculum taught in all schools in England and Wales. This in itself can be a barrier to humanism being taught in schools.
On the positive side, under the current arrangements many SACREs (Standing Advisory Councils on RE, i.e. local statutory bodies that are responsible for RE) do include humanism on their Agreed Syllabus, and have humanists sitting on the SACRE and recognise the importance of reflecting non-religious worldviews. Having said that, under the current arrangements there is no guarantee that humanist voices will be heard at local level, or that humanism will be included in the Agreed Syllabus.
The law is very clear that humanism should be taught in RE – Humanists UK won recognition for humanism in RE in a legal case in 2015. Subsequently, after the Vale of Glamorgan SACRE refused to allow a humanist to join the RE body, the Welsh Government stated that humanists must be given the right to sit on RE bodies, and in fact, the Welsh Government is now changing the wording of the law to make sure that this is clear. Logically, this ruling should apply to England too. If you’re a humanist and interested in ensuring education about religion or belief is broad and balanced where you live, consider learning about how you can join your local SACRE today.
Could you tell us about your school workshops?
One of the really impressive things about Humanists UK is how seriously they take their education work. Understanding Humanism is a brilliant online resource which is really valued by the RE community. Through the Understanding Humanism website, schools are able to book speakers for their students, but also find tailor-made CPD opportunities for their staff. These workshops can be for 3–4 members of a teaching team or for larger groups of trainee teachers in universities or school training consortiums. A typical session will have a focus identified in advance, and will be a combination of subject knowledge and practical teaching with support from Understanding Humanism resources. There’s almost always a lively Q&A session and I find that most often teachers are interested in my personal views on the topic at hand, and how that relates to broader humanist principles.
Tell us about your work as a humanist teacher in the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education (NATRE).
NATRE is the national subject association for RE teachers and I’m privileged to have a place on the current executive. The executive works to support teachers RE in a variety of ways; for example, we contribute to national consultations, write resources to support teachers and leaders in planning, delivering, and evaluating their provision, and contribute to CPD. We’re a genuinely inclusive team in terms of experience, sector, and worldviews which means that in all discussions there will be humanist views recognised and valued. It also provides me personally with a good opportunity for constructive interfaith work and might be used as a positive example of people with different worldviews working together productively on matters of faith and ethics.
When did you begin to identify as a humanist?
I strongly rejected belief in a god in early adolescence, mostly due to a combination of family tragedies, awareness of the sheer extent of suffering in the world, and the transition to a secondary school that had greater religious diversity than my primary, leading me to vigorously question the truth of Christianity.
It wasn’t until I became an RS teacher and GCSE examiner in the early 2000s that I felt the need to explicitly define myself as a humanist. The impetus was marking one too many papers that claimed that atheists ‘didn’t believe in anything’ and I knew that this didn’t fit with my self-identity. I knew that my ethical and philosophical beliefs were seriously held and rationally justified but the term used for them was framed as a negative.
What attracts you to humanism?
Humanism is a positive life stance that focuses on and celebrates human potential, uniqueness, and achievement. My non-belief in god is less significant for me than my positive beliefs that people working together, informed by principles of empathy, rationality, and a positive regard for others, can help make a better world. It’s been important for me to be a member of Humanists UK and my local humanist groups in order to take part in collective action and campaigning on issues that matter to me.
Which Humanists UK campaigns have been closest to your heart?
As a feminist and humanist working in education the most important campaigns for me are those that seek to reduce religious privilege and influence on issues around equal rights, bodily autonomy, and education. I’m proud of the work that we do around Religious Education and as a representative on the RE Council I know how well regarded our contributions are. The current campaign around abortion rights in Northern Ireland is incredibly important to me as I believe no woman should have her bodily autonomy denied as a result of historical religious influence. Equally the campaign to legalise assisted dying is close to my heart having seen first-hand the intense suffering of loved ones towards the end of their life.
Faith to freedom: Ste Richardsson discusses apostasy and humanist peer support
June 4th, 2019
We spoke to Ste Richardsson, Vice Chair of Faith to Faithless, Humanists UK’s programme supporting people leaving high-control religion and cults. He spoke to us about growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness, the work of Faith to Faithless, and why he values humanism as a positive approach to life.
Hi Ste. How does Faith to Faithless help people?
The most important thing I needed when I left the Jehovah’s Witnesses was a listening ear. Speaking to people that have shared similar experiences was so invaluable. Faith to Faithless is in a unique position to support apostates on a personal and emotional basis, as well as to identify and tackle the systemic societal issues that lead to apostates slipping through the cracks. The training that we offer to raise awareness of the issues apostates face is extremely helpful in mitigating the effects of homelessness, shunning, and so-called ‘honour-based’ abuse.
Tell us about about what you do for Faith to Faithless.
My role with Faith to Faithless has evolved considerably over the last few years – and I’ve gone from being helped by Faith to Faithless to helping others like me. I’ve been a committee member since 2018, and I’m excited to say that I’ve just been made Vice Chair as of May 2019. As a committee member I’ve spoken at panel events about my experience of leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I’ve helped organise Faith to Faithless museum socials, and I continue to deliver our Apostasy Awareness Training Programme. This programme helps educate police, social services, and mental health professionals on the issues ‘apostates’ like me face when leaving high-control religions. It’s essential that these frontline services re-examine their policies and practices in order to better support vulnerable people.
What was it like growing up as a fourth generation Jehovah’s Witness?
I was brought up in a very religious household and life was very hectic, packed full of activities. We attended five meetings a week that required preparation. We had to preach for at least two hours a week; I went door to door every Saturday and Sunday. On top of that, I started giving talks to the congregation at the age of eight. From an early age I found it boring and not at all intellectually challenging. Over the years, many more doubts crept up and I practised a very clear form of cognitive dissonance, filing those doubts away in the back on my mind. I never truly believed in a god or any spirit creatures for that matter, yet I believed that armageddon would come, and I believed that the paradise would come.
You’ve also been very involved with LGBT Humanists. Did your sexuality play a role in leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses?
My sexuality played a large part in how I ‘woke up’. I knew that I was gay from around the age of nine or ten. I heard at Jehovah’s Witness meetings that it was a sin, but I knew that it wasn’t wrong. I knew my sexuality about a year before I’d realised it was frowned upon, that probably led me to question the religion rather than question my own feelings. I never believed that my sexuality was something I could change, even if I wanted to. It was only during my teen years that I began to make any attempts to subdue it, as I was acutely aware that I would eventually be rejected by my family. My sexuality definitely contributed majorly to my realisation that I didn’t believe in the religion; I just couldn’t understand why something that I felt was so innocent was prohibited.
Could you please elaborate on the ‘high control’ aspect of being a Jehovah’s Witness?
In the community I was raised in, every aspect of life is controlled. You cannot take blood transfusions, or celebrate holidays like birthdays or Christmas. We weren’t allowed to get involved in politics and were discouraged from higher education. Voting, standing for class president, or joining a political system are prohibited too. Singing the national anthem, for example, is considered as idolatry.
Every minutiae of your life is controlled. You can’t say ‘bless you’ after somebody sneezes or wish someone good luck. Alcohol, drug use, gambling, adultery, tobacco, being gay, fornication (which includes oral sex before marriage), attending another church – these are all forbidden and can get you excommunicated. A lot of that guilt and shame is still with me, even after I left the religion. I still feel strange pangs of guilt when clinking glasses…and I quite literally forgot my own 30th birthday until two days after.
As forming meaningful relationships with people who aren’t Jehovah’s Witnesses is also frowned upon, many leavers and apostates find themselves without even the most basic support network of friends when they leave and in some cases end up homeless. Our inculcated distrust of non-Jehovah’s Witness organisations makes living on the streets even more dangerous; many of us are fearful of seeking the help of social services, the police, or charities, and many of us are even unaware that such support even exists. This means the control of over your life extends even after one has left the religion.
You’ve now met and supported a lot of people with experiences like yours, including from other religious backgrounds. What experiences would you say are common among apostates?
I made friends with an Australian colleague who I learned was an ex-Hare Krishna. The level of control of the minutiae of his life was parallel to, but not completely overlapping with, what I had experienced. In terms of emotion, there’s a wide range of things apostates tend to feel: from anger and fear to self-pity, guilt, anxiety, and depression. In my experience of meeting apostates regularly since around 2011, social connection, and talking about one’s emotions with people who have a shared experience, mitigates these overwhelming feelings.
Why do you identify as a humanist?
Humanism for me has always been positive. We don’t define ourselves by what we don’t believe, which is what I had always done prior to discovering humanism as an atheist. The fact that logic and rational thinking are so prized, alongside empathy and human feeling, really attracts me to the humanist philosophy.
If I was an apostate interested in getting help, where should I start?
I would contact us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Another way would be to simply come to one of our socials and meet us. We have socials that almost always last much longer than the scheduled time because people enjoy meeting others who have been in the same situation as them.
Humanist marriages are currently legally recognised in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but not England and Wales. Elsewhere, couples having a humanist ceremony must also have a separate civil marriage. We work to change that.
Find out more.
We think it’s vital that every young person learns about the different religions that are common in the UK today, as well as humanism.
We work to ensure that such education is critical, objective, and pluralistic. Find out more.