I had a fantastic time last night at the reception to welcome me as the BHA’s new Chief Executive, an enormous privilege. It was an honour that so many of the BHA’s supporters, celebrants, local leaders, and Vice Presidents came along. Unexpectedly, even the Prime Minister sent congratulations and best wishes for the future to be read out!
When it came to speeches, here’s what I had to say:
2009 was a great year for humanism. In the 200th anniversary of the birth of Darwin, evolution was placed for the first time on the primary school curriculum; for the first time the BBC gave humanists a place in their consultative mechanisms and humanism was introduced into new GSCE exams; the Accord coalition of non-religious and religious groups campaigning for reform of faith schools changed the terms of that debate, and of course, the Atheist Bus Campaign went global and brought thousands of new supporters to our cause.
As the British Humanist Association’s new Chief Executive, I find that a daunting year to follow, but the great thing about 2009 is that its concrete victories have also indicated the strong base of potential support which we have available to us if we can build on it. The Bus Campaign would not have happened but for the thousands of donors that supported it; we would not have evolution on the primary curriculum if the world-class scientists who joined our campaign had not done so; and we couldn’t have funded our faith schools campaign if we hadn’t raised the cost of it from thousands of donors giving just a few pounds each time to keep our dedicated campaigner for another year.
One of our strengths as a movement is undoubtedly the people we can call upon to help. Not only the public figures, but the many hundreds of volunteers that are active on their own communities, whether conducting funerals, lobbying their local councils, sitting on local advisory committees for Religious Education, running local humanist groups, writing and broadcasting in their local papers or radio stations and lobbying their own MPs. In the last few years, as the BHA’s Director of Education and Public Affairs, I learned about the strength of the religious lobby at the same time as I realised the commitment of our own supporters to challenge those lobbies and promote Humanism.
The year ahead clearly divides into two parts – before and after the general election. For the last few years we have had a pretty good idea of the political terrain in which we have had to operate, both positive and negative. The current government has promoted more state-funded faith schools and a greater role for religious leaders in community policy, but they have also made moves towards non-discrimination at the same time. More pertinently, on a wide range of issues, we have at least known where we stood. We don’t yet know precisely what future governments’ positions on our various issues will be. We can be sure that the subject of religion and education will remain firmly on the agenda, from worship in schools to RE to faith schools, and broadcasting likewise – our issues with the BBC are not going to go away. But in a whole range of areas, we just don’t know what to expect. All we can know is that, whatever the immediate political situation may be, we will not just react to it, but continue to pursue that aim of a free and open society which has always motivated reformist humanist social action and political activity.
In any case, the central and wider social challenge for us is the same as it ever was. We need to encourage and mobilise that massive proportion of the population who put human welfare at the heart of their ethics, who find meaning in the realities of existence rather than in their denial, and make the most of the one life they have without reference to a life to come. We need these people to realise that their values are credible and coherent and that they should be celebrated and advanced. We need to let people know that there is a word for what they believe, and make the word ‘humanist’ as widely recognised and mainstream a term as possible. Then we want those people to stand up and be counted. This most important task is perhaps the most challenging – we have to promote humanist beliefs and values as a coherent alternative to religions and as a recognisable description of the fundamental beliefs and values of most non-religious people in the UK today.
No one could fail to be daunted by the challenges ahead if that is the job. The basis of enlightenment values is under assault and popular irrationality is in many ways very strong. But I don’t think that the search for meaning in the twenty-first century will be satisfied by superstition and religion, and I think that the unshared values of religious extremists will prove unamenable to most people before they can ever really do serious harm to the liberal humanist values that we now have to promote and defend.