Epolitix interviewed me today ahead of this evening’s reception welcoming me as the BHA’s new Chief Executive. Here it is below. With all this ‘at the helm’ and ‘ongoing mission’ it’s beginning to all feel a bit Star Trek.
Having worked for the British Humanist Association (BHA) for five years co-ordinating the education and public affairs work how will this help in your new role?
A lot of the issues that we work on at the BHA are longstanding ones, so I’m lucky that my five year’s experience of developing our policies on them will continue to be relevant in the future. Issues around state-funded faith schools, or the established church, or religious education in schools, are all ones that I am familiar with. Through the work in education I’ve also had a lot of practice in explaining humanism and humanist beliefs and values to all sorts of groups from primary school children to international academic conferences, so the job of presenting humanism is one I’m used to.
Should we expect to see large changes in the direction and work of the British Humanist Association with you at the helm?
The work of the BHA always has to change in relation to the changing social and political context, but the purpose – our commitment to promoting and defending humanism, opposing religious privilege and discrimination – stays constant. I’m absolutely committed to the purpose of the BHA, and I’m excited about finding new ways of involving all the non-religious people out there more directly in our work and our cause.
I also have a real passion for promoting Humanism as a means to encourage and giving heart to 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. The BHA can help these people to realise that their values are credible and coherent and that they should be celebrated and advanced. I’m keen to promote humanist beliefs and values not just as a coherent alternative to religions, but as a recognisable description of the fundamental beliefs and values of most non-religious people in the UK today.
With a general election approaching how is the BHA engaging with opposition parties?
One of the most encouraging developments of the past few years has been the establishment of thriving humanist groups in all the main political parties. There is a Green group, the Conservative Humanist Association launched at their 2008 party conference with an event that was literally packed out, with crowds waiting outside to get in, the Labour Humanists launched in 2007 and the Liberal Democrat equivalent was thriving long before. Of course there is a difference between the parties as to how their policies match up with the aims we have, but we are quite confident that we have good and committed friends in all the parties and a lot of our work of engagement is through and with them. It’s good for politicians in all parties to realise that humanists constitute a significant proportion of their own members as well as an even more significant proportion of their potential electorate.
On the whole, the Conservative Party seems to have a pretty similar view to the Labour government on questions of religion and politics – they promote a role for religion and for religious leaders in community policy that is totally out of proportion to the importance of religion to most citizens. Whoever wins the election, we’ll have a lot of work to do.
The British Humanist Association is against faith schools, how do you foresee the campaign against them developing in 2010?
The Labour government since 1997 is the first government to have increased the number and proportion of religious schools in the state sector. Unfortunately, even though they have never done it when previously in government, it seems that the Conservatives too would preside over a further increase if they were to win the election. Either way, the issue of faith schools is going to stay on the agenda and our campaign will go on in 2010 and far beyond.
The BHA’s policy is that no state-funded school should be permitted to discriminate in admissions or employment on religious grounds, nor be permitted to teach anything other than a fair, objective and balanced syllabus of learning about different religious and non-religious beliefs, nor hold acts of worship. One of the best developments recently has been the forming of the Accord coalition campaigning on these same goals, which has brought together religious as well as non-religious groups. The first Muslim group has joined just these last few weeks, and the widening of membership of that coalition, to continue building the widest possible support for change, will be a priority in the coming year. We will also use whatever legislation future governments do bring forward on schools as an opportunity to make the case for inclusive schools again and again.
Looking into the future, what is the one thing you would like to look back on and say you achieved as chief executive of the BHA?
Ever since its beginnings in 1896, the BHA has had a long-term agenda, and I am looking forward to making my contribution to that ongoing mission. In the relative shorter term of my time as chief executive, I would like to be able to say that everyone in the UK who was a humanist realised that fact, was affirmed in it by the BHA and stood up to be counted in the important political and social debates of our time.