Author Archives: Andrew Copson

A bit of humanist history

Here in the offices of the Dutch Humanist Association, they have this great bust of their founder Jaap van Praag (1911-1981). A pioneer of humanist counselling and psychology (in particular the concept of “resilience”, which he developed after investigating what it was that made Dutch people protect or join in the persecution of Jews), he was also a leader, organiser, administrator, prolific writer, and philosopher who moulded the modern Dutch conception of “Humanism”.

We have a very similar bust of Harold Blackham (1903-2009) in the British Humanist Association offices. The (re)founder of BHA, he too was a pioneer of humanist counselling (developing the concept of “whole-person” development), a prolific writer and philosopher as well as a tireless campaigner, and a celebrant. His writing in Britain moulded the modern British conception of “Humanism”.

Between them, van Praag and Harold founded the International Humanist and Ethical Union in 1952 to replace the old ‘World Union of Freethinkers, which had effectively collapsed under the twin onslaught of Communism and Fascism. In addition to all their work in their national organisations, they then led on international humanism for a couple of decades.

Constantly amazed by these humanist pioneers – they could make us feel inadequate but it’s preferable to be inspired, as we all have been in this week of humanist meetings in Amsterdam!

In the offices of the Dutch Humanist Association

In the offices of the Dutch Humanist Association

“The Muslims are Coming” Review

New Humanist have published my review of Arun Kundnani’s latest book. I would definitely recommend it. (Wrote this review before the present surge in Islamic State activity in Iraq and the involvement of many Britons in the brutality, but I don’t think I would change anything.):

The Muslims are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror (Verso) by Arun Kundnani

Islamophobia is a word with a bad reputation among many humanists: it has been used too often as an accusation to smear and silence reasonable critics of illiberal Islamic beliefs and ideologies. This is unfortunate because the phenomena that the word was intended to describe – prejudices about individual Muslims based on stereotypes, anti-Muslim bigotry, and unjustified discrimination against people purely because they are Muslims – are all too prevalent in the UK. We will not find ways to live together in the shared and diverse society that we are unless we deal with that prejudice and find ways to empower everyone to engage in a common citizenship. Any work of social or political analysis that aims to diagnose the causes of current social divisions and prescribe a solution has to be welcomed and that is at least one purpose of Arun Kundnani’s The Muslims are Coming!

Kundnani sets out to document the negative consequences of US and UK domestic counter-terrorism policies, expose anti-Muslim prejudice and hysteria as indicating a form of structural racism, and attribute the disaffection of Muslims who commit violent acts to a combination of that racism with socio-economic and political disadvantage.

All liberal-minded people know that the “war on terror” of the last decade – still ongoing – has led to a serious dilution of justice and freedom in both the UK and US. We also know that a plethora of media make it their business to spread stories about Muslims in ways calculated to inflame fear and prejudice. Kundnani gives a good account of these phenomena. In particular, he gives human faces to the victims of hatred and persecution. If you want a guide to the repressive measures our governments have engaged in, and a series of cast-iron case studies to expose the extent to which they have eroded civil rights, you will find a good compendium here.

The book is at its most persuasive when exposing the way in which governments on both sides of the Atlantic have got it wrong as they have tried to prevent violence, and gives an sharp account of how their efforts have exacerbated existing alienation. Its condemnation of many of these policies is precise and well justified. What is supposed to link the specific case studies together, however, is less clear and this problematic lack of a convincing framework is a recurring weakness in the book. Other weak points come when it moves too easily from the US to UK and treats the two situations as if they were essentially the same – unjustified in many respects – and in the way it fails to engage intelligently with alternative ideological and psychological explanations for both alienation and violence.

In particular, Kundnani does not rate religion as a factor; his preference as a secular analyst on the left is to identify socio-economic and political factors in their place. For him, the problem of acts of violence committed by individual Muslims is caused by a sense of political impotence and is to be solved by personal and civic empowerment. Many may have a justified degree of sympathy with this approach in general: religious motivation is rarely a sufficient explanation for this or that individual action or political trend – whether good deed or crime.

Clearly there are other factors at play and on one level, then, Kundnani is correct. If every child were to grow up confident and loved in an equal and fair society without prejudice, comfortable and secure economically and socially, no doubt all would be able to live confident and fulfilling lives and never feel the need to harm another in any way. Such a world is a world to fight for and to hope for. But I think he is wrong to imply that alienation alone is the cause of violence and that the foreign policies of Western democracies are responsible.

There is a confidence imparted to a person by religious ideology that can motivate excessive violence, and the intellectual and ideological content of religion needs to be considered in any full analysis.

Readers of Kundnani’s past work will know that his prose is vigorous and precise, that his tone is consistently thoughtful, and that his polemic is never hectoring. This book is no exception: a pleasure to read and be challenged by, even the parts that fail to convince.

Interview on Ignoranti

Have done an interview this week on Ignoranti about humanism, faith schools, apologetics and more.

Without a Prayer

In the latest edition of RE Today magazine there are a series of opinion pieces on prayer. Here’s mine:

A popular banner slogan of the working class humanist movement of the nineteenth century in England was ‘Hands that help are better than lips that pray.’ Today few humanists would be so crass as to deny that one can both pray and help but there is still force in the argument behind the slogan. In appealing to an entity outside of humanity for an amelioration of conditions, we run the risk of fatalism or resignation in practice and failing to see that improvements in our personal and social conditions come from taking our destinies into our own hands. Even if what we can achieve in doing so is much less than we might wish, because of the circumstances in which we find ourselves, it is still better than doing nothing – and praying is effectively doing nothing.

In fact it is worse than doing nothing. Praying can allow us to feel like we’re helping even though we’re not – and the feeling can be very powerful. Bertrand Russell hypothesized that the very source of the habit of prayer was and is in a human desire for control. If there is an all-powerful being that can be suborned by our prayers, we – in his words – ‘acquire a share in omnipotence’. The earliest prayer recorder in Europe is a prayer for rain and even later religions like Christianity foster the same view of prayer as petition. In the Bible, Jesus says that if you pray to god in faith then you will receive what you pray for.

But in fact, our prayers for a change in the external environment are useless and the feeling of control and sense is a fantasy. Double-blind tests carried out to assess the effect of prayers for the welfare of others have demonstrated that prayer has no effect on a sick person prayed for. In some studies, prayer has been recorded as having had a small negative effect on the health of the patients prayed for, if they know they are being prayed for. Those who are unwilling to let evidence disrupt a warming belief easily explain away this truth. Did you receive what you prayed for? Then rejoice – God is great! You didn’t get what you wanted? Well, the creator of the universe moves in mysterious ways… Either way: Praise the Lord!

Even though there is no such entity as the personal God of theism and therefore no one to pray to, might not the act of prayer be beneficial for what it can do for us who are praying? This is a popular defence of prayer and it comes in three guises. One is the argument that, although the feeling identified by Bertrand Russell is merely a fantasy, nonetheless it is a comforting fantasy – it can make us feel better about the tragedies that beset us. This is a secular case for prayer as placebo. The second secular defence of prayer is that the act of praying itself is healthy in that it has demonstrable physical and psychological benefits. A third defence is that group prayer can have socially cohesive effects, bonding a community together. Is there much force in these secular apologetics for prayer?

There might be, if we did not accept that truth was an equally – and perhaps more important – good than the three secular goods realised by prayer. I personally would certainly prize truth – in of itself and as the guarantee of other utilitarian goods unlikely to be achieved if one’s life is lived on the basis of lies – relatively highly. Simone De Beauvoir said, ‘I tore myself away from the safe comfort of certainties through my love for truth – and truth rewarded me.’ We can all feel those rewards. When we give up illusions like that of prayer, said Russell, ‘Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour of their own.’ In any case, there’s a whiff of hypocrisy around secular advocates of prayer as placebo and of paternalism around secular advocates of prayer as community building which many will find unpalatable.

This leaves us then with the defence of prayer that it has demonstrable health benefits on those who practice it. Studies show that time spent alone in prayer decreases stress and the likelihood of related mental and physical conditions. It can also play a part in building mental resilience, which has been pioneered by humanistic psychology as a desirable trait for mental health. The explanation of these effects is mundane, however, and not divine. Similar – and sometimes greater – positive effects can be obtained from certain types of meditation and related activities, and have been fully explained in physiological terms.

Contemplation, mindfulness, and personal reflection are useful and healthy activities, and a world away from the idea of prayer as a petition for favours. But even good things should be taken in due moderation. Time spent in such reflective solitude is an accompaniment, not an alternative, to time spent in dialogue and reflection with others, through which processes our thinking can be clarified still further and our moral and other choices be made in a more considered way. It’s through a combination of these two sorts of reflection and thought that we can live a more integrated human life in correspondence with reality – not by looking outside of humanity for favours or peace.

The Prime Minister’s ‘Christian Country’ Claims

Again and again in the past few years, more and more politicians have been joining church leaders in popping up to declare that Britain is a Christian country, that we ought to be proud of this fact, and that we ought to proclaim and promote it. Sometimes this takes the form of claiming that everything good about Britain – from state education to democracy to the welfare state – sprang from a Christian root (questionable historical claims) and sometimes that we are literally a Christian people (dubious in light of the fact that polls and surveys show a majority of us do not have Christian beliefs, do not go to church, and when asked if we have a religion and what it is, most of us don’t say ‘Christian’). This week it all got too much and one group of non-Christians decide to respond. Reacting to the most recent comments by the Prime Minister, they sent an open letter to him which was published in The Telegraph.

Most people in Britain will surely agree with the sentiments in our letter. Most of us aren’t Christian in our beliefs and know that our society has been shaped for the better by many pre-Christian, non-Christian, and post-Christian forces. Even more of us disagree with the specific use to which the Prime Minister put his ‘Christian country’ narrative. Elaborating on his main theme, the prime Minister said, it was his mission ‘to expand the role of faith and faith organisations in this country.’ He claimed that this has been a ‘consistent theme’ of his government and that ‘there’s more [government] can do to help make it easier for faith organisations.’ This divisive activity is unpopular and has negative consequences for the rights and freedoms of many in Britain. More generally, people certainly don’t want religion to have more influence in government – in a 2006 Ipsos MORI poll, “religious groups and leaders” actually topped the list of domestic groups that people said had too much influence on government. Domestically at least, the British people are content for government to keep out of the religious sphere and vice versa.

More generally, it’s the simple statement that Britain is a ‘Christian country’ itself which does harm. Some non-Christians – especially older people who grew up in a more Christian culture and leaders of other religions who value their relationship with a powerful established church – don’t mind it. But it alienates many of us who are not Christian, whether British for generations or newly arrived. In an increasingly diverse society and one with citizens of a range of religious and non-religious beliefs and identities, we need a national identity that will be inclusive not divisive.

The Birmingham ‘Trojan Horse’ story

In 2007 I was Education Officer at the British Humanist Association. My opposite number at the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) was Tahir Alam, who is now chair of governors at Park View in Birmingham – the non-denominational state school accused of deliberately Islamicising itself.

Tahir’s output at the MCB that year included this guidance which amongst many other things advises state community schools reform so that children from Muslim backgrounds don’t participate in dance after a certain age, be gender-segregated in a wide number of scenarios etc etc. Read it for yourself – this has all been on the public record ever since and was widely reported at the time, not least because it was controversial among Muslims, who were divided on its recommendations.

But in light of this guidance, I’m not surprised, media hyperbole aside, about many of the allegations being made about the school [just to be clear: I’m talking about the allegations to do with gender segregation, the religious atmosphere of the school etc and not the allegations of political extremism. I think the danger is that the hyped up talk of political extremism will actually conceal the many real concerns that should be had.]

(The Govt of the time, by the way, which was generally v amenable to this sort of thing, thankfully distanced itself)

Cataloguing Humanist History

There’s a great project going on at the moment to catalogue the humanist archives at the Bishopsgate Institute. You can look at some of their items on their Tumblr page but here’s one of my favourite items so far – an old BHA festive greetings card. Those crazy cats.



Keeping social security social (and agreeing with a Catholic Cardinal)

It was only in the second half of the twentieth century that the Catholic Church ended its opposition to social welfare and social medicine (and in some parts of the world they have still not reconciled themselves to it). But Cardinal Vincent Nichols at least is a keen defender of it, lamenting last week that the administration of our social security system has become ‘punitive’ – and I couldn’t agree with him more. But reversing this trend is not just a matter of restoring certain payments and tinkering with the admin – it calls for cultural renaissance. We need to restore the culture of our social security system as being one of mutual help driven by empathy and solidarity, and resist dehumanising economic accounts of welfare and the disruptive commercialization of services.

When my 16 year old mum told the job interviewer that the reason she wanted to work on the counter at the Social Security office was because she wanted to help people, it is possible that it occasioned a cynical moment deep inside the heart of the woman interviewing her. It was Coventry in 1970 his woman had no doubt seen and heard it all. But she smiled at my mum – all the women interviewing her did – and gave her the job. For my mum – except for long periods of unemployment in the dark 1980s and a recent redundancy – that was the beginning of a life working in one way or another within frontline social security or other public services. She has done that because she wanted to help people and she has done it well and the state and community have been lucky to have her. She gave the right answer – albeit naively – in her interview over forty years ago, but would it still be taken to be right answer today? Is it still concern and love for others that drives and informs our social security system?

My mum’s friend Tom – now just a couple of years from retirement – worked all his life for years in frontline social security in my home town of Nuneaton. His specialism was pensions and related benefits and – like my mum – his motivation and his job satisfaction was to help others. He worked in the community in which he lived and had skills and knowledge developed over decades. The office was recently closed as a result of reorganisation and Tom was reassigned to another office in a city an hour away. Shortly afterwards he was moved away from his specialism to instead spend all day every day staff making phone calls to fathers who aren’t making their child support payments. There is no time to get to know individual cases or understand them properly, time spent on the phone is monitored and meaningless targets distort the work. My own experience of the system both for myself and on behalf of others has been a similar one of targets, needless bureaucracy, private companies with little evident concern for the human person they are tasked with aiding, disengaged individual members of staff, and a thoroughly dehumanised infrastructure.

This contrast entirely with my personal experience of a public service that still seems to retain the values of those who founded it – our health service. I visited my granddad in hospital this week and was struck by the way in which the ward very much had the feeling of a community. What was it that made it so? To some extent it was helped by the cultural homogeneity of all its occupants (and I mean really homogenous – the wife of the man next door to my granddad was born two streets away from where my grandma used to live in Coventry and her 98 year old mother came down to the midlands from Durham in the same economic migration of the 1930s that my grandma’s mother did, and moved to Nuneaton to live three streets away from where my mum lived and I grew up.) and this contrasted with my experience of urban hospitals, which have felt far less domestic and less ‘owned’ by staff and patients as a result. In combination with the fact that all the staff on this ward are genuinely kind, sympathetic and thoughtful, this imprecise but genuine sense of community ownership creates a good service of which we can be proud.

I’ve written all this entirely from personal experience, but I know of course that public policies must be built on hard data. I hope that future government will do this, but I also hope that they will remember the reason why systems of social security exist and are one of the pinnacles of civilisation is that they express our obligations to each other as members of a community. The concern for others that comes from that fellowship, which should inform their mission, should also inform their shape and structure.

Is the Bible really really special?

Here’s the video from a BBC Breakfast conversation this morning about the Bible, triggered by a poll this week that showed that some children didn’t know much about the Bible.

It’s obvious why Christians believe the Bible is special – for them it is a religious document and divinely inspired. But I think many Christian advocates of the Bible who make secular arguments for its general significance have a tendency to overreach themselves – they invariably exceptionalise the Bible and make claims for its uniqueness.

The arguments are usually either that the Bible is a uniquely beautiful work, a uniquely moral work, or uniquely vital for understanding European and global culture. I think they are all problematic.

Firstly, I’ve read the Bible in English and the New Testament in Greek and I can think of many works of literature more beautiful (for me, pretty much all of George Eliot, Homer, Greek tragedy, and E M Forster and a whole lot more, but tastes differ!)

Secondly, there is actually quite a lot of dubious morality in the Bible, like the endorsement of compliance in the face of oppression (turning the other cheek), an endorsement of slavery, and a lot of sex discrimination. Our moral thinking has advanced significantly since it was written and there are consequently much better morally improving stories than those it offers (in fact, there always have been).

The argument that the Bible is uniquely foundational to our culture is the strongest of all the secular arguments for Biblical knowledge, but it is overplayed. Much of our history and culture in Britain is not related to the Bible but builds on the aesthetic, legal, social, political and other achievements of cultures like Greece, Rome, Northern Europe, India, and the Arab world and we are now consciously part of a global culture that offer unparalleled diversity to enjoy and learn from.

From Tony Nicklinson to Hayley Cropper, the right to die debate is not going away

The current Coronation Street storyline has reignited the right to die debate and I had an article about it in today’s Western Daily Press:

From Tony Nicklinson to Hayley Cropper, the right to die debate is not going away, says Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association

In a few months’ time, the UK Supreme Court will give final judgement in the right-to-die case begun by the late Tony Nicklinson.

Continued after his death by his widow Jane, and supported by the British Humanist Association, the case is a landmark one. It aims to establish the right of an incurably suffering person to medical assistance in situations where they wish to end their life with dignity but are unable to do so themselves.

The debate that was reignited by Tony’s case and which his advocacy brought firmly into the nation’s newspapers is being carried into the homes of millions this week in another medium. The writers of Coronation Street are to be applauded for addressing the most pressing bioethical issue of our time with the sad end they have given to the life of Hayley Cropper. Diagnosed with terminal and inoperable cancer, Hayley will this week choose to take her own life, without the benefit of the medical assistance that she would have in more civilised countries.

Fictional though Hayley’s situation is, it reflects a reality that our politicians are ignoring with their continuing failure to update our law in this area. Cases like that of Hayley – incurably ill and destined to suffer a drawn out, painful and undignified end which she does not want – or that of Tony – incurably suffering, sustained by medical technology alone and wishing only to die with dignity – are increasingly common. With the continued advance of medicine’s power to keep us alive even beyond the point at which we find it desirable, they will only become more common. Many of us, as we watch the final moments of Hayley’s life this week, will be thinking of grandparents, parents, siblings, who are or might be in the same position, or thinking of ourselves, and how we may too one day be in it.

Up to 80 per cent of the British public already support the right to receive medical help to die with dignity. It’s a majority in favour of change greater than almost any other political issue and it’s not just humanists like the Nicklinsons or Hayley Cropper (whose humanist funeral will feature in Coronation Street next week) who support it: 71 per cent of religious people in this country do as well. This is no surprise when you consider the strong moral case that exists in favour of us, as a society, changing the law.

Firstly: a mentally competent adult should be afforded control over his or her own body. Only our thoughts are perhaps more personal and more wholly owned by us than our bodies and the right to bodily integrity and autonomy of each person is the most important guarantee we have of individual dignity.

Secondly: some people – through their condition – are unable to act on their own desires. This can create great suffering for them.

Thirdly: compassion should motivate us to alleviate suffering and we should be moved to help those who cannot help themselves. If a person is not capable of fulfilling their own legal desires and there are others willing to assist them in fulfilling their wishes, there is no obvious reason why the law should criminalise the helper.

Fourthly: the intentional ending of one’s own life is legal and, more than that, is an act that a rational and mentally competent person may well consider – in extreme circumstances – to be preferable to continued life.

Respect for the autonomy of a free individual, combined with the principle of compassion, undeniably indicates that society should provide assistance to those in positions like Tony or Hayley.

Dying is part of life – it is the last thing any of us is going to do and we are all going to do it. It should happen if possible with dignity and within our control and we have the means today to guarantee that to every person. That should include the facility for mentally competent men and women who have shown a settled determination to end their lives and who are facing a continuing existence of suffering or who are terminally ill to get the help they need. Scare-mongering has been allowed to persist exactly because we don’t think and talk about this issue enough. Hayley’s case should provoke us all to demand that politicians act now to address this issue. The continuing failure to act is a standing rebuke to our view of ourselves as a civilised and humane society.