A Better Life

A lovely photographer and film maker called Christopher Johnson is producing a book called ‘A Better Life: 100 Atheists speak out on Joy and Meaning in a World Without God’

He came round to photograph me for it yesterday and also did a lot of interviewing. Here’s a little clip he’s put up already:

Spiritual, Religious, or Neither?

Just found video of a panel discussion I did last year on ‘Spiritual, Religious, or Neither?’

Interview with University of Birmingham newspaper

I spoke at the University of Birmingham a couple of weeks ago and was interview while I was there. They have a nice word cloud on their site too.

In 1811, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was expelled from University College, Oxford, for writing a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism. Shelley’s opposition to the notion of God was indicative of the radicalism that characterised his literary career, and its academic setting foreshadowed a series of conflicts and disagreements to come between science and religion in the educational sphere.

It seems much easier to be an undergraduate non-believer in Britain today than it was for Shelley. The University of Birmingham’s Atheist, Secular and Humanist Society has been nationally recognised following its successful Reason Week, which featured open discussions and guest speakers, including Andrew Copson, the Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association.

Being a student at university can often provide an opportunity to question our values and beliefs. Would you be able to describe what led you to become a humanist? Did your experience at university catalyse your own support for humanism?

I was the child of a humanist mother and non-religious grandparents, the community institutions of the town where I grew up were municipal or secular cooperative ones, the multi-ethnic primary school I went to was secular, the academic secondary school I went to was the same, the popular culture I imbibed was humanistic (I liked Star Trek and science fiction), the academic subjects I studied by choice at school and at university were the culture of ancient Greece and Rome and Enlightenment Europe and as a result of these combined factors, there was nothing at all of religion of any sort in the formative aspects of my upbringing, whether at University or beforehand. What did happen at university was that I encountered seriously religious people for the first time and learned more about religious privilege and discrimination in our society – for example in state-funded faith schools – and that political awareness catalysed my support for humanist organisations and campaigns.

Percy Shelley was expelled from the University of Oxford for writing a pamphlet entitled ‘The Necessity of Atheism’. Do you think there is something unique to the university environment that can be particularly conducive to formulating humanistic, secular or atheistic ideas?

I think that any broadening of horizons will make you challenge your own narrow beliefs and prejudices and – hopefully – university is a time when you meet people from a wider range of backgrounds than you have before, encounter ideas of more diverse types than ever before, are freed from the constraints of community and family, and are always encouraged to think critically. I do think that all those experiences will tend to produce doubt in any intelligent person, and doubt is a close ally of humanism.

Even at university, some academics are uncomfortable discussing scientific concepts such as evolution without adding the caveat that some people have ‘different opinions’. In the context of notions of offence and respect, what are your views of the relationship between evidence and belief at an academic level?

I don’t think that offence to those who profoundly believe the contrary is ever a good reason not to advance a belief. We should respect not people’s prejudices but the disinterested search for truth and the dignity of the human being.

Do you think humanism receives adequate attention in university courses such as History, Sociology and Philosophy?

No – but partly this is because it is often implicit in these fields, as a result of its silent cultural victories in the last couple of hundred years. Nonetheless, it does need to be named more often, made more explicit and studied more comprehensively. Novelists like E M Forster, philosophers like A J Ayer, politicians like Michael Foot – to mention just a few – had profound and explicit humanist convictions and in this if in no other way explicit humanism has shaped the world that the academy studies.

Last year, the Reading University Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Society (RAHS) was criticised and removed from a societies fair for naming a pineapple ‘Mohammed’. What do you think is the best approach for student groups promoting atheism, secularism and humanism to express their views in a campus environment?

Courting controversy is definitely not an unacceptable way to promote a point of view, but we should also engage intelligently with those who believe differently from us.

How do you think students can effectively counter claims of offence that seek to silence critics of religious privilege?

By choosing the moment carefully, prioritising those instances where academic freedom or freedom of speech are most obviously threatened and then countering those claims with appeals to universal principles like freedom of belief and thought, building alliances with those whose metaphysics may be different, but who nonetheless want to live in an open society and enjoy the liberty that entails.

Should humanist students engage and debate with religious students about the nature of their beliefs?

If invited to, and if it serves a useful purpose, I don’t see why not. But there are certainly instances where it is not useful to do so, and debates about the existence of gods can often become stale and pointless.

One of the difficulties you emphasised in your talk was the limitations of the national census, which contains leading questions about religious affiliation and does not properly reflect unbelief and humanism. How difficult is it to ascertain how many students in Britain hold a religious belief? How can this be improved?

It is not that difficult – there are excellent instruments like the British Social Attitudes Survey which are more reliable than the deeply flawed national census.

Individuals such as Sayeeda Warsi have expressed concern about what they describe as ‘militant secularism’. Do you think term ‘militant’ is an appropriate description of prominent atheists, as well as of the secularist and humanism movements?

No. I think the term ‘militant’ gives a totally false impression (and deliberately so). Secularism as a political settlement is a liberal and inclusive approach, humanism as a worldview is premised on the fallibility of human knowledge and the need to place human beings here and now at the centre of our thoughts. I don’t see how these ideas can be described as militant just because some of their advocates assert them robustly.

Can social media play a role in challenging religious privilege and contributing to debates about religion, and has it done so in the past?

Yes – especially for people who may not have access around them, in their immediate family or community, to other people who share their views. By building community online, social media can be a lifeline for the otherwise isolated.

The UB: ASH (University of Birmingham Atheist, Secular and Humanist Society) Reason Week is demonstrating that many young people are enthusiastic about the values of humanism, secularism and atheism. In your mind, what does the future hold for humanism in Britain?

I think that the prevalence of humanist values – implicit and explicit – will continue to increase in Britain and that we will become increasingly impatient of claims to privilege and special treatment from churches and other religious organisations. We can already see that substantial moral progress has accompanied the rise of humanism in Britain over the last century and I expect that will continue.

Gruelling interview

Had an interview with a fictional character called Mrs Mountable – she is the creation of Nicky Clark, but her questions are frighteningly similar to real ones we get at the office…

My grueling interview with the head of the Human Atheists Andrew Copson

As I’m a very broad-minded Christian lady and although I don’t have time to go to church myself, I’m very keen to understand why anyone would choose not to benefit from the love of our saviour.
I’m well known for being kind and considerate and I endeavor to remain at all times open minded and keen to learn, so I spoke recently to the head of the Human Atheists cult, Andrew Copson to find out more about their ways and beliefs.
?Hello Andrew please could you state your full name for the record?
Andrew Copson
Thank you we will begin gently with a light question to put you at your ease. Is that all right with you?
Go ahead.
What is your favourite flavour of ice cream, why do you hate God and why are you trying to ban religion?
I don’t hate god because I don’t believe that such a thing exists, though I don’t like what the idea of god makes some people do. I don’t want to ban religion, though I do want to end the discrimination and privilege that many religions perpetrate and which the law in the UK currently allows. My favourite ice cream is cherry and chocolate.
Why do you want to destroy the institution of marriage by calling for equal marriage? It is already equal as it is open to both ladies and men, who are quite at liberty to marry one another. Also I’m married so that must mean that you hate myself and my husband. WHY DO YOU HATE MYSELF AND MY HUSBAND ANDREW?
I’m sure your husband is a perfectly charming, civilized and long-suffering man. The argument for equal marriage is simple. (1) Gay and bisexual people should not be discriminated against in access to human and civil rights. (2) The right to enter into a legal marriage is a civil right. (3) The right to legal recognition for your marriage should therefore be extended to same-sex couples. Rather than destroy the institution of marriage such a reform would strengthen it, by making it more relevant to our more tolerant and open society.
Why are you trying to ban Christmas? Does that not, by extension mean that your organization hates love and family and presents?
I love Christmas. Not just because I love spending time with my family and giving presents, though I do, but because I think it’s good to have a moment in the year when you take a step back, rest, and in the depths of winter, remember that we are halfway through it and that there is light and warmth in the world. That is the purpose of mid-winter festivals all over the word and was the purpose of them long before Christianity co-opted it and called it Christmas.
Can we address the fact that you are trying to ban the Boy Scout Movement. Brownie movement and Girl Guide movement. I myself was a sixer, and my husband Piers was very fond of his woggle Andrew, so I ask you this .Why? YES OR NO.
Both the Scouts and Guides say they want to be inclusive of all young people. A majority of young people are not religious and a very large number don’t believe in any gods. By making and oath or a promise to god compulsory, any organization is clearly not inclusive. If they want to be inclusive, they have to let in non-religious young people join.
Human Atheists claim that they don’t believe in God, Surely by choosing not to believe in God you are believing that He exists?
Firstly, you can’t just ‘choose’ what to believe exists. If you think something might exist you go me look for evidence that it does. If you find such evidence, it’s a good provisional conclusion that the thing in question exists. I can’t see any good evidence to believe in and god, so I don’t.
Michael Gove recently decided that he was introducing the teaching of The Theory of Evolution by known crackpot Charles Darwin to primary schools. How can you support this? Aren’t children deserving of our love and protection rather than being taught fairy tales and rumour?
In their science lessons, children should be taught ideas that have been subject to scientific investigation and have known validity as a result. Evolution is one such idea. It is foundational to modern biology and if our children don’t learn it, they will be justifiably thought ignorant in the eyes of the world and embarrassingly so.
In terms of aggressive human atheists Andrew, none is more sneakily aggressive than the well-known quiet explainer Professor Richard Dawkins. He may use measured tones and well thought out reasoned argument, but it’s simply a ruse Andrew. As you adopt the same approach please explain why we should listen to this offensive nonsense?
I don’t mind whether you listen or not. But I do think that reasoned argument, good manners and an open approach are a good way to conduct discussions in a civilized society. I hope you come to think so too.
Why do you want to ban the wearing of crucifixes? This is clearly oppressing and offending many people. Why?
I don’t want to ban the wearing of religious symbols but there are some circumstances where the wearing of them might conflict with an obligation of employment or affect the rights of others, and then we need to balance rights. An example is a primary school teacher who wants to wear a burqa. This would clearly interfere with her ability to do her job and the right of children to education.
Another example is a nurse who wants to wear a cross on a chain when working on wards. If it dangles in a way that might interfere with his duties, then it is reasonable to ask him to tuck it away or wear it on a pin instead. If a therapist working with people traumatized by clerical sex abuse wants to wear a visible crucifix, we might say that was inappropriate and insensitive or damaging to her vulnerable clients and say she could not do so.
You seem to have many supporters in the “show business community” can we understand from this that human Atheists have infiltrated every level of society to a TERRIFYING degree?
You can if you want to. Or you could take it as an indication that more and more people in every sphere of life are seeing the benefits of standing up for values and meaning in the here and now, a more humane approach to ethics, and a more open and fair society for all. I welcome that, perhaps some people may find it terrifying and I’m sorry that you do. But the right approach to fear is not to let it turn into anger and hate, but to be brave. If we are afraid because we feel in danger, we must be rational, cultivate a disinterested perspective from which to assess the real threat.  If we are afraid because we do not understand something, we must have intellectual courage: be brave enough to explore and be curious. If we are afraid of someone because we do not know them, we must take a leap and try to know them: be brave enough to understand them, try to use our empathy and imaginative sympathy.
Maybe you could try that?

Defeat at the Cambridge Union

Visible below is the video of the debate at Cambridge last week lost by me, Richard Dawkins and Arif Ahmed.

Obviously there were a few different reasons for our defeat, not least the very badly worded and ambiguous motion (I actually turned down the offer to debate this motion but then found they had put me on the programme anyway!) but there weren’t any particular points in Rowan Williams’ or Tariq Ramadan’s speeches that I think need response. The opposition speech of Douglas Murray, however, did have three points worth responding to:

His claim a loss of religion deprives you of the resources to deal with death

If this is so why are non-religious and humanist funerals the fastest growing funerals in Europe and why do they get a 97% feedback if 5/5 in England and Wales as being meaningful, dignified opportunities to deal with death and celebrate a life? And what about the millennia old philosophical and humanist traditions in both East and West of non-religious responses to death?

His claim a loss of religion deprives life of meaning

Then what about the millions of people who get by without it just fine and the billions throughout the millennia who have done the same? What about studies like those of ‘Generation Y’ which show that the very non-religious demographic of those aged 30 and under have great meaningfulness in their lives which they derive from family, friends, their own worthwhile goals, popular culture and the world around them?

His claim that there is no distinction to be made between organised religion and religion generally

71% of those calling themselves Protestants support assisted dying for the terminally ill but 100% of Bishops in the House of Lords voted against it. If we had a referendum on the subject, people’s individual religions wouldn’t cause harm but the lobbying and political power of an organised religion has caused demonstrable harm. That’s just one microcosmic example.

Tariq’s speech was really just bombast so apart from the points above, the only other thing I wish I’d been able to pick up on was Rowan Williams’ claim that organised religion is ‘unique’ in its helping of the helpless and its constancy in sticking by the marginalized when everyone else ignores them.

He used an example from Congo. I could have given him examples of humanist organisations that are just as notable for taking care of and standing by people otherwise neglected, left behind and marginalised (for example the Ugandan Humanists’ work rescuing and retraining sex workers) and also secular organisations containing both religious and non-religious doing the same. He was surely wrong to claim this aspect of the work of some religious organisations is unique.

Anyway… enjoy!

Faithful providers

Just back from Radio 4’s Sunday programme where I was discussing this report from Demos endorsing religious providers of public services with its author (who was very friendly). You can hear the audio of the discussion below but here, at slightly greater length, are some of my reflections on it.

I disagree with almost every word of the report, and I think that there are real gaps in its evidence base.

One general problem is that it conflates (i) voluntary provision of services by groups who get together and use their own time and resources to provide services with (ii) public provision where an organisation receives state money to provide a statutory service to which all citizens are entitled. No one has a problem with any groups provided the first, but it’s legitimate for us all to be concerned about sensible regulation of the latter, and a serious contribution to the public policy debate on this issue should be more focussed on precisely which model it is examining.

(As well as failing to distinguish between these two models, the report also fails to distinguish between types of ‘religious’ organisation: they stretch from an entirely religious service provided by religious people to their co-religionists to a service that doesn’t actually have links with any religion at all but takes its name from one.)

Apart from that the report:

Presents case studies uncritically and omits the service user perspective…

When I looked at the list of organisations held up as exemplars of good practice, I saw immediately three which I know have discriminated against or harassed service users in ways that should be entirely unacceptable in public service provision, from homophobic harassment to bullying.

It seems odd that such organisations could be held up as good providers until you realise that actually, this report hasn’t talked to any service users. In fact this report doesn’t engage with the perspective of service users at all – only of providers – so when it says that it found ‘no evidence’ of any problems, it means that the service providers interviewed didn’t say there were any problems with their services. Go figure.

Of course when organisations are asked whether they aggressively proselytise they’re going to say no, of course they’re going to dwell on their high-minded motivations and make great claims for their success.

…just accepts the legitimacy of discrimination…

The report says that employment discrimination and proselytising does happen but it should be allowed. It makes no attempt to look at the negative effect of these sorts of discrimination. There’s not really any excuse for that – there have even been employment tribunals that have dealt with this – but even common sense would tell you that if a service moves from being secular, where jobs are open to all, to being provided by a religious contractor, where jobs are restricted, and even existing employee’s promotion prospects are limited, then that is an unfair and divisive development.

When it comes to service provision, the pamphlet says that users can go elsewhere if they don’t like it – not something that every vulnerable service user can just decide to do.

…fails to see the wood for the trees…

The report focuses on religious organisations and saying how special they are while ignoring that fact that the vast majority of the voluntary and community sector is secular: two-thirds of it.

It says that religious organisations are unique and contain people with selfless motivations, contrasting them with private companies, whereas the proper comparison if you want to support a claim of uniqueness is with the rest of the charity and community sector.

It’s an insult to all the non-religious people in the field to single out faith groups as uniquely selfless, but worse than that, it’s also bad policy because it creates the category of ‘faith’ which is really just a sub-section of the wider voluntary sector. That’s divisive and it reads like special pleading.

…ignores the demographic facts on the ground.

The long-term demographic trend is a secularising one in the UK. Of course many religious groups want to increase their service provision and use public money to do that: in part it’s a strategic decision so that they can remain important even as their worshippers depart. The Church of England has even said so frankly. But that very fact is what makes them often inappropriate to be providers.

It makes more sense in an increasingly plural society to bring people together in the public sphere – including in our public services – than to encourage sectarian division.


4thought.tv on ‘Religious Leaders’

A 4thought.tv that I recorded just before Christmas is going to be broadcast on 12 January at 6.55pm on Channel 4 but here it is already on their website

Before you judge it too harshly, remember they make you talk for an hour and then edit it down. That’s my excuse. For my weird-looking hair and psychopathic expression I have no excuse.

Humanism: not an ‘impossible dream’

Andrew Brown, at The Guardian‘s ‘Comment is Free’ (CIF) wrote an article a couple of weeks ago now rubbishing humanism and the British Humanist Association. I’ve responded today on the Huffington Post. Why has it taken so long? Well, I originally asked CIF if I could do a response. I was told yes but when I sent it to them they changed their mind and said it was too positive about humanism. I went back to them and said that this wasn’t quite fair and so they said okay, I could do a piece but it would have to be more general and not a response as such. So, I worked on another version, but then was told that it didn’t make sense. (You can judge that for yourself – I’ve pasted it below the Huffington Post one below).

The Huffington Post one:

Andrew Brown, in his blog last week, criticised the British Humanist Association (BHA) for promoting humanism as an essentially negative approach to life defined by what it isn’t and for being on an incoherent and self-defeating mission to eliminate all social bonds, based on an outmoded view of religion.

The blog set up humanism as a recent approach to life, grounded in an antagonism to Christianity. This is a narrow view. It is true that the word ‘humanism’ only began to be used in English in its contemporary sense about 150 years ago, but the philosophy it denotes and which the BHA promotes (although it is exceptionally well-suited to the modern world we live in) is not an entirely modern phenomenon. Throughout recorded history there have been non-religious people who have believed that this life is the only life we have, that the universe is a natural phenomenon with no supernatural side, and that we can live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and compassion. They have trusted to the scientific method, evidence, and reason to discover truths about the universe and placed human welfare and happiness at the centre of their ethic. It is these views in combination that constitute humanism – a naturalistic and morally aware approach to living in the here and now. No parasite on Christianity, it is in fact a stance from which, historically, Christianity borrowed much of its practical ethics. You can find millions of men and women with humanist views in Britain today and you can find their equivalents among the materialists of classical India, the Confucians of ancient China, the partisans of the European enlightenment, their distant forebears in the Mediterranean world of the Romans and Greeks, and the free minds of the short-lived Arab renaissance at the time of the European dark age – as well as among the uncounted men and women who have left no record or whose existence has been struck from history by institutions opposed to their values.

Much of the BHA’s work  – like providing resources to schools   or providing many thousands of non-religious funerals and other ceremonies every year – is focussed on providing support to people in Britain with humanist views today. This is all in addition to what attracts most media attention: our work to campaign for a secular state, challenge religious privilege, and promote equal treatment in law and policy of everyone regardless of religion or belief.

Brown’s blog saw these campaigns as ‘mopping up operations for a battle that has been strategically long won’. This is a strange view, as much of the religious discrimination and anti-secular activity that the BHA challenges is not just residual (like Bishops in our parliament) but new. There are more state-funded religious schools now than in previous decades: they continue to grow in number and as a proportion of our state schools overall. It is against the unfair powers of such schools to discriminate on religious grounds in their admissions, employment and curriculum – powers recently extended, not diminished – that one of the main campaigns of the BHA is directed. Also novel is the strategic repositioning of organised religion in the UK as a provider of social welfare, with services previously provided by the state being contracted out to religious groups that do not lose powers to discriminate even when they receive this public money to provide public services. This is a new and aggressive attempt to roll back the secularist advances of previous decades and it would not be an exaggeration to say that the exceptionalism some religious campaigners are seeking represents one of the most significant current challenges to the principle of the rule of law. I agree that the Christian theocratic view that Brown’s blog mentions is eccentric, but I don’t see that it is universally seen as quaint and it is not without its advocates at high political levels. To campaign against it is not to campaign against religion but against religious privilege, and the unfairness of a state that is still considerably less than secular – and it is campaigning that is much-needed.

Humanism itself is a self-sufficient worldview founded on the positive principles of reason, worldliness, sympathy and humanitarian conviction and the campaigns of humanist organisations are invariably based on the positive values of human rights, respect for the dignity of each person, and equality before the law. The slanders that humanism is negative and the campaigns of humanist organisations irrelevant or wrong-headed are just that.

And here’s the revised one I sent to CIF:

Too often, humanism is portrayed by its critics as an essentially negative approach to life defined by what it isn’t and for itself becoming a quasi-religion. This view often sets up humanism as a recent approach to life, grounded in an antagonism to Christianity. It is a narrow view. It is true that the word ‘humanism’ only began to be used in English in its contemporary sense about 150 years ago, but the philosophy it denotes and which humanist organisations promote (although it is exceptionally well-suited to the modern world we live in) is not an entirely modern phenomenon.

Throughout recorded history there have been non-religious people who have believed that this life is the only life we have, that the universe is a natural phenomenon with no supernatural side, and that we can live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and compassion. They have trusted to the scientific method, evidence, and reason to discover truths about the universe and placed human welfare and happiness at the centre of their ethic. It is these views in combination that constitute humanism – a naturalistic and morally aware approach to living in the here and now. No parasite on Christianity, it is in fact a stance from which, historically, Christianity borrowed much of its practical ethics. You can find millions of men and women with humanist views in Britain today and you can find their equivalents among the materialists of classical India, the Confucians of ancient China, the partisans of the European enlightenment, their distant forebears in the Mediterranean world of the Romans and Greeks, and the free minds of the short-lived Arab renaissance at the time of the European dark age – as well as among the uncounted men and women who have left no record or whose existence has been struck from history by institutions opposed to their values.

As well as wrong to see it as no more than anti-religion or non-religion, it is a mistake to see humanism as a quasi-religion. You can seek to make it so by a re-definition of religion – such as that performed by Andrew Brown – as ‘the stories and practices that individuals and societies use to explain and create their relation to each other and their meaning in the world.’ If that is your definition of religion then of course humanists would be religious – every single conscious human being would be. But this is not the definition of religion in everyday English. Even where religions don’t include a god, they invariably include some belief in a reality other than the one we directly experience. Religious approaches to life frequently base at least some of their principles on authority or revelation and at least some of their ethics on reference points outside of humanity. I think most people, using the word ‘religion’ expect what they’re talking about to correspond to at least one of these definitions; none of these aspects apply to humanism. The humanist view is a naturalistic one; a humanist approach to knowledge is based solely on free inquiry, reason and evidence; and humanism grounds morality in our humanity alone.

Just as humanism is not a quasi-religion, humanist organisations are not quasi-churches. To provide personalised non-religious funeral ceremonies is not the same as providing religious rituals derived from authority and tradition. To campaign against privilege and discrimination on grounds of religion or belief is not to make humanism a self-interested political movement in the way that many politically active churches are. It is to campaign for secularism in the sense of a more open and fairer society and politics. It is positive campaigning – invariably based on the positive values of human rights, respect for the dignity of each person, and equality before the law – and it is campaigning that is much-needed.

‘Spirituality’ for materialists

Have just come away from speaking at the Battle of Ideas on ‘Religious, Spiritual, or Neither?’ and it made me remember a piece I wrote back in 2008 on ‘Spirituality for Materialists’ for the Journal of Chaplaincy in Further Education. Not sure if I’d stand by all of it now but re-posting here:

Introduction: defining spirituality

‘Spiritual’ and ‘spirituality’ are difficult words for non-religious people. When they were clearly associated with religion, many humanists dismissed or ignored them, albeit at the cost of being labelled reductionists or materialists. Today non-religious humanists are divided on their meaning and use. Some humanists think that the words have a general usefulness, to describe a concern about moral seriousness and a high view of human potentiality far removed from crudely materialistic ambitions. Others feel uneasy about using words carrying so much religious and pseudo-religious baggage.

But we had to define spirituality for ourselves when ‘spiritual development’ was established in the Education Reform Act 1988 as one of the essential components of the National Curriculum for schools, confirmed in the Education Act of 1992, where it became part of the list, ‘spiritual, moral, social and cultural development’. Official guidance made it clear that spiritual was to be distinguished from religious and there was a flurry of opinion from educationists as to what this entailed. What follows, therefore, is drawn from the experience of the British Humanist Association (BHA) in schools and as spiritual development in FE develops, will hopefully be useful.

Including the non-religious

Even if the need for a non-religious meaning of spiritual had not been forced upon us, at the BHA we would have been keen in any case to take this up. We naturally wish to ensure that non-religious young people are not neglected in any educational initiatives, including those to do with spiritual and moral development. More than that, it is true of many young people with what are basically humanistic conceptions of the world, just as it is true of young people with religious worldviews, that underneath and as part of their lifestances are many implicit responses to questions of meaning, value and purpose. These responses need to be made explicit, explored, and interrogated, if young people are to develop – if spiritual development is to be the heading under which this is to occur, then it is vital that the non-religious are actively included and that a humanist framework is one of those through which such ideas are considered. There is a final and powerful motive for including the non-religious in this endeavour of spiritual development which has to do with the mutual understanding essential in the open society, and we have seen it in school RE very clearly. If spiritual development is delivered in a way that does not take active account of non-religious responses to these important questions then not only will the non-religious be excluded, but they will also feel that spiritual development is not about them and the consequence can be that they have little time or sympathy for the different responses of others to these questions. There is after all a shared human basis to what we call spirituality.

Spiritual development

Arching over all of this is the assumption that there are valid, fulfilling and developmentally useful humanist perspectives on the sort of areas encompassed by spiritual and moral development. And further, that there will always be people, and increasingly if organized religion continues to have a decreasingly important part in the lives of young people, for whom the non-religious answers are the only ones that make sense. For example, 65% of young people are not religious, according to Young People in Britain: The Attitudes and Experiences of 12-19 Year Olds (2004) and 44% in a recent ESRC study. Spiritual development should acknowledge, affirm and encourage the values and spirituality of non-religious young people to the same extent as it does this for religious young people.

In this connection, the Dalai Lama usefully distinguishes religion and the spiritual: ‘Spirituality I take to be concerned with those qualities of the human spirit – such as love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony – which bring happiness to both self and others. While ritual and prayer, along with the questions of nirvana and salvation, are directly connected with religious faith, these inner qualities need not be, however. There is thus no reason why the individual should not develop them, even to a high degree, without recourse to any religious or metaphysical belief system. This is why I sometimes say that religion is something we can perhaps do without. What we cannot do without are these basic spiritual qualities.’ (Ancient Wisdom, Modern World (Abacus),1999)

From a specifically humanist perspective, Simon Blackburn, the Cambridge philosopher and BHA Vice President, has said, ‘Wonder at the stars, love of the wilderness, enjoyment of the arts, are a human birthright. We should encourage them and practise them. We should notice the uniqueness of human personhood and the associated boundaries on conduct required by respect for that personhood. Such respect should extend to the buildings, poems, songs and dances of our ancestors, even when they were in the service of beliefs we cannot share. Myths have their place, as do imagination and stories, and often have an application to the here and now.’ The Sunday Times, 4/4/04

Often when people talk about spiritual development, they are in fact meaning either one or more of the following: emotional development, character formation, aesthetic emotions, moral development, socialisation, growing thoughtfulness. It is possible that only ‘spirituality’ captures the amalgamation of all or most of these things, and within that context, a humanist spirituality makes sense. Certainly in schools this is taken for granted: ‘…the development of insights, principles, beliefs, attitudes and values which guide and motivate us… a developing understanding of feelings and emotions which causes us to reflect and to learn…[development of that] element of a human being which animates and sustains us and, depending on our point of view, either ends or continues in some form when we die. It is about the development of a sense of identity, self-worth, personal insight, meaning and purpose. It is about the development of a pupil’s ‘spirit’. Some people may call it the development of a pupil’s ‘soul’; others as the development of ‘personality’ or ‘character” (Ofsted Promoting and evaluating pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, March 2004)

Professor John White of the Institute of Education has identified a sense of the spiritual with ‘the cosmic shudder we all feel from time to time when contemplating the existence of life, especially our own self conscious life, and of the universe’ and many with a humanist, materialist outlook, will agree with Julian Huxley, that the spiritual elements ‘are part and parcel of human nature’. The more poetically minded of evolutionary psychologists would express their findings about human nature in this way. And non-religious young people may usefully find an affirmation of their view from the autobiography of Darwin, whose wonder at the beauty and interconnectedness of the natural world did not diminish with the erosion of his Christian faith. No one, I think could deny that, in this sense, the spirituality of Richard Dawkins is something with which many non-religious young people could identify: the incredible fact of human existence and the incredible fact of each individual’s human existence, which has come about against the odds.

This and the conviction that life ends when our bodies die can motivate the living of a more fulfilling life. Bertrand Russell’s affirmation that just because a good story comes to an end doesn’t make it not a good story, can lead us into reflection on what a good life might be, in a way that is accessible to those without a belief in another life, or a transcendent reality. The conviction that there is no duality of mind and body, but only a unity can drive us towards fulfillment. The exploration and appropriate affirmation of these convictions would be a fulfillment of the definition of spiritual growth that was given by a 1985 working party of Christians and humanists as ‘Education in spiritual growth is that which promotes apprehension of ultimate reality through fostering higher forms of human consciousness.’

This basing of spiritual development in common humanity finds an echo in a National Curriculum Council discussion document on spiritual and moral development of 1993 which said of spiritual growth that ‘[t]he term needs to be seen as applying to something fundamental in the human condition… it has to do with the unique search for human identity…with the search for meaning and purpose in life and for values by which to live.’ For many this search for answers to the why? and how? questions will only be answered in a non-religious way, and that does not mean the answers are any less uplifting.

In the same year as that discussion document the BHA said that ‘…the spiritual dimension comes from our deepest humanity. It finds expression in aspirations, moral sensibility, creativity, love and friendship, response to natural and human beauty, scientific and artistic endeavour, appreciation and wonder at the natural world, intellectual achievement and physical activity, surmounting suffering and persecution, selfless love, the quest for meaning and purpose by which to live.’ (The Human Spirit, BHA leaflet, 1993) Questions of meaning and purpose can have non-religious answers, of course, and deeply satisfying ones for many humanists. We could look back to the 19th century American humanist Ingersoll who said, ‘Reason, Observation and experience have told us that to be happy is the only good, that the time to be happy is now and the way to be happy is to make other so.’

Meeting the needs of the non-religious

Theory, of course, is of little use without ideas as to how spiritual development can in practice meet the needs of the non-religious. In Education, Spirituality and the Whole Child: a Humanist Perspective (1996) one BHA member asks, ‘In thinking about how to provide opportunities for spiritual growth, is it too fanciful to suggest that a ‘quiet minute’ should happen as a structured component of many school activities and learning experiences? Many schools now have their own wildlife area: how about sitting down under a tree after a nature walk around it? Or trying to take in what a hundred million years means when looking at pre-Cambrian rocks on a Geography field trip? What about a quiet few minutes to wonder at the beauty and intricacy of crystal structures viewed through a microscope? And on a visit to an art gallery, might not the occasional quiet time to absorb the beauty of art… provide a time for reflection and refreshment of the spirit?’ And the pedagogical springboards for non-religious spiritual development are not difficult to come by – there is the whole of the secular philosophical tradition to draw on, as well as young people’s own experiences of the reality of life, which for non-religious young people will of course be where meaning and purpose is derived.

‘Spiritual development relates to that aspect of inner life through which pupils acquire insights into their personal existence which are of enduring worth. It is characterised by reflection, the attribution of meaning to experience, valuing a non-material dimension to life’ (OFSTED Handbook for the Inspection of Schools, 1994) ‘Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked – as I am surprisingly often – why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn’t it sad to go to your grave without wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be part of it?’ asks Richard Dawkins.

This is a materialist sort of ‘spirituality’ and I share it. We are highly complex, sophisticated and rather wonderful animals, and I find that remarkable whilst recognizing that it is a natural occurrence. I hold to a philosophical materialism while I enjoy the arts, nature, friendship and love, and I have purposes and principles in my life that keep me going on with it. My attitudes to others, I recognize, are at least in part the social instincts of an animal that evolved to be so, built upon by an inherited culture that has sought to emphasise and develop the human tendencies to benefit others and constrain those that might lead to harm. I believe we make purpose and meaning for ourselves in a world to which no ultimate purpose or meaning can be ascribed. I think that for many developing young people, such a position will be the one they too hold in their adult lives, and I believe that spiritual development cannot be counted a success unless it gives young people the opportunity to discover whether this is so for them.

Historical Association podcast on British Humanist Association

The Historical Association has published a series of podcasts on social and political change since 1800. In a rare chance to combine a love of humanism and history I got to be interviewed for it! You can listen to the podcasts here.