Humanist Thought for the Day on Radio Shropshire

After giving a Radio Shropshire interview about Assisted Dying (before he gave a presentation to our meeting on the subject), Simon Nightingale has been invited to contribute occasionally to Mike George’s Sunday morning programme. He discusses what is in the paper, giving, when appropriate, a humanist perspective.

The programmes are on the web for a week after they are delivered. To listen again to Simon’s two spots on Sunday 12th December, go to the link below.

The first contribution is from 0.47 – 0.52; the second from 1.48 – 1.54.

Simon will next be on Radio Shropshire on 21st March.

Humanism in Flanders

by Sue Falder

A happy human in an Antwerp park

A happy human in an Antwerp park

Nine BHA members, five of us celebrants, went on a study trip recently hosted by the UVV (Unie Vrijzinnige Verenigingen) in Antwerp. This is an umbrella body which has 36 member organisations, all vrigzinnige – freethinkers. It is not itself a ‘humanist’ organisation, but the Flemish Humanist Association is one of the members. In addition there are separate organisations which regulate humanist counsellors in hospitals, in prisons, in old people’s homes and so on.

The principles of free-thinking with which all these organisations must agree are adherence to the principle of free enquiry, rejection of dogma and arguments based on authority, and creativity and the bearing of ones own moral values and the ability to give meaning to ones own life.

The existence of the umbrella body (formed in the 70s) seems to be the factor which enabled the many different and organisations, often with differing approaches – full of well-meaning volunteers – to have a powerful voice in negotiations with the Belgian government. Because of the historical context, whilst the origins of modern humanism in the 50s in Belgium seem similar to those in Britain, things took a very different path.

Affected by the French Revolution, church was separated from state in Belgium, but then from the time of Napoleon the pay and pensions of clergy were paid from public funds, with the upkeep of church buildings the responsibilty of local authorities. The UVV was able, over many years and with political support, to negotiate equal status with the seven `registered’ religions in the country (Catholic/Protestant/Jewish/Greek Orthodox/Anglican/Islamic/Buddhist). This situation was ratified by a change to the constitution in the nineties, and the UVV now has a financed HQ in a gracious 1920s building near the centre of Antwerp, where we were entertained.

At first free-thinkers in public life were marginal – given money enough for just one administrator and one counsellor, but over time they proved their worth and negotiated more. Now, when a new UVV centre is agreed, it will consist of five paid people – an administrator and four counsellors/community workers. There are currently 27/28 centres in Flanders, where people can get moral counselling, can go to arrange a ceremony, find out about euthanasia or making a living will, or where workshops or talks may be arranged.

An important feature of humanism in Belgium is the presence of Secular Ethics as a non-religious choice in schools. Students have two hours a week where they opt for a religious course of study or the alternative – which has become increasingly popular, especially in secondary school – where 80% of students do the ‘non-confessional ethics’ course. There are ‘transition’ ceremonies at 6, for the start of schooling, and at 12.

We were given an insight into the Counsellor’s role, in general and more specifically in the different institutions where humanists have been accepted on an equal basis with religious representatives.

General Counselling

Paid counsellors generally have a higher-education background in psychology, philosophy, social work, ethics or the humanities and there is a budget for their continuing development when they are working. If they work at a centre, their main task may be to organise events in the community, or to be available for consultation. This would include bereavement counselling, arranging funerals (also weddings and birth ceremonies) and advising people about the legislation and practicalities of advance directives and the law on euthanasia.

The values upon which the counselling is based are:

  • respect for people and things

They are completely open to all sorts of people (about 50% of clients are religious) and all sorts of subject.

  • freedom of thought/research

into life, into oneself. ‘Active listening’ helps people build up self-knowledge and find their ‘direction’ in life.

  • existential issues…..We as human beings give meaning to our existence.

However minor they may seem, anything concerning our basic sense of well-being is important.

All counselling and the work of celebrants is free to the user.

Counsellors in prisons, hospitals, old-people’s homes, the army, for fishermen, at the airport…

The above values underlie the work of the humanist representatives in these different institutions. In comparison with religious reps they are few in number (there are nine humanist counsellors for 55 prisons for example) and, though those we spoke to have good relationships with their religious counterparts there are certainly tensions, and they often have to move carefully.

It was interesting to discover that they are paid by the state, but there is no monitoring of the amount or nature of the work they do. They ‘answer’ to the UVV and work within their guidelines, but no-one seems to demand a detailed report of their everyday activities.

Some of the visiting group pictured outside Antwerp prison

Some of the visiting group pictured outside Antwerp prison

We visitors were very appreciative of the time these hard-working counsellors spent taking us round their institutions and introducing us to others, and if anyone is interested in more detail of what we were told and shown, we can certainly provide it. As a celebrant myself, I was particularly interested in our visit to Antwerp Crematorium and the talks given by different counsellors, which I summarise below:


FDs call a UVV centre and ask for a counsellor to arrange a funeral. The family may go to the centre or the counsellor may visit the family and the ceremony is arranged in most ways as we would do it. Things differ in different parts of Belgium, but there were some particularly interesting factors associated with the Antwerp Crematorium, which we visited.

Inside one of the auditoria

Inside one of the auditoria

It is a large modern, neutral building with two auditoria and two waiting rooms, adorned by modern art. For a humanist ceremony their symbol – a torch – is put at the front. The mourners we saw there were generally not dressed in black, though the director who took us round found that rather disrespectful.

There are rooms for refreshment, and it is usual for families to stay for ‘coffee and cake’ after they have scattered the ashes outside – in a rather nondescript area, there are no memorials visible or rose bushes as we expect to see.

The system which has developed there, to cope with the time delay there used to be when they worked as we do is this:

Bodies are delivered by FDs to the crematorium and cremated in one of the five cremators. Within a day or so, if families want a ceremony at the crematorium, they will have one with the ashes – led by a crematorium worker MC plus a celebrant, religious or otherwise or just family members.

Outside the crematorium

Outside the crematorium

Of the cremations they do, something over 15% are done by humanist celebrants, the same number by priests, but 60% don’t have a cremation ceremony or else they have a family one or one just led by a crematorium member of staff.

Also in Antwerp, because of the demand and the short turnaround time for ceremonies, the professional counsellors are helped out by volunteers. (Last year there were 320 funerals in Antwerp and there are 5 professionals and 12 volunteers.) The counsellor visits the family and takes notes etc. then phones the volunteer and conveys the information. It is then the volunteer who delivers the tribute, meeting the family just beforehand.


In Antwerp there are 25 – 30 a year, with demand growing. They come usually through wedding fairs and via the internet and three volunteers do these as well. They take place anywhere but the UVV have just acquired a large building to serve as a ceremonies centre.

Weddings are often booked a year to 18 months ahead and there will be three or more meetings with the counsellor over that time. S/he generally gives a list of questions to each participant to fill in separately and this is the basis for the following discussions.

Birth ceremonies

Usually for new-borns or one-year-olds, these are fewer and often done by families themselves. They also involve several meetings and a list of questions and are similar to our ceremonies, with ‘guide parents’.

Celebration of Free-thinking Youth
This is the ceremony to mark the move from childhood to adulthood as children move to secondary school (at the same time as first communion is taking place.) This is prepared with teachers and a local committee and last year 3200 children participated.

Freddy Boeykens, Head of UVV in Flanders and Sonja Eggerickx, school inspector for the subject 'Non-confessional Ethics'; president IHEU; president UVV

Freddy Boeykens, Head of UVV in Flanders and Sonja Eggerickx, school inspector for the subject 'Non-confessional Ethics'; president IHEU; president UVV


It was certainly inspiring to be in a country where humanism/free-thinking is such a recognised and respected aspect of society, and to see the confidence this brings with it. And I found it particularly striking that (though I’m sure translation may be affecting my understanding) in Belgium there is a direct connection between humanism and ethical and moral approaches. This is so much at variance with opposition in the UK which assumes humanists to be without morality.

Report on BHA AGM

The 2009 Annual General Meeting of the BHA was held at the Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London on July 18th.  The prevailing mood of both officers and members attending was one of satisfaction at the progress made in raising the profile of the organisation, increasing the membership and noting tangible progress towards declared objectives.

The Chief Executive, Hanna Stinson, said that the success of the Atheist Bus Campaign had taken everyone by surprise and they had been overwhelmed by the response to the financial appeal which exceeded the target of £5,500 within a few hours and reached £132,000 by the end of 2008. The outcome was that the advert was carried on buses in many of our major cities and towns and the publicity resulted in a positive international response.

The membership of the BHA grew by 20% to over 9,000 during 2008 and in addition to the increased membership subscription income there was a massive increase in donations from £84,000 to £340,000. However, in common with many other organisations the BHA was affected by the financial problems in the City and the value of the reserves invested has fallen sharply.

The Chief Executive reported on the development of the Humanist Ceremonies Strategy. Shesaid that although due to a number of factors the number of ceremonies carried out had not increased during the year, there had been a 15% increase in the number of trained and accredited celebrants.It was anticipated that this change allied to new marketing and publicity policies would have a positive effect.

The long running argument with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) about the question used to identify religious belief on the 2011 Census form had not been successful. Unless the government overrules the ONS the current wording, which the BHA believes to be a leading question, will continue to be used. The discussions with the BBC on religious organisations having a monopoly on contributions to Thought for the Day were being more fruitful and it was hoped that there would be a positive announcement in the near future.

There was a full report on the campaigns being conducted including SACRE membership, faith schools, discrimination on religious or belief grounds and on the success in persuading the OCR to include humanism as a curriculum subject in a a pilot GCSE exercise that is being conducted. In addition Evan Harris MP, BHA Vice President, addressed the meeting and gave an impressive account of his efforts try to achieve BHA objectives during the passage of the Equality Bill through the House of Commons.

A motion requesting the BHA to run a competition for new words for the National Anthem on the grounds that the current ones were xenophobic, militaristic and a host of other derogatory adjectives was defeated by 43 votes to 38.

Derek Woodvine

The Standing Advisory Councils For Religious Education (SACREs)

What is a SACRE?

It’s a legal requirement for every school to include Religious Education (RE) in its basic curriculum and each local authority must have a SACRE to oversee that provision and to revise the locally agreed syllabus.

Why are humanists involved in SACREs?

Clearly the ideal situation would be that state schooling was secular, and religious education took place via churches. However, that prospect is receding as more and more faith schools are being set up and the position of religion in education is, if anything, becoming more entrenched.

Humanists join SACREs in the hope of broadening the scope of RE in their area to include a recognition that many people live perfectly good lives without having a faith of any kind.

How much influence do humanists have?

Nationally, the BHA has been campaigning strongly and as a result the word `humanism’ now appears in the non-statutory guidelines for RE.  Also the phrase ‘religions and beliefs’ is used more often than ‘religions’ alone, thus opening the way for exploration of non-religious approaches. However, the legal framework still stresses the teaching of  ‘the principal religions represented in Great Britain’ – a limiting definition.

Locally, there are humanist representatives on SACREs with varying amounts of influence.

What about Shropshire?

I am a co-opted member of the  joint Shropshire/ Telford and Wrekin SACRE, so can observe and contribute to discussion. However, because of the legal rules about the make-up of the SACRE, I have no right to be involved in the syllabus revision committee and have no vote. (This is another area of BHA campaigning.)

The RE advisors and other members of the SACRE are not hostile to humanism and are open to suggestions for inclusive syllabus material. I hope that in the near future, the BHA will come up with helpful material for this; in the meantime I shall try to find time to relate some of the educational resources that are available to the suggested teaching themes and recommend them to the local authorities.

If anyone would be interested in representing humanism on the local SACRE or helping to relate humanist resources to teaching, I’d be very glad of the support.

Sue Falder

Meeting report: Assisted Dying

On 25th June, Shropshire Humanist Group organised a meeting to look at the complex issue of Assisted Dying.  A group whose views represented practically the whole spectrum of opinion on this topic listened with great interest to a presentation by Simon Nightingale, a consultant neurologist, on the current situation.

He explored the meaning of the phrase `assisted dying’ and outlined the legal situation currently where `assisting suicide’ is a crime whereas `not preventing suicide’ is not. The proposed changes to the law, he pointed out, had inconsistencies and there were phrases such as `terminal’ and `unbearable distress’ which are open to more than one interpretation.

Moral questions involved in the subject include the instinctive human opposition to killing another, questions of personal autonomy and arguments about the `slippery slope’ from voluntary to involuntary euthanasia.  And, although a majority of public opinion is in favour of changing the law, Simon suggested that the number of people such a change might affect is really very low.

There were several doctors in the audience, as well as members of Dignity in Dying, and there was a spirited discussion about the `double effect option’, where higher doses of a pain-killing drug are given to patients with terminal disease, which may in fact (but won’t necessarily) shorten their life.

The fear that attends the idea of terminal illness was felt to be a large factor in people’s wish to have assisted dying as a legal option. But the medics suggested that in their experience, with good palliative care, the reality was in the main quite different and that `quality of life’ was not something which could be judged by other people. We were reminded, too, that doctors and their diagnoses are fallible.

Probably nobody’s mind was changed by taking part in this discussion, but all points of view were listened to with equal respect and everyone found it a thought-provoking and informative evening.

Sue Falder

The name for not having a religion

I think I was fortunate in my ‘spiritual’ upbringing. My parents sent their children to a Congregational Sunday school, but they never showed any evidence of religious belief and I suspect that was mainly to get us from under their feet on Sunday morning. (This was in the days when children could be trusted to walk a couple of miles by themselves.) And, conveniently, we could collect the ice cream for Sunday lunch from the sweetshop on the way home. I can remember very little of the experience that had anything to do with religion, although I enjoyed the social side of it (including quizzes led by our young teacher instead of bible lessons!) and discussions on all sorts of things, including psychic phenomena and non-belief. I read plenty of books, including Bertrand Russell. I had a sort of kind of type of vague sixties view of a supernatural being until my late teens. And then it just went.

Before I went to University, I discovered the local Young Humanist group, and on going up I found that the university Humanist Group was one of the largest and most active student societies. It had a major speaker every week and a Sunday afternoon discussion. I even joined the committee for a while, although I drifted off as I followed other interests.

The issue came up a while ago as to whether I’m an “atheist”, but I don’t see any reason to call myself that. I don’t like the word. It’s defined by theists, to imply an opposition to their own point of view, regarded as some kind of standard. I simply don’t have a religion. My own lack of belief in any god or supernatural power is exactly the same as my lack of belief in fairies, tree-spirits, ghosts or interstellar teapots. What all these have in common (apart, perhaps, from the teapot) is that people have expressed a belief in them, without presenting any evidence at all. But I don’t call myself an ‘afairyist’ or ‘aghostist’.

There is always the possibility that there is some first cause, ground of existence, transcendent force, Supreme Being or what-have-you, but as it never seems to make its existence known by any effects in the real world I just remain ‘agnostic’ to it.

All the arguments for the existence of God, whatever their merit, are really irrelevant to the real world. People do not practice ‘faith’ or believe in ‘God’ – they practise specific religions, which make very specific assertions about what their god is and what he wants from humans: he was crucified and rose again, he wants you to fast every year and to pray five times a day, or not to work on a Saturday, and always to regard other religions as mistaken. As far as I know, no theologian has ever been able to make that leap by argument from ‘God’ to any specific god that people really believe in. There is only one argument that really matters in religion, and that is ‘my revelation (or my teacher’s revelation) is better than your revelation’. It is at root a remarkably self-centred attitude. I would like to think that one need not be concerned about convincing people to abandon their beliefs, only to convince them not to force the beliefs on other people. However, because of the nature of theistic belief, anyone who believes something different, even another theistic doctrine, will always be a threat and a source of ‘offence’.

In organised religion, this is backed up by force and ultimately violence: ‘God’ threatens retribution if you don’t behave as he wishes, but since he unaccountably fails to do this, it must be enforced by old men, often with beards. And, if that doesn’t work, the young men will come and get you on their behalf.

I guess that, like most people, I could describe myself using various terms. I don’t believe any ontological claim without good reason – that probably makes me a ‘sceptic’ (this is entirely different from denying that something exists, either without evidence or disregarding good evidence). My attitude to discovering what exists is both ‘critical rationalist’ (after Karl Popper) and ‘scientific’. To the (considerable) extent that religious people try to force their beliefs on others, I am a ‘secularist’, that is, someone who thinks that people should be entitled to their beliefs, but that no religion should be an organising principle for society.

It seems clear that the origin of moral beliefs is based on people’s shared humanity, with an innate core of (not necessarily consistent) emotional responses that originated from our evolution as a social species. These beliefs are modified and added to (and not infrequently perverted) by religion and culture. Equally it is possible to modify them and add to them through rational thought, based on what best benefits individuals, society and the wider environment on which we are all dependent. I’d call this a form of ‘humanism’.

Richard Burnham

How I lost God

Picture the upbringing. Daily bible reading (very selective) and prayers at home. Daily prayer and homilies at school. Church on Sunday. Social life revolving around the church. Harvest suppers and silly games. Visits to hear Billy Graham and Gladys Aylward and the like. Embarrassment on the toilet because God sees us everywhere – all the time. I still remember the terror I felt when one day I accidentally dropped my Bible.

Every letter received was carefully perused by my parents. I was never sure what they expected to find. A school friend lent me a copy of a Bertrand Russell book and its reading was forbidden.

We were aware of other beliefs. Jews were nice people but misguided, Catholics superstitious and, oh, the parental pursed lips when I came home saying I had learned who Mohammed was!

On to university and boyfriends and some debate. I heard the question, “Do you believe in God?” It is hard to credit but it had never occurred to me that there were people who did not. (I know – I find this hard to believe as well.)

I stopped attending church simply from boredom at first, but retained some type of unconsidered beliefs. I married in church but, becoming increasingly doubtful, faced down opposition and did not have my daughter christened. She was brought up without god at home, but he was still a big presence in both her primary and secondary schools. I felt a vague permeating sense of guilt. Should I at least take her to church to give her the chance to make up her own mind?

Years and years of slow decline in belief followed. I read the parts of the bible that had not been selected, and realised what a vicious and vindictive god I had worshipped. Yet I still missed the ritual, the carols at Christmas and the ready-made social life. The whole package is very hard to shake off, especially the feeling that is instilled that those who do not believe are wicked.

I cast around for something else, but I will spare you the details!

I had heard of Humanists, but had met only one or two and knew next to nothing about them. I started reading and talking, and realised this is where I fit. Humanists believe that as we only have one life it is essential to make it the best we can. For ourselves, and of course for others. It came as a massive relief and a revelation akin to St Paul’s that it really is OK not to believe. That there are thousands of people who do not and with better education these numbers would undoubtedly grow.

I feel sad for those who retain weird beliefs, but I understand how easy it is not to question. It is their prerogative to go on believing, but they have no right to inflict this on others in any way, particularly on children.

Helen Taylor

Education, education, education

Take Action!

Children deserve balanced and thorough teaching on important topics like personal and social education, science, and beliefs and values. The BHA is asking you to help determine policy in these three important areas which are currently being debated.
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Keep libel laws out of science

free debate
The use of the English libel laws to silence critical discussion of medical practice and scientific evidence discourages debate, denies the public access to the full picture and encourages use of the courts to silence critics. The British Chiropractic Association has sued Simon Singh for libel. The scientific community would have preferred that it had defended its position about chiropractic through an open discussion in the medical literature or mainstream media.

On 4th June 2009 Simon Singh announced that he was applying to appeal the judge’s recent pre-trial ruling in this case, in conjunction with the launch of this support campaign to defend the right of the public to read the views of scientists and writers.

Join the campaign! In a statement published on 4th June 2009, over 100 people from the worlds of science, journalism, publishing, comedy, literature and law have joined together to express support for Simon and call for an urgent review of English law of libel. Supporters include Stephen Fry, Lord Rees of Ludlow, Ricky Gervais, Martin Amis, James Randi, Professor Richard Dawkins, Penn & Teller and Professor Sir David King, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government.

Please help us with this campaign, sign the statement and ask everyone you know to sign it. With every additional 1000 names we will be sending the statement again to Government until there is a commitment and a timetable from the parties for the necessary legislation.

Click here to read more details of the background and the campaign to Keep Libel Laws out of Science.

Richard Burnham

Creationists crashing the Darwin Festival

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