Our current climate is awash with contradictions: a Brexit vote that neatly split the country in two, an unprecedented Republican nominee running for President opposite a candidate who has faced accusations of being a ‘communist’ and the increasing threat of religious extremism against a rising secular movement.
As the youngest ever Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association as well as current President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, it might come as a surprise that Andrew Copson did not initially join the British Humanist Association purely for the reason that he identified as humanist. “I first joined the BHA 2002 when the expansion started of faith schools because I wanted to support an organisation that was campaigned on that issue,” Andrew says at the start of our conversation, and this sets the precedent for his philosophy; humanism seems to be as much a political standing as well as a moral one, and the Humanist Association’s campaigns against discrimination on religious grounds in the UK is a clearly central part of its work.
But of course, the idea of humanism had to have come from somewhere. Andrew talks candidly about his secular upbringing, describing a childhood in which religion simply didn’t feature. He first heard about humanism in secondary school RE lessons, and by the time he met religious people at university he admits, “I found it quite strange, I guess because I hadn’t been initiated into it early in life.” Even his choice of degree subject was in keeping with early-instilled secular values: “I was a Classics student at university so that was all pre-Christian as well. I missed out the Christian bit completely, both in my academic study and in my personal upbringing.”
“I wouldn’t even go so far as to say I’m an atheist. The question of whether there’s a god or not has no meaning or relevance in my life whatsoever.”
I tell him about mentioning the upcoming interview to housemates and friends, and how in having to explain to them what humanism is one friend had commented: “That just sounds like a less confrontational atheism.”
Andrew questions how well I must have explained humanism with a hint of sarcasm, before laying out his own definition in a way that I feel may partly be for my benefit. “The word humanism has been used in English since about the 19th century to describe a non-religious world view that places human welfare and fulfilment at the centre of its ethics, and looks to science, evidence and a naturalistic view of the universe to understand reality. [Humanism] accepts that there’s no ultimate meaning and purpose to the universe, and that human beings therefore make our own meaning and purpose; that our capacity for morality is not a gift from outside of humanity given to us by some sort of God, but is part of our evolution as social animals, built on by our own cultural efforts.”
Andrew argues that although the word ‘humanism’ has gone through various evolutions before arriving at what it means today, the set of beliefs it describes have “existed as long as human beings have written their thoughts down… as a permanent alternative to less-rational religious beliefs.”
Having always assumed myself that atheism and humanism were essentially synonymous, Andrew is quick to point out the distinction. “Atheism is a Christian word in the way it’s used today – a religious person’s word – and they take great interest in making sure it sounds as negative as possible.” Atheism however does not include the idea of a rational and human-centric attitude to looking at the world. As Andrew puts it “atheism just means not believing in a God.”
I ask if Andrew himself would consider calling himself an atheist as well as a humanist and he laughs. “Many humanists, and I would certainly count myself among them, don’t even care about the question of God one way or another,” Andrew admits. “I wouldn’t even so far as to say I’m an atheist. The question of whether there’s a god or not has no meaning or relevance in my life whatsoever. Whether that’s a less or more confrontational than using the word atheist, you readers will have to decide,” he muses.
While refusing to even enter into the paradigm of whether a God exists or not is indeed perhaps a controversial stance, the identities of atheism and humanism are becoming increasingly less so – as seen by an increase of usage of the terms in censuses.
Although ‘humanists’ remains a small self-identifying group, approximately 5 per cent of the population, Andrew is keen to emphasise that a much larger number of people have humanist beliefs and values. “Probably five or six times as many who identify as humanist are humanist,” Andrew says. “A good third of people according to surveys seem to share humanist beliefs.”
In terms of why this increase has taken place, Andrew considers the answer to be all too obvious.
“We live in a society in the UK which is in many ways post-religious in terms of our values, our sense of meaning in life and our place in it. Religious answers to those questions have ceased to have any purchase on the minds of people in Britain. Any major purchase,” he amends, after a second’s thought.
Andrew also contributes the rise of increasing self-recognition of humanists in part to the growing recognition of humanist takes on traditionally religious events, such as weddings and funerals. Though not yet legally recognised in the UK, Andrew points out that “in Scotland humanist marriages are the most popular form of marriage after the state – they’ve overtaken Church of Scotland and Roman Catholic marriages.” The rise is also helped by growing awareness of the term ‘humanism’ – “(it’s) more taught about in schools, probably not still in most schools, but it is rising.”
On the subject of schools I raise the issue of faith schools, a topic which Andrew and the BHA have campaigned against fiercely in the past and continue to do so. There is no doubt Andrew feels strongly on this point – admonishing the fact that faith schools compromise of around a third of schools in the state sector. “The government should be acting to reduce the discrimination that [faith schools] are able to perpetuate, rather than increase it, which is what they’re doing at the moment to do with the new regulation of schools and the expansion of free schools programme.”
“Probably five or six times as many people who identify as humanist are humanist.”
I mention the experience of a Catholic friend who was aware of parents having to ‘be seen’ at the local church on a regular basis in order to ensure their children a place at the Catholic comprehensive. Having to jump through so many farcical loop holes to gain entry to the best non-fee paying school in the local area seems ridiculous in modern society in my opinion.
I can almost hear Andrew nodding vigorously down the phone. “Exactly. You’re paying for it in your taxes, but you can’t get into it unless you go over this extra barrier. And of course there are far more selective religious places in our state schools than there are religious people – so it makes people lie. It’s hypocritical and full of problems.”
On the subject of religion within schools, Andrew is all for religious education – as long as it reflects the importance of beliefs and values within Britain. “There are all sorts of religions that are taught about in religious education – Buddhism and Judaism – which are far less significant in British society than humanism is… There has to be an adjustment in focus on that dimension.” He also points to the prevalence of humanist ideas in other parts of the world – in Ancient China, classical India and in other countries today. “The balance in content should be a reflection of the relative importance of these views to our culture and present society.”
The BHA has this year supported campaigns against the insistence of the education department that Christianity should be maintained the focus of the RE lessons as Britain is a ‘Christian country’, a label assigned by both David Cameron and former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan.
“It’s palpably false,” Andrew says emphatically in response to the label, “It’s really weird. In terms of belief, belonging and religious practice it’s not true to say we’re a Christian country in the sense that people are Christian. It’s also pretty boring rendering of British history as well… It’s not true we’re a Christian country. It’s not true that we’ve ever uncomplicatedly been one.”
So why is it that some conservative politicians insist that Britain remains, in the 21st century, a Christian country? “I think part of it is attempting to stimulate and retain the support of voters who they feel are anti-Muslim,” Andrew suggests, “I think also, because we’ve got an established Church in this country, the culturally conservative thing to say is that we’re Christian. Not because they’re Christian… not because they even necessarily think that people in Britain are Christians but because they are conservatives, and when they look backwards they see the Church of England as running the history of this county.
“That’s all I’ve been able to think of anyway,” he admits, and even though he still seems genuinely baffled it’s a convincing argument.
I suggest that perhaps to avoid the debate over religious education and national identity Britain should adopt the French model of almost militant secularism. However, despite this perhaps being the obvious preference for humanists, Andrew considers the French model is wholly incompatible for Britain, and perhaps even for France. “[Secularism] has become a strong part of French identity. There’s an idea in France, that I can understand even if I don’t agree with it or think it’s appropriate for Britain… that if you have a strong religious identity that somehow challenges that preeminent civic identity. However, non-Christians suffer more by [the French] rule than Christians, and so it does fall disproportionally on them and so creates tension and conflict of its own.
“I don’t presume to give advice to France, so we’ll have to wait and see.” Andrew says. He has a habit of adding self-deprecating add-ons to the end of long and well-informed explorations. There’s clearly so much else he could say on the topic however, to the extent that I think France may well benefit from such advice.
My final question returns to the role of humanism in our present society, and its prospects for the future. Does humanism offer something that conventional faiths might struggle to provide in the face of religious extremists distorting their beliefs?
“Well, I don’t know if they’re distorting it or not, that’s not for me to say. Maybe they’re representing it authentically and all the other people are distorting it,” Andrew says, in a statement that’s arguably considerably more controversial than his stance on atheism. “I personally think that there’s an awful lot, possibly the majority, of the ethical content of monotheistic religions, especially Islam and Christianity that is completely out of kilter with modern life… The truths of our modern life indicate that religious moralities, forged in tribal times in small corners of this world, before we knew anything about anything, are inappropriate. So yes, I think a humanist morality, a humanist worldview is the best way to deal with problems of today.
“I think also, because we’ve got an established Church in this country, the culturally conservative thing to say is that we’re Christian.”
“Increasingly religions will look, especially those religious that are inclined to try and dominate like Christianity and Islam, will look out of keeping with that world. And I think if they don’t get toned down, they could destroy us all.”
On that cheery note, Andrew has to go and take another call. In the course of our 20 minute interview he has fielded two other calls on a different line and asked them to ring back; he’s a busy man.
It’s been an interesting conversation, and one that I find myself returning to thinking about in the following weeks. It was a refreshing experience to speak to someone, who is so well-informed, so candidly about the flaws of religion and the benefits of a non-religious world view. In a time of increasing focus on ‘safe spaces’ and debates over the right to criticise religion or offend religious persons – as seen in the banning of Maryam Namazie from speaking at universities and the events of Charlie Hebdo – it’s clear Andrew Copson and those at the British Humanist Association have no fear of promoting a non-religious approach to morality in an era when religion is a front page topic. Increasingly, as more and more people tick the ‘non-religious’ box on censuses in keeping with current trends, I think it will be humanism and alternative approaches to morality that will begin to gain greater accreditation. And that, if my conversation with Andrew and his approach to world issues and a keen focus on equal opportunities is anything to go by, will be no bad thing.