BHA Mourns Claire Rayner (1931-2010)

Claire Rayner, Vice-President and former President (1999-2004) of the British Humanist Association

I was a humanist without knowing it for many years before I found the Association – when I did, it was like finding a sort of home.

The BHA has heard with sadness of the death of Claire Rayner, President of the BHA from 1999 to 2004, and a Vice-President since 2004. From knowing little about organised Humanism, she became a vigorous advocate of humanist philosophy and causes.  In a contribution to the BHA’s membership leaflet she said:

I was a humanist without knowing it for many years before I found the Association – when I did, it was like finding a sort of home. Here were people with a range of views that matched mine, who shared my respect for life in all its forms and who, above all, did not in any way try to bully other people to follow their beliefs.

And in 2000 she told Humanist News:

I gradually got more and more sucked in. I was delighted by the work the BHA is doing in schools, as I have always been involved in teaching and health education — that’s what the agony column was — so I finally became [a humanist].

Her warm and enthusiastic support for the BHA’s work included writing the foreword to Sharing the Future, the BHA’s practical guide to humanist weddings, and joining in humanist campaigns against the blasphemy law and the teaching of creationism in schools. In July 2001 she was one of the signatories to a letter published in The Independent which urged the Government to reconsider its support for the expansion of maintained religious schools; in July 2002 she was one of the distinguished humanists who put their names to the publication and distribution of James Kirkup’s poem “The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name” in a public challenge to the blasphemy law in the name of free speech; she was one of the signatories to a letter supporting a holiday on Charles’ Darwin’s birthday, published in The Times on February 12, 2003, and also sent to the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary. In 2008 she contributed powerfully to the campaign to have humanism treated alongside religions in the school curriculum, saying, ‘Children must be given the opportunity to learn about Humanism as a belief system as well as about religions as belief systems… The humanist view of things is positive and offers much to a properly rounded education about modern beliefs and values.’ In 2009 she was a humanist signatory to a letter calling for an end to child poverty. In countless other ways she made repeated significant contributions to the work of the BHA.

Although born into a Jewish family, she was from an early age a free-thinker, unconvinced by the religious answers given by the adults around her to questions such as “Why is there so much green in grass, the plants and the trees?”  She realised that if she wanted to know the truth she would have to search it out for herself, and she became a voracious reader. Receiving little affection or intellectual stimulation from her parents, she was more fortunate in her schooling, which introduced her to writers such as Mill, Paine, and Wollstonecraft.  Her principle was: “Always ask why – and don’t be put off with half an answer.”  She described the worldview she arrived at in an interview inHumanist News in 2000:

You think for yourself, and work out your own morality… I’m fascinated by the idea of trying to find your own way through the world with your own maps rather than someone else’s…  All I know is there is no God in my universe. I’ve looked and looked, and there ain’t no God there. But I don’t want to be a dogmatic atheist. I like mythology, and a life without stories doesn’t bear thinking about, just let us not have supernatural beings. What is natural is awe-full enough. We don’t need a First Cause.

She revealed her unhappy childhood and adolescence only much later, in Radio 4’s “In the Psychiatrist’s Chair” and in her 2003 autobiography How Did I Get Here from There? , but that unhappiness and her escape from it into fulfilling work and a long and happy marriage were significant influences in her life. Her concern for others led her to a first career in nursing, and to a later one as an “agony aunt”, during which she gave perceptive and compassionate advice to many thousands of people. She is best known as a journalist, author, broadcaster, campaigner and patron of countless good causes, and much loved for her warmth, frankness and vast energy.

Her life-long rationalism remained unshaken when in 2003 she almost died as a result of complications after a routine operation. Asked on Radio 4 whether the hallucinations she had experienced during her “near death experience” involved seeing God, she replied:

No. I am a humanist… And I saw no long tunnels with lights at the end – I mean, those sort of out-of-body experiences that people are supposed to have, or last-minute experiences before they are dragged back, I think they are effects of hypoxia, a lack of oxygen, I’m quite sure that’s why people get those effects, and I wasn’t short of oxygen, they were pumping the stuff into me in vast quantities. So I had none of those hallucinations. [Mine] were – what were they? – coloured lights, lots of coloured lights. Pretty ones, like Des’s pictures – my husband paints interesting abstracts, and I saw a lot of his paintings  there were no nasty hallucinations I’m happy to say.”

She told The Guardian:

I was an atheist when it started and I remain one. People used to say to me ‘You wait until something really bad happens, you’ll start praying’, but I didn’t and I can’t. I don’t put [my recovery] down to any superior being, I put it down to the superb training and skill of the people looking after me.

“We don’t have to bother ourselves too much about what lies behind it all,” she told the BHA. “It’s there. We are here. What is is. Our job is to get on with things, trying to make life better as we go.”

BHA Chief Executive, Andrew Copson said, ‘Claire Rayner found meaning and inspiration in living and the enjoyment of life, in trying to fulfil her potential, and in the wonders of nature and the marvels of the cosmos. She was a remarkable woman with broad interests and deep sympathies who lived an exemplary humanist life and we all feel lucky to have known her and to have had her support for so many enjoyable years.’