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Remembrance ceremonies: The need to include the non-religious

Naomi Phillips, British Humanist Association. 

Talk for the World Humanist Congress, Oslo.Saturday 13 August, 2011.

The British Humanist Association (BHA) is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. Founded in 1896, the BHA is trusted by over 28,000 members and supporters and over 90 local and special interest affiliates to promote Humanism. Our policies are informed with the support of over 120 of the UK’s most prominent philosophers, scientists, and other thinkers and experts and we seek to advance them with the help of over 100 parliamentarians in membership of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group. Our trained and accredited celebrants conduct funerals and other non-religious ceremonies attended by over 250,000 people each year.

The UK Armed Forces Humanist Association (UKAFHA) has recently become part of the BHA, and we are delighted to be able to support and promote it. UKAFHA is a growing body of servicemen and women, their families, veterans and civilian members of the Ministry of Defence who seek to represent the interests of all those who subscribe to non-religious beliefs.

As in many sectors of society, the non-religious in the armed forces have not been particularly acknowledged, included or supported. For example, while there are chaplaincies including for the minority religions as well as Christians, no equivalent support is provided for the non-religious. And of course there is the continued exclusion of non-religious people from official Remembrance Day services in England.

It is the BHA’s position that services of mourning and remembrance should be inclusive of all people, remembering the contribution of each person as a person, regardless of his or her religion or belief. It is with regret then, we feel, that all too often official and unofficial ceremonies continue to be heavily dominated by religion and therefore excluding many. While such services continue to have official inclusion of religious representatives and recognition, the BHA campaigns for equality and inclusion for non-religious people.

The Ministry of Defence has just published its most up-to-date figures on religion in the UK armed forces.

The recorded figures show a steady increase of those with ‘No Religion’ at 17,980 or 9.5 per cent in 2007, to 27,770 or 12.6 per cent in 2010. Interestingly, this corresponds with a decrease in the number of Christians, from 89.7 of the total in 2007, to 85.8 per cent in 2010. The figures are also striking because they show how ‘No Religion’ is far and away the second largest category. The next nearest group is ‘Other Religions’ at just 870 people or 0.5 per cent. It’s also worth making the point that, in reality, we can expect that many who are recorded as ‘Christian’ are in fact non-religious. The UK is one of the most secular countries in the world with extremely low church attendance: currently less than 6 per cent of the population attend a religious service with any regularity and that is a figure which has been decreasing year on year. However, even if people are not religious they may tick a Christian box on a form because they feel they have a cultural affiliation with it. The most recent British Social Attitudes survey, a well respected survey used by government, academics and others, found just over 50 per cent of the population said they did not belong to a religion; quite a difference to 12.6 per cent in the armed forces. It’s highly unlikely that Christians so disproportionately enter the armed forces and so we can assume that, in reality, the number of non-religious people is far higher than the Ministry of Defence’s figures would suggest.

Why is the undercounting of the non-religious in these statistics important? Well, if something isn’t counted and recorded then it doesn’t officially exist; it’s easy to sideline or ignore the interests and needs of a group if it is not seen to be significant. But there is a deeper problem than this; even looking at the figures as they stand, it is outrageous that an eighth of the armed forces are not officially recognised in national remembrance services. For UKAFHA members, the exclusion from the Cenotaph in London is the number one issue. They feel saddened and angry that the tens of thousands of serving non-religious army personnel are not recognised, let alone the millions who have fought and died for their country. 

The national remembrance service continues to be highly religious. However, increasingly, humanists are being permitted to lay wreaths at local commemorations and, for the first time last year, humanist representatives laid wreaths at the official Remembrance Sunday commemorations in Edinburgh and Belfast. Certainly positive and something we hope will be continued this year.

However a request from the BHA for armed forces humanists to be included at the Cenotaph in London was refused.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport dismissed the BHA’s request, citing “limited space at the Cenotaph” and a need to receive permission from the Royal Household as reasons to continue the exclusion of representatives of humanist servicemen and women. In its response, the government stated that it had invited “fourteen faith leaders” to participate, and was working closely with the ‘Faiths Unit’ at the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure ‘faith representation’ at the ceremony. 

By contrast, humanists in Scotland were issued with an invitation from the Royal British Legion Scotland to participate in the parade and lay a wreath on the stone of remembrance, humanists in Northern Ireland were given permission to join with other representatives in the service being held in Belfast, and in at least nine areas in England, local humanist groups will be participating in remembrance events.

We know from our work with the UK Armed Forces Humanist Association the contribution non-religious servicemen and women make in this area and the desire to give thanks and mark the sacrifices of earlier generations is likewise not limited to those who believe in an afterlife. It is the BHA’s position that it is only appropriate, just as the nation gathered and gathers together in times of national crisis, that the remembrance services commemorating those who fought and died for their country should be inclusive of all people. From our perspective, it’s nothing short of discrimination against the non-religious and erases them from history. It’s damaging and inexcusable. We will be lobbying again this year to have official inclusion for humanists at the Cenotaph. 

So, rather than a religious service, UKAFHA’s founder and secretary Henry Cummins has drafted suggested remembrance service which is suitable for all faiths and none.

PowerPoint Slides to accompany talk by Naomi Phillips on the need to include non-religious people in Remembrance Day Services. Download.

We are reporting live from the conference on Twitter. Follow us @BHANews and use hashtag #Humanist2011. Also follow the official Congress stream @whcoslo2011


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