Last year saw the first official recognition of the non-religious on Remembrance Sunday, with humanist representatives laying wreaths at the commemorations in Edinburgh and Belfast. Yet despite recognition in other UK capital cities and a number of locations locally, a request from the British Humanist Association (BHA) for Armed Forces Humanists to be included at the Cenotaph in London has again been refused.
Although, in responding to the BHA, the government recognised the contribution of non-religious people to the armed forces, it refused to allocate a specific and official place for a humanist representative at the Cenotaph in London this coming Sunday. In his letter to the BHA, John Penrose MP, Tourism and Heritage Minister, states that ‘the many people of no faith who have fought for our country’ will be honoured through the Queen laying ‘a wreath on behalf of everyone who suffered or died in war’.
The latest defence statistics show that those armed forces personnel self-described as having ‘No Religion’ are the second largest belief group, after Christians, at 13.4%, with all non-Christian religions having a combined total of just 1.7% of all armed forces personnel. However, there are as many as 14 religious groups with official representation at the Cenotaph, and in 2010 the government citied ‘limited space’ as a reason to refuse the BHA’s request for humanist inclusion.
The BHA works closely with the UK Armed Forces Humanists (UKAFHA), a group affiliated to the BHA and which works on behalf of the many thousands of non-religious serving armed forces personnel. For UKAFHA members, the exclusion from the Cenotaph in London is their number one issue, as they feel saddened and angry that thousands of serving non-religious army personnel are not recognised, let alone the many in the past who have fought and died for their country.
BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented, ‘It is welcome that humanists in Scotland and Northern Ireland continue to be included in official ceremonies on Remembrance Sunday. But it is deeply disappointing that humanists have again been rejected from the Cenotaph.
‘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.
‘We believe it only appropriate that, 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.’
The Secretary of the UKAFHA, David Brittain, added, ‘Nearly one in seven of our servicemen have no religious faith, and it is disappointing indeed that the government refuses to acknowledge them at the London Cenotaph.
‘It’s not all bad news for humanists, because thanks to local branches of the Royal British Legion they are being allowed to participate locally in other parts of the country, from Edinburgh to Essex, from Belfast to Bedford, and from Watford to West Yorkshire. But they are specifically excluded from any representation at the London Cenotaph, and this is not only causes offence, but distress – especially to bereaved families who find no place for their loved ones in a ceremony which should respect everyone who is killed or injured in the service of their country.
‘Courage is not the exclusive preserve of the religious, and the blood of non-believers flows just as readily as the blood of those who do. And the anguish and suffering is just the same, so how on earth can John Penrose justify barring humanists and those of no faith from having any input at all at the London Cenotaph Ceremony?’
For further comment or information contact Andrew Copson on firstname.lastname@example.org or 07534 248596
The recorded figures show a steady increase of those with ‘No Religion’ at 17,980 or 9.5% in 2007, to 24,730 or 13.4% in 2011. Interestingly, this corresponds with a decrease in the number of Christians, from 89.7 of the total in 2007, to 84.9% in 2011. The figures are also striking because they show how ‘No Religion’ is far and away the second largest ‘belief’ category. The next nearest group is ‘Other Religions’ at just 870 people or 0.5%.
Figures on the general population from the British Social Attitudes survey published in January 2011 found 43.7% of people claiming to be Christian while 50.7% say they are non-religious. Just 5% belong to non-Christian religions.
In August, BHA Head of Public Affairs Naomi Phillips addressed the World Humanist Congress in Oslo on the issue of non-religious exclusion from official remembrance services. You can read her presentation here
The British Humanist Association 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. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.