Humanists UK is sad to report the death of its patron, Baroness Muriel Turner of Camden, one of the longest-serving members of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group and a past Vice President of Humanists UK. She died on Monday 26 February.
After a devoted career as a trade unionist, Muriel was appointed a Labour Party peer in 1985, and quickly distinguished herself as being one of the most vocal advocates of humanism, human rights, and secularism in the House of Lords. In her time in the Lords, Muriel took an active interest in a wide array of good causes, and before slowing down in her last few years, was known as a particularly active speaker in Lords debates, voting in 73% of all votes before the upper house (well above the average for any peer).
Throughout her career in politics, Muriel expressed confidence in humanism and the role that humanist thinking has played in shaping British society for the better, particularly in relation to human rights legislation and in opposing discrimination against women and minorities. She often spoke with enthusiasm about humanists as a community of people who work to do good across communities, which was characteristic of her belief in taking action for a better world. In a debate in the House of Lords, she spoke of her humanism as entailing a distinct and ‘strong social commitment’ to care about ‘what happens to our fellow citizens’. ‘We represent a large number of people,’ she said, ‘and we have a great deal to contribute.’
For Muriel, advocacy of secularism – the separation of church and state – was both a pragmatic stance and one necessitated by her commitment to human rights and equality. In a debate on faith schools, she remarked:
‘It is not surprising that the large number of publicly funded Christian schools has led to members of other faiths demanding public funds for their schools. But the requirements of religious leaders should not override the needs of children for an education that opens windows on a wider world. Culture and beliefs can be transmitted at home. There is often a gulf between the religious segregation wanted by older generations and religious leaders and what young people themselves want.’
She found other aspects of the British education system just as troubling, and highlighted the human rights dimension to approaches to school worship and religious education advocated by some social conservatives. Typical of her person-centred approach, she strongly argued for the equal right of young people – no matter what kind of school they attended – to decide for themselves whether to attend religious studies lessons or collective worship:
‘Why should [teenagers] be forced to attend religious education if they do not wish to? [T]he Catholic Education Service… [has] suggested that attendance at a religious school is some kind of package where pupils are obliged to attend worship and presumably religious education — in essence leaving their human rights behind at the school gate. It is hardly as if they will be ignorant of religious matters. They will already have had to sit through 10 years of RE. Religious education is not supposed to be religious instruction.’
In the early days of the last Labour Government, Muriel was one of the most prominent voices urging a more rational approach to faith schools, and she was one of many signatories to sign an open letter to the Independent in 2001 urging Tony Blair’s Cabinet not to push ahead in expanding the maintained religious schools sector. As faith schools subsequently expanded, she worked to keep a watchful eye on the growing demands made by those involved in the running of faith schools. In 2006, she helped to push against ‘unfair and discriminatory’ calls for the Government to introduce greater ‘religious tests’ in both admissions and teacher recruitment, saying these would amount to a ‘body blow to the thousands of non-religious head teachers and teachers.’
She also spoke across numerous other issues of concern to humanists, and spoke of her dismay at the Government’s continuous favouring of policy which pleased religious organisations while dismissing the wishes of the non-religious in the UK. Arguing in favour of legalising humanist marriages in England and Wales in 2013, she won support across both sides of the Lords with her argument that ‘Far more people are non-religious than are practising religious people… and therefore we have a right to be considered.’
Aside from her significant campaigning for secularism and human rights, Muriel was someone who delighted in the company of others and in the enriching experience of learning from, and about, other people and new subjects. This streak in her personality ran throughout her life. She had been raised in a Roman Catholic home, but left religion in her teenage years, dismayed at the treatment of women across the major religions. Instead it was in literary figures like the poet Percy Shelley that she found a renewed appreciation for the wonder and beauty to be discovered in the world: a beauty enlarged, rather than diminished, by the view that this is the one life we have – and that we have to make it count.
Commenting on her death, Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented:
‘In Muriel, Humanists UK had a loyal friend and advocate whose incisive wit and intelligence helped to shape the laws of this country for the better over several decades. Secularism has lost one of its most fearsome and hard-working champions, but Muriel’s example to today’s campaigners for a better society lives on.’
For further comment or information please contact Humanists UK’s Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson on firstname.lastname@example.org or 07815 589636.
At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.
Humanists UK has well over 150 patrons who support its work in various ways through their expertise and prominence in various fields. Existing patrons include significant figures from the spheres of science, philosophy, human rights activism, politics, the arts, and broadcasting. The President of Humanists UK is the writer and comedian Shappi Khorsandi, who is supported by Vice Presidents Professor Jim Al-Khalili, Professor A C Grayling, and Polly Toynbee. For a full list of patrons, see https://humanism.org.uk/about/our-people/patrons.
Humanists UK recently changed its name from the British Humanist Association: https://humanism.org.uk/2017/05/22/bha-becomes-humanists-uk/