Thursday 21 June was World Humanist Day.
I’m a humanist, working in government. What does World Humanist Day mean to me?
It’s a moment to reflect, and to take pride in the way humanists bring their values into the workplace. For a start, that means thinking about what it is to be a humanist. I prefer to use the term ‘humanist’ rather than ‘atheist’, because I don’t want to define myself by what I don’t believe in. It’s why I don’t like terms like ‘without faith’, because it suggests I’m lacking something, which I don’t believe I am. ‘Agnostic’ and ‘non-religious’ are other options, but I keep coming back to ‘humanist’ as something that expresses a positive value system.
That system comprises three main things:
- a belief that the world is natural, not supernatural, so we should seek to solve problems through reason, science and human ingenuity;
- a belief that it’s a better place if we’re compassionate towards each other and towards other living things; and
- a belief that we only have one life, so we should make the most of it and help others to do so.
Mutual support across networks
I think those values work well in government. The first one, because the Civil Service Code requires civil servants to base their advice and decisions "on rigorous analysis of the evidence”. The latter two because, as public servants, we should always try to do our best by the people we serve.
People of faith no doubt feel the same. We just come at our values - many of which we share - from different directions. There is a great deal of mutual support across the faith and belief networks at our cross-government gatherings. Humanists believe in freedom of faith and belief. They defend the right of their colleagues and fellow citizens to believe whatever they choose, while also believing that living in a free society requires openness and debate surrounding belief, humanism included.
In my own department, the Ministry of Defence, we have a flourishing humanist network. It has held secular remembrance events in each of the last two years and is discussing with the department the provision of non-religious pastoral support for serving personnel. The Netherlands armed forces, for example, have had humanist chaplains for more than 50 years. We believe this work to be of increasing importance in a society where the trend continues to be towards non-religious belief, particularly among the young. We’re keen to support the MOD in ensuring that we do everything we can to support the Services of the present and the future. And the department has been great in supporting us, including through senior representation at our remembrance events.
Focusing on remembrance for a moment, what I think has been particularly powerful has been how these events have concentrated on the human experience of conflict: the impact on individuals, families, communities. I have found the readings and choral music, together with traditional elements such as the Last Post, exceptionally moving and meaningful.
Learning from each other
I think people at work know I’m a humanist, and I’ll talk about it, if asked, but I try not to make a big thing of it. I think it’s very important that we all feel comfortable bringing our beliefs into the workplace, while not imposing them on others, and there’s a tremendous amount we can learn from each other. As civil servants, that can be put into practice in turn in serving different faith and belief communities – and individuals of different faith and belief – across the UK.
In the case of the Defence Humanist Network and the new Humanists in Government network, we do what we can to support other networks. We are much stronger together, and that goes beyond faith and belief into disability, gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity.
So I hope you had an excellent World Humanist Day: may your actions be kind, and may your life be everything you want it to be.
If you are interested in joining Humanists in Government, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’re serving military personnel, or a Defence civil servant, you can contact the Defence Humanist Network here or here.
Alternatively, if you wish to join the wider support group, Defence Humanists (for serving personnel, veterans, family members or humanists just interested in Defence), follow this link.
If you want to know more about humanism, then go to the Humanists UK website.