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Civil Service

The humanist factor

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: A great place to work, Diversity and inclusion

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.

Secular Remembrance at the Fitzrovia Chapel, an unconsecrated space in the heart of London, November 2017

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 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.

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  1. Comment by Chris H posted on

    Excellent blog Roger. It's great to see people engaging in conversation. I'm especially glad to see Humanists speaking up about their values.

    I understand your point about not defining yourself by something you're not. And a secularist may or may not be an atheist. Who in turn needn't be a Humanist. I tend to think the word "atheist" is a necessary product of the historical prevalence of religion in society. Maybe one day our language will evolve to reflect the atheist/Humanist/secular majority and it will be non-Humanists who define themselves in negative terms - asecular perhaps?

    I'd love to hear more about the progress you and your fellow Humanists are making in MoD and across Government, in particular supporting other causes. Thanks for the links.

    Quick plug: anyone in HMRC who would like to join the HMRC Humanism forum can find us on Google+ and Yammer.

  2. Comment by Kate Johnson posted on

    Thanks so much for this blog Roger. As a humanist (and an atheist) I am really pleased that this network exists and that a conversation has been started. I'm keen to see if there is an appetite for such a network within my own organisation and may be in touch to see how we could learn from and link in with the Government network.

    • Replies to Kate Johnson>

      Comment by Roger Hutton posted on

      Thanks for commenting, Kate. Please do get in touch - it would be great if you could be involved.

  3. Comment by Paul Canavan posted on

    Roger, I couldn't help thinking that your opening paragraph was more than a little disparaging towards Atheism and Atheists. I have been a life-long Atheist and although I agree with a great deal (maybe even everything) Humanism stands for - and have no issue with being referred to as a Humanist - I still think the word and the stance has a great deal of value even today in an increasingly Secular world. I was/am a little irked that Atheism came across as the less well-off cousin in your post. At least that was my inference.....

    • Replies to Paul Canavan>

      Comment by Roger Hutton posted on

      Thanks, Paul. I've also been a (nearly) life-long atheist, as all humanists are, as they are also secularists, so many apologies if you felt the first paragraph disparaging. It certainly wasn't intended that way. I just feel 'humanist' suits me better.

  4. Comment by Richard Emmens posted on

    Hi Roger - I'm joining in with the other Christians here to appreciate your approach, although not sharing your beliefs. Thank you for the blog. You emphasise respect and I'd absolutely join with you in wanting to think that the Civil Service - like any decent university perhaps - can cope with the ideal: "living in a free society requires openness and debate surrounding belief, humanism included." We have a lot to cherish in the contemporary UK in this regard, and should not let it disappear. I like your phrase of 'non-religious belief' too - it captures what we are happy to talk about, across the networks (for example in the Faith and Belief Forum), without relegating it to pseudo-science.

    • Replies to Richard Emmens>

      Comment by Roger Hutton posted on

      Thanks for your kind comments, Richard, and naturally I agree on what we have to cherish in the UK with regard to openness.

  5. Comment by Gavin Thomas posted on

    Thank you Roger for sharing this with us.

    Although I am a Christian, I still believe that whether you have religious belief or whether you have a different outlet, I feel that it is important that we be respectful, compassionate, supportive and honest with each other.

    • Replies to Gavin Thomas>

      Comment by Roger Hutton posted on

      I couldn't agree more, Gavin. You've hit the nail on the head with those words: respectful, compassionate, supportive and honest.

  6. Comment by Terry Hegarty posted on

    Roger, As a committed Christian I obviously have a different outlook but thank you so much for sharing this. I found it insightful and really useful and it cleared up some of my own misconceptions. Much appreciated. I think it is fantastic that the Civil Service is giving us all the space to share, respect and learn from each other.

    • Replies to Terry Hegarty>

      Comment by Roger Hutton posted on

      Thanks for your comments, Terry. We work very closely with Christian colleagues, not least in the military chaplaincy, as we do with colleagues of other faiths and beliefs. These interactions are always heart-warming and productive, because we have so much in common. As you say, we have so much to learn from each other.

  7. Comment by Will Richardson posted on

    Thanks for this good article on humanism displaying the acceptance that is/should be a hallmark.

    • Replies to Will Richardson>

      Comment by Roger Hutton posted on

      Thanks for your kind comments, Will.