Interview with Andrew Copson
I’m from a town called Nuneaton, in the Midlands of England, and from a poor, white working class background. I grew up in a difficult time for my hometown and county, living in the 80s, when all of the industry had been or was being wound up. But there was still a lot of social solidarity and community feeling around the old industries. It was a very non-religious society, too. Social services and welfare, and other amenities: these were provided by the secular civic authorities or by the industries or by non-religious community groups. It wasn’t at all like a country like the US.
The area was, like most of the England at the time and still, dominated by one ethnic group. But, as a result of the manufacturing and industry around the place, it was also relatively ethnically diverse. I grew up with children from diverse backgrounds, ethnically and religiously. This affected my schooling at the primary level: the schools I attended as a young child were secular because they had to cater to a wide-range of children and they educated us about a lot of different beliefs. So, my first culture was this white working class one.
My second culture was the one I found when I was whisked out of state school by a government scheme called the ‘assisted place scheme’ which took bright children from poor families and paid for them to go to academically selective private schools. At my secondary school, and then at Oxford, where I studied Classics and Ancient and Modern History, I experienced a very elite academic culture, and a world of ideas.
You have mentioned secular a couple times. You have not mentioned humanist. What was the turning point for becoming, by label, an explicit humanist?
I would say my family were all humanists, some of whom knew the word, some didn’t at the time (my parents, my grandparents, my great grandparents), and whenever I came across the term myself consciously I found that it reflected the values I was raised in and have developed since. I think the culture of social solidarity that I grew up in and the enlightenment culture of my education are both equally humanist: certainly their basis was entirely non-religious.
Some have labelled many others in societies as tacit humanists. Does this seem correct to you?
There are a very large number of people who base their ethics on authority, commandment, hard rules, and discipline. They think the meaning of life lies outside of this world, and they think that science isn’t the way to explain the world. They also think that certain supernatural explanations describe the world. But, certainly there are just as large a number who believe the opposite of this. For example, in Britain a good third of the population has firm humanist beliefs and values; but only about 5% of the population calls themselves humanist.
So, there is a big mismatch between the humanist values in practice that people have and humanist identity. It is not terribly surprising. The word “humanist” is not an identity label; it is a post-hoc word to describe a certain set of attitudes, values, and beliefs.
When I think about the advertising of the term “humanist” and other irreligious labels — though humanist is not necessarily irreligious, terms like secularist, atheist, agnostic, freethinker, and so on, in the United States, in the pulpits, those terms are generally denigrated by leaders of particular religious groups. Do you think that might have some part to do with the negative valuation humanist and other irreligious get?
I suppose so. We don’t really use the word secularist in the UK to describe a non-religious person. That’s really a North American thing. Obviously, atheists and humanists are denounced in the pulpits here but not many people are listening.
In the UK, early in the 20th century, there were Christian clerics and others who lined up to denounce humanism. Mary Whitehouse, a famous moral crusader who wanted to clean up public broadcasting, once denounced the ‘gay, humanist conspiracy’ in British life.
In a way, those religious denigrators of humanism do it a favour by bringing it to greater public attention. I don’t see the term as something in disrepute in the UK. In some countries, of course, humanism and atheism are denounced from the pulpits, not just of religion, but of government. The Prime Minister of Malaysia, just two years ago, denounced ‘humanism and human-rightsism, and secularism’ as “incompatible” with Malaysian values.
This sort of denunciation hasn’t done humanism any harm in the West.
What do you consider the more vulnerable humanist sub-populations in the world? I suspect some countries have populations with much less receptivity to humanism. That is, there needs to be a moderating and liberalising of religion as pre-conditions.
You’re right. The liberal tendency in Europe and the wider West has certainly allowed humanist organisations to grow and flourish and humanists to live according to their consciences to a greater or less extent. In other parts of the world, specifically those countries with Islamic states, for example, it is very dangerous to be up-front about your beliefs if you’re a humanist.
In some parts of a world, it is illegal to be a humanist openly. You cannot have a non-religious identity on your identity papers in countries such as Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. There are other countries where it is possible to exist, but not possible to organise: countries that don’t let you set up NGOs around these ideas.
To the Islamic states, you can add countries like China and Russia, who also create great difficulties for humanists to organise. In other countries, it is possible to organise, in theory, but there is still official persecution and social disadvantage to being humanist or generally non-religious.
Of course, it is difficult for some people in many parts of the world. The International Humanist and Ethical Union publishes the annual Freedom of Thought Report detailing this. It looks country-by-country at the whole world to describe the social, political, and civil situation in those areas for the non-religious. You only have to read that through to see that in many parts of the world it is extremely difficult.
Speaking of organising, when you entered university, did you find some form of camaraderie, forms of clubs or groups, even attached to the university, that provided some place to meet people of like mind?
When I entered university, there weren’t any humanist organisations on campus in the UK. They were strong in the 60s and 70s. Then they had somewhat diminished as religion diminished, actually, and humanism took a backseat to the other political and social issues. Now, of course, there are, in the UK, many more humanist societies on campus.
And I hope people do find a fellowship there, but, then again, I didn’t really feel like I needed to. I was a student and came of age in that very very brief hopeful time between the end of the Cold War and 9/11, where everything seemed to be Utopian and rational progress the order of the day. Religion had all but disappeared. Humanist values, democracy, liberalism, rule of law, a rational approach to ethical issues, freedom of conscience, and so on, were about to go universal.
So, at that time, of course, humanism seemed normal and common-sense. In a way, they were common sense. I think very few people at my university college had any sort of religion. This is really still the case in the UK society now, of course. Very few younger people have any religious identity, practice, or belief, and levels are declining all the time for all the disproportionate media attention given to religions.
With respect to young people having those kinds of identities, what about the subject of faith schools? What is your opinion on that?
Of course, I am completely opposed to any state funded religious schools. Religious groups running these state schools is completely wrong. It was the campaign against state schools that first got me formally involved in the British Humanist Association. That’s when I first joined as a member. The government in England (it didn’t happen in the wider UK) had the intention to increase the number and type of state-funded religious schools and I thought that was madness.
The BHA was running a campaign against this and that activated me. Schools should be places, especially state or public funded schools, where future citizens come together to learn not just with one another but from one another, and grow up in that inclusive environment.
Public bodies like schools should not have a religious identity. They should be places that emphasise children’s shared identity, shared values, commonalities. They should encourage intellectual inquiry with a range of religions and other worldviews like humanism. What is more, they should make sure that such things are learned about and explored critically. They should not be places where one limited belief on life, value, and meaning is given top billing.
Do you think in the long run those schools have a corrosive effect on the social order in the sense that individuals find themselves as somehow other than the wider society?
I think they do, especially in hyper-diverse societies like the UK, and many other countries that are open to globalisation — those societies which are becoming increasingly diverse, especially among people of parental age. I think in that situation, one in which you have many more different ethnicities and religions in society, to have them separate themselves from each other is foolish. In so doing, you compound the social, economic and cultural separation that those groups are already subject to, which is a big mistake for the long term.
You were a director of the European Humanist Federation. What tasks and responsibilities came along with that position?
The European Humanist Federation is an umbrella group for nationalist humanist organisations, not just in the European Union countries, but in the wider continent of Europe and, of course, including Russia. So, it really is an opportunity to do two things. One is to politically organise on the European level. So I led delegations to international institutions like the Council of Europe, which is an important regional human rights body for the continent of Europe, and went as a delegate to other agencies like the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, in Vienna, to advocate freedom of religion and belief as a human right and equality and non-discrimination on grounds of religion and belief. They are not just international norms, but European norms and values. Given a policy platform to humanist organisations, the ones that argue for equality, dignity, and freedom of conscience for everyone: that is an important function of the EHF.
Another important function is to bring the European humanist organisations together for networking and mutual benefit to learn from each other. Humanist organisations across Europe are not just providing political advocacy for the causes that they care about, but they are also providing a wide range of services such as ceremonies, pastoral support, counselling, schools, teaching, social care, old people’s homes, confirmation ceremonies, and other educational work in public schools about humanism and non-religious approaches.
So, there’s a lot of learning that the personnel at those humanist organisations can do for each other. It was very enjoyable. It was very much a lesson in how diverse humanist organisations can be, and also how unified they can be.
You were a director and trustee of the Religious Education Council, the Values Education Council, and the National Council for Faiths and Beliefs in Further Education. Between those three, what were the thematic consistencies in the tasks and responsibilities?
Interesting. All three organisations were and are fully inclusive of non-religious perspectives, but they were all involved in education in different ways. I think there’s a strong case to make for every child to be educated in religious and non-religious worldviews, such as humanism, because they are the basis for so much of human culture: they tell the human story. Children, everyone, need to have an understanding of these different approaches. Secondly, to understand the world today and to be local, national, and global citizens, young people need to understand the motivations of other people. Their reasons for acting and behaving as they act and behave.That’s very important. Thirdly, it is useful to young people in developing their own worldviews, which will be quite syncretic and composite because real-life worldviews are. To have access to these different ideas, thoughts, and values, to test their own against them. The work of the three organisations you’ve mentioned is vital. My role in all of these was to make sure non-religious young people or young people who would grow up to be non-religious were not left behind or left out of those subjects.
Although those organisations that you’ve listed all strive to be inclusive. In the UK as in many countries, organisations like them are dominated by the historic churches. There’s also therefore a question of privilege that needs to raised when you’re involved there in addition to introducing non-religious elements. Also, it is to take on the privileging of those Christian views in particular.
What do you consider some of the more prominent examples of the privileges that they get?
For example, in schools in England and Wales, every school is mandated by law to have an act of Christian worship every morning. Now, many schools don’t comply with this law. Some schools interpret it so that it is quite inclusive. But many comply. Perhaps, the most egregious example of religious privilege in schools, and also in general, is this disproportionate emphasis on curriculums and the philosophy in Christianity. Of course, it has historical importance in Britain, but it is not the only approach to life that has historic importance. It has modern adherents in Britain, but the vast majority people don’t go to church or worship in a Christian place of worship. Most people don’t have Christian beliefs. Young people certainly don’t. They don’t even have a Christian identity as many older people do.
Now, you are the president of the International Ethical and Humanist Union (IHEU) and chief executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA). Those are two very prominent positions. In brief, what would you consider some of the general tasks and responsibilities? What is the personal importance to you?
Oh dear, that’s a very broad question. First of all, on the international side, it is the duty of anyone who is lucky enough to have the sort of freedom that I have had in Britain in the 20th and 21st centuries to try and support people who don’t have that same freedom, and don’t enjoy the human rights that I think of as being universal. My first involvement in international work and in IHEU was formed by that idea. I thought it was an opportunity to give something back to the world in light of how lucky I’ve been.
That is part of the work that IHEU does. It uses the capacity and resources of more developed humanist organisations to assist those who are more recently beginning and struggling in a different way. But I learned pretty rapidly that it is not one-way traffic. I have a lot to learn from humanist organisations in those developing countries in Africa and Asia, especially from the way they frame humanism, think about it, and their experiences. I think in the end that ended up shaping a lot of my views. So, I think the importance of working in international humanism for me is that mutual exchange that occurred.
The networking of humanist organisations together from very different cultural contexts unlocks an enormous amount of potential from all of them. It is a fruitful exchange. Also, I am an internationalist in terms of my attitudes to the world. I think that IHEU’s support for international institutions, and that we’re present at the UN and other international bodies to make a case for international human rights, in particular freedom of belief, is vital in a world where freedom of belief and freedom of religion, particularly freedom of beliefs, are under threat by the Islamic states, by China, by Russia, now by the US, and by other countries that don’t want to accept them as universal anymore, if they ever did. That’s the international work.
The importance of the British work is, of course, different because the UK is not a very religious society in terms of the population, but we still have a constitution and legal regime that privileges, in particular, the Church of England, but increasingly a large number of religions in a disproportionate way. I think it is important that the non-religious have a voice to challenge that, to make it clear that there is that enormous mismatch.
Even though many laws might seem to be medieval clutter or dead letters, as long as they are on the statute books like, for example, the law of worship, they have a direct and negative impact on people’s lives. They disadvantage them. They create an unfair society. In the long term, such a society cannot be completely peaceful. So, Britain is an important place to work for humanists.
The non-religious are, by definition, unorganised. They don’t affiliate to one institution. As a result, in areas like ceremonies, funerals, weddings, in areas of pastoral support, in the hospital, or at the end of life, they don’t have access to the same resources as members of organised religion. I think there is an important role for humanism and humanists in Britain to provide those services, too. I think that’s a role of central importance to the BHA today. And of course, although most non-religious people suffer no social disadvantage, there are increasingly large numbers of non-religious people from very religious backgrounds who have a very hard time. We’re there for them as well.
We talked about faith schools, assisted dying, secularism, humanism, previous roles, and so on. I want to cover some fresh territory with the campaigns of the BHA. With respect to assisted dying, physician assisted dying, or euthanasia, depending on the place there will be different terminology, what is the situation for assisted dying at the moment in Britain?
Assisted dying is unlawful across the UK — assisting anyone to take their own life remains a crime. There have been attempts in the Westminster Parliament to undo the criminal law in England and Wales, but they failed repeatedly. An attempt to go via the courts has been partly successful in pointing to a possible future route for legalisation that would take place through the courts, but it hasn’t borne any fruit yet. There would need to be further cases before that could be achieved.
Are there any countries that you note that are leading the way in assisted dying being legalised?
Every country is quite different. Approaches to assisted dying differ as to the history of medicine in that country, the different legal arrangements that suicide has been subject to in the past, and, therefore, that assisting suicide has been subject to the past. There are countries that see this as a medical problem. Others through the lens of equality. Equality of choice for people with, for example, incurable conditions. I wouldn’t like to say there’s one legal regime in the world that I would want to emulate.
When it comes to the UK, what I think will be best by way of a system here will be one where people, with the consent of doctors and being agreed to be of sound mind, can have medical assistance to end their own life at a time of their own choosing. I think people would need to be psychologically able to make that decision. I don’t think mental illness should be a reason for having physician assisted suicide as it is in other countries.
I don’t think it should be limited to people who are terminally ill, as it is in some countries. I think terminal illness is one dire situation. Another is incurable suffering — for example, in the recent case of Tony Nicklinson. He was not terminally ill, but was incurably suffering. He had locked-in syndrome. He couldn’t move at all. He applied to the court to get assistance to end his life. He was unsuccessful. I think people like Tony should be brought within law.
I believe in the universal human right to dignity, and the right to choose to end your life with dignity, and this is universal. But I think there are specific legal arrangements that each country will put in place to realise this right in different ways for their population.
You have a campaign against pseudoscience through the BHA. What are some of the counter-forces against pseudoscience in the UK provided by the BHA?
All of our campaigning work in terms of political advocacy is about the involvement of the state. So, for example, we don’t have a problem with people purchasing homeopathic remedies for their own use. It is unfortunate, of course, because their health will not improve as a direct result of taking those remedies. And it’s good that there are organisations that campaign for public awareness of that.
Also, we campaign for the end of state funding of those things through the NHS. We support the work of specific organisations like the brilliant Good Thinking Society in the UK, which takes on these cases directly with individual NHS bodies. So that’s an important area. We’ve also campaigned against the state funding of pseudoscience schools. Obviously, creationism was a big issue these last ten years in the UK. We’ve campaigned successfully for government guidance against the teaching of creationism.
Then we had a second successful campaign to put evolution on the curriculum for primary schools. That was a good development. That was to have each type of creationism funded in state schools. And we campaigned against the funding of Steiner schools in the UK in particular, which teach a whole range of bogus approaches to human biology and the environment.
Those are important campaigns. When you are dealing with the future generations that are upcoming in an ongoing knowledge economy, if they don’t have the proper tools for understanding the basic principles, not even just necessarily the full details of the natural world through understanding the fundamental theories of different disciplines, it can be an issue. Are there any religious thinkers that have inspired you?
Generally, I think it is important that humanists remember the fact that a humanist approach to religions is that they’re all human inventions. Many religions think of themselves as being divinely inspired or extra-human in origin, but I can only believe that they’re the creations of human beings. As a result, they provide human reflections on the human experience, which, of course, have valuable things in them.
They are mostly versions of the same general principles, and this is not coincidental at all. They are the principles of non-religious people, as well, because they are the principles that human beings need to apply if they are not going to kill each other and have their society collapse. So I don’t think humanists should be ashamed of finding inspiration in texts that religious people think of as being divine, because they really are just human creations after all.
Having said that, I can’t say I have found anything particularly inspiring in them to compare with the humanist writings of classical India, ancient Greece, or ancient China, or enlightenment Europe and the world.
Instead, I’ve found a lot that is uniquely pernicious. The idea of sin, when it was first explained to me, I found profoundly shocking. And the amount of damage to human beings by such a horrible idea as that does continues to horrify me.
Originally published at conatusnews.com on February 1, 2017.