Interview With Mike Turner on the Present and Future Trends of Humanism in the UK

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Mike Turner is the Chair of North East Humanists UK, a charity with the following objectives: the advancement of Humanism, a non-religious ethical life-stance; the advancement of public knowledge about humanist values and beliefs; promoting good fellowship and mutual care amongst humanists locally, regionally, nationally and internationally, fostering social interaction amongst them, and promoting social, intellectual and cultural ties between humanists and society at large; promoting charitable purposes, in particular, but not exclusively, charitable causes having values compatible with Humanism. In this interview, Mike discusses his own background, the work of his organisation, as well as the present and future trends of Humanism in the UK.

Angelos Sofocleous: Mike, tell us about your background in humanism. Were you always a humanist? If not, what made you become one?

Mike Turner: I was brought up in the 1950s and 60s by parents who were Christian but never went to church apart for baptisms, marriages and funerals. The church was an integral part of the community and as a young boy I went to Sunday school and sang in the church choir. I got married in a Church of England church with no issues, but 6 months later, I was asked to be a godfather to my sister’s first child. Going through that ceremony and listening to the words convinced me that I was an atheist.

“I got married in a Church of England church with no issues, but 6 months later, I was asked to be a godfather to my sister’s first child. Going through that ceremony and listening to the words convinced me that I was an atheist”

I found Humanism only after I retired from paid employment (15 years ago) and became interested in philosophy and beliefs. As a scientist and a fan of Darwin’s evolution theory, Humanism fitted into my brain like a hand into a glove.

Sofocleous: What are the main objectives of North East Humanists?

Turner: Promoting good fellowship and mutual care amongst our fellow humanists.

Collecting money for charitable causes.  Last year we collected £4000 for a local teenage suicide charity and £2000 for a humanist school in Uganda.

The advancement of public knowledge about Humanism.  We do this by: giving talks to teachers and pupils in schools and to adult groups; we have members who are trained celebrants, pastoral support workers in hospitals and in prisons; we have community ethical discussion groups in several locations; we organise monthly lectures by external speakers on relevant topics which are advertised on social media and open to the public. And, of course, we have our website.  https://www.northeast-humanists.org.uk

Humanism, Atheism, North East Humanists, Mike Turner, Secularism

North East Humanists UK raised £4000 for a local teenage suicide charity (If U Care Share) in 2016. Photo: North East Humanists.

Sofocleous: What are the greatest difficulties and challenges running a humanist group in the North East of the UK?

Turner: I believe that the challenge is the same all over the UK. Working people are mostly unaware of Humanism, and with the rise of “Social Media”, the need to join groups to meet and socialise with like-minded people has diminished. Passionate people who identify with the humanist campaigns will most likely join or donate to the national organisation, Humanists UK, which has nearly 20 employees working on these issues. Hence, a typical regional humanist group is mainly filled with retired people and the challenge is to recruit new members.

Humanists UK has a “Community” section which has a rapidly-growing list of trained volunteers, most of them members of regional groups, who go out into schools, hospitals and prisons. It is of course the retired people who have the time to do this.

Sofocleous: In what ways do you think public stance on humanist issues has changed over the last decades in the UK?

Turner: The number of non-religious people in the UK was listed as 15.5% in 2001 and 25% in the 2011 census, but the question in both cases was a “leading” one: “what is your religion”.  The unbiased annual “British social attitudes survey” results now show about 50% non-religious. There is no doubt that the UK is becoming more secular (along with the rest of the Western World).

The law is very gradually changing to a more liberal view –moving towards the ideals of the UN Universal Declaration on human rights: equal rights for minority groups, especially the LGBT community and for women. Children’s rights are coming to the fore in a lot of European Countries, but we in the UK have seen this trend reversed or at least “put on hold” with the current UK political turmoil.

Sofocleous: Are all humanists, secularists and atheists? How do you think these three relate to each other?

Turner: Humanism is, perhaps, best described as a non-theistic ethical tradition. As such it can incorporate anyone whose views are rational and not dogmatic. So it may include many people who do not class themselves as atheists. The belief that Humans are solely responsible for looking after the world and all its inhabitants is something shared by many Quakers, Unitarians, Buddhists, Pantheists etc.  Having said that, the vast majority of humanists are atheists.

“Within 20 years, humanist weddings will be legalised. Faith schools will still exist but will be teaching the same curriculum as all state-funded schools. This will include learning about the major religions and Humanism”

I think that all humanists are secularists in the sense that they want separation of church and state, public institutions to be free of religious practices, and making religious indoctrination in government-funded schools a thing of the past. Anyone who believes in equal rights in the UK must, if they know the facts, be in favour of the disestablishment of the Church of England, and thereby removing Bishops from the House of Lords.

Secular, as defined by my dictionary, is “not connected to religious or spiritual matters”. I personally believe that humanists, like all humans, have a spiritual side. Ofsted, the UK school’s inspectorate, defines spirituality as an individual’s sense of identity, self-worth, personal insight, meaning and purpose.  So, in this respect, I and may other humanists are not secularists. I also believe in dialogue with the faith communities so that we understand the many things that we have in common. Religion is not going to go away!

Sofocleous: I see that you are doing great work fundraising for various causes and donating to Humanists UK in support of their anti-faith schools campaigns, and Faith to Faithless. What are the latest developments on these issues?

Turner: The Humanists UK website is the best reference for their campaigns. They are doing good work identifying illegal faith schools and passing them on to Ofsted, but there is a lot of “abuse of children’s rights” going on in legal private faith schools as well as some tax-payer-funded faith schools. Nothing will change dramatically until the political situation in the UK is “normalised” again!

North East Humanists will continue to support secular education in Uganda. Our “charity of the year” this year is the Multiple Sclerosis Society (local branches). A few of us will be rattling our buckets on Newcastle central station for 3 days later this year.

Sofocleous: Which major developments, related to humanism, do you see happening in the UK in the following decades?

Turner: Within 20 years, humanist weddings will be legalised. Faith schools will still exist but will be teaching the same curriculum as all state-funded schools. This will include learning about the major religions and Humanism.

Within 40 years, the non-religious will all know about Humanism, with the census indicating 60% of the population do not believe in a god. Humanists UK will have more members than the Church of England. Then we will get our disestablishment.

Sofocleous: Finally, how can one contact you to learn more about your projects, initiatives, and how to join or donate to North East Humanists?

Visit our website: https://www.northeast-humanists.org.uk

Sofocleous: Thank you for your time, Mike.

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Angelos is a blogger, an activist and a student at the University of Durham

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