More British Humanist Association folly

David Pollock of the British Humanist Association (BHA) complains about my (and other people’s?) ‘unforgiving onslaught of abuse against an unassuming opinion poll‘. He has since been joined by a Jemma Hooper (also of the BHA), who thinks ‘professionals should applaud quantitative data’ (more of which later); and Caspar Melville at New Humanist magazine, who seems to be blaming Julian for all this [quite right too!]).

So right now I must confess to feeling a lot like Denis Healey did after he had been set upon by Geoffrey Howe.

I’ll deal with some of the points of my critics in turn.

David says this:

even without any pretensions to being serious sociological research (on a budget of £5,000?), the poll is surely indicative.

No David, it is not indicative. I don’t think you quite understand the abject hopelessness of your poll. If an A-level Sociology student had come up with this piece of research then they would have failed (hopefully). It is interesting that nobody has cared to respond to my substantive points. Here are a few more.

David says this:

religious people who reject both the option of saying that ‘religious beliefs are needed for a complete understanding of the universe’ and the option of saying that ‘People need religious teachings in order to understand what is right and wrong’ have at most a pretty attenuated sort of religion…


1. The poll does not give people the option to reject the view that each statement represents. That is not how it was set up. (Which is part of my complaint.) This is what the instructions say: ‘I’d like you to tell me on balance which one in each pair most closely matches your view. You might find that the statements overlap a little, however please tell me which one you feel most closely matches your view. (If you had to choose just one of the statements which one best matches your view?)’. And also: ‘Where respondents were unsure, interviewers were allowed to select “Neither” or “Don’t know”, but these options were not presented to respondents and they were encouraged to choose a statement from each set if they could.’

So nobody is rejecting anything substantive when they respond to this poll (and David, you ought to retract that statement – it isn’t fair to those who responded to this poll). People are presented with a forced choice, and then they are encouraged to answer one way or the other even though it is conceded that there might be overlap in the statements (too right there is). I still find it staggering that anybody would think that this works as a methodology. Did the BHA bother to check with a social scientist? It took me about five seconds to see that this poll was hopeless (I read about it in New Humanist magazine). And I’m a very mediocre sociologist.

2. Notwithstanding the methodological disaster, it is conceptually up the creek as well. Christians in the UK are not particularly anti-science. Most of them believe in evolution (at least, they did when I last checked). So it is entirely plausible that people whose religious belief is not attenuated – not that it is obvious that an attenuated religious belief equates to humanism anyway, but never mind about that – will choose the statement ‘Scientific and other evidence provides the best way to understand the universe’ rather than ‘Religious beliefs are needed for a complete understanding of the universe’ when they are forced to choose (there’s that irritating methodological point again). Also it is possible that this is what religious people would say even if they weren’t forced to choose. It is entirely plausible that they might think that science explains what happens in the universe; religion what happens outside of it.

The statement about religious teachings, and right and wrong is also a conceptual mess. I’m an atheist, and I might think that people need religious teachings in order to understand what is right and wrong. Sociologists in the structural functionalist tradition, for example, think something like this (not quite like this, but not far off). Not all of them are religious. Also religious people might not think that religious teachings are necessary for an understanding of right and wrong. It is easy to imagine that some religious people will think that God has granted human beings an innate ability to understand the difference between the two.

So even if the poll wasn’t a methodological disaster, it’s a conceptual disaster.

It doesn’t show what is being claimed for it.

3. Even if there were no methodological or conceptual problems, it still doesn’t suggest the conclusion that the BHA was so desperate to find. It is possible to elicit opinions on all kinds of things by the means of questionnaires. It does not follow that people have these opinions. If I go out into the street and ask people about their eschatological views, then I’ll get eschatological views, even from people who had never given this stuff a thought before. The fact that people say that they think science is the best way to understand the universe doesn’t mean that they actually think it is the best way to understand the universe. They may have no idea about what constitutes science. They may think homeopathy is science, for example. Perhaps they are amongst the one-third of British people who think that the sun goes around the earth.

Okay, so what else?

Well, David offers an instrumental reason for conducting the poll. He thinks that it will (might?) help improve the standing of the BHA at meetings with ministers. Oh dear. So the idea here is to commission the world’s worst poll in the hope that nobody will notice? David suggests that I am scornful, etc., and I guess that is kind of true. But really I am trying very hard. The poll is a disaster. If it improves the BHA’s standing, then I really am giving up all hope for the triumph of reason.

I might continue this in another post. But just let me deal with Jemma Hooper.

Jemma, whether people should applaud quantitative data depends (partly) on whether the data is any good. This poll’s data is hopeless. Therefore, it should not be applauded. Do you think that we should applaud the quantitative data that predicted a win for Thomas Dewey in 1948 US Presidential Election? It’s a famous polling error. Truman, having won, appeared on the news holding a copy of the Chicago Tribune, which had printed “Dewey Beats Truman” on its front page on the basis of polling data.

Moreover, even if quantitative data is good, not everybody thinks it is useful. This is why some people are committed to using qualitative research methods. This is very basic sociology. The kind of thing which people learn about at GCSE level. (I’m not being rude here – it is the kind of thing people learn about in GCSE Sociology.)

The most disappointing thing about this whole affair is that the BHA, an organisation presumably committed to reason, proper enquiry, etc., has been so cavalier in the way that it approaches social research. They ought to be ashamed of themselves. They should stop defending the indefensible (when you’re in a hole, stop digging). And they should apologise to their members for wasting £5000.00 on a worthless poll.

Edit: Ophelia Benson has blogged on the BHA’s ‘we’re a campaigning organisation, cannot be overly concerned with academic pedantry’ defence.

Leave a comment ?


  1. “The most disappointing thing about this whole affair is that the BHA, an organisation presumably committed to reason, proper enquiry, etc., has been so cavalier in the way that it approaches social research.”

    Yes, that’s the part that seems most…disconcerting. The strange charge of ivory tower disdain, the claim that in ‘the real world of politics you cannot always be academically nice’, and worst of all, ‘On rationality and truth – come down out of your ivory tower! The BHA is a campaigning organisation, not a university department’ – yikes. It seems they don’t think truth matters.

  2. I know. And then having been called on it, there is this kind of collective delusion that the criticisms are misplaced. It ticks all the boxes for a chapter in Why Truth Matters: ideological and moral commitments infecting truth-claims, research, etc; wishful-thinking; groupthink; etc.

    And all this from an organisation committed to rationality, science, truth, etc.

    I’m not sure which is more depressing: the possibility that they didn’t realise that this research was terrible; or the possibility that they did.

    And, as for the idea that my criticisms are somehow ‘academic’, or nitpicking, or something. I can just imagine how they’d respond if it were suggested that the criticisms of ‘intelligent’ design should be dismissed on these grounds.

    Oh well. As I said in my first post, I never expect much from them. So it goes.

  3. Devin Carpenter

    No offense, but…who cares? This just isn’t the sort of thing that is good for this blog.

  4. Eh?

    This is more important than the normal stuff we blog about.

    The British Humanist Association is the United Kingdom’s premier rationalist organisation. They commissioned an opinion poll – which made news – which they claimed showed that the UK population was not religious in the way that many people claim.

    The opinion poll was fatally flawed – in ways that are very obvious – yet they carry on defending it (despite being committed to truth, etc.)

    So I say again: this is important (which presumably is why Julian has become involved, why Ophelia is blogging about it, and why it also features on the New Humanist site.)

  5. Also, it’s interesting – at least, it’s interesting to people who are interested in epistemology, which is a pretty respectable philosophy-type subject.

  6. Devin Carpenter

    I stand corrected.

  7. Constructing surveys that are truly valid instruments is not for the faint of heart. There are good reason why people spend thier entire careers in survey research, perfecting their craft.

    I’m not sure what it’s like in the UK but here in the US, £5000.00 for conducting a “poll” would barely cover incidentals. Serious survey research is not cheap.

    Yes, they most certainly should “…apologise to their members for wasting £5000.00 on a worthless poll.” but then you can’t really expect much more… You get what you pay for.

  8. Buridan

    I do understand, of course, that it’s not easy to do this kind of research properly. As I’m sure you know, learning about proper research methods is a major part of a training in sociology.

    My main complaints are:

    1. It should have been obvious that this particular survey was fatally flawed;

    2. They could have asked a social scientist to check their design out (they have many high profile supporters – it would have been easy for them to find someone to help them);

    3. They shouldn’t now be defending the whole exercise;

    4. They shouldn’t now justify the research on the grounds that truth isn’t important, winning the argument is what is important.

  9. Having looked at the survey, and the criticisms levelled against it, I think that if a religious group used similar (but inverted) survey questions in order to claim that the country is essentially ‘faith based’, we would not be warranted in accepting that conclusion.

    So, to be fair, I cannot accept the findings of the BHA survey. Meanwhile, the vehement reaction of the BHA to a philosopher doing his job is disturbing (rather reminiscent of the opposition).

  10. » Unfashionable Sense about Asylum - pingback on March 30, 2007 at 10:55 am
  11. I have spent about 5 minutes following this debate and I would say, as a member of the BHA, that we should welcome this kind of philosophical feedback. Then we can commission some better research next time. Perhaps if Jeremy were more polite no-one would take any notice.

  12. Thanks David. I admit that perhaps I should have been more polite in my first blog entry (I was a little exasperated at the time), but I think I did alright in this one!?

    I think it is interesting that neither David Pollock nor Jemma Hooper have responded to this posting.

    It is my view that the BHA ought to apologise to its members about this poll. It is surely incumbent upon them to spend their funds wisely, and in this instance they have failed badly.

  13. From the reporting in these blog entries, I agree that some of the questions were flawed. However, for what it’s worth, I’m not surprised by the results at all (I agree with Jemma that 36% actually sounds a bit low for the UK); so it’s just a shame that the “tenets” of humanism were not phrased in better contradistinction to the non-humanist options in the poll.

    But why is the BHA getting all the blame? Shouldn’t a portion be going out to Mori, too? What exactly do Mori contribute in the way of advice on the phrasing of polls? Anything? Or do they just dish out the questions provided to them by lobby groups, without any critical assessment?

  14. I’m not surprised by the results at all

    But the results of this particular poll are worthless. It’s like any flawed piece of research; it’s possible that the results attained reflect reality, but the research, in and of itself, provides no good grounds for supposing that this is so.

    But why is the BHA getting all the blame? Shouldn’t a portion be going out to Mori, too?

    Well since the BHA people seem to have scuttled off, I guess we’ll never know. But I would have thought that since the problems with this poll are largely conceptual – most of the methodological problems are parasitic on conceptual problems – the vast majority of the fault lies with the BHA.

  15. “But the results of this particular poll are worthless. … the research, in and of itself, provides no good grounds for supposing that this is so.”

    That’s why I preceded “I’m not surprised by the results” with “for what it’s worth”. I.e. I don’t dispute that the method was flawed, but the question of the prima facie veracity of the approximate figure came up, and discussion of that question — even speculative and superficial discussion — is different from the question of whether or not the method was sound. (Likewise, someone might provide really bad reasons for believing that the moon is in orbit, but I could still express that I really did think that the moon was in orbit without contradiction, even if I could only do so with an intuitive or anecdotal expression.)

    “Well since the BHA people seem to have scuttled off”

    We can add that to the list of remarks that border on ad hominem, can we? (there really does seem to be some vindictiveness in the air here, or something?)

    “But I would have thought that since the problems with this poll are largely conceptual – most of the methodological problems are parasitic on conceptual problems – the vast majority of the fault lies with the BHA.”

    I don’t see why that follows. Again, I’m not trying to absolve the BHA of all responsibility. It’s just that I’d have thought that an organization with the reputability of Mori — especially if they’re being paid — would have been capable of addressing any conceptual problems underlying the methodological flaws in a fairly run-of-the-mill poll.

    Putting all the blame on the BHA, and no blame on Mori, is like putting all the blame on a witness who accidentally shops an innocent person, and none on the police who doggedly pursue the ostensible criminal through to prosecution.

  16. different from the question of whether or not the method was sound.

    Yes I know it’s logically different. But it has a rhetorical force. (Not your comments per se – but there is this thought that actually the BHA think the research got it right because it reflects what they would take to be the real situation. But that’s just bad thinking.)

    “there really does seem to be some vindictiveness in the air here”

    A little perhaps. But, you know, I don’t have to like the BHA, or the people who comprise it, and the word “scuttle” is pretty mild, and really though my first posting was aggressive, it wasn’t directed at any particular individual. (And this second post is really quite restrained.)

    I think this stuff is important. You know, not wilfully getting things wrong, taking proper care, etc., so there is some feeling in what I’m writing here.

    would have been capable of addressing any conceptual problems

    Well not really. Mori can hardly argue with representatives of the BHA about how humanism is defined. The major problem here is that humanism has been defined in such as way so that religious people are going to end up looking like humanists. But why would Mori have an opinion about this?

    Anway, unless the BHA comment, we just don’t know what advice Mori gave. Maybe they did point out the problems. Don’t forget the BHA people were trying to defend the poll.

  17. A little perhaps. But, you know, I don’t have to like the BHA, or the people who comprise it, and the word “scuttle” is pretty mild, and really though my first posting was aggressive, it wasn’t directed at any particular individual.

    Indeed you don’t have to like them. And there’s no logical contradiction between not liking your criticisee, and indeed criticising them.

    It’s just that it’s harder to take seriously a critic’s criticisms of someone else’s methodological bias, if the critic themself sounds biassed because they are inflating their criticism by tinging it with vitriolic flavour. (You might think that the verb ‘to scuttle’ is mild, but it’s somewhat belittling if it’s applied to you!)

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree with most of what you say. But it’s hardly surprising that those you were criticising were defensive given that you admit you were being aggressive. You suggest that those purporting to exemplify rationalism should have a higher standard of research. So I’ll suggest that those purporting to exemplify philosophical (or sociological!) rationality, should have a higher standard of critical language — i.e. that one doesn’t goad one’s criticisees, in addition to criticising them.

    I think this stuff is important. You know, not wilfully getting things wrong, taking proper care, etc., so there is some feeling in what I’m writing here.

    I fully understand. I guess I just think that a certain amount of ettiquette is important, taking proper care with feelings etc, otherwise it’s easy to see why fallacy and defensiveness will creep into a critical discussion.

  18. Bob, perhaps we just disagree about this. I think the criticisms I make of the poll should stand on their own merits (and I think you accept that they are merited). It’s not as if the criticisms themselves are of an ad hominem nature. (And it’s notable that there has been absolutely no attempt by the BHA people to address the criticisms.)

    As far as the aggression is concerned. I think it has its place. There is something to be said for communicating that one cares about this stuff in a way that isn’t simply academic.

    I agree, of course, that such an approach is not likely to engender reasoned discussion. But the truth is that I didn’t actually expect the BHA even to notice the criticism.

    If I had known that they would then maybe I would have expressed it differently. But, you know, maybe not. There is also something to be said for letting the people you’re criticising know that you think this stuff matters.

    I suppose my view is that there is room for different kinds of approaches: the more polemical stuff and the more nuanced, conciliatory stuff. I vary my style accordingly!

  19. I was thinking of joining the BHA until I learned in these pages that they squandered £5000.00 on a useless survey. Please suggest an organisation or two where my £35.00 joining fee would be better spent. I am an early-retired factory worker. Thanks. Will. p.s. It’s nice to see philosophers involved in day to day living issues.

  20. Obviously we do disagree on this, Jeremy. I won’t bang on, but to put my own side in an emotive way, if philosophy was a sport, I’d think of it as being orienteering — there’s lots of ground to cover and plenty to think about. Passion in philosophy, as in sport, is all well and good, but if it starts to look like a bloodsport… I’m out!

    Will Pax

    I wouldn’t reject an organization on the basis of one mistake. I think the idea of what they were trying to do here was basically very good; they were trying to quantify and expose the fact that the humanistic attitudes of modern Britian are more pervasive than some might think, because they are often misrepresented (by the people themselves) under a nominally religious label. If this exercise failed somewhat in the execution, that’s a shame. But they’re doing a lot of good work, and I think it would be an even greater shame to overblow that one mistake into a judgment on all their efforts.

  21. Thanks for that Bob but there is obviously a deeper problem here. e.g. on 28Feb Jeremy wrote ‘I never expect much of the BHA…’ What is that problem I wonder?

  22. Will – Well, obviously I wouldn’t join the BHA, and actually I think the polling thing is sufficiently egregious so as to be a good reason not to do so (especially since I very much doubt that an apology to members if going to be forthcoming, as it should be).

    However, the general issue I have with the BHA is more to do with the fact that I think humanism is a quasi-religion, rather than any specific failings on their part (though the Humanist Philosophers Group did once produce a very poor critique of creationism).

  23. I haven’t read the Humanist Philosophers’ Group on creationism, but the pamphlet they did on Faith Schools I thought was very good; measured but decisive.

    I don’t know why you’d think humanism was a “quasi-religion”. I’m sure some individual humanists can treat humanistic ideas as if they were fundamental tenets to cling onto in a religious-like way. I’d even concede that the mere act of semi-formalizing ideas into a system that can be labelled (“humanism”) might encourage some people toward faith-like commitment to those ideas. But this can apply to any outlook or set of ideas or even mere statements of attitude which are sufficiently distinct and recognizable that they can be given a name.

    And as you (Jeremy) have argued elsewhere, humanism isn’t exactly a complex formal Vatican writ. If the meaning of humanism is informal enough that some individuals can get lazy about it, at least it’s vague enough to avoid the charge of being a static dogma!

  24. Perhaps some of this heat can be turned into light.

    Could you (any of you!) have a constructive discussion with the BHA about how the next piece of research might be done more effectively?

    These sorts of forums are entertaining/ interesting but in themselves won’t change much.

  25. Jeremy,Bob

    I think of a ‘quasi-religion’ as somehow less worthy than a full-blown ‘proper religion’. In any case, I would not want to be seen supporting either. I therefore ask your expert opinion; can I safely reject the BHA on the grounds that they are a ‘quasi-religion’?


    I like your suggestion a lot. However, I think we might be talking change here. Who knows how many of my friends and family would support the BHA if I take the lead? Also, ‘these sorts of forums’ seem to be an increasingly important weapon in the battle for hearts and minds.

  26. Bob

    at least it’s vague enough to avoid the charge of being a static dogma!

    My point about the definition of humanism was an anticipation of precisely the kind of definitional sleight of hand that enables it to avoid the charge of being a quasi-religion!


    The thing is the BHA don’t agree that there is anything wrong with this poll, so there is no reason for them to take advice.


    Yes, I think you should reject the BHA on the grounds that they are an organisation devoted to the propagation of a quasi-religion.

  27. Hamish MacPherson


    I wonder if by quasi-religious you are taking John Gray’s line that humanism has all the Christian hope in progress and salvation but without god? That may or may not be the case but I do think using the r word might give readers a flase idea of what humanists do (campaign, talk, raise money for charity, listen to speakers) although maybe I’m just not invited to the juicy gatherings!

    The BHA are however one of the few (two)organisations consistently campaigning in the poltical arena against the priveldge if religion in the UK. They might not be perfect and aren’t all there is (acknowledging your own noble work promoting critical thinking in books and elsewhere) but we’d be worse off without them.


    Perhaps you could split your money between the BHA, the NSS and a couple of copies of the excellent Philosopher’s Magazine! Then again you might’ve been able to get a susbsidised rate so you’ll only have to find a good home for £20!

  28. Hamish – Yes my line is something like John Gray’s (Kenan Malik once suggested that I was a poor man’s John Gray – not in so many words, but that was the gist!).

    campaign, talk, raise money for charity, listen to speakers

    The BHA are also involved in “non-religious, civil, humanist funeral, wedding, affirmation, baby naming ceremonies.”

    But I did say a quasi religion, rather than religion proper. (I have a Durkheimian view of religion; I don’t think it is best defined in terms of reference to supernatural entities).

  29. To the extent that you define religion in terms of social function, and the BHA provide some similar (but secular) ceremonies, then of course its social functioning overlaps that of religious social functioning. Perhaps by providing a community for folks who have a shared/similar secular humanistic outlook, humanism also provide less formal forms of social function.

    However, formal ceremonies can be provided by the state, and cohesive social niceities can be provided by clubs, evening classes, or the workplace; so I wouldn’t say that any of these social functions were entirely definitive of being a religion, even if they form part of the way that a religion works.

    More important than providing these formal and informal social functions, a religion (on my normal understanding of the word) consists in a certain attitude of belief. Presumably there are many people who have a kind of faith in reason, or humanists who render humanity with a kind of divine specialness (deiomorphization?); people who are uncritical of their own humanist position, or blind to criticism of it. For the people who do that, I’d describe their humanism as a kind of quasi-religion for them.

    But if, as Will Pax asks, you have reached humanist conclusions by whatever means, and do not uncritically hold them but nevertheless provisionally assent to them, and if you can remain alive to the faults and foibles of others who call themselves humanists, then it needn’t be a quasi-religion for you.

  30. Thanks guys. I will investigate the NSS now.

    But I can’t help thinking that the decent thing to do would be to join the BHA, become an activist there and from within, fight for the erasure of quasi-religious thinking.

    Of course, it could be simpler to set up my own group – I would call it ‘The Middle England* Non-Religious Society’. In either case, I would need a subscription to TPM to help sharpen up my thinking.

    * Scots, Welsh, Irish and diverse ethnic people would be welcome so long as they agree with me.

  31. By all means join the BHA and combat “quasi-religious” thinking if you find it. (Or join the NSS and combat quasi-militant thinking if you find it!) But keep an open mind; maybe this was just a slip-up!

  32. Bob, I don’t keep an open mind in a routine way anymore in case Jehovah’s Witnesses knock on my front door and catch me wrong-footed. I am grateful for your advice though.

  33. Bob

    To the extent that you define religion in terms of social function

    Well Durkheim doesn’t really define religion in this way. As far as your general point about ‘provisional assent’ is concerned, my position is that we should not even be provisionally assenting to much of what many humanists consider to be central to humanism. There are no good reasons to do so. Whether (provisional) assent is then indicative of a quasi-religious belief (in the sense that say communist belief is a quasi-religious belief) depends upon how one defines religion and also – as you suggest – the nature of the provisional assent (I take the point that there comes a point at which assent might be so provisional it barely qualifies as a belief.)

  34. I have no doubt, Jeremy, that you are an excellent social scientist and doubtless a thoroughly good chap, but you are behaving like a dog with a bone in your unwillingness to let go of the BHA – now not just its MORI poll but its unworthiness even to have anyone become a member – unless (I suppose) they are crypto-religious!

    In your own field of social science, your criticisms of a mere opinion poll for not living up to the highest standards of academic research might seem merely over-defensive and precious but doubtless would have had some validity if we had been seeking to do more than open the eyes of the politicians, press and civil servants who complacently quote the 2001 Census to justify writing off the non-religious (and discounting the BHA’s claims to represent a significant proportionof the population), meanwhile giving public money and privileges to religion in general and Christianity in particular.

    But now you have enlarged your target. The whole BHA is unworthy of support. Why? Because it is quasi-religious. How come? It provides ceremonies – individually constructed funerals for people whose only other option (apart from doing it themselves) is a hypocritical religious ceremony, baby-namings for parents who want to make their individual pledges to their children, and marriages where couples can make their own special pledges to each other. No ritual, no doctrine, no preaching, no holy book, no prayers, not even any set form of words. So the form of our ceremonies is already pretty far from religious rites, but even so you mistake the form for the substance!

    But does the BHA regard ceremonies as central to or even an essential part of Humanism? No: it is just a valued service for members and growing number of others who want it (especially the funerals: most are probably indifferent to the baby-namings and marriages).

    So how does the BHA see Humanism? Not as anything centrally prescribed or imposed, as with any decent religion or with Marxism. Humanism as used by us is a post facto label for a range of possible lifestances or outlooks the defining characteristics of which include a naturalistic (non- theistic and rational) view of the universe, a view of human beings as having just this one life to live and as having inherited from evolution a natural moral capacity that attaches value to avoidance of suffering and to maximising the enjoyment of life by all manner of means too numerous even to instance here. Humanism is thus a framework for thinking about life and morality – it offers a method, not answers. (If you want a slightly longer description, look at my or at all the material on the BHA website )

    So how else does this unworthy organisation waste its time and resources – when it is not dressing up a question in a poll as social science, starting a pseudo-religious and (apparently) quarrelling with the National Secular Society?

    Well, partly by cooperating with the NSS, as it happens, coordinating our approaches in various campaigns, sharing information and cooperating in work with government departments, in Europe etc. But neither they nor we see our objectives as identical, despite the substantial overlap. The NSS’s main work (I hope it is fair to say) lies in campaigning for a secular state and denouncing the nonsense of religious belief. The BHA also campaigns tirelessly for a secular state but is more interested in promoting a positive humanist outlook than in decrying religion. Both bodies have a vital function, and many people, including me, belong happily to each.

    So promotion of Humanism accounts for a substantial proportion of our unworthy activities: producing a growing range of materials for use in teaching about Humanism in schools, for example, and arguing with some success in and with bodies such as Ofsted, the QCA, and the Religious Education Council the case for school RE to include Humanism, winning support for inclusive schools suitable for all children to attend in place of “faith schools” and for inspirational school assemblies without worship; and finding and supporting humanists to sit on the local authority bodies that produce religious education syllabuses. And sponsoring three successful series of annual lectures – named for Voltaire, Bentham and Darwin – and the Humanist Philosophers’ Group, which has in fact produced a number of valuable publications and meetings, not just those so far disparaged here.

    And then we waste a lot more time and money on campaigns, often relying on the Human Rights Act’s guarantee against official discrimination on grounds of religion or belief (where ‘belief’ includes Humanism – indeed, includes atheism or agnosticism). So we campaign (to take examples only from our current and very recent agenda) by:-

    # submitting a lengthy, well researched and thoughtful memorandum to the review of primary education – and by the way ‘lengthy, well researched and thoughtful’ applies to almost all our responses and submissions, so I will not repeat it;

    # responding to the parliamentary Education and Skills Committee on citizenship education;

    # commenting on the draft secondary school admissions code and on draft circulars on school organisation;

    # responding to consultations by the Welsh Assembly government on religious education and related subjects,

    # campaigning on the introduction of creationist teaching in state-funded schools (getting the DfES’s agreement in principle to issue guidance ruling it out in science lessons and continuing to press for its actual issue) and on the growth of faith schools and of religiously sponsored academies;

    # building alliances to oppose the current law on school worship;

    # responding to the ONS on the 2011 census, going to their public consultation meetings and now having a private meeting with them (and incidentally, you have not yet deigned to say whether you have done anything about the ONS’s plans to repeat 2001’s biassed question on religion in 2011 – that highly consequential elephant in your own room of social science goes unnoticed, it seems, by comparison with the offence given by a press release on a poll);

    # making representations to DCLG ministers and officials to assert the rights of the non-religious alongside those of so-called ‘faith communities’ and having meetings with them;

    # researching and speaking up against the contracting out of public services to religious groups – and for them to be fully liable to the Human Rights Act as public authorities when such contracts are given;

    # opposing places for bishops in a reformed House of Lords;

    # sending submissions to the Equalities Review, the Discrimination Law Review, the Commission for Integration and Cohesion, sometimes followed up by meetings;

    # taking a very active role in the preparations for the new Commission on Equality and Human Rights;

    # monitoring the impact – and side-effects – of legislation outlawing discrimination on grounds of religion or belief;

    # commenting on draft official guidance on the Equality Act (which as a Bill absorbed immense effort);

    # responding to the Charity Commission consultation on how to apply the test of ‘public good’ to religious charities (and others);

    # responding to consultations by the Labour Party on policy development, and by several government departments on internal non-discrimination policies,

    # arguing (endlessly) with the BBC for humanist broadcasting, and (during the debate on renewing the BBC’s charter) responding to the DCMS consultation and submitting written and oral evidence to the Lords committee on the subject; and similarly monitoring the plans and guidance issued by Ofcom;

    # gaining the signatures of about 120 distinguished and prominent UK politicians, academics and other figures to the Europe-wide Brussels Declaration in favour of the state “remain[ing] neutral in matters of religion and belief, favouring none and discriminating against none”;

    # working on the lack of representation of the non-religious at national ceremonies (e.g., the Cenotaph);

    # and on discrimination against the non-religious by the heavily publicly funded Scouts and Guides;

    # and on the animal cruelty involved in ritual slaughter;

    # and on the lack of a publicly funded ‘chaplaincy’ service for the non-religious in the NHS, the services, prisons or further education;

    # providing the secretariat for the rapidly expanding All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, and briefing its members and others for relevant debates, drafting them amendments to Bills, parliamentary questions and early day motions . . .

    – oh, what a misguided waste of the time of a couple of staff and a volunteer to think such campaigning worth anything. Especially when we could instead have been responding to your jibes about our little opinion poll instead of scuttling from the field!

    So, you see, Jeremy, how justified you are in not expecting much from us, in asserting that “we should not even be provisionally assenting to much of what many humanists consider to be central to humanism. There are no good reasons to do so”, and in joining John Gray in slagging Humanism off and persuading people not to join or support us on the basis of the deep knowledge each of you has of us. Good that you at least still behave rationally . . .

    So, come off it! – I do not believe you really mean it – but will you admit it? There I’m not so sure.

    Anyhow, don’t count on any further reply to this futile exchange: I’m deluded enough to think I’ve got better things to do.

    PS: Thanks, Bob, for your sterling support.

  35. Gray, Malik, Durkheim, Marx – my humble brain is becoming swamped out with all this intelligentsia. But the topic is plainly too complex to make any hurried decisions about.

    So my plan is this – I join the BHA, NSS and get a TPM subscription. Using my own internal moral compass, I observe activities carefully for a year. If any group offends me, I don’t renew membership/subscription and tell everyone I know why not. I am looking forward to an entertaining and worthy year.

    Of course, my financial controller (my wife) may not agree to this plan, in which case, this has all been a waste of time – but thanks anyway everyone.

  36. Will, I’m sure the financial controller will agree to fund this laudable experiment. Good luck!

    PS No worries, David.

  37. Bob, your Good Luck wishes worked. Funding was duly authorised. The bill came to £54.95 for the 3 items for the year. My Sky bill is £53.50 PER MONTH so I think I have a bargain.

    Did anyone notice that Sky re-organised the electronic programme genre guide recently and introduced one called ‘Religion’? Quirkily, the Islam Channel is grouped under ‘International’.

    My son James has read this blog. He was impressed with Jeremy and wanted to know if I rated Stangroom higher or lower than Paxman. I told him that I don’t rate people in that way but that there is a lot to be said for the Adam Boulton style. James – if you’re reading this hi. Don’t forget to enter your own name and mail address above if you decide to post.

  38. Jeremy said (on a number of occasions) “It is my view that the BHA ought to apologise to its members about this poll. It is surely incumbent upon them to spend their funds wisely, and in this instance they have failed badly.”

    Jermy – while I agree with you that the methodology is clearly flawed (those false dichotomoies make for terrible questions), they BHA generated a number of positive headlines regarding the number of “humanists” in the UK. They are, as they say, a campaigning organisation and as a member I’m glad that they generated some positive publicity regarding humanism. Therefore, I see no need for them to apologise to their members (and anyway, who the hell are you, a non-member, to call for them to apologise to their members?).

    The people that this poll was aimed at are journalists and, through them, politicians. Neither of these groups seems to have much of a critical eye towards dodgy data, so a cheap push-poll is just the ticket to grab their eyes. Julian’s comments on your original post on this subject that, for an organisation that claims to defendes rationality, to behave in such a way is unjustifiable are fair, however I do think that the ends pretty much justify the means in this instance.

    I don’t regard myself as a humanist, however I’m definitiely both an atheist and a secularist, but it [i]is[/i] nice to have ceremonies to mark important events in people’s lives, and the BHA provide this without the need for religion to come into it. If that makes them a quasi religion in the eyes of some, then so be it. I’ll take the funerals and baby-naming ceremonies any day – it’s a good escuse for a party after all.

  39. I applaud David Pollock’s comprehensive defence of the work of the BHA.

    The BHA often states that Humanism is ‘not a religion.’ However, modern humanism started out in 1920s Chicago and New York as ‘religious humanism’ (see Humanist Manifesto I, 1933) and to this day the American Ethical Humanist Societies (which are associated with UK humanists under the umbrella of the International Humanist and Ethical Union) and many Unitarian-Universalist groups affiliated to the American Humanist Association are comfortable with the idea of humanism as an ethical religion. There are also many religious humanists in the Sea of Faith network. As an atheist, I am quite comfortable with the idea that Humanism is religious – but then I subscribe to a broad definition of the word religion as a (non-dogmatic) belief system together with associated communal and philanthropic activities. To say categorically that Humanism is ‘not a religion’ (or not religious in any sense) is offensive to many Humanists in the UK and the US.

  40. To say categorically that Humanism is ‘not a religion’ (or not religious in any sense) is offensive to many Humanists in the UK and the US.

    Cool! Because to say categorically that Humanism is ‘a religion’ (or religious in any sense) is also offensive to many Humanists in the UK and the US. So it’s a lose-lose situation!

  41. Only if you subscribe to a narrow definition of the word religion.

  42. David Pollock’s comprehensive defence of the work of the BHA.

    God, that’s depressing. I nearly deleted it because it went on and on. It also said that I was doubtless a thorougly good chap, which, as Ophelia will confirm, is a long way from the truth.

    Hilarious that you think humanism is religious. I agree obviously (though probably for different reasons). Mind you, there’s a long history of properly religious humanist thought.

  43. Yes; confirmed. I nearly did rush in to laugh at the thorougly good chap claim at the time, but decided to be Tasteful instead.

  44. Well yes it was very long.
    Why hilarious when you agree in the next breath that there is a long history of properly religious humanist thought? That’s what I’m talking about. I also agree that Humanism can be ‘religious’ in a less agreeable way (dogmatic, fundamentalist, sectarian etc).
    Ophelia suggested that Humanists might be offended by a categorical statement that Humanism is a religion. I wouldn’t be categorical about it. Like Corliss Lamont, a prominent US mid-20th century writer on Humanism, I would say that Humanism can be a (non-theistic) religion or a philosophy (or one of many other possible classifications). The first president of the BHA, Julian Huxley, thought that Humanism was a religion although he was a bit misty-eyed about it. The first Director, Harold Blackham, suggested that it was an alternative to religion and this has become a popular formula although it rather sidesteps the issue. If Humanism is an alternative to religion, that’s a tacit admission that it’s the same sort of thing as religion. Don’t we need something between traditional theistic religion and ironicist believe-in-nothingarianism? Alain de Botton lamented that we are no longer allowed a publicly-admissible belief system. Humanism is a modest attempt at a reconstruction of a belief system but it does not claim to have the Truth in any old-fashioned Rationalist sense. It is, or should be, thoroughly pragmatist in a Schillerian, Jamesian, Deweyan, Rortian sense, all whom were/are H/humanists in varying senses.

  45. But no doubt that last comment will get me into trouble with the authors of Why Truth Matters.

  46. Why hilarious when you agree in the next breath that there is a long history of properly religious humanist thought?

    Oh – only because I have previously been told off for claiming precisely this. But hey, I pretty much agree with everything you say (except the bit about Pollock’s defence, obviously).

  47. tom p

    May I ask which bit of BHA ‘policy’ prevents you from regarding yourself as humanist and how long have you been a member?

  48. Hi Will,

    I’ve been a member of the BHA for about 3 or 4 years I think.
    There’s nothing in the BHA’s policy per se that prevents me from regarding myself as a humanist, it’s just that humanism seems to have as a genuine core tenet a belief in the goodness of human nature.
    Considering man’s inhumanity to man I’m not sure that there is any kind of inherently good human nature.
    I suppose that I’m agnostic about humanism.

    Why do you ask?


  49. tom p – hello again.

    Thanks for your response. I’ve just joined the BHA for the first time and you’re the only member I have met so far, so I am particularly interested in your outlook.

    I’m not sure that the ends justify the means in any circumstances let alone in a field where persuasion and influence are involved. Jeremy, apparently, observes the BHA regularly and is surely thus entitled to comment. In fact, as a non-member, he is, perhaps, more qualified to comment because if his impartiality.

    I see your point about goodness and human nature. However, in the booklet ‘Humanism’ by Barbara Smoker she writes ‘Humanists…certainly have faith in human potential’. For me, that’s fair enough.

  50. Good old Barbara Smoker. I heard her speak at Conway Hall a few years ago and she was fabulously eloquent. I think it was after hearing her that I joined the BHA.

    If you live in london, the BHA have frequent lectures which are very interesting to attend. Just the other day there was the Voltaire lecture, at which Lord (Dick) Taverne argued that Science and Religion were incompatible.

    My gripe with Jeremy was him calling for the BHA to apologise to its members, which I thought a bit rich, since he isn’t one and can’t speak for us. His comments about the methodological flaws of the survey were perfectly valid though.

    I still think that if the survey helps the BHA to seem like they’re talking for more people, then it’ll help them with the persuasion and influence of politicians when it comes to things like faith schools. After all, most politicians seem to care about nothing more than votes, so weight of numbers is a pretty effective tool for influencing them.

  51. tom – thanks for the anecdote. But my worry is, that if word gets around (and who knows who is reading this blog) that the BHA sanction dodgy surveys, then their whole repuation becomes tarnished.

    Politicians are already tarnished (along with second-hand car salesmen and tabloid press editors). As far as I know, the reputation of the BHA is un-tarnished. Or do you know something different? Am I being too ethical?

  52. “humanism seems to have as a genuine core tenet a belief in the goodness of human nature.”

    I think this belief arose as a counterweight or reaction to the Christian belief that humanity is depraved and needs to be redeemed. As a Humanist, I think that a belief in “the goodness of human nature” is naive and essentialist. What would be core is the belief that morality/ethics is a human creation, like language.

  53. Jeremy Stangroom

    David – Has it occurred to you that actually you might not be a humanist! 🙂

    Tom P – Your logic is way off. The BHA should apologise because it’s wasted its members’ money. The fact that I am not a member is neither here nor there. Either the BHA has behaved badly (it has), or it hasn’t. My membership or lack of it is immaterial.

  54. No, but I’ll take it as a compliment. I am more inclined to the view that Humanism has been choked off by its older, more aggressive rival Secularism which dates from the early 19th century. The Humanist label survives but the reality is almost indistinguishable from Secularism. The type of Humanism I am interested in (and which has been airbrushed out of the official history by the BHA) stems from the Unitarian tradition. The men who invented modern Humanism in 1920s Chicago and New York were mostly Unitarian ministers who felt that the time had come to completely break with the Christian tradition and launch a new, non-theistic religion. Charles F Potter’s “Humanism: A New Religion” (1930) is typical. It was hopelessly positivist of course (in the sense that they had an inflated regard for science and the ‘perfectibility of man’) but the idea of a secular, non-theistic religion still appeals, partly because it is so paradoxical. The alternative, apart from theistic religion of course, is a kind of moral groundlessness or dare I say nihilism. I don’t believe in any literal moral ground of course but I think human beings need to create one, even though we know it’s our invention and therefore provisional and revisable. Much the same as ‘rights’.
    I think your question arises from the fact that mainstream Humanism is marooned in rationalist and essentialist ways of thinking whereas I have been infected by postmodernism and I am trying to think the unthinkable – a postmodern type of Humanism. At least people like Don Cupitt are trying to do the same thing but from within the Anglican tradition.

  55. Jeremy Stangroom

    David – All perfectly fair and reasonable. But if you’re a member of the BHA then it’s all a bit odd.

    Have you read Durkheim? If not, you ought to read his Elementary Forms and also look at some of the stuff on secular ritual,etc (the sociologist Randall Colins – might be spelt wrong – is good on it).

  56. Jeremy – thanks for your comment. I tend to keep BHA at arm’s length. I think some of their campaigning work is valuable but they do almost nothing to promote the idea of Humanism as a positive alternative to religion. To be fair, it may be because of lack of resources but it’s also about the dominance of the secularist agenda. I am more interested in our local Humanist group (Dorset Humanists) but even there I am often out on a limb. The American Ethical Societies and the UUs (Unitarian-Universalist) would be more accommodating but I’m not thinking of migrating!
    No I haven’t read Durkheim or Colins. I will investigate.
    Do you agree there’s a good type of postmodernism and a bad type (like good and bad cholesterol)? Bad postmodernism is synonymous with relativism whereas good postmodernism is about overcoming the metaphysical tendency of modernism expressed with capital letters (‘Man’, ‘Truth’, ‘Progress’ etc)?
    Forgive me for going off the original subject of this column but it’s good to chat with you.

  57. Jeremy Stangroom

    Do you agree there’s a good type of postmodernism and a bad type


    I’m not sure about that. It’s not that I have any difficulty with criticisms of some capital letter stuff (‘Man’ and ‘Progress’ being two), but not all capital letter stuff is equal (‘Truth’ I’d want to defend), and I’m not convinced that postmodernism is the way to attack the kind of thinking you’re talking about.

    Obviously it depends what one means when one talks about postmodernism, so this is a difficult conversation.

  58. Thanks. Has there been any debate here or elsewhere online about your book Why Truth Matters?

  59. Pretty Polly falls off the Perch … Again | The Wardman Wire - pingback on October 19, 2007 at 3:22 pm
  60. I am member of the British humanist association the Sutton Surrey group i have been an atheist for many years and i found out about humanism through a eviromental fair at Carshalton which takes place every August bank holiday i looked at their information and decided to join my local group a few years ago, my husband has also joined. Yes i think it is very difficult for the BHA to promote themselves as David Warden as said in his comment as an alternative to religion. Many people still do not know about Humanism and many ask me what religion is that, people i think in some cases see it as a radical organisation trying to break down the fabric of society with secular views and they feel afraid of any type of change. As a humanist myself i feel that i am trying to make society more free from predudice and bigotry. Morality for intance does not only extend to the religious in society many atheists and agnostics i know are very moral people.

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