17 million British Humanists?
The Suffolk Humanist group, Suffolk Humanists, is affiliated to the British Humanist Association, which recently commissioned an Ipsos MORI poll about British attitudes towards religion and humanism. The following is part of a press release that’s been sent to all the Suffolk media. Feel free to draw the attention of anyone who may be interested, such as your MP and county councillor, to what it says. We get the feeling that since religion has been in the news so much lately, the publicity has backfired on the religious authorities because an increasing number of people are saying they’re tired of the way they’ve been demanding attention. Despite all the publicity about faith schools, 64% of the poll’s respondents opposed public funding for them.
In the 2001 census 7 out of 10 people ticked the ‘Christian’ box but, with church attendance now below 7% and under 1 in 3 marriages taking place in church, this figure was clearly more about cultural identity than religious belief.
Today the Ipsos MORI poll has shown that 36% of people – equivalent to around 17 million adults – are in fact humanists in their basic outlook. They:
- feel scientific and other evidence provides the best way to understand the universe (rather than feeling that religious beliefs are needed for a "complete understanding"),
- believe that "right and wrong" can be explained by human nature alone, and does not necessarily require religious teachings, and …
- base their judgments of right and wrong on "the effects on people and the consequences for society and the world"./font>
Humanism is a non-religious ethical outlook on life and these answers summarise its key beliefs (see the BHA website for more details on Humanism today) These are the key figures: – Overall, faced with the choice, 62% said ‘scientific & other evidence provides the best way to understand the universe’ against 22% who felt ‘religious beliefs are needed for a complete understanding of the universe’. – Similarly, 62% chose ‘Human nature by itself gives us an understanding of what is right and wrong’, against 27% who said ‘People need religious teachings in order to understand what is right and wrong’. – In the last question, faced with three choices, 65% said that what is right and wrong ‘depends on the effects on people and the consequences for society and the world’. The rest split almost equally between two profoundly un-Humanist views: 15% said right and wrong were ‘basically just a matter of personal preference’ and 13% said what was right and wrong was ‘unchanging and should never be challenged’. Thirty-six percent chose all three of the Humanist answers, and another 30% chose two out of three. Only 13% chose none of them. 42% say Government pays too much attention to ‘religious groups and leaders’ A separate question found that, asked to select from a list of groups that people might think the government pays too much attention to, more people (42%) chose ‘religious groups and leaders’ than chose any other domestic group. Religious groups and leaders came second only to ‘leaders of other countries’ in a list that also included ‘Newspaper headlines’, ‘Big business’, ‘the Royal family’, ‘Trade Unions’ and lastly ‘Ordinary people’. 41% believe this is our only life Another question found that 41% endorsed the strong statement: ‘This life is the only life we have and death is the end of our personal existence’. Fractionally more – 45% – preferred the broad view that ‘when we die we go on and still exist in another way’. Of those choosing all three of the ‘Humanist’ answers, 54% said this was our only life, against 38% who believed in some sort of continued existence. And of those seeing this as our only life, 79% chose two or all three of the ‘Humanist’ answers to the other questions. (Interestingly, 22% of those who endorsed the need for religion in answers to other questions also said this was our only life.)
‘Britain is basically a Humanist country, and this poll shows it,’ said Hanne Stinson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, which commissioned the poll from Ipsos MORI. ‘We have always been aware that many people who do not identify themselves as humanists, and this includes quite a few people who do not know what Humanism is, live their lives by what one might describe as humanist principles. People who join the Association often tell us that they have been humanists all their lives, or for the last 20 years or so, but didn’t know it. But it is very encouraging to find that 36% of the British population are not simply non-religious, but actually humanist in their outlook and their morality, and that very many others don’t feel they need religion to understand the universe, or to guide their moral decisions. These people may not belong to the Humanist Association, may not have even heard of Humanism, but they share our attitudes and we speak for them in our campaigns. ‘Bishops and Archbishops every day make more extravagant claims about Britain’s alleged Christian values, but here at last is the evidence to show they are wrong. The churches, despite their establishment and institutional privileges, have lost the right to speak for Britain. The Government still makes one concession after another to religion on the basis of that 70% census figure, but if the public resents Government kow-towing to religious leaders almost as much as they resent its subservience to foreign leaders, then ministers really need to think again. They should move towards a secular state in Britain, with the Government neutral on matters of religion and belief, no privileges for any belief system, and public debate conducted in shared language, not dominated by religious pronouncements based on theology.’ Ms Stinson added that her only surprise was that only 42% felt religion got too much attention from Government, and wondered how much higher this figure would have been if respondents had been able to select more than three options from the seven listed. ‘The other explanation might be a lingering deference to religion that has outlasted mass religious belief. Time and again religious groups get their way against overwhelmingly public opinion. They killed off the Assisted Dying Bill, which 4 out of 5 people supported; they have won wide exemptions from equality legislation so they can continue to discriminate against gay people and those who do not share their beliefs; and they will be doing their utmost to defend their 26 unelected members of Parliament when the Government tackles Lords reform this session!’
Andrew Copson, Education Officer at the BHA, said that the result was particularly interesting coming so soon after Government caved in to religious pressure over faith schools: ‘The government keeps making the mistake of seeing pressure from religious groups as widespread public opinion. Even though poll after poll has demonstrated wide public opposition to faith schools, religious groups have fought off all attempts to reduce the harm done by them, and instead have won more privileges and pay scarcely a penny of the costs of “their” schools.’