Conversation with Hanne Stinson — Former CEO, British Humanist Association
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How did you first become a humanist? Did this coincide with an atheism?
Hanne Stinson: I was brought up without any religious beliefs, but also encouraged by my parents to respect other people with various religions and to explore different religions and make up my own mind. That was probably partly because my parents had a mixed religious heritage. My father had a Jewish father and Catholic mother, while my mother was brought up as a Protestant Christian, but they had both become either atheist or agnostic before they met or had their children. As a child I was always interested in — and quite puzzled by — religion, but never tempted by any of them. I would have called myself an atheist from a very young age, but only came across the concept and the term ‘humanism’ in my late teens. As I had never felt really happy defining myself by a negative — by the god or gods I did not believe in — I welcomed humanism, and the positive beliefs it seemed to encompass, with open arms.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is the biggest umbrella that humanist, as a term and worldview and ethical stance, and humanism can encompass?
Hanne: Like every ‘ism’, it all depends how you define it. While working with and for a humanist organisation, I was sometimes irritated by the way that some religions, not least the Catholic Church, tried to claim humanism as their own. They, of course, had a different definition involving caring for humanity, but within their religious beliefs.
I have always seen humanism as encompassing a very broad range of approaches, but I think the common factors are a rejection of religion and superstitious beliefs, a rational and evidence-based approach, and a commitment to working with others to make the world a better and happier place. I also recognise that people don’t need to describe themselves as humanist to fit within those concepts.
Jacobsen: What are some of the major perennial issues for humanists around the world — indeed, the formal irreligious generally?
Hanne: Humanists in different countries and cultures face different issues, depending largely on the power and influence of religion and religious organisations in the society they live in. A humanist or atheist living in a country where atheism is punishable in law, clearly faces different problems to a person living in a more secular state, where the main issues may be about discrimination and a lack or respect for humanism as a legitimate set of personal beliefs. For many humanists, one of the most difficult issues on a personal level may be rejection by their own families or their community, and I think that the common assumption that morality is based on religion can also make life difficult for some.
Jacobsen: What are some of the prejudices against humanists in law, in culture, in social interactions, even in work and economic contexts?
Hanne: I have already mentioned the assumption that morality can only come from religion, and, even in a relatively free and fairly tolerant society like Britain, I was often surprised by how many people believed that. In the British Humanist Association (the BHA — but now called Humanists UK) we would sometimes get phone calls from parents genuinely concerned about how they could ensure that their children understood why they should be good, but I suppose if you have been brought up believing that a god would judge and punish you, and had then rejected your religion, a parent might feel that they are bringing their child up in a vacuum, and be looking for a bit of support from other non-religious parents, just to give them a bit of confidence that saying ‘how would you feel if someone did that to you?’ to a child may be better than threatening them with eternal damnation!
I have sometimes in discussion asked religious people whether they would go out and steal things or murder people if they lost their religion. Most people say ‘of course not’, but I have occasionally been shocked when someone answers ‘yes, if I thought I could get away with it’. Those people should probably keep their religion!
I might add that far too many people, often encouraged by religious leaders, equate a lack of religious belief with either hedonism or rampant consumerism.
When I worked at the BHA we devoted a lot of effort to trying to address inequalities under the law, many of which still exist. I find it very difficult to accept that state funded faith schools can discriminate not only in pupil admissions, but also employment, to give just one example, and I am outraged by the fact that the UK still has Church of England bishops in the House of Lords as of right. Twenty six of them. Humanist campaigners have made huge steps over recent years, but there is still a lot of work to do.
Jacobsen: In your time as one of the higher-ups in the formal humanist world, what have you found to be the most true?
Hanne: This is a difficult question. I think I would have to say that it is amazing how a very small number of people, whether staff or committed volunteers, can make a huge difference. That was certainly true in the BHA, which had a very low public profile and only some 2,500 paid up members when I became CEO, although it is much larger and more influential now, and also in the International Humanist and Ethical Union, which even has a voice in the United Nations. But it is even more true of the volunteers in countries which were and are building new humanist organisations against all the odds, whether in Africa, Asia or South America. I have enormous admiration for everything people in the many new and small organisations around the world are achieving despite having little in the way of resources and in the face of a huge amount of opposition and sometimes persecution from the established religious organisations.
Jacobsen: You were the CEO for the British Humanist Association in the past. How did you coordinate or help manage the humanists for the country?
Hanne: The first thing I would say is that I never tried to ‘manage’ the humanists in the country, apart form the staff team of course. We used to joke that organising humanists is a bit like trying to herd cats! After all, humanists are, by definition, people who think and decide for themselves. What we tried to do was to support and represent humanists, and the non-religious more broadly — whether or not they identified as humanist.
The main areas of support were in the provision of humanist funerals, weddings and baby naming ceremonies, and also education, whether providing materials on humanism for schools and teachers, or public events. I think the education work is important because, while we never sought to convert or indoctrinate anyone, many people valued confirmation that others shared their ideas and beliefs, or opportunities to explore their existing thoughts and ideas.
As regards representation, this varied from the campaigns we ran on equality legislation and the interpretation of human rights law, to giving humanists a voice on all kinds of issues that affect them. We always knew that humanists felt they didn’t have much of a voice in the public sphere (unlike organised religions) but this was really brought home to us when we launched the ‘Atheist Bus’ campaign in 2009. We intended to raise £5,500 to put a simple message: ‘There is probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’ on a few buses in London, but we raised more than £150,000 in a few weeks, almost all of it from very small donations from a very large number of individuals. From the messages they left, we knew that what they wanted was to see their ideas on public display, and to feel — often for the first time — that they had a voice.
Jacobsen: For the youth, for the upcoming generations, especially in North America and Western Europe — who tend to be more irreligious than their parents, what is your big message for them?
Hanne: I am not sure why you are focusing on North America and Western Europe as it seems to me that, all around the world, younger people are more likely to reject religion. There are some exceptions, particularly in countries that have emerged from a repressive regime so the religions have a new found freedom, and it is also true that some young people develop more extreme or fundamentalist religious beliefs than their parents. There are of course also countries where it is very difficult to be openly non-religious.
I am also unsure that I am in any way qualified to give young people a message (they do pretty well on their own), but if I had to, I think it would be about being firm in your beliefs, looking for opportunities to explore them further, and making contact with like-minded people, while all the time respecting people with different beliefs and recognising how important those beliefs might be to them. If you can find a local organisation, or find support online, that may be helpful.
Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Hanne.