Nigel Bruce: A Humanist Life

Nigel Bruce was born in London in 1921. From the 1950s to the 1990s, he published many pamphlets and books, including Radical Readings: A Guide to the Humanist Perspective; A Student’s Guide to Secular Humanism[1]; and Face to Face With Families. He was a frequent letter writer to The Scotsman newspaper. He was a leading campaigner for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and organised the erection of a statue to the philosopher David Hume. In the 1990s he contributed to the redesign of religious education in Lothian Region Schools, and to the design of the children’s courts system in Scotland. Callum Brown interviewed Nigel in his Edinburgh home in April 2010. 

I think they thought pretty well alike, my father and mother. I can remember my mother discussing religion with me when I was at a very early age, and I can remember her saying that she’d been talking to a good friend of hers who said that he found it difficult going to church and who had said to her: ‘I find God in the mountain’, and she said, ‘That seems to be a perfectly intelligible thing to do, I think you can be a Christian without going to church’. I remember her saying that and make an impression on me. My father was slightly more ready to go to church and continue to do so into his seventies when he died. My mother was originally Church of Scotland but I think she, when she went down to London with him, she went into the Church of England and she used to take us to church. We were all christened, which was indication, we were conventional, but it was never forced on us and we never said prayers at bedtime. So they were liberal Christians, and open to all sorts of ideas.

I attended at first a boarding school at primary level as it were, which had a nice chapel, and I was always in the choir because I am quite musical. So we had sort of gently liberal Christian background with lots of music which I enjoyed. Then of course moving on, I move on to Winchester College, which is a, in a sense a religious school, has a lovely chapel and a lovely organ, and it has its own petite choir, so I was in the choir, but I enjoyed very much the singing. And again, we weren’t, we weren’t pressurised but it was expected that one would take Communion, so I took Communion and it didn’t have any meaning to me really, I just thought it was a thing one did as one grew up. Now at Winchester they had a headmaster who was very religious but very liberal, and I was in a, what was called a divinity class, which he supervised and we used to write essays for him about various issues in Christianity. He was a very interesting person and a very pleasant person, and he was interested in getting our ideas, about what we thought, so it was a good deal of toing and froing with him and I was grateful to him, and I think it was thanks to this discussion about Christianity with that headmaster that I continued at Oxford. I went on into New College but very, very briefly, because the War was just about breaking out, but I continued taking an interest in Christianity and to read all sorts of the new wave of liberal books that were coming out.

I only had four terms at Oxford, because I was, I had volunteered for the Welsh Guards. This became a tank regiment, and I was therefore sent into various places like Salisbury Plain to practise tank warfare, and there was a lot of time for reading then, because as we were stuck in Salisbury Plain with nothing to do, and my reading became quite intensive then, I read both about Christianity, and about Hinduism, Islam and various mystical religions. And there was a chance to discuss this with other officers who were also at that time reading a lot and discussing a lot. I went in as a Second Lieutenant and was then promoted to Lieutenant, and remained Lieutenant until the end of the war when I ended up as a Captain.

I was reading books by Julian Huxley very, very prominently. He was a great inspiration to me. There was a marvellous little set of books called the ‘Thinkers Library’ and I forget exactly when I started reading them but I got completely hooked on them. They were little books, and I think they cost a shilling each, and people like H.G. Wells wrote for them, and Bertrand Russell wrote for them. I started reading them but I continued reading them at that time, just prior to the invasion of Normandy.

In 1944 I went across with my battalion to Normandy, I think it was about 14 days after the initial landing by the frontline troops, and we ensconced ourselves just behind the beaches. Our beach was called Arromanche and it had been taken, there was a good deal of bloodshed by the frontline troops. The Germans then hemmed us in, and so we were stuck and bombarded for about 14 days I think. But the postal service seemed to go on, and one of the entertainments of life was censoring the letters of the troops, because the officers were allowed to censor the letters of the troops to make sure they didn’t reveal anything, and so in a way one, one got quite a good idea of what was going on in the minds of the troops. I don’t think religion came into any of that at all. I began to write notes, and I wrote an article which I sent to my father about what the troops were feeling about the war, and about life in general and he sent it to the editor of The Spectator who he knew and it was printed. So I think at that stage I was already seeing myself as somebody who is quite good at writing.

And then of course came the attack, when we attacked from Normandy to Caen with pretty disastrous results really, and a number of my friends were killed and I saw, the padre came into action you know, and blessed them all. This was a terrible time and this made me feel that there wasn’t a God, there couldn’t be a God, this was absolutely ridiculous and here we God lovers were being killed by other God lovers, it made no sense at all. So I think it was in the midst of the battle that I said: ‘Oh fuck you God!!’ [Laughs] − quite angry, quite angry. The other impressive thing at that time was when night time came, one officer was left on guard beneath the night sky, while the others took their rest, and when there were clear skies the effect of the stars above on this sleeping battle field was somehow very, very moving and, I developed a feeling that the universe was something that should influence one’s life, that one should see oneself as a mere animal living under this, this gorgeous universe. So I had quite a sort of emotional feeling towards human life as animal life at that time.

I had a marvellous mother who was a brilliant letter writer, and a lovely father who was a great admirer of the League of Nations Union, and he kept me interested in international affairs as a result of which I developed a desire to try after my war service to go into the United Nations. And made a bid to do so which wasn’t successful, but I subsequently managed to get into the British Foreign Service, as a sort of second best.

The interesting things I did I suppose were to serve in the Middle East which is full of religion. And also to serve in Africa, which is also full of religion. That period of my life gave me a very broad view of the various types of religious worship, the various sects within religions, the various tensions within religions, the huge historical background in the Middle East and the awareness that this was run by Jerusalem, this is where perhaps it all started. This was the place that God had come to create mayhem. This was a tremendous experience of how divisive religion has been and can be and will be and is. The divisive effect in Africa was of course more tribal, and Christianity tried to bring the tribes together and in that way was perhaps being quite useful. The colonial governors I thought were all excellent, and were not forcing Christianity on the local people, and were trying to encourage the elders of the different tribes to work together and not be divided by religion. But there were cases where the Protestant missionaries and Catholic missionaries were at logger heads, and that of course did no good at all. The major division between the Muslims and Christians I think at that time was fended off by the fact that across the middle belt of Africa there was a virtual dividing line, the Muslims tended to dominate the North, and the Christians were a minority there, and the Christians and animists tended to dominate the South. So I don’t recall at that time any great warfare between the Muslims and the Christians, which of course nowadays is very essential and very crucial.

I was sent to Syria which was very much threatened by the presence of Israel and which if they had power they would have tried to force the Jews back into the sea, but they didn’t have the power. Syria was a very interesting mix of cultures, and fortunately they were, well I was going to say they were very tolerant people but I think they realised what a mess they were in and any attempt they made at democracy didn’t work. So they had a series of dictators all of whom were really inspired, I think not by personal power, as most dictators are, but trying to hold the country together with all the tribal conflicts going [on] within it.

It just confirmed my fact that religion was just segmented, wherever you looked, whichever sect you looked at, there were always sub-sects. And Lebanon was a marvellous example where you had about 3 different sub-sects of Christianity, and three different sub-sects of Islam, and you had the Jews also. It just a jigsaw effect and it made one feel that you couldn’t support one against the other, they were all, they were all worshipping, seemed to be different Gods, and some of them said it was all same God, and it just confirmed one’s realisation that religion made absolutely no sense at all in that kind of setting.

This pamphlet from the British Humanist Association, ‘The Humanist Alternative’, this concept of alternative has played a very major part in my life. I mean, I don’t think it’s in any ways justifiable to drop Christianity and say nothing matters. You have to have an alternative, it’s that I have been working on ever since I think. I had been thinking about what is the basis of ethics, and the message that came to me was that there are four strands in ethics. There is an intellectual strand to which the key is reason, there is an emotional strand to which the key is compassion, there is an aesthetic strand to which the key is beauty, its slightly platonic isn’t it, and probably was platonic in certain way, and the fourth was a moral strand to which I gave the term honesty, and which is now called integrity I think. Do you realise that on the Scottish mace there are four terms written? I only learned this couple of years ago, on the mace of the Scottish parliament there are four terms of ethics which are almost identical with the four which I had in my peak experience. Very interesting. And I think they were put there by Donald Dewar, fascinating. I am not sure I can quote the four, but he has integrity for honesty, he has justice where I had beauty, and he has compassion like I had and he has his intellectual one. That was something that came out of Africa for me and turned me into feeling that ethics was an alternative to religion. At that stage I was not labelling as Humanist, but obviously was Humanist.

I joined the BHA and at that time I migrated to Scotland in 1961 and found a small Humanist group in Edinburgh, and discovered there was a slightly larger Humanist group in Glasgow. So we had an interesting chairman called in Edinburgh and we had a secretary who had come to Humanism from some curious sect of Brethren. Eric Walsh was also, quite a philosopher, particularly concerned with the psychology of delinquent boys, because he himself had been a delinquent boy and he was very interested in his own psychology and the psychology of other delinquent boys.

The little tiny little Humanist groups that we formed in Edinburgh said, ‘We must do more than talk, we must act’. So Eric Walsh and I were both interested in what was then known as delinquency, I think the term has rather gone out of use now. But it was scandalous at the time that if a boy misbehaved in almost any way he would be shunted off to what was then called an ‘approved school’, and although the schools were quite good they didn’t promise anything for the young men. Eric and I conceived this idea that we would establish a very small family run home, which would be open to boys who didn’t really need to be put away but whose families couldn’t cope with them anymore. So we founded a charity in 1964 called the Edinburgh Youth Homes which flourished for 15 years. It was one home to start with and then it was so successful that we established another one about 3 years later with 6 boys in each. There was quite a big fundraising, especially in the Humanist movement. We got quite a lot from the Humanist movement, and then once it was operating Edinburgh Corporation paid so much a week for the boys we took and we had extremely good relationships with the social work department, who came to trust us and to send the appropriate sort of boy to us. We told the authorities that we were Humanist and for a while there were objections raised to us being approved; it was the Committee I think that they didn’t think that it was appropriate that atheist should look after boys. But I mean that only lasted about a couple of months. I think we had a bit of a war, and then we had another bit of a war with them. They said we had to have a fire escape, and we said, no we don’t, there were two reasons, one the boys were getting in and out quite well without one (laughs), and the other is we are not an institution. We refused to be an institution, so we won that one too. There were lots of hurdles but we overcame them alright. My wife was enormous help of course, and she did some of the treasurer’s work, and she gave a lot of emotional and other support to the couple in charge, who we recruited by advertising in the BHA Journal.

David Hume’s a big element in my thinking. When I was still searching around for my own view of Humanism, when I came to Scotland, I began reading Scottish philosophy and I began reading for the first time David Hume, and I realised that he was very much the sort of Humanist that I would like to be, because not only did he write eloquently against immortality and against miracles, but he demanded an ethic and he took apart virtues particularly which was an expression of the way he saw ethics. He distinguished between natural virtues which nowadays psychologists would see in terms of reciprocity, and instincts. And that was one group of virtues and that was one direction from which our moral feelings came, and then there was what he called the artificial virtues which are the virtues the society imposes on the community, the sort of conventional group of virtues. This seems to be a very intelligent way of looking at ethics. I was so excited by this discovery that Hume to my mind was a Humanist, and that he actually was quite a guide to how one should form one’s Humanist views, that I suggested [in the 1990s] that we should establish a statue to him. We had a little competition for a statue, and the winner of the competition was a brilliant young sculptor from Paisley called Alexander Stoddart, and this led to his brilliant presentation of Hume as a Greek philosopher in Edinburgh.[2] Aren’t we lucky as Scots to have perhaps the world’s greatest post-Athenian philosopher as a Scot?

Up to that time nobody ever thought about children I don’t think, and I was in at the very start of the drafting of the UN Convention on Children’s Rights,[3] and it was a wonderful time then. I went to Helsinki for one of the final conferences on drafting Children’s Rights, and I was appointed the Chair of one of the committees there. The right that I was fighting for and I think achieved, is the right for children to know their parentage. I think at that time it was regarded as quite a strange idea, but nobody, nobody knows their parentage, surely I mean you just grow up and you grow up with the people you are with. And I felt very deeply and still do that you can’t actually be a contented, rounded, integrated individual, unless you know, first of all who your parents are or were, and secondly unless you’ve had a chance to relate to them. This has now become a part of my Humanist view looking at it in a very broad sense that Humanism must surely be about the future. In the early days when I was reflecting on what Humanism really is, I came to the conclusion that it was a, although it was based on thinking in the past, it must surely be, be rooted in respect for the future and commitment to the future. It seems to me that part of the Humanist message is to look to the future, and ‘to leave the world a better place than you found it’.

To me Humanism is a lot more than science. I think science is very strong in the medical profession, and I think Humanists in the medical profession are going to find it quite difficult in future to come to terms. And then of course is the issue of euthanasia, isn’t there, where the medical profession is, I think quite understandably reluctant to assist in human death, but where Humanists must insist in retaining dignity at the close of life. So I think there are big problems here. But I do think that the future must be what the Humanists are looking at, rather than the past or the present.

I mean I think Humanists should be available in hospitals, and I don’t think the name should be the final issue. You see I am worried about the name ‘spiritual’ myself. I always, in my writings, I always avoid the term ‘spiritual’ except in inverted commas, but if you join a chaplaincy you have to be happy to use the word ‘spiritual’ I think, which I would personally feel very uncomfortable about. I have produced an essay, designed as a small booklet called The Challenge of Humanist Ethics and the message of this is that you can’t be a Humanist unless you work through your ethics, know what they are, and commit yourself to them. There is an element of commitment at the end of an ethical belief. This you will find divides ethics in to 3 quite separate sections: personal ethics, social ethics, and planetary ethics. My challenge to Humanists is that they shouldn’t really call themselves Humanists unless they have worked out for themselves what their own personal ethic is, what their social ethic is, and what their planetary ethic is, and they have taken a commitment to it.  These four things are necessary before you can call yourself a really qualified Humanist.


[2] The statue to Hume was unveiled in Edinburgh’s High Street in 1995. Nigel Bruce was chairman of the Saltire Society committee that oversaw the venture.

[3] In the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989, the right of a child to know, as far as possible, its parents is engrossed in Article 7, and the right of those separated to maintain direct relations with a parent in Article 9/3.

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