Author Archives: humanisthistory

About humanisthistory

Callum Brown is the Professor of Late Modern European History at the University of Glasgow

Re-ritualisation?

Is this the capital of the cairn? If you set off north from Fort William in the West Highlands of Scotland, steering for the bridge over the sea to Skye, you will come across a layby on the left hand side where there are hundreds, very possibly thousands, of stone cairns. Most of them are small, admittedly but they have really covered the landscape for several hundred yards along the road. How it started I know not, but passers-by quickly get the hang of this. Just find some small stones and stick them on a pile. Or start a new one. Hey presto, we have a booming ritual, a new invented tradition.

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Getting angry with BBC’s ‘Thought for the day’

Nothing exercises the ire of British humanists and atheists more than religionists’ monopoly of the “Thought for the Day” slot on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme.  Less than 4 minutes’ long, I have found on visiting Humanist groups around the UK that this irritates British secularists in the same way as Americans get hot under the collar about God on the dollar bill.  So, complaints ensued when, on Boxing Day (26th December), a guest editor on the programme was prevented from allowing an atheist to broadcast in that slot (though a Unitarian was recruited instead, and the atheist spoke an hour earlier). But developing a Humanist strategy to deal with this longstanding ban requires some understanding of how the BBC bureaucracy has worked since it was founded in the 1920s.

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Kathleen Nott and the ‘problem’ of the female atheist

A noteworthy absentee from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is Kathleen Nott (1905-1999), who I came across recently. Nott was a poet, novelist, humanist and philosopher, and I think she deserves more attention.[1]

I came across Nott because she wrote the introduction to a rare species of book – the autobiography of a female British humanist and atheist, Yvonne Stevenson, The Hot-House Plant: An autobiography of a young girl (London, Elek/Pemberton, 1976), that I bought (but failed to read until recently) in a second hand bookshop.  Nott seems not to have written her own autobiography, but has left a considerable body of work of interest to the historian of humanism.

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‘Noneship’ is about non-believing and non-belonging: 84 per cent of British “nones” don’t believe in God, according to new YouGov poll

British adults “nones” (with no religion) are now clearly both non-believers as well as not belonging to a church or religious tradition. The results of a YouGov of 8,455 people, published today, indicate that British secularisation has a comprehensive non-religious character to it.[1]

Whilst 41 per cent of Britons identify as Christian, 38 per cent respond as being of “no religion”. In age groups terms, “nones” are in the majority amongst 18-19 year olds, with 47 per cent amongst those in their 20s, and 44 per cent of those in their 30s. This evidence supports the 2001 and 2011 censuses, and the British Household Survey data since 1983, which show dramatic growth in the proportion of the people not identifying with any religion.

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Why a secular-humanist historian likes churches

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St. Margaret’s Church, Clea-on-the-Sea, Norfolk

This was the view from the front door of a rented holiday home in Norfolk in eastern England that my wife and I stayed at for a fortnight each July for about ten years. The house was nothing exceptional (though at its heart was a two-roomed 17th century dwelling). But the view was stunning. As well as St Margaret’s Church and its graveyard (behind the wall on the left), we could see off to the right in the distance the church at Wiveton and the steeple of a third at Blakeney.  In between was a large common which until the 14th century had been the harbour that made Cley a centre of the wool trade. Completing a magical outlook was the roof of the local pub, a mere 45 second stroll through the graves.

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Is being “spiritual” to be “non secular”?

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Yoga at English Bay, Vancouver, 2009

A recent judgement (December 2013) [http://www.supremecourt.gov.uk/decided-cases/docs/UKSC_2013_0030_Judgment.pdf] by the British Supreme Court raises an interesting point about the epistemology of the secular. Whilst the judgement of their Lordships was undoubtedly right, since it ended one form of religious discrimination, the terms of their ruling exposed a shortfall in understanding contemporary no religionism.

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Estonia – few gods, but loads of angels

In late September 2013, I was in Estonia, widely referred to on the web as the ‘most godless’ nation in the world. This is based on a 2005 Eurobarometer poll Social values, Science and Technology Report (June 2005)[1] which recorded the Baltic state as having the lowest level of belief in the existence of God in all the 32 European nations polled. Only 16 per cent agreed with the statement “I believe there is a God”, with the Czech Republic next at 19 per cent, Sweden on 23 per cent, Denmark on 31 and Netherlands on 34 per cent; the UK stood on 38 per cent, and Germany on 48 per cent; holding up the European average at the other end were Malta on 95 per cent and Cyprus on 90 per cent agreeing with the statement.[2]

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