Neil Anderson conducts a wedding for a bride and groom in suit and white wedding dress with pink flower pattern.

Humanist Society interview series: Neil Anderson on growing humanism across Europe

September 27, 2023

For this instalment in our Humanist Society interview series, we speak to a celebrant who’s also helping to support the development of humanism across Europe. Neil Anderson first trained as a funeral celebrant, then went on to conduct weddings too, before becoming president of the European Humanist Professionals network.

We asked Neil about his background, how he became a humanist, and how to grow the movement across our continent.

Can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about how you became a celebrant?

I was brought up in Stirling and was fortunate in having parents with a scientific background. Religion was never more than an historical and sociological study for me. But I always felt uncomfortable defining myself as an atheist. It meant identifying as something I wasn’t rather than something I was. When I stumbled across humanism it was like a door opened to a sun-filled meadow!

I became a celebrant thanks to my wife, who saw that the Humanist Society was seeking funeral celebrants back in 2008. I am trained as a sociologist and a solicitor and so have been on a lot of courses! But the training to become a funeral celebrant was the most rigorous (and supportive) I have ever undertaken. It had to be. We were dealing with death, grief, and the ultimate rite of passage. I found what can only be described as “a calling.”

I went on to train as a wedding celebrant, too. At the last count I had conducted over 500 weddings, the length and breadth of Scotland.

I always felt uncomfortable defining myself as an atheist. It meant identifying as something I wasn’t rather than something I was. When I stumbled across humanism it was like a door opened to a sun-filled meadow!

Neil Anderson, humanist celebrant and president of European Humanist Professionals
A portrait photo of Neil Anderson. He has light hair, glasses, and a beard. He wears a black suit and white shirt with no tie, and stands infront of the window of a stone-walled house.

How did you become involved with the European Humanist Professionals (EHP) network? What is your role there?

I have worked and lived in many countries and continents so have always had an international focus. Back in 2010, the Humanist Society’s then-chief executive John Bishop, asked me to join him on the EHP board. Two years later I took on the role of President of EHP, a position I still hold. My predecessor, Freddy Boeykens, from Belgium, had served for 11 years and said that he identified me as a “willing victim”! I have now identified a similar enthusiast, and will hand on the mantle to my excellent colleague, Tale Pleym, from Norway, in December 2023.

Can you tell us a bit about the network’s activities to extend humanist services across Europe?

EHP supports the work of humanist professionals in the continent of Europe. They could be employees of humanist organisations or self-employed professionals working under the “badge” of a humanist organisation. They might also be volunteers for a humanist organisation.

One thing is clear: each nation is totally different! For example, in Flanders and Norway, humanist services are funded by the State. In Norway, humanist confirmations are part of the culture. But they are almost unheard of in Scotland and England.

Neil Anderson, humanist celebrant and president of European Humanist Professionals
Neil Anderson, with glasses and beard wearing a white suit, is amongst a group of ten people standing infront of a willow tree in a garden smiling at the camera.
The Board of EHP, COPENHAGEN, 2023

EHP aspires to be the natural portal and resource for European humanist professionals in several areas. These include ceremonies, education, and counselling and chaplaincy. We want to cultivate dialogue and exchange between humanist professionals across Europe. And we also support skills and knowledge development, and try to enhance awareness of humanist professionals and services. We communicate news, and generally try to advance humanist principles and practices.

The organisation has a four-year activity plan at the moment to try to make sure there are coherent and professional humanist services available all over Europe. We’ve set up regular activities to that end, including our summer school, congress, working visits and webinars.

What do you think the future holds for humanist services across Europe? What are some of the opportunities and challenges?

One thing is clear: each nation is totally different! For example, in Flanders and Norway, humanist services are funded by the State. In Norway, humanist confirmations are part of the culture. But they are almost unheard of in Scotland and England. In Iceland, Scotland and Ireland we can hold a legal humanist wedding but you still cannot do this in England or Wales. In France, the separation of church and state means you must get married by the town hall…

The gift of this work is simply in interacting with and helping some of my fellow humans as they negotiate the joys, perils, fears, and unknowns of the various rites of passage they’ve asked me to conduct.

Neil Anderson, humanist celebrant and president of European Humanist Professionals

Younger generations are increasingly demanding humanist services. They want humanism in their education and they want to mark key life events in humanist ways. That’s not just true in north-west Europe. We are finding the same thing in Lithuania, in Malta, and so on. This is a sign that the future looks bright for humanism, but we cannot be complacent. The push-back from the religious right is palpable, and so the ongoing work of EHP is crucial. 

What are some of your most vivid memories as a celebrant?

How to choose? Marrying my elder son and our wonderful daughter-in-law at Fingask Castle back in 2017 has to be up there. So does being asked to conduct funerals for some of my closest friends and for my mother-in-law. But at the end of the day, the gift of this work is simply in interacting with and helping some of my fellow humans as they negotiate the joys, perils, fears, and unknowns of the various rites of passage they’ve asked me to conduct. This is what recharges my batteries day after day.

To find out more about EHP, sign up to the mailing list, or join the Facebook group, visit www.humanistprofessionals.eu.

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