Living as a Humanist: The Family Way Part 1

Originally published in the 2013 Summer edition of Humanitie magazine.

We got nine families around a virtual round table and asked about how they live with humanism. Here are their very interesting answers. This is a three-part article. We start with three questions this issue and continue with more questions for the same participants in our next two issues of Humanitie.

*Participants are: Louise Young, Mella Potter, Brenda Reid, Marilyn Jackson, Tasca Shadix, Caroline Lambie, Eleanor Adair, Michael Davidson, Anonymous family – ages of chidren in family are given)
1. What would you answer if someone asked you “What is a humanist?”

BR: My son describes a humanist as someone who believes in humanity and human nature allowing for freedom of thought and action and by living with your own conscience.
SP: “An ethical atheist”. Which can be expanded to the longer answer along the lines of “for me living the one life I think I have to the full, without superstition, gods, or doctrine: with intellectual rigour, joy, compassion, and mutual respect: and treading as lightly on the planet as possible.”

MD: Someone who engenders their actions with positive virtues of the human character and is motivated to do so purely for the good of humankind, independent of a dogmatic moral code imposed by a spiritual faith system.

TS: My definition of humanism is “a happy non-believer who wants to do good things.”

CL: A person who is non-religious, not anti-religious. A person that believes that people are equal and shouldn’t judge one another according to their values. A good person that doesn’t need a religion to do good. As a humanist celebrant I am pleased that I can offer people an alternative to religious ceremonies, that celebrate their lives and the love and joy in their lives – rather than anything else.

Anon, 15: Someone who doesn’t believe in a deity but respects the right of others to do so.

Anon. 12: Someone who believes we have one life and do not believe in any god.

Anon, 8: The same as above, but the dust from your body passes your life on to nature… a bit like the Lion King

Anon, 19: A person who lives by the rule of: Treat others as you would treat yourself without the need for a deity or something to worship.

EA: I generally explain it as a perspective that values living and humanity without the need for religion.

LY: Humanists believe in many similar things to those from the main religions   when it comes to moral and ethical issues for example. We too believe in doing good in our lives, for those we love and the wider community and planet. However, where we disagree is that we don’t believe there is a higher power involved – we are masters of our own lives and fates. We believe in humanity.

MJ: Someone who lives a good life without needing a supernatural belief in one god or being to tell them right from wrong; if I had more rime. I would use my favourite definition that I often include in weddings “Humanists espouse secularism in our public life, freedom and human rights at home and globally, science and reason in our quest to know the universe and humanity in our treatment of ourselves and others.”


2. Do you (or will you) talk to your children about humanism? Do you (or will you) discuss religion with them? If so, how do you approach these concepts?

MJ: From an early age. I told my son Matthew (now almost 20) that I did not believe in a god, but that his Gran and Grandpa and most of his uncles and cousins did and that some people believed in one god, some in many and some in none, and that he could make up his own mind when he was older: but that the most important thing was to be kind to other people and treat them as he would want to be treated.

Anon Mum: As they come up… leave it to them to ask questions mostly or comment on something in newspaper or on TV or something someone has said or done at school.

BR: Religion is part of all of our lives, and every day we see it on television with topical debates or by wars being wars being waged, one of the important things that came through was that my family were allowed to make up their own minds. I came to humanism late in life and that was purely because as a child, a teenager and then as a wife and mother 1 wanted to be seen as doing the right things. Interestingly enough, it was my children that made me question my beliefs.

SP: Yes to both. But I don’t tell them what to think, but try to help them learn how to think. Also, pointing out that Gran was a Christian and a very good person helped.  Most importantly. I hope I have given them the tools to think for themselves, finding their own conclusions and paths. Encouraging them to think that science was crucial, and science has always been a staple of our conversation.

M: My only child Ada is approaching eleven months, so I haven’t yet, but I hope I will in due course talk generally and openly about the virtues which enhance or detract from a person’s way of being. I imagine such discussion might sensibly include the moral framework which underpins various world religions.

EA: Yes we talk to both our girls about religion, and about the fact that we’re a humanist family. The oldest is eight and a half, so obviously she can handle more complex conversations than the four year old and she also sees and hears a lot more about religion when she’s off at school or with friends. My approach is simple; I tell her that many people believe different things about what happens when you die and that many people believe in a god or gods, but that those explanations don’t work for me and Daddy. We prefer to use scientific evidence to try to understand the world. We do try to make them aware that religion can be a controversial subject, and that you need to always be respectful when discussing other people’s beliefs. It’s also important to me to let the girls know that even though we are a humanist family, they don’t have to share our feelings and that we would not be disappointed in them, if at some point, they decided they believed in God. I have an eleven year old who is interested in human psychology so asks a lot of questions about religion. He is very comfortable with his atheism and doesn’t consider a lack of religion to be in anyway lacking in life. He values his own perspectives and gives a lot of weight to the reasoning behind them. We discuss religion quite a lot and always leave it open that he may one day find he may interact with it differently than he does now. His Gran is a priest in the Church of England and so he can access different views on a personal level.


3. Do your immediate and extended family have humanist ceremonies at weddings, funerals and for the birth of a child (for example, naming ceremonies)? If so, what is your experience of these ceremonies? And how do you feel attending traditional religious ceremonies as a humanist?

MJ: My father requested and had a humanist funeral (in 2010) and my mother also wants that when her time comes. My uncle, my father’s younger brother, had a humanist funeral last month.

Anon Mum: No. We are happy to attend religious ceremonies, but find a lot of what they say irrelevant. Sometimes it’s sad when you’re told at a funeral nothing but that you are going to hell.

BR: Yes we do from weddings to renewal of vows to funerals – as a family we are more inclined to have a humanist ceremony. I accept any individual has the right to choose and if attending a religious ceremony I and my family listen and follow what is being said. We don’t partake, for example pray, we sit quietly and we reflect.

SP: Both my brother and I had a secular marriage, my parents and grandparents had religious funerals at their request, and I organised my parents’ funerals. I attend religious and non-religious funerals out of respect for the deceased and to support their families. I do not bow my head but do stand and sing with everyone else. Interestingly, at a religious graveside ceremony last year, where the mourners were informally gathered around the coffin, as I kept my head straight during prayers I noticed around 40% of the other mourners doing the same, showing the delicate balance of respect without faux observance.


MO: My nephew was named at an informal family naming ceremony, though not a formal humanist affair, it was warm and welcoming not only for my nephew, which I guess was the main purpose, but of family members who are dedicated to both the Christian and Buddhist faith. I wouldn’t necessarily describe myself as a humanist: nonetheless. I have felt awkward at Christian ceremonies in the past.

TS: Our wedding. We did not want our friend, who was going to marry us to have to be ‘ordained’ online beforehand, so we went first to the Justice of the Peace for a secret, legal marriage. Then we just made up the wedding ceremony we wanted. It wasn’t an official humanist wedding, but it was a coming-out of sorts! It was the first time I’d made a really public statement about my lack of religious belief.

CL: My husband and I had a humanist wedding. My Nana had a humanist funeral. But then my Granny had a Church of Scotland Funeral and my husband’s Granny had the same. My mother and her husband are Christians and my father and my mother in law are atheists. I am an agnostic. My children are yet to decide. So we are all varied. We do attend religious ceremonies out of respect for other people, but I find them awkward and find that they focus on Jesus rather than the people concerned. Which was one of the main reasons I became a celebrant to offer people the choice of a non-religious ceremony.

LY: We had a humanist wedding ceremony, that’s how we both first became involved. We enjoyed it so much I applied to become a celebrant! My parents have both expressed that they would like a humanist funeral when the time comes, although neither of them are members of the Society. My extendedfamily have mixed beliefs from regular churchgoers to armchair believers to atheists. I’m very respectful of others’ rights to believe in what works for them, as long as it’s not to the detriment of others. I would never try to convince someone away from their religion, just like I wouldn’t expect someone to do that to me. I’m happy attending religious ceremonies as it reflects the beliefs of that person, which is right. I do often find them a little impersonal, but it depends on who the person is who is delivering the ceremony.


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