Our Humanist Future

Below is the text of the speech given to launch Our Humanist Future strategic plan by Humanist Society Scotland Chief Executive Fraser Sutherland.

Thank you to everyone here for coming along and sharing this special day for everyone at Humanist Society Scotland.

Today sees the launch of our new Strategic Plan for the charity Our Humanist Future which lays out the Trustee’s vision for the future of the organisation in the coming years.

It’s fantastic for the Society to have the opportunity to hold today’s proceedings in the wonderful Royal Society of Edinburgh, who as an organisation have been at the forefront of promoting rational, scientific and artistic endeavour in Scotland for well over 200 years. Indeed on the walls of the room in which we sit are just some of the major contributions members of Scotland’s academy have made over its centuries of history. The RSE today are at the forefront of developing a modern enlightenment for Scotland to help address the global challenges facing the world in the 21st Century. Our very own Chair Maggie is herself a fellow of the academy today.

For humanists this endeavour to foster critical thought, rational enquiry and artistic expression embodied by this venue is core to our beliefs and values.  Because as humanists we have been at the forefront of promoting this vein of scientific thought with supportive compassion for decades not just here in Scotland but across the globe.

In 1952 humanists from all over the world came together in the Netherlands to agree what would become known as the Amsterdam Declaration. This statement sets out the fundamental principles of modern humanism that gave birth to our modern movement as we know it today. It did so on the bedrock of humanist thought that can be traced back for centurys – even millennia. So long as there have been humans – there has been humanism. Those individuals who have observed the universe as a natural phenomenon and live a fulfilled life on the basis of reason and humanity.

Today Humanist Society Scotland has inherited this long fulfilling history and in Our Humanist Future we set out where next for Humanism in Scotland. But to know where we are going we have to understand where we have come from. Organised self-monikered humanist groups have exsisted in Scotland since the beginning of the 20th century. Originally part of the British Humanist Association these groups banded together in the late 1980’s to form Humanist Society Scotland to make space for a stronger advocacy platform for humanist thought in Scotland. Since then the organisation has become a registered charity and grown its membership and supporter base to new highs. It’s made the case for secularism, inclusive rational education, protection of human rights, LGBT equality, protecting bodily autonomy, advocating for the right to die at the end of life and challenging misinformation and pseudoscience.

But alongside this, the Society plays an ever-increasing role as a community and as an organisation which helps individuals express their beliefs in an open and democratic society that respects freedom of expression.

It was in 2005 that a defining moment happened in the history of Scottish Humanism – when, for the first time in the UK, organised humanists were recognised as being in right of equal respect in the eyes of law – specifically the right to solemnise marriage. This change has helped transform the public awareness of humanism in Scotland to levels never before considered possible. To give you a sense of this growth – in the past five years alone Humanist Society Scotland registered celebrants have carried out over 30,000 weddings, funerals and naming ceremonies. Research carried out by the society in 2018 revealed that over 60% of the Scottish population had attended a Humanist ceremony in the proceeding decade. To put that in perspective that is over three million people. That in fifteen years the charity could grow to reach such a wide audience is testament to the commitment and hard work of many many members, supporters, volunteers, celebrants, campaigners, trustees and staff over the years.

But to our future and what lies ahead.

Well, we continue to have a responsibility to meet that demand for people to mark key life events and to gather together in local communities and national events to share and encourage humanist thought. And – unapologetically pitch here – I hope you all here today will consider coming to our national conference in May in Glasgow this year to do just that!

The organisation has also grown it’s more ‘hands-on’ humanism through its volunteer programmes both in schools and helping homeless people. Our growing network of StreetCare volunteers in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Stirling provide a much needed non-judgemental on-street food service. This project is only possible due to the long and committed hours of hundreds of volunteers and kind sponsors and local business support.

But we also have a duty to act with conviction and courage – where we see grave injustices, inequality and restrictions on fundamental and basic human rights and needs – and not just in Scotland. At home, of course, there is still much to do to ensure that freedom of thought and expression is protected and respected across society. Where young people in our schools have a real say on how they interact with religion during their education. It continues to be a stain on an otherwise progressive nation’s record that the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child would feel the need to openly criticise Scotland as lagging behind much of Europe in this area. I hope that with the First Minister and her cabinet’s full and firm commitment to endorsing the convention on the rights of the child in their most recent programme for government this is a clear intention to resolution. We will continue to make this case at each and every opportunity.

We will also be the voice that demands respect for the choice of an assisted death for those who choose it in a safely regulated way. I do not regard our society’s approach to people suffering at the end of life as compassionate as it can or should be. Many jurisdictions around the world have shown that assisted dying can be implemented safely and in a way that fully allows a competent individual control over their own bodies. As humanists this right bodily autonomy is a core value that has never diminished. To pretend exporting individuals rights to countries like Switzerland is a failure of compassion and respect for individual choice. We need respect for everyone’s last rights here in Scotland.

We also have a duty to support our friends in the humanist community around the world. Sadly for too many of our global compatriots even attending an event like we have here today would result in harassment, persecution, and even death. We need to challenge and deconstruct the legal restrictions which encourage such violence and persecution. Such restrictions include blasphemy laws that are still too prevalent across the globe and which are used to target religious minorities and humanists alike. Scotland has it’s part to play in this too. Our common law restriction against blasphemy is part of this global problem. To pretend or be dismissive otherwise plays right into the hands of autocratic regimes delighted at such a seal of approval that this law sends. We can be better than this. After the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in Paris in 2015 Humanists International launched its End Blasphemy Laws campaign. Since then eight Parliaments, including Ireland, New Zealand and Canada have listened to this evidence – let’s make Scotland the next on that list.

To our ceremonies provision which we will continue to foster the growth of and extend the reach of into more communities across Scotland so that more humanists can access the marking of key life events in line with their beliefs.

And it is with this in mind I am delighted to introduce our guest today. Poetry almost always forms part of a humanist ceremony, a writing form that really helps the celebrant or participants convey the spirit of the occasion with those gathered to mark the occasion. Jackie Kaye is the Scots Makar, our national poet, a position she has held since 2016. Her first collection of poetry, ‘The Adoption Papers’, won several awards including the Scottish Arts Council Book Award and the Saltire award. Other works – poetry, fiction and plays – explore the power of language, health and sickness, the experience of being black in Britain and gender identity issues. Her poetry has covered a wide plethora of social issues and personal reflection on life that often sees it read at many humanist ceremonies. And I am delighted to say that Jackie has agreed to read a small selection of her poems that she feels captures the essences of the occasion marked by these humanist ceremonies.

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