A humanist response to ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ – Pope Francis’ 2013 manifesto

This is the text of a talk given on 20th June 2018 at the invitation of Westminster Inter Faith Group, which is linked to Westminster Cathedral, the ‘mother church’ of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. I should give the leader of the group, John Woodhouse, credit for his efforts to ensure a wide range of views are heard and considered.

‘Evangelii Gaudium’, ‘The Joy of the Gospel’, was a document issued by Pope Francis in 2013, shortly after he became Pope.


As you’d expect, like most humanists, I’m an atheist, so I found plenty to disagree with in Pope Francis’ underlying theology in Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). But let’s take that as a given and focus on the other aspects of what he says. And I should add that I’m giving my personal perspective as a humanist – there is no official Humanists UK line on this document.

The impetus for this new evangelical drive came from a Synod of Bishops meeting in 2012. I can see why they were worried. The Church is, in many places, in decline.  In Britain in 2016, roughly a third of people who were brought up in Catholic households now identify as non-religious[1]. The overall Catholic proportion of the British population is remaining roughly steady at around 9% only because immigration, mainly from Poland, has so far made up for the attrition. Catholics in Brazil have dropped from 90% of the population in 1970 to 50% now. The institution is under threat.

So Francis makes it clear that this document is a call to arms: “I hope that all communities will devote the necessary effort to advancing along the path of a pastoral and missionary conversion which cannot leave things as they presently are. ‘Mere administration’ can no longer be enough.”

But Evangelii Gaudium goes a lot further than that. He sees two big problems:  the state of the world and the state of the church. His thesis seems to be that fixing the state of the church, in which evangelism – in the very broad way he uses it – has a part to play, will make a major contribution to fixing the state of the world. He wrote Evangelii Gaudium shortly after he became Pope in 2013. I read it as, effectively, his manifesto.


His analysis of what he calls the challenges of today’s world focuses on two broad areas: firstly, socio-economic exclusion, inequality, and the ills of the financial system; and secondly a range of cultural and religious issues, including the state of his own church.

He blames poverty, inequality and social exclusion on over-reliance on trickle-down economics, free markets and “a globalisation of indifference”.  He complains about “the new idolatry of money”, globalisation, a global elite beyond the reach of state control, corruption, and “a limitless thirst for power and possessions” which means that anything fragile, including the environment, is “defenceless before the interests of a deified market”. He blames the injustices of the socioeconomic system for rising levels of violence. And he calls for the reform of the financial system based on a “non-ideological ethics” to bring about balance and a more humane social order.

It’s hardly news that a religious leader says the world is unfair and excessively materialistic. What’s different here is the specificity of the analysis and the language used. He’s very political. Although I don’t think he’s got everything right – the causes of the financial crash were rather more complex than he seems to think for example. And he generalises wildly, ignoring the fact that an analysis 100% applicable to Latin America may be only 30% applicable to Britain, Germany or China. But overall, I think a lot of people, regardless of their religion of belief, would agree with his concerns about inequality and corruption. He’s hardly alone in thinking that. On the other hand, his analysis must be anathema to many others – I can’t see how a committed American Republican could support him for instance.

In making these important points, though, he omits some others. The last 200 years, and the last few decades in particular, have seen an unprecedented decline in the proportion of people living in absolute poverty, that’s living on less than $1.90 a day. It’s currently around 10%, a quarter of what is was in 1981[2]. Not good enough of course – there are millions of real lives behind the statistics – but it’s a dramatic improvement by any standard. Many would claim it’s attributable to trade and globalisation, with wealth from developed countries moving to all the places our clothes and mobile phones are made. And he doesn’t mention factory conditions or the need for organised labour to avoid exploitation.

Something similar applies to war and violence. It’s striking that Evangelii Gaudium doesn’t mention war among the world’s problems, although the Syrian conflict had been running for two years when it was written. While war and other violence continue to plague the world, as Stephen Pinker has demonstrated, “violence has been in decline over long stretches of time…and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.”[3] Of course, that doesn’t mean it will stay that way. But it does mean the Pope’s analysis is rather one-sided.

Nevertheless, he’s right that there are big social and economic issues to be tackled.


He groups his other global problems under the general banner of “culture”. Here again, there is much that people from all sorts of backgrounds, including humanists, can agree with. For example, freedom of religion and belief is constrained in many countries. We should all deplore the persecution of Christians, atheists, Ahmadiyya Muslims, Rohinga Muslims or anyone else. And it’s no surprise to find his concerns for social cohesion, individualism, and family life. But he elides that into concern about what he calls “relativism”. For example, he says “We should recognise how, in a culture where each person wants to be bearer of his or her own subjective truth, it becomes difficult for citizens to devise a common plan which transcends individual gain and personal ambition.” By relativism he seems to mean pluralism. Not only is that a challenge to democracy as a means to decide what should happen, but it implies that there’s a major problem with the city we’re in now, as London has a massive diversity of religions and beliefs, and massive diversity within each grouping, including among Catholics and the non-religious. Actually, London works pretty well and I think we should be proud of it. We teach people to think for themselves on these matters and, as a secularist, I think we should respect their right to draw their own conclusions, provided they don’t then erode the rights of others.  The alternative seems to be a religious hegemony. That might be attractive for a Pope, but we all know where it can lead.

While he’s ok with cultural diversity per se, which he says is “not a threat to Church unity”, he is concerned about it in the sense that “in many [developing] countries globalisation has meant a hastened deterioration of their own cultural roots and the invasion of ways of thinking and acting proper to other cultures which are economically advanced but ethically debilitated”.  Of course, there are real issues here. But the example he gives, referring to Asia and Africa, is about the sacredness of marriage and the stability of the family in the face of what he considers to be poor, or at least culturally-inappropriate, examples in western mass media. That may be so. But he doesn’t mention the positive contribution of global sharing on women’s rights, women’s health or the fight against FGM, or the fact that it is culturally-appropriate Nigerian mass media, in the form of the Nollywood film industry, which has reinforced belief in witchcraft across Africa[4] . Homosexuality isn’t mentioned anywhere in the document. The most charitable explanation for these omissions is that they are the compromises required to find common messages for audiences in several continents.

Beyond these wider issues, some of his concerns under the “cultural” heading are in fact concerns about external challenges to the Church.  They comprise both what he calls “the onslaught of contemporary secularism”, and competition from other faiths.

By “Secularism” he seems to mean “living without a religious identity”. That’s not the meaning that most British Secularists give it. We say it’s about the neutrality of government in matters of religion or belief; freedom of religion and belief – provided it doesn’t erode the rights of others; and lack of discrimination. I’d recommend Andrew Copson’s recent book on Secularism, which will become part of the Oxford University Press “Very Short Introduction” series and which puts it in its varied international contexts.

Francis sees Secularism as a “challenge to inculcating the faith”, bemoaning parents who fail to have their children baptised, or to “teach them how to pray”. He bemoans “spiritual desertification…as a result of attempts by some societies to build without God or to eliminate their Christian roots”, adding a quote that, in these places “the Christian world is becoming sterile, and it is depleting itself like an over-exploited ground, which transforms into a desert”. But it turns out that quote is from Cardinal Newman in 1833. This isn’t new.

He accepts that deficiencies in the Church itself may be contributing to the decline. He lists “machismo, alcoholism, domestic violence, Low Mass attendance, fatalistic or superstitious notions which lead to sorcery and the like”. There seems to be a misfit here with his enthusiasm for what he calls “popular piety”, which to my mind includes attributing miraculous powers to statues and relics. In fact he explicitly mentions “journeying together to shrines” as an “evangelising gesture”. From the outside, it seems that some forms of superstition are more ok than others.

What is pretty astonishing, though, is that this list of deficiencies doesn’t include the fact that Catholic priests have sexually and physically abused children all over the world and the Church has protected the abusers and covered up the abuse. This is such a major stain on the Church’s reputation, and has had such major repercussions, it seems strange that Francis has apparently decided to play it down.

Then there are more subtle issues which are largely invisible to those on the outside. He quotes his predecessor talking about “the grey pragmatism of daily life of the Church, in which all appears to proceed normally, while in reality faith is wearing down and degenerating into small mindedness”, and he talks about a “tomb psychology transforming Christians in to mummies in a museum”. Strong stuff. Then there are demotivated pastoral workers, and recruitment problems for the priesthood. Yet there’s no mention of celibacy. And he rules out women priests, while emphasising women’s rights and the “equal dignity” of men and women. I wonder how long those positions will be sustainable.

Among the reasons he gives for losing adherents to other religions is “relativistic subjectivism” and, significantly for today’s discussion, “our difficulty in restoring a mystical adherence to the faith in a pluralistic religious landscape”. To me these apparent problems sound more like “thinking for yourself”. Ironically, and to his credit, he explicitly encourages “critical thinking”.

He attacks the idea of a “purely spiritual faith” and “immanentism”, which apparently means a denial of God’s transcendent reality in favour of a wholly subjective form of faith. “Today” he says, “our challenge is not so much atheism as the need to respond adequately to many people’s thirst for God, lest they try to satisfy it with alienating solutions or with a disembodied Jesus who demands nothing of us with regard to others”.  The language he uses here about incarnation and “personal relationships …..with God…Christ…Mary and the saints”, devotions he calls “fleshy”, is rather off-putting for a humanist. But underlying it is the concern that a religion or belief that only looks selfishly for spiritual or material well-being – such as the ‘theology of prosperity’ which is popular in Latin America and parts of Africa – means not caring for others. He sees that as a core of the message. And on that there’s common ground.

So those are the problems. He then turns to the solutions.


His solutions to socioeconomic problems are no different from those that many others would offer. He wants a more people-oriented financial system, greater equality and so on.  But there is something a little patronising in the implication that charity and concern for others is a specifically Christian characteristic. He contrasts St.Paul’s emphasis on looking after the poor with the “self-centred lifestyle of the pagans” – I guess he means the pre-Christian Romans – which he sees re-emerging in modern society. Setting aside the fact that slaves were surely among the worst off people in Jesus and Paul’s time, yet neither of them expressed an objection to slavery, he’s simply wrong about lack of charity in pre-Christian Rome and Greece[5], and it also featured in Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism, and subsequently in Islam. Modern Britons are among the world’s greatest contributors to charity, while also being among the least religious –last year we were 7th out of 139 in the World Giving Index 5 year ranking – the top three were Myanmar, the USA and New Zealand.

While it was no surprise to find his emphasis on including the poor in society, his claim that “for the Church, the option for the poor is primarily a theological category rather than a cultural, sociological, political or philosophical one” would seem to make little practical difference. In practice, while charity has a vital role, structural change in this area is more likely to be brought about in the political arena than the religious – compare universal health care in Europe and the US. To be fair, he recognises that and encourages “responsible citizenship and participation in political life”.

In some respects, I think the religious perspective might even get in the way. For example, he says that the poor are “beautiful above and beyond all appearances” and “the love by which we find the other pleasing leads us to offer him something freely”. I’m not sure that it’s desirable to put “the poor” into a different them-and-us category which we are obliged to consider “beautiful”, rather than simply recognising everyone as fellow human beings with equal rights and similar needs whose suffering it is right to alleviate. As Bertrand Russell said: “The happy life is, to an extraordinary extent, the same as the good life”. We all gain from helping others.


The four principles he offers for the construction of a just and peaceful society – “time is greater than space”, “unity prevails over conflict”, “realities are more important than ideas” , and  “the whole is greater than the parts” – are fine, to varying degrees, but I didn’t find them particularly helpful, or particularly specific to the Pope’s position.

When it comes to fixing the Church’s problems, he goes beyond simply counteracting the negatives he’s identified to a radical vision of “a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.” The implication is that the message is more important than the survival of the institution. He wants “a Church which is poor and for the poor”. That’s pretty bold coming from the CEO, especially one sitting in the splendour of the Vatican.  I’m not sure I believe it. Without the institution and its resources there is no mission, and he hasn’t got a job. In fact I think it’s really one of several challenges to Cardinal Burke and his followers in the Church’s conservative wing. Francis wants the organisation to “abandon the complacent attitude that says: ‘We have always done it this way’”. Among other things, that means taking into account developments in social science, and recognising that, as Thomas Aquinas apparently pointed out, “the precepts which Christ and the apostles gave to the people of God ‘are very few’”. Just in case that wasn’t clear, he says “For those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion”.

But the biggest challenge for the Church is that it is losing active adherents. While he would argue that doing good works and arguing for the poor is itself an evangelical activity, there’s no escaping the fact that he sees a need for evangelism, or missionary activity, in a more conventional sense. The targets are not only “those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him”, but also both existing Catholics who rarely go to church, and lapsed Catholics, where the aim is “to help them experience a conversion” – all rather ‘Born Again’ I thought. As an aside, it’s interesting that, among the major faiths, only the Catholic Church refers to former adherents as “lapsed”, with the implication that they’re still really Catholics and may be back later. In reality most are ex-Catholics, just as those who have left Islam are ex-Muslims.

He mentions the fact that evangelism will highlight the difference between the Church’s ideal self-image and the actual image it currently has. He says this difference is the “source of the Church’s heroic and impatient struggle for renewal”.  That felt to me rather disingenuous. The problem is not simply one of image, but of substance, especially on the child abuse issue, but also on some other ethical matters.

To be fair, he does try to deal with the problem of divergence between Church teaching and changed public ethics.  Homosexuality and divorce aren’t mentioned explicitly, but it’s hard not to think that’s what he has in mind when he says “the biggest problem is when the message we preach then seems identified with those secondary aspects which, important as they are, do not in and of themselves convey the heart of Christ’s message”. He refers to a hierarchy of truths, all descended from the core message of “the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ” and the need to see God in others”.  He wants evangelism to be focussed on this positive message, not on rules, if the edifice of the Church’s moral teaching isn’t to collapse. I don’t think that will work if the underlying issues are not addressed. He may not think issues such as homosexuality and divorce are major issues, but a lot of other people do. But it’s hard to see how he can address them without causing a rift in the edifice he’s trying to protect.

While he tries to draw a distinction between evangelising and proselytising, he says that Christians are duty-bound to “proclaim the Gospel” and the Church will grow because people find the missionary message attractive. I think this is a meaningless distinction:  no-one can ever be forced to believe something they don’t believe. And “proclaiming the Gospel” – depending on how it’s done – is indistinguishable from proselytisation if you’re on the receiving end.  Even more contentious is his emphasis on the role of Catholic schools which, quote “always strive to join their work of education with the explicit proclamation of the Gospel, are a most valuable resource for the evangelisation of culture”. As you would expect, as a humanist I find it astonishing that schools with that objective continue to be financed by the state.

That’s especially a problem in a society such as ours. His respect for the sciences is, of course, something I’d agree with. But then he goes on to complain that “positivism and scientism refuse to admit the validity of forms of knowledge other than those of the positive sciences”, which denies “other areas of knowledge such as…faith itself, which elevates us to the mystery transcending nature and human intelligence”. Few humanists would go along with scientism in the sense of denying the reality of emotions and all the other subjective human experiences which make life what it is. But talk of mystery transcending nature as a real thing, as opposed to something people have created to explain subjective feelings and answer their desires, is where we part company. And when he says “the Church has no wish to hold back the marvellous progress of science” presumably a line is drawn when it contradicts Church truth claims. For example, we know that homo sapiens, while special in what we have achieved and the richness of human life, is in genetic terms not special in any way – we’re just a particular human animal species that has been very successful over the geologically-short period of around 100,000 years. We also know that no-one is actually possessed by evil forces, physical miracles don’t happen, and the Turin Shroud dates from the 14th century.

At the same time, he seems to have no real answer to the problem of other religions looking more attractive in a plural marketplace of ideas, or to why people should abandon the sort of purely personal spirituality he criticises. Having said that, he does recognise the fact of plurality, and encourages “dialogue with other believers who are not part of the Catholic Church”. So apparently not unbelievers, which cuts out roughly half the population of the UK, and the great majority of the young.


Overall, Evangelii Gaudium left me with a more favourable impression of Pope Francis. It’s a lot more radical and political than I’d expected, and it does no harm for such a prominent figure to highlight some of the ills and injustices of the world.

But I ended up feeling rather sorry for him. For good or ill – and probably a bit of both – the world is moving on.


[1] http://www.natcen.ac.uk/blog/religion-in-britain-in-2016

[2] https://ourworldindata.org/extreme-poverty

[3] https://www.edge.org/conversation/mc2011-history-violence-pinker

[4] http://henrycenter.tiu.edu/2016/02/the-role-of-nollywood-in-witchcraft-belief-and-confessions/

[5] http://philanthrocapitalism.net/bonus-chapters/ancient-giving/



Integrity & Meaning – a Humanist View

I was invited to give a talk at the London Inter Faith Centre on a humanist view of  “Integrity & Meaning”, as a lead-in to a discussion. The event was part of a series on “Identity & Meaning” organised by (Rev) Laurence Hillel exploring the interface between humanist/secular and religious philosophical views on themes which are seen as important for both perspectives. With a mix of Christians, Buddhists, Quakers and non-religious present, including two psychotherapists, we had a rich and thoughtful conversation.

I should stress that this is a personal view as a humanist, not “the humanist view”. See if you agree.



Let’s start with “meaning”. This is something humanists are often asked about, along the lines “Without God, how can your life have meaning?” Tim Crane, a liberally-minded atheist philosopher, in his book “The Meaning of Belief” is helpful in sorting that out.

He starts by defining “religion”, which he says is “a systematic and practical attempt by human beings to find meaning in the world, and their place in it, in terms of their relationship to something transcendent”. So that’s got four components: it’s systematic, practical, finds meaning, and relates to the transcendent. I think that’s pretty good – maybe something for discussion later.

It’s hardly news that for many people, religion is a search for life’s meaning. But it doesn’t follow that every search for meaning is religious. He distinguishes two sorts of meaning: meaning of life and meaning in life:

“Some people find meaning in their relationships with loved ones, their children, and their families. Others find it in their experience of art, music, and beautiful things; others in developing their life plans or in their ethical, moral or political lives. But this does not touch the question of the meaning of our lives a whole….these things are attempts to find meaning in life; religion, as I see it, attempts to find the meaning of life as a whole….the investment of everything with ultimate meaning”.

He adds that: “Looking for the meaning of life is not the same as looking for an understanding of the world, of how things as a whole hang together.” He quotes the American philosopher Thomas Nagel: “It is important to distinguish [the religious] question from the pure desire for understanding of the universe and one’s place in it” where “the religious question”, according to Nagel, is, “How can one bring into one’s individual life a full recognition of one’s relation to the universe as a whole?”  Tim Crane thinks “the religious answer to this question, stated most broadly and abstractly, is that one should live one’s entire life in an awareness of the transcendent…..The believer is convinced that God is present in everything, and the divine presence makes sense of their life by suffusing it with meaning“.

He then contrasts that with two atheist views: “The pessimist’s response is to accept that the world is in and of itself thoroughly dis-enchanted [by which he means no transcendent component] but also to assert that we should try to make the best of it. The pessimist concedes that the religious believer is in a certain sense right: if God does not exist, or if there is no un-seen order, the world is at bottom meaningless. For there is no ultimate purpose in what Philip Larkin called “all the uncaring, intricate, rented world,” so any meaning there is must be some-thing we have to create for ourselves. But this meaning will never amount to “re-enchantment”…. we can only find meaning in life, not the meaning of life.” He thinks there’s also an atheist optimist’s response, which is to say that in reality there is no enchantment – atheists aren’t denying something that is really there – so the benefits of the belief that it is there are human creations and an atheist is just as capable of rich human creations as anyone else. But, rightly in my view, he thinks the optimist doesn’t take the religious impulse seriously.

I’m one of Tim Crane’s pessimists. I don’t see any discernible meaning or purpose of ‘Life, the Universe and Everything’. It just is. And I accept that a belief that “something else” brings meaning to it all offers comfort in the face of what might be seen as a bleak reality, just as faith in an afterlife or reincarnation can make it easier to cope with death. But just because it would be nice if something were true doesn’t make it true.

However, I do think there is meaning in my life. That’s provided by a whole range of things including my relationships with others and the things that I do, including talking with you now.

So, to go back to Tim Crane’s definitions, meaning of life is broadly “objective” in the sense that it’s about something that is considered to be predominantly outside of us – Life, the Universe and Everything – while meaning in life is about our subjective emotions, experiences and reactions as we encounter other things and other people, including sharing in collective emotions and reactions.



But there is another very important component in that subjective meaning, and that is narrative. Humans seem to have a powerful need to be able to explain events in terms of reasons and causes. We need stories. And we all carry in our heads our own, private personal story in terms of what we’ve done and how we’ve developed and changed throughout our lives. Apart from the odd family snapshot, or written record, that story is based almost entirely on our memory, including all the bits and pieces of what others have told us, what we’ve seen on TV or read in novels. The more we find out about memory, the more it becomes clear that we’re standing on sand. Even memories of recent, direct experiences are fallible. Human memory isn’t like computer memory, where the information sits in a fixed place to be taken out and looked at. Brains don’t work that way. Memories aren’t fixed things sitting in files waiting to be accessed. Every time we recall a memory it can be changed.

Actually it goes further than that. The conscious “I” that retains this narrative isn’t, we know, a ghost in the machine. The more research that is done on consciousness, the more it is clear that Descartes was wrong about mind-body duality. It looks like consciousness and subjective experience are emergent properties of a bundle of physical, electrochemical, processes, though no-one knows quite how or why.

There are various reasons why we might change or adapt our memories. One is peer pressure. There have been many experiments showing not only that people will say they remember something they know to be false in order to fit in with others, but in some cases that their actual memories change so that they genuinely think the false memory is true. Anyone reading the reports about the claimed miracles of Our Lady of Fatima in 1917 for example, can see that. Thousands of people were sure they saw the sun dance around or plunge towards the Earth. Those memories were false.

Another reason for us unconsciously to wield the memory editor’s pen is narrative: we want what happened to fit with the story. If it doesn’t, then we change it, or adjust it, or forget it. In order to have meaning in our lives, we need to have a narrative.



Now, what about integrity. The Oxford Dictionary gives two meanings. Firstly, “The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles”, and secondly “The state of being whole and undivided” derived from the Latin “integer” meaning whole or complete. In the sense that we’re taking about it here, it means a combination of the two, as Wikipedia puts it: “Integrity is the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles, or moral uprightness. It is generally a personal choice to hold oneself to consistent moral and ethical standards.” So it’s about being consistent, and being good.

As an aside, I also learned that “ethical integrity” in a philosophical sense is purely about consistency. It seems you can regard other people as playthings and exhibit psychopathic behaviour towards them, but you’re regarded as having ethical integrity if you do it consistently.

Anyhow, back to the dual meaning that I hope we can agree on: being both consistent and being good.

Only someone suffering a bad case of self-loathing will maintain a personal narrative in which they are the villain. While we may admit flaws and errors, most of us like to think of ourselves as good. More than that, as social animals, most of us are strongly influenced by what other people think about us – or at least what we think they think – especially people whose views we value highly.  And we know that in most societies, integrity is highly valued, while hypocrisy – the opposite of consistency – is condemned.

So there’s a clear link here between having meaning in our lives, and personal integrity. Both require a narrative. If we are to have integrity, ethical components of that narrative – how we behave – have to be consistent and based on good values. Consistency doesn’t mean we can’t change or develop over time of course. One of the values can be a willingness to learn from others, from our mistakes, and from new evidence. That fits in the narrative.

The personal narrative which carries the meaning in our lives needs to exhibit a moral consistency if we are to have personal integrity, and not be hypocrites.



But I’ve glossed over the other key element of personal integrity: we need not only to be consistent in how we behave and what we say but we need to be honest and exhibit what the dictionary calls “strong moral principles”.

But how do we know what is moral, what is right or wrong? As a humanist, and an atheist, I can’t appeal to scripture. In fact, I’d go further than that. I think all religions are human creations, and the moral rules found in their scriptures were not sent down by a deity but made up and developed by humans – almost always men. They therefore reflect both general features of our shared humanity, and the particular features of the situation in which they were decided and the people who created them.

The split between those moral precepts attributable to our shared humanity and those reflecting the particularities of time, place, personality, gender and so on is sometimes obvious.

For example: a key value associated with integrity is honesty. That’s a shared human value that appears in most ethical codes. The Ten Commandments say: “Thou shalt not bear false witness”, the Fourth Precept in Buddhism is “I undertake the precept to refrain from incorrect speech” and there are other rules about not stealing or cheating.

On the other hand, earlier in the Ten Commandments there’s a prohibition of idol worship. It’s followed by a threat:  “for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”  That seems to reflect the needs of a leader trying to unify a group of people around a specific religious view which, at the time, was in competition with other views. He rightly saw that unifying principle as a prerequisite for the credibility of the other rules. But he used a threat to punish future generations for their parent’s, grandparent’s, great-grandparent’s and great-great-grandparent’s decision to disobey the idol-worship prohibition. I think most people today would say that’s immoral, and akin to collective punishment. It’s clearly a rule reflecting the particular situation its originator found himself in.

Similarly, we all know the contortions the Abrahamic faiths are going through to reconcile modern views on homosexuality with its condemnation in the texts. Over half of British Catholics under the age of 50 think that gay marriage is right. The previous Pope called it a threat to world peace. The current Pope said of homosexuality “Who am I to judge?”. Meanwhile the formal doctrine is unchanged.

As a humanist, I don’t think honesty, fairness or any other moral value exists “out there”. We created them as a result of both our physical evolution and the evolution of human societies and rational thinking. And we are continuing to develop.


But if morality develops from our shared humanity, how does that happen?

It’s a feature of humans that we are born largely incapable and have long childhoods, requiring lengthy periods of care and nurture. We are social animals, and that’s impossible without a shared view that murder and stealing are wrong and that you can get more done by cooperating. Similarly, it’s easy to see why a society in which dishonesty, stealing and cheating are accepted as norms of behaviour is likely to be less successful that one where they are not.

But there’s an important underpinning component here, and that is empathy. Humans, and may be some other animals, have an important natural ability to empathise. We can put ourselves in the shoes of others. But the link between empathy and morality it’s quite as simple as it might appear. There’s an interesting, if rather repetitive, book called “Against Empathy – The Case for Rational Compassion”, by Paul Bloom, a Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University. He points out that there are in fact two sorts of empathy: emotional empathy, where you literally feel what the other person is feeling , and cognitive empathy, where you have an understanding and appreciation of the way they are feeling. He points out that emotional empathy alone – which is what he’s arguing against – can be dangerous. For a start, it can be debilitating. If I have a serious car crash, I don’t want the doctor in A&E to be overcome by sharing my pain, I want her to think straight and use her skill to save me. Worse than that, we tend to feel purely emotional empathy more readily for people like us than for people who are different. So morality based purely on that would lead us to favour our family or tribe over other people. It’s only when we also use our cognitive empathy, and apply rational thought to extend empathy to principles applicable outside our circle, that we can see that harming those who are different is as bad as harming those who are like us.

In practice, when we talk about empathy, we tend not to make the emotional/cognitive distinction Paul Bloom is concerned about. But he’s right. Without an ability to see people who are different as fellow human beings worthy of empathic understanding, and without the rational extension of natural empathic responses to universal principles of compassion, there would be no universally-applicable morality.

This is the basis for the Golden Rule – treat others as you would wish to be treated. From a humanist viewpoint, it’s a product of our shared humanity, so it’s no coincidence that it has arisen independently, and in slightly different forms, all over the world and in all sorts of different religious and philosophical traditions dating back at least to pre-2000BC Hinduism.

In the Abrahamic traditions, it appears first in Leviticus in the form “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbour as yourself.” That’s been dated back to around 1440BC. Or as Jesus is quoted it in Matthew: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” or more simply in Luke: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” At around the same time, the scholar Rabbi Hillel is supposed to have responded to a challenge to explain the complexities of Jewish Law while standing one leg by saying – while standing on one leg – “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” In Islam, while the Golden Rule doesn’t appear explicitly in the Qur’an, it does in several Hadiths, or sayings of the Prophet, such as “Do unto all men as you would wish to have done unto you, and reject for others what you would reject for yourselves.”

It’s been repeated as a maxim by philosophers ever since. But we’re still learning what it means in practice. If you take the Ten Commandments, apart from the ones establishing the primacy of the Hebrew God, all the others can be derived from the Golden Rule. But so can a lot of other rules for living a good life which are not mentioned anywhere in the Bible or the Qur’an. Slavery is the obvious example. There’s no rule in the Bible or the Qur’an saying “Thou shalt not subjugate and own other people and keep them as slaves.” Like gay marriage, it’s an example of how we have continued to evolve and develop our understanding, in these cases by applying rational thought to realise that the “others” to which the Golden Rule applies not just to our own clan or those of the same race, gender or sexual orientation.

The humanist approach to morality is based on the premise that suffering is generally bad, and flourishing and well-being are generally good, so we should consider the intention and likely consequences of our actions on that basis. So humanists fully support the Golden Rule, but also say that we must continue to think, challenge and develop our understanding.  At the highest level, for example, I think it’s only relatively recently that significant numbers of people are seriously considering how far it can be extended to other animals. And at the level of the specific, rules are useful, but every situation is different so there’s no excuse for failing to think through what is right and wrong. Stealing is generally wrong. Stealing bread to keep a starving child alive probably isn’t.

So, from my perspective, morality comes from us. It’s a human creation.



Now, let’s go back to integrity. When the dictionary refers to the “honesty and strong moral principles” that accompany consistency in the definition, I think it means a particular type or subset of the broad range of morality we’ve been considering. We’re not talking about not being a murderer, or whether or not we’re gay, or whether we would sanction collective punishment. These are somehow out of scope. The moral difference between someone who has integrity and someone who doesn’t seems to me to be related above all to honesty and trust. They are both to do with how we interact with others, and have a direct line from the Golden Rule – they are how we want others to deal with us.

Of course, knowing what that these are morally right doesn’t mean we necessarily actually behave morally. We are often faced with the choice of whether to do the right thing or the thing that suits us. It takes effort, both psychological, and sometimes physical, to override the temptation to take the easiest course of action. That’s what is meant by “strong” moral principles. Not everyone who has a consistent moral view displays integrity. It can be hard work.


It should be obvious by now that I don’t see integrity, and its components of moral behaviour and consistency, as being at all dependent upon any particular belief. Having a reputation for behaving consistently in an honest and trustworthy way seems a pretty reliable recipe for someone to be respected in even the most unsophisticated human society. My guess, and it can only be a guess, is that it was as valued in prehistoric times as it is now. It’s human.

Acting with integrity helps make the world a better place, it earns the approval and liking of others, and – like behaving kindly – it makes us feel good about ourselves.

Moreover, genuinely exhibiting integrity makes a powerful positive contribution to the narrative which we build and maintain to give our life its meaning.

What’s not to like?


A Humanist Encounter with Faith & Spirituality

This is the text of an article published in the June 2016 edition of “Interreligious Insight”, the journal of the World Congress of Faiths.

‘Spiritual’ is a word most humanists avoid because of its lack of definition and its religious connotations. And most humanists feel alienated by the word ‘faith’, regarding it as synonymous with ‘religion’ and ‘belief in the absence of evidence’. So a World Council of Faiths conference in the shadow of Salisbury Cathedral titled ‘Promoting spiritual life: an interfaith perspective’ was not my natural habitat. But that was where I found myself early in 2016.

I have had enough ‘interfaith’ experience – yes, that’s another alienating term – to know that the people involved are almost always friendly and interesting, and that there are invariably areas of common ground. This event was no exception and I felt welcome. And my concerns about the relevance to me of substance of the conference were largely dispelled by the opening talk, ‘An overview of current approaches to spirituality’, by the Revd Canon James Woodward, Principal of Sarum College. He emphasised both that he did not know whether ‘spirituality’ was valid concept – referring to it as a ‘Polyfilla’ word – and that, as far as British Christianity in its present institutional form was concerned: ‘It is over’. That put paid to some of my preconceptions!

A huge transition

James Woodward’s words echoed those of Charles Clarke and Linda Woodhead in the introduction to their 2015 paper ‘A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools’[i] ‘The last twenty-five years have witnessed some of the most significant shifts in religious belief and practice since the Reformation’. The changes they’re referring to have two characteristics:

  • A major decline in Anglican identity has been accompanied by a major rise in those who identify as non-religious, who currently comprise around half the British population. That will increase, as the non-religious proportion is higher among the young.
  • Within the large minority who retain a religious identity, ‘stronger’ forms of faith – non-denominational Christianity, including Pentecostalism, and Islam – are becoming increasingly prominent. Anglicanism, while important, will find itself in a minority. To quote Professor David Voas[ii], a specialist in population studies: ‘The future of religion in Britain is to be found in Islam and the black majority churches’.

40 years of British Social Attitudes survey data tell the story:BSA trend chart 1983-2015

This is a huge transition. The most serious attempt so far to address it and come up with practical proposals for the way forward is the Woolf Institute’s ‘Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life: living with difference – community, diversity and the common good’ which reported at the end of 2015. The commission consisted of 20 people from across the spectrum, chaired by Baroness Butler-Sloss[iii]. They considered the issues under six headings (they called them ‘conversations’): vision, education, media, dialogue, action and law. Underpinning their work is this statement in the report’s preface: ‘There has been general agreement that in today’s society it is essential not only to understand religion and belief but also to reflect on how they interact with each other at local and national levels. Indeed, it is only with such an understanding that communities can be sustained, and that people can live with difference and contribute to the common good.’

Both religious people and humanists have a common interest in helping ensure that the outcome of this major change is a harmonious, well-integrated and, I would argue, secular plurality.

Getting the terminology clear

To do that, it’s essential that we get the language clear. Three terms in particular often lead to confusion: ‘Secularism’, ‘Humanism’ and ‘Spiritual’.

In broad terms, most British secularists see ‘Secularism’ as meaning a situation where:

  • the State is neutral in matters of religion and belief;
  • freedom of religion and belief, and their expression and practice, are protected, provided the rights of others are respected;
  • the same, democratically-determined, law applies equally to everyone;
  • no one should be either privileged or disadvantaged on the grounds of their religious or non-religious beliefs.

So Secularism does not mean Atheism or Humanism; or denying the influence of Christianity on British and European history and culture; or denying the freedom of religious individuals or institutions to participate in public life and express their views. But it does mean that their views are not given greater weight than others, or considered more immune to challenge, simply because they’re faith-based.

There are various definitions of ‘Humanism’ in its modern sense, including the International Humanist & Ethical Union’s 2002[iv] ‘Amsterdam Declaration’ . This is from the British Humanist Association’s (BHA’s) website: ‘The word humanist has come to mean someone who:

  • trusts to the scientific method when it comes to understanding how the universe works and rejects the idea of the supernatural (and is therefore an atheist or agnostic);
  • makes their ethical decisions based on reason, empathy, and a concern for human beings and other sentient animals;
  • believes that, in the absence of an afterlife and any discernible purpose to the universe, human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same.’

A humanist is not, therefore, someone who is by definition anti-religious. In fact there is a spectrum of views on that: some humanists/atheists are indeed opposed to religion in all its forms; others are ‘anti-religious privilege’ and ‘anti-bad-things-done-and-said-in-the-name-of-religion’ but less concerned about others’ personal beliefs and happy to seek common ground with people of faith.

Of the 50% of so of the population who are non-religious, most[v] – but certainly not all – are broadly humanistic in their beliefs and outlook, whether or not they label themselves as ‘humanists’.

‘Spiritual’ is more problematic, baggy term, with multiple meanings. Broad definitions are fine, but attempting not to deal with the issue at all by saying ‘We know what we mean’ can only perpetuate confusion.

For example, how are we to understand the result of a 2013 YouGov poll[vi] conducted for Professor Linda Woodhead’s ‘Westminster Faith Debates’ (see chart)?

Identity pie

We can only guess what respondents meant when they answered the question.  When I expressed concern at the conference about the word’s multiple meanings, James Woodward asked if I had an alternative, and what I thought the meanings were. I readily admitted that I do not know of another word that covers all the ground. But to me it is used to mean three things:

  1. our inner human lives, including our sense of meaning and purpose;
  2. specific types of subjective experience usually described using words such as ‘transcendent’, or ‘connectedness’, ranging from the mundane to ‘peak experiences’;
  3. the manifestation of a real but non-physical ‘spiritual’ realm to which some people attribute these types of subjective experiences – the territory often claimed by religion.


Rather than argue about the definition, I think it would be best always to make clear what we mean when we use it, or – as I tend to do – avoid using it altogether.

A good illustration of the dangers of muddled thinking here was provided by a 2009 debate on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme between the humanist philosopher A.C.Grayling and the Anglican broadcaster Christina Rees. It was about the BBC’s long-contested policy of excluding non-religious speakers from the ‘Thought for the Day’ slot.  In defending the ban, Christina Rees said that ‘Most people, more than 80% [sic],understand life as having a spiritual dimension’ and accused A.C.Grayling of ‘coming from a position that decries the spiritual dimension…a partial and diminished perspective…’ as ‘there is more to life than you can see, touch and measure’. This is a classic example of a slippery use of ‘spiritual’: she was eliding its three meanings to suggest that people who do not believe in a non-physical ‘spiritual realm’ are ‘Mr.Spock’-like creatures, lacking inner lives, emotions or the ability to experience a sense of wider connectedness. Her argument was effectively that the ‘thoughts’ of the non-religious are implicitly of less value than those of the religious because only the latter are fully human. This, of course, is rubbish.

It also illustrates the sort of sterile ‘religion good/atheism bad’ (or vice versa) debate that broadcasters may favour but which serves mainly to entrench existing positions, as opposed to dialogue aimed at enhancing understanding of both commonalities and differences.

‘Spiritual’ in the sense of our inner lives

Whether we are religious or non-religious, we are all human beings with inner lives. As the 1993 BHA ‘Human Spirit’ leaflet put it: ‘…the spiritual dimension comes from our deepest humanity.  It finds expression in aspirations, moral sensibility, creativity, love and friendship, response to natural and human beauty, scientific and artistic endeavour, appreciation and wonder at the natural world, intellectual achievement and physical activity, surmounting suffering and persecution, selfless love, the quest for meaning and purpose by which to live.’

It was this sense of ‘spiritual’, and especially in the context of health, that Dr Desmond Biddulph, President of the Buddhist Society (and a psychiatrist), discussed in his conference presentation ‘How can faiths work together to promote the value of spirituality?’ He urged us to help others feel less isolated, more able to shed fears and live fully. I couldn’t share all of his Buddhist perspective, or the implication that those who are of no ‘faith’ have no part to play in helping people who need the support of an independent fellow human being. Nevertheless, in the sense of acknowledging, supporting and perhaps developing both the human inner life and our shared humanity, there is plenty of common ground here.

As we progress through the transition to a majority non-religious, plural society, the practical issue of delivering compassionate and empathetic support to non-religious people in vulnerable situations needs to be addressed. One of the growing areas for attention by the BHA is Pastoral Support  in hospitals and prisons. The trained and accredited humanists who do this work in hospitals are usually embedded in chaplaincy teams and, naturally, they deal with the same types of human issues and concerns as their religious colleagues.

Under guidelines issued in 2015[vii], NHS bodies in England are obliged for the first time to provide pastoral support and care to non-religious people on the same basis as chaplaincy is provided to the religious. That’s significant as most non-religious people prefer to talk to someone who thinks like them rather than a vicar, imam or rabbi. Unfortunately, the approach of the Established Church to this development has in some cases been to defend the status quo rather than facilitate the change to a plurality of provision in which the non-religious are properly respected.

‘Spiritual’ in the sense of subjective experience

In ‘The Book of Atheist Spirituality’[viii], the French atheist philosopher, André Comte-Sponville, describes what he calls a ‘mystical experience’:

‘The first time it happened I was in the forest in the north of France. I must have been twenty five or twenty six… That particular evening, some friends and I had gone for a walk in the forest we liked so much. Night had fallen. We were walking. Gradually our laughter faded, and the conversation died down. Nothing remained but our friendship, our mutual trust and shared presence, the mildness of the night air and of everything around us…My mind empty of thought, I was simply registering the world around me – the darkness of the undergrowth, the incredible luminosity of the sky, the faint sounds of the forest…only making the silence more palpable. And then, all of a sudden…What? Nothing: everything! No words, no meanings, no questions, only – a surprise. Only – this. A seemingly infinite happiness. A seemingly eternal sense of peace. Above me, the starry sky was immense, luminous and unfathomable, and within me there was nothing but the sky, of which I was a part, and the silence, and the light, like a warm hum, and a sense of joy with neither subject nor object …Yes, in the darkness of that night, I contained only the dazzling presence of the All…. “This is what Spinoza meant by eternity”, I said to myself – and naturally, that put an end to it.’

What he’s talking about is a ‘peak’ human experience. I recognise it because I’ve had one too.  Most religious people would call this a ‘spiritual experience’. In this example, it’s particularly powerful. But it’s on the same spectrum as the experience created by great art, whether it’s the shiver down the spine from a Beethoven slow movement, or the instant of human connectedness from a great painting, novel, film or play; or the gentle silence of a country scene; or the sense of awe and wonder at the stars on a dark night.

Albert Einstein put it in a cosmological context[ix]:

 ‘There are moments when one feels free from one’s own identification with human limitations and inadequacies. At such moments one imagines that one stands on some spot of a small planet, gazing in amazement at the cold yet profoundly moving beauty of the eternal, the unfathomable; life and death flow into one, and there is neither evolution nor destiny, only being.’

This is non-religious ‘spirituality’ in Comte-Sponville’s sense. Einstein isn’t suggesting there’s a spiritual realm or nature-defying miracles. He’s talking about enhanced human experience, in this case triggered by the natural world. Many artists try to create a similar response. As the painter Mark Rothko said: ‘A painting is not about an experience. It is an experience.’

This type of conscious transcendent experience is not the only type of subjective experience described as ‘spiritual’. Marianne Rankin is Director of Communications for The Alister Hardy Trust. In her conference talk: ‘The personal experience of the spiritual: its variety and commonalities’, she reported that the Trust’s ‘Religious Experience Research Centre’ has collected around 6,000 accounts of first-hand ‘spiritual’ experiences since its foundation in 1969. Some of these are ‘Near Death Experiences’, in which people who recover consciousness from near-fatal conditions report experiences which often have common characteristics, such as walking down a tunnel towards a bright light. Such experiences have been observed across cultures and can be found in literature dating back to ancient Greece. Others are ‘Out of Body’ experiences, often associated with sleep or anaesthetic, in which people report the sensation of floating above their own bodies.

Like the other examples, they can be tremendously powerful and many people who have experienced them are totally convinced that they are a manifestation of a ‘spiritual realm’ in which their soul is separated from their body. The difference here between the religious person and most humanists is not in the power of the subjective experience itself, but in whether they consider it to be a manifestation of the way our brain and bodies work, or a manifestation of disembodied soul and a ‘spiritual realm’ – physical versus non-physical.

It was notable that Marianne Rankin’s talk did not deal with that. Perhaps wrongly, I had the impression that The Alister Hardy Trust’s library of experiences is seen as evidence in support of the ‘spiritual realm’ hypothesis, or at least that it is built on the premise that the hypothesis is true, despite the fact that Sir Alistair Hardy was a distinguished evolutionary biologist. Yet there is an extensive, and growing, body of science providing physical explanations for these phenomena and examples of how they can be reproduced artificially[x]. And there is no objective evidence for the ‘spiritual realm’ hypothesis. To claim that a subjective ‘spiritual’ experience or sensation is evidence of a disembodied realm of soul and spirit is, to me, rather like saying that the pain of shutting your fingers in a closing drawer is evidence of a disembodied realm of pain and suffering. It isn’t.

But that difference of view does not make the subjective experiences themselves any less powerful or less universal. Our ability to have a sense of transcendence and connectedness with others is an important feature of our humanity and one of the characteristics of human consciousness – a mysterious phenomenon we are barely beginning to understand.

Religions generally give such experiences a higher priority in life than Humanism does because they equate them with getting closer to God. They deliberately set up the conditions in which they are more likely to occur: awe-inspiring architecture, emotionally-powerful music, practices of contemplation and meditation which make people slow down and provide the sort of pause in daily life offered by Comte-Sponville’s silent walk in the forest. In some cultures, drugs are employed. These experiences are almost always positive and life-affirming, so I think there are practical things the non-religious can learn from the religious here (though we’d probably best avoid the mind-altering drugs). The transmutation of Buddhist meditation practice to secular ‘mindfulness’ is an example.

Spiritual transformation and the public realm

In ‘Integrating spirituality into the public realm’, Dr Jonathan Rowson, former Director of the Social Brain Centre at the Royal Society of Arts, was content to use the term spirituality without defining it. He argued that ‘spirituality’ is nothing if it is not ‘transformative’ and that meaningful transformation is not in the realm of inner contemplation, but rather should be a driver for political action to improve life for other people. For him, climate change was the top priority.

There is no doubt that many religious people are driven to do good works by their beliefs, just as many non-religious people also devote their time and money for the benefit of others. And there is validity in the concern that a religious practice devoted solely to personal enlightenment is less beneficial to society than action to help others. But it is hard to accept the principle that subjective ‘spiritual’ experience ‘ought’ to be transformative or – more worryingly – that ‘spirituality’ can be invoked to legitimise political action. There are, and have been throughout history, too many examples of bad things legitimised on the basis of ‘spirituality’ – the US Christian Right and Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia come to mind. And most humanists would dispute the idea of elevating ‘spiritual’ motivations above other types of motivation, such as simply thinking that something is ethically right because it makes the world a better place.

Many people of faith and many humanists are interested in similar areas of social and political concern and action – including climate change – there is undoubtedly common ground here. But why bring ‘spirituality’ into it?

In conclusion

The Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life recommended that: ‘It should be a high priority, not only for interfaith organisations but also for all religion and belief groups, educational institutions, public bodies and voluntary organisations, to promote opportunities for encounter and dialogue.’

The World Congress of Faiths does just that (even if I find the name rather excluding). Although the conference did not reduce my misgivings about the terms ‘spiritual’ and ‘spirituality’, I’m glad I attended. It is always good to hear a spectrum of intelligent speakers, and to learn of the academic work taking place. More significantly, the issues covered touch on important aspects of our shared human experience. As the transition to a plural society with a non-religious majority and a varied religious minority moves further forward, we all have a role in ensuring they are not neglected.


[i] Charles Clarke, Linda Woodhead June 2015: ‘A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools’,

[ii] Ruth Gledhill, ‘Christianity Today’ 9 February 2015: ‘Future of religion in Britain is Islam and black majority churches’

[iii] Woolf Institute December 2016 ‘Report of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life’

[iv] The Amsterdam Declaration, International Humanist & Ethical Union’s World Congress, 2002.

[v] An Ipsos-MORI poll  for the British Humanist Association in 2007 concluded that ‘Just over a third (36%) of the British population has a humanist outlook on life’.

[vi] YouGov/University of Lancaster Survey Results June 2007

[vii] ‘NHS Chaplaincy Guidelines 2015: Promoting Excellence in Pastoral, Spiritual and Religious Care’

[viii] ‘The Book of Atheist Spirituality’, André Comte-Sponville 2006, English translation 2007.

[ix] In a letter to  Queen Elizabeth of Belgium.

[x] For example: Dean Mobbs and Caroline Watt, Trends in Cognitive Science, October 2011: ‘There is nothing paranormal about near-death experiences’.
Charles Q. Choi, Scientific American 12 September 2011: ‘Peace of Mind: Near-Death Experiences Now Found to Have Scientific Explanations – Seeing your life pass before you and the light at the end of the tunnel, can be explained by new research on abnormal functioning of dopamine and oxygen flow’