I was once asked by the Stockport Humanists if I could present a wreath at the official Remembrance civic ceremony. I was extremely happy to help and also honoured to be asked to take part in a day that has particular importance to me and all other serving and non-serving military personnel past and present. Imagine my surprise to be contacted a little later and told that I was not allowed to lay a wreath as an official part of the ceremony to pay my respects. Certain individuals and organisations including The Rt Revd Robert Atwell have the opinion that “we remain clear that this is a religious ceremony and wish it to continue as such” (Jan 14th 2013). This is also particularly galling when bolstered in a recent telephone conversation by the words of one local councillor who exclaims that there was “no stomach” to take on the church.
As an ex-soldier and Humanist, I have served in Afghanistan and as a communications liaison in Pakistan and feel that I have developed certain insights into the role of religion in conflict, remembrance and wider society. Having recently started work as a Neuropsychology Researcher I also seek to understand the mindset of those that claim to preach peace and equality when their holy books clearly condone war (against the out-group and allowing for interpretation of course). Non-religious people in the forces deserve representation at the official part of this most important civic ceremony. Indeed, having served in areas of the world where religion plays a major, often central and ever divisive part in external and internal conflicts, I can see a greater need for a non-religious representative at such ceremonies rather than another one that caters to the pious community.
The Stockport Humanists have attended the remembrance ceremony over the past couple of years and have remarked in an article that “with fewer and fewer people, including service personnel, attending church or practising a faith, is it really appropriate to have an overpoweringly religious tone to this occasion?” They have then petitioned the local council, The Royal British Legion and local Church to try and make this civic ceremony more inclusive. I for one think it is inappropriate to have an overwhelming religious sentiment at an event that should be designed to be inclusive. After all, the point is remembrance, not religious observance. The Humanists proposed a slight change in format in the form of war poetry, interspersed with names of the dead; instead of 25 minutes of prayer and sermonising. We think that everyone can get behind such moving and often sublime art; it also makes the ceremony more about the soldiers’ experiences which does them more justice than any amount of hypnotic chanting. At the very least one official representative of the non-religious to lay a wreath would be appreciated. Both suggestions were denied.
On the point of Religious observance in the Military, the MOD do keep a record of how many religious and non-religious personnel they employ in a publication called the United Kingdom Defence Statistics. It might surprise you to know that in 2012 there were 148,550 Christians, 520 Buddhists, 820 Hindus, 80 Jews, 650 Muslims and 130 Sikhs. What about the non-religious though? Well there are 26,180 of us in the Military which seems to be conveniently overlooked in Stockport. In fact, the non-religious far outweigh all non-Christians. At the Stockport ceremony there were even representatives of the Jewish and Islamic faiths representing their 80 and 650 personnel respectively but still no non-religious representatives. Are we then to believe that this is inclusive; it looks rather more like it is inclusive as long as you aren’t non-religious!
Further to this, the Military does actually recognise the existence of many non-religious belief types as detailed in the Guide on Religion and Belief in the Armed Forces. Currently, the British Humanist Association actually has a little bit of web space on the British Forces website and an active organisation within the Military (UKAFHA) for which we are grateful. Add to this the fact that in the 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey, 48% of the entire nation identify as non-religious. It then stands to reason that a group recognised by the Military and by wider society, has an equal right to be included in the official civic ceremony (it’s not a religious event) especially when minority religious groups are afforded the opportunity. To my mind, religion is only one of many aspects of Remembrance, but their representatives are far from the only people able to perform this duty. To claim that Remembrance is centrally a religious event is tantamount to saying unicorn husbandry is part of agricultural events; which is of course ridiculous. More seriously, it seeks to alienate those of us that are not religious, which to any reasonable onlooker indicates that an equal right to express our thanks to our fallen comrades is not observed.
The concept of equality will resonate with anyone familiar with Humanists. If we have any core ‘belief’ as such, as I’m sure the majority of other atheistic world views will agree, it is that of equality under humanity and hard won understanding of what it is to be human, rather than through membership to psychologically tribal religious group. As we strive to achieve equality for all and highlight the part of reason in an enlightened society, it is only right, or rather morally necessary, that we are afforded some of that reasonable equality ourselves, especially when it comes to paying our respects to the military, the actions of whom, religious and non-religious, have helped to develop and preserve much of our society today.