Humanist ex-soldier denied opportunity to lay a wreath on Remembrance Sunday.

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Discussion by: GlenNeuro

Humanist ex-soldier denied opportunity to lay a wreath on Remembrance Sunday.

A few weeks ago I was 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 by the words of one local councillor who exclaims that there was “no stomach” to take on the church in a recent telephone conversation.

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 mind set 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 th 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 that the fact that in the 2011 census 25% of the entire nation identify as non-religious, it then stands to reason that as 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 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.

All sources can be found here.

14 COMMENTS

  1. This is disgraceful. And I am shocked this is in the UK: though of course England has an established church, which may be how the reverend obtains his authority, or at leas claims it. But it shows a terrible insensitivity, as if humanists do not exist and that their sacrifice can be airbrushed out if history as an unacceptable blot on the story of the fallen going to heaven, etc. As I said, a disgrace. Will there be a petition?

  2. 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).

    By asking for official recognition, you’ve put the fear shits up the divvy in a world that is already putting the secular fear shits up him. But it is imperative that you keep at it. His opinion that “we remain clear that this is a religious ceremony and wish it to continue as such” is absolute bullshit. In what theatre did that prick Atwell even serve in anyway? None. He must have forgot his own words of 2012…

    ” Reality is about getting up in the morning and trying to make the best of what faces us. The problem with the fantasy is not just that it isnt true: it encourages us to slide into forgetting that good community life, like a happy family, doesnt just happen. It needs the investment of time and energy. Every school, every charity, every parish, every youth club, every residents association, every voluntary organisation depends on people giving up time to devote to the community. Without that effort community life withers, and we end up strangers rather than neighbours.”

    Lying for Jesus….inclusive doesn’t really mean inclusive does it Atwell?

    Perhaps you should get the UKAFHA behind you a bit more, if you haven’t already, although from the article it appears you might have, you don’t say..

    “The UK Armed Forces Humanist Association (UKAFHA) is a growing body of servicemen and women, their Families, Veterans and civilian members of the Ministry of Defence who seek to represent the interests of all those who subscribe to non-religious beliefs.”

    Professor Anthony Grayling and Lt Col Henry Cummins might add to the clout.

    Anyway, not everyone in the UK are as shallow as those in Stockport.

    “By contrast, humanists in Scotland were issued with an invitation from the Royal British Legion Scotland to participate in the parade and lay a wreath on the stone of remembrance, humanists in Northern Ireland have been given permission to join with other representatives in the service being held in Belfast, and in at least nine areas in England, local humanist groups will be participating in remembrance events.”

    As a one time vice-chairman of the British Legion Branch where I lived in Northern Ireland, and well known for my atheism, I had the honour of calling the wreath layers to lay their wreaths. No one was refused the right to lay a wreath at our ceremony.

    It’s a pity that in this day and age these backward and ignorant people still hold such influence…the sooner they get confined to kooksville the better.

    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.

    The figures for the non-religious is more likely a lot higher. Many people claiming a religious affiliation are really not religious at all. I know that back in my day and at the starry eyed age of 17, my Oath of Allegiance was that of the Army Act 1955 and included God. No alternate affirmation was offered and as you know, fearful sprogs will go with the flow. My I’D. disc’s were stamped C of I. I was a non-believer and hadn’t attended church service for years.

    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.

    That seems to be par for the course these days…the enemy of mine enemy is my friend. In a world of increasing non-belief, the believers are closing ranks together. A kind of anti-atheist religious axis for gods.

    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!

    Yep! You heathen humanists might eat the babies and rape the women.

    This is another important reason for the latest census data to be recognized, 25% is good, 37% is even better. I read yesterday that the number in Scotland claiming non-belief is even higher than the rest of the UK. at 37%..brilliant.

    Keep up the good fight and don’t let the bastards grind you down..

  3. This continues to show the bias in that they’ll be ‘open-minded’ with a conflicting supernatural belief system (against which they have a comfortable massive majority) but they consider secularism to be untethered from the spiritual bonds that connect the rest of humanity. They project onto us the cold void of reptilian emotion they’d envision if stripped of their own spirituality.

    And does anyone see the irony that wreaths have a pagan pre-Christian origin? :)

    • In reply to #5 by Chaerephon:

      Bishop of Stockport Rt Rev Robert Atwell can be contacted at

      Bishop’s Lodge, Back Lane, Dunham Town, Altrincham. Cheshire WA14 4SG
      TEL:0161 9285611 bpstockport@chester.anglican.org

      I intend to email the Bishop to protest at this totally appalling discrimination against humanists.
      Thankyou. I raised the point with those gentlemen
      Ggrrr. Makes me mad!!!

  4. Thanks for the comments so far, I’d like to add that there are new figures for national religious belief to update this piece: 48% non-religious from the 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey and 26% (Eng) 37% (Scot) from the 2013 UK Census. The figures for the Military are taken from their own although I do remember that if one didn’t declare a religious affiliation that they used to tick the box for Church of England on your behalf but that might just be a rumour I think.

  5. This is very sad, and I hope that things will change. After WW1, Edward Lutjens was commissioned to design a deliberately non-religious national war memorial (the Cenotaph in Whitehall, whose only inscription is “The Glorious Dead”) and all British and Commonwealth war graves are marked with a headstone that attempts to reflect the religious affiliation (or otherwise) of the person buried there; but all other memorials were erected by local subscription. Most of them are not overtly religious, though many have a cross (often a Celtic cross). However, the ceremonies that remember the terrible loss of life since WW1 almost always include a religious element (a hymn and a prayer sort of thing) – but emphatically not as the highlight of the ceremony, which is the laying of wreaths.

    I’m no expert, but I can find no record of religious controversy surrounding previous Remembrance Day ceremonies, and I notice that Stockport Humanists laid wreaths last year (there are pictures on the web). This unseemly spat seems to be about the exact point in the proceedings at which Humanists lay a wreath, which does (as I said) seem very sad indeed.

  6. If Christians want to own the right to remembrance of the wars Christians started, leave them to it. I do not buy or wear red poppies.

    May I recommend you instead get behind the White Poppy campaign which recognises the overt militarism of the Poppy campaign and its exclusion of other victims of war (like civilians).

    Until 1994 red poppies were embossed with “Haig Fund” in the centre (it now says Poppy Appeal). More than a few people think Earl Haig had more than enough avoidable deaths on his conscience, but in any event the charitable aims of the appeal are only about British forces veterans.

    The White Poppy fund is about promotion of peace and is I suggest a better cause for humanists to get behind.

    • In reply to #10 by Stevehill:

      If Christians want to own the right to remembrance of the wars Christians started, leave them to it. I do not buy or wear red poppies.

      I do.

      May I recommend you instead get behind the White Poppy campaign which recognises the overt militarism of the Poppy campaign and its exclusion of other victims of war (like civilians).

      surely you should be saying this to the christians. There is no reason why an atheist should be particularly pacifist.

      Until 1994 red poppies were embossed with “Haig Fund” in the centre (it now says Poppy Appeal). More than a few people think Earl Haig had more than enough avoidable deaths on his conscience, but in any event the charitable aims of the appeal are only about British forces veterans.

      The White Poppy fund is about promotion of peace and is I suggest a better cause for humanists to get behind.

      but then I’m not a humanist

  7. I met a man once who had been a prisoner of war in Japan. At the time of his capture he had the rank of Major. Infact he was one of the men who were forced to build the bridge over the river kwai (the one depicted in the famous film). His tales of suffering and starvation and torture at the hands of the Japanese military were horrific. Still he remained very committed to his religion. He understood why many of the men who survived with him gave up their religion but he stuck with them and remained their friend long after they had been returned home. I spoke with him many times and my belief is that he would have seen the remembrance services as being for everybody, not just a religious event but a national event that everyone of all faiths or no faith should take part in. Otherwise it would be like saying “only those who had a religion are truly worth remembering”

  8. Scandalous! Hope my spilling ok?

    Don’t forget all the Jedi in the armed forces too! I was a Jedi when i was in!
    It makes me mad to hear about this! But its the same all over. The churches have their sticky mitts in everywhere!
    We even had to have our religion as C of E when we were sent to Gulf countries so we didn’t upset those other religions over there.
    What about upseting us lot!
    The world has gone mad!!!

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