Review: The future of community services for the non-religious

Crisis, Comfort, and Celebration; The future of community services for the non-religious

At our meeting in April, we were joined by Teddy Prout (Humanists UK’s Director of Community Services), who brought us up to date about the growing scope of community services supported by Humanists UK. Not only does the organisation oversee the celebrants program for humanist weddings, namings and funerals, in the last couple of years it has also overseen the growth of humanist pastoral care in hospitals and prisons. 

Humanists UK also supports individuals who have chosen to leave various religious groups, through faith-to-faithless. These are people who may have been truly displaced because they are no longer a part of their faith community.

The other key area Humanists UK provides community support is via the schools programme which aims to help schools deliver inclusive religious and ethical education.

As humanists we have to question what we mean by community. Perhaps where individuals are connected not necessarily by proximity but through what they have in common. Communities can share a sense of identity because of what they do – knitters, cyclists, gamers or a sense of identity such as LGBT or BAME for example. If our sense of community has altered in the recent past, how might this new sense of community be impacting our ability to celebrate and accept difference? With the scope of what is community in flux how does Humanists UK approach community engagement and what can the organisation do in future?

Humanists UK aims to provide community services to all those in crisis or where they have a need to celebrate their sense of being at milestone life events (e.g. weddings or funerals).  The activity falls into three main categories:

  • Services can be specific to humanists or the non-religious.
  • Services can be offered to everyone because they are human.
  • Services can be offered to the greater good to help make society a better place for all.

Practically, Humanists UK seeks to engage community in a number of ways:

Educating the community about humanism

In 2018 Humanist UK provided speakers to schools that reached 35,000 children (up from 12,00 in 2016). This was second only to St Johns ambulance.

An online course on humanism began in 2017 and so far tens of thousands have participated.

Provide an avenue for people to express themselves as Humanist

Weddings is a growing service and Humanists UK has been lobbying the All-party Parliamentary Humanist Group for Humanist weddings to become legally recognised in England and Wales, as they are in Scotland and Northern Ireland. You can read the briefing document here.

Representation in other communities such as armed forces humanist group, humanist student groups who campaign for freedom of speech and, of course, local affiliate groups.  These groups are places where humanists can discuss their life experience with other like-minded people. A sense of belonging can help facilitate declaration and exploration of the humanist life.

Make and support good working relationships with non-humanists

Humanists UK is involved in dialogue with other religions though working groups and other opportunities. Through dialogue we better understand others viewpoint and beliefs and what we have in common. For example, Teddy took part in discussion on Channel 4 with evangelical Christian and Muslim woman – all of them thought gay conversion should be outlawed.

Support people in crisis

The most well-known way that Humanists UK do this is through supporting celebrants who provide humanist funerals. Community members can access this pastoral service, which can facilitate the grieving process.

Pastoral care provision in hospitals and prisons was historically Anglican. In prisons this was enshrined in legislation. Up until fairly recently 1% of NHS Trusts had any Humanist representative forpastoral services but now there is humanist support in 40% of Trusts. The ‘Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network‘ (NRPSN) is the organisation for Humanists UK’s network of accredited non-religious volunteers who provide pastoral support.

Simon O’Donoghue, the NRPSN lead, is now chair of hospital pastoral support organisation Network for Pastoral, Spiritual, and Religious Care in Health; formerly known as the Healthcare Chaplaincy Faith and Belief Group. The network is a group of organisations whose key aim is to encourage and support the development of pastoral and spiritual care for all regardless of religion and belief in the NHS in England.

Faith to faithless supports apostates from highly controlled religions who may have no community structures of support and may have issues such as violence, poverty and homelessness as a result. Humanists UK is also providing safeguarding training, through the scheme, for public sector employees who may come into contact with people leaving such organisations.

Humanists UK is also helping embed humanist viewpoints as an element in teacher training for RE (Religious Education) and PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic education).  Many RE teachers are not trained in Humanism, so including it as an element in the curriculum within teacher training make sense. Latest report on RE recommended that non-religious views need to be taught in RE.

Via partner group community activity

Humanist affiliate groups locally provide a place for like-minded individuals to talk and socialise.  Groups can host monthly meetings but also have developed other social opportunities such walks, book groups and coffee mornings. Some groups also have instigated more practical community initiatives. Examples of local group community initiatives include Plymouth’s regular beach clean, N. Yorkshire’s project for tackling period poverty and the Chester group’s humanist garden.

Discussion following the presentation…

During the discussion we touched on the idea that, as a small organisation, Humanists UK provides a framework for community involvement by humanists.  That it was important to be humanist in what you do in daily life. 

Possible opportunities to be involved more visibly in community  might include events such as the Great Get Together which was instigated after MP Jo Cox’s murder.  The Great Get Together event is scheduled for 21st-23rd June, which coincides with World Humanist day (21st June) and the same weekend as Humanists UK’s convention in Leicester.

Picnics are a great opportunity to invite other groups to share an experience and to promote dialogue.

Community activity (e.g. brunches, coffee mornings or book clubs) are wonderful opportunities for getting to know people.

There is currently a discussion around what communities want and need….

Other initiatives in the atheist space include New Unity and Sunday Assembly

Many people want space to understanding their own belief and to explore what are genuine valid alternatives. What are ways of being ‘spiritual’ for sceptics? How could humanists UK engage with this, bearing in mind only half of the non-religious related to the humanist point of view?

We also discussed the practicalities of what a small organisation such as Humanists UK can do as the initiatives and services that it has already started are resource poor. The faith to faithless scheme has 30 volunteers and need 300 to meet current demand. The volunteer base makes what is delivered now possible but there are 200 school speakers and 10,000 are needed to reach the majority of school children.

How to make the world a kinder and more rational place as a small organisation is a dilemma. We discussed the ways churches traditionally provide services to community. One example was soup kitchens, whereas most churches already have buildings. Humanists UK does not have these resources and must prioritise. Of course state provision ‘should’ help those most in need but it does not currently succeed in doing so.

The forerunner humanist organisation did have secular provision for homeless in the 50’s and 60’s, however these were divested when the state took over provision in 60’s and 70’s. Above all else the activity Humanists UK engages in must align to its charitable aims. Therefore, with the limited budget available, the organisation must concentrate on activities that will use their resources in a very focused way.