Humanism in Scotland
A look at this alternative religion or non
religion in Scotland
“In a world where we
sometimes feel despair about the human race and where differences of
race culture and religion are used by the unscrupulous and powerful few
to fuel hatred and violence among the powerless, what could be more
important than to assert our common human capacity for change.”
– Liz Lochead, Former Scots’ Makar and Distinguished Supporter of HSS
As long as there have been groups of human beings living together, there
have been humanists. Humanists are people who trust science and rational
inquiry to help explain the universe around us, and who do not resort to
supernatural explanations. Humanism is a belief system which puts human
happiness and flourishing at its heart, and promotes cooperation towards
a shared common goal.
People who share the values of science and rational enquiry, and who
seek to live an ethical and fulfilling life based on reason and
compassion are humanists. Humanist Society Scotland works on behalf of
humanists living in Scotland to promote humanist thinking, building
networks of humanists across the country and influencing public policy.
Humanism has a long and varied history, but today humanists share the
core values which were agreed in the 2002 Amsterdam Declaration of the
International Humanist and Ethical Union:
1. Humanism is ethical. It affirms the worth, dignity and autonomy of
the individual and the right of every human being to the greatest
possible freedom compatible with the rights of others. Humanists have a
duty of care to all of humanity including future generations. Humanists
believe that morality is an intrinsic part of human nature based on
understanding and a concern for others, needing no external sanction.
2. Humanism is rational. It seeks to use science creatively, not
destructively. Humanists believe that the solutions to the world’s
problems lie in human thought and action rather than divine
intervention. Humanism advocates the application of the methods of
science and free inquiry to the problems of human welfare. But Humanists
also believe that the application of science and technology must be
tempered by human values. Science gives us the means but human values
must propose the ends.
3. Humanism supports democracy and human rights. Humanism aims at the
fullest possible development of every human being. It holds that
democracy and human development are matters of right. The principles of
democracy and human rights can be applied to many human relationships
and are not restricted to methods of government.
4. Humanism insists that personal liberty must be combined with social
responsibility. Humanism ventures to build a world on the idea of the
free person responsible to society, and recognises our dependence on and
responsibility for the natural world. Humanism is undogmatic, imposing
no creed upon its adherents. It is thus committed to education free from
5. Humanism is a response to the widespread demand for an alternative to
dogmatic religion. The world’s major religions claim to be based on
revelations fixed for all time, and many seek to impose their
world-views on all of humanity. Humanism recognises that reliable
knowledge of the world and ourselves arises through a continuing
process. of observation, evaluation and revision.
6. Humanism values artistic creativity and imagination and recognises
the transforming power of art. Humanism affirms the importance of
literature, music, and the visual and performing arts for personal
development and fulfilment.
7. Humanism is a
lifestance aiming at the maximum possible fulfilment through the
cultivation of ethical and creative living and offers an ethical and
rational means of addressing the challenges of our times. Humanism can
be a way of life for everyone everywhere.
8. Our primary task is to make human beings aware in the simplest terms
of what Humanism can mean to them and what it commits them to. By
utilising free inquiry, the power of science and creative imagination
for the furtherance of peace and in the service of compassion, we have
confidence that we have the means to solve the problems that confront us
all. We call upon all who share this conviction to associate themselves
with us in this endeavour.
The following are a selection of quotes from well known humanist
thinkers, these help to illustrate how humanists approach some of life’s
“Reason, Observation and Experience – the Holy Trinity of Science – have
taught us that happiness is the only good; that the time to be happy is
now, and the way to be happy is to make others so.”
– Robert Green Ingersoll, The Gods, 1876
“It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to
himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving,
it consists in professing to believe what one does not believe.”
– Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, 1794
“Do not do to others what you would not like for yourself.”
– Confucius, Analects, C 500 BCE
“Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness,
wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.”
– John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, 1863
“Faith: a firm belief for which there is no evidence.”
– Bertrand Russell, Human Society in Ethics and Politics, 1954
“The wisest is he who realises, like Socrates, that in respect of wisdom
he knows nothing.”
– Plato, Apology (C 375 BCE)
The History of HSS
The Humanist Society Scotland was formed in 1989 in response to a rising
demand for a nationwide Scottish organisation that was open to all.
The history of free thought goes back a long way in Scotland. The
earliest known group was based in Glasgow in the 1930’s and came under
the auspices of the Rationalist Press Association. A separate Edinburgh
Group was formed in 1956, hot on the heels of the controversial talk
given by Professor Margaret Knight of Aberdeen University on the BBC
Third Programme entitled ‘Morality without Religion’.
One of their many initiatives was to set up The Edinburgh Youth Homes in
1964, which cared for boys from disturbed backgrounds and which operated
successfully for more than forty years before being wound up in 2005.
The Nigel Bruce Charitable Trust, which founded and supported them,
continues to make grants to young people in need and to other
organisations around the world involved in the care of the young.
The first Scottish Humanist Conference took place in Edinburgh in 1962.
Later, the Edinburgh and Glasgow Humanist Groups jointly organised
regular conferences, many being held at Stirling University.
In 1978, both groups agreed to set up a Scottish Humanist Council to
represent the voice of humanism in Scotland when and if the long awaited
Devolved Assembly came into being. The leading lights were Alex Stewart
and Nigel Bruce, the Convenors of the Glasgow and Edinburgh groups.
Although the Assembly proposal failed to win the crucial 40% of the vote
and the issue of devolved government went on the back burner, the
Scottish Humanist Council carried on with Steuart Campbell as its first
Secretary. The Council had twelve members; four from the Edinburgh
Group, four from the Glasgow Group and four nominated at what became the
When in the 1980’s, it became clear there was a growing demand for a
national body, a Scottish Humanist Organisation. As the Council was not
open to wider membership, interested people either had to join a local
Scottish group if they lived in a particular area or join the London
based British Humanist Association, founded in 1963.
Many did so, but because of the differences between the English &
Scottish Legal and Education systems, it was difficult for the BHA
always to represent the Scottish viewpoint. So in 1989, the Humanist
Society Scotland was established. Gradually the relationship with the
Groups changed and as they surrendered their autonomy and became part of
the Society, their members became members of the HSS as well.
We were very fortunate that at about this time Eric Stockton, a member
from Orkney, started the Scottish Humanist Magazine. This has grown from
humble beginnings into a very professionally produced magazine, now
called “Humanitie”, which is not just an old Scots form of the word that
would have been familiar to David Hume, but the oldest word in the
English language for Humanism. The magazine became the voice of humanism
in Scotland and led the fight for both the legalisation of weddings and
an end to segregated schooling.
Ceremonies were something that crept up on the Society. Since the
inception of the Groups, the occasional funeral had been conducted in
both Edinburgh and Glasgow, although at the time, most secular funerals
were carried out by members of political parties, such as the Socialists
Thanks to two pioneers, by the early 1980’s demand for secular
ceremonies started to grow and a few more humanists got involved. In
1987, we were fortunate to get some publicity about our ceremonies on a
BBC Scotland TV series called “High Spirits”, when the first humanist
wedding in Scotland was re-enacted for the cameras. At this time, it was
still necessary for the couple to attend at the Register Office for a
civil ceremony, to make the wedding legal.
In the early 1990’s, as demand continued to grow, we started to organise
the training of celebrants. This was led by George Rodger of Aberdeen
who again took up the matter of legalising weddings and – with the
support of Fergus Watt, an HSS member with a legal background – sought
Counsel’s advice. With other people coming on board, including Ivan
Middleton of Edinburgh, we eventually won our case when humanist
marriages were authorised by the Registrar General of Scotland in June
Beside Ceremonies, Education has been at the forefront of our work. The
first leaflet produced by The Council in the early 80’s, under the
auspices of Steuart Campbell, was “Educate them Together”. This set out
our case against segregated schooling, a campaign that remains a
cornerstone of our policy to this day.
During the formative years of the Council and then the Society, many
issues have been discussed and taken up. The Council was very fortunate
to be recognised early on by The Scottish Office as a Society with a
distinct view on social and educational matters. Whilst we were only a
small voice, and did not initially make a great impact, it was good to
We considered that some issues, such as voluntary euthanasia, were
better left to single issue organisations while we concentrated on what
we felt were our strengths. So we pursued issues that were basically
humanist, such as non-religious ceremonies and opposition to segregated
Thanks to the hard work done by very many people over the years, the
Humanist Society Scotland continues to go from strength to strength.
Given that in the 2001 Census, 28% of the population stated that they
have no religion, there is clearly a role for our organisation in
Scotland and we will continue to fight to be heard on equal terms with
the religious lobby, to desegregate education and to establish a secular
By 2010 Humanist
Society Scotland had grown massively in 10 years:
Our income had increased from £32,000 a year to £211,000
Membership had risen to over 7,000
We had over 90 celebrants all over Scotland
We were represented on various national, European and International
Our media profile had become more prominent
We were clearly becoming accepted as the ‘Voice of Secular Scotland’
Yet despite all this
growth and change, our way of running our Society (Governance) and the
way we do our day-to-day business (Management) had barely changed since
the Society was founded.
So it was in 2011 the Society decided to modernise itself and at the
Special General Meeting in October voted unanimously to make the
The Society would become a charitable Company Limited by Guarantee – we
ceased to be an unincorporated body.
The Society would be
governed by a smaller, supervisory Board of Trustees.
Day-to-day business would
be the responsibility of a Management Group of officials appointed by
An Executive Secretary, a
member of the Board would lead the Management group.
Our name would be
Humanist Society Scotland (no “of” in the title) to be consistent with
In early 2012 these
arrangements were put into place.
The Good Book is a book by A. C. Grayling. It was published in March
2011 by Walker & Company (a US imprint of Bloomsbury) with the subtitle
A Humanist Bible, and in April 2011 by Bloomsbury with the subtitle A
The book was designed as a secular alternative to religious text, and to
be read as a narrative drawing on non-religious philosophy, including
that from Ancient Greek, Chinese, Roman, Indian and Arab civilizations,
as well as the European Renaissance and the Enlightenment. The book also
contains a summary of scientific discoveries from the 19th century to
the present day.
The Good Book's organizational system is similar to that of the Bible.
It is divided into fourteen books (Genesis, Wisdom, Parables, Concord,
Lamentations, Consolations, Sages, Songs, Histories, Proverbs, The
Lawgiver, Acts, Epistles, and The Good). Each book is divided into short
chapters, and each chapter is divided into numbered verses, so that
chapter and verse can be referenced numerically.
The volume's final book features a version
of the Ten Commandments
1. Love well
2. Seek the good in all things
3. Harm no others
4. Think for yourself
5. Take responsibility
6. Respect nature
7. Do your utmost
8. Be informed
9. Be kind
10. Be courageous
These come with the post-thought that the reader "at least, sincerely
try" and an addendum in, "Add to these ten injunctions, this: O friends,
let us always be true to ourselves and to the best in things, so that we
can always be true to one another."
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