Secular Liturgies

Enriching secular life with Humanist and progressive ethics, heritage, liturgy, ceremony, community leadership and pastoral care…

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Elizabeth R. (Opening chapter of a novel by A.E. Somerville-Wong)

I was a small but determined twenty-two-year-old when I found myself bearing down on the trough at St Sidwell’s Manse. That was the moment I first saw her, Elizabeth I mean. The Reverend Doctor Elizabeth Randolph, famously renegade but indisputably brilliant vicar of St Sidwell’s. Formerly a parish church in typical decline, St Sidwell’s had been transformed single-handedly by the Reverend Randolph into a thronging pioneer ministry in the heart of the ancient City of Exeter. It was frequented by sceptics, free-thinkers, Humanists, atheists, agnostics, Philosophical and Secular Buddhists, Humanistic Jews, religious naturalists, non-theist or post-theistic Christians from among the Unitarians, Universalists, Quakers and other denominations, and contemporary luminaries, academics and progressive thinkers of every kind. What they all had in common was the view that knowledge ought to be acquired through reason and empirical evidence, the desire to live an ethical life based on empathy and compassion, and the determination to build a kinder, fairer and more reasonable society.

A rational outlook, when combined with this commitment to living a good life and building a good society, was what defined Elizabeth’s own brand of Humanism; a Humanism which embraced many cultural aspects of religion – those compatible with universal human rights and freedoms – but which stopped short of assumptions and assertions beyond that which was demonstrably true. The humility and inclusiveness of this approach appealed to many nonreligious people and to nondogmatic people of faith who had become resistant to the labels and tribalism of the past. As far as I was concerned, The Randolph Centre for Humanist and Progressive Spirituality was the future. The Church of England had done its best to be rid of Elizabeth of course, but her many supporters would not allow it, and coming as she did from an illustrious dynasty of clergy, albeit one with a tendency towards rule-breaking (in a famously jovial sort of way), the powers that be were disposed to be more tolerant in her case. Social class had much to do with this of course, and Elizabeth was very much aware of the privileges she had inherited.

Unfortunately, the closest I could get to Elizabeth was a placement in the nearby parish of St Michael’s. There I was condemned to the tutelage of one Reverend Fergus Morley-Wright, reputed to be the biggest buffoon in the county, manipulated by all and sundry in his parish from the great to the small, and consequently undergoing a more or less continuous round of humiliation. I was darned if I was going to be dragged into one of his hair-brained schemes, but it became apparent that Elizabeth was strangely fond of the creature, and it was for this reason alone that for the duration of what was, after all, the very first of our communal feasts, I permitted my guard to stand at ease.

The rectory kitchen captured the essence of what the Japanese called wabi-sabi, albeit with a very English aesthetic; that sweet spot between symmetry and chaos, flourishing and decay, that makes one feel one might just about belong in this world after-all. Parked at a defiantly misshapen solid oak table, one that had probably witnessed the vicissitudes of multiple generations of clergy and their families, I found myself in reflective mood, absent-mindedly fondling one of its many splendid knots. It was as well to meditate when I did. Moments later, baser instincts prevailed, with the arrival of steaming broccoli and stilton soup and the most effusive loaf of bread I had ever seen. These came with plates of smoked salmon, a cheese board, olives, pickles, salads and coleslaw, and to the rear, something tantalizingly concealed under an embroidered napkin which was later introduced to us as moist strawberry and apple cake. Everything that could be, was ravishingly homemade, and possessed of that wholesome, bucolic charm, which not even the finest of packaged foods could reproduce. Such a vision was quite capable of stripping the famished guest of all her usual manners and decorum. However, just as I was feeling an alarming loss of self-control, I was steadied – rescued from what would have been a thoroughly disgraceful exhibition of greed – by the ensuing conversation.

‘Everything is big these days Elizabeth’, said Fergus, gazing into the middle distance, and arranging himself in a chair. He looked uncannily like a bewildered faun, who upon his first visit to a human abode, was attempting to get to grips with the furniture.

‘Big data, big history, big, err, well, people?’ he continued, gingerly.

‘Indeed,’ replied Elizabeth warmly, ‘which is why my next sermon will be about another kind of big, something I’m calling Big Culture.’ 

This statement was met with silent incomprehension on all sides, and Fergus’s eyes seemed to swivel from side to side with the sheer effort of thought. Seeing this, Elizabeth continued,

‘Big Culture is a celebration of the best that humanity has to offer in terms of the arts, humanities, faiths and philosophies that have characterized the world’s many cultures. By distilling the liquid gold from our present and past, and equally by ridding ourselves of the dross, we may just find our way to meeting today’s global challenges and safeguarding our democracy. It’s the only way we will ever be worthy of the name Sapiens, which as you both know, means ‘wise’.’

When a further pause elicited no response but signalled no decline in interest either, she expanded on her theme:

‘Every culture has its good and evil aspects, its strengths and its weaknesses, though one might argue that some cultures are more corrupt than others, across time, and more controversially, space. It is easy to say the fascist culture of Nazi Germany was exceptionally degenerate, for example, it being consigned to the annals of history, but more difficult to make comparisons in the present without giving offense. However, controversial or not, Big Culture must include a critical process, however painful that may be, yet as far as possible with objectivity, without prejudice, and with equal respect for individual persons regardless of their cultural background. And, it should always, for the sake of courtesy, begin with honest criticism of one’s own culture, an exercise which demands a good measure of humility. I might for example, begin by pointing to the failings of contemporary British culture; its mindless acquisitiveness, its vulgar fetish for celebrity, the anti-intellectualism that makes a taboo of everything that really matters, not to mention the epidemic of social isolation, overwhelming loneliness, and a poverty of social skills eased only by an excess of alcohol. Our aspirational classes are often the worst. Soured by ruthless competition and riddled with status anxiety, they no longer know how to form real relationships, since these require mutual vulnerability, and they have exchanged imaginative and reflective thought with a treadmill of overblown busyness of the purely utilitarian sort. We have these potentially fatal cultural flaws like every other human society, even though we often feel as if we are the lucky, superior ones, but once we have engaged with this self-critical process, we can look to other cultures, including our own past cultures and present sub-cultures, to see if any provide clues to living better. I am confident that we will find inspiration in the ideas and practices we find, not for us to simply copy, but to reinterpret in the light of our own knowledge and adapt to our own circumstances. Only Big Culture perspectives can help in the age of globalization and the cosmopolitan city. The narrow religious and political ideologies of our predecessors simply will not do. They have lost all credibility. Unlike many of my peers in the church who see this as a tragedy and rattle on about the end of Christendom, I see it as a great opportunity. With Big Culture, we will see a revival in human inventiveness. We will see some of the old ideas and practices remodeled for a new age. We will take our foot out of the grave of outdated institutions and absurd beliefs, and renew a more authentic pursuit of excellence and virtue. We will not flounder in confusion as the traditionalists, ironically, insist, but prove ourselves just as resourceful as ever, redefining what it means to be successful, based on a richer, more inclusive culture and… I could go on but I see I’m talking far too much as usual; an almost universal flaw among clergy I’m afraid.’

Fergus had developed a slightly dazed look, and I detected even a creeping pallor. He looked like someone who had given ‘A Brief History of Time’ a fair shot but had come over a bit faint. Meanwhile, I tried to hide a rapt expression, which would have come over too servile, and would have given unnecessary insight into the advanced state of my ignorance. I was all eyes and ears to learn from the best in the trade, and eager to volunteer my services to this remarkable woman and her Centre for Humanist and Progressive Spirituality at the first opportunity but I was never one for fawning. This was the first time I had heard Elizabeth speak about her work in person. Her address was impossibly polished, though simmering with quiet passion, and notably without affectation. She reminded me of a broadcaster rather than the stereotypical vicar, except that she did not ooze self-satisfaction or reek of cronyism as so many of those people do. On the contrary, Elizabeth was wonderfully and fearlessly honest, and without hint of apology for the intellectual rigor of her conversation. Fergus too, to give him his due, was remarkably at home in his own skin. He made no effort to moderate his natural eccentricities; the falsetto laughter, the contortions of the face, and the rather antiquated use of language; all were delivered with abandon.

After a quiet few minutes in which we chewed audibly, ruminating like a herd of cows, and in which I was disappointed to find that engorgement was fast approaching before I had had my rightful share of cake, I noticed some distinctly anomalous movement opposite – more anomalous than usual that is. Fergus was oscillating upon his stand and clearing his throat in such a way as to suggest he was gearing up for some kind of elaborate response to the Big Culture proposition. The tension I was already feeling about the middle, was overshadowed by another uncomfortable sensation one experiences in that region in anticipation of a thing too cringe-worthy to be borne.

‘Dear me, Elizabeth, that all sounds awfully complicated. The way I see it is that we would do well to look at the indigenous cultures or First Nations if we want to learn a thing or two about wisdom. Only yesterday I was reading about…’ Then there was silence. Fergus appeared to be missing in action, the mouth hung open, and he was frowning deeply. Apparently, the act of voicing his opinion had caused him to think better of it, either that or he had lost his thread altogether. This was no doubt to our collective advantage. However, I wondered whether Elizabeth would pick up on the subject of indigenous cultures, for somewhere within Fergus’s skull, a connection had been made that did appear to have some validity. Elizabeth muttered something about indigenous cultures being of great importance to any Big Culture project, especially given our need to regain an older understanding and respect for the ecosystems of which we are a part. However, she was busy with some brie and toasted walnut salad, and having sampled it myself, I could hardly blame her for being a little preoccupied.

After an interlude, in which Elizabeth fetched a couple of extra serving spoons – a shortfall in serving spoons being a matter requiring urgent attention – I eventually plucked up the courage to speak.

‘I’m wondering’, I said tentatively, ‘do you think there really is hope for humanity, given the mess we’re all in?’

Elizabeth fixed me with a determined stare.

‘We are living at a critical time for our species and for our planet as a whole,’ she said firmly, ‘On the one hand, we face a number of existential threats of our own making, including climate change, pollution, mass extinction and the possibility of nuclear conflict, and on the other, we have reached a point in our history where the world’s educated classes have the knowledge, the tools and the global historical perspectives required to learn from our mistakes, overcome our cognitive biases and create a world order superior to anything that came before. Thus, when envisioning the future, we find ourselves in one moment starring into an abyss of mutual destruction, and in the next, marvelling at our potential for innovation and advancement. Never before has there been a more urgent need or a more opportune moment for the world’s many humanistic and progressive movements to come to the fore; movements which promote reason, and independent, critical thought; movements which demonstrate empathy and compassion, and which champion human rights and human flourishing in balance with the natural world. Only a marriage of humanistic ethics and scientific excellence, nourished by a greater understanding of human history and human nature, can save our planet and save us from ourselves – a species so deeply afflicted by its own weaknesses and destructive behaviours. The problems we face will require innovative, rational and evidence-based solutions, and while our priorities must be reversing environmental destruction and refraining from waging wars, we also have to worry about potential threats from unregulated artificial intelligence and bio-engineering technologies, and we have an urgent duty to end grave social injustices such as poverty, excessive wealth inequality, gender inequality, modern slavery, corruption and the persistence of bigotry and systemic racism. Our problems may seem insurmountable but I do believe we are capable of solving them if enough of us put our minds to it. It’s no good giving up or sitting back and hoping for the best. We must all play our part.’

This rousing speech was followed by a silence, not an awkward silence, but the silence of an unspoken ‘Amen’.

Fergus eventually broke that silence: ‘I must say’, he said, having retreated to more familiar territory, ‘that upon a much smaller scale, I too have had my challenges this week. One of our staples, a Mrs Hissop, came to me two days ago asking whether I had seen her husband. Apparently, he went away on business with a forwarding address but is reported by the proprietors of said address, to have since gone AWOL. She is convinced he is having some kind of dalliance with a younger woman, and described his activities as most assuredly that of, well, she used the words deluded, old, and fool, in that particular order. She insists I investigate the matter, locate the accused, and bring him to his senses. The whole thing sounds very ominous, very ominous indeed. However, I am quite sure I can get up some scheme to solve this mystery and put the matter to rights. It will of course demand those great machinations of the frontal cortex, for which I am especially well equipped. Indeed, be assured young Morven, the problems of St Michael’s parish are in the safest of hands.’

 ‘You see’, he added, still looking in my direction, ‘Elizabeth may be the philosophical brains of Exeter’s Anglican outfit, but I am quite definitely the master, when it comes to the solving of mysteries.’

I tried to disguise a sneer, while Elizabeth beamed with pleasure. ‘Ah’ she said, with tones of affection, ‘then you must tell me what you have in mind, once you have it in mind of course, and regale me with all your plans. Do not spare a single detail. Where will you start your search?’

‘Well, I will begin tomorrow by making enquiries with those persons who are aptly known as the ‘social hubs’ of my parish, namely a Mrs Ableton and a Mr McNeish (take note young Morven). These are bound to know something. Then, if that fails to dredge up a lead, I will apply promptly to Mrs Hissop for details of the colleague who is reported to have been bundled off with Mr Hissop in the company car.’

‘Hasn’t Mr Hissop (one of our esteemed local accountants, she added, in an aside to me) been buzzing around that O’Brien girl, the fidgety one with the red hair and the coy mannerisms?’

‘Maggy O’Brien, so I hear, though I seem always to be innocent of such observations.’

‘My dear Fergus…’ said Elizabeth, turning again towards me, ‘He wouldn’t notice an affair if it reached its climax in the front pew during Holy Communion.’ Then she laughed heartily at the thought.

I beamed, delighted by this candid exchange among clergy.

‘Well, I say!’ Fergus protested, albeit with a sparkle in the eye, ‘I’ll have you know, there are matters in which Fergus Morley-Wright is far more perceptive than most.’

‘And what might those be?’ replied Elizabeth, skeptically, but without a hint of the disdain I happened to be feeling for the man.

‘For a start, it has come to my attention that Mr Frottle, esteemed local solicitor (another aside for my benefit), has been frequenting a synagogue, and I am quite convinced he intends to abandon the Christian faith altogether and return lock, stock and barrel to his ancestral roots. He claims he has a Jewish ancestor you see, though so far back that it cannot even be verified and I’m certain this is no more than an excuse. As treasurer for St Michael’s, he will be leaving us all quite in the lurch, which is most inconvenient but far more vexing is the fact that I cannot get through to the man that he is quite at liberty to immerse himself whole-heartedly in the Jewish faith, without taking Jesus off the menu altogether. I mean, there are Messianic Jews aren’t there?’

‘Indeed, there are’ Elizabeth confirmed, ‘and it is possible for a progressive-minded person to blend the best of both faiths but we must remember that as we pass through the seasons of life, with their differing sensibilities, we cannot always find fulfilment in the same spiritual exercises or the same community. It may be that the particular people, teachings and practices at the synagogue are more appealing to George, given his current disposition and circumstances, and it could be that they hit the zeitgeist in general better than we do. If the former, he should be encouraged to go with our blessing. If the latter, then we should think about doing a better job of meeting contemporary needs before we find ourselves haemorrhaging congregants. This all depends of course on whether George really is leaving us, though I agree, it seems likely.’

‘Oh, too bad… too bad’, Fergus lamented.

‘Come, come, Fergus. Perhaps it will be just the thing to give a new lease of life to an old friend, and it’s not as if he’s moving abroad. You’ll still see him every now and then. We clergy must remember to act in our parishioners’ best interests, even when we’re talking about personal friends. I do understand though that you are very fond of George. It’ll be a wrench for him too, losing the old rhythms of familiar company.’

Fergus sighed gloomily, for she had seen all, but he soon rallied the old spirit.

‘I heard there’s a new Rabbi there’, he said, ‘with a talent for rhetoric and philosophical debate, something that might appeal to George, I suppose, coming to terms as he is with the loss of his beloved Meg. It was all so very sudden and premature, you know. Even if he cannot find any definitive answers, as I who have spent my whole life searching have somehow failed to do, he may nonetheless benefit from a more rigorous process of exploration than I can provide. Indeed, it may prove essential, as you say, for his wellbeing.’

Fergus’s disappointment that Elizabeth did not share his view that Frottle should be persuaded to stay was plain to see, in spite of his efforts to arrive at the same conclusions. The impending loss of a colleague and friend stung all the more because it seemed, to Fergus, to signify the passing of an era. However, there rolled over his Eeyore-like dial a peculiar expression, more peculiar than was usual, as if something deeply troubling but of a rather different nature had just occurred to him.

‘George mentions this new Rabbi in some context or another every time I see him these days. All I ever hear is Aphra this and Aphra that! You don’t happen to know do you Elizabeth, whether this lady is by any chance an attractive female, and of somewhat tender years?’

I reeled, and not imperceptibly this time, at this infuriating and stereotypically male train of thought. Even I, new to the area as I was, had caught wind of the fact that the synagogue now had a Rabbi after many years of lay leadership, and that she was a woman. Yet here was Fergus, clearly assuming that a man could not possibly take so much as a thimbleful of interest in a woman and what she had to say, unless there was some underlying sexual motive.

The real shock, however, came from another quarter.

‘As it happens, said Elizabeth, she is rather attractive, and unmarried, and just shy of her fourth decade I believe.’

Fergus started violently as if struck from behind, disturbing his teacup such that the saucer was flooded with the murky substance. He now looked less like Eeyore and more like a startled tapir. I too looked askance, while feeling simultaneously ashamed that with those few words of Elizabeth’s, I had become just as suspicious as our male companion. Being young and innocent as I was, I had rather hoped that it might be possible for a man to admire a younger woman’s intellect, without wanting to sleep with her or possess her in some way, but experience kept trying to disabuse me of such a notion.

Watching Fergus fumble with his teacup, I was struck by how the very same beverage, which in one moment so enticed and beguiled, could in the next lose all its allure, merely upon a change of receptacle. The thinness of what made something desirable, or indeed repellent, was an revelation that stayed with me.

 ‘Good grief’, said Fergus, in a timorous voice, once he had steadied the china and begun dabbing at the spillage with a cloth handkerchief. ‘Poor old George. Is there no end to this march of remarkable women?’

At this display of male prejudice, I fumed inwardly. It seemed to me to be a perennial fault with men to immediately blame a woman (or women in general), for everything that went awry, when in this case as in most, it was some blundering brute of a man who lay at the root of the trouble. Frottle was approaching his fiftieth year, at the very least, which meant that from where I perched as a mere fledgling, he was just about fossilized. He ought to have known better than to behave in such a ludicrous way, and if anyone deserved our disapproval, it was him. I was about to make my feelings known when Elizabeth cut in.

‘No, I believe not. In fact, taking the long view of human history, this is only the start.’ She spoke, not haughtily, but certainly with the gleam of triumph.’

‘But how can a respectable man retain his dignity in such an age; the age of the demi-goddess?’ He stared upwards, as if the last phrase were scrawled somewhere across the sky, making me sick to the stomach.

‘In the same way you retain yours with me, Fergus dear.’ Elizabeth replied warmly, with a mischievous wink in my direction. 

‘Ah but Elizabeth, with us it’s different. Everything you say goes straight through my head like one of those high-speed sub-atomic particles who looks at us and sees only empty space. I barely catch the gist before that too rattles its way out. Being in a perpetual state of incomprehension is hardly compatible with an infatuation.’

We all laughed.

In those early days, I secretly wondered why Elizabeth bothered with this prize idiot. Was she not ‘throwing pearls before swine’? I was still of an age perhaps, where one expects rather too much of some people and rather too little of others.

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Creating a New Secular Calendar

I’m creating a new Secular/Interfaith Calendar, which can be fully embraced and enjoyed by nonreligious people, humanists, progressives and non-theists but which does not exclude orthodox religious people. The aim is to support the flourishing of nonreligious people who are often partly or wholly excluded from seasonal celebrations, while being as inclusive as possible.

Existing secular calendars tend to have a lot of dates that are a bit partisan or not so inclusive (atheist days for example – not even all Humanists identify as atheists!), days which focus on particular people but often exclusively white males like Charles Darwin and Thomas Paine and so forth. I am looking to create something more international and inclusive than the previous calendars but in addition to that framework people can celebrate certain more exclusive days and events that are important to them but not necessarily to others.

Punctuating the year with seasonal festivals and special days, with their associated rituals, customs and events, helps to make our journey through life more meaningful. It anchors the passing of time in our values and aspirations and the rhythms of nature.  These events bring us together and help us connect with one another and the earth. They enrich our lives with art, culture and learning. They also make life a whole lot more fun!

Below is the first draft. I would really value readers’ comments and participation as I continue to develop it. The events correspond as closely as possible to existing special days, weeks and celebrations.

I will be updating the calendar over the course of a few months in response to further research and the constructive comments and suggestions I receive during consultations with the wider community.

The plan is to launch the New Secular Calendar in January 2021.

Do add your comments and suggestions below!

New Secular Calendar:

1. Remembrance Week (late January) to remember all the victims of human evil and folly, including victims of war, genocide, slavery/trafficking, oppression and injustice. Holocaust Memorial Day takes place during this time.
2. STEM Week (early March) to celebrate science, technology, engineering and mathematics with a strong public education focus and events for families etc.
3. Spring Festival Season (April – May) to celebrate new life or renewed life, warmth and sunshine, and the wonderful produce of the natural world (including cocoa!).
4. Golden Rule Day (April 5th) to celebrate humanistic and universal values such as the need to treat others as we would wish to be treated ourselves. The Golden Rule appears in all cultures in writings going right back to ancient times.
5. Earth Day and Sustainability Week (April 22nd and the following week) to promote the care and clean-up of the earth and all things sustainability related and to celebrate the awe-inspiring beauty of our planet.
6. Diversity Day (May 21st) or ‘Rainbow Day’ as my kids call it and Diversity Week to celebrate people from different social and racial backgrounds, people of different genders, the LGBTQ+ community, people with different abilities, minorities and marginalised groups and to promote pluralism/multiculturalism.
7. Humanities Week (early June) – as you can imagine I’m very keen on this one and can’t imagine why there isn’t one already! This will celebrate excellent scholarship and promote life-long learning and public engagement with history, ancient and modern languages, literature, philosophy, archaeology, anthropology, human geography, law, politics, religion, art and digital humanities.
8. Health and Well-being Week (Late June/early July) to coincide with World Wellbeing Week which promotes an overall awareness of the wide-ranging aspects of wellbeing, including social, physical, emotional, financial, career, community and environmental wellbeing.
9. Arts and Creatives Week (August) to celebrate and encourage participation and excellence in the visual arts, theatre, dance, literature, design, music and all other forms of creativity!
10. Ethical Business Week (October?) to reflect, assess and discuss businesses and how they can be more ethically run, and to celebrate businesses that are taking the lead in areas of sustainability, social justice and so forth.
11. Interfaith Week (second full week of November) to promote interfaith dialogue and mutual understanding, to affirm common values and goals, and to encourage cultural exchange and celebration.
12. Winter Festival Season (December) to reflect on the past year and prepare for the next, and to celebrate and be thankful for family, friendships and all things wintry.

I am very much hoping people will create their own rituals and artistic interpretations based on the calendar, as well as joining in with those I may suggest, and that the calendar will support the growth and flourishing of all but especially the non-religious in terms of an ability to create and renew meaning, a depth and enjoyment of human connections (and connections with other living things and the earth), an experience of wonder, love and self-transcendence, reflective, creative and contemplative practices, a reinforcement of shared values and goals, ethical engagement and the nurturing of visions and aspirations, an ability to remember important aspects of history and a commitment to lifelong learning and growth in critical thought, empathy, compassion and so forth…


Reflecting on the Past and Planning for the Future: Humanist Chaplains in 2020

An Introduction

A Humanist is someone whose knowledge is acquired through reason and science, who lives an ethical life based on empathy and compassion, and who strives to build a kinder, fairer and more reasonable society. We are champions of human rights and human flourishing, and promote the well-being of the earth and all its inhabitants through sustainable development. Humanism isn’t a faith. We don’t have a creed, though there are several manifestos and declarations outlining the humanistic worldview. There is a wide range of philosophical thought within Humanist communities and we are proud of our diversity. We embrace uncertainty and respectful dialogue, and draw from a long and rich history of humanistic thought going back to ancient times.

In this vein, thousands of Humanists are working across Europe (and increasingly in North America) in ‘secular ministries’ as Non-Religious Pastoral Carers and Humanist Chaplains in hospitals, prisons and universities, as funeral, wedding and naming celebrants, as leaders of humanist communities or ‘congregations’, as ethical business consultants and as advisors and speakers in schools and colleges. However, in many countries this work is still in its infancy or adolescence and there is much still to do to develop and establish these roles and to meet the needs which they seek to address.

It seems an ideal moment therefore to take stock and reflect on how far we have come (both individually and collectively) and on what we hope to achieve. Thus, I decided to send out a call for answers to ten relevant questions, initially to fellow Humanist Chaplains. Below are the first few sets of responses, with my answers in the mix as well (brief bios at the end). Whether you are involved in this kind of work or not, I hope you find our stories intriguing, uplifting and inspiring!

 Anastasia E. Somerville-Wong


  1. What were your childhood and adolescent experiences of belief, religion, philosophy and spirituality?

James Croft (US)

I grew up in a nonreligious household. However, my school had a Christian foundation, and as a member of the chapel choir I sang regularly in church services throughout my teenage years. I enjoyed the ritual and the sense of significance church services offered, while never believing in any of the specific religious claims being made.

Gerardene Douglas-Scott (Scotland, UK) 

I was born in the west of Scotland into a Roman Catholic family of Irish origin. My family were not particularly religious but I adopted it seriously from the age of 11, when I decided to become a missionary nun. My whole life was full of it. I loved the rituals, the smells, the symbolism, singing in the choir, leading the singing, going to the obscure services like ‘Devotions”. I loved it all. When 16 I set up a meditation prayer group and then attended “One World Movement” weekends which were great fun as a teenager. Shared prayer, walking meditations, dancing and of course ‘heavy petting’…

I went to Stirling University to study Religious Studies and Spanish. I became the chair of the parish council and led the singing and played the guitar in true ‘Kumbaya” style for 3 years.  Then I went off to the convent in Dublin called the Sacred heart of Jesus and Mary sisters, a teaching order. I knew within a few weeks that I had made a mistake. The three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience were never going to sit well with me (LOL!). Poverty: the nuns were spending piles of money on ‘lay’ clothes, discarding their habits at that time. Obedience: well, no one will ever be able to tell me what to do I’m afraid! Chastity: well, if the church was to be believed my hands would have fallen off, never mind my head, having had an affair with a catholic priest for 5 years!

I became the first Catholic RE Specialist in Scotland, married the physics teacher and had three children. I lasted 2 years teaching – I did not believe a single thing I was saying to the teenage girls especially. My wonderful children went to a catholic school. I knew it was wrong for them and they were bullied badly for their LGBT sexuality. Then there was the poverty thing again – we had very little material possessions and certainly couldn’t pay money to the church every Sunday.

One day (around 1985), I knelt down in my living room and said “God, that was good in the main, but no thanks”. I never looked back, though I did miss the ritual and the community (though not the community of nuns of course).

Tim Maguire (Scotland, UK)

I was raised a catholic, sent to fee-paying schools run by Christian Brothers and Benedictine monks. Both Scotus Academy and the Abbey School Fort Augustus have since been implicated in the abuse of children – other than being regularly beaten often for the most trivial of offences, I can’t remember that happening to me. I do however remember intensely hating being at both schools and resolving on leaving that I would never again allow myself to stay anywhere I was unhappy or be forced to do things against my will. On the upside of the ledger, I am grateful for my understanding of Latin and Greek, and I enjoyed singing in the choir, not least because once a year it gave me the chance to meet girls of my own age.

Anastasia Somerville-Wong (England, UK)

I was brought up in a non-religious home in West London and moved in very multi-cultural and multi-faith circles. My schools were Roman Catholic and Anglican but I was never satisfied with their ‘arguments from authority’ – this or that is true because I’ve told you so or the church says so or because it’s written in this or that book etc. I was always very ‘deep’ for my age, questioning everything (which sometimes got me into trouble!), and interested in what could be learnt about the world and about practical wisdom from science and the world’s philosophical and faith traditions. I was an agnostic, until in later childhood I decided the evidence for a god just wasn’t forthcoming, and since I wasn’t agnostic about the existence of fairies, I decided the rational thing to do was to commit to atheism.

However, in my late teens I experienced severe anxiety, and when I hit ‘rock bottom’, I had a sudden and life-changing ‘mystical’ experience of overwhelming love and the promise of healing, which at the time I attributed to some kind of divinity. I began avidly reading religious literature and soon after that I became a devout Christian, albeit a very ecumenical one. I remained so until my mid-twenties, when I became rapidly disillusioned with orthodox faith; with its lack of evidence, its inconsistencies and the cognitive dissonance required to believe in its dogmas on the one hand and navigate the real world on the other. I found it extremely liberating and far healthier when, for the sake of intellectual and emotional integrity (sanity, even), I chose to stick to reason and science alone and also to follow my heart – my compassion for all those human beings who do not fit the norms and requirements of religious orthodoxy. I began a PhD in historical theology, which gave me the time to research the history of Christianity, and religious traditions, texts and contexts more broadly, and to test their claims at much greater depth. This accelerated my journey to a Progressive Christian position, and soon after that, I settled in what was effectively Humanism with a Christian flavour.

I still maintain close associations with the Humanist-embracing groups that have emerged from orthodox Christianity such as the Progressive Christians, British Quakers, Quaker Universalists, Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists. I have also been engaged since childhood in aspects of Secular/Philosophical Buddhism, and in more recent years, I have developed an interest and connection with Humanistic Judaism. Having been a bit Stoic for many years, I have also enjoyed the renewed interest in this area brought about by Modern Stoicism. While Humanism is the best fit for my beliefs and values, I continue to take inspiration from the insights and practices of many of the world’s faiths and philosophical traditions.

  1. What led you to Humanism and then to Humanist Chaplaincy?

James Croft (US)

I started self-identifying as a Humanist in my late teens, after reading the Humanist Manifesto 2 in university. I found in that Manifesto a clear expression of the values by which I already lived my life.

Gerardene Douglas-Scott (Scotland UK) 

In 2002 I went to a funeral. It was Joe Hughes RIP, one of the first Humanist celebrants. Never had I wanted to do something so much in my life. Until that point, I had been a Public Health Specialist but latterly was NHS Adviser to the Scottish Government in involving people in the design, delivery and monitoring of care. I called it “Involving People”. The government called it “Public Involvement”. I decided that the change in perspective was not what I wanted. I very much enjoyed providing the secretariat to the Spiritual Care Guidance developed in the government at that time. The MEL (Management Executive Letter) of 2002 that I was part of developing, has become a beacon for many to differentiate and highlight spiritual care (and religious care within that). I left the government in 2003 and completed the two weekends of training to be a Humanist Chaplain. A few months later, I undertook a full-time Post-Graduate Diploma in Person Centred Counselling – a humanistic approach to therapy.

I wanted to speak my truth and decided that life was too short for anything else. I wanted to walk alongside people at the transition times in life. Funerals and celebrating and ‘marking’ peoples’ lives became my passion.  I belonged to the large Humanist organisation and was probably one of their busiest celebrants. I was around the 13th celebrant to be trained. I remember them hoping they would get to 30 and then aim towards 50. Since then many humanist organisations have sprung up in Scotland and there are many hundreds of celebrants in here now.  My partner trained in 2008 to be a humanist celebrant and we were the first women to be married in Scotland at midnight on 31/12/14. (It was a Registrar and not a humanist sadly – but that is another story that involved humanist mal-politics and hurt us very much).

We set up Celebrate People in 2019 after a few years with a different Humanist organisation to provide humanist empathy, compassion, love and equality to all. We embrace pluralism and spiritual care as part of our humanist approach to life.  ( Our statement of belief is on the website.

Tim Maguire (Scotland, UK)

I was married in a humanist ceremony just before they became legal in 2005 and the celebrant suggested I train. I thought about it for about 40 seconds and agreed. Until stumbling across humanism because I wanted a meaningful ceremony, I had associated the word with Erasmus and the Renaissance. On discovering that humanism offered a moral and ethical framework for a good and worthwhile life without god, I stopped being what I called a Recovering Catholic and embraced humanism with all the enthusiasm of a convert.

Anastasia Somerville-Wong (England, UK)

I seem to have explained already how I came to Humanism! Humanist chaplaincy was a natural progression from my previous work. I’ve always felt my particular suite of skills and talents was well suited to ‘ministry’ of some kind but unless you are an orthodox religious believer that path is closed to you in the UK. Even the so-called ‘broad churches’ are not welcoming to progressives/humanists when it comes to ordained ministry, and I hadn’t been a member of a Unitarian Church so there didn’t seem to be anywhere where I could fulfil my vocation. Academia, with its focus on research, education and pastoral care was another great fit. I undertook several post-doctoral research and teaching fellowships but as you may have heard, academic career paths have been completely undermined by the actions of previous generations and successive governments. It’s pretty much impossible to get a secure academic position at a university, especially if you are a woman and primary carer of young children. I can’t just drop everything every six months or so to take up whatever fixed-term post happens to come up somewhere or other in the world. Also, these posts are on professors’ projects and do not develop upon one’s own work. They are often exploitative and lead nowhere. It’s really sad to see our universities lose out on so much younger talent because of the greed of a few but there it is!

It was exciting to discover that Humanists UK was training people in pastoral care and enabling them to become Humanist Pastoral Care Volunteers in hospitals, prisons and universities. Even though there are currently no paid positions for them at universities, I hoped that this might change in the future. The broader ministerial role of chaplain appealed to me even more. I had many years of experience as an educator, mentor and pastoral carer in higher education and other settings, and I knew there hadn’t yet been a Humanist Chaplain at the university near where I lived, so I began negotiations with the Multi-Faith Chaplaincy there. Its full-time Anglican chaplain had been hostile to Humanism but she had recently left and the chaplaincy had come under restructure with the appointment of a Chaplaincy Co-ordinator and greater university supervision. It turned out my approach was perfectly timed! I had already undertaken the assessment and training in pastoral care with Humanists UK and was an accredited member of the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network. I became the first Humanist Chaplain at the University of Exeter on 30th January 2020, and was just getting stuck in when the pandemic and lockdown struck!

  1. What books, authors, thinkers, activists or previous chaplains have inspired you and why?

James Croft (US)

Carl Sagan, probably the greatest communicator of the Humanist worldview ever, with a capacity to express the wonder of the universe in a quasi-religious way without supernaturalism. Philip Pullman, the Humanist novelist par excellence. Kate Lovelady, senior Leader at the Ethical Society of St. Louis, where I work, who has taught me so much about being Humanist clergy. Robert Ingersoll, the Great Agnostic, for his rousing speeches and ability to sway people to freethought at a time when it was almost unknown.

Gerardene Douglas-Scott (Scotland, UK) 

Carl Rogers and the core conditions: Empathy, Unconditional Positive Regard and Congruence is my main influencer.

Tim Maguire (Scotland, UK)

None specifically in terms of Chaplaincy. I often quote AC Grayling when I’m conducting funerals, and Stephen Law when trying to give a short and coherent account of what humanists believe. I’m a fan of both Philip Pullman and Jim Al Khalili – again someone whose view of what humanism represents chimes with me. These two quotations encapsulate it:

“My view is that if you focus on what’s bad about religion that doesn’t serve any purpose. For a lot of people religion is vitally important, it creates social cohesion in communities and offers comfort. As long as it doesn’t affect me or offend me it’s fine. Get on with it.”

 “…I think, that humankind’s fate and future is in its own hands. The reason why we strive for a better world and to be good is not because some old scripture or mythology tells me that I’ll be rewarded if I’m good and punished if I’m bad. But because being good defines me as a human. Anyone who wants to be good because they think they should be, not because their religion tells them to be, for me is a humanist.”

Anastasia Somerville-Wong (England, UK)

There are too many books and authors to mention. Rather than bore you with lists of books, talks and articles that have been meaningful to me over the years, I’ll just mention some of my favourite people when it comes to various aspects of contemporary Humanism. These include scientists like Biological Anthropologist Alice Roberts and Astrophysicists Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, Historians like Yuval Noah Harari and Karen Armstrong, the psychologist and broadcaster Margaret Knight, behavioural psychologists/economists like Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, Philosophers like A. C. Grayling, Alain de Botton and Sam Harris, Activists like Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai and Yasmine Mohammed, ecologists like Rachel Carson, Stephen Kellart and Arvay Clemens and humanist creatives like Gene Roddenberry and Phillip Pullman.

I’ve chosen these people because their thinking, values and goals resonate with my own and I admire their work. I’m rather too independent-minded to call myself a fan or follower of anyone, and I haven’t had the experience of one particular book or author changing my life. My children are young and demanding so I don’t get much time to read for pleasure. I do a lot of sneaky skimming of short articles and reviews and listening to interviews in the background while I’m working or keeping my kids busy! I tend to spend any precious free time doing more focused research into areas that have not been thoroughly explored yet. As an academic historian by training (and in some sense by nature), I am researching the history of humanistic ‘ministries’ and the history of chaplaincy more specifically. History, especially applied history relating to aspects of my current work as a chaplain, is an important part of my reflective practice.

Over the years I have also taken inspiration from progressive Buddhist thinkers and I welcome the contemporary Secular Buddhism movement led by Noah Rasheta. I have also admired the work of Progressive Christian ministers I have known personally and worked alongside in the churches. The latter were mostly people who had moved to a more humanistic position later in their career, having already established themselves in ordained ministry in various denominations. A few were trained in more progressive and universalist traditions.

  1. What studies, training, qualifications and accreditations do you have, which help or are required for the role of Humanist Chaplain?

James Croft (US)

I am an Ethical Culture Leader (Leader is the formal title of clergy in the Ethical Culture movement), and that requires a number of years of academic and practical training akin to ordination in other traditions. I also have an EdM and EdD from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where I studied Human Development, which informed my work in numerous ways.

Gerardene Douglas-Scott (Scotland, UK) 

BA in Religious Studies, PostGradDip in Counselling, Celebrate People accreditation, currently studying for Diploma in Pastoral Care Supervision and Reflective Practice…

Tim Maguire (Scotland, UK)

I’m an honorary unpaid chaplain at the University of Edinburgh. I was appointed to the chaplaincy team in 2013 and I was an unpaid ‘belief contact’ for five years before that. My honours degree from the same university has no direct relevance to my work as a chaplain: I’d like to think that having been in post for seven years without complaint, I must be doing something right even if I’ve had no training, but I’m sure there is more I could learn.

Anastasia Somerville-Wong (England, UK)

I have a PhD in Historical Theology from the University of Aberdeen and an MA (Hons) in Philosophy and Politics from the University of Edinburgh. I have also completed postdoctoral research fellowships at the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth, and an associate lectureship at the University of Aberdeen. Most of my work has been on inter-disciplinary projects covering a wide range of subjects including heritage studies, digital humanities, law, English literature and environmental studies and all have shaped my current approach to humanistic philosophy and practice in some way or another. In 2019, I underwent an assessment and training in pastoral care with Humanists UK, a membership organisation of the Network for Pastoral, Spiritual and Religious Care in Health, and am an accredited member of the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network.

My experience in research, education, pastoral care and mentoring probably counts as much as my qualifications and accreditations when it comes to this work. In terms of pastoral care and mentoring, I have provided this not only in higher education but also in hospitals, care homes, schools, youth clubs and community centres in a variety of volunteering roles over the years. I have also worked in child protection social work and on community projects for areas of deprivation, which were very enlightening.

  1. What are the particular needs of those people and institutions you serve and of people in the UK/US more generally, and how do you endeavour to meet those needs?

James Croft (US)

I don’t primarily serve university students or staff – I serve a whole congregation of people of many ages – although I am part of the Interfaith Campus Ministers’ Association at Washington University. My general sense is that college students who are not traditionally religious often lack any structured way to explore the spiritual, existential, and ethical aspects of life, and I think it’s our role to provide ways for them to do that which parallel the resources religious students have at their disposal.

Gerardene Douglas-Scott (Scotland, UK) 

As humanist and secular chaplaincy takes hold in Further Education and the NHS, there is a need for more Pastoral Care courses or accredited courses in chaplaincy recognised by UKBHC.

Tim Maguire (Scotland, UK) 

There is a very small (and declining) humanist and atheist group at the University of Edinburgh. They ask little of me other than to talk to them once a year. As a chaplain most of my one-to-one sessions have been with students and staff who don’t identify as humanist but who are not religious. Having said that, I have been asked for help directly by religious students, so it’s hard to generalise about student or staff needs other than that they need to be listened to and helped.

Anastasia Somerville-Wong (England, UK)

The needs of students and staff at universities are many and complex. Students frequently look for general life guidance, mentoring, signposting, a reassuring human contact and someone who will listen.

The issues we tend to come across include mental health problems, relationship problems, loneliness, isolation and a lack of belonging, fear and uncertainty about the future (due to economic issues, increasing inequality, Brexit, the pandemic etc.), a lack of clarity of purpose/vocation, a lack of opportunities for ethical and spiritual growth and development, financial problems like student (and other) debt, political polarization and conflict (e.g. between LGBTQ+ and orthodox/evangelical religious groups on campus), more general issues of fundamentalism, political extremism and radicalization, the marginalization of vulnerable groups, issues of consent, abuse/discrimination against women on campus, drug and alcohol addiction/abuse, issues around free speech (some students call for ‘safe spaces’ and the ‘no-platforming’/censorship of speakers whose views offend them), and a lack of religious/worldview literacy including a low awareness of Humanism and all it can offer.

There is also an increasing need for secular or Humanist ceremony/ritual on campuses. Some humanist chaplains are trained funeral, wedding or naming celebrants but the events are different at universities. There is a need for greater input from humanist chaplains in predominantly secular ceremonies such as graduations and memorials, and in ‘inter-faith weeks’ and other celebrations of diversity, and there is much scope for creating new events and rituals around a Secular/Humanist Calendar.

  1. What are the different aspects of your role and how would you weight their importance? (Is a Chaplains role primarily one of pastoral care, nurturing spirituality in young people, community building, the creation of rituals, seasonal events or habits of reflective practice, educating and improving knowledge of humanism and comparative religion and philosophy, presiding over secular ceremonies such as memorial and graduation services, policy development, advocating for vulnerable or oppressed individuals/groups or political and social activism?)

James Croft (US)

I do everything in the list you provide, though some with more energy than others. I am the Outreach Leader at the Ethical Society, meaning I’m more focused in growing the community and expressing our values in public – I’m the evangelical one =P. We also create many educational programs to help people better understand our tradition.

Gerardene Douglas-Scott (Scotland, UK) 

All of the above!  The most important is empathy.

I live in Glasgow with my wife, Susan. We are both celebrants and non-religious family chaplains and have been together for twenty years. After a year together, we exchanged vows and rings privately, then in 2006 we had a civil partnership, and then we were the first women to be married at the stroke of midnight on the December, 31, 2014. We feel very blessed because we have always been very close, but we understand that’s because we’ve always made the effort to work on our own personal development and on our relationship. We also married two other couples, who are women, on that night. We had our family and friends around us and it was a night that made us very proud to be Scottish.

We both trained to become authorised humanist celebrants, but our work has evolved to encapsulate so many other aspects of caring and compassion. Whatever we do that’s the two things it boils down to – it’s how we live our lives, with lots of fun too of course. To describe ourselves as humanist celebrants doesn’t cover everything we have come to do, but in our celebrant work we conduct weddings, funerals and naming ceremonies, and that brings so much life through our door. We encounter every walk of life, and deal with every kind of situation, and it’s not always straightforward. It’s very important to be sensitive to what people are going through and to support them with love. For one family we might perform weddings and also their family funerals. The relationships we build with people are very intimate, every day we get to be up close with the very things that life is about. We think the work that we do has made us realise what’s important in life. We also get to spend a lot of quality time together in our work and in supporting each other.

What we do reaches out to everyone, regardless of who they are, where they come from or what they do. Susan takes that forward in her other work where she’s instrumental in influencing public policy around disability, equality and health and social care. It’s been a thread throughout her career and it’s hugely important to her. I am also a person-centred counsellor, and it’s a therapeutic extension to my other work.

We have five grown up children together, who we raised in our family home where we still live. We are very proud of them. They are all good people and it’s wonderful to be able to say we are friends with them. We are incredibly privileged in our work and in our personal lives. We never take each other for granted and we work really hard to live in the moment, to continue this wonderful journey together. Today’s the day we know we have.

Tim Maguire (Scotland, UK) 

Pastoral care, community building, the creation of rituals, presiding over secular ceremonies such as graduation, memorial and other services, policy development, advocating for vulnerable or oppressed individuals/groups, political and social activism, educating and improving knowledge of humanism and comparative religion and philosophy, seasonal events or habits of reflective practice, nurturing spirituality in young people: and like Gerrie, I believe that empathy is the well-spring of all of this.

Anastasia Somerville-Wong (England, UK)

The role of Humanist Chaplain is very varied. In addition to pastoral care, which is primarily about listening and using ‘counselling-type’ conversation skills, it includes advocacy and signposting for individuals and groups who are vulnerable or in crisis, and the wider nurturing of ethical engagement and reflective practices. It involves organising social events that deepen human connections and build community. As Humanist Chaplain, I will be responsible for the creation and leadership of secular services, rituals and celebrations.

Education is an important aspect of the role, especially as I have an academic background and am engaged in related research. I aim to improve knowledge of Humanism, its history and variety of expressions, and to improve knowledge of comparative religion and philosophy. Chaplains are often sought after by the media for their views and guidance when there are traumatic events, disputes and ethical controversies on campus. We also play a significant role in policy development at our hosting institutions. My role will also be to support student societies and work collaboratively with academic staff and other chaplains.

Those who have an existing understanding of what a chaplain is and what a humanist is (many do not!) are often struck with the impression that the term “Humanist Chaplain” is an oxymoron. Indeed, chaplaincy grew out of the Christian tradition and I appreciate this heritage. However, there is a great deal of continuity between Christian Chaplaincy and Humanist Chaplaincy, since the role has long been developing in a humanistic direction due to the influence of secular/humanist ethics in wider society and the progress of liberal theology in the mainstream churches. Indeed, right from its inception, chaplaincy was a means for the church to take a more humanistic, compassionate approach to people in the midst of real-life crises.

Chaplaincy involves putting aside one’s own agendas and prejudices to meet the immediate needs of real people in real-life situations that are often messy and complex. Empathy and compassion for other humans, whoever they are, is essential, along with respect for people’s individual beliefs and values. There is no room for dogmatism and proselytising when confronted with physical and mental health crises, with the consequences of crime and abuse, with bereavement and poverty, and in the case of military chaplains, with the realities of war. What could be more Humanist than a person-centred tradition with the humility to listen and learn from the evidence in front of you? Not all chaplains live up to this example but it has been the aspiration of many.

There are Humanists who prefer to be called Pastoral Support Volunteers or Humanist Advisors but these titles do not encompass the full breadth of the role. Something vital is lost when we cut ourselves off from our history, even if there are elements of that history we want to leave behind. I myself take inspiration not only from Humanist thought and practice but from the insights and practices of many of the world’s faiths and philosophical traditions. I appreciate their stories, music, art, architecture and practical wisdom, even while I do not subscribe to their dogma. Some Christian groups wholly embrace Humanists, such as the Quaker, Unitarian and Universalist traditions, and the Progressive Christianity movement. Other faiths also have progressive and humanistic streams, for example, Secular Buddhism and Humanistic Judaism. I myself have been a regular at Quaker Meetings and Buddhist meditations on and off over many years.

Since recently joining the Multi-faith Chaplaincy at the University of Exeter, I have been working on creating a library of humanist/humanistic literature on campus. I am on the regular duty rota for pastoral care, and post-Covid-19, I am hoping to starting a regular ‘Talk and Walk’ where people can meet and get to know each other while enjoying some fresh air and exercise. I’m also developing a new Secular/Inter-Faith Calendar, which is inclusive of humanists, progressive/non-theist religious and nonreligious people more generally, as well as publishing chaplaincy-relevant articles at I am an advocate for Humanists and non-religious people at Multi-Faith Chaplaincy meetings, and am enjoying getting to know the local Humanist community and the student and staff societies I hope to support. I am also developing a course on Humanism, writing a book, hoping to establish a Pluralism Centre or Pluralism Project at the university and trying to find ways of funding my work in the longer term so I can bring all these plans to fruition!

  1. What are the other roles and affiliations you have regarding Humanist work? For example, in addition to being a Chaplain, are you also a Celebrant, or a campaigner, board member, broadcaster etc. and how are your roles integrated or complementary?

James Croft (US)

I create classes for the American Humanist Association’s Center for Education. I am also a celebrant and conduct tons of weddings, and am broadly involved in the Humanist movement in the USA and abroad.

Gerardene Douglas-Scott (Scotland, UK) 

I am a Director of Celebrate People.  We run retreats, provide counselling and are chaplains to 300k women travelling in the world (Girl Gone International).  We frequently speak at workplaces, interest groups and charities e.g. Rotary. We campaigned for Equal Marriage for over 20 years and our Marriage Certificate is displayed in the Scottish Parliament as a symbol of how ordinary people can influence the law.  We were also the face of the Scottish Human Rights campaign with the Equalities Minister. Our current campaign is with the Funeral Industry with the aim of planting trees to offset the carbon produced by cremation.

Tim Maguire (Scotland, UK) 

I’m a celebrant of 15 years standing, a campaigner and a writer:

I’ve had several articles published by The Guardian and other newspapers.

I also campaigned to open up Thought for the Day to humanists and – in partnership with the Guardian – created a series of podcasts called ‘Another Thought for the Day’

I have addressed the Scottish Parliament, and delivered three Remembrance Day ceremonies for the Scottish Government

I was a board member of the Humanist Society Scotland (before it became a company with professional management).

Anastasia Somerville-Wong (England, UK)

I am Founding Editor of the Secular Liturgies Network and Forum (SLN), a professional knowledge-exchange network, research initiative, publisher, think-tank, creative hub and events pioneer for humanists, progressives and non-theists. Its mission is to enrich societies with secular ethics and reflective practices, informed by the latest research, and expressed in original creative, scholarly and journalistic publications and events. The work has strong themes of well-being, sustainability, cultural enrichment and community building. The SLN, founded in 2018, is a culmination of my previous work as a published writer of liturgies and poetry, and my knowledge of history, theology, philosophy and comparative religion. It publishes original creative works of poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction, incisive journalistic articles including interview-style articles with experts and practitioners in relevant fields, and original research papers (which aim to be shorter and more widely engaging than traditional academic publications).

My research with the SLN is on secularism, humanism and other non-theist philosophical and faith traditions (and on chaplaincy itself!) so it’s very relevant to my role as Humanist Chaplain! I have a special interest in the impact of human belief and unbelief on our wellbeing, in terms of religious, non-religious and political world-views. I am also interested in the development of secular ethics, secular community, reflective practices, ritual, pastoral roles, and comparative religion and philosophy. I am currently researching the emergence of progressive religious reform movements, and the development of secular, humanist and inter-faith/universalist models of community. My paper entitled ‘Secular Liturgies’, was published in Secular Studies (Volume 1, Issue 2, October 2019), an international peer-reviewed journal (Brill).

I am also developing a course on the History of Humanism for students in higher education (with an adapted version for use in high schools). Training as a Humanist Funeral Celebrant may also be on the horizon, in part because I would like to develop the liturgical and ceremonial aspects of my role as chaplain and to be able to offer humanist memorials and other events to students and staff at the university.

  1. How are Humanist Chaplaincy roles supported in the UK/US? (Are you sponsored? Are you funded/paid and by whom (or are you a volunteer)? Are you full or part-time? How secure is your post? Does your host institution provide you with training and oversight or is this provided by Humanist organisations?)

James Croft (US)

I’m a full-time employee of the Ethical Society, which is funded through the membership pledges of our members.

Gerardene Douglas-Scott (Scotland, UK) 

I am employed by the NHS in Scotland.  I am also a Pastoral Care Volunteer in a Hospice.

Tim Maguire (Scotland, UK) 

I am a part-time volunteer and have no sponsorship. As to how secure my post is, that’s a good question! Neither my organization nor the university provide training and oversight.

Anastasia Somerville-Wong (England, UK)

I am a part-time volunteer and an associate member of staff. I am sponsored by the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network and Humanists UK but I receive no funding. Currently, the only paid university chaplains are those salaried by their faith denominations. By far the majority of Humanist Chaplains (in all settings) are volunteers and rely on other sources of income from humanist work as celebrants, from writing books, public speaking and sometimes from ethical business consultancy but more likely from other kinds of paid employment altogether.

There are increasing numbers of Humanist Chaplains in paid roles in hospitals and prisons in the UK, and at least one of our number, Lindsay van Dijk, leads an NHS chaplaincy team (I interviewed her previously – An Interview with Lindsay Van Dijk). Eventually, educational institutions will have to follow suit, since we are proving just how useful Humanist Chaplaincy and Non-Religious Pastoral Care can be. We need to make sure our roles are clear, professional and justifiable, providing evidence of their effectiveness in order to be accepted and valued by institutions and in order to secure the financial backing required to further develop this work. There is also the possibility that in the future, the universities and schools themselves will offer paid opportunities that are open to humanistic and inter-faith chaplains!

  1. What are the key challenges for Humanist Chaplaincy in the UK/US, and relatedly, how is Humanist Chaplaincy received by your hosting institutions? (Including staff, service users/patients/students, faith Chaplains, religion and philosophy departments and wider society?)

James Croft (US)

I think on many campuses it is simply a challenge to get a foot in the door. Convincing campuses that humanists and nonreligious students have the same needs as religious students can be very difficult. I was recently kicked off a campus interfaith chaplaincy team specifically for being a Humanist, so I know how difficult it can be to make the case!

Gerardene Douglas-Scott (Scotland, UK) 

People are very receptive in Scotland. They are so familiar with Humanist Funerals. I often hear people say “That’s brilliant, most people in this hospital/ward are not religious.”

Interestingly the situation for Chaplains in NHS Scotland is different. Chaplaincy is generic and not denominational, so strictly speaking there is no such thing as a “Humanist Chaplain” or a “Sikh Chaplain” etc.

The key challenge I believe is to build up a body of evidence for chaplaincy in general and a body of work that underpins that. It is all still too “fluffy” and set in the past.  Modern Chaplaincy needs good academic and evidence-based acceptability and standing and needs to be worthy of support.

Tim Maguire (Scotland, UK) 

The key challenges are funding and persuading institutions that it’s time to change!

I would say Humanist Chaplaincy is received very positively by the university, in the sense that I think people feel that the appointment of a humanist chaplain gives parity of esteem. I was (and remain) the first ever to be appointed at the University of Edinburgh, and it’s encouraging that Napier University (also in Edinburgh) reached out to me when looking to appoint an honorary humanist chaplain there last year. That role is being performed by my Celebrate People colleague Sharon Campbell.

Anastasia Somerville-Wong (England, UK)

There is lack of understanding of Humanism at institutions and sometimes a reluctance or slowness to change procedures in order to accommodate non-Christian and nonreligious groups who do not have local church structures and congregations. However, universities as secular institutions themselves, are increasingly becoming aware and open to the idea of nonreligious and humanist pastoral care, reflective practices, rituals and celebrations.

My greatest challenge is to find ways of engaging with a wider body of students and staff. Among my own generation but more-so among the generations that follow, people are very often reluctant to subscribe to a particular worldview or join a ‘faith and belief’ group. Others embrace a multi-layered identity, rather like I have done, but I think we are in a minority. Meanwhile, a much smaller number of young people find themselves drawn to the religious fervour and dogmatism of the orthodox and evangelical/fundamentalist traditions.

I see my task as primarily reaching out to the former two groups, the ‘nones’ and what I’m calling the ‘multiples’, in terms of participation in humanist activities, not because we are concerned with numbers but because these activities encourage reflective and critical thought, deepen ethical understanding and practical wisdom, encourage and inspire creativity, support many noble and urgent causes including human rights and sustainability, and have the potential to contribute hugely to student and staff well-being. As a Duty Chaplain, however, I am of course available to provide pastoral care for all, regardless of their beliefs and affiliations. We are not interested in conversion like a faith group would be but we are interested in being useful by helping individuals to live more meaningful, ethical and fulfilling lives and by building communities at universities and schools where young people can really grow and flourish and feel they belong.

  1. What is your vision or hope for Humanist Chaplaincy moving forward both at your institution and more generally? (e.g. Humanist Chaplaincy in schools, prisons, hospitals, the military, workplaces etc.)

James Croft (US)

I think it is essential that on every campus there are resources for all students to engage with the spiritual, existential, and ethical aspects of life. Since these aspects are deeply tied to one’s religious view, I think that means there has to be resources both for religious students of all types, and nonreligious/Humanist students as well.

Gerardene Douglas-Scott (Scotland, UK) 

My vision is that everyone has a choice of who they want to support them at the challenging times in life – when they are questioning their meaning, purpose or values.  I believe in the amazing potential for Humanist Spiritual Care Chaplaincy to offer what people need at the right time, in the right place, and for the right reason. This is a point in time where there are so many possibilities.  We have to work toward a body of evidence to make it stick!  In the meantime, it is wonderful just to walk with people wherever or whoever they are.

Tim Maguire (Scotland, UK) 

My hope is that humanist chaplains will come to be accepted more widely: the example of Northern Ireland’s prison service is especially encouraging as is the appointment of Gerrie Douglas-Scott as the first paid humanist chaplain in the NHS in Scotland. Being a full-time chaplain would be rewarding and I am sure that there are many eminently suitable candidates waiting in the wings to take on that role.

Anastasia Somerville-Wong (England, UK)

I would like to see the role of Humanist Chaplain better established at universities and would like to see it take root in colleges and schools as well. Funding is the biggest factor determining whether or not we will achieve our aims, since we cannot rely only on wealthy and retired people who can afford to work as volunteers. We must create paid opportunities for mid-life and younger people who have sufficient relevant experience and qualifications for the pastoral care, educational and other demands of the role. I am constantly aware of how much more I could be doing if only my work was remunerated and I could arrange for childcare and better support my own family. I do occasional/seasonal paid jobs as a speaker, writer, tutor and examiner but my situation is far from ideal and very precarious!

With both my academic and chaplain hats on, I am hoping to establish a cross-disciplinary Pluralism Project or Pluralism Centre at the University of Exeter, a bit like the one at the University of Harvard but better suited to the European and British contexts. It will go beyond tolerance or relativism to encourage respectful inter-faith/philosophical dialogue, with the aim of reaching mutual understanding, strengthening common values and achieving common goals for the betterment of society. With continued secularisation – brought about not least by generational replacement – and the steadily increasing interest of secular institutions in appointing Humanist Chaplains, the future for us looks promising.

Dr. James Croft (USA)

James Croft

James Croft is Outreach Director of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. In that capacity he represents the Ethical Society and Humanism in the St. Louis community and beyond, speaking on panels, giving workshops, and taking to the streets in defense of Humanist values.

James is also part of the Interfaith Campus Ministers’ Association at Washington University. He holds an MA from the University of Cambridge and an EdD from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he studied Human Development. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist.

Gerardene Douglas-Scott (UK, Scotland)

Gerrie Douglas

Gerardine is a Health and Social Care Chaplain (NHS Ayrshire and Arran), Person Centred Counsellor and Marriage Celebrant.



Twitter: @humanistscot

Tim Maguire (UK, Scotland)


Tim is Honorary Chaplain to the University of Edinburgh and a Marriage Celebrant authorised to conduct legal weddings in Scotland.



More about Celebrate People:

Dr. Anastasia E. Somerville-Wong (England, UK)

somerville-wong IMAGE

Anastasia became the first Humanist Chaplain at the University of Exeter in January 2020. She is also Founding Editor of the Secular Liturgies Network and Forum and an Assessment Specialist (Examiner in History) at the University of Cambridge. Anastasia has a PhD in Historical Theology from the University of Aberdeen and an MA (Hons) in Philosophy and Politics from the University of Edinburgh.

University profile:

Secular Liturgies Network and Forum:

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My Humanist Easter by Anastasia Somerville-Wong

Easter is now closely associated with the central doctrine of Christianity, the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, but of course, this celebration of new life goes back to a time long before the advent of the Christian religion. Easter was originally a pagan festival celebrating the spring solstice. The name itself comes from the Old English word ēastre, which is of Germanic origin, and relates to the German word Ostern (east). It is thought to derive from Ēastre, the name of a goddess who was associated with the spring and who was celebrated each April with feasting.

Early Christians assimilated pagan festivals, and Easter, centred as it was on new life, fertility and the triumph of surviving another winter, was perhaps the greatest of them. Feasting in honour of the goddess was replaced by the Paschal month. However, many of the rituals, symbols and activities which characterised these pagan festivals were retained by the Christians and repurposed. The result is that in many cases, it is very hard to tell where the pagan ritual ends and the Christian one begins. In my view this is a good thing. The gradual evolution of these ideas and practices means that no one faith group or tradition can claim exclusive ownership over a celebration like Easter.

Every faith, culture and philosophical tradition is built on what came before it and heavily influenced by the cultures surrounding it. And so, while contemporary cultures and world-views have their distinctive features and flavours, there are some traditions that are so ancient and so widely shared across a region or even globally, that no-one can claim them as exclusively their own. Easter, I would argue, is one of these. It is after all, at heart, a celebration of the spring, a time of great significance to all of us. This is especially true for agricultural societies and those living in rural communities but all of us who are living in post-industrial, urban societies rely on the seasons and on agriculture as much as we ever did, even while we are somewhat removed from them, and it would do us good to be more mindful of that.

I must, therefore, disagree with those Christians and Neo-Pagans who claim Easter is really their festival and complain that it has been stolen and sullied by others. I must also disagree with nonreligious people who say we should boycott Easter because it is about outdated dogma and superstitious belief. Instead, everyone may claim ownership of Easter if they so wish, and celebrate it in a way that befits their beliefs and values. We  might like to create our own family or community Easter traditions, continuing the natural evolution of its associated ideas and practices. The emphasis of Easter is, after all, on a universally human experience, that of renewal, which is also shared by most other living things. The history of Easter spans so much space and time that for many of us, it is an irrevocable part of our cultural inheritance whether we believe in supernatural beings like Ēastre or Christ or not. Rather than fight against this heritage because of elements we might not like, I prefer to embrace Easter and make it my own.

For many secular people, and I would argue almost every child in existence, Easter is about chocolate eggs and rabbits. These things are wonderfully symbolic of new life, even if they have been overly commercialised and appear in the shops much too early (some of the worst offenders have them in store straight after Christmas!). However, Easter can (and perhaps should) be about much more than the worship, albeit understandable, of chocolate. It is a celebration of life. What could be more profound than that?

Life is a very difficult thing to define. Indeed, there is currently no consensus when it comes to a definition. A popular definition is that a living thing is an organism composed of cells, which has open systems for maintaining homeostasis, a life cycle, and the ability to undergo metabolism, grow, adapt to its environment, respond to stimuli, reproduce and evolve. Other definitions include non-cellular life forms such as viruses and viroids. Interestingly, the vagueness surrounding ‘life’, makes death difficult to define as well. I tend to think all this vagueness is a good thing. It allows room for creative thinking and variation. We instinctively identify with life and death in both the physical and metaphorical senses but we do so in very different ways, depending on the culture within which we were raised. So, for example, some peoples view death as the moment the body stops working in the ways listed above, while others view it as the point at which there is no one left alive who remembers you.

Another result of the mysteriousness of this quality we call ‘life’ is that other concepts like renewal, rebirth and resurrection have a wide variety of interpretations as well. While there are many experiences of renewal we have in common, each individual’s ‘journey’ and perception of renewal is unique. Easter presents an ideal opportunity to reflect on one’s own path, where one has been and where one hopes to go. The emphasis on renewal at Easter has always had a special personal significance for me because my name, Anastasia, which comes from the Greek work anástasis (ἀνάστασις), means resurrection – coming back to life as so many plants are doing at this time of year – and I have certainly had a number of personal ‘resurrections’. Easter has always reminded me to reflect on my name, a name that resonates with courage, and to draw upon that courage for whatever challenges I happen to be facing.

Many of us have moments in life (moments which could be as short as a second or as long as a year) that are so significant that they amount to a ‘resurrection’, where we are in a metaphorical sense, reborn. These might include the moment when we discover our vocation, a moment of conversion to (or from) a faith, the moment we realise we have found our life-partner, the moment we discover the place or people to whom we can belong, a moment where we turn the corner of recovery during an illness (or re-create our identity and purpose after a life-changing illness or injury), the moment where our activism bears fruit and liberation and justice is achieved, or lightbulb moments where a veil of ignorance or delusion is lifted and we see reality more clearly…

For myself, the Lenten period has been a useful time to reflect on my own ‘journey’ thus far, and on the growth that comes from even the most difficult of experiences. It is only fitting to work through one’s most painful (often buried) emotions in the run up to Easter’s resounding celebration of healing and wellness. On the 5th of April it was Golden Rule Day, the Golden Rule being of course the universal principle of treating others the way that we want to be treated. Just like Easter, the Golden Rule is ancient and modern, secular and religious, personal and common, going back as it does to ancient philosophy. Like Easter, it long predates Christianity and in various formulations it has featured in human thought and value-systems the world over. The Golden Rule is “a powerful tool for all of our relationships – with ourselves, others, animals, and the planet.” (Charter for Compassion) Golden Rule Day proved to be a useful calendar marker in the run up to Easter, encouraging us to think and reflect on our key aspirations. My children and I made rainbows to symbolise these – reason, kindness, courage, hope and diversity.

Special days and festivals like Easter, with their associated ideas and rituals, can be powerful tools for reflection, remembrance and positive change. They are reminders of what is most important to us, and those which like Easter, correspond to the recurring rhythms of nature, reconnect us with the natural world of which we are a part.

This Easter we will be enjoying the usual egg hunts, chocolate worship and family feasting but we will also be reflecting on what it means to be truly alive, and on how we might live our lives more fully. At the same time, we will be letting go, and allowing the healing spring sunshine, singing birds and colourful blooms warm and revive our winter-weary bodies and minds. We humans experience the world through only five finite senses, so let’s make the most of them! Below is a list I made of the things that make me feel most alive. I will be reflecting on it this Easter and discussing with my family how we can experience more of these things more often.

How will you be spending your Easter? Do share your cultural and family traditions in the comments section below.

Things that make me feel alive:

  • Human connection – good conversation, mutual understanding, belonging, cuddles and kisses with my children;
  • Nature – a glorious land or seascape, feeling the elements against my skin, birdsong, savouring food that’s fresh from the earth, smelling the spring flowers and herbs, re-discovering my oneness with the natural world and thus transcending the ‘self’;
  • Movement – dance, travel (going for a walk counts) and taking action – doing the right thing even when it’s hard or scary;
  • Reflection – frequent moments of stillness and quiet;
  • Art – creating and appreciating beauty in music, art and literature;
  • Learning and growth – intellectual discovery and growth in wisdom, empathy, understanding and character;
  • Vocation – a service and passion which makes a positive difference to society and to individual’s lives; being able to use one’s mind, hands and voice to influence the world for the better;
  • The small things – mindfulness and enjoyment of the small things in life: “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettle and warm woollen mittens” and so forth;
  • Cultural heritage – objects, rituals, customs, sayings, stories and memories, the things that connect me to my family, my people, my ancestors and more generally, to our common human past. Again, these help us to transcend the ‘self’, as we see we are part of something much greater.

many coloful easter eggs


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21 Lessons Learnt from the 2020 Pandemic by Anastasia Somerville-Wong

I shared this on Facebook last night and thought it’d be fun to share it here too. Enjoy 🙂

1. Taking a wash and getting dressed count as inessential activities.

2. Alcohol and self-isolation are not a good combination.

3. Under pressure your friends split into three camps: the angry, unreasonable and downright bonkers, those who surpass themselves with wisdom, wit and heroism, and those who even a global catastrophe is powerless to make interesting.

4. Being in your house too long you discover you are not the only resident species. Indeed, you find yourself in the company of more spiders, moulds and molluscs than you ever thought possible. This proves to be a blessing after a week with your spouse and children.

5. Clapping outside your front door is a great way to find out who your neighbours are.

6. There were very good reasons why you didn’t train to be a teacher. (Or, if you are a teacher, you will now know that your teacher training is completely useless when applied to your own children.)

7. The so-called ‘great work’ of literature you promised yourself you would read one day is even more boring than you feared it would be.

8. You remember to think twice about laughing when your husband claims to be dying of ‘man flu’.

9. Some people simply do not get black humour. Many of those people live in North America.

10. There were good reasons why you and your partner previously took turns to work from home.

11. Self-isolation and advanced image manipulation technology allows you to finally undergo your full transformation into that perfect-looking, happy-go-lucky social media persona you have been cultivating, without anyone knowing that you’ve gained weight, become addicted to antidepressants and haven’t washed in weeks.

12. You can finally put your rainbow in the window without everyone thinking you’re ‘coming out’.

13. Being fit requires more than occasionally ascending the stairs or squatting in front of the fridge door as you extract the brie (substitute a cheese of your choice) for the fourth time that morning.

14. Gardening isn’t always the stress busting activity it’s cracked up to be. For the uninitiated, it can be as perilous as DIY. Idiots are no safer at home than they are anywhere else.

15. In a crisis, the whole world reveals what matters most in life: toilet roll. (though in the US they can’t make up their minds whether its toilet roll or firearms).

16. Vulcan salutes and ‘up yours’ signs are a much more honest way of greeting the people you know. Let’s hope those sweaty handshakes, awkward hugs and pretentious kisses are a thing of the past!

17. The basic necessities of life are water, air, food, WiFi, and yes, you guessed it, toilet roll.

18. Hypochondriacs are happier during pandemics than one might expect. They can at last go out wearing their masks and surgical gloves without getting any weird looks.

19. Under restrictions to normal life, people you once respected become obsessed with sex, sex with anything at all. It’s at times like this that you are most thankful for the social distancing rules.

20. Video-conferencing your colleagues is much more fun when you all agree to cut your own hair prior to the meeting.

21. A few people losing their sense of taste poses no problem at all, unless of course it’s the few people who had any taste to begin with.

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On Human Nature: A Parent’s Perspective – by Anastasia Somerville-Wong

Being a parent has further convinced me that every unkind act we human beings perform, at least as children, comes not from innate sinfulness or any deep-seated desire to be cruel but from the pain of our own unmet needs. When we do not feel we have the love and respect we deserve, and indeed require in order to thrive, we are gripped by fear, anger and desperation, which causes us to lash out at the world and those around us. In nearly seven years of parenthood, I have seen absolutely no evidence of innate cruelty, but daily, indeed hourly evidence of our near insatiable thirst for inclusion, affection and appreciation for all that we are and bring to the world.

Given the immensity of our need (I can think of no other species that is as high maintenance!) and our frequent lack of awareness of it, not to mention all the unforeseeable trials and tragedies of life which prevent its fulfilment, it is no wonder that there are so many broken and embittered people roaming the earth doing harm to themselves and those they encounter.

Parents of young children are confronted perhaps most intensively with the enormity of this need, as we nurture our little humans whose many demands, insecurities and psychological frailties often seem overwhelming. No parent can fulfil their child’s need for unconditional love and respect perfectly, every time it arises, because they themselves have their own weaknesses, flaws and troubles to contend with. And so, over the years, even with the best of parents, we develop all sorts of coping mechanisms to deal with our unmet needs, some of which are fairly benign and others of which are unhealthy and destructive. For children raised in chaotic, neglectful or abusive homes, this effect is magnified many times over.

I have no reason to assume that this need gets any less as we grow older, though we learn to deny it, hide it, and express it very differently. Rather like children, however, we often express our need in unattractive ways that are counter-productive and are likely to bring us rejection and hostility rather than the love, respect and reassurance that we crave. Of course, the sad reality is that when we adults do this, we are much less likely to be patiently tolerated and offered affection all the same.

None of us want to be trapped in a vicious cycle where we lash out because of our insecurities and then end up more isolated and insecure as a result. All human beings want to experience peace of mind and the joys of companionship. Revenge, cruelty, bitterness and ruthless competition only bring us loneliness and torment. A quiet mind and harmonious relationships come when we learn to recognise and fulfil one another’s higher needs for love and respect, and an important part of this is honouring each other’s autonomy; allowing each other the freedom to express our true personalities and make our own decisions, and enabling one another to develop the talents and pursue the vocations of our choosing. It comes when we fulfil one another’s practical needs for nourishment, shelter and safety. For we humans evolved as social creatures. We cannot find fulfilment by ourselves, however much we travel, meditate or materially prosper but we can find it by means of reciprocity.

So, understanding where unkindness comes from, next time someone is rude or dismissive, or responds to us on social media with passive aggressive or downright spiteful comments, instead of becoming angry because our own need for love and respect are not being met in that moment, we can simply pause, and say to ourselves, “This person has a deep and painful unmet need. I hope that it will be fulfilled. If it is possible to help fulfil it myself, even in some small way, for example, by responding kindly, or at least by refraining from returning fire, then I will.”

Expressing a positive desire or hope for a person, either aloud or in your own head, is a reflective practice reminiscent of ‘prayer’. If you are nonreligious you can do it of course without believing that a supernatural being is listening and poised to intervene, and without calling it ‘prayer’, if for you that word is too much associated with petitioning a ‘sky god’. The activity is for your benefit alone. It is an act of kindness towards yourself, which preserves your own peace of mind. This kind of ‘interruptive’ reflective practice is crucial for taking a step back from an initial reaction of fury and hatred, or a knee-jerk impulse to take revenge. Those who practice it are able to see the bigger picture, rather than be caught up in the immediacy of an event and the storm of emotions it brings. They are far better able to act in rational and compassionate ways that will make a positive impact in the world.

Another thing to reflect upon is that we are rather too good at remembering the times when other people have been unkind to us. Incidences of rejection, exclusion, prejudice, disinterest and hurtful remarks loom large in the mind. For evolutionary reasons, in order for us to survive as a species, it was better that we remembered and learnt to avoid dangers than that we were happy. Therefore, while most of our interactions with others go well, we frequently perceive the opposite to be the case. Once we are aware of this aspect of our psychology, we can practice interruptive reflective thinking again, reminding ourselves that this is just how the world seems to us and not how it in fact is. We can search our memories for the times where we have felt included, respected and cherished, and dwell upon those instead.

Choosing to believe in the goodness of others can help with motivation, and therefore with doing the right things. Moreover, it is true that a mere handful of people with courage and determination can change the world for the better. However, I am realistic about human nature. It is equally true that a handful of people intent on seizing power and control can transform the world into a dystopian nightmare, aided by a complacent (and complicit) majority. A small minority of humans are by nature less able to empathise with others. They can under the right circumstances, become sociopaths, and commit heinous crimes against humanity. Such people will use a pandemic, much like anything else, to try to divide us and advance their own selfish interests. There are also those whose needs have been unmet, or indeed exploited, for so long and with such thoroughness that it is very difficult, perhaps impossible, for them to recover their childhood innocence and find a better path. Others are well-meaning but hopelessly deluded, brainwashed or misguided.

Our psychological complexity makes it difficult to predict whether we will overcome our global challenges and secure a brighter future, or whether we will fail to learn from past mistakes and end up destroying ourselves and our beautiful, fragile planet. However, while we cannot know for certain which way things will go, we can be hopeful. We can throw all our energies into giving ourselves and our fellow creatures the best possible chance. Accepting human nature has its major weaknesses and flaws should never stop us from trying to overcome them. Teaching our children to think critically, to reflect on themselves and their actions, and to better empathise with others is a good place to start. In spite of the tantrums, the quarrels and the at times despotic tendencies of young children, their abundance of affection, their ingenuity and their innate sense of fairness ought to give us a great deal of hope. They are an everyday reminder of our marvellous and immeasurable potential.

Tea Ceremony 1 [JPG Original]


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How to Cope with Anxiety during the Covid-19 Outbreak

Many are afraid to admit weakness. They want to be seen as strong. But the wise understand that to know and acknowledge one’s weaknesses is the only way to become strong.

Anastasia E. Somerville-Wong

Anxiety during an epidemic is heightened and more widespread but it is physiologically the same as at any other time. It is a completely normal response to challenging circumstances like these. Sometimes, just the element of change and uncertainty can make people feel anxious, and fears about the disease or threats to jobs and family income pile on top of that.

Anxiety is also a completely normal response to longer-term underlying stress and can develop at any time, even when a difficult period is over and you expect to be relaxing rather than coming down with distressing symptoms! Anxiety can cause a surprising number of symptoms from the more obvious things like a racing heart, racing thoughts and sweating, to some more unusual symptoms such as amplified sounds (hearing white noise in quite places as if it’s deafeningly loud) and muscle spasms that can feel like electric shocks. You can find an extensive if not exclusive list here  It is really important to reassure you that none of them are serious or life-threatening. However, it is worth speaking to your GP in the first instance to rule out any other causes for your symptoms.

Below are some top tips to help you cope with anxiety during the pandemic and beyond.

  1. Practise acceptance.

Accept your thoughts, emotions and physical symptoms as they are, however frightening and unpleasant they may be. Do not fight them. Do not try to force yourself to relax or feverishly distract yourself as this adds another helping of stress onto what you are already suffering. It will only make your symptoms worse. Instead, accept that they will be with you for a while, and let time pass. There is no hurry to feel better or relaxed. The things you worry you are missing out on can wait. You will recover. You will be able to cope better, even if circumstances get more challenging, but let your mind and body heal in their own time.

Do not overanalyse why exactly you feel this way. There could be many and complex physical, psychological and circumstantial (not necessarily pandemic related) reasons, which you may never get to the bottom of, and which are rarely under your control. Just accept you feel as you do and for good reasons. Something you can do though, is to avoid feeding your anxiety by doing things that obviously increase it, such as listening to endless news reports and constantly checking social media. Watching grim documentaries or tense thrillers won’t help either!

People with anxiety tend to refuel it inadvertently by adding fear of the anxiety symptoms themselves to their initial worries. This leads to a vicious cycle and sometimes the person ends up in what’s known as the ‘anxiety state’ in which they have near constant symptoms and cannot see a way out. The way out is simple, it involves understanding your symptoms are those of anxiety only and that they are not serious or life-threatening. This dispels fear of anxiety itself, since anxiety and all its symptoms begin to dissipate as soon as you stop adding unnecessary fear to them. With the acceptance of your symptoms, you allow your mind to heal itself. However bad you feel, and for however long you have been suffering, you can recover.

  1. Be kind to yourself.

You are not going crazy. You are not weak. You are not having feelings and thoughts you should be embarrassed and ashamed of, however out of proportion, bizarre or frightening they seem. In fact, many anxiety sufferers are incredibly strong, resilient and courageous people. You are simply experiencing the very normal physical and mental symptoms of stress.

Remind yourself that anxiety in all its forms is a common human experience. Many people around the world will be having the same symptoms at the same time as you, and many more will have had them in the past, including notable and highly successful people from all walks of life. Remember that you are justified in feeling as you do. This will prevent your own negative judgments, and those of other people, from adding to your stress and suffering.

If you have moderate to severe anxiety, it’s important to note that while some people will be very understanding and empathetic, those who have not experienced this, or whose anxiety manifests in a very different way to yours, will not understand how you feel and you should not expect them to or you’ll be very disappointed. Some people can even be exhibiting all sorts of anxious behaviours without even realising they are anxious. They may be inflicting their suffering on others rather than internalising it. Those people often think they are coping well and lack sympathy for those who are acknowledging their mental struggles and seeking help.

Seek empathy instead from fellow suffers and understanding from those who are medically trained and experienced in this area. I highly recommend the Freedom from Fear Recovery Group for those seeking further support, encouragement and resources. Its founder, David Johnson of the Freedom From Fear Counselling Centre in Auckland New Zealand, and the woman who inspired his work, Dr Claire Weekes, were a lifeline to me when I was suffering from my worst bout of anxiety and couldn’t see a way out.

  1. Lean in and observe your thoughts and feelings.

Study your emotions, thoughts and physical sensations as if you were looking upon them from the outside as an objective observer. Studying them will put them into perspective. You will find they are not as unbearable as they seem, and that they do not have as much power over you as you feared. You can still function while they are present, however bad they are.

You may feel you can’t cope with your work, take care of your kids, sort out the family finances or go to the shop for supplies but you can. By just doing it, however much you feel you can’t, you prove to yourself that you can. If you keep this up, you will build increasing confidence in your ability to face your fears and take control of them, instead of allowing them to control you, and you will build confidence in your recovery. You have much more strength than you know!

  1. Remain gently occupied.

Carry on doing light physical work like cleaning, sorting, clearing out, running some simple errands and walking the dog. Start ticking off all those little practical jobs that you have been too busy to do, or avoiding, for months or even years. You could also try taking up that instrument that’s been sitting in a cupboard for years, or learning that language you’ve always wanted to learn, but in a fun, leisurely, ‘no pressure’ way. If you are the intellectual type, you may find solace and a positive focus for the mind, in studying and learning a new subject.

Gentle physical activity is often best for distracting the mind from worries, and it has the added benefit of burning off some adrenaline (the chemical cause of many anxiety symptoms) without exhausting you. Anxiety is hugely exacerbated by both exhaustion and idleness, so finding a happy medium is essential. Avoid excessive exercise or intense mental work which will result in tension and fatigue. If you are still working remotely, carry on as long as the work itself isn’t the main cause of your anxiety. Many people make the mistake of giving up work, and this often leads to worsening symptoms and a longer illness.

Those with sudden home-schooling responsibilities will have their hands full already but it needn’t be as stressful as you think. Stop reading posts and comments on social media recommending you use this and that online tool or cover this and that area of the school curricula if they are filling you with horror. Simply read with your children, exercise with them, listen to music with them, talk to them about anything and everything, use their own interests to introduce new concepts and play with numbers. They are much more likely to learn that way than if you try to enforce a strict regime that would usually only work for teachers who are teaching other people’s children. If your children are anything like mine, they won’t listen to you however much you impress upon them that you are now their teacher as well as their parent haha!

  1. Help others.

Focus on looking after those around you in any way you can, though not, as I’ve said before, to the point of exhaustion. One thing that’s great about humans is that we really enjoy helping each other. Seeing those we love happy makes us feel happy too. Being kind to strangers makes us feel good, or at least, better.

There is currently a great need for volunteers to run errands for people who are self-isolating, for those who can provide support, friendship and encouragement to others online, and for those with specialist skills to do their bit. For example, researchers and scientifically literate people are needed to share and explain the facts about this epidemic on social media, and to combat pseudoscience, fake news and conspiracy theories. Note down what you can reasonably offer and how often, so you can keep good boundaries, then get on social media and start letting people know. Most areas in the UK have social media groups set up to co-ordinate volunteering efforts. These are a good place to make local connections and start finding ways you can help.

  1. Write stuff down.

Whenever you feel overwhelmed, pour out your emotion, fears and thoughts onto the page of a journal or notebook, and let yourself cry or scream or whatever is required. Then read what you have written. This really helps you to release tension and gain perspective. Also, those gratitude lists people talk about really do work. If you keep at it, writing down each evening what you are grateful for, however badly you feel, it will start to sink into your subconscious that things aren’t as bad as your imagination and dreams would have you believe. This is a great thing to do at night when your anxieties may be keeping you awake.

The future will be very different from what we imagine it to be, just as our current experiences are often very different from what we expected. This is why it is often better to refrain from speculating about the future and instead to live in the present, keeping your mind focused on what is happening right now, while learning from the past nonetheless, and working in ways that are likely to bring about a better future. It is important to remember that when we are anxious, our minds are less reliable because they are prone to catastrophising, and invariably, things turn out not to be anything like as dreadful as we imagine. The act of writing things down helps to bring our minds back to the present reality.

  1. See the funny side of everything.

There is a funny side, even to the darkest of experiences, even if you do not see it right now. To trigger your sense of humour, try watching, listening or reading something comical that would normally make you laugh, even if you don’t feel like it. If you persist with this you are likely at some point to catch yourself having a chuckle, even if it’s through tears, and this does wonders for low mood and anxiety in the longer term. Some anxiety and depression sufferers (especially in the UK perhaps) enjoy making fun of themselves and their mental struggles – whatever works for you!

Reading the whole hilarious series of PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories got me through the very worst time of my own life. It wasn’t a cure but it kept me from giving up on life altogether and certainly hastened my recovery. Gently refocussing the mind on amusing and uplifting things can eventually help to change your mood at a deeper level.

  1. Look after your body.

Eat and drink healthily, exercise gently and get as much sleep as you can. If sometimes you really can’t, however, don’t worry about it. Even if food is the last thing you want to think about, try to eat a rainbow diet of fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains and pulses, and avoid foods high in sugar and fat or with added sweeteners. Many nutritious things are still in good supply. Avoid alcohol because it contributes to low mood and mood swings, and avoid stimulants like caffeine (e.g. in coffee, tea and cola) and nicotine (in cigarettes), which can exacerbate anxiety. Nicotine can also act as a depressant in some cases. You can still eat comforting foods like macaroni cheese, cottage pie and so forth for your main meal of the day, just be sure to include plenty of veg and try not to snack between meals.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s best to choose a gentle occupation that is active rather than passive, and in a way that involves moving your whole body. Go for walks in the parks and woodlands and the countryside in general, since these have a proven positive effect on both mental and physical health, but do not walk (or jog) so fast or for so long that you exhaust yourself because exhaustion increases anxiety. Creating the conditions for good sleep is a must for reducing anxiety, so switch off those screens (unless you’re watching something very restful) and read a book or listen to music for an hour or two before going to bed. Resist the temptation to stay up late and scrimp on sleep. If your anxiety is keeping you awake or waking you up in a panic at night, don’t add worries about sleep deprivation to all your other worries. Just let time pass, while keeping to a good bedtime routine in which you avoid stimulation and continue practicing acceptance and gentle occupation. Sleep will come eventually!

  1. Seek out good company and wholesome conversation.

Human contact and companionship are really important in helping us cope with stress. Indeed, loneliness and isolation are major contributors to anxiety. It is very unfortunate, therefore, that with social distancing, this becomes difficult or impossible. However, for those of you who have close family at home, who you are not keeping distance from, spend as much time together as possible, talk about how you feel, listen to how they feel and enjoy plenty of oxytocin and endorphin-releasing cuddles. Perhaps surprisingly, children can be great company for the anxious because they don’t have all the cares we adults have. They remind us to live in the moment and are often extremely keen on cuddles! Pets can be wonderful company too, and there are plenty of rescue animals who need loving homes.

For those who are alone, spend as much time as you can chatting to people online and on the phone. Reach out, even if it’s just because you crave some human connection. You won’t be a burden on anyone. Remember, many people will be feeling like you, even those sorts who are too proud to admit it! We tend to remember more vividly the times when we have felt rejected or unwanted, even though ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time, people are glad of our company. So, call that relative or friend you’ve not spoken to in months or even years but who you’ve often thought about. Engage in social media groups with potential new friends in your area and beyond. Many people feel embarrassed about loneliness and suffer in silence but in these unprecedented times we will all feel it. People who have been lonely for a while have the perfect excuse to own it, reach out and make new friends.

It is true that there is a lot of nastiness online, however, and that people can be less patient and polite when they are behind a screen – the last thing you need when you are anxious -, so just be sure to gravitate towards individuals and groups who demonstrate mutual respect, reason and kindness. If there are lots of aggressive, passive aggressive or otherwise toxic comments in a group, leave it immediately and try another. There will be some good ones out there in areas that interest you!

  1. Be mindful: watch, listen, touch, taste and smell.

Watch and listen to mindfulness meditations, and indeed, any kind sounding person talking about comforting, beautiful or inspiring things. This is actually a way of feeling you have company as much as anything else. You can also go outside and watch and listen to the sounds of nature, or you can stop and listen to things you might normally ignore, such as the sound of children playing. You will have heard of mindful eating, well, try doing various routine activities mindfully, exploring with your senses, noticing things in the world outside yourself that you wouldn’t normally notice. In the anxiety state, people become introspective and hypersensitive to their inward thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. Mindfulness that focuses on outward things can help us to reconnect with the outside world and become forgetful of ourselves, in a good way! It helps us to stay in the present rather than dwelling on past regrets and future worries.

Some types of mindfulness meditation, which focus on observing thoughts and feelings, can also be helpful for gaining perspective on them. However, some anxiety sufferers may need to temporarily avoid the mindfulness meditations that are focused on breathing and inward bodily sensations if the sufferer’s sticky, frightening and intrusive thoughts are centred on exactly those things. They can gradually introduce this type of meditation later in their recovery.

You can find many helpful meditations on YouTube and on free apps like Headspace, Calm, Aura, Insight Timer and Stop Breathe and Think. I also recommend Noah Rasheta’s Secular Buddhism podcasts at

  1. Keep returning to the facts.

Remember, however bad you feel, this time will pass and one day you will start to notice that you are feeling much better, even if external circumstances have not changed! The great thing about emotions and thoughts is that they are fleeting, and when they seem to persist, that is just how it seems to us when we are low. In actual fact, they do not last long at all but change continually. It is common to start to feel that you have been unwell for ages or that you feel bad all the time. This is not true. It is just the trick of a tired and lonely mind. Time seems to pass more slowly when you are suffering. Remind yourself constantly that it isn’t true, and that healing and good things lie ahead.

Many anxiety sufferers have a sort of ‘mantra’, which brings them back to healthy thinking or reminds them of the steps to take to address their anxiety when they are experiencing the worst symptoms. Here are some good ones: “Face, accept and float through it.”, “Let time pass.”, “This too shall pass.” and for when you feel out of control with panic or shocked by your own thoughts: “It’s not me. It’s just that bloody anxiety again.” Swearing is fine by-the-way, though perhaps not in front of the kids. It releases tension!

If your mind ever turns to suicide*, remember that these thoughts and feelings are temporary, even though they don’t feel like it, and that at other times you have a strong desire for life. Suicide is not a solution to your problems, it is a way of escaping from life altogether. Rather, the right help and treatment are the solution to your problems. You can start your recovery right now with the advice given in this article. It has described a method very similar to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which you can then develop upon with a trained therapist. If you hang in there, you will one day be embracing a loved one, walking along a beach or immersed in work you love, when you suddenly remember how bad you once felt and realise how deeply thankful you are, not to mention proud, that you didn’t give up! You will know much more about yourself, and how strong you are for getting through this, and you will love yourself better for that. You will have much greater empathy, understanding and appreciation for others. And as you practice the method above and progress through treatment, you will grasp the tools you need to face any challenges life throws at you in the future.

(* If you feel severely anxious, depressed or suicidal, call your GP, 999, or the Samaritans on 116123 ( , for immediate help and support.)

Author’s Postscript

I am not a medical doctor but I am a highly trained researcher. I obtain my information from peer-reviewed research publications and cross reference these also. The best quality investigative journalism is usually reliable but even here, I look behind the statements at their references and sources. I also have many years of personal experience living with anxiety and using CBT techniques to manage it. This is arguably the best qualification for giving advice in this area! I still reach for my books by Dr Claire Weekes when my anxiety symptoms are aggravated and I need some comfort and reassurance. (See ‘Self-Help for your Nerves: Learn to Relax and Enjoy Life Again by Overcoming Stress and Fear’ by Dr Claire Weekes.)

This is the first in a series of articles I will be publishing here to comfort, support and encourage people during the Covid19 epidemic. I would also like to publish suitable guest articles, so please do submit an article to me for consideration if you would like to contribute to this series.

Dr Anastasia E. Somerville-Wong is Humanist Chaplain at the University of Exeter and Founding Editor of the Secular Liturgies Network and Forum. She is a historian and social scientist with a PhD in Historical Theology from the University of Aberdeen and an MA (Hons) in Philosophy and Politics from the University of Edinburgh. Anastasia is also an Assessment Specialist (Examiner in History) for the University of Cambridge.

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Humanist Chaplaincy FAQs by Anastasia Somerville-Wong

1. What does it mean to be a Humanist?

A Humanist is someone whose knowledge is based on reason and evidence, who lives an ethical life based on empathy and compassion, and who strives to build a kinder, fairer and more reasonable society.

It’s as simple as that. Humanism isn’t a faith. We don’t have a creed. There is a wide range of philosophical thought within the Humanist community, and we are proud of our diversity. We embrace uncertainty and respectful dialogue. There is also a long and rich history of Humanistic thought going back to ancient times.

Here’s another neat description of the Humanist worldview…

Humanism Photo

*Note that the British Humanist Association is now called Humanists UK. (

2. What is the role of a chaplain?

The role of Humanist Chaplain, as I understand it, is very varied. In addition to pastoral care, which is primarily about listening and using ‘counselling-type’ conversation skills, it includes advocacy and signposting for individuals and groups who are vulnerable or in crisis, and the wider nurturing of ethical engagement and reflective practices. It involves organising social events that deepen human connections and build community. As Humanist Chaplain, I will be responsible for the creation and leadership of secular services, rituals and celebrations.

Education is an important aspect of the role, especially as I have an academic background and am engaged in related research. I aim to improve knowledge of Humanism, its history and variety of expressions, and to improve knowledge of comparative religion and philosophy.

Chaplains are often sought after by the media for their views and guidance when there are traumatic events, disputes and ethical controversies. We also play a significant role in policy development at our hosting institutions. My role will also be to support student societies and work collaboratively with academic staff and other chaplains.

We are busy right now deciding how to use the technology available to us to provide pastoral and spiritual support during the Covid19 pandemic!

3. Isn’t the phrase ‘Humanist Chaplain’ an oxymoron?

Chaplaincy grew out of the Christian tradition and I appreciate this heritage. There is a great deal of continuity between Christian Chaplaincy and Humanist Chaplaincy, since the role has long been developing in a humanistic direction due to the influence of secular/humanist ethics in wider society and the progress of liberal theology in the mainstream churches.

Chaplaincy involves putting aside one’s own agendas and prejudices to meet the immediate needs of real people in real life situations that are often messy and complex. Empathy and compassion for other humans, whoever they are, is essential, along with respect for people’s individual beliefs and values. There is no room for dogmatism and proselytising when confronted with physical and mental health crises, with the consequences of crime and abuse, with bereavement and poverty, and in the case of military chaplains, with the realities of war. What could be more Humanist than a person-centred tradition with the humility to listen and learn from the evidence in front of you? Not all chaplains live up to this example but it has been the aspiration of many.

There are Humanists who prefer to be called Pastoral Support Volunteers or Humanist Advisors but these titles do not encompass the full breadth of the role. Something vital is lost when we cut ourselves off from our history, even if there are elements of that history we want to leave behind. I myself take inspiration not only from Humanist thought and practice but from the insights and practices of many of the world’s faiths and philosophical traditions. I appreciate their stories, music, art, architecture and practical wisdom, even while I do not subscribe to their dogma. Some Christian groups wholly embrace Humanists, such as the Quaker, Unitarian and Universalist traditions, and the Progressive Christianity movement. Other faiths also have progressive and humanistic streams, for example, Secular Buddhism and Humanistic Judaism. I myself have been a regular at Quaker Meetings and Buddhist meditations on and off over many years.

4. Are chaplains employed by the university?

I am a part-time volunteer and an associate member of staff. I am sponsored by the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network and Humanists UK, a membership organisation of the Network for Pastoral, Spiritual and Religious Care in Health. Currently, the only paid chaplains are those funded by their faith denominations. I hope that in the future, universities will offer paid opportunities that are open to Humanists and those representing minority faiths.

There are increasing numbers of Humanist Chaplains in paid roles in hospitals and prisons in the UK, and a few now lead NHS chaplaincy teams. Eventually, educational institutions will have to follow suit, since we are proving every day just how useful Humanist chaplains and non-religious pastoral care can be.

5. What led you to this role?

It was a natural progression from my previous work. I have considerable experience as a pastoral carer and mentor in higher education, child protection social work, youth and community work, hospitals, care homes and schools. In 2019, I underwent an assessment and training in pastoral care with Humanists UK and am an accredited member of the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network.

I am also a historian and social scientist, with a PhD in Historical Theology from the University of Aberdeen and an MA (Hons) in Philosophy and Politics from the University of Edinburgh. I completed postdoctoral research fellowships at the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth, and an associate lectureship at the University of Aberdeen. My research interests lie in the impact of human belief and unbelief on our wellbeing, with regard to both religious and non-religious/political worldviews. I am Lead Researcher and Founding Editor of the Secular Liturgies Network & Forum.

What are your initial plans?

I have stocked the Chaplaincy areas with some Humanist materials and have shared an Amazon wish list via social media in order to build up a library of Humanist and related literature for the Quiet Room. I am currently Duty Chaplain on Thursday mornings (now available only by email, phone and Facebook messaging due to the Covid19 pandemic), and am thinking of starting a regular ‘Talk and Walk’ where people can meet and get to know each other. I’m also developing a Secular Calendar and publishing chaplaincy-relevant articles at

I have already been an advocate for Humanists and non-religious people at Chaplaincy meetings, and am enjoying getting to know the local Humanist community. It would be great to link up in some way with academic and cause-focused student societies, such as the Philosophy Society, History Society, Amnesty International and Be the Change.

Now we are in the midst of the Covid19 outbreak, I am seeking ways of using social media to reach out to people who are anxious, isolated and in various practical difficulties. Technology will be our best friend for the coming months it seems!

My contact details can be easily found on the Chaplaincy web page below for any University of Exeter student or staff member who needs a listening ear, and I would love to hear from anyone representing university societies!

Humanist Chaplaincy at the University of Exeter

Are you worried about the Coronavirus?

I worry a little because I have asthma and tend to get colds and flu rather badly. I also have parents who are getting on in years and have underlying conditions as most elderly people do. My sympathies are with all those in high risk groups and with those who are suffering from anxiety, or who because of self-isolation, feel lonely, powerless and disconnected. There has never been a more urgent need for the robust combination of reason and kindness that Humanism offers!

It looks like most of us will have to get Covid19 at some point, since the virus is likely to remain in the population indefinitely, and it will take a long time to develop a vaccine. However, I hope that this crisis will be managed in a way that spreads acute cases over a longer period so that our hospitals can cope and give vulnerable people the best chance of survival.

Looking through a longer lens, I have more anxiety about the terrible destruction our species has caused to the planet. It will result in ever more crises that have no respect for borders, and these could get a lot worse than the coronavirus pandemic. Will we clean up in time to preserve the health of human beings and the diversity of other species? Will we make the political and lifestyle changes needed to build sustainable societies that are fit for the future?

I hope that this experience of pandemic will be a big wake up call to all those living in complacency and not listening to the science. After all, scientists have been issuing warnings about the likelihood of a flu pandemic among other things for years. We need to understand just how interconnected we are globally, re-think our lifestyles, and take urgent action, not just to protect ourselves from disease but to address climate change, pollution, mass extinction and the ongoing possibility of nuclear conflict. We also need to have more urgent and serious discussions about the regulation of artificial intelligence and bio-engineering technologies.

What are your views on the recent controversy regarding the Evangelical Christian Union?

Relatively speaking, we have a tolerant society in the UK, which rightly upholds freedom of speech and protects minority groups, including both LGBTQ groups and conservative religious groups. We only act against a group when it breaks the laws of the land, including laws against hate speech. This works well because ultimately, the best way to deal with bad ideas is not to censor them or even to ridicule them, but to consistently expose their flaws in public debate. If there is one place where radical and harmful ideas ought to be exposed and challenged, surely that is a university?

It is not a new thing for evangelicals to publicly condemn homosexual acts and preach celibacy for those who are attracted to members of the same sex. They held events like this on campus when I was an undergraduate sixteen years ago. And indeed, there are many groups which preach things that others may find offensive. Being offended is part of life, and one has to develop a thick skin. This is ever truer in the age of social media. Therefore, I usually urge caution in this kind of confrontation. If the evidence shows that evangelicals are actually targeting individuals or minority groups in a way that amounts to harassment, or inciting hatred against the LGBTQ community, then those specific incidents should be reported to the police. However, if they are simply preaching their beliefs, however unpalatable and erroneous, then why not leave them to it and focus on sharing an alternative message more visibly on campus – one which clearly exposes the flaws in the evangelical position? It is easy enough to show how beliefs – such as the belief that homosexual acts are immoral – based on ‘arguments from authority’ (from supposedly divine ‘revelation’ in scripture) are impossible to support in the light of scientific evidence, historical criticism of texts, and knowledge of comparative religion and philosophy.

I don’t think it pays to be too precious about one’s ‘safe spaces’ or to ‘no-platform’ people who you strongly disagree with but who aren’t actually breaking the law. The world is a diverse and often dangerous place. All adults must rise to the challenge of that.

Having worked for many years with people of a more orthodox persuasion from a variety of faith backgrounds, I am convinced that making human connections across the divide, rather than taking a combative approach, is the best way to ease tensions and mistrust, and ultimately make progress. The university’s Multi-Faith Chaplaincy includes chaplains from orthodox, conservative and evangelical traditions, and as Humanist Chaplain, I feel a particular responsibility for emphasising what we all have in common as human beings; the desire to be free to make our own choices and to express our true selves through our personalities and talents, the desire to be respected as equal to all others, and the desire for human connections and companionship. I therefore champion the values of liberal, secular and democratic societies and their institutions (including the university), since these are, after all, Humanist values.

What are your views on Brexit?

I always supported Remain but rather than despair that we have lost, my plan is to focus on helping make this country a better place in any small way I can. There’s no point in feeding a world depression, however justifiable. It is possible that after taking a step backwards we can eventually take two steps forward. Hope is still alive!

A related issue gives me cause for greater concern. The unprecedented availability of information online was once a means of liberation for those oppressed by high-control political or religious groups but now we are deep into an ‘Age of Influence’, where harmful individuals and groups channel and exploit this information in ways that make it possible for them to control much larger numbers of people, and even more effectively. Many people in the UK no longer get their news from quality investigative journalism and peer-reviewed research but from social media hearsay, click bait and opinion-based websites and blogs that serve only to reinforce their existing prejudices. They are unable to discern which sources on the internet are reliable, and in many cases, would rather read whatever is most sensationalist.

Universities have a big part to play in helping future generations to resist these forms of indoctrination and control. They have a crucial role in nurturing young peoples’ thirst for the truth, and their ability to find it amid a sea of falsehoods. I am aware that as Humanist Chaplain, I too have a part to play in the war against fake news, fake history and online propaganda.


Dr Anastasia E. Somerville-Wong

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The 25 Signs you’re in a High-Control Group or Cult by Anastasia Somerville-Wong

It is a really healthy and rewarding thing to be part of a movement for positive change and progress, and to be part of a community which encourages moral and spiritual growth. It can do wonders for our sense of identity, purpose and fulfilment. In fact, the reluctance of many younger people especially to join together and organise these days around shared values and goals, is often to their social, economic and political disadvantage. The Secular Liturgies Network is itself an organisation which seeks to bring together people who share a progressive and humanistic outlook, and to explore how this worldview can be applied to improve human well-being, meet our sustainable living goals and build cohesive communities. I certainly do not want to discourage people from engaging fully in groups that are overwhelmingly positive.

However, it is because of the very real threat that high-control religious and political groups still pose, not to mention the more extreme cults, that I decided to write an article that would help people to spot the tell-tale signs a group is going awry. No group is perfect, and it would be unwise and counter-productive to run away from a group as soon as a problem arises. There will always be mistakes and conflict, even in the best of organisations. Therefore, it is important to be able to discern whether a group’s issues can be resolved or whether it is necessary to ‘jump ship’ for the sake of one’s safety and well-being. As a general rule, if any of the characteristics of high-control and cult groups listed below are relevant to your group, and despite your best efforts, nothing changes, it is time to make your escape!

Most people are aware of the dangers of cults. When we think of terrible tragedies like Jonestown, where 918 people lost their lives (many were murdered by the leader, Jim Jones, and his armed henchmen, including over 300 children, and the rest were persuaded by the leader to commit an insane act of mass-suicide) we are reminded of what happens when people fool for the lies of a sociopath who has mastered the art of persuasive speech and is seen to possess unusual authority and charisma. However, while we hear sensationalist stories in the media about the most extreme religious and political cults, everything from to Scientology to Islamic State, we hear much less about groups that are harmful in more subtle or hidden ways, and we forget that these latter groups have the potential to slide into extremism at any time – they are where extremism begins. For many high-control groups, it would only take the rise within the ranks of a sociopathic leader, someone with sufficient charisma and oratorical skills to exploit the magical thinking and group-think of these communities, for them to become a living hell. By the time serious problems with groups become apparent to wider society, it is often too late to prevent serious harm to the people involved and affected by them. Even when a group does not break the law and is never formally classified as a cult or extremist group, it can still cause considerable and long-term material and psychological harm to involved individuals and their families.

Therefore, in this article, I share not only the characteristics of full-blown cults but the ‘cult-like’ qualities of high-control religious and/or political groups, which should raise red flags in the minds of members and prospective members. You will notice that there is a great deal of overlap between extremist and high-control groups. Yet only a few of the latter develop into extremist groups. This is largely because they remain part of major world religious or political networks and are prevented from becoming too extreme by their dependence on others who keep them accountable, and by other external pressures, such as a dominant secular and democratic culture which empowers individual choice and diversity and makes a population more resistant to manipulation and deceit. However, while wider networks can provide a little more security, ‘cult-like’ groups have often been hidden within larger organisations, and sometimes even protected by them with cover-ups and the closing of ranks among the leadership, especially when that leadership belongs to a social elite who have their reputation to uphold. Some of these ‘sub-groups’ are established and controlled by sexual predators and paedophile rings, for example, in the case of Anglican Bishop Peter Ball’s religious community for young men.

Historically, the terrible crime in Jonestown was what defined the word ‘cult’ in the way we understand it today. Before that, a cult was simply a new religion or new sect of an existing religion, which established religious institutions saw as heretical. Many of these earlier ‘cults’ became established religions, and indeed, it can be said that all religions started as cults, mostly personality cults in which followers gathered around an influential preacher and teacher e.g. Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed. Political cults often start in the same way, with devotees amassing around a leader with a holistic vision for the future of society, whether it be communism, fascism or something else, and these leaders also hold onto their influence long after they have died. Thus, the kind of behaviour that defines a cult, with its resulting mass hysteria and often tragic consequences, is far from uncommon in human history. It could even be said to be a normal cyclical pattern of human behaviour, albeit an ultimately self-destructive one. Indeed, it reveals a flaw in our nature itself; a propensity to trust in the authority of certain persuasive individuals over reason, evidence and our own experience of reality. Sometimes this trust or belief is not only due to ignorance or deception but an underlying preference for what the cult teaches over the truth! If we want something to be true, we find evidence to support it, however unsound, and ignore the evidence against. Other cognitive biases, such as the ‘halo effect’ result in the idolisation (and even deification) of leaders. A person is admired for the power and truthfulness of their speech, for example, and that’s fine as far as it goes, but rather than admire this skill or speech, in and of itself, listeners allow the impression created in this area to influence opinion of this person in other areas, and consequently, the person is seen as altogether righteous and good in everything they say and do.

It is important to note that while we tend to associate the terms ‘cult’ or ‘high-control group’ with religious or spiritual movements, there are many political groups with similar characteristics to those listed below. Indeed, there are a disturbing number of sociopathic and narcissistic persons in positions of power around the world today, including in the West, who are exploiting ideological and prejudiced thinking for their own gains – power, money, sex and attention (some people like negative attention as much as positive!). We are used to seeing such people in power in the developing world and in places that seem primitive and remote but this has caused us to become complacent about preventing such people from manoeuvring into positions of power closer to home. It should be noted that these political groups often have a strong spiritual dimension, providing meaning, purpose and moral instruction that pervades all areas of life, and that likewise, many of the religious groups have radical political agendas. If your religious group takes on an increasingly marginal or extreme political agenda, or your political group takes on an increasingly religious agenda, this will in itself be an indicator that the group wants control over the whole of your life.

Strong democratic institutions with rigorous checks and balances usually filter out sociopathic persons before they become too influential but when these institutions are undermined and under threat, either by internal factions or external forces, or destabilised through in-fighting, a vacuum of power can open up, which risks letting in something far worse than chaos and uncertainty! After all, every society has a small proportion of sociopaths and sociopathic narcissists who will ruthlessly pursue power and their own interests, whatever the cost to others, since they have unrestrained ambition and no ability to empathise with their fellow humans. They will always be first to take the helm when a power vacuum opens up. Nazi Germany is perhaps the most famous example of what happens when an ugly assortment of ruthless sociopaths has the opportunity to seize control and purvey a toxic ideology.

Many of us in the ‘free world’ are deeply curious about cults and ‘cult-like’ political and religious movements because we wonder how anyone could possibly fall for them. However, many of us are in fact members of social groups that are defined by their systems of philosophical or religious belief and/or a common devotion directed towards an object, idea, personality or goal. We would be rather surprised to learn that this is in fact the literal definition of a cult! Cults, according to this definition, can be either good or bad, and invariably, they are a mixture of the two. Even when they are socially deviant – often a criteria thought to define a ‘cult’ in the pejorative sense – they can actually be justified in their cause and useful for bringing about necessary social change. Sometimes a group divides opinion, like Extinction Rebellion, which for some is an extreme group and for others is at the forefront of actions that are urgently needed to save our planet. Some groups start out well and remain an overwhelmingly positive influence, or at least a benign one. Others start with high ideals and enviable examples of community and then degenerate into murderous carnage. Indeed, many of the most extreme cults start out this way, like Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple, which pioneered a multi-racial community at a time of racial segregation and endemic racial prejudice in American society. Occasionally, a group has insalubrious beginnings and evolves in a more positive direction under new leadership or new influences.

Therefore, it is a myth that only stupid or suggestible people ‘fall for’ cults and high-control groups. Most people sleep-walk into them, often collectively, because they simply fail to notice the tell-tale signs or changes within their group that would indicate a serious problem. Nor is it the case that only lonely or vulnerable people join such groups. While such people are more susceptible and more often targeted by nefarious groups, it is very easy to be smug and scornful and forget that we are all lonely and vulnerable at various points in our lives, whether we like to admit it or not! Moreover, we were all young, naïve and no doubt fairly idealistic at one time. Many young people join these groups when they have little or no experience of how quickly and how horribly things can go wrong in a group, and no knowledge of the warning signs to look out for. Most cult members do not go about in robes or live in communes. Cults are not always easy to spot, especially in their early forms. People become victims of cults, often without being aware of it at first. Unwitting cult members may watch documentaries and read about other cults without realising they too are victims. Many victims are members for a long time before they even witness the darker side to the group, since many of these organisations have a secretive inner circle. Others are born into the community and know nothing different. When a group becomes degenerate gradually over a period of years, members can find that by the time they realise something is very wrong, they are already emotionally and materially invested in ways that make it very difficult, and sometimes impossible, to leave.

You will notice that many of the problem characteristics listed below apply to recognised mainstream faith groups. As a friend recently put it “there is a very thin line between good use and abuse!” The reality is that mainstream faith groups can be high-control groups. They can cause considerable harm, and undermine the human rights of individuals, even while they may skilfully refrain from actually breaking the law. Groups like this may not evolve into full-blown cults or extremist groups but they always pose a significant risk to liberal, secular and democratic societies. They require close monitoring by a free investigative press to make sure they do not subvert the law, and in order that they may be challenged if and when they go against the spirit, if not the letter, of human rights and equalities legislation. The harm done by mainstream high-control groups may not be considered grave enough to come under criminal legislation, and sadly, in many cases, a wider awareness of this harm is lacking, with the consequence that legislation has not yet caught up. In many ways, high-control groups like this are far more dangerous than sensationalist cults because they are just as harmful but gain a far greater following, since they do not engage in bizarre and outlandish activities that would put off most prospective members. In nations where there is no real democracy, especially where the state itself is theocratic, the dominant religious group very often has all of the characteristics of a high-control group or cult but it is not recognised as a cult because it happens to be the group in authority, and the group which determines the culture of a whole society that is religiously oppressed. It is exactly the same for nations ruled by one dictator or one party with an extreme political ideology – the dogma doesn’t have to be religious! For reasons of international and inter-racial relations, not to mention geo-politics, these groups and regimes may not always receive the criticism, exposure and condemnation that they deserve.

Below is the list of characteristics that reveal the true nature of high-control and cult groups. They indicate your group has gone beyond the tipping point and is more harmful than helpful. If you have tried, and cannot find a way to address the points below that are relevant to your group, then it is most definitely time to leave, even if the group still possesses some attractive qualities, and even if quitting the group involves leaving behind family members, friends and whatever funds and work you have invested in it. While some of the signs may not, in and of themselves, indicate the group is a cult or high-control group, they may do when taken together with other signs. Remember, extreme cults can be closer to home than you might think. It might surprise you that there are at least two of them, sadly, which have sites fairly near where I live in the South West of England! These cults are named Twelve Tribes and Universal Medicine. High-control groups are often even closer and their harmful activities frequently fall below the radar of the press. Warnings issued, all that is left to say is that I wish you well in finding safe, healthy and productive groups which will give you a sense of identity, belonging and purpose. Safe and healthy groups will help you to grow in character and understanding. They will put your skills to good use, develop your talents, and provide you with long-term friendships. Loneliness is a killer, so never give up on finding a community or communities where you can be valued and find value in others.

(for a quick reference summary go the bottom of the article)

Characteristics of High-Control and Cult Groups:

  1. There is opposition to critical thought…

High-Control Groups

  • The group has no official forum or channel for critical enquiry or for formally raising concerns, complaints and grievances. Failure to facilitate critical thought and to create times, spaces and procedures for criticism of the group and its leaders, is a sign that the leaders do not value the safety, perspectives and meaningful participation of members. If such a forum exists but is only accessible to certain members e.g. only male members or long-term members, this is just as concerning, since it is a clear admission on the part of the leadership that they are unwilling to hear or value the voices of many of their members.
  • Group leaders encourage questioning but only in the early stages of your association with the group, and only on their own terms. For example, they hold meetings where the leader/leaders are present and ready to use any question as a means of presenting pre-prepared arguments which affirm the dogma of the group. Like politicians, they are skilled in answering questions that haven’t really been asked and in constructing answers that may sound plausible but which rely on untested assumptions, assumptions that on closer inspection are themselves highly implausible. Such meetings give prospective members a false sense of security because they may be persuaded that their questions have been properly considered. They also serve to reinforce the beliefs of those already in full membership.
  • Group leaders will encourage you to check things out but they will steer you only in the direction of ‘approved’ sources, which defend the doctrine of the group. They will create the impression that these sources have wider recognition, acceptance and authority than they in fact do. Many of the books, authors and other sources will have been critiqued and discredited by subject experts at mainstream academic and research institutions and by the free investigative press. They will be written by the same narrow group of authors and published by the same few sympathetic publishing companies. Equally, group leaders will create the impression that certain other sources of information, which do not necessarily support their teachings, are unreliable or false, and these will include works by widely respected scientists, academics, researchers, journalists and other experts.
  • The dogma taught by the group is contradictory, confused and internally inconsistent. One common example from high-control Christian groups is that you are told the group’s God loves all people or that “God is love” but soon you are also told that he hates gay people and/or infidels. You may also be told that God loves you but then later told that he also hates the way you are – sinful (even though he himself made you) – and that you deserve punishment, even death, which you can only avoid by constant repentance, self-denial, religious practices and/or believing certain things.
  • The dogma of the group does not fit your experience, especially your experience prior to involvement with the group or the experience of your family and friends outside the group (you may have had unusual and confusing experiences in group rituals). For example, you are told miracles occur or shown supposed miracles but have never experienced a miracle prior to joining the group. Your family and friends outside the group have never experience such things.
  • The group dogmas are not backed up by evidence or information cross-referenced from multiple reliable sources. You can see no real evidence, for example, that proclaimed historic supernatural occurrences or miracles are anything but mythical stories – all cultures have their myths and legends after all – or that the proclaimed contemporary miracles are anything but illusions brought about by mass hysteria or hallucinogenic drugs.
  • The group and its leaders oppose or deny mainstream research findings and what is accepted and taught at leading universities and research institutes. For example, they deny the overwhelming evidence for climate change and evolution. Instead, they share alternative ‘research’ and arguments from their own far less qualified and heavily biased sources, which would not stand up to rigorous external peer-review processes. Group leaders do this to keep members ignorant and suspicious of wider networks so that they can be more easily brainwashed and controlled.
  • The group uses thought-reform methods of indoctrination. The hallmark of this practice is the use of thought-terminating clichés and religious platitudes; general, vague and overused statements that may contain a grain of truth but which in reality, are only true in certain contexts or metaphorically speaking. When taken literally or misapplied they can be completely false and they express cheap sentiment rather than real concern or empathy with others. These clichés are repeated over and over again so that members don’t have to critically analyse complex issues and are likely to become complacent. Indoctrination or “brainwashing” is the process by which a group like this slowly breaks down a person’s sense of identity and ability to think rationally and independently. If your serious questions are answered with clichés, you are probably in a high-control group or cult. Group members are likely to become angry and upset if you point out the cheapness and hypocrisy of these clichés in many of the contexts in which they are used.

Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • Group leaders ignore or discourage questions and forbid criticism and dissent. The group views critical-thinking and scepticism as an infectious disease, making vigorous efforts to suppress it. Doubt or questions may even be punished.
  • Members who question the group leader or group tenets are considered to be traitors and a danger to the group as a whole.
  • Outsiders who question or criticise the group are viewed as persecutors and are given labels like “anti,” “apostate,” or “suppressive person.”
  • Doubting members are encouraged to focus solely on the doctrine of the cult and isolate themselves from outside influences.
  • The leader/leaders become impatient, anxious and even angry, when a potential member expresses the desire to make a careful and informed decision before joining.
  • Cult leaders convince members to forfeit their critical-thinking ability in return for a sense of belonging, authority and purpose.

Safe Groups

Scepticism is a healthy trait when it comes to making decisions that affect a large group of people. It allows many minds to consider a problem from different perspectives, and after deliberation, a better decision becomes more likely. In a safe group, leaders will encourage members to question everything and will take time to answer directly, without preaching, becoming judgmental, or repeatedly failing to address the intended meaning of the question (if your politicians do this they are bad leaders as well!). Safe leaders will encourage critical-thinking by suggesting that members do their own research, examine the evidence, and check things out for themselves. They will not seek to supervise this process. They will be patient with your decision-making process, and will even tell you more than you want to know. They may recommend texts and other sources that support the group’s dogma or show the group in a good light but they will not put pressure on you to read these or attempt to dissuade you from accessing wider sources of information.

  1. And self-doubt is encouraged.

High-Control Groups and Full-Blown Cults

  • This is common in both cults and high-control religious and political groups as a means of control. It reinforces their fight against critical-thinking. You are encouraged to doubt yourself and your own moral and/or intellectual ability to discern the truth and you are encouraged to rely increasingly on the leader’s teachings or on a religious/political text and those leaders who can supposedly interpret it correctly for you. Members are frequently reminded of the leaders’ qualifications, knowledge, intelligence and experience and these are often over-played and exaggerated so that members view them as experts and sages. You are encouraged to see them as having a much greater ability to discern the truth than you do.
  • You are told to doubt your doubts or to accept them but view them as temptations coming from an evil external source, like the devil, or supposedly ill-meaning outsider groups.
  • You are taught theological dogma that directly undermines your confidence in yourself. For example, you are told that everything good in you is from God alone and that everything bad in you is from you alone and therefore entirely your fault! This leads to self-loathing and a great deal of confusion as you struggle to discern which of your thoughts, actions and decisions are your own, and therefore probably from the Devil, and which are coming from God – an impossible and absurd situation!! The community fails to celebrate your (and other individual’s) talents and achievements but when you make a mistake you find yourself in receipt of much disapproval and criticism.
  • Members who get sick or suffer other misfortunes are accused of not having enough faith/belief or commitment to the group dogma, leaders or cause, or of not praying hard enough or performing other rituals/duties correctly. If when your turn comes for misfortune, you find yourself adding insult to injury by blaming yourself for your misfortunes along with everyone else, then you are most certainly in a high-control group or cult.
  • Those having persistent doubts or considering leaving the group are told they have lost their faith because it was predestined and predicted in scriptures or teachings that some members would have a weak or superficial faith which would be taken away from them. Either that, or they are told they never had genuine faith in the first place, even when the person had clearly been extremely devout.

Safe Groups

A safe group and its leaders will nurture feelings of self-esteem and self-confidence among members, both in a general sense, and particularly when it comes to people’s decisions as to what to believe. They will do so not just at first acquaintance but always. They will reassure members that doubts and questions are normal and should be pursued. Misfortunes will never be blamed on those suffering them. In a safe group, you are trusted in what you say when you openly discuss your beliefs and doubts, without accusations or insinuations that you have ulterior motives (e.g. to be disruptive or promote your personal interests within the group) or that you are being disingenuous and trying to mislead people.

  1. Magical thinking is prevalent…

High Control Groups or Full-Blown Cults

  • Many cults and high-control groups indulge in a great deal of magical thinking. Doctrines include beliefs in divine beings, gods, angels, supernatural forces, demons, dominions, realms, spirits, devils and other mythical creatures which they claim interfere with our lives and world. Group leaders often conduct magical events such as faith healings, exorcisms and communications with the dead. The group may also express other supposed “gifts” or “powers” such as speaking in tongues, prophesying, interpreting prophecy and being ‘slain in the spirit’.
  • If you are expected to accept dogma about the supernatural and your group leaders emphasise this in ways that make you feel shameful or afraid, you may well be in a cult or high-control group. Creating fear and dread of supernatural evils, and then claiming you can offer protection from it, is an excellent way of getting people to believe and do exactly what you want. Thus, high-control/cult group leaders frequently use this as a tool of control. Equally, creating fear of the judgment of a perfect, holy deity can make people continually afraid they are not good enough. Then they are keen to accept the group/leader’s offer of a way to escape this judgment. Even political organisations indulge in magical thinking, by claiming leaders have special powers, for example, the power to detect disloyalty and misdemeanours among followers. Magical abilities, events, beings and places, by very definition, cannot be tested, measured or proven using our senses. They can be literally anything one might desire or imagine, and anything desired or imagined by leaders of the kind described in this article is surely going to be very bad news indeed!
  • These beliefs in supernatural beings and forces will not only frame the worldview of members but it will affect many aspects of their lives, in some cases, even to the point of obsession. Members may pray or perform certain rituals before taking the simplest of daily decisions or before participating in simple daily activities like having a meal or washing. Members may be often frightened of dark spiritual forces/beings or the judgment of God. Some of those who have left high-control groups speak of sleeping with the lights on even in adulthood because their fears were so great!
  • If you have magical beliefs and experiences in the group which do not reflect your ordinary experiences of what is possible or what happens in real life, or which do not reflect the experiences of your friends and family outside the group, then you are most likely in a high-control group or cult.
  • In high-control or cult groups, everyone is expected to share in these supernatural experiences in order to be considered a sincere member of the group, or in order to be welcomed into the inner circle. Those members who do not connect with these beliefs and experiences (e.g. you didn’t feel intense emotion or connection with God when you recited scriptures or prayed, you cannot speak in tongues, you didn’t get healed when the leader laid hands on you etc…) are held in suspicion as not being true believers or are even seen as a pernicious influence.
  • You feel constantly worried about not doing or believing things ‘correctly’ because you think that it could cause something very bad to happen. Many people have their little superstitions, whether they are religious or not and whether they are members of a group or not. However, if your superstitions are many, persistent or concerning trivial everyday matters – and especially if they cause you to experience anxiety on a regular basis – then it is very likely you are in a high-control group or cult.

 Safe Group

A safe group applies reason and evidence in coming to its beliefs and developing its practices, and encourages members to do the same. It respects the range of spiritual/psychological experiences (or lack of them) among people, and leaders/members do not expect others to share in their own particular experiences. There is no ‘spiritual hierarchy’ based on people’s ability to access supernatural beings or abilities.

  1. And leaders claim to have special insight and supreme knowledge.

High-Control Groups

  • Both cults and religions begin with a charismatic leader who claims some special or supreme knowledge, messages and/or insight from a supernatural, other-worldly source. They may call themselves a prophet, an enlightened teacher, a messenger, a messiah, or even claim to be divine. They may be peasants, nobles, politicians, CEOs, military officials, self-help gurus or from any other walk of life. Such leaders often claim they have a particularly strong connection to God or persons beyond the grave.
  • The leader is unusually certain and dogmatic about this supposed knowledge, whether it originates with the leader him/herself, and is presented through his/her own preaching or writings, or whether it is revealed through the leader’s interpretation of existing scriptures, teachings and traditions.
  • If you cannot explain the dogma of your group without using rote learnt lines, clichés or asking a leader to help you, then you are very likely in a high-control group or cult.

 Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • In a cult there is usually only one supreme leader who claims supreme knowledge rather than a group of leaders. After all, how could there be room for more than one extraordinarily oversized ego!?
  • In some cases, cult leaders do not merely claim they are on a mission from God, they claim to be god!
  • Unlike leaders of groups belonging to major world religions, cult leaders tend to emphasize special doctrines outside the more widely agreed scriptures and traditions. Often these will be considered unorthodox, heretical and deviant by mainstream faith organisations because they cross boundaries of sexual behaviour or undermine personal ownership.
  • Cult leaders increasingly claim knowledge outside their own experience and expertise. If your religious group takes on an increasingly marginal or extreme political agenda, or your political group takes on an increasingly religious agenda, this should set alarm bells ringing, since it indicates the group seeks control over every aspect of its member’s lives.

 Safe Groups

Good leaders are modest about their knowledge and abilities, acknowledging those things that they do not know. They will only claim expertise in specific areas that they are trained and qualified in, and will defer to the greater knowledge of others in other areas. They will share their own doubts and struggles in discerning the truth and will make it clear that no one has special access to spiritual knowledge. There will be no formal or informal/unspoken spiritual hierarchy, where the leader/leaders are put on a pedestal as being more holy, spiritual or wise than others.

5.   The leadership is authoritarian, charismatic and narcissistic…

High-Control Groups

  • You notice narcissistic tendencies in the leader: They seem unusually confident in their appearance and dress in a distinctive manner. They talk in an emotive, powerful and poetic way, using plenty of colourful metaphors and superlatives. They are perceived to be charming, charismatic and alluring. Many people of the opposite sex appear to be enamoured of them and the community or congregation attracts larger numbers of women than men or vice versa.
  • There is a strict hierarchy in which some members are trusted as leaders because they are more dogmatic about group doctrine and steadfastly loyal to the overall leader, and others are kept at arms-length from the leader/leaders and out of the ‘inner circle’. ‘Inner circle’ members are seen as holy and wise, while those who have expressed any doubt about the dogma of the group and/or show less devotion to its leaders are seen as immature or insincere in their faith and not suitable for leadership roles, however long and hard they have worked and contributed to the group and its causes.
  • There is disapproval from other members when you make fair criticism of the leaders or do not show as much admiration or reverence for the leaders as others do. You may even be ostracised for showing negative thoughts or feelings towards the leader/leaders, even if these are very mild.
  • Leaders use trickery in their public presentations. They conduct supposed faith healings, exorcisms or communications with the dead or with supernatural beings in order to reinforce magical thinking and the idea that the leader has special powers. (Derren Brown and other illusionists, mentalists and magicians have done a lot to debunk these performances and show how they are done.)
  • As well as drama and theatrics, leaders use rhetorical skills in their speeches and preaching in order to circumvent people’s critical faculties, and persuade them to believe the group dogma.

Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • There is absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability. The leader is the ultimate authority and is always right. The group/leader is the exclusive means of knowing “truth” or receiving validation. No other process of discovery is seen to be acceptable or credible. The group leader is never wrong. If there is a problem it is always someone else’s fault.
  • If criticism of your leader is forbidden, however justifiable it is, you are in a cult.

 Safe Groups

In safe groups, the leadership is democratic, and decision-making is shared with members. Leaders are subject to rules, accountability, transparency and oversight as much as anyone else and can be removed from leadership for serious misdemeanours. The leaders will admit failings and mistakes, accept constructive criticism and seek advice. They will value dialogue and the free exchange of ideas and opinions, including where these relate to their own role and performance.

6.   And leaders are not accountable to other authorities.

High Control Group

  • The group has been set up by someone with no relevant or widely respected qualifications, accreditations or formal memberships/associations with established organisations and institutions.
  • The leader/leaders may claim they answer to a higher power (e.g. God) or that they are accountable to wider networks and structures, or even a direct chain of command, but in practice they distance and separate themselves from these authorities, institutions or supporting/sponsoring bodies and work independently and unsupervised.
  • Separation from established parties, denominations and other institutions is not always the sign of a problem, since larger established groups can become degenerate and corrupt and it may be that a new independent organisation is actually safer. However, it is very unlikely that there are no sympathetic external advisors or potential collaborators among other groups. Any safe group will endeavour to work with others where possible, even if only in terms of a loose affiliation or the occasional joint event. If the leader of your group appears to conceal the group’s activities from relevant or interested parties, is unwilling to seek the support and advice of other organisations and resists inspection or supervision by them, then you are in real danger.

Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cult

  • In a cult, the leader or leaders take sole charge of the group. Most cult leaders set up their groups alone without consultation or collaboration with others. They do not answer to any other authorities, not even state/national law enforcement, and when investigated by the police or other legal representative, they will typically be uncooperative and resistant.
  • In spite of their magical thinking, many cult leaders will not even admit to being answerable to supernatural authorities, since they will claim to be the supernatural authority themselves!

 Safe Groups

In safe groups, leaders will work collaboratively and within wider networks of authority, subjecting themselves and their work to inspection and scrutiny. They will be willing to receive external audit and advice, and will seek to combine forces with other groups whenever possible, to tackle shared problems and meet common goals.

7.   There are draconian and intrusive rules for members…

 High-Control Groups

  • Members must abide by guidelines set forth by the leader regarding aspects of life that are normally private e.g. rules when it comes to dating and marriage, lifestyle, how to raise children, where they should live and/or work, what schools (if any) their children should attend, what foods they should and shouldn’t eat, what they should or shouldn’t wear and rules any other aspects of family life.
  • In high-control groups there are often unspoken rules. For example, members may be expected to seek ‘spiritual’ advice before making important personal decisions about their lives, even if there are no explicit group rules about such things. This may apply to decisions about whether or not to get married or whether or not to marry a specific person, deciding where to live or deciding what job to do etc. Leaders may exert pressure upon individuals to make the decision the leader thinks is right, even when it comes to trivial matters such as the choice of what clothing to wear to group meetings.
  • If members break group rules they receive a great deal of criticism or are shunned. Members who resist the intrusive influence of leaders in their personal/family affairs are seen as less committed and kept out of the groups ‘inner circle’.
  • If at a group meeting you hear leaders discussing individual members behind their backs in a negative way and/or including personal details about the individual which they should not know or should not be sharing, then you should be very concerned.
  • If you experience pressure to take part in any (or all) services, rites or rituals, and feel it would be socially costly not to take part (i.e. you might be excluded from other things, disapproved of or left out of friendship groups), you should be concerned.

Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • Members must abide by intrusive rules that apply to their personal lives and seek permission when making decisions about their lives. These rules and absolute dependency on the leader cover every aspect of their lives rather than just one or two areas. A cult leader often insists on being consulted before members engage in any activity which could affect their time/financial commitment to the group e.g. moving job, moving home, getting married, or becoming the member of other groups etc.
  • Just like a controlling partner, cult leaders like to know where you are, what you are doing and who you are with. They may even use technology for surveillance of group members. If you break their rules they may use physical and other punitive methods to punish you as well as social exclusion.
  • Again, rather like a controlling partner, cult leaders may use physical tools of control, such as taking possession of your passport or other identity documentation. There may even be evidence of human trafficking.
  • If you feel it would be not just socially costly but dangerous not to take part in specific (or all) group events and activities, you are definitely in a cult!

 Safe Groups

In a safe group, decisions about the extent to which you want to participate and about your personal affairs are left up to you as an individual. You are encouraged to reflect and come to decisions about things like where to work and who to marry on your own. Safe group leaders respect individual autonomy and recognise reasonable boundaries and limitations when dealing with others. Safe groups include individuals and families with a wide range of lifestyles and cultures. They encourage diversity and individuality.

8.   But the leaders are above the law.

High-Control Groups

  • Leaders show stricter standards of behaviour for members than they keep themselves.
  • Leaders close ranks rather than discipline one of their own when he/she breaks the rules and/or is criticised by members. This is particularly common when leaders are of a higher social class and are members of privileged and elite social networks.

 Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • Hypocrisy: There is one rule for the leader and another for everyone else. If you are held to a different moral standard, especially in regard to sex, you are in a cult.
  • Cult leaders believe they are above the law, be it human or divine. This idea allows them to exploit their followers economically and sexually without repercussions. Sexual grooming of members is common.
  • When confronted, leaders do not confess but create justifications for their impropriety. They claim the end goals of the group justify their actions.
  • Loyal cult members will perform any amount of “mental gymnastics” to justify, deny or ignore the leader’s bad behaviour. It does not matter what the evidence or logic suggests, members always find ways to defend the leader and justify his/her misdeeds.

 Safe Groups

In a safe group, the same rules and standards apply to all equally, including the leaders. Leaders go through exactly the same enquiry and disciplinary processes as members when they break the rules. In well-established groups, there will be a record of leaders being demoted or even removed for inappropriate conduct, since it is unlikely that a long-running group has never had a problem leader!

9.   The flow of information is subject to censorship and control…

High-Control Groups

  • You’re encouraged to learn about the group from leader-approved sources which are notably positive and uncritical of the group.
  • You are discouraged from accessing journalistic or academic studies/research on your group and its history.
  • If you show awareness or interest in wider sources of information on your group, leaders immediately undermine the reliability of the sources and claim the authors are biased and motivated by unjustified hostility towards the group.
  • In general, you are discouraged from watching, reading or listening to wider mainstream channels and media sources produced by the free investigative press.
  • The group is luddite and retrogressive, preferring its members to live very simply without technology and access to information beyond the group. This makes followers much easier to control!
  • Members are encouraged to remove their children from personal and social education classes at mainstream schools or even encouraged to home-school their children in order to make sure they are not exposed to ideas, lifestyles and viewpoints the group disagrees with. Once they can afford to, most high-control groups open their own schools (sometimes only for a select few, such as boys only) in which children undergo a programme of religious and/or political indoctrination.
  • The group does not admit openly to having any internal problems, for example, financial issues or issues of misconduct and abuse. They refuse to allow public access to their records or to involve external agencies and auditors. They try to justify keeping their ‘dirty linen’ hidden by arguing that airing it in public would bring unnecessary disrepute to the group and its cause.

Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • You are only allowed to study your organization through approved sources and members are forbidden from consuming any material that is critical of the group.
  • There is strict censorship of mainstream news and media outputs.
  • The leader controls the flow of information from the outside, and is in fact, the only conduit for it.
  • The group produces its own propaganda; literature and media, which puts the group and its leader in a glowing light.
  • The group produces or makes use of fake news and inaccurate/fake historical accounts which appear to support its dogma. It has no credible evidence to back up its claims.
  • Conspiracy theories abound.
  • The group is luddite and retrogressive to an extreme e.g. members live in a commune in the middle of nowhere so that leaders can be sure they cannot access external information.

 Safe Groups

Members are encouraged to read the mainstream press and to read widely in general. A safe group is completely transparent regarding its internal problems and engages openly with the press and law enforcement. Any group worth its salt will face and outlive public scandal and humiliation where an unfortunate one-off incident has taken place. Indeed, it will grow stronger and safer because of it. There will be no paper trail of records, books, articles and statements about the group in wider sources, which highlight serious problems with the group.

10. And the group as a whole is elitist, with an elite ‘inner circle’ at its core.

High-Control Groups

  • Outsiders and external groups are looked down upon to some degree as morally inferior. The group and its leaders consider themselves to be holier, wiser, special, enlightened, righteous, elect and/or superior to those outside the group.
  • Group members believe themselves to be ‘called’ or ‘chosen’ for a special mission to save humanity by radically transforming individual lives and the entire world. The group believes it, and/or its message, is the sole solution to the world’s problems.
  • There are elite groups or ‘inner circles’ within the group, and a spiritual hierarchy among members with the leaders at the top.
  • This elitism is maintained with subtle methods of exclusion based on unspoken prejudices, including passive aggression (indirect aggression) and micro-aggressions. There is often, in other words, a culture of bullying that would not necessarily be obvious to outsiders.

Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • This elitism creates a strong sense of group unity and responsibility centred on a united purpose. Cult leaders manipulate this sense of responsibility by coercing members into risky financial behaviour, free manual labour, sexual favours or heightened recruitment efforts in order to further the cause.

 Safe Groups

Safe groups do not consider themselves to be superior or special in relation to other groups and outsiders, nor do they have internal hierarchies in which some people are considered more holy, worthy or wise than others.

11. Threats are made against members who leave…

High-Control Groups

  • You are penalized for leaving. You stand to lose money you invested or other privileges, or you are socially penalised with members saying they can no longer be your friend if you leave.
  • Members who leave are given derogatory names such as “apostate” or “traitor” or “infidel”. They are called foolish, sinful, ‘lost to sin’, worldly, misled or even evil. They are seen to have come under bad influences, are no longer trusted and personal contact is avoided. Former followers are always wrong in leaving. The group perpetuates a false narrative that former members were deceived, proud, immoral, or lazy.
  • If former members speak out, they are dismissed as bitter, angry, dishonest or evil.
  • You are told you will go to hell and be punished for all eternity if you leave. People in the group who claimed to love you, including close family, accept this is true and righteous and the will of God. In some cases, they may become angry and even try to physically keep you from leaving. In other cases, they express sadness at your decision but they do not listen to or consider your reasons fully and fairly.
  • If you cannot think of a legitimate reason for leaving your group, you are probably in a high-control group or cult. Clearly the group considers itself the ultimate authority on truth and cannot imagine anybody leaving it with their integrity intact.
  • High-control groups often impose some kind of shunning to shame former members and prevent them from ‘infecting’ other members with their ideas.

 Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • You are shunned by members you were once very close to, including close family and friends.
  • You are threatened with physical punishment if you leave. Members may even say that you will be hunted down and killed if you leave, and that they will never stop looking for you.

 Safe Groups

A safe group or leader will not become angry and impatient if you say you want to leave or are thinking about leaving. They will listen to your reasons, give you time to think, and respect your decision. While a safe group leader may have disgruntled former followers, he or she will not vilify, excommunicate or forbid others from associating with them.

12. And outsiders or outsider groups are slandered and vilified.

 High-Control Groups

  • Outsiders are demonised and looked down upon as morally inferior. For example, outsiders are seen as “worldly” or “of the devil” while members are considered part of a heavenly realm or Godly kingdom.
  • There is a strong “us versus them” or “in group / out group” mentality, along with feeling justified in breaking the rules of wider society. This can lead to conflict between group members and non-members.
  • False generalisations are made about outsiders and wider society e.g., that non-members are all dissolute, promiscuous drunks or that they are all set against the group etc. A common claim made by high-control religious groups is that liberal and secular societies seek to destroy them, when in reality, religious groups are protected by these societies. Indeed, it is in high-control religious societies that all groups except the majority faith group are persecuted and oppressed. Liberal societies demand that the laws that protect individual human rights are respected by all groups. Sometimes this results in conflict with high-control religious groups which consider their dogma and traditions to be more important than individual liberties, well-being and equality.
  • The group is paranoid about the supposed dangers of the outside world. There is unreasonable fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, infectious ideas, evil conspiracies and persecutions. High-control groups position themselves as the sole refuge from an evil outside world that is intent on their destruction.
  • Members spread untruths about other groups. For example, in evangelical/fundamentalist groups, the beliefs and practices of other religious groups or denominations and those of non-religious groups are frequently misrepresented, misunderstood, oversimplified and ridiculed.

Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • Outsiders are demonised and dehumanised to the extent that their lives are considered of much less worth than the lives of members (or of no worth at all). It is considered acceptable for outsiders to be sacrificed for the cause of the group.
  • If your group insists the end of the world is near, you are in a cult! Cults thrive on conspiracy theories, catastrophic thinking, and persecution complexes.

Safe Groups

Safe groups speak of outsiders and outside groups in a respectful, fair and balanced way. They are open to learning from and exchanging ideas with other groups, and they collaborate with other groups whenever they have shared goals, challenges or problems to solve.

13. Members become increasingly isolated from former companions…

 High Control Groups

  • Group leaders and members encourage you to spend less time with your family and friends outside the group and more time with group members in group activities. Subtle but increasing pressure is applied to get members to attend more and more group meetings and to give up other groups and responsibilities, however essential or commendable the latter are.
  • Members become increasingly isolated from family and friends outside the group who do not demonstrate an interest in the group and leaders.
  • The group separates itself from the rest of the world both mentally and physically, persuading members to move away from their homes, families and prior connections.
  • The group tries to tightly control the education of members’ children, often setting up their own schools. Thus, children of members are denied a broad education, and increasingly, all member’s basic needs are catered for within the group, so that they have fewer and fewer reasons to use outside or public services.

Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • Group members are forced to cut ties with any family members and former friends who are outside the group. There may be a requirement to socialise with fellow members only, unless you are actively engaged in trying to convert a non-member to the group. Your contact with outsiders is therefore extremely minimal. This could mean not engaging with outsiders anymore in your everyday life or even choosing to live among members and refusing to acknowledge there is an outside world at all.
  • Group members may have to make other drastic changes to their lives. They might have to radically alter their personal goals and abandon all the activities they engaged in before joining. Members may be required in the early stages to change their diet or other habits but over time the demands will escalate, even as far as insisting members leave their homes to move into a compound.
  • You become convinced that there is nothing worth pursuing outside the group and its goals. In a cult, the most devoted members are convinced that there is no worthwhile life outside the context of the group. Every decision they make, every thought they have is focused on what is best for the group and its leader.

Safe Groups

A safe group or safe group leader will expect and encourage members to remain in communication with their families and friends outside the group to the same extent as before they joined. They will suggest members consult and seek support from their wider networks when making important decisions. They will also encourage wider interaction in the community, including membership of any other groups that members may find beneficial.

14. And group identity takes precedence over (or replaces) individual identity.

High Control Groups

  • In high-control and cult groups, group rights trump the rights of individuals when the two are in conflict or competing. This is especially true with regard to the human rights of women, children and minorities. Thus, a group’s belief and tradition in which, for example, men are permitted to beat their wives and children may be considered more important by members of the group than a woman or child’s right not to be physically abused!
  • The leader or leaders regularly whip up the crowd or congregation into a feverish emotional frenzy with commanding oratory or intense ritual. This creates the ideal conditions for ‘groupthink’, which is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. Cohesiveness, or the desire for cohesiveness in the group produces a tendency among its members to agree at all costs. This minimizes conflict but a consensus is reached without critical evaluation.

 Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • As a result of isolation, an understanding of individual identity, the group, the leader and/or God as distinct and separate categories of existence becomes increasingly blurred. Instead, in the follower’s mind, as his or her involvement with the group or leader continues and deepens, these identities become increasingly and substantially fused. Criticism or questioning of the group or leader is characterized as “persecution of us all”.
  • Members develop uncharacteristically stilted mannerisms and seemingly programmed conversation, and there is cloning among the group (or of the leader) in personal behaviour.
  • There is a dramatic loss of spontaneity, individuality and sense of humour in those who have become members.

Safe Groups

Members of a safe group retain a strong and distinctive individual identity, personality and independent mindedness. Individual well-being and human rights always trumps the rights of the group to outdated religious or cultural practices.

15. The group performs secret rites and rituals…

High Control Groups

  • Only the elite or ‘inner circle’ of the group holds meetings to discuss the dogma, theology and practice of the group and its overall direction. These are often exclusively for the members most loyal to the leader and often held in secret. They may also be closed to certain members, for example, women or minorities.
  • Intercessory prayer meetings for specific people, such as those targeted by the group for conversion, are held in secret, without asking those people for their consent. People’s private lives and personal issues, originally disclosed with the expectation of confidentiality, are shared and discussed at these meetings behind their backs.
  • There are bizarre initiation rites that involve discomfort, danger and pain. Often, these initiations are confusing, bizarre and offensive. The mental dissonance between their sense of confusion and their loyalty to the “inner circle” convinces the initiate to double their efforts in order to properly appreciate the proceedings, since they believe the problem is with their own lack of understanding and effort rather than with the group. They become further entrenched in a shame cycle, making them even more susceptible to manipulation.
  • There are group activities, events and teachings centred on negative thoughts, emotions and punishment. For example, there are denunciation services where members who are leaving or who have broken the rules are denounced and humiliated in front of other members. Another example is a service denouncing or exorcising the devil or an evil spirit. This negative focus on evil rather than good, gives undue attention and attributes undue power to evil forces. It creates fear and terror in participants, which is used to control them. Moreover, the evil that is denounced tends to be closely associated with specific people and external groups. A stirring up of hatred against more than mere imaginary beings is the usual outcome of such meetings!

Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • If there are secret teachings or ceremonies you did not discover until after you joined, you are probably in a cult. Cults use secret rituals as rites of passage that solidify a member’s loyalty to the group. Initiation into these rites usually only comes after a member has undergone certain tests or made adequate financial contributions.

Safe Groups

All the activities of a safe group will be open, transparent and yes, you guessed it, safe! Participation in activities will not normally be restricted based on how long you have been a member, how much money you have donated or on single facets of your being such as your gender, race, able-ness, health, age, sexual preferences and so forth (unless an event is specifically organised to support a vulnerable minority group).

16. And in general, their events involve mind-altering practices.

High Control Groups

  • Many safe groups use mind-altering practices for real benefits, practices such as meditation, chanting, prayer, rituals and movements or dance. High-control groups misuse these and other mind-altering activities, like speaking in tongues and listening to emotive speeches and music which can whip up crowds into an emotional frenzy. They do so in order to direct and control people’s thinking and emotions and suppress doubt. It can be hard to tell the difference between the good use and misuse of these practices but the clue is in the content. It is crucial to examine the content of a meditation, chant, sermon etc., independently, and with a cool head, when outside of any emotionally charged situation, especially if you first heard it in a group situation where intense feeling or mass hysteria was evident. After cool-headed reflection, you may find the message and activities far less impressive and appealing than they first seemed.
  • You are encouraged or expected to take part in ‘spirit led’ activities such as prophecy, speaking in tongues, praying aloud, preaching and emotional displays and prostrations, which you cannot always connect with or induce genuine feelings for. You either quietly distance yourself and watch from the side-lines, which may result in members becoming suspicious, perceiving you as lacking faith or commitment, or you may force yourself to take part in spite of feeling deeply uncomfortable and false. If you feel alienated or marginalised in your group for not taking part in such activities with the same enthusiasm as others, or if you feel pressured to act in ways you find uncomfortable, you are definitely in a high-control group or cult. It is important to remember that we humans are social creatures. If a person sees their friends and contemporaries participating in some sort of group activity, however unfamiliar, they will want to join in. Going against the grain could mean losing friends or being left on the periphery of your friendship group. It is important to recognise when you are acting out of a desire to be included, to belong or to conform, rather than out of a genuine desire to participate in the specific activity.

Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • Ascetic practices and repetitive behaviours like excessive fasting, prayer, hypnosis, scripture reading, chanting, meditation, or drug use are used to increase people’s vulnerability to the leader’s suggestions.
  • Extreme rituals involving sexual acts, physical punishment, substance misuse (and even mass suicide!) are proposed, carried out or planned for the future.

 Safe Groups

In safe groups, mind-altering practices will only be used with full prior disclosure of the content so that all members know (or can easily find out) what will happen and what will be said, and can therefore give full consent. The practices will be within the law (i.e. they won’t involve hard drugs, bodily harm or non-consensual/underaged sex) and will allow room for reflection, critical-thinking and individual expression. You will not be criticised or penalised in any way for choosing not to take part or for leaving part-way through an activity. Indeed, safe group leaders usually state openly that participants are welcome to leave at any time if they feel uncomfortable.

17. Members frequently experience feelings of shame, guilt, fear and dread…

High Control Groups

  • Shame and guilt are common tools of control and are instilled through subtle persuasion and peer pressure. Humans are social creatures who long to be part of a group. If they are made to feel guilty or shameful for something they are or have done, they are more likely to fall in line and conform to the rest of the group. Sometimes, the shame following a single mistake is enough to keep them in line forever.
  • Followers engage in group activities and feel they are having some success. Then they are knocked down again with the suggestion that their efforts are not good enough. They soon find they can never be good enough. High-control groups create and rely on these shame cycles – a form of long-term emotional abuse. If you need the good opinion of your group in order to feel worthy, loved, or sufficient, your group is doing you more harm than good.
  • Much of the guilt and shame arises in these groups from the suppression of member’s true natures. For example, women are expected to stifle and be ashamed of any abilities, desires, feelings and ambitions not seen by the group as ‘feminine’ or compatible with group dogma about women’s roles. LGBTQ persons are expected to be ashamed of their feelings because these are often seen by high-control groups as unnatural and immoral.
  • Leaders use theology to undermine you and make you ashamed. For example, they convince you that there is nothing good about you because anything good you think, say or do comes from God and everything bad that you think, say or do comes from you. There is no praise for individuals’ artistic or other talents, abilities and contributions, since that would be considered to be idolatry! However, there is plenty of criticism and unkindness flowing in your direction when you make a mistake or break the rules.
  • You experience fear and dread in relation to belief in magical beings such as demons or the devil, as discussed earlier. If you sleep with the lights on or fear people with mental health issues because you think they might be possessed, then you are most likely in a high-control group or cult.
  • You experience fear and dread of the leader or other members when you do not feel comfortable with something the group is teaching or doing because you feel that speaking out or not participating fully would be dangerous.
  • Sometimes fear and dread is in relation to the group’s theology, caused for example, by the constant threat of hell fire and eternal punishment for those who don’t believe (or don’t believe zealously enough), or for those who don’t do exactly the right thing all of the time according to group rules and ideals. If you suffer from persistent anxiety about your belief (or that of close family and friends who are not members of the group) on a regular basis or engage in obsessive and compulsive behaviours to cope with your beliefs or with life in your group, you can be sure your group is harmful and dangerous.
  • Members are made to believe they are insufficient or unworthy on their own, and that the only way to become worthy is to confess their shortcomings to the group or leader. The leader then becomes the mediator of worthiness and the foundation of the member’s self-esteem.

Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • Members feel deeply ashamed when they have doubts about the group doctrine or curiosity about the outside world. They might vow never to question the leader’s teachings again and may become useful and even zealous in dissuading others from doing their own questioning.
  • Leaders trap members in shame cycles by imposing abnormally strict codes of conduct, such as prescriptions about diet, appearance, sex, relationships and use of media. Inevitably, members struggle to keep to these rules, and when they fail they are made to feel ashamed of their shortcomings. Leaders then position themselves as the unique remedy to these feelings of guilt, which they themselves created! Leaders who can make followers feel bad about anything can manipulate them into doing anything, even if it is very much against their own interests or better judgment.
  • Most cult members feel a lot of fear. It may be set aside during group activities but it always returns. Even the most devoted members are fearful of what may happen should they ever choose, or merely consider, leaving the group.

Safe Groups

In safe groups, members are very unlikely to feel guilt, shame or fear as a consequence of being in the group. If they ever do feel such things they are encouraged to voice their feelings and concerns and are respected for it. Those feelings and concerns are then fully addressed and where possible alleviated. Safe groups will never foster feelings of shame, fear and guilt by telling members they deserve to or should feel that way.

  1. And show zealous commitment, loyalty and dependence upon their leaders.

 High Control Groups

  • There is a reluctance to see any weaknesses or flaws in a group leader or in his or her teaching.
  • Praise and admiration for the group leader exceeds that given to others in the community.
  • Some high-control groups encourage members to pledge love and loyalty to an abstract supernatural being (God), and to put this loyalty before the needs and well-being of fellow human beings and themselves. Members will devote their time and energies to group priorities such as evangelism and prayer. They will be led to believe that loving and caring for others “too much” is akin to idolising them, and that the bulk of their love – it is assumed to be finite – should be reserved for this abstract deity. This is of course, just another way to distance members from their kin and even from each other so that they put the group’s activities and goals first. This kind of theology makes it much harder for members to empathise with their fellow humans and much easier for them to learn to hate certain other groups.
  • Young people especially seem to be enthralled by the leader, and there is an element of sexual attraction. For example, in many fundamentalist congregations, lots of young women and girls are in attendance due to the attractions of one or more handsome young male preachers. There are plenty of people who cannot resist a handsome member of sex to which they are attracted, talking tenderly about love and firmly about justice! This unfortunately blinds people to serious errors, contradictions and other problems with the leader’s message.
  • There is zealous commitment to the leader, whether he or she is living or dead, which goes far beyond mere admiration or fondness. Members revere the leader with absolute devotion. His or her thoughts, opinions, and belief system are considered to be the absolute truth. If anything comes to light about the leader, which is not wholly praiseworthy, they will perform any amount of mental gymnastics, using any argument however convoluted and implausible to justify the behaviour and claim is wasn’t as it seemed. Sometimes the leader is deified by followers whether or not he or she ever claimed to be God.

 Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • There is extreme obsessiveness regarding the group and leader, resulting in the exclusion of almost every other practical consideration, including personal goals, relationships and former commitments. Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and sometimes this can reach a state of hyperactivity in which members do not sleep or eat sufficiently. They may be expected to commit to various “missions” and activities of the group which are unreasonable in duration and intensity.
  • Members are dependent upon the group or leader for problem solving, solutions, decision-making, definitions and even their self-worth. They seem no longer capable of independent reflective thought, analysis and judgment.
  • Anything the group or leader does can be justified no matter how harsh or harmful, including violent abuse and even murder!

 Safe Groups

Members of safe groups will have healthy balanced lives, which involve plenty of time and energy spent outside the group with family, friends, colleagues and with other groups they are members of. They will accept that the group leaders are imperfect and sometimes wrong, and they will be able to come to their own decisions and opinions independently of the group.

19. Groups have a preoccupation with new members and proselytising…

 High Control Groups and Full-Blown Cults

  • High-control groups and cults are often focused on getting new members, with the exception of some fundamentalist communities which are self-sustaining because of sufficient generational replacement. Bringing more people “into the fold” is an ego boost for the leader/leaders, who feel powerful for having control over a growing number of people. Also, additional members means more money and other resources. Members may be expected to pay dues or tithes to the group, or in extreme cases they may be persuaded to sell possessions or take out loans to give money to the group. Members spend a considerable amount of time trying to convert others and convince them to join the group. They do this using both a ‘carrot’ and a ‘stick’. On the one hand, they present the group in its best possible light and offer benefits that they are unlikely to follow through on. On the other, they make people feel ashamed of the way they are outside the group by playing on any pre-existing feelings of guilt they may be harbouring about the life they have led or something they have done in the past. This is why prisoners and ex-convicts are so vulnerable to indoctrination and even radicalisation by high-control groups!
  • These groups are often very aggressive and mechanical in their recruitment efforts, going door to door, targeting certain vulnerable groups and repeating rote learnt lines and arguments. They justify this by insisting they are “saving” people from an evil world. Those who reject the group’s message are seen to be ignorant, deceived, un-elect, prideful, evil, or stupid.
  • This emphasis on proselytising and a narrow range of tightly controlled activities comes at the expense of individual creativity and character. Members are unable to explore and express their talents in music, drama, dance and the other arts in the group, apart from perhaps in very limited and scripted ways, nor can they meaningfully pursue any other cultural interests. Thus, members end up stunted in their emotional, creative and intellectual development and are unable to live their life to the fullest. This is why it is often artistic, creative and intellectual types who challenge high-control groups and leave them. They are the first to find the control and censorship in these groups intolerable.

 Safe Groups

Safe groups may want to actively promote their community and agenda but it will not be their priority. They will not see themselves as having exclusive access to the truth and as being in a position to ‘save’ everyone else from ignorance and evil. Their focus will be on the values, goals and activities of the group rather than on increasing the membership. They will naturally draw people in if what they stand for and do is appealing. They will never engage in underhand conversion tactics or coercion.

20. They target the vulnerable with ‘love-bombing’ and idealistic goals.

High Control Groups and Cults

  • Potentially unsafe groups or leaders come across as very nice at first. They may even affirm your autonomy and intelligence and massage your ego. They often target vulnerable people who are looking for answers or lonely, and are very good at making people feel they really care about them and even love them. This practice is known as “love-bombing”. Some group members may even have deceived themselves into thinking they really do love the people they are targeting, by trying hard to engineer the feeling over time. Only later do their actions, or lack of them betray the shallowness or falseness of that emotion. There is often a steep decline in interest in and care for new members once they have been converted. Many members go through a troubled period when they find all that love is mostly replaced with judgment or indifference. Those who have not been indoctrinated to the fullest extent sometimes become disillusioned and leave at this point.
  • These groups target young people in particular, especially when they are studying or working away from home, because young people have certain vulnerabilities they can exploit. For example, young people lack enough experience of the world to recognise the tactics and disingenuousness of these groups. By offering half-truths or a kernel of truth within the overlay of group dogma, and by simultaneously concealing all the rot behind the façade, they can persuade young people that they are worth joining. Only when people have been members for a while, or when they are included in the inner circle of the group, do they start to notice its more unpleasant side.
  • Many of these groups have high ideals and noble causes which attract people in. However, these tend to quickly reveal themselves as overblown, fantastical and too good to be true (e.g.) they may claim to be the “kingdom of God on earth”, the only good people on earth, and the community that will save the world. Even the most extreme cults start out with lofty goals. For example, the People’s Temple cult and its leader strongly affirmed the equality of all races and formed an impressively multicultural community. Osho preached that every human being is capable of unconditional love and Father Yod was an advocate for natural health and a utopian lifestyle. And yet, cult groups are so rotten that they result in tragedies like Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate and The Children of God.

Safe Groups

Safe groups have realistic goals and sensible plans to achieve them. Members do not show more interest in and affection for others than they really feel; they treat strangers with respect and compassion but understand that it is only when you take the trouble to get to know another individual as your equal, with their own beliefs and experiences, that you have the potential to feel more deeply for them. In other words, safe groups and safe group leaders are authentic in the way they treat you – they have nothing to hide!

21. There is evidence of economic or financial exploitation…

High Control Groups

  • All organisations require donations to upkeep their buildings, rentals and to pay for activities etc. However, if group leaders target and repeatedly ask individuals (as opposed to the group as a whole) for money, then you are most likely in a high-control group or cult. In such groups, members may be asked personal questions about their finances and asked to donate more than they would do voluntarily, or more than would be prudent given their circumstances, expenses and responsibilities.
  • The group does not provide reasonable and specific explanations regarding their requests for money – they do not make clear exactly what the donations are going towards. You cannot easily access hard evidence of how much people are donating to the group and how the group’s funds are being spent.
  • Followers may be encouraged to spend their money on the community rather than on family and friends outside it.

 Extra characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • There is no meaningful financial disclosure and no independent auditor. A group which refuses to disclose its finances should set all your alarm bells ringing! If you are not allowed to know exactly what the group does with its money, you are in a cult.
  • The group has a preoccupation with money. No matter how much money the group brings in, it is never considered enough by the leader. Cult leaders will make increasingly more desperate demands for members to contribute money, perhaps promising that they will eventually get their money back or even get it back with interest when they will not.
  • Cult leaders tend to live opulently while their followers are required to make financial sacrifices.
  • Members are often encouraged to pay their dues, even when it means putting their families at risk.
  • Members may even permit access and hand over control of their finances to the group leader/leaders.
  • Members may be engaged in activities that constitute unpaid labour and even hard labour without pay, which is of course a form of financial exploitation and abuse.

 Safe Groups

A safe group or leader will regularly disclose all the financial information pertaining to the group and will make it easy for members to access this information, including historic statements, by themselves or by request. Their accounts will be made available to all and will be independently audited. Ethical organizations have nothing to hide and will therefore have completely transparent processes, procedures and documentation. They may make general pleas for donations or ask everyone to contribute a reasonable amount to cover a fixed expense from which they are all benefitting e.g. to cover an entrance fee or transport for a group trip. However, they will never pressure members to pay more than they are able.

22. And of punitive punishment, even physical abuse.

High-Control Groups 

  • Punishments for breaking group rules may be disproportionate. A member may be demoted from a position of responsibility, or even excommunicated, for minor infractions, or for expressing their true thoughts and feelings (e.g. expressing doubts about group belief or practice or for coming out as LGBTQ etc.)
  • Former members may voice a similar pattern of grievances. They may relate stories of mistreatment, emotional manipulation, punishment and various forms of abuse.
  • Members who have children may be encouraged to discipline their children using punitive and corporal punishments. Some high-control groups even recommend husbands physically punish their wives!

Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • There may be beatings and physical punishment for transgressing group rules, sometimes these may take place in denunciation services, in which accused members are scorned, abused and humiliated in front of the whole group or ‘inner circle’.
  • The leader displays sociopathic traits such as a lack of empathy and compassion, and an ability to treat others with extreme cruelty and ruthlessness in order to further their own ends. You may notice they appear to enjoy watching other people suffering. At first this may be restricted to enjoying the misfortunes of those outside the group or of those who have left the group (and who are therefore perceived to be enemies), but it will increasingly include current members who are perceived to have transgressed.
  • There may well be records, books, news articles, or television programmes that document the abuses of the group and its leader.

 Safe Groups

Safe groups do not use punitive or physical punishments, nor do they hold services and rituals to humiliate and denounce people. They may demote someone in a position of responsibility for minor cases of inappropriate behaviour but if anyone actually breaks the law, the group will immediately report them to the relevant external authority such as the police force.

23. There is evidence of sexual exploitation…

High Control Groups

  • Safeguarding measures are sketchy and insufficient. The group does not have a safeguarding professional or proper safeguarding procedures and police checks for those working with children or vulnerable adults.
  • Safeguarding is tokenistic. The safeguarding official and procedures are there but not used properly. For example, the safe-guarding officer is not permitted access to all the information or he/she has loyalties to the group leaders or personal interest/investments in the group and so has a conflict of interests.
  • Hypocrisy is in evidence. Leaders teach the importance of sexual purity and fidelity but are unfaithful to their own partners and have sexual contact with vulnerable members who have no family or other looking out for them in the group, or with the wives and daughters of members, or with other vulnerable persons outside the group. Some will have sexual relations with underaged boys and/or girls.
  • There are high levels of abuse within group member marriages, with women, for example, experiencing abuse including sexual violence at the hands of their husbands. Women’s control over their own bodies regarding sex and pregnancy is eroded.
  • Grooming is in evidence: Many high-control/cult group leaders exploit young and otherwise vulnerable people, especially those craving love, attention and affection because they have experienced neglect, loneliness and loss etc. Perpetrators often claim that the abuse is necessary for furthering the group’s cause, and that in performing the acts of abuse, they are a conduit, channel, minister or vehicle for god to work on the member or to further god’s plan. It can be difficult working out whether someone is trying to groom you and you may even believe such a person is your boyfriend or girlfriend. They may begin with inappropriate flirtation and the incremental crossing of boundaries when it comes to propriety. They may ask for personal information about you or someone else rather early on in your ‘relationship’. They may want you to keep your ‘relationship’ a secret from other people in the group and ask to meet with you alone or in secret. They may want you to send them pictures of yourself or of other people, or ask to see things that are private, and they may want to send you pictures of themselves or show you things that are private. They may ask about your sexual experience, or how you feel about doing certain things. They many give you gifts or things that you feel are either excessive – such as things that are very valuable, or very personal – or things that are very ‘grown up’, such as alcohol, tobacco or drugs. They may give you special privileges within the group or allow you to do things other members can’t. They may appear to already know (or claim to know) things about you that you haven’t told them. If you feel pressure to do or say things that make you feel uncomfortable, indeed, if something just doesn’t feel right, even if only slightly, then it probably isn’t. If the leader/member is significantly older than you (especially if he/she is over 18 and you are under 18), or if they are very wealthy or in a powerful position compared to you, then you are at particularly high risk.

 Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • Safeguarding measures may be absent altogether.
  • Many cult leaders become known for their infidelities, and for some, the seduction of members and sexual acts form a central part of their activities. They are routinely unfaithful to their partners and sleep with vulnerable or very young members. They claim these behaviours are in the interests of the group and even essential for the achievement of its goals.
  • There are bizarre and uncomfortable rituals, which you are told require nakedness or near-nakedness, or other activities which make sexual contact easier or more of a temptation.
  • Grooming isn’t something a cult leader does secretively. It is often central to the cult’s activities. The leader is very often male and targets vulnerable women or men, such as young women or boys, or they target people with poor mental and/or physical health, emotional issues and other vulnerabilities. For example, the leader of Universal Medicine targets women who have cancer, claiming to provide healing through things including inappropriate massage. These groups are often composed of one or a few forceful and predatory (usually male) leaders with many vulnerable women or men as followers.

 Safe Groups

In a safe group, everyone has full autonomy over their own body and no one feels pressure to engage in intimate and/or sexual contact under any circumstances. Any leader who chooses to abuse their authority by making unwelcome sexual advances would be asked to leave the group immediately. If a member commits a criminal act, the group will turn them over to external authorities such as the police rather than apply their own punishments and/or conceal the wrongdoing from external authorities. In safe groups, victims of sexual harassment and abuse are encouraged to speak up and are supported wholeheartedly if they want to press charges. They are always listened to and taken seriously.

24. And women, especially, are tightly controlled.

High Control Groups and Full-Blown Cults

  • Men and women are segregated in activities for no good reason, in other words, not just for activities that involve undressing or intimacy but for learning, leadership and other activities. The usual pattern is that men are given certain exclusive privileges such as invitations to attend male-only leadership meetings where the philosophy, theology, teaching and direction of the group as a whole is discussed. They will also have access to training in leadership, teaching, preaching, conducting ceremonies and so forth, from which women are excluded.
  • Women are therefore kept out of important decision-making regarding the group. They are instructed to be busy instead with work that has no influence on group policy, work such as caring, cooking, cleaning and serving others. High-control groups do this because women are an important resource for the continuation of the group, and guarding them from outside influences (including a proper education), infantilising them, and denying them their autonomy, even over their own bodies, is crucial for these harmful groups to maintain and increase their numbers into the future. Women’s roles and activities are therefore tightly controlled, including trivial details such as their clothing, and especially their sexual activities, so that they lose their freedom of expression with regard to sex, and even their ability to refuse sex. Educated, intellectual and capable women with leadership skills are always seen as a major threat to high-control and cult groups.
  • These groups will come up with ever more ridiculous and fantastical arguments as to why this control and subjugation of women is necessary. I won’t bore readers with all the misogynistic arguments that are old news and thoroughly discredited but it is worth noting that such groups often include arguments which demean men also, such as the argument that if women show their talents and strength, take on public and leadership roles and have equal standing with their husbands, they will find that men are so lazy, lacking in mental strength and have such fragile egos that they will refuse to do or take responsibility for anything at all and will most likely become dissolute and abusive! Some modern-day fundamentalist preachers and ‘trad-wives’ who have been brainwashed in high-control groups even blame domestic violence, paedophilia and sexual abuse on women not being submissive enough (a classic case of victim-blaming)! Of course, it is obvious why these views are incredibly dangerous and toxic. The truth is of course that abuse almost always starts with the victim being disempowered, having low self-esteem and being too submissive, and the perpetrator taking full advantage of that. In reality, the more unequal the relationship and the more submissive the victim becomes, the more the violence escalates and the more likely it will end in murder. A fundamentalist preacher once told me that wives need to be loved and husbands need to be respected. He claimed that women didn’t much crave respect and men didn’t much crave love, as if you could ever have genuine love for someone you didn’t hugely respect! And of course, there is the fact that his statement is entirely false to begin with (women do crave respect and men do crave love) and it implies that it is okay for a husband not to respect his wife that much and for a wife not to love her husband all that much either! Sweet-talk about ‘love’ has often been used to trick women into unequal relationships and high-control groups because it sounds warm and fuzzy but is incredibly vague, emotional, and therefore changeable. It can mean pretty much anything and nothing at all, something which high-control groups and leaders take full advantage of. Mutual respect and kindness are much clearer and healthier terms upon which to build a relationship or form a group!

 Safe Groups

Men and women study, learn and work together in safe groups, and both women and men take leadership roles according to their ability and not their gender. They are only separated where an activity involves undressing or intimacy, and this is in consultation with the whole group. For example, most groups have separate toilet, changing and washing facilities for men and women. Some groups have therapeutic single-sex meetings on subjects that affect one gender significantly more than the other, or which might be difficult to discuss openly in a mixed setting. For example, it is appropriate to have female-only meetings for women who have been abused by men, or male-only meetings to discuss experiences of prostate cancer or male suicide.

25. Deception is normalised, and the ends always justify the means.

High Control Groups

  • The group’s dogma and mission is considered so important and so urgent that even the strict morality or rules of how members should behave can sometimes be bent. For example, members are told it is okay to deceive, mislead (or to be economical with the truth) when speaking to those outside the group. Members are told it is okay to commit these transgressions in order to achieve higher ends and the transgressions are downplayed and considered small. The excuse is also used that outsiders are bad people and deceivers themselves so it is okay to lie to them. Mistruths may also be used to help persuade prospective members that they need to join the group and avoid other groups (e.g. other groups may be described in negative and derogatory terms), or they may be used to cover up internal crimes. Deceiving people is so commonly justified in the minds of members that they cease to see it as deception and are no longer aware of their own deviousness.
  • Deception may be used to gain positions of power and influence in wider society, in order to promote the interests and dogma of the group. To give an example of this kind of dishonesty, I once witnessed an influential Evangelical Christian clergyman telling some young men who were training and intending to train for ordained ministry, that it was okay to lie in their interviews and assessments when asked if they agreed with the ordination of women (and whether they were comfortable working with ordained women), in order to get into the Church of Scotland or Church of England!
  • ‘Inner circles’ or leadership groups routinely mislead, deceive and lie to ordinary members, and this is not considered to be immoral or a problem.
  • Events are advertised in misleading ways, which cover up a proselytising agenda. For example, guests are led to believe they are attending a cultural, recreational or social event or excursion, and find themselves instead being preached to for most of the time or they find themselves taking part in a service or other religious ritual!
  • Self-deception is very widespread in high-control groups. Many fundamentalist religious and political extremists believe that they truly love humanity. They see themselves as good and kind people, when the reality is, that the more fundamentalist people get about their group dogma, the less empathy they have with wider humanity, since fundamentalism separates us from others both physically and mentally and prevents such people from understanding the experiences and perspectives of others. While it may look from the outside as though there is a lot of fellowship, loving care and comradery between members of high-control and cult groups (something people often find attractive about them), their dogmatic commitment to abstract dogma, group priorities and group leaders creates distance between individuals and decreases empathy and trust among members, just as it does between members and outsiders. Often members become suspicious and afraid of each other. Relationships between members, even those in the same family, are often strained, complex and unhappy beneath the veneer of closeness.

 Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • Members engage in activities which they would have previously thought reprehensible, in order to further the ultimate goals of the group. These may include lying to their families and friends in order to get their support and even their money. Thus, members are persuaded to harm or sacrifice their relationships and their own long-term interests for the group’s ultimate goals. Members may even collect money for bogus causes and charities, having convinced themselves that lying and fraud is necessary to accomplish the group’s goals.
  • Leaders behave in ways that they may have previously condemned and/or which they have condemned in others. They may be violent, sexually deviant and abusive, with the excuse that this is necessary to achieve the group’s ultimate goals. Cult leaders are usually sociopaths/psychopaths and invariably this will be borne out by their behaviours and actions. For example, they will fail to empathise with the feelings of others. They will harm others in all sorts of ways to achieve their ends, without feeling any guilt or remorse.

 Safe Groups

Safe groups will balance the importance of their goals with other moral principles. The ends will not justify cruel and inhumane means. They will never use violence, threats and blackmail to keep members in line with their rules. Nor will they justify or condone lying and deception in order to further the interests of the group. Safe groups will only break the law of the land or the rules of other institutions in rare and extreme circumstances e.g. in support of a wider campaign against oppression and injustice. This will be alongside other organisations and groups who share their concerns but do not necessarily have anything else in common with the group. For example, multiple agencies, groups and individuals get involved with climate change protests, which cause disruption and result in arrests. Violent protests against an oppressive religious and/or political regime may also at times be defensible but again, such actions will be alongside other groups and violence will be a last resort.


You are in a harmful cult or high-control group if:

There is opposition to critical thought,

And self-doubt is encouraged.

Magical thinking is prevalent,

And leaders claim to have special insight and supreme knowledge.

The leadership is authoritarian, charismatic and narcissistic,

And leaders are not accountable to other authorities.

There are draconian and intrusive rules for members,

But the leaders are above the law.

The flow of information is subject to censorship and control,

And the group as a whole is elitist, with an elite ‘inner circle’ at its core.

Threats are made against members who leave,

And outsiders or outsider groups are slandered and vilified.

Members become increasingly isolated from former companions,

And group identity takes precedence over (or replaces) individual identity.

The group performs secret rites and rituals,

And in general, their events involve mind-altering practices.

Members frequently experience feelings of shame, guilt, fear and dread,

And show zealous commitment, loyalty and dependence upon their leaders.

Groups have a preoccupation with new members and proselytising;

They target the vulnerable with ‘love-bombing’ and idealistic goals.

There is evidence of economic or financial exploitation,

And of punitive punishment, even physical abuse.

There is evidence of sexual exploitation,

And women, especially, are tightly controlled.

Deception is normalised, and the ends always justify the means.

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What is Humanism? by Anastasia Somerville-Wong

A Humanist is someone whose knowledge is based on reason and evidence, who lives an ethical life based on empathy and compassion, and who strives to build a kinder, fairer and more reasonable society.

Defining Humanism

Humanism as I understand it, is a rational and evidence-based approach to knowledge, combined with an effort to live a good life and build a good society. It is a humble and hopeful approach to reality; humble because we do not speculate beyond that which can be known from reason, evidence and science, and hopeful, because while we acknowledge that humanity has serious weaknesses and flaws, we are confident that humans are capable of creating a sustainable, peaceful and better world. Whether we will actually do so, however, remains to be seen!

It is important to be clear that Humanism is not a dogma, creed, faith or religion.  There is no prescribed set of beliefs you must subscribe to in order to be a Humanist. However, some Humanists have articulated and published definitions of Humanism, including lists of values, principles and beliefs which the majority of Humanists have in common. These do not amount to any fixed creed but they are useful for explaining, reflecting on and further developing humanistic world-views. Humanism can therefore be a comprehensive world-view, when those who identify as Humanists develop well thought-out sets of principles and goals.

It is important as a Humanist Chaplain to be able to explain what I stand for, and to make that clear to my sponsors and the community I serve. Therefore, I have put together my own set of Humanist values and goals (below), which I am confident are common to most Humanists, and which I will no doubt modify and develop over time. I always welcome comment on these from fellow Humanists! Some readers will have already seen these as I published them before but I felt an article putting them in context would be useful.

It is also important to remember that there are many different expressions of Humanism. The Secular Liturgies project has been all about encouraging knowledge and cultural exchange between humanistic and progressive groups. While there are many Secular Humanist and Free-Thinking groups, there are also humanistic faith/ethnic groups such as the Humanistic Jews, Secular Buddhists, Non-Theist/Progressive Christians, Unitarian Universalists and Quaker Universalists and so forth.

I would also like to note here that while Humanism does address social values, often supporting such things as freedom of speech, gender equality and democratic government – and while it does encourage political engagement – it is not a comprehensive political ideology or economic theory. Humanists may agree on values and goals but they will range widely in their views as to which political parties or socio-economic policies will best achieve those ends. We agree broadly on our vision for society but will often disagree on exactly how to get there!

An Approach to Knowledge

  • We seek to understand ourselves and the universe, and to solve human problems, through the application of critical thinking, reason and science, without recourse to supernatural explanations. Importantly, our evidence-based approach to knowledge includes the qualitative, quantitative and empirical research methods used in the arts, humanities and social sciences.
  • We are skeptical of untested claims, while also being open to new ideas and departures in our thinking. We consider evidence which may go against our current beliefs and foster the humility required to do this. We are committed to overcoming our cognitive biases in a process of life-long learning.
  • Our view is that beliefs, ideologies, dogmas and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested against multiple sources of independent evidence. Our goal is to get as close to the objective truth as the evidence allows, and we take seriously our personal responsibility in this endeavour.

Living a Good Life

  • We seek personal growth, healing and development in character, wisdom, courage, empathy, kindness and compassion, through the use of reflective practices, both individual and collective, and through secular ethics, mentorship and access to pastoral care. Our experience is that by better understanding human nature and the nature of reality – by being more aware of our common frailties and interdependence – we naturally cultivate greater empathy and compassion for one another, and serve each other more willingly, contributing to increased mutual wellbeing.
  • Rather than looking for ‘the meaning of life’, we look to create meaning in life, through understanding ourselves, our culture, history and heritage, our intellectual and artistic achievements, and the perspectives of those who are different from us. We seek self-actualisation and fulfilment for every individual and community through the nurturing and free expression of their talents and creativity. Our focus is to enjoy life in the here and now, to develop our abilities to the full and become the best and noblest versions of humanity. We increasingly celebrate the meaning we create for ourselves through life-cycle events, such as humanist naming ceremonies, weddings and funerals, and through annual, seasonal and other events.
  • Together, we study and develop secular ethics and best practice to achieve moral excellence. Ethics is our search for helpful individual, social and political principles of conduct, which are judged on their ability to enhance human well-being. Thus, we uphold common moral decencies such as fairness, integrity, honesty, truthfulness and responsibility. Our moral principles are tested by their consequences and we remain amenable to critical, rational guidance.

Building a Good Society

  • We seek to nurture democratic, open and pluralistic societies, which protect human rights (such as individual freedom and equality) from repressive majorities and authoritarian elites. We see humanity as one race or species, where each of us is an equal citizen of the universe, and where we are all responsible for one another’s wellbeing and the wellbeing of the planet we live on. Therefore, we avoid harmful tribal ideologies, whether religious or political, which seek to separate us and pit us against one another.
  • We maintain respect for those with whom we disagree, cultivating the art of conversation, negotiation and compromise as a means of resolving differences and achieving mutual understanding. Our conviction is that with reason, an open exchange of ideas, good will, and tolerance, progress can be made in building a better world for ourselves and our children.
  • We are committed to the separation of the state from religious institutions so that no faith group, whether its world-view is religious or nonreligious, is given preferential treatment over another.
  • We are concerned with securing economic and social justice, and with eliminating discrimination, intolerance and inequality of opportunity. Our view is that a civilised society is a compassionate one, which supports the sick, disadvantaged and disabled so that they will be able to help themselves.
  • We are committed to building sustainable societies, rediscovering and respecting our place in nature, developing sustainable lifestyles, and minimising the harm we cause to nonhuman animals. We seek to restore and protect the earth, and to preserve it for future generations.
  • We are committed to building cohesive communities, which optimise our collective wellbeing and flourishing, and where loneliness is alleviated by human connection, socialisation, companionship, respectful relationships, humour, fun and friendship. Some of the ways we are doing this are through local networks and meetings, community leadership and advocacy, and secular humanist annual and seasonal events following a secular calendar.
  • We are committed to fostering diversity, knowledge exchange, cultural exchange, cultural enrichment and creativity. While celebrating distinctive cultures and diversity, we attempt to transcend divisive parochial loyalties based on race, religion, gender, nationality, creed, class, sexual orientation, ethnicity or ability, and strive to work together for the common good of humanity.
  • We respect the right to privacy, including the right of all adults to express their sexual preferences (where there is full mutual consent), exercise reproductive freedom, access comprehensive and informed health-care, fulfil their aspirations and die with dignity. While religious group rights are important, the fundamental inalienable rights of all human beings should trump religious group rights when there is a conflict between them.
  • We are working to ensure all children receive a moral education rooted in compassion and critical thinking skills, and which includes a critical and comparative approach to the world’s philosophical and religious traditions.

Is Humanism the Enemy of Religion?

Modern humanistic communities have moved far beyond the days when they were mostly defined by their reaction against a dogmatic and oppressive religious majority. Many Humanists have a profoundly positive worldview of their own, which has a rich history dating back to the ancient world.

In modern secular democracies, including the UK, non-religious people with a humanistic world-view (only a proportion of these will actually identify as Humanists) make up a higher percentage of the population than any of the faith communities. As a result, the Humanist worldview is now becoming much more widely respected and appreciated. Indeed, I even heard an Anglican Priest on BBC radio 4’s Thought for the Day acknowledging that it was “practical humanism” which enabled the various faiths and denominations to begin to see past their differences and come together to celebrate their common values grounded in their common humanity, through ecumenical and inter-faith events and initiatives. He attributed the end of religious rivalry and sectarian violence to humanism – high praise indeed!

While fundamentalist religious world-views may be completely antithetical to Humanist ones, the reality is that in many cases, especially in liberal democratic societies, secular and religious world-views have a lot of overlap in terms of values and goals. While religious communities can learn a lot from humanistic philosophy and practice in order to overcome tribalism, dogmatism and superstition, humanism can learn from the psychological underpinnings, reflective practices and rituals of the religions, in order to build cohesive community.

The SLN has of course always been about this overlap – the finding of common ground – especially between liberal, progressive and Humanist groups but also between the religious and non-religious in general, since it is so important to build bridges in times where there is so much division and polarisation.

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