Secular Liturgies Network and Forum

Our 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. Our work has strong themes of well-being, sustainability, cultural enrichment and community building.


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Secular Liturgies at the University of Oxford

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Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford

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Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford

On Wednesday 26thJune 2019, I travelled to Oxford to deliver a presentation on the Secular Liturgies Project at the Ministry Old Students Association (MOSA) conference at Harris Manchester College (University of Oxford). This was a gathering of 30+ Unitarian ministers from a variety of different backgrounds, all liberal, progressive or humanist in their approach, and including both atheists and those with some nondogmatic but nonetheless meaningful belief in ‘the transcendent’.

I was keen to share the aims and objectives of the Secular Liturgies Network and Forum with Unitarian leaders and thinkers, since I was sure they would have a great deal to contribute to the Secular Liturgies project in terms of philosophy and theology, reflective practices and rituals, and in particular, in terms of lessons learnt from their long-standing models of community building around these things. I had planned to speak and then to lead a creative workshop but the Q&A lasted an hour and we ran out of time! I have included the transcript of my presentation (below) but since it is very similar to the transcript for my previous talk, I will focus here on some of the questions that followed and the responses I gave.

The Q&A

Does your network welcome people who have a belief in the transcendent?

Yes, we have people who believe there might be something more than what we can sense, explain and understand with our limited bodies and minds but they are not dogmatic, superstitious or proselytising about it. Some members talk of ‘God’ as a personification, metaphor or superlative for all that is good in the world, and others will use the word to point to what they call the great or infinite mystery of the universe. Some are agnostics, in that they are open to the possibility of something divine in the supernatural sense but do not believe we are able to make any certain claims about it. Those who have a traditional theistic world-view, such as evangelical, conservative or fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, Jews and so forth, tend not to be interested in our network.

I aim to be as inclusive as possible. After all, there is much we still have to learn about the universe and what we call reality. I think this is the wisest approach, since people’s beliefs are so varied and changeable. Even the most rational people have superstitious thoughts and beliefs at times, and in fact, many nonreligious people still have superstitious and dogmatic beliefs, a small minority of them even more so than some of the less superstitious and dogmatic of religious people. This is because our beliefs and how firmly we cling to them has a lot to do with our psychology and innate personality and not just with our religious affiliations or lack of them. It is why we sometimes meet dogmatic atheists and thoughtful, open-minded religious people. A small number of people with no religious affiliation may still be very superstitious, and there are people who are very religious for whom superstition is a fairly limited part of their understanding of day-to-day events. Given the many nuances of belief and its often transient nature (and not forgetting all the contradictory people who attend spiritualist, Christian or other churches once a week but for the rest of the time act as if they don’t believe any of it), it is important to accommodate a range of people with a variety of viewpoints, albeit within a firm ethical framework that safeguards human rights.

In the light of what you’ve said, wouldn’t it be better to use the phrase ‘leaving behind rigid religious structures’ rather than ‘leaving behind dogma and superstition’ so as to be more inclusive? And, what about including people who aren’t rational, and making sure you don’t leave lots of people behind?

It is difficult to find language that communicates one’s meaning perfectly to absolutely everyone. The problem with phrases like ‘rigid religious structures’ and others that have been suggested to me is that in an effort to be more inclusive to one particular group, they end up excluding even more people in other groups, either that or they move into territory that is so vague as to no longer really communicate much at all to anyone. The phrase ‘leaving behind rigid religious structures’ may mean something to those religiously affiliated people who are beginning to do exactly that but it won’t mean much to the majority of church/mosque leavers who are fed up of exactly dogma and superstition, nor will it mean much to the millions of people who grew up or are growing up in nonreligious homes, many of whom see the appalling spectacle of fundamentalist religion around the world and fear for the future. The emphasis on leaving behind dogma and superstition is clearer and better communicates what we are about – education and scholarship, historical criticism, excellent science and so forth – even while we are open-minded, and to a point, flexible in accommodating the irrational aspects of our human natures. Most people understand that dogmatism and superstition are a major problem for humanity, even though they may, consciously or unconsciously, indulge in some of it occasionally themselves!

We need to be inclusive at grass roots in welcoming everyone into our communities, and treating everyone with respect and kindness, but equally, we need to be vigorous in teaching people, including and especially children, to think critically, to be aware of and to question their assumptions, and to get at the truth through reason and experimentation. As I said in my talk, reflective practices can help with this. People should be discouraged from taking the easy way out, by turning to supposed ‘revelation’, or in other words, by turning to religious dogma and superstition. Given the dangers that we face today with fake news, false information in general and the rise of extreme political and religious ideologies, this has never been more urgent. Rather than being tempted to dumb things down in community-building work, which can also be rather patronising and underestimates people’s capacity for understanding, it is worth trying to raise our society up. I must also make the point here that we should still have a great deal of respect on a personal level for those people who are superstitious or more traditionally religious but who nonetheless are doing a lot of good work for social justice, sustainability and so forth, even while we do not share their theology.

Given what you’ve said about the range of human belief and personality, as editor of Secular Liturgies, how do you decide what to publish and what not to publish?

Firstly, I am committed to maintaining the highest standards in terms of the quality and accuracy of submissions. I send pieces away for peer review if they are not in my field of expertise. However, the questioner was getting at what I include in terms of the beliefs expressed rather than in terms of the quality of the material itself. My view is that a good editor doesn’t just publish pieces that fit perfectly with their own opinions on everything, or just those submissions which appeal to them personally. I don’t have to like and agree with every single statement in a piece. As long as a piece has appeal for the network more widely and is compatible with the overall principles and goals of the project, it may express beliefs and views that are not necessarily those of the editor. I want to be challenged, after all, along with my readership, and I trust that people can think for themselves and don’t need me to provide an excessively strict filter. Therefore, I provide a framework within which there is plenty of room for exploration, challenge, and questioning.

The framework is nonetheless strong. Submissions have to be compatible with our key values and goals as expressed in my presentation. Just to illustrate with a couple of examples: I turned down a philosophical essay someone submitted, even though it had some philosophical merit (in places), because its entire emphasis was on undermining the idea that there is anything that could be said to be true at all. This piece was critical of religious truth claims but it also, along with its author’s accompanying message, was a clear (though unsuccessful) attempt to undermine our commitment to knowledge gained through reason, scholarship and science, and as such, I could not publish it. On the other hand, I do accept works in which authors express some nondogmatic beliefs in supernatural (or essentially mysterious) things, which I may not share. For example, in Connor Hansford’s recent piece of creative nonfiction, he expresses deep scepticism about the traditional Christian conception of a supernatural deity but he also mentions he has a belief in a “higher power” or “energy”, and in the ability of his ancestors to watch over him. I do not consider such beliefs to be harmful, or his work overall to be incompatible with our values and goals, since he is clearly not being dogmatic, superstitious or proselytising about his beliefs.

Why did you choose the word ‘secular’ for your project?

After a lot of market research, I decided ‘secular’ was the word the largest number of people were comfortable with. After all, in the UK, we are used secular spaces, with the separation of the state from institutions of faith. I liked the way that the word ‘secular’, rather than dismissing religious faiths altogether, implies a multi-faith as well as a nonreligious approach, therefore accommodating a greater range of viewpoints. This seemed very apt for a project that welcomes religious progressives alongside humanists, and which takes inspiration from the insights and practices of all faiths and philosophical traditions. Secular spaces have a neutrality about them, while also providing for everyone a firm framework of universal secular values based on reason, human rights and compassion. Statements of secular values are different from ideologies because the values are underlyingly universal, based on reason and evidence regarding human needs and wellbeing. They benefit and appeal to all humans, even while overlaid beliefs such as religious beliefs may sometimes suppress them. Secular values protect fundamental human rights and freedoms, ensuring all individuals are treated as equals, whether they be religious or otherwise, and thus they include the protection of every individual’s right to worship whatever they like as much as their right not to worship anything at all.

Can’t we end up being dogmatic about secularism?

It is a common mistake to think secularism and liberal values are just one more exclusive and dogmatic ideology. There is a tension of course, when individual human rights trump the rights, for example, of a religious group to practice their faith, but in such cases, there has to be evidence that a faith practice is harmful to certain individuals, and in societies where there is no large majority faith, the very existence of religious groups depends on the state upholding people’s individual rights to gather and worship as they please, against oppressive (or potentially oppressive) dominant groups and cultures. Ultimately, the choice we have in all societies, is between human rights based on liberal and secular values, or a tyranny of whatever the dominant political or religious ideology happens to be.

You mentioned the need to tackle issues of intellectual property. What is your approach to the use of objects, rituals and other heritage borrowed from other cultures?

I am very much for openness and reuse on condition that the context from which the ritual, object or work has been drawn is explained, understood and respected, and where authors and creators (either individuals or groups) are attributed.

(See my article on ethical re-use at https://secularliturgies.wordpress.com/2016/04/28/june-2016-exhibition-alert/, which also links to other helpful resources on ethical re-use.)

You say that you want to build bridges between the different progressive groups. Why don’t progressive groups cooperate and collaborate more already?

Ironically, there is a tendency for some progressive leaders to be overly dogmatic and to work only with those who agree with them on absolutely everything. There is also the perennial problem of the human ego, and the fact that some people like to build mini empires and wrongly view other progressives as competition. These are universal human problems! I aim to model a very different approach with the SLN&F, and you will get a clear sense of this open, reflective and self-critical attitude from what I publish. The reality is that no one group can do everything well, and so it may prove more useful to encourage the flourishing of a variety of movements and organisations with similar values and goals – which may come together on occasion – rather than to aim at any kind of deeper merging of movements. The SLN&F is looking to build bridges across groups and organisations and to look for potential for deeper collaboration on various projects but I am also aiming to support diversity rather than to push for any kind of uniformity.

The issue of community building is a really thorny one. Roger Ray, our guest speaker at the recent Secular Liturgies event, talked much of its importance for people’s health and wellbeing, and I totally agree. However, community building remains a very difficult thing to do in practice. It is enormously time consuming and endlessly frustrating because of all the facets of human psychology and behaviour we have been discussing. I am hoping to learn much from your experiences of fostering progressive community within your churches and congregations.

Recently, I found the time to reflect on my own vocational priorities in the light of the need for both what I call ‘priestly’ community builders and ‘prophetic’ publishers – those who do the day-to-day work of fostering community around shared rituals and those who read the times and question and challenge the status quo respectively. My current circumstances make it impossible for me to do both things well, and I find myself drawn primarily to the writing, speaking and publishing side of things, having an eye I’m told for original journalistic opportunities, good creative writing and for connecting up relevant research. I fully acknowledge, however, the great need for grass roots face-to-face community building, and while it isn’t my priority at the moment, I am willing to work in collaboration with others to create experimental progressive community where I live in Exeter. Part of my research, after all, has been to do with assessing the pros and cons of various community models and precedents, and it would be interesting to run some new experiments. I hope to work with Exeter’s humanists, Progressive Christians, Secular Buddhists and other existing progressive minded groups on this, if and when they are willing!

As someone who is sociable, while also being a little introverted (I enjoy being around people but need plenty of time alone to recharge my batteries) and as someone who has witnessed a great deal of petty squabbling and some more serious corruption in community settings, the prospect of community-building is a daunting one, and one that in our fragmented and technologically advanced society, seems almost impossible. However, we crave connection as much as we did in any previous age, and it is connection and shared experiences that make our lives meaningful. We are, after all, the most intricately social species on the planet, and possibly in the universe. Even the most extremely introverted humans crave that connection with others. Indeed, it is the loss of the community relationships we evolved to have, which is increasingly believed to be at the root of much mental illness and anti-social behaviour, not to mention the epidemic of loneliness and isolation. Therefore, we cannot give up on community and belonging, even while it seems elusive, and even while it’s construction and maintenance is fraught with difficulty and frustration.

Further Reflections on the Day

The question I had, which would have underpinned a creative workshop exercise, was one I left with the Unitarian ministers to think about in their own time. It ran as follows:

What could you contribute towards a Secular Liturgies Movement, firstly as Unitarians, and secondly, as individuals (in the following areas)?

  1. Philosophy and ethics
  2. Reflective practices and rituals
  3. Literature and other cultural heritage
  4. Creative writing and the arts
  5. Pastoral care and community models

I mentioned my plan to harvest answers to this question for an extended article to be entitled “An Interview with 30 Odd Unitarian Ministers!” I am discussing the possibility of this with the Rev. Dr. Claire MacDonald and hope it will come to fruition. I have also been encouraged to write a piece for The Inquirer, the Unitarian Magazine, so do look out for that. In general, I am looking forward to a closer relationship with our Unitarian friends as time goes on.

It was a delight to finally meet Claire, a Unitarian Minister and Thinker in Residence at the Live Arts Development Agency (London), after having met on Facebook some time ago when she came across my project and got in touch. It was inspiring to hear about the work and contacts she has in areas close to my heart – the spiritually and philosophically inclined arts, sustainability and progressive voices in Islam. I am very grateful for her invitation to speak at Harris Manchester College.

I am also looking forward to working with Paul Lindsay Dawson, a lay Unitarian leader at Westgate Unitarian Chapel in Wakefield, who suggested we hold a joint event there. It will be fascinating to see what grows from these connections. Exciting things are definitely happening in the progressive movement in general in terms of joined up thinking, connections between people and pioneering projects!

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Dr Anastasia Somerville-Wong with Rev. Dr. Claire MacDonald

On a personal note, I had the opportunity to spend two hours wandering around Oxford; peering through iron gates into green flower-lined quads and down the central tree-lined walkway of the city’s botanical gardens, leaning over bridges to watch students and tourists punting up the river Cherwell, circumnavigating Christchurch Meadow and its enthusiastic young cricket players, and soaking up the history in the corridors and gardens of Harris Manchester College. There was a striking photograph in one such corridor, of Gertrude von Petzold (1876-1952), former student of the college and pioneering suffragist, distinguished scholar and well-known speaker, and the first woman to train for the ministry in England – an intelligent looking woman with a determined expression (see below). I enjoyed doing some further research on her once I got home, as part of my ongoing re-discovery of our lost and hidden heritage; the history of great women.

Thus, my day in Oxford turned out to be rather like a pilgrimage, in which my physical surroundings, as they changed, and as my perception of them deepened, began to reflect, and find themselves reflected in, my own inner journey. The presence of Oxford’s colleges, those imposing institutions of learning, made me contemplate my misspent youth, and how I would love to be able to go back in time and tell my younger self not to worry so much about everything but to instead focus on my studies – it would have been healing as much as anything else. I eventually found the confidence and inner tranquillity to learn at full capacity but it was rather late, in my mid-twenties, when I started my doctorate. However, it wasn’t a negative feeling I had, or even really a regret, since the city made me equally aware and grateful for all the experiences I had had on account of a somewhat nomadic and unsettled youth, and of what a great deal I had learnt from them all.

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Gertrude von Petzold (1876-1952), photograph taken in 1904, at the start of her ministry in Leicester.

MOSA Conference Lecture Transcript

(Dr Anastasia E. Somerville-Wong at Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford, 26th June 2019)

Hello, my name’s Anastasia, and I’m Editor of the Secular Liturgies blog and up-coming Magazine. I’m delighted to be with you all at the MOSA conference, and am pleased to have the opportunity to introduce you to the mission and purpose of the Secular Liturgies Network and Forum of which I am also the founder.

A Post Religious Future

The idea for this Network and Forum grew out of my increasing concern that here, and in many other secularising nations, we lack a shared vision for a post-religious future.

If we are to succeed in building secular civilizations, which are culturally rich, sustainable, and resilient, we will have to invest a lot more in discussion, teaching and pubic engagement around secular ethics, and in the development of reflective practices that will help us to live better and more meaningfully without superstition and dogma.

British Social Attitudes Surveys show that religious affiliation has declined steeply and continues to do so. 50% of British people no longer identify with a religious faith, and many who do are non-practising, liberal or progressive. The percentage of 18-24yr-olds with no religious affiliation is significantly higher at 64%, indicating that rapid secularisation will continue.

Many nations are undergoing a similar transition. The world’s nonreligious are now the third largest group of humans, recorded as 16% of the world’s population in 2010, exceeded in numbers only by Christians and Muslims.

However, before we begin to hail the dawn of a new secular age, we must remember that birth rates are significantly lower among the nonreligious. Therefore, the percentage of world’s population which is nonreligious is actually getting smaller, and even in predominantly secular nations, while religious affiliation is declining, some religious beliefs, and superstition in general may not be. Movements in new age spirituality, Wicca, Modern Witchcraft and Spiritualism, for example, are gaining in popularity, especially among the young.

It is also true, however, that religious communities with high birth rates tend to be poorer with less access to education, so when it comes to power and influence, secular communities are likely to hold on to and increase their share.

The Secular Liturgies Network and Forum

In developed nations like ours, where traditional religion is rapidly losing ground, a combination of secular ethics and reflective practices has the potential to fill the void and provide a rational alternative to new age spirituality.

By the void, I refer to a proven decline in empathy and ethical engagement, a poverty and mediocrity of culture in some areas, and a lack of socialisation and social inclusion that has led to the epidemic of loneliness. These problems haven’t been caused by the decline in religion alone but the latter has certainly contributed to them.

While most of us here will be all too aware that traditional religious ethics, culture and community brought with it far too many of its own ills, there were aspects of faith and practice which instilled empathy and compassion, inspired great works of art and bonded people together in close community.

As a thinktank and creative hub, publisher and events pioneer, the SLN brings people together from across many secular, humanist and progressive backgrounds – to reclaim and repurpose the greatest insights and practices of the world’s faiths and philosophical traditions, to creatively express a common secular ethic, and to experiment with reflective practices that will enrich secular life and culture and make it more resilient.

The SLN publishes original creative works, including poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction, interviews with relevant experts/practitioners, and articles which communicate academic research to a wider audience.The first edition of Secular Liturgies Magazine comes out in Jan 2020, and will contain some of the best work submitted since I started the project back in July 2018. Some of these contributions will also feature in experimental liturgical events.

Our Network discusses secular ethics, reflective practices and nonreligious pastoral care. It is largely comprised of humanists, the nonreligious, and religious progressives from across many faiths and denominations. I have recently published interviews with a humanist senior chaplain who leads an NHS Hospital Trust, a humanistic Jewish Rabbi, a progressive Christian minister, a humanist funeral celebrant, and a spiritual director and pastoral supervisor in the Ignatian tradition. And, I am planning interviews with progressive Hindu, Muslim and Secular Buddhist leaders and practitioners. We also have a growing collection of original poetry and creative writing.

Our approach is inclusive and respectful of cultural and religious differences, as far as beliefs and practices remain compatible with the UN declaration of human rights and sustainability goals. After all, contrary to popular belief, values across communities of faith and unbelief are very similar, as is being revealed by the research of the Understanding Unbelief programme at the University of Kent. My approach is to emphasise what we have in common – universal human values – rather than what divides us.

The Nine Themes

Our secular liturgies and liturgical events are organised around the following Nine Themes…

  • Critical Thinking– truth, evidence, research, excellent science, responsibility
  • Good Life– character, empathy, wisdom, courage, virtue, kindness, compassion
  • Good Society– social justice, human rights, individual freedom, equality, democracy
  • Sustainability– our place in nature, green lifestyles, religious naturalism, biophilia
  • Health and Well-being– reflection, meditation, mindfulness, socialisation
  • Big Culture– cultural exchange, diversity, comparative philosophy/religion
  • Community– companionship, relationships, humour, fun, friendship
  • Life-Cycles– birth and coming of age celebrations, weddings, funerals
  • Seasons– annual and seasonal events following a secular calendar

Reflective Practice and CPD

Let’s take a moment now to look a little more closely at reflective practice…

Reflective Practice is a key part of CPD cycles for practice-based professionals, those such as teacher-educators and learners, leaders across industries, health professionals and environment or sustainability managers. Reflective Practice is the ability to reflect on one’s actions (and indeed one’s thoughts and one’s experience of the world) so as to engage in a process of continuous learning.

In reflective practice we pay attention to ourselves, noticing our assumptions, noticing thought patterns. By doing this we are empowered to change what we see, and even to change the way we see.

Many models of reflective practice have been created to guide reasoning about action. Those of you who have received or delivered workplace training in reflective practice will be familiar with names like Borton, Kolb and Fry, Argyris and Schon, Gibbs, Benner and Wrubel, Brookfield and Johns,Somerville and Keeling…

In the David Somerville (no relation of mine) and June Keeling model, as an example:

They suggest actively seeking feedback in the workplace, asking yourself and others what you and they have learnt that day, identifying accomplishments and areas for growth, viewing experiences objectively, empathizing aloud, recording your thoughts, feelings and future plans (in, for example, a journal), looking for emerging patterns, planning for the future, and creating your own future by combining the virtues of the dreamer, the realist, and the critic.

For many nonreligious people, these activities are no longer part of normal life, especially outside the workplace, and may indeed seem superfluous. However, for religious people, these (or similar) social and reflective activities are positively encouraged and integrated into the cycles, seasons and gatherings of religious life.

While we might not share the dogmas and superstitions of traditional religion, many of their institutions and traditions instil useful habits of reflective practice. These practices help us to discern what matters and what doesn’t matter so much, what is meaningful and why, what to love and what to hate… They attend to the life of the mind – to morality and virtue, to wonder and creativity, and to personal growth in knowledge, wisdom and character.

Reflective Practice in History

However, while scholars may have found precursors of reflective practice in ancient texts such as Buddhist teachings and the Meditations of Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, they have barely begun to scratch the surface of all the lessons in reflective practice that the world’s many religious and philosophical traditions can provide.

Indeed, almost everything that is good in religion, or in so-called spirituality, is to do with rituals that facilitate individual and communal reflective practices.

We can learn, for example, from the way that religions give meaning, narrative and purpose to cultural heritage and the arts. Religions are able to connect almost everything we come across in life with our moral sense and with our identity, our loves and our losses…

The Philosopher Alain de Botton has done some important work in this area. He points out how our museums and galleries often fail to engage and inspire us because they fail to exhibit their art works and artefacts in ways that make them relevant to the passions and purposes of their visitors. I highly recommend his book Religion for Atheists and his TED talk on Atheism 2.0. I would add that museums fail, therefore, to reflecton their collections in ways that make them meaningful to us.

We can also learn a great deal from the way religious organisations conduct their reflective gatherings (for example, their liturgical services), and from their varied and reflective approaches to pastoral care. We can learn from the way they mark rites of passage, lifecycles and seasons and from the way they give meaning to our travels in pilgrimage. We can learn from their approaches to the scheduled or habitual contemplation of our actions and experiences, through journaling, prayer, meditation and the mindful or imaginative reading of texts.

Examples of Reflective Practice

For example, prayer may be seen as a form of reflective practice, like journaling or blogging, rather than as a real conversation with a supernatural being. The person who prays puts into words and a new context (sometimes a public context in religious services) their feelings and thoughts about the things they have heard about or experienced. In the process, they reflect on this information and experience in ways that can change their own attitudes and behaviours over time.

The production of creative works is also a form of reflective practice, since our creations arise from our observations, impressions and reasoning about what we experience of the world, of reality, of life and humanity.

Secular Liturgies as Reflective Practice

Thus, the process of creating secular liturgies is itself a form of reflective practice, as much as reading or hearing them is a means to facilitating reflective practice. By Secular Liturgies, I mean the writings and other expressions, such as rituals, meditations and creative art-forms, which are read or take place at private or public secular liturgical gatherings.

Secular Liturgies arise from and encourage reflective practice. They explore, celebrate and convey secular values, values of compassion, truth, freedom, equality, courage, tolerance and responsibility. They capture and communicate the latest information and research that can help to advance well-being and alleviate suffering. They make secular cultures more resilient in difficult times, and inspire us to meet our global challenges.

Secular Liturgies: A Broad Concept

While Secular Liturgies include, more obviously, writings and readings which are morally and/or intellectually instructive. They also include words, exhibitions and activities, which are indirectly helpful to us by creating spaces for reflection or socialisation, or by creating rituals which can instil healthy habits, practical wisdom and critical thinking.

“A story, a poem, a dance, the process of painting a picture, a journey, a piece of music, a period of silence, and even the shipping forecast- these may all be described as liturgy!”

Liturgies in Daily Life

‘Liturgical moments’ can of course be integrated into everyday life. They define and reinforce the values, goals and cultural identity of groups, from the tattoos and graffiti of youth subcultures, to the word-art found in the homes and workplaces of the aspirational classes. Therefore, the SLN explores ways of incorporating elements secular liturgy into home, working and leisure environments. We are thinking, for example, about the role of places, spaces and buildings in influencing (and being influenced by) liturgical events.

Our thinking is also informed by people such as Thaler and Sunstein, the Nobel Prize Winners in economics, whose famous book “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness”, explained how environments can be created which positively influence human behaviours without us even being aware of it.

Goals of Secular Liturgy and Reflective Practices

So, the goals of our secular liturgies, reflective practices and secular liturgical events are to help us to do the following

Firstly, to question, learn and overcome our cognitive biases…by cognitive biases I mean of course the gap between how we ought to reason and how we actually reason. No doubt you’re familiar with the ground-breaking work done in this area by another Nobel Prize winner in economics, Daniel Kahneman, which you can read about in his book Thinking Fast and Slow.

Another goal is to help us engage with, teach and instil secular ethics. Reflective practices demand honesty, freedom, tolerance and equality, secular and humanist values, which often stand in contrast to those of religious power structures.

Secular Liturgies and liturgical events also help us to better appreciate the natural world and our place within it, in contrast with the way traditional religion so often sets us apart from our natural origins and even from the needs and pleasures of our bodies.

Secular liturgies and liturgical events enable us to enjoy our most pleasurable and health-giving psychological states; emotions such self-transcendence, mindfulness, wonderment, awe and love, which lead to positive changes in our thinking and behaviour.

And secular liturgies and liturgical events cultivate empathy and compassion for others, through the understanding of ourselves and humanity that comes from sharing stories and building relationships and community through meaningful socialisation.

A Diverse Network

The SLN connects those with shared values and goals but often very different cultural backgrounds and identities.

Our network consists of humanists, atheists, agnostics, free-thinkers, sceptics, the nonreligious, the ‘spiritual but not religious’, Unitarians, British Quakers, liberals from other denominations, and members of progressive religious reform movements such as Progressive Christianity, Progressive Hinduism, Progressive Islam, Humanistic Judaism and Secular Buddhism.

Together we can learn so much more about other cultural perspectives and gain a far better perspective on our own cultures. We can draw immense wealth from the repositories of culture and reflective practises that those from the progressive streams of the world’s faith and philosophical traditions can provide.

A ‘Big Culture’ Approach

We therefore take what I call a ‘big culture’ approach. This is a critical approach which sifts the golden nuggets of wisdom from the world’s philosophical and religious traditions, in terms of both their thinking and practice, leaving dogma and superstition behind.

We have to ask ourselves which parts of our inherited cultures – the literature, the objects, the rituals and traditions – conform to our secular values and goals, and which must be consigned to museums and archives? We must navigate through controversial issues of cultural remix and cultural appropriation, intellectual property and respectful reuse, and the engagement of marginalised heritages. I am especially keen to showcase aspects of marginalised heritages in our SLN events.

Progressive Religious Reform Movements

The Progressive Religious Reform Movements are ideally placed to offer up to wider society the positive and useful aspects of the faiths out of which they have arisen.

They have left dogma and superstition behind and are currently going through a process of repurposing their stories, traditions and rituals, and finding a new purpose and place in society. They are passionate about retaining, and indeed, reclaiming, the philosophical insights and practical wisdom they have inherited.

This is something the keynote speaker at our launch event on the 8thof June at Exeter Central Library explored in greater depth. Our keynote speaker was the Rev. Dr. Roger L. Ray, founding pastor of The Emerging Church and author of Progressive Faith and Practice and Progressive Conversations. His sermons reach an audience of several thousand through podcast and video and can be found on iTunes under the title Progressive Faith Sermons and on YouTube on the channel CCCSPRINGFIELD. Unfortunately, there was a problem with our camera mic on the day but if you have good hearing or sound boosting technology, do check out the recording of his talk, which is linked to from the 9thJune blog post on the event. He is shortly giving a similar talk in the US, which he intends to record, so there will be a better video available soon.

Call for Submissions

Finally, how can you get involved? How can you take part in this exciting mission? Well, apart from keeping an eye out for our experimental liturgical events which will be advertised via the website and social media, you can…

Join us in writing secular liturgy and choreographing innovative liturgical events along the Nine Themes.

You can send us your secular liturgical extracts, poetry, short stories, personal accounts and other creative nonfiction, short dramatic scripts and extracts, short films, art-works, music and cultural heritage content and objects.

You can submit articles relating cutting-edge academic research in relevant fields.

If you are a practitioner in a relevant field I would love to interview you!

And you can join our FB Forum and real-life Forum thinktank meetings, where you can… share ideas for readings from original creative writing, established novels, poetry, works of philosophy and other literature, and share ideas for reflective activities for secular liturgical events (e.g. new or adapted rituals, meditations, art-forms, films, community feasts, tea ceremonies, dance routines, multimedia, art exhibitions, songs, musical compositions and cultural heritage objects of the real or digital kind)

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Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford


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My Week with God by Connor Hansford

It’s day one of my monastic getaway and I am sitting on an ordinary bench in a very extraordinary garden. I started to get interested in gardening before I entered the monastery, so I am able to identify some of the flowers I can see: there are some foxgloves, alluring but deathly poisonous; below them, cosmos, blue and star-like; on either side of the path delphiniums, blue and fluted; in the grassy area near the entrance to the garden are bleeding hearts, so-named because they look like… bleeding hearts; on the wall roses, full and red. Walking along the gravel, past the media building and the plastic likeness of the exterior wall of the grand abbey church, I can see fuchsias and myriads of other plants and flowers whose names are unknown to me. I sit down heavily on a bench a few metres from the canal and watch the midges and the pond skimmers dance and fritter in the setting sun. It is May, a week after submitting my final piece of coursework for university, and this is Buckfast Abbey – a nineteenth-century Cistercian abbey built on the site of a much older Cistercian abbey that was destroyed by King Henry VIII during the dissolution. That is to say his troops destroyed the original abbey: the King himself was busy fighting the French and impregnating various notables, then chopping off their heads. I think, as I listen to the birds and the far-off tumult of the River Dart winding its way to the sea, “God, I miss my family.”

Have you ever gone to a National Trust property – Chartwell, say, or Coleton Fishacre, both absolutely gorgeous houses – and thought, “I wish that screaming kid would fall in a pond and drown”, or “Christ, I wish those old buggers on the veranda would stop talking about Brexit and just piss off”? Me too. Well Buckfast Abbey feels rather like a dream in this regards: there are no bored children, no Conservative old biddies, no amateur historians declaring that they know this, that and the other: no, there is just peace. And it’s really pissing boring.

It’s my first night at Buckfast, the air is fresh and warm and filled with the sounds of birds and water, so why am I crying like a demented person? For the past three years Plymouth, with its hideous post-WWII architecture and myriads of overwhelming crazy people, has driven me almost to distraction. Couple this with two irritatingly masculine housemates, two rats and a leaking lead valley, and by the time I arrive at Buckfast I’m just about ready to drop. The monks’ gardens to the rear of the abbey church offer me a private sanctuary where I can shove off these mortal coils and get to grips with learning the names of birds and trees using the two Collins guidebooks I recently bought from Waterstones. The food, frugal but sufficient, is nice and filling: the window in my room is leaded so that when I peer longingly out over the wide drive leading from the abbey proper to the monks’ gardens, I feel like a Daphne Du Maurier heroine awaiting the return of her handsome piratical lover. And that’s precisely the problem. My boyfriend, Glenn, isn’t here.

Glenn and I have been together for two-and-a-bit years. Undeniably there are times when I wish he’d shut up and vice versa, but his absence from this place of peace and beauty is troubling to me, so troubling in fact that I start to violently weep. The reason: this place is like heaven, except its perfection is prohibited by the absence of my beautiful boyfriend and my lovely mum, Ria. A few days later, in the monks’ calefactory (or common room), I tell the administrator (interim abbot) who looks, incidentally, like a schoolmaster from a Kingsley Amis novel, “Surely a part of a thing’s wholeness, its perfection, is our capacity to share it with those we love”. I’m paraphrasing. The administer smiles knowingly, then says: “Sometimes even I miss turning to someone else and saying, ‘isn’t this beautiful?’”. That sums it up nicely. The gardens here are heavenly, Eden-like if you prefer, but the reason why Adam was not alone in The Garden was because perfection is attained through shared experiences, and because he needed to get a leg over in order to create the human race. Apparently. I love my boyfriend and my family, without whom even Eden seems… incomplete, imperfect. Incidentally one wonders how God – if he exists – could possibly oppose homosexuality when my first thought upon entering the monastery is: I miss my boyfriend. So there’s that.

Another reason why I went to Buckfast was because I thought that technology was having a negative effect on my mental health. I read a book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, and it got me thinking: maybe I should delete my social media right now, maybe just maybe Facebook and Twitter and Instagram are the reasons why everyone feels so depressed all the time. I think that’s a part of the reason, but I think there’s more to it than that. My bedroom at Buckfast had in it a walnut writing desk, a single, squishy bed, a wardrobe and that’s it. There were plug sockets, so I could charge my phone, but no Wi-Fi signal, so I was required to turn on my 4G, except when I was out and about. The accoutrements of most hotel bedrooms were noticeable by their absence: a TV, for example, and a clock radio. There wasn’t even a hairdryer: all the drawer of the bedside cabinet contained was a likeness of the Virgin Mary. Ditto the walnut writing desk and the mantel above the fire: the Virgin Mary, it seemed, was a common theme, to the chagrin of the trio of Anglican lay preachers who were also staying at the abbey. Apropos of my tearful revelation in the garden and contra to my misgivings about social media, my smart phone proved to be an invaluable bedfellow during the wee small hours when my enthusiasm was at its lowest ebb and I was beginning to wish I had brought something cheerier than John Wyndham’s The Chrysalidsto keep me entertained for the remaining six days of my stay. Social media, I determined, can be a problem, but it is also, first and foremost, a blessing. Without regular contact with Glenn and Mum, monastic life would’ve driven me quite loopy.

A couple of weeks prior to my stay, I wandered phoneless through Plymouth Central Park: I was alone and unimpeded, save for two aforementioned Collins guidebooks on trees and birds respectively. I looked down from observing a squirrel in the branches above me and saw two young people walking towards me, their heads bowed in supplication to their glowing mobile phones. At the time, I remember, I smiled wryly: my smile, innocent though it seemed, was, underneath, mocking and superior, as though I had never walked underneath a tree while idly checking my emails, etc. They could have been twins awaiting news about an ill relative, or students waiting to hear back about a job, or they could just have been on their phones for no other reason than because that’s what they happened to be doing at that particular moment. Who cares? As I said, without my phone, monastic life would have driven me quite loopy. I enjoyed the monks’ gardens and the walk along the River Dart, and these experiences were not tinctured by my phone. It is not the presence of these technologies that causes anxiety, but rather an absence of nature and the outdoors: I was calmer at Buckfast than I had ever been before. Why? Was it because God was in that garden?

Ah, God. I went to Buckfast for two reasons: firstly I wanted some peace and quiet where I could get on with some creative writing away from the distractions of Plymouth, and modern life more broadly. And secondly, I wanted to connect with something Other. In the car on the way to the abbey I told Glenn and my chauffeur for the duration, Josh, that the trick with experiences like this was to go into them open-minded, but not too open-minded. The man who is too open-minded may never leave a place like Buckfast: he may get swept up in the Latin and the theology and attribute his feelings of peace and oneness to a benevolent higher power, like the monks. This is a fallacy, in my opinion. I should like to make this clear: unless a person’s religious beliefs threaten to negatively impact my life or the lives of people I love, I think people should feel free to believe what they like. I judge not the monks of Buckfast for committing their lives to a rigorous and immovable schedule of eat, pray, pray, eat, pray, sleep, but it is worth remembering that gentlemen like these have a vested interest in self-validation. This was the phrase that came into my head as I followed the swirling robes of Brother Daniel into the monks’ calefactory after lunch on the third day. Just because a man is old and dresses a certain way, that does not mean that everything he says is gospel. As the administrator administered me with a cup of too-pale tea, I recalled the notorious Milgram Experiment in which participants electrocute other participants on the orders of a malignant experimenter, dressed in a white lab coat. As in Milgram, so in Buckfast.

“I felt more spiritual as a walked towards the abbey doors yesterday evening and saw the setting sun through the trees than I did in the church itself,” I told the administrator sternly. He smiled warmly and told me this was symptomatic of spiritualism “with a small ‘s’”. People, he said, are attracted to spiritualism “with a small ‘s’” because it’s easy and doesn’t demand anything of them. This, I am afraid, is bollocks. My family are descended from the Cree tribe of Native Americans, wherefrom derives my own spirituality and many other things besides. Native American cultures demand, first and foremost, that people respect nature: on this account, Christianity has been scandalously lax. “If there is a God,” I told the administrator, and this is a bloody massive IF, “then he is in the trees, the shrubs, the plants – God is not white stone, or gold, or what have you. You can’t find him by sitting in a draughty church listening to ten old men singing in Latin. If you want to know peace and harmony, you have to get outside.” I didn’t say that in as many words, but it’s what I think. The monks at Buckfast attend six services each day. This means that each of the 152 psalms is consumed over a period of one week. Guests of the abbey are not required to attend any of these services, except midday prayer, which takes place in a small chapel in the abbey cloister. There is one monk, an old man who cannot walk except by using a walker or a stick, who suffers from acute arthritis and deafness. As a consequence, he often shouts, “Oh dear”, even though his is a mostly-silent order and sounds of any sort reverberate like gunshots  in the heady stillness of the monks’ enclosure. On one occasion, another monk grimaced hatefully when his brother oh-deared during midday prayer, even though the service concerned love and charity and forgiveness, and I thought: what an absolute crock of crap. How can you preach love and kindness, then scorn an elderly gentleman for daring to exclaim during prayer-time? Bollocks to it. I looked at the crucifix on top of the altar and thought: that is nothing more or less than some metal, moulded to look like a cross. I was gripped, suddenly, by an unfamiliar clarity, as though a veil had been lifted and I could see the world clearly for the first time. One of the other guests, Keith, told me that the point of Latin mass was not to listen to the words, or to try and understand, but to allow the words and the melody to wash over you like a river. This, I reflected, was also bollocks. Some of the singing was relaxing, but not more than a song by Enya, or a ditty by Bieber, depending on your personal preference. And as for not understanding, it doesn’t work like that. If you represent an ideology and you want people to engage, then at the very least we should be able to understand what you’re saying, even if we are unable to understand what it means.

Another of the guests, Peter, told me that it was inevitable that the Holy Bible was replete with historical inaccuracies, after all the thing was put together piecemeal years after the fact. “What does it matter?” he asked. It does matter, of course it bloody matters, because if you can’t even get the facts right, then why the blazes should I entertain any of this other crap about angels and the devil, etc. And why oh why do all likenesses of Jesus resemble a hipster at a festival? He wasn’t white, he was from the Middle East. Peter tells me that Jesus’s likeness was borrowed from the Roman’s representation of the sea god Neptune, which reminds me: I’ve recently read Mythos and Heroes by Stephen Fry, and there are loads of similarities between Greek myth and Christian myth, Pandora’s box and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for example. Coincidence? Obviously bloody not. Brother Daniel related the sad tale of monasteries that had been ransacked for non-existent gold, monasteries that heretofore provided essential alms and other supplies to the poorest people of the parish. Poof! Gone. Sad, true, but sadder than the Native Americans who were slaughtered for being savages? Sadder than the so-called pagans whose temples and beliefs were supplanted by this new and truer way of thinking? Not to my mind. And who can forget the innumerable sexual assault charges brought against members of the Catholic faith? Not I, that’s for certainty. Theists will say, “But of course it’s not perfect, nothing’s perfect”, but there is such a thing as being too imperfect, and to invalidate Native American spirituality in the way of the administrator is tantamount to a religious hate crime.

I thought that monks possess a kind of secret cookbook, which helps to prolong their lives past the bounds of reason: this, of course, is not so. The food I ate at Buckfast – trifle, spaghetti Bolognese, soup – is no different to ours: the difference, insofar as there is one, lies in the way it is consumed, frugally and in silence. Guests of the abbey are permitted to get up only once during the course of a meal. They then have to keep pace with the monks, or risk being stared down for failing to masticate fast enough. Lunch, the main meal of the day, is served hot by one of the monks in a Jesus-like display of humility and supplication. The feeling of fullness I experienced at the end of each meal was not linked to magic or to God, but to science and the fact that you will feel fuller for longer if you concentrate on eating, thereby synergising mind and body in recognition of the fact. Likewise, regular mealtimes aid digestion: obvious, right? There is no ‘the secret’. I came away from Buckfast calmer than when I entered, not because of God or a lack of technology, but because of the garden and the Eden it provided for creatures of all kinds: birds, bees, foxes, even spiders. I believe in a higher power and the ability of friends and family to stay and look over us even after they are gone, but I do not believe that this power, this energy, is any more accessible inside a church than it is outside in the garden. More and more I find myself drawn back towards so-called paganism: indeed, one of the guests, another Peter, confessed that a former member of his congregation left after receiving the cold shoulder following the death of her pagan husband. She asked Peter how “those people” could preach love and tolerance, then turn their back en massewhen she needed them the most. Religion does not make you a good person, nor does atheism make you an immoral person. If you do your upmost to be good and kind and tolerant and open-minded, then that’s enough for me, and if you’re going to worship anything, worship the Earth as my ancestors did. People spend their lives wondering: is it just Earth that provides or God as well, and for what? Meanwhile our time on this beautiful planet passes swiftly by with scarcely a “thanks for dropping in, see ya!” So make the most of your time on this earth and treasure what’s important, because the grass isn’t always greener on the other side and nothing lasts forever. And, whether religious or not, be kind to each other, for who’s to say the kid on his phone isn’t anxious or depressed, or that that ditzy shop assistant hasn’t just lost a loved one. The monks are right about one thing: the world is indeed filled with cruelty and evil, but it’s worth putting up with these things for all the good in it, so make the most of it, and if you ever stay at a monastery take more than one bloody book!

Connor Hansford

Connor Hansford is a stage-three English with Publishing student at the University of Plymouth who aspires to become a professional book editor like his hero Maxwell Perkins. Additionally, Connor hopes to one day start a small press in his home town of Dorchester where he also hopes to work on his golf swing and angling skills. Connor runs the University of Plymouth Journal INK and a WordPress blog which he updates sporadically called Memoirs of a Snowflake. Connor is a Quaker who is descended from a long line of Cree Indians.


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An Interview with Jenny Lloyd

I was delighted to have the opportunity to interview Jenny Lloyd on her work as a humanist funeral celebrant (accredited by Humanists UK). As rapid secularisation in the UK continues, humanist celebrants like Jenny are leading the way in creating life-cycle events within a humanist framework. Jenny specialises in funerals, while other celebrants endorsed by Humanists UK specialise in weddings and naming ceremonies, or a combination of these three types of ceremony.

Dr Anastasia E. Somerville-Wong, Editor of Secular Liturgies

Jenny Lloyd

Jenny had a career in education from 1970 to 2006, with a four year break (1975-1979) to bring up her daughters – returning to work when her husband took on the role as primary parent. Jenny taught secondary English and media studies and was head of an English department before moving into the advisory service with Devon Local Education Authority in 1989. As an advisory teacher and then as an advisor, Jenny worked in schools alongside secondary teachers (and later primary teachers), writing and trialling materials, training teachers, and reporting to headteachers, the local authority and the DfE.  Jenny took leave of absence in the mid 1990s to do an MA in Children’s Literature, and returned to lead the National Literacy Strategy in Devon and then the Secondary English Strategy. On retirement, Jenny trained as a humanist funeral celebrant in 2007 and started practising in 2008.

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Jenny Lloyd

1. What inspired you to become a humanist funeral celebrant?

Someone who I’d worked with on a community arts project suggested that I train in 1998 when the British Humanist Association (now Humanists UK) was looking for more people to become celebrants in Devon. I’d recently been appointed to a big job (leading the National Literacy Strategy for Devon Local Authority) so I couldn’t consider it but I knew that she’d given me the idea for what I could do in retirement (from 2006).  She did me a big favour.  I’d collected oral history from Exonions in the 1970s and knew I was able to give people a voice to tell their stories.  That oral history work was inspired by Charles Parker who collaborated with Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl on the BBC Radio Ballads – the central premise being that everyone has a story worth telling.  That was my inspiration.

2. What kind of training did you receive?

Five days, including two weekends, with BHA celebrant trainers. This involved practical exercises, including speaking, writing, listening, questioning, presenting; problem solving and exploration of tricky situations (e.g. ways of responding to requests for religious content); exploring the nature of humanism and our understanding of it; input on the scope of the work; practical guidance for family visits and leading funerals including music, readings, structures, language. The final weekend involved one day based in a crematorium for role play funerals with coffin, a behind the scenes tour of the Crematorium and a role play burial.

We also had four written assignments based on case studies with feedback, worked with a mentor (going on family visits; observing funerals), observed funerals by other celebrants, and were expected to do continuing professional development every year and be peer reviewed every three years.

3. What is your approach to funeral planning with a bereaved family?

I note the details of the person who has died (generally, though not always, received from a Funeral Director) and the main contact (generally a family member). I ring to make an appointment. I then prepare my blank page notebook with my checklist[1].I am there to listen. I need to be in a position to write a ceremony (or help the family write it) which captures the life and personality of the person and evokes the memories and stories for the assembled family, friends, colleagues as they say their goodbyes.  I want to help them have a point of reference so they will continue to share memories and tell their stories after the ceremony. People often assume I knew the person well.

I establish how involved the family/friends want to be; how much work they’ve already done.  I often start with a family tree to get a picture of the family in my head. I tend to ask whether the person who has died was ill for long, to give the family a chance to tell me the story of their death if they choose to.  Sometimes this is told in great detail and needs to be said before they can move on to remembering their lives.

Generally, I give an outline for the ceremony[2]but stress that there are no ‘oughts’. If I am doing the main ‘tribute’ or an overview of the person’s life (before contributions from family and friends) I ask open ended questions about the person’s life.  I need to get a sense of the kind of person s/he was; their life; collective family memories and stories.  There is always a story to tell but when the family/friends can’t tell me much, I ask more questions to trigger memories and as a last resort ask, “Did they have a dog?”  Several times I’ve been able to find an appropriate animal or nature poem when the narrative is sparse. In these situations, I also ask if there is anyone else I can talk to.

I also need to gauge the tone for the ceremony from the tone of the conversation with family/friends: what emotional dimension to convey; level of formality. If the family are going to do the main tribute I need to get a picture of the person first hand from our conversation (rather than wait for scripts from contributors) so I can write the opening and closing words and get the tone right.

I end the conversation by going through my checklist (unless things are covered earlier).  I want the family to visualise the occasion and think about how they want to go in at the start; whether the curtains are to stay open or close.  The final questions are about the important words I use: e.g. “We are remembering, saying goodbye. Are we celebrating, honouring, paying tribute to….?”  The dress code question also helps me gauge the family’s vision for the ceremony: all black, dark colours, range of colours i.e. degrees of formality.

Sometimes the ceremony evolves over the period between the family visit and the ceremony. There might not be a formal committal.  Sometimes I just do the opening, committal and the closing words. Sometimes the tone is conversational or even a conversation round the coffin (within a structure which acknowledges time constraints.) Sometimes the planning is done over the phone and via email – always more difficult to judge the tone with long distance planning!

4. Do you have a humanist liturgy or liturgies you use or a set form of choreography?

There is a structure for humanist ceremonies, which is flexible and often adapted to suit different families/groups of friends:

  • Entry music (sometimes gathering music and then entry music).  Sometimes people choose to follow the coffin in; others choose to be in the chapel/hall before the coffin comes in and stand when it does.  In some chapels it’s possible to arrange for the coffin to be in position before people arrive.
  • Opening words
  • Thoughts about life and death(I generally don’t include this. I’m not there to preach.)
  • Remembering X (my terminology; often known as tribute(s) or eulogy)
  • Reflection, generally to music
  • The Committal
  • Closing words
  • Music to leave by.

5. What resources would you especially recommend for humanist funeral planning?

  • A collection of readings, poetry and prose, varied in tone and accessibility, from the popular to the more obscure, to offer families/friends, particularly for the committal i.e. short readings acting as words of farewell. Also useful to have (or to be able to find) are readings for particular interests e.g. gardening, wildlife, cycling, animals, sailing and the sea.
  • A collection of readings suitable for burials and woodland burials.
  • Some readings suitable for the deaths of babies and children and people who have killed themselves.

I was surprise in the early days that readings (apart from the one at the committal) are not generally of importance to most people.

  • A collection of images for the front page of the script presented to the family. I mostly use a generic abstract motif but use favourite flowers or other relevant images.  The script for the family must be well presented.  I give the family a copy/copies after the ceremony is over.
  • Knowledge of a range of music is helpful though not essential. I have often recommended a piece of music, particularly classical, when the family ask for guidance. I like to be in charge of the music and order it rather than the funeral director.  I can arrange edit points where needed and choose appropriate versions.  My musical knowledge has increased to cover genres I wasn’t familiar with before doing this work.

6. Do you carry out any secular/humanist rituals as elements of funeral services? If so, please describe them.

  • Standing when the coffin is carried in; standing for the committal, the formal goodbye; the family approaching the coffin at the committal or after the closing words to touch it, for a private farewell, to place a flower on the coffin. Often just the immediate family but sometimes everyone as they leave.
  • The committal is the most ‘solemn’ moment. I ask everyone to stand,  use a form of words and then read a short poem or piece of prose chosen with the family at the family meeting.  Then a pause before we continue.  I sit people down for the closing words.  Sometimes we play a piece of music instead of or as well as a reading.
  • When I leave, which I do during the final music before anyone else leaves, I stand in front of the coffin with a very slight bow of my head. I think of this an act of respect and my last connection with the person whose life I hope I have captured so that people present have made connections, said their farewells.
  • Greeting people before the ceremony and being present afterwards if anyone wants to talk to me. I don’t leave till the family go.

7. Since you do not offer hope of an afterlife, how do you bring comfort to bereaved relatives?

I emphasise the continuing bond between the dead and the living through shared memories and the stories the bereaved will tell about the person who has died. I talk about the ways people live on after their death through children, grandchildren etc; through what they have said, done, made, written (as appropriate); through the influence they have had; through their legacy e.g. of love and laughter; of passing on skills: DIY, gardening, cooking…..).  Pericles’ words from 5thCentury BCE are useful: ‘what we leave behind is not what is engraved on stone monuments but what is woven into the lives of others.’

From feedback which families give me, I know that they find the process of talking to me in preparation and the ceremony itself a comfort. People have written to thank me for giving them the opportunity to reflect on a life, and on the wonder of that life.

8. Do you help the terminally ill to plan their own funerals or do you only work with relatives after a death?

I have done a number of such meetings and subsequent ceremonies with terminally ill people.  I have also done ceremonies for people who want to leave a script behind when they die (they may have no family; want a non-religious ceremony but don’t trust the family to follow their wishes).  The script is often attached to their wills to make their wishes clear.

9. What are the greatest challenges and most rewarding aspects of your role?

  • Challenges:
    • The biggest challenge is when I discover that the person who has died was not liked or loved; this emerges during the conversation. It is very difficult to find the words to express such people’s lives.  I have found a form of words to do this.
    • Taking on the views of ‘combined’ or conflicted families. I share my draft script with the client (the person who has instructed the funeral director – sometimes a direct instruction from a client) but when they have shared this with others, coping with vetos on certain information is challenging along with negotiating a script which acknowledges and gives voice to a range of opinions.
    • Funerals for babies and children.
    • Funerals for people who have taken their own lives. I have to establish how explicit the family/friends want to be about what has happened (this has ranged from full acknowledgement of suicide; alluding to it; not mentioning it at all).
    • Murder: I have done one ceremony for someone who was murdered and for someone who murdered his wife.
  • Rewards:
    • Building trust with a family/group of friends so they talk freely. Telling the stories of people’s lives.  Making connections with a person or a family at an intense level culminating with the ceremony.  Feedback from people who appreciate what I’ve done.  Knowing I have made a difficult experience rewarding for the family.  Helping a family recall the person and helping with the continuing bond between the living and the dead.

10. How do religious attendees of humanist funerals respond to their experience?

People who have said they were Christians have volunteered various opinions: that they found the ceremony moving, with a spiritual dimension, serious, rather beautiful. The most negative thing (so far) was a thank you followed by a statement that they were Christians. Was the implication that my ceremony wasn’t legitimate?

11. While your clients are those who claim no religious affiliation, do some of them nonetheless have unorthodox beliefs in supernatural things or superstitions, which influence their approach to the funeral?

I have done a funeral for a spiritualist. Her friends painted a picture of her life, beliefs and involvement in spiritualism in their tributes but this did not shape the non-religious framing of the ceremony.

I am currently writing ceremonies for a couple in their eighties who are pagans. That part of their lives is covered in the narrative but the ceremonies are non-religious and not shaped by paganism.  They approached me through my website and through conversation with me established that I would represent their lives in a non-religious ceremony. They don’t want a pagan ceremony.

12. How do you think we as a society could learn to better cope with loss and the prospect of our own deaths?

I think we should talk about death in conversation but also be practical and arrange both powers of attorney for health and welfare and Advance Decision Directives.  Just completing these leads to conversations about dying and death.

These documents should be better known.  Advanced Decision Directives come in various versions, some of which are very complicated.  I recommend the version published by Compassion in Dying.  I think these documents should be better known, perhaps through lawyers/Financial Advisers where people have them; through GP surgeries; through day centres; through secondary schools perhaps part of the Personal, Social & Health Education programme.

I think children should grow up knowing that people die and use the language of dying.  There’s some good practice of making memory boxes for children when a close relation is dying or has died.  Don’t cover death up with euphemisms. I don’t understand why ‘passed away’ has gained so much currency. I use the words “died” and “death” in my scripts. Occasionally the clients change this to “passed away” and “passing” when they review the script I send and I have to respect this.

My husband John’s death, two years ago, has given me a perspective on dying and death which I didn’t have before he died (discussed below). We had sorted out powers of attorney for health and welfare but hadn’t got round to Advanced Decision Directives.  I have since completed my advanced directive.

13. What are your thoughts on assisted dying?

I am in favour of assisted dying. I often think that there has to be a better way to die when I hear searing experiences of painful and difficult deaths from my clients.

I also realise that assisted dying is not without difficulties. John was in terrible pain while dying of prostate cancer (locally advanced when diagnosed). Neuropathic pain caused when cancer metastasised to the lower spine is very difficult to control.

When it came to it, John didn’t want to die, certainly not before it was unavoidable.  He had found it very difficult to move from treatment over 10 years to palliative care for the last 6 months of his life when death became a reality. He knew that the cancer would kill him and often said so when the cancer was under control.  After it spread, he felt that the oncologist had abandoned him when palliative care took over.  The cancer had spread to his lower spine so his mobility was restricted; his response was to ask for exercises to keep mobile (as he’d done in the past when recovering from running injuries). I think that having to follow the advice that movement would trigger pain so avoid unnecessary movement meant he no longer had control.  On the other hand, I found his extreme pain very difficult to witness.  Would I have wanted an assisted death in his situation? It would have shortened his life by perhaps 4 months.


[1]Funeral Visit Checklist

Music

Tribute(s)

Readings

Coffin in e.g. follow in; seated before coffin comes in; coffin in position first

Reflection words (do the family want me to mention prayer here)

Committal: curtains (open or closed); reading/music

Thanks yous (if appropriate)

Donations (if any)

Gathering (if there is one)

Key Words

Dress Code

[2]Entry music; opening words; remembering X – i.e. tributes; music for reflection; the committal; closing words; exit music; readings may be interspersed throughout and more music.  Some ceremonies end with the committal.


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Secular Liturgies 2019 by Anastasia Somerville-Wong

Below is the script of my talk on Saturday for those who couldn’t make it!

Also, look out for the publication of my paper “Secular Liturgies” in the next edition of Secular Studies (a Brill international peer-reviewed academic journal which you can access online) for those of you who like something more in depth and want to know where I get all my facts and figures from!

Here’s a link to Roger’s talk and I will be adding a link to a video of mine in due course!

Evidence Based Faith:Haud Ignota Loquor (Speak not of what is not known)

I am grateful to all those who came and supported the event.

Secular Liturgies 2019: A Symposium on Secular Ethics and Reflective Practices

(Exeter Central Library, 8th June 2019)

 

Hello and welcome to Secular Liturgies 2019, a Symposium on Secular Ethics and Reflective Practices, organised by the Secular Liturgies Network and Forum.

Before our keynote speaker gives his address, my name is Anastasia, Editor of Secular Liturgies, and I’m going to introduce you to the mission and purpose of our Network and Forum.

A Post Religious Future

The idea for this Network and Forum grew out of my increasing concern that here, and in many other secularising nations, we lack a shared vision for a post-religious future.

If we are to succeed in building secular civilizations which are culturally rich, sustainable, and resilient, we will have to invest a lot more in discussion, teaching and pubic engagement around secular ethics, and in the development of reflective practices that will help us to live better and more meaningfully without superstition and dogma.

British Social Attitudes Surveys show that religious affiliation has declined steeply and continues to do so. 50% of British people no longer identify with a religious faith, and many who do are non-practising, liberal or progressive. The percentage of 18-24yr-olds with no religious affiliation is significantly higher at 64%, indicating that rapid secularisation will continue.

Many nations are undergoing a similar transition. The world’s nonreligious are now the third largest group of humans, recorded as 16% of the world’s population in 2012, exceeded in numbers only by Christians and Muslims.

However, before the hard-line atheists among us get too excited about the dawn of a new secular age, we must remember that birth rates are significantly lower among the nonreligious. Therefore, the percentage of world population which is nonreligious is actually getting smaller, and even in predominantly secular nations, while religious affiliation is declining, some religious beliefs, and superstition in general may not be. Movements in new age spirituality, Wicca, Modern Witchcraft and Spiritualism, for example, are gaining in popularity, especially among the young.

It is also true, however, that religious communities with high birth rates tend to be poorer with less access to education, so when it comes to power and influence, secular communities are likely to hold on to and increase their share.

The Secular Liturgies Network and Forum

In developed nations like ours, where traditional religion is rapidly losing ground, a combination of secular ethics and reflective practices has the potential to fill the void and provide a rational alternative to new age spirituality.

By the void, I refer to a proven decline in empathy and ethical engagement, a poverty and mediocrity of culture in some areas, and a lack of socialisation and social inclusion that has led to the epidemic of loneliness. These problems haven’t been caused by the decline in religion alone but the latter has certainly contributed to them.

While most of us here will be all too aware that traditional religious ethics, culture and community brought with it far too many of its own ills, there were aspects of faith and practice which instilled empathy and compassion, inspired great works of art and bonded people together in close community.

As a thinktank and creative hub, publisher and events pioneer, the SLN brings people together from across many secular, humanist and progressive backgrounds – to reclaim and repurpose the greatest insights and practices of the world’s faiths and philosophical traditions, to creatively express a common secular ethic, and to experiment with reflective practices that will enrich secular life and culture and make it more resilient.

The SLN publishes original creative works, including poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction, interviews with relevant experts/practitioners and articles which communicate academic research to a wider audience.The first edition of Secular Liturgies Magazine comes out in Jan 2020, and will contain some of the best work submitted over the course of the year. This work will also feature in our experimental liturgical events.

The Nine Themes

Our secular liturgies and liturgical events are organised around the following Nine Themes…

  • Critical Thinking– truth, evidence, research, excellent science, responsibility
  • Good Life– character, empathy, wisdom, courage, virtue, kindness, compassion
  • Good Society– social justice, human rights, individual freedom, equality, democracy
  • Sustainability– our place in nature, green lifestyles, religious naturalism, biophilia
  • Health and Well-being– reflection, meditation, mindfulness, socialisation
  • Big Culture– cultural exchange, diversity, comparative philosophy/religion
  • Community– companionship, relationships, humour, fun, friendship
  • Life-Cycles– birth and coming of age celebrations, weddings, funerals
  • Seasons– annual and seasonal events following a secular calendar

Reflective Practice in CPD

Let’s take a moment now to look a little more closely at reflective practice…

Reflective Practice is a key part of CPD cycles for practice-based professionals, those such as teacher-educators and learners, leaders across industries, health professionals and environment or sustainability managers. Reflective Practice is the ability to reflect on one’s actions (and indeed one’s thoughts and one’s experience of the world) so as to engage in a process of continuous learning.

In reflective practice we pay attention to ourselves, noticing our assumptions, noticing thought patterns. By doing this we are empowered to change what we see, and even to change the way we see.

Many models of reflective practice have been created to guide reasoning about action. Those of you who have received or delivered workplace training in reflective practice will be familiar with names like Borton, Kolb and Fry, Argyris and Schon, Gibbs, Benner and Wrubel, Brookfield and Johns, Somerville and Keeling…

In the David Somerville (no relation of mine) and June Keeling model, as an example: They suggest actively seeking feedback in the workplace, asking yourself and others what you and they have learnt that day, identifying accomplishments and areas for growth, viewing experiences objectively, empathizing aloud, recording your thoughts, feelings and future plans (in, for example, a journal), looking for emerging patterns, planning for the future, and creating your own future by combining the virtues of the dreamer, the realist, and the critic.

For many nonreligious people, these activities are no longer part of normal life, especially outside the workplace, and may indeed seem superfluous. However, for religious people, these (or similar) social and reflective activities are positively encouraged and integrated into the cycles, seasons and gatherings of religious life.

While we might not share the dogmas and superstitions of traditional religion, many of their institutions and traditions instil useful habits of reflective practice. These practices help us to discern what matters and what doesn’t matter so much, what is meaningful and why, what to love and what to hate… They attend to the life of the mind – to morality and virtue, to wonder and creativity, and to personal growth in knowledge, wisdom and character.

Reflective Practice in History

However, while scholars may have found precursors of reflective practice in ancient texts such as Buddhist teachings and the Meditations of Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, they have barely begun to scratch the surface of all the lessons in reflective practice that the world’s many religious and philosophical traditions can provide.

Indeed, almost everything that is good in religion, or in so-called spirituality, is to do with rituals that facilitate individual and communal reflective practices.

We can learn, for example, from the way that religions give meaning, narrative and purpose to cultural heritage and the arts. Religions are able to connect almost everything we come across in life with our moral sense and with our identity, our loves and our losses…

The Philosopher Alain de Botton has done some important work in this area. He points out how our museums and galleries often fail to engage and inspire us because they fail to exhibit their art works and artefacts in ways that make them relevant to the passions and purposes of their visitors. I highly recommend his book Religion for Atheists and his TED talk on Atheism 2.0. I would add that museums fail, therefore, to reflect on their collections in ways that make them meaningful to us.

We can also learn a great deal from the way religious organisations conduct their reflective gatherings (for example, their liturgical services), and from their varied and reflective approaches to pastoral care. We can learn from the way they mark rites of passage, lifecycles and seasons and from the way they give meaning to our travels in pilgrimage. We can learn from their approaches to the scheduled or habitual contemplation of our actions and experiences, through journaling, prayer, meditation and the mindful or imaginative reading of texts.

Examples of Reflective Practice

For example, prayer may be seen as a form of reflective practice, like journaling or blogging, rather than as a real conversation with a supernatural being. The person who prays puts into words and a new context (sometimes a public context in religious services) their feelings and thoughts about the things they have heard about or experienced. In the process, they reflect on this information and experience in ways that can change their own attitudes and behaviours over time.

The production of creative works is also a form of reflective practice, since our creations arise from our observations, impressions and reasoning about what we experience of the world, of reality, of life and humanity.

Secular Liturgies as Reflective Practice

Thus, the process of creating secular liturgies is itself a form of reflective practice, as much as reading or hearing them is a means to facilitating reflective practice. By Secular Liturgies, I mean the writings and other expressions, such as rituals, meditations and creative art-forms, which are read or take place at private or public secular liturgical gatherings.

Secular Liturgies arise from and encourage reflective practice. They explore, celebrate and convey secular values, values of compassion, truth, freedom, equality, courage, tolerance and responsibility. They capture and communicate the latest information and research that can help to advance well-being and alleviate suffering. They make secular cultures more resilient in difficult times, and inspire us to meet our global challenges.

Secular Liturgies: A Broad Concept

While Secular Liturgies include, more obviously, writings and readings which are morally and/or intellectually instructive. They also include words, exhibitions and activities, which are indirectly helpful to us by creating spaces for reflection or socialisation, or by creating rituals which can instil healthy habits, practical wisdom and critical thinking.

A story, a poem, a dance, the process of painting a picture, a journey, a piece of music, a period of silence, and even the shipping forecast- these may all be described as liturgy!

Liturgies in Daily Life

Liturgical moments can of course be integrated into everyday life. They define and reinforce the values, goals and cultural identity of groups, from the tattoos and graffiti of youth subcultures, to the word-art found in the homes and workplaces of the aspirational classes. Therefore, the SLN explores ways of incorporating elements secular liturgy into home, working and leisure environments. We are thinking, for example, about the role of places, spaces and buildings in influencing (and being influenced by) liturgical events.

Our thinking is also informed by people such as Thaler and Sunstein, the Nobel Prize Winners in economics, whose famous book “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness”, explained how environments can be created which positively influence human behaviours without us even being aware of it.

Goals of Secular Liturgy and Reflective Practices

So, the goals of our secular liturgies, reflective practices and secular liturgical events are to help us to do the following:

Firstly, to question, learn and overcome our cognitive biases…by cognitive biases I mean of course the gap between how we ought to reason and how we actually reason. No doubt you’re familiar with the ground-breaking work done in this area by another Nobel Prize winner in economics, Daniel Kahneman, which you can read about in his book Thinking Fast and Slow.

Another goal is to help us engage with, teach and instil secular ethics. Reflective practices demand honesty, freedom, tolerance and equality, secular and humanist values, which often stand in contrast to those of religious power structures.

Secular Liturgies and liturgical events also help us to better appreciate the natural world and our place within it, in contrast with the way traditional religion so often sets us apart from our natural origins and even from the needs and pleasures of our bodies.

Secular liturgies and liturgical events enable us to enjoy our most pleasurable and health-giving psychological states; emotions such self-transcendence, mindfulness, wonderment, awe and love, which lead to positive changes in our thinking and behaviour.

And secular liturgies and liturgical events cultivate empathy and compassion for others, through the understanding of ourselves and humanity that comes from sharing stories and building relationships and community through meaningful socialisation.

A Diverse Network

The SLN connects those with shared values and goals but often very different cultural backgrounds and identities.

Our network consists of humanists, atheists, agnostics, free-thinkers, sceptics, the nonreligious, the ‘spiritual but not religious’, Unitarians, British Quakers, liberals from other denominations, and members of progressive religious reform movements such as Progressive Christianity, Progressive Hinduism, Progressive Islam, Humanistic Judaism and Secular Buddhism.

Together we can learn so much more about other cultural perspectives and gain a far better perspective on our own cultures. We can draw immense wealth from the repositories of culture and reflective practises that those from the progressive streams of the world’s faith and philosophical traditions can provide.

A ‘Big Culture’ Approach

We therefore take what I call a ‘big culture’ approach. This is a critical approach which sifts the golden nuggets of wisdom from the world’s philosophical and religious traditions, in terms of both their thinking and practice, leaving dogma and superstition behind.

We have to ask ourselves which parts of our inherited cultures – the literature, the objects, the rituals and traditions – conform to our secular values and goals, and which must be consigned to museums and archives? We must navigate through controversial issues of cultural remix and cultural appropriation, intellectual property and respectful reuse, and the engagement of marginalised heritages. I am especially keen to showcase aspects of marginalised heritages in our SLN events.

Progressive Religious Reform Movements

The Progressive Religious Reform Movements are ideally placed to offer up to wider society the positive and useful aspects of the faiths out of which they have arisen.

They have left dogma and superstition behind and are currently going through a process of repurposing their stories, traditions and rituals, and finding a new purpose and place in society. They are passionate about retaining, and indeed, reclaiming, the philosophical insights and practical wisdom they have inherited. This is something our keynote speaker will no doubt explore in greater depth.

Call for Submissions

Finally, how can you get involved? How can you take part in this exciting mission? Well, apart from keeping an eye out for our experimental liturgical events which will be advertised via the website and social media, you can…

Join us in writing secular liturgy and choreographing innovative liturgical events along the Nine Themes.

You can send us your secular liturgical extracts, poetry, short stories, personal accounts and other creative nonfiction, short dramatic scripts and extracts, short films, art-works, music and cultural heritage content and objects.

You can submit articles relating cutting-edge academic research in relevant fields.

If you are a practitioner in a relevant field I would love to interview you!

And you can join our FB Forum and real-life Forum thinktank meetings, where you can… share ideas for readings from original creative writing, established novels, poetry, works of philosophy and other literature, and share ideas for reflective activities for secular liturgical events (e.g. new or adapted rituals, meditations, art-forms, films, community feasts, tea ceremonies, dance routines, multimedia, art exhibitions, songs, musical compositions and cultural heritage objects of the real or digital kind)

Where you can find us

Here are the details for our website and blog and online Forum.

Academics and practitioners from across disciplines are contributing to the blog at https://secularliturgies.wordpress.com/

You can also follow our progress and posts on our Facebook Page and participate in discussions on our online Forum

And don’t forget to write your email address in the booklet going around if you would like to receive the first edition of Secular Liturgies Magazine.

Rev Dr. Roger L. Ray

And now it’s time to introduce our keynote speaker, the Reverend Dr Roger L. Ray, founding pastor of The Emerging Church and author of Progressive Faith and Practice and Progressive Conversations.

Roger’s sermons reach an audience of several thousand through podcast and video. They can be found on iTunes under the title Progressive Faith Sermons and on YouTube on the channel CCCSPRINGFIELD.

Roger earned a Masters in Divinity and a Doctorate in Ministry at Vanderbilt Divinity School. He was also a 2004 fellow at Harvard Divinity School.

Without further ado, I hand you over to Roger Ray.

Evidence Based Faith:Haud Ignota Loquor (Speak not of what is not known)

(A link to the video of Anastasia’s talk is coming soon!)

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Dr Anastasia Somerville-Wong with Rev. Dr. Roger L. Ray and Rev. John Churcher  at Secular Liturgies 2019 (Exeter central Library, Exeter, UK, 8th June, 2019)


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Greatest Insights of the World Religions by Anastasia Somerville-Wong

Introduction

In August and September 2018, I published a series of articles entitled ‘Greatest Insights of the World Religions’, on the Secular Liturgies Network and Forum Facebook Page. These articles explored seven key insights of seven major world religions. They were the insights I believed were most relevant and useful to modern secular societies, keeping the Secular Liturgies ‘Nine Themes’ in mind. This article brings these Facebook posts together in a single piece.

Here is the line-up of faiths, in descending order of numbers of adherents (see the 2010 Pew Research Centre Study at https://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-exec/), with the date on which they were first published on the Secular Liturgies Network page on Facebook. I have also included a section on Reason and Enlightenment also taken from other earlier Facebook posts.

  1. Christianity: Costly Love and Forgiveness (4th August 2018)
  2. Islam: Constant Surrender (8th August)
  3. The Non-Religious: Reason and Enlightenment (19th September)
  4. Hinduism: One Substance, Many Faces (15th August)
  5. Buddhism: Freedom from Suffering (23rd August)
  6. The Folk Religions: Being Human (12th September)
  7. Sikhism: the Warrior Saints (29th August)
  8. Judaism: Speaking Truth to Power (5th September)

While we so often dwell on the negative aspects of traditional religion; its power and control systems, its religious elitism and ‘spiritual’ hierarchies, the dogmatism, the superstition, the psychological abuse and so forth, we often forget that the religions have still contained many ideas, insights and practices which have proven useful to humanity. They are, after all, systems of human thought and behaviour, which have been developed in multiple directions over thousands of years. It would be very cynical indeed to write them off entirely. Thus, the Network takes both an open and critical approach, which appreciates and repurposes the insights of all faiths and philosophical traditions, while acknowledging their weaknesses and flaws.

The philosophical perspectives and practical wisdom discussed below, stand independently of the other, less admirable, aspects of the religions. They are of as much use to atheists, humanists, secularists, religious progressives and the nonreligious, as they are to those who are still religious in the traditional sense. Indeed, I venture to suggest that we might make much better use of the beneficial ideas and practices that have developed in religious cultures.

Each religion has many useful insights and practices of course, but for the sake of brevity, I will focus only on the greatest of these, and on the insight which gives each religion its distinctive flavour.

1.   Christianity: Costly Love and Forgiveness

In the Christian faith, ‘God’ is love, and although, for most Christians, God is also a supernatural being and creator of the universe, ‘God’ may just as easily be defined entirely naturalistically as everything in reality which we hold in awe and wonder and should devote ourselves to, love being one of those things.  Perhaps the greatest insight of Christianity is that this ultimate reality, this divine love, is costly, sometimes very costly. It is certainly not a matter of the cheap sentiment to which the word is so often reduced. Jesus, the Jewish Rabbi who was posthumously made the ‘Christ’ of Christianity, came to lose his life because he loved his people, the poor of Judea, enough to risk everything in the struggle to free them from oppression, injustice and poverty. He hoped to save them from the political and religious authorities they were suffering under, but since he was powerless to liberate their bodies, his teachings focused instead on liberating their minds and hearts. Eventually, those political and religious authorities had him put to death.

Real love takes such risks. Rather than standing by in self-righteous judgement, it gets its hands dirty in the political and business affairs of human life. It has the humility to acknowledge its mistakes and failings, and the tenacity to keep on trying to do better. True love stands the test of time, enduring many troubles, and resists the temptation of excess, during times of prosperity and privilege. Real love is generous with time and money, taking pleasure in the success and happiness of others. It is forgiving of its own and other people’s weaknesses. Jesus may not have ‘died for my sins, to save me from the wrath of God’, or to ‘guarantee my entrance into heaven’, but the way he chose to live his life is nonetheless, a fine example of the kind of love to which I aspire.

Though I may not be a ‘Christian’, in the sense of believing a certain set of doctrines, I do still occasionally wear a hidden cross because it reminds me of ALL those who have truly loved to the point of great personal sacrifice, and of the many who have died for their cause or their people. The cross belongs to us all. It reminds us of what this love really is that we all crave so much both to give and to receive – a love that requires empathy, sacrifice, forgiveness and struggle, and which, when it achieves its noble ends or is reciprocated, makes our suffering and pain in this world worthwhile.

Another word we hear Christians use a lot in addition to ‘love’ is ‘forgiveness’. However, many Christians become confused about what it means to forgive. What results, is a kind of cheap notion of forgiveness, the sort of cringe-worthy forgiveness so many Christians talk about in the wake of tragedies. This kind of forgiveness requires those wronged to say and act as if they have ridden themselves of all negative feelings towards (and even been reconciled to) those who have done them wrong, even when the wrongdoer is unrepentant, and even when the wrongdoer continues to harm them and others. This is not real forgiveness. It is, however, a very damaging act of self-deception.

True forgiveness, of the kind that Jesus taught, is far more costly. It requires us to fully acknowledge our pain and anger at how we have been harmed and accept it as justified. We must refrain from denying and suppressing it in unhealthy, dishonest ways. It then requires us to learn how to voice and release our hurt and anger in ways that will lead to our healing and the healing of those around us. It requires us to view a perpetrator as a human, just like us, with weaknesses, flaws and delusions, and subject from the moment of conception to machinations of the universe beyond the control of any living being. It requires us to plumb the depths of their pain as well as our own, and to mourn over their damaged mind, broken life, and slavery to negative emotion, as much as we mourn over our own. It requires us to look at ourselves, and the times we have wronged others, and to reflect upon how we should forgive because we would like others to forgive us. Jesus wasn’t sitting in an armchair in the developed free world, pontificating about how others ought to forgive! He was poor, his life was in danger, and he was engaged in a constant struggle to understand why his world was so full of suffering and injustice and to find some sense of peace – an inward acceptance of things and people as they were – while simultaneously trying to change them for the better.

In very serious cases, it will only be psychologically possible (and morally acceptable) to forgive in the fullest sense, when a person is no longer abusing or harming us or those we love, and when they are repentant and remorseful about what they have done. There are also crimes, which many people may rightly feel are ‘unforgivable’, even while they may still work to release their negative emotions for the sake of their own health, and even though they may uphold a system which leaves it to a neutral judge to decide that person’s punishment and fate. No onlooker has the right to judge victims in such cases and expect them to forgive. Surely, the only right action in tragic cases, such as those where a heinous crime has been committed, is to help victims to channel their pain into actions that will give them a sense that they can at least begin to heal, and that their lives can still be full of meaning and love in spite of their continued suffering.

While a costly forgiveness may, in time, lead to us being free from negative emotions towards people who have done us wrong, it certainly does not require us to be reconciled to them. On the contrary, it may require that we keep well away from a person indefinitely, for the sake of the health and wellbeing of ourselves and those close to us. We may still hope in such cases that the person may one day learn the error of their ways and seek forgiveness and friendship. Where a person hasn’t committed terrible crimes or serial abuse, one does not like to give up them entirely.

In general, we are now living in very unforgiving times. There is a lot of anger and hatred expressed both in the real and virtual environments. Everyone feels aggrieved in some sense or another and wants their pound of flesh, and no one will be satisfied until they have it – and even then, they will not be satisfied! The old saying that unforgiveness is much more harmful to the victim than the perpetrator rings true here. It is also true that much hatred these days is woefully misplaced. The wrong people are repeatedly blamed for the wrong things, such as we have seen with the scapegoating of immigrants. We are also living in times where a minor transgression or difference of opinion between strangers, acquaintances, friends, colleagues, neighbours or even family members, that once might have led to a brief hostile exchange that was just as quickly forgotten, may be enough to send one or more parties into a rage and hatred that never really dies.

I hope that humans will learn how to love and forgive again, in the costly way, and be much more understanding of one another’s fragile humanity and trivial differences. I hope that secular liturgical events will facilitate the practice of forgiveness in ways that will help us to heal inwardly, and help our relationships to heal. I hope that our secular values will help to bring about kinder, more honest, and more compassionate societies.

2.   Islam: Constant Surrender

Islam is the second most popular of the religions. It teaches that one must continually surrender every aspect of oneself to a greater reality they call Allah (God), who is said to be the ultimate truth and source of the universe. Its claim is that we find peace in this surrender, and that when we elevate ourselves over Allah, we suffer, and cause others to suffer. Muslims pray five times a day (Salat), reminding themselves constantly to surrender. Thus, Islam recognises the deep truth that we are weak, changeable, forgetful, contrary and ultimately flawed beings, and that we often do best when we continually surrender and devote ourselves to forces of good that are better and stronger than we can ever be as individuals, communities or even as nations.

The rituals and ‘legalism’ of Islamic practice is often criticised because far from encouraging humility, such practices often serve to instil a false sense of holiness or righteousness in followers. Religious authorities who assert themselves as the interpreters of God’s will, may use this emphasis on submission to tightly control and indoctrinate large numbers of people. However, the regular practices and rituals of Islam can equally be used to instil humility, and reflective, self-critical thought in followers. They have the potential to give ordinary people a space to cultivate greater autonomy over their own beliefs, through which they might challenge the powers that be. Whatever the original intentions of the Prophet Muhammad (about which there is much debate), there is no reason why Islamic practices should not be interpreted or reinterpreted in a positive way, and in a way, which eventually prevails as the essence of the religion.

Interestingly, the same principle of constant surrender to a ‘higher power’ lies behind the 12 Steps Programme for addicts and sufferers of eating disorders, and has a strong track-record of success in treating these conditions (though this course takes inspiration from Christianity rather than Islam). Frequently renewing trust in a force for good that we cannot ultimately control or infect in any way with our human madness, can free us from a great deal of anxiety and inner turmoil. This ‘letting go’ (copied in a secular context to some extent by the popular ‘Fuck It’ philosophy), allows our bodies and minds to heal of their own accord, since there really are beneficial forces at play in the world, many of them unconscious, like the body’s natural mechanisms to heal and restore itself.

Then there are of course the consciously beneficial forces of human-led movements, which demonstrate compassion and justice. We can support these more effectively if we have the confidence that whatever happens to them – whatever defeats or suppressions they suffer – the good that they endeavour to uphold, will never be ultimately defeated because it is somehow eternal. There will always be those willing to fight for it. It will always live on in someone, somewhere. When we focus our attention and practice dependence upon a good that is greater than ourselves – such as when we join with others in the struggle for a noble cause – we stop our constant pathological meddling with what is already fine as it is and should be left well alone, and we learn to direct our energies instead towards more productive and rewarding activities.

In spite of all that we see in the media about Islam’s fundamentalism, social conservatism and extremism, there are helpful ideas within its philosophy, which evolved to meet human psychological needs, and there is a great deal of potential for reform. More enlightened schools of Islamic thought have been dormant in recent years, persecuted and overshadowed by the darkness of fundamentalist forces, but they are yet being kept alive by some of the bravest and most admirable people on earth – minority Muslim cultures and Muslims seeking reform – and these are people who deserve our admiration and support. Islam is an optimistic religion, which chooses to trust that what is true and good is eternal, and I for one, will continue to hope that the light of a scholarly, egalitarian and compassionate Islam will one day shine into every corner of the Islamic world.

3.   The Nonreligious: Reason and Enlightenment

Religion is declining in Britain but according to a large study by the Pew Research Centre in 2010, 6.1 billion (or 84%), of earth’s 7.3 billion people, were found to be religiously affiliated (The Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan American fact tank, see http://www.pewforum.org/for details of the study). This number will have since grown, not so much because of conversion rates but due to higher birth rates in religious societies that outpace religious decline in, for example, Western Europe. There will also be those who did not claim religious affiliation but who still hold religious beliefs such as belief in God, and practice aspects of religion such as prayer. It is important to remember this because in spite of the inadequacies of these surveys, they do illustrate just how far we still have to go in terms of teaching the world’s children a rational approach to knowledge that will safeguard them against superstition, dogmatism and all the negative consequences of traditional religious belief.

And it really does have to be taught! The human mind, right from early childhood, is inclined to perceive agency where there is none and to explain what are essentially random/unconscious happenings as having been caused, willed, aided or interfered with by ‘persons’, whether mortal or divine. Children are alarmingly quick to believe in magical beings, and it is many years before they have enough experience of the world to be able, confidently, to differentiate fact from fiction. Their brains are statistical machines, which reason inductively, and which therefore need to process a lot of information before they can be convinced that, for example, the monsters people have invented, do not actually exist, and nor does the Tooth Fairy or Father Christmas. It also takes them longer than necessary to develop a rational approach to knowledge because of the fact that many adults confuse them with contradictory beliefs and behaviours. Many adults talk about supernatural beings on a regular basis and either suggest or state openly that these exist. This presents as evidence to the very young because, in general, adults tell them the truth, and in fact, in matters of both survival and flourishing, children rely on them to do so.

Billions of adults, in spite of having lived longer and experienced with their own senses that magical and supernatural beings do not exist and that miraculous occurrences do not happen, nonetheless still believe in them. They do so for several reasons. Some have a strong underlying desire to believe them and thus convince themselves of their existence because it makes life seem more interesting, exciting and eventful. Others go a long way to convincing themselves of the existence of the supernatural because belief in such things happens to be very convenient for them in furthering their cause, holding on to power or pursuing their selfish ends (hence why the greatest proponents of religion have usually been privileged males). After all, it would have taken an unusually humble person to be born a monarch but then not to believe in the ‘divine right of kings’! Getting others to believe in the supernatural makes them fearful, and this fear has proved throughout human history to be the perfect tool for influencing and controlling people, most often for the purposes of obtaining power, adulation, wealth and sex. Today’s supposed ‘faith healers’ are a prime example of this kind of deception, often combined with varying degrees of self-deception as well.

Then there are the many adults who believe in the supernatural because they have experienced something strange or coincidental that they cannot explain with the limited number of natural processes they are aware of. Consequently, they put these experiences down to supernatural interference. While an adult may be able to reason deductively that one, add one, equals two, the same adult may find in incredibly difficult to get their head around anomalies, statistical complexities and advanced science. They will often find it much easier and much more convenient to lay the praise or blame for anything unusual on a divine or devilish being. The tabloids of course depend on the average person’s poor grasp of statistics, since they use numbers in ways which deliberately stir powerful emotions that have an addictive quality – sensation sells!

Others believe in the supernatural because it is their only hope after all other solutions or cures for their ills have been exhausted. Whatever the reasons, belief in the supernatural arises from flawed assumptions, and from the weaknesses, imperfections and cognitive biases of our human brains. The insight that they are all flawed presents us with our greatest opportunity for evolution yet. If the majority of the world’s population can learn to think critically, to be aware of their cognitive biases (and how to overcome them) and their innermost desires, and if they can learn to manage their emotions so that their judgments are not so often clouded by them, the world would surely be a much better place. If artificial intelligence can help humans to achieve this, without harming us in the process, then the more the better.

Reason does of course have limits (at least as a tool used by humans). After all, one can reason one’s way into a dystopia, as so many religious fundamentalists do, by developing an internal coherence to their world-view which makes sense as long as no one questions the erroneous assumptions on which their world-view is based. This is why it is important to point out that our emotions and intuitions can sometimes guide us to more reasonable behaviour and more reasonable conclusions, when our heads have become hopelessly muddled. I have met so many people who have left conservative or fundamentalist religion, not because they first reasoned their way out (though that came later) but because they felt increasingly uncomfortable with elements of dogma and/or practices based on dogma that were overly harsh or cruel or biased in favour of one type of person or another. Occasionally, even a dogmatic hard-liner will, when faced with carrying out a cruel act his beliefs require of him, experience pangs of human empathy and possibly refrain from carrying it out. Sometimes our emotions can help us to remember a higher reasoning, in this case, one which understands that acting mercifully to others will make for a better world for everyone, including ourselves and our own loved ones. A higher reason remembers that cruelty brings no lasting benefit to us – or to the people we care about – because it does harm to our own psychology, and if we ‘live by the sword’, so the saying goes, we will die by it. Thus, reason must take our emotions into account because our emotions might be revealing something about ourselves or the world that we have forgotten or failed to noticed.

In a previous article, I wrote about now we might indulge, in a managed sort of way, in our irrational natures, through literature, music, and the arts in general – where we can explore worlds of the imagination. We might also bask in the ‘specialness’ of our liturgical events, expressing our sense of awe in all sorts of literary and ritualistic ways. However, all of us need to learn to better understand our emotions and irrational natures, and the reasons why we have evolved this way, so that we can use our feelings, desires and consciences as useful cues and reminders, without letting them get the better of us.

Meanwhile, scientific reasoning, while it may allow us to travel in space, also allows us to make bombs that can destroy our whole planet and humanity along with it. This is why it is so important for our species to understand its own mind (with all its cognitive biases), and its own history, cultures and philosophies, and to be able to apply this knowledge and wisdom to our scientific endeavours. The humanities have been undervalued in recent times, and standards or opportunities for education in subjects like languages, literature, history, politics, philosophy and economics have in some schools and colleges dropped significantly below what they should be. Meanwhile, STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) have been placed on a pedestal and given priority in terms of funding. It is my view that we create this imbalance at our peril.

Only a robust education in the humanities, and a thriving arts and culture sector, can give us the perspective and understanding of ourselves that we need to steer our future endeavours, including our scientific ones, in the right direction. If development in STEM is not matched worldwide by cultural and ethical development, then our future, indeed our very survival, will become increasingly untenable. Some would argue that it is already too late, that we have put economic growth before culture, ethics and wellbeing for so long that our environment has been destroyed and is now beyond salvaging. Our ability to make and sell ever more stuff, and our inability to put people before profits, may well turn out to be our undoing.

4.   Hinduism: One Substance, Many Faces

Hinduism, is the world’s oldest surviving religion, a religion that has evolved over millennia, and which contains numerous schools of thought and divergent traditions. It is primarily concerned with the ways in which we might understand and connect with the deep essence of humanity and the universe, that which is eternal, and beyond our thoughts, feelings and memories. This ultimate reality, truth, or divine essence, is known as Brahman (God), and Hindus believe that within each of us, is a spark of this eternal essence, which one might call ‘soul’ or in Sanskrit, ‘Atman’, who is the ‘unseen seer’ or the ‘unthought thinker’ (Advaita Vedanta tradition). While on the surface, human beings and other living creatures are individual and finite, our true natures are part of an infinite, divine and eternal reality.

The distinctive genius of Hinduism, its sophisticated polytheism, is often mistakenly thought to be its greatest weakness by adherents of the younger, monotheistic traditions. The latter tend to see themselves as having moved beyond polytheism, to a more enlightened understanding of the divine. Hindus, however, understand that precisely because (on the surface at least) we are finite beings who are limited to specific times, places and capacities for understanding – not to mention swept along by changing circumstances that we cannot control – we can only interface with one, or a mere few, aspects of the divine at any one time. We are also highly social beings who relate to persons and therefore need to personify those eternal qualities we call ‘God’. As physical beings who relate to the world through our senses, we can only gain knowledge of this ‘God’, or ultimate reality, through images, smells, sounds, tastes and textures, and as emotional beings, we are moved more by poetry and other literary conceptions of divinity, than some abstract idea, argument or doctrine of ‘God’.

It is this same insight, which later inspired the development of Trinitarian theology in Christianity, especially with regard to the human incarnation of God, Jesus Christ, who made the indefinable YHWH of Judaism more visible, tangible and relatable. It is the reason for the proliferation of saints and the near deification of Mary in Roman Catholicism, and the reason why Catholic and Orthodox Christians pray before icons and statues. However, Hinduism has by far the most incarnations and expressions with its 33 million ‘Gods’, and, in some estimations, its thousand or more Hindu festivals, not to mention its multitude of rituals, many of which are extraordinarily elaborate.

A Protestant/Reformed Christian who has endured a bad relationship with his/her father (or other male authority figure), may struggle his/her whole life with the idea of God as ‘Father’, and a human born female in such a culture, with its stark gender distinctions, may never fully relate to the male conceptions of God in the monotheistic traditions. However, a Hindu may turn to female representations or incarnations of divinity, Gods conceived of as sisters, mothers or simply as powerful women. While there are Gods such as Brahma (the Creator) and Vishnu (the Preserver), there are also Goddesses such as Saraswati (Goddess of learning, wisdom, speech, and music) and Lakshmi (Goddess of good fortune, wealth, and well-being) and many, many more Gods, enough perhaps, to appeal to every individual and section of society. The essence of God in Hinduism is not constrained to one conception of divinity that will invariably reflect the dominant, most privileged gender or class of society, though of course in practice, there is considerable bias towards male forms, with male gods being the most powerful and important in popular culture, reflecting the dominance of men in Indian society.

Thus, the Hindu Gods represent many different aspects or faces of the divine or eternal, though these Gods and their backstories inevitably reflect the prejudices of the societies that invented them, and often serve to reinforce the endemic class and gender stereotypes and prejudices in Hindu societies, not to mention superstitious thinking! However, the panoply of Gods does help millions of people to remember important principles and re-commit to the pursuit of noble goals. They also help people to comprehend and express eternal truths in physical ways, through daily rituals, seasonal festivities and frequent pilgrimage. After all, we are physical beings and need to engage our bodies as well as our minds, if we are to truly experience or understand anything at all. Some Western religious and philosophical traditions are very good at rationalisation but less good at this holistic approach to human learning and expression.

Followers of Hinduism can choose to approach the eternal by contemplating the representation or personification of divinity that they can best relate to, depending on their specific circumstances, needs and yearnings. They can choose an object of devotion to suit their state of mind, family heritage, or simply, the whim of the moment. They can be limitlessly creative in their own representations of the divine, even incorporating other people’s deities, prophets and saints into the pantheon, and into the family or community shrine. It is no wonder that Hindu cultures are some of the most colourful and diverse on earth.

5.   Buddhism: Freedom from Suffering

In the previous section we looked at Hinduism, which is often said to be more of a shared culture (arguably containing many religions) rather than one distinct religion. The word ‘Hinduism’, after all, is used in the West as an umbrella term to refer to almost all the schools and traditions of philosophy, belief and practice, which developed in South Asia, and which are seen to share certain characteristics. This week we will look at Buddhism, which also developed in that region before spreading Eastwards but which is often (especially in the West), thought to be more a philosophy than a religion because it is better known for its distinctive way of thinking about the world rather than for a statement of belief or sacred text. This worldview (or the basic teachings of the Buddha), are summed up in the Three Universal Truths, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path (The Dharma).

However, in many of the traditions of both Hinduism and Buddhism, adherents do share much in common with those of the Judeo-Christian traditions, including belief in the supernatural and accompanying superstitions, ritual practices, deference to religious authorities/hierarchies, sacred places for worship, prayer and devotion, and therefore, many of the things that we think of when we use the term ‘religion’. In fact, in many parts of the world, in spite of the philosophy and teachings of the Buddha, Buddhists tend to have a far more ‘enchanted’ view of the world than, for example, many Christians in the post-enlightenment West. The difference is that while practising Hindus and Buddhists (in general), focus primarily on ‘rightness’ of their practices (orthopraxy) rather than on doctrine, and the ‘rightness’ of their beliefs (orthodoxy), practising Christians and Muslims are more concerned with the latter.

Interestingly, as an aside, the extent to which a person is either open-minded or dogmatic about their religious beliefs and practices is now thought to be more closely linked to personality traits, some of which are innate, than to the specific religion or culture they grew up in. Therefore, while a naturally ‘binary’, rule-driven person will become unbearably strict and intractable if his/her culture and religion is conducive to it, he/she will still, in an open, liberal society, find some way to be dogmatic, even if it is just about football or the proper way to wash dishes! Equally, a more questioning and subtle thinking person born in a strict religious culture is likely to be one of those who keeps out of religious leadership affairs and either complies with the hard rules to survive, while being a little creative with any other rules, or takes a stand and becomes a reformer. This certainly rings true in my experience – some people are just naturally more dogmatic and/or superstitious than others. Of course, in this series, we are putting the superstitious and dogmatic aspects of religions to one side for a moment, and considering only the important insights that remain relevant to modern secular societies.

Buddhism’s greatest insights are about the universal nature of suffering (Dukkha) and the means with which we can free ourselves from it. It asserts that all life is suffering, since we constantly experience cravings for what we do not have, desires to change things that are, and attachments that compel us to cling to things that are changing. Thus, we do not accept the universe as it is. Our minds are very often in the past, plagued by regret and anger, or in the future, tormented by anxiety (all those ‘what ifs’), and yearning. We find ourselves often weighed down by grief over loss, saddened by the ills of the world (or simply by its imperfections), consumed by physical pain, or seething with jealousy towards those who have more. Even when our minds are relatively peaceful, we are never entirely free from an underlying discontent. Even our happiest moments are tinged with an ‘uneasy feeling’, partly overshadowed by a sorrow in the background, or brought to a sudden end by an intrusive sense of impending doom.

The suffering we experience is not, in Buddhist thought, the result of original sin, or a fallen world, or the just punishment of God for human disobedience – though many Buddhists do believe that misfortunes of birth are due to evil deeds in past lives, and many do believe in the interference of malevolent spirits. Rather, suffering is due to a lack of control over our minds, our thoughts and our emotional states, something that will continue to ruin our chance of happiness, unless of course, we practice meditation. In Buddhism, the practice of meditation is the key to freeing ourselves from suffering and from a cycle of death and rebirth.

The techniques of mindfulness meditation can bring our minds back to the present so that instead of resisting what is, we come to an acceptance of it, and of the fact that we, like everything else in the universe, are changing, impermanent, and swept along on a tide of thoughts and emotions. By focussing on the present, and on the reality that we can immediately experience with one or more of our five senses, we can become aware of our internal chatter, which is often at odds with reality, and thus gain some perspective on it. By watching a flame, or drawing our awareness to our own bodily sensations, such as our breath (or whatever works for us), for longer and longer periods, we can learn to gain this perspective much more often. Then, we can begin to direct our thoughts and emotions increasingly towards a position of neutrality, remembering that much of what goes on in the world is, in a deep sense, random, and completely indifferent to our wellbeing.

More advanced meditations can help us to replace negative thoughts and emotions with positive ones. Some have complex visualisations, in which, for example, we imagine negative emotions leaving us as dark smoke from the tops of our heads, or in which we imagine the compassion of Buddha opening like a lotus flower within our hearts. As we practice meditation, we get better and better at noticing when our mind and emotions wander from our neutral focus on the things ‘are’ around us, or from our positive visualisations. We become more expert at gently bringing our thoughts back to the object of focus, until eventually, we are able to maintain a state of calm alertness and positive focus in ordinary daily life.

In Buddhist philosophy, we are not born sinful but are corrupted after birth by the evils and ignorance already in the world around us, which makes us desire things that are not in our real long-term interests. This begs the question of whether the Buddhist practice of acceptance encourages Buddhists to acquiesce in the evils of the world. However, the reality is that Buddhists do believe they should act in ways to bring an end to the ills and injustices in the world but that they should start with themselves, in the belief that by surpassing the ‘self’ and demonstrating the benefits of this, others will follow their example, and eventually, the whole world will become a kinder, more compassionate place. This partly explains the ascetic lifestyles of many Buddhist monks and nuns, in which they set themselves apart from wider society with its distractions and temptations, and it explains why Buddhists do not generally proselytise in the more aggressive manner of Muslims or Christians.

Buddhists uphold a more controversial belief that the practice of meditation can eventually lead to an end to our suffering, and bring us to a state of liberation or enlightenment. Some Buddhists have claimed that the Buddha and certain senior monks have achieved such as state, though many Buddhists would disagree with them. Science has shown that there are beneficial physiological changes, which can be brought about by meditation, such as reduced cortisol (stress hormone) levels, and that with frequent and prolonged meditation, some of these benefits can be maintained to some extent in ordinary life. However, it is highly debatable, as to whether anyone can truly free themselves from all suffering, or whether anyone can maintain a permanent state of compassion towards others and themselves (or even whether they should!).

There is a substantial body of evidence, however, to support the benefits of mindfulness meditation for mental health. Indeed, it is recommended by NICE as a preventative treatment for those with recurrent depression. It is also recommended by GPs, used in workplaces and prisons, and now in schools, where it helps children and young people to manage anxiety and depression, and calms the behaviour of children with ADHD.

Thus, Buddhism, not only reminds us of the universal nature of suffering, which is a rather bleak but accurate picture of the world, but it also provides us with tools to alleviate our suffering and to keep our minds healthy, peaceful, and resilient, in spite of our troubled and chaotic world. Meditation is definitely a practice that secular societies should embrace, and which should form an important part of our secular liturgies, especially liturgies written specifically for events to do with health and wellbeing. Literary ‘meditations’, guided meditations, and meditative activities or mindful rituals, such as the Tea Ceremony and Thai Chi (so not necessarily activities that are purely Buddhist!), can be easily integrated into secular liturgical events for both their health-giving and aesthetic properties.

6.   The Folk Religions: Being Human

Our focus now moves to an insight that all the folk religions have in common, religions such as Taoism, Confucianism, Chinese traditional religion, African traditional religion, Spiritism, and many of the ethnic and indigenous religions. It is an insight into what it means to be both rational and irrational creatures. Every established faith also has its variants of folk religion because the impulses that underlie it are universal, e.g. folk Catholicism and folk Islam. Indeed, all the world’s religions grew out of folk religious feeling and practice. Folk religion, is the kind of religion, which springs naturally from our need to express our emotions and our irrational impulses, in ritualistic, oral and artistic ways, to suit our particular context and circumstances. Some of you will have read my posts on the ‘Rites of Passage’ series that was shown on ITV, presented by Grayson Perry, which vividly illustrated the universally human impulse towards folk religion, and showed that even in secular societies, where established or popular religion no longer exists, people still create their own religious beliefs and rituals at times of great joy or pain.

While we may rightly guard against superstition, and the dark undercurrents of fear, control and abuse that folk religion can inevitably bring with it, going to the other extreme of denying or suppressing our irrational natures proves unhealthy also. Instead, it may be wiser to manage this aspect of our being, by allowing ourselves some harmless indulgences that may provide temporary relief in difficult situations, through the release of uncomfortable emotions. For example, I may allow myself to act on a compulsion to pray for something I desperately need, or that I want so badly that I can hardly bear to be without it. One might do so, as if one believes some divine being were listening, and yet, for all other intents and purposes act on the assumption that no such being exists.

As I wrote in a previous post, even atheists have been known to talk to ‘God’ in moments of despair or other powerful emotion. In such cases, God, as an imaginary being, or personification of all that they value most in reality, provides a valuable moment of relief. After all, we use literary and self-help devices to trick the mind for positive purposes in all sorts of other contexts, in order to increase our happiness, confidence and success in life, and in order to cope with anxiety, danger, suffering and loss. Thus, I may place a picture of someone I love who has died on the wall, light a candle beneath it, adorn it with flowers, and speak to it as if the dead can hear, even while my rational mind knows that in reality, no one is listening. I may allow myself to wear a necklace that I wore in a time of good fortune, hoping it will bring me luck, even though my rational mind knows that such things have no power whatsoever, apart from the power to give me a momentary feeling of comfort or confidence. This last act is of course a great favourite among competitive sports people, and mascots and talismans in general, are still popular the world over for times of challenge and danger.

However rational we consider ourselves, we still desire to make the most emotionally significant moments in our lives special, and this impulse is at the heart of folk religion. Therefore, our marriages, births, deaths and changing seasons are punctuated by rituals, formal words, and often a ‘sacred’ significance. By ‘sacred’, we may simply mean filled with awe, self-transcendence, and a sense that something profound has taken place. These feelings underpin belief in the divine, as a supernatural entity, reality or presence, but they need not lead to such a belief. There are other ways of expressing such experiences, which do not imply such a being exists.

When we no longer experience these occasions of shared celebration and ritual, we lose much of the company of others with all the pleasures that brings, and we lose valuable opportunities to connect and bond with others. A vital means of facilitating face-to-face social interaction is no more. We also lose a wealth of personal and collective memories, a richness of culture, language and the arts, and a sense of personal and collective identity and purpose. Principles, both personal and collective, also erode in isolation from community. In modern, secular societies, we have already suffered a great loss in these areas, and it was partly a sense of this loss, which compelled me to launch the Secular Liturgies Network and Forum.

Looking in greater depth at just one aspect of folk religion, ancestor worship, we discover how it is essentially a means by which humans cope with the death of loved ones and find a way of frequently remembering and expressing their love for those who have died. Through reverence for ancestors, humans learn to understand and remember their heritage. They become better able to pass on their history and the wisdom of several generations to their children. In contrast, in 21st Century developed nations, we have become very good at forgetting where we have come from, which may condemn us to the fate of repeating the mistakes of the past. Our lives are to some degree impoverished, in terms of our sense of identity and place in the world. Modern societies are so fractured and families so spread out that many of us barely knew, or barely remember our grandparents, let alone our great grandparents and more distant ancestors. We often live far away from extended family, and our cultures have normalised the nuclear family as their primary social unit. This is no doubt why, in recent years, there has been a resurgence of people of all ages researching their family trees, and watching programmes like the BBC’s ‘Who do you think you are?’, in an effort to rediscover their family history and cultural heritage. People sense that they have lost something basic to their sense of identity and purpose.

Meanwhile, those who worship their ancestors remember a great many things, often through oral storytelling traditions, though admittedly, some of it will be myth and legend, rather than true history. Mind you, even the myths and legends, can reveal a lot about our ancestors and what was important to them! The folk religious show far greater interest in their families and their community heritage and identity. A stronger identity is often associated with tribalism, and therefore with greater prejudice, conformism and small-mindedness but these things are not a necessary consequence of being aware of our heritage. We can learn from how the folk religious value the past as a major part of (and explanation for) what they are today, and from how they respect and care for the elderly, the purveyors of history, which is something we could learn to do much better, especially with our ageing populations. We can learn to take inspiration from our past, recognising both the strengths and weaknesses of our ancestors, and applying this knowledge in ways that would benefit us today.

7.   Sikhism: the Warrior Saints

It amazed me when I first learned that many people mistake Sikhs for Muslims. After all, I grew up in London where diversity was the norm, and no one I knew had any trouble distinguishing between different religions and ethnic groups. However, even so, my knowledge of Sikhism was limited to a few key facts. I was immediately able to recognise the Sikh turban, worn by both male and sometimes female children at my schools. I was intrigued, and I must admit slightly envious, of the sword they carried when in ceremonial dress, and I was aware that they worshipped in a Gurdwara, followed the teachings of Guru Nanak and believed in one God (monotheism).

I was also vaguely aware of the fact that their sacred text (The Guru Granth Sahib, compiled in 1604 by the 5th Guru, with contributions (many of which are poetic) from Sikh and Hindu gurus and Sufi mystics.) and doctrines were generally thought to be unusually egalitarian, largely because many of their predecessors had rebelled against the supremacy of the Brahmin priestly caste of Hinduism and against persecution at the hands of the Muslims during Mughal rule. It was no doubt their success as a mercantile class, and the fact many of them had also come from India’s military/warrior caste, the Khatris (just one bellow the Brahmins), which gave them the confidence to stand their ground.

However, I was also conscious of the fact that in spite of a theoretical equality of all people before God, men still played all the major roles in Sikh rituals and dominated the positions of spiritual/religious authority. Sikh communities also remained blighted by gender inequality, violence against women, female foeticide, and the endemic caste discrimination that was rife in the wider Hindu and Muslim cultures. Though there may have been the potential, theoretically, for a truly egalitarian religion based on the Sikh texts and teachings, it had not been realised, due to the social conservatism, inequality and wider patriarchal culture of which Sikhs were a part, and the consequential lack of a feminist interpretation of the religious texts. There remains a discord between Sikh belief in equality and its actual practice to this day. However, it is heartening to see an increasing focus on the egalitarian nature of the doctrines and on feminist interpretations, and gathering pressure for more female spiritual leadership, including female leadership of Sikh rituals, and a drive to eliminate discrimination and violence towards women and girls.

It seemed to me, when I started writing, as if this great potential for Sikh egalitarian and feminist thinking was the obvious choice when writing about the greatest insight of the religion. However, on second thoughts, why should this be? Is it not a simple ‘no brainer’ for modern societies that human beings should be considered equal regardless of gender and class? Was it even such a great insight at the time of the Sikh Gurus? Surely any man of intelligence at any time and place in history would have been sensitive to the unfairness and injustices towards women and the lower classes, even if he was unwilling or unable to change them. Indeed, in spite of indoctrination, there have always been men of intelligence and sensitivity who have known that women and people of lower caste, when given half the chance, were capable and worthy of all the things privileged men did, and that we all deserve equal respect as sentient beings. As a historian, I have never bought into the view that people were simply ignorant ‘men or women of their time’, and therefore somehow innocent of the injustice. Cruelty and injustice to women and girls was indeed normalised, but it was still cruelty and injustice, which many were aware of but chose to ignore or collude with for their own ends. The egalitarian approach of Sikhism is less a deep insight than it is the admission of a few men that people are equal because they themselves, and their kin – a comparatively privileged class of people – had experienced life at the sharp end of discrimination and had had to acknowledge it. However, the Sikhs do have one of the finest cultural expressions of equality in the Langar (kitchen), where a free meal is served to all the visitors of the Gurdwara, without distinction of religion, caste, gender, economic status or ethnicity, and this must indeed be admired. The meal is always vegetarian in order not to exclude vegetarian Hindus and Buddhists, and people sit on the floor together to eat, served by a team of Sikh community volunteers.

The insight of Sikhism that I have chosen to highlight, which also in theory (if not always in practice) includes both men and women of all castes, is the idea that all members of the community are warrior saints. The name Khalsa (the pure), refers to a special group of initiated Sikh warriors (the first were baptised by Guru Gobind Singh in a special ceremony and dedicated to the protection of the innocent from religious oppression during Mughal rule) but it also refers to the wider Sikh community. Special Khalsa warriors wear and carry the five Ks (uncut hair, a wooden comb, an iron/steel bracelet, a special undergarment and a dagger) and conform to the four prohibitions in which they promise not to disturb the natural growth of their hair, not to eat meat of any animal slaughtered according to Muslim rituals, not to cohabit with a person other than their spouse, and not to use tobacco or alcohol.

However, while the ceremonial dress is undeniably beautiful, it is neither the dress nor the puritanical rules that interest me primarily here, it is the underlying insight, still relevant to us today, that life is a struggle, a fight against the hostility that will always encroach on the innocent if they are left unguarded. Rather than the supine pacifism, which some religious groups go in for, Sikhs exemplify a brave readiness to face danger, and to use force to protect what is dearest to them, while nonetheless being reluctant to use violence and taking no pleasure in it, using it only as a last resort for defensive rather than aggressive purposes. There are of course reasonable and brave versions of pacifism that require people to put themselves in danger, yet without carrying arms, but they rarely take fully into account the relentless pursuit of power and the thirst for violence that characterises our species, and which must be resisted by those who have learnt to subdue those crueller, baser instincts.

Therefore, while I think gender and class equality is too obvious to be called a great insight, a definition of the perfect balance in any given situation, which avoids both an uncontrolled and unjustified aggression, and the kind of extreme pacifism that amounts to a ‘sin of omission’ or a cover for cowardice, has always been a great moral challenge for humanity, but Sikhism appears to have made a good shot at it. This balance remains a subject of much debate in modern secular states, where people are often polarised over issues of military spending and nuclear weapons, and where the true geopolitical picture is often extremely complex and muddied by all sorts of conflicts and alignments of interests that many ordinary citizens know little about. It is commonly understood among Sikhs, that as a Khalsa, one is enjoined to be honest, to treat everyone as equal, to meditate on God, to maintain one’s fidelity, and to resist tyranny and the religious persecution of oneself and others. This stance is one that is fundamentally peaceful and inclusive, and yet it includes a strength and preparedness for active resistance to political or religious oppression. It is one whose wisdom has echoed down the ages, and is perhaps the closest we can get to a general principle when it comes to the use of force.

8.   Judaism: Speaking Truth to Power

When people think of what makes Judaism distinct from the religions that came before it, they generally point to its claim that there is only one God – one ultimate source of all that exists. From our perspective centuries later, this claim appears to have stood in stark contrast to the surrounding religions of Egypt, Rome and Greece, which featured many deities. However, as we have seen, earlier religions also had various kinds of monotheism including several denominations of Hinduism, the Aten cult of ancient Egypt and Zoroastrianism. Some had an exclusive monotheism (belief in only one God, all others are false), some a polymorphic monotheism (belief in a single deity who takes many forms) and others a henotheism (devotion to one God while recognising other people’s Gods exist). Indeed, even among the Israelites, it took hundreds of years of repeated assertions that their God was supreme over the deities of surrounding cultures, before it was finally accepted, and Judaism fully developed its exclusive conception of the one deity, YHWH (“I am that I am”), who is ultimately a mystery that cannot be defined or contained.

In spite of the historical importance of this development, which signified the birth of all the Abrahamic religions as we know them today, it is another aspect of Judaism which I consider to be its greatest and most relevant insight. Within Judaism is a long tradition of approaching or understanding the divine through the lives and teachings of prophets, who often stood in opposition to the dominant culture, and this approach has led to the dynamic and evolving character of many Jewish traditions. It is the reason why liberal and progressive Jewish traditions developed. Inspired by the Prophets, these groups combine a commitment to Judaism with a constant regard for the universal values that guide all ethical behaviour. A related concept, Tikkun Olam (repair of the world), is a fundamental mission for Liberal Jews. They assert that Tikkun should happen on four levels: the personal or inter-personal, the communal, the Jewish, and the global. In the footsteps of the Prophets, Liberal Jews see themselves as constructive irritants to the mainstream, and/or as influencing the mainstream. They identify as willing to make difficult and sometimes unpopular stances on issues of Jewish concern.

Prophecy, one must remember, need not be about predicting the future in some miraculous way – something we all know to be impossible – but it may be about reading the times, sensing the zeitgeist and extrapolating forward. It may be about issuing warnings from history when our contemporaries are behaving in ways that are cruel, reckless, and likely to lead ultimately to their own destruction. It may be about looking at what has worked in the past and pointing to potential solutions for current problems. A modern-day prophet may be a person who advocates for justice, especially justice for the vulnerable and those without a voice. Within the prophetic tradition is the idea that true leadership, is enlightened leadership, which has the humility to learn and the courage to speak against the tide, combined with a determination never to stand idly by in the face of suffering and injustice. It is this insight that ‘speaking truth to power’ should be central to culture and philosophy, which I believe has the greatest potential.

In religious traditions there are two models of leadership, the priestly and the prophetic. Priests are authorized to perform sacred rituals, acting as intermediaries or facilitators for the relationship between humanity and the divine. They preserve the received teachings and practices of their traditions. Prophets, however, claim to speak for the divine, to deliver new knowledge or truth to their contemporaries. In biblical tradition, prophets were those who spoke out against social injustice, moral degradation and unfaithfulness to God. Jesus was a prophet in this Jewish tradition. He spent much of his time speaking out against religious elites and their abuses of power. Indeed, he risked everything to speak truth to the corrupt authorities of his day, and taught a radical compassion that starkly contrasted with, and indeed threatened, their religious purity systems and hierarchies. However, he also took on some traditionally priestly tasks, such as expounding the scriptures in the temple courts to preserve and pass on ancient wisdom. Thus, he was a typical Jew, loyal to Jewish scriptures and traditions, while also being a radical reformer who was prepared to reinterpret and overturn laws such as the Sabbath laws, which were oppressive to working people of the lower social classes to which he himself belonged.

There is always a great tension between priestly conservatism and the prophetic call for change. The priestly enterprises of the Jewish religious elites and later the Christian Apostles (as evidenced in the Epistles) are a far cry from the movements that the prophets (including Jesus) began. As fledgling communities sought respectability and uniformity amid the dominant cultures of their time, they invariably compromised values, and became conformist and resistant to reform. And yet, within Judaism, the prophetic tradition became so significant that it was impossible to suppress it entirely. It resurfaced repeatedly in spite of brutal suppression by political and religious authorities. Indeed, the tradition passed over into Christianity (a religion founded, after all, on the life and teachings of a Jewish prophet), which maintained its own spirit of radical prophecy, underpinning its most important moments of reform, and which now features uppermost in the progressive Christian focus on social justice and solidarity with the poor and oppressed.

In more recent times, religious institutions have often claimed to admire most, those who have been brave enough to do as the Jewish prophets did. These include names such as Martin Luther King Jnr, Gandhi, Archbishop Ramiro, the suffragettes, Dorothy Day, Desmond Tutu, Rosa Parks and Thich Nhat Hanh. And yet, all too often, they have still been quick to bow down to empire, government, royalty and dictator, and to keep silent in the face of injustice. Religious leaders have often proved to be much better priests than prophets. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “In every country, in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with whatever despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.” (letter to Horatio G. Spafford, March 17, 1814) Though there is truth in this statement, many lesser-known priests (Rabbis and Imams etc.) have played a vital role in the building of local community, as hosts and facilitators of social life, and they have carried out important daily tasks of bringing comfort and practical wisdom to ordinary people in the best and worst of times. In contrast, whistle-blowers and radicals, consumed by their particular struggles, have had little time for these routine but invaluable tasks, or for meeting individual need. Indeed, many neglected their own families.

Have you ever been in two minds about joining an organisation, community, political party, institution etc. because you want to be in a position to influence things for good but do not want to compromise your freedom to maintain a prophetic voice, unrestrained by rules, loyalties, Whips, directives, contracts and other social pressures? While specific individuals may be predominantly one or the other when it comes to priests and prophets – determined by their career choices or even by their innate personality – no one can be wholly one or the other without being guilty of hypocrisy. Both the prophet who neglects or is cruel to his/her own kin, and the priest who neglects his/her responsibility to wider society are guilty of betraying the values they claim to uphold. While one may not need to protest when one’s ideals and principles align with government, wider society and culture, the moment that government or society stands in the way of justice, peace and the truth, one surely has a moral duty to bring it to account. All societies grounded in the principles of liberty and equality need to be watchful observers and critics of the status quo. They must be ready to defend the truth where it is obscured and the rights of the vulnerable where they are denied. We cannot hide behind priestly robes and rituals without being complicit in the evil deeds of our societies and those who lead them. We cannot ignore the grievous injustices of our time, such as poverty, human trafficking, gender inequality, war, cruelty to non-human animals and environmental destruction. We cannot like, Pontius Pilate, simply wash our hands, or otherwise ritually absolve our guilt for sins of omission.

Therefore, our current and future societies need a good balance of the ‘priestly’ and the ‘prophetic’, and as Judaism has demonstrated, to maintain this balance, we need to embed a vibrant tradition of reflective self-criticism into the very fabric of our cultural identity over a long period. While we must have strong democratic institutions, we also need a robust free press in order to keep them accountable and to keep the public informed. Otherwise, we end up with either thoroughly corrupt institutions or a tyranny of the majority – and even situations where a population are manipulated by those with power and privilege (and plenty of resources to produce fake news and manipulate the popular press) to vote in a manner that is not in their interests, and which even undermines their own democratic rights! I could talk about Brexit and Trump here but I will refrain!

In Summary

We have seen how the costly love of Christianity, and a related emphasis on forgiveness, can help us to form the most meaningful, genuine and enduring of relationships.

We have learnt how continually letting go of what we cannot control, as is practised in Islam (even when done without reference to ‘God’ or ‘Allah’), can bring us relief from our anxieties and help us be at peace with our inadequacies.

We have remembered how reason continues to revolutionise many people’s lives, liberating minds from superstitions and dogmas that have long plagued our species and helped keep the majority of humans in servitude to the few.

We have seen with Hinduism, how the things we treasure as our highest eternal values and truths, may be seen to share one substance (one ultimate reality), while having many different and complex manifestations.

We have learnt how the mindfulness techniques of Buddhism can help us to experience greater joy and contentment in the present, and how they can alleviate our sufferings and enable us to cope with life’s many challenges.

The folk religions reveal that we need to embrace our humanity, including our emotional and irrational natures, yet without allowing ourselves to be deceived by magical thinking. They demonstrate our need for emotional release and expressiveness, and for special occasions filled with awe and wonder.

We have also been reminded that life is a constant battle against encroaching malice, oppression, disease and decay, and that we, like Sikh warrior saints, must be strong, prepared, and courageous enough to engage in both the struggle for survival and the defence of truth and goodness.

Last but by no means least, we are reminded that a strong tradition of ‘speaking truth to power’, like that of the Jewish prophets, is absolutely essential to a free and fair society. We have seen how the ‘priestly’ traditions of institutions, which preserve the wisdom of the past, must be counterbalanced by ‘prophetic’ journalism and independent research, in which new information is shared, compelling society and its institutions to reform and progress.

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‘The Path Ahead’, Autumn in Killerton House Gardens, Photograph by Anastasia Somerville-Wong


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An Interview with Lindsay van Dijk

I am delighted to have had the opportunity to interview Lindsay van Dijk on her work as a humanist pastoral carer and senior NHS chaplain. With half of UK citizens no longer claiming a religious affiliation, demand is increasing for nonreligious pastoral care in hospitals, prisons, universities, schools, workplaces and the military. When human beings can no longer seek solace in their imagined gods, they must seek solace in one another.

Dr Anastasia E. Somerville-Wong, Lead Editor, Secular Liturgies

Lindsay van Dijk

Lindsay is a humanist pastoral carer and a member of the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network. She is the first humanist in charge of an NHS pastoral care and chaplaincy department.

Lindsay trained to Master’s level in the Netherlands at the University of Humanistic Studies (in Utrecht) to provide humanist and existential counselling, coaching and pastoral care. She is a member of the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP) and the British Association for the Person-Centered Approach (BAPCA). Lindsay is accredited as a pastoral carer through the UK Board of healthcare Chaplaincy (UKBHC), the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network (NRPSN) and as a humanist funeral celebrant at Humanists U.K.

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Lindsay van Dijk

1. What inspired you to become a nonreligious/humanist pastoral support worker?

I was always interested the the philosophical questions of life – ever since I was a child. I would ask myself why we were here and how to lead a life with purpose and how to create meaning, or why we can be so mean to one-another.  When I was younger I didn’t yet know that there was a whole university dedicated to such questions – namely the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht, the Netherlands. When I discovered that I could learn about humanism, philosophy, sociology, psychology and much more – while training towards my MA degree for humanist pastoral care – it was a no-brainer and I instantly felt at home.

2. What kind of training is most helpful for the role?

Any background of counselling and psychology, or communication skills would be helpful. There are programs for humanist and existential pastoral care within London and the Netherlands, or specific healthcare chaplaincy courses. Anyone working within pastoral care or chaplaincy work would, however, need endorsement from their faith or belief community. In the case of humanist pastoral care, the individual concerned would need to follow an accreditation course through Humanists U.K.’s non-religious pastoral support network (NRPSN) in order to receive endorsement for the humanist belief group. This would need to be pursued regardless of a counselling, psychology or even an MA in humanist and existential pastoral care course.

3. Which thinkers, writers or philosophers have influenced your perspectives on life, death and pastoral care the most?

Many writers and thinkers such as John Rawls, John Stuart Mill, David Hume, Epicurus and Steven Pinker, but also Jan Hein Mooren (who describes the practice of a humanist pastoral carer and its difference to psychotherapeutic practices) and Greg Epstein’s book called ‘Good without God’, where he describes morality from a non-religious perspective.

4. What methods do you use to help patients and their families cope with physical/mental suffering?

With humanist pastoral care we stay in the moment of what the person is experiencing, which can indeed be physical or mental suffering. I try to stay alongside the experience of that person, which includes their thoughts and feelings but also their values and worldviews with regards to their experience.

The difference between humanist pastoral care and psychotherapeutic practices can be described through two frames of reference: the first frame of reference for the humanist pastoral carer is the person’s worldview, which includes their values and morality (codes or rules they live by). The second frame of reference is the method that accompanies this, which includes lending an empathic, non-judgemental listening ear, and to provide enough space for the person to share his or her story while staying in that precise moment in time.

Psychotherapeutic practices have this the other way around, where the first frame of reference is the method, may that be existential, integrative, psychoanalytic, CBT etcetera. The second frame of reference might include the worldview of the person along with their values and morality. On top of that, psychotherapeutic practices also try to link the past and the current situation to each other in order to hopefully work towards a different outcome in the future. The entrance to psychotherapeutic practices is usually the point at which a ‘client’ describes an issue he/she would like support with. This is followed up by a set amount of sessions of a certain length of time, and these usually take place in the same location.

A humanist pastoral carer needs to stay in the moment because their encounters are bedside or on a prison ward, where there isn’t a specific time to talk to the individual or a set location. Due to the unpredictable environment of a hospital or prison, you’re not always sure if you’re seeing the person the week after. Therefore, the contact is open ended and a specific issue isn’t required to enter the service. It is immediate support, provided for that specific moment in time.

5. Since you do not offer people the hope of an afterlife, how do you help them to make the most of the time they have?

Humanists or non-religious people do not believe in an afterlife, and therefore, wouldn’t require any ‘hope’ or ‘salvation’ for this. It can still be scary to near the end of your life, however, and most of my encounters have been around voicing concerns they have, if any. I’ve also noticed that most people would like to reminisce about their lives and share what they’ve seen or done. People also often talk about the relationships they cherish with friends, family or even with pets. With nonreligious funeral ceremonies, family members often refer to the deceased living on through their memories, in contrast with  religious funerals, where they might believe in a heaven.

6. Do you carry out any secular rituals or preside over any secular liturgical gatherings as part of your work? If so, please describe a few of these.

Part of my work is to provide funerals for those who are humanist or non-religious. I also provide baby naming services for the parents and their families. Once a year, I provide a baby memorial service, and on a monthly basis, I provide baby funerals, which are organised from the hospital. Humanist services are often personalised according to what the person would like. Therefore, there isn’t a prescribed way of doing this. A good example would be humanist funerals, where the tribute is the heart of the service. The tribute is written in as personal a way as possible, with the family including those special memories of the deceased, which ensure a very personal ceremony.

7. What are the most common questions, expectations and requests that patients make of you?

Most of the time, people just want to share what they’re going through while in hospital. This could be a scary and emotional time for people. Even people who have a supportive network still like to speak to someone like me. Often friends and family members are too close to the person and it gets harder to show worries, fears, sadness or even anger. I remember one time, when I was asked to support a patient in hospital who was non-religious, I walked into the bay and noticed her husband was with her, so I mentioned to her that I could come back at a later time so they could enjoy their time together. The woman told me that wasn’t necessary and asked cheerfully whether her husband could entertain himself elsewhere so she could speak to me. Her smile changed rather quickly when he turned the corner of the bay and she started to burst out in tears. I sat next to her, letting her cry. It felt like there were a lot of feelings she had accumulated, which she needed to express. When she looked at me after a while, she told me she had always been the head of the family and that she didn’t wanted to worry anyone. However, she was scared as her condition was deteriorating and her time on earth was running out. We spoke about her fears, worries, hopes and dreams. She then realised herself, at the end of our talk, that she wanted to write down her life story to leave behind for her family after she passed away – just to leave something physical of herself behind.

8. Do you speak only with humanist, atheist and other nonreligious patients?

At my Trust we provide ‘generic chaplaincy’ which means that anyone of our multi-faith and belief service can respond to referrals of any background, ethnicity, faith or belief. With the encounters I’ve had, it mostly revolves around the relationship you build with the person. I remember when I supported someone who was Roman Catholic. When I asked her whether she wanted to speak to someone of her own worldview, she said she wanted to continue seeing me, as she felt able to share her feelings with me. When she was discharged from hospital, she wrote me a lovely card thanking ‘Lindsay the humanist’ for the support she had received from me. However, there are times when people are able to share more when they speak to someone of their own worldview, and we can then refer them to someone else in the team. The team works, therefore, very closely together. We also provide specific support when requested by the person. The service is firstly and foremost person-centred.

9. What are the greatest challenges of leading a pastoral care team composed of people with very different world views?

Shattering assumptions… When I first started as humanist lead, a lot of people had assumptions about what humanism entailed. Many people thought it was the same as just being an atheist, or that I wanted to secularise the department. I urged them to ask the ‘difficult questions’ in order to foster an open and transparent work environment, and to shatter these assumptions (which we all make). When we make assumptions, it can shut down our curiosity, and with this our own learning process and understanding. I therefore organised a multi-faith and belief day, where we all shared about our faiths and beliefs to understand each other better. It was brilliant to see how this helped towards creating a warm, caring and open culture. It was the Roman Catholic sister that summarised adequately that we all share a love for what we do and that we all have compassion for people.

10. How would you like to see nonreligious pastoral care work develop going into the future?

We’ve had humanist pastoral carers in the Netherlands since the 1950’s, and this is now rapidly developing in the U.K. within healthcare and prisons. I would love to see it develop further in the armed forces and police service, as people working within these settings encounter very challenging situations. It might help support them to talk to someone of a likeminded worldview.

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