Being humanist: Will a redefining of the law see humanism woven into mainstream society?

ON A blizzard-ridden evening in late January, piped into the back room of the Robin’s Nest pub, Carole McNeice and Dave Lindsay are about to become the 11,307th couple to get married in a humanist ceremony in Scotland.

ON A blizzard-ridden evening in late January, piped into the back room of the Robin’s Nest pub, Carole McNeice and Dave Lindsay are about to become the 11,307th couple to get married in a humanist ceremony in Scotland.

Carole is 52 and Dave is 59. He has terminal cancer. She doesn’t keep well. “A couple of auld crocks,” Carole laughs later, over a Tia Maria and Coke. Bride and groom, nevertheless, are smiling fit to melt the snow that cloaks the pavements of Chirnside, this village near Duns.

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Just a few miles south, across the Border, such a ceremony would not be legally binding. Since 2005, humanist weddings have been permitted by Scottish law, and the forthcoming Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act, if passed, will see humanist weddings recategorised as ‘belief’ ceremonies, meaning there will be three types of marriage in Scotland – religious, civil and belief. This seems to be essentially a tidying-up exercise as humanist weddings are at present categorised as religious, which clearly they are not. The new category recognises the fact that humanism is a sort of philosophy, and anyone choosing to get married is – whether consciously or not – buying into that. It is, therefore, quite different from being married by either church or state.

The new law is likely to weave humanist ceremonies even more tightly into the fabric of society. Such weddings – performed by celebrants from the Humanist Society Scotland, an atheist organisation that aims to promote a secular nation – are the only form of marriage increasing in the UK. In 2011, they overtook the number of Catholic weddings performed in Scotland (2,486 to 1,729) and it is thought by 2015, the Church of Scotland, too, will have been overtaken.

Scotland is one of only six countries in the world where humanist ceremonies are legally conducted. The others are Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Norway and certain states in the US. Ireland passed a bill allowing humanist weddings at the end of last year, but it has not yet been implemented.

In the Robin’s Nest, in front of a backdrop of white flowers, the humanist celebrant Ivan Middleton welcomes everyone to the wedding. Carole, in a white dress, and Dave, in sharp suit, face one another. “I promise,” they vow, “to love you in good times and in bad, and most of all I promise to cherish each day that I have left with you.” There’s is a perception that humanist weddings allow couples greater freedom to write the script for the ceremony and this can make them emotional occasions. “Getting married, for us,” the celebrant says on their behalf, while Carole cries a little, “is showing our love and commitment in front of our family and friends, even though our time together, as a married couple, will end so much sooner than we both would have wanted.”

They met in Edinburgh 15 years ago. Dave was a motor mechanic and Carole got her car fixed at mate’s rates. The relationship developed at his 50th birthday party and their first official date was fish and chips (and, naturally, salt and sauce) on the beach at Silverknowes, a lovely summer’s night in 2003. There’s something terrifically moving about their public declaration of love. They know very well that they will not have a long married life. The words “till death do us part” are not 
uttered, but they do not need to be.

Middleton declares them man and wife. He tells them they can kiss. Everybody cheers and the DJ cues up the first song. Billy Idol. It suits the snow and the mood – a defiant kind of joy. It’s a nice day for a white wedding.

There are 112 humanist celebrants in Scotland, although only a few are full time. Trained to perform funerals, it is only after performing a good number that they progress to weddings. Humanists perform approximately ten per cent of Scotland’s weddings, but only one per cent of funerals. Celebrants are self-employed, charging £135 for funerals and £350 for weddings, but paying ten per cent to the Humanist Society of Scotland. Couples married by a humanist celebrant are required to join the HSS.

“Most people in Scotland have still never heard of us,” says Tim Maguire, a humanist celebrant based in Edinburgh. “But I recently met a couple where the bride-to-be had only ever been to humanist weddings. She was in her late twenties, she had been to four weddings, and every one was humanist. That struck me as being a genuine mark of change.”

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Humanist weddings have been performed in Scotland since the 1980s, but the first couple in Scotland to get married in a legally binding ceremony were Martin Reijns and Karen Watts, who wed at Edinburgh Zoo on 18 June, 2005. Middleton was the celebrant. Reijns, 35, is a research scientist. His wife, 36, teaches and performs classical Indian dance. They met in his native Holland, at a salsa class

“We didn’t want a religious wedding, even though both of us were raised religiously,” says Reijns. “I don’t believe in God any more, and we felt a church just wasn’t an option for us. But to have it in a registry office felt too much like it was just a legal contract.”

A friend told them about humanism, and it sounded as though it fitted with their lives. They decided, therefore, to have the legal part of their wedding in the registry office then have what would have been, effectively, a humanist blessing in order to provide a sense of necessary ritual. However, a fortnight before the wedding, Middleton phoned to explain the law had changed and they could be the first people in Europe to marry, officially, as humanists. Excited and amused by the idea of making history, they cancelled the registry office.

How does Reijns feel about the fact that, in the years since his pioneering marriage, more than 11,000 couples have followed that lead? “It’s a really positive thing. So many people nowadays are not religious any more. It is a shame that there’s a hole left behind after religion has disappeared, but I think a lot of people, without knowing it, do actually subscribe to the humanist philosophy. It fills a gap.”

What, though, is the humanist philosophy? Depending on which humanist you ask, it’s about leading an ethical, moral life, about being a free thinker, about compassion and love. Hard to argue with any of this, of course, but overall there is something frustratingly woolly about it. Humanism feels, sometimes, like Christianity without a back story and with far less challenging demands. ‘Love thy neighbour’ is good humanism; ‘thy will be done’ is not.

Humanism does, however, have specific aims and policies. Humanists want a secular state – no bishops in the House of Lords or influencing of government policy by religious groups. They are against faith schools and prayers in school. They have campaigned in favour of same-sex marriage and assisted suicide. The roots of the Humanist Society Scotland go back to Glasgow in the 1930s. 
Humanist ideas began to take hold following two 1955 radio talks, ‘Morals Without Religion’, given by Margaret Knight, a psychology lecturer at Aberdeen University. It was explosive stuff. One newspaper grumbled that the BBC had “allowed a fanatic to rampage along the air lanes, beating up Christianity with a razor and a bicycle-chain”. Her views inspired the formation of a group of Edinburgh humanists in 1956.

Middleton is one of Scottish humanism’s elder statesmen. Raised in the Unitarian faith, he moved to Scotland in 1970, having been a member of the Belfast Humanist Association since 1962.

“I was born in Northern Ireland, and that mayhem around me started to make me think what religion was all about,” he says. “I was appalled when Protestants were celebrating when a Catholic died and vice versa. My 
mother tried to dissuade me from seeing certain people, and I couldn’t work out why, then it dawned on me that it was because they were Catholic. My school was totally dominated by Protestants, and if it got known that you met Catholics outwith school, you were called a fenian-lover. This didn’t sit well with me.”

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In 1970, when Middleton joined the Scottish humanists, the organisation had fewer than 200 members. There are now more than 7,000. Since 2005, he has performed around 600 marriages. “When I meet young couples I ask them why they want a humanist ceremony, and the answer usually is that they have no church connection. There’s no hatred of religion or anything like that. It just doesn’t impinge on their lives. It’s got nothing to offer them.”

Talk to couples who have been married as humanists and what you hear, mostly, is that they chose to do so, not as an expression of their inner Richard Dawkins but because of the opportunity for bespoke ceremonies. Corrinne Barr, 26, and Duncan McLeish, 31, married on 9 November last year. She wore a black dress that showed off her tattoos; he wore a kilt that showed off his. They were accompanied by their pet chihuahua, Dexter, who wore a suit jacket and bow-tie. A friend sang the Foo Fighters’ Everlong. “We didn’t want the stock vows that everyone has said a million times,” says Corrinne. “We wanted to be us on the day, and I didn’t feel that we compromised that at all.” Since the wedding, there has been a happy event in the form of a new addition to the family – a second chihuahua, Doakes.

Pete Cowan and Lucy Hird from Lincolnshire had their wedding on 1 September last year on the lawn outside Neidpath Castle, near Peebles. Pete is 54 and Lucy is 29. They met at a speed-dating event for people aged between 30 and 40, both having lied about their age. Their grand idea was to use a bird of prey as a ring-bearer, but the red-tailed hawk chosen for this purpose had other ideas, flying up into a tree, and coming down only to make a predatory swoop at Pete’s sporran.

“Lucy and I had been closet humanists for a long time but had never actually put a name to it,” says Pete. “It was only when we started looking into getting married that we discovered the Humanist Society and what they stood for. It was the same beliefs and values we already had – that it’s possible to live an ethical and decent life that benefits mankind and the world without reference to God.”

Stuart Imrie and Louise Wright, a young couple from Stirling, married just after Christmas last year on the top of Ben Vorlich in the snow, accompanied by two friends as witnesses and observed by four climbers they had met on the way up. The bride wore white – a North Face jacket bought for the occasion; the groom had packed a kilt in his bag, but the howling wind and a temperature of minus ten dissuaded him from removing his waterproof trousers. “The only thing I remember properly was just being incredibly happy,” Stuart recalls. “I was in this very special place with the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with.”

Humanist celebrants are braced for a busy 2015, when proposed changes to the law would come into effect. The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act will put humanist celebrants on an equal footing with clergy and civil registrars, permitting them to perform weddings for five years before needing to renew their licence; at present, they must apply for renewal annually. The bill will also allow for same-sex marriage, a step beyond the present civil partnerships, and it is certain humanist celebrants will be busy, given that the Church of Scotland and Catholic Church, among other denominations, are unlikely to opt in to perform such ceremonies. It is also possible gay couples from elsewhere in the UK would wed in Scotland until same-sex marriage is introduced south of the Border.

So does the boom in humanist ceremonies suggest Scotland is becoming a secular country more rapidly than previously thought? Denis Madden, a leading member of the Scottish Independent Celebrants Association, believes not. “I don’t believe Scotland is an atheist country, not for a split second.” SICA, which promotes independent life ceremonies, hopes to persuade the Scottish Government that celebrants should be licensed to perform marriage ceremonies. They offer bespoke weddings (not, at present, legally binding) and funerals and can include both secular and religious elements, which they feel more accurately reflects a nation with both modern tastes and some residual faith.

“I have conducted somewhere in the region of 2,500 funerals since September 2007 and I would say that 60 to 70 per cent of them still had some religious content,” Madden says. “Most people in the middle of the road still have their individual faiths but are not in church every Sunday. I believe, body, heart, soul, mind and spirit, that the majority of people in today’s society are being missed.”

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The clergy, for their part, seem to have mixed feelings about the rise of humanism and the decline in religious marriages. The Reverend Sally Foster-Fulton, convenor of the Church of Scotland’s Church and Society Council, suggests the Kirk is at ease with the idea. “However people choose to celebrate their marriage, marriage is a phenomenal thing.”

For Father Nicholas Monaghan of St Dominic’s in Bishopbriggs says, “It is very concerning that many Catholics are not getting married or are living together in an irregular union, or in a civil not religious marriage.” 
Fr Monaghan co-ordinates a marriage preparation course for engaged couples. “A marriage is something holy and if you are a Catholic you should receive it. We hope we can do more to revive those numbers. We rely on good mothers and fathers who are committed to each other to bring forth the next generation of the church.”

But what of the next generation of humanists? Thanks to the popularity of its wedding ceremonies, in just eight years the movement has gone from near obscurity to within touching distance of the mainstream. The question now is whether humanism can progress from a close association with marriage and play a wider role in national life.

Last year, the writer Alain de Botton, in Religion For Atheists, proposed the building of a ‘temple to atheism’ in London, though he is now planning instead a ‘secular retreat’ – in the Devon countryside – intended to offer the same sense of peace and reflection one might experience at a monastery. Construction begins in April.

“As for humanists,” says de Botton, “they have one huge problem associated with them: they don’t pay attention to how things look. The language they use, the clothes they wear and the buildings they have access to are on the whole far below the standard of the established churches, and that’s their fatal weakness. When people choose where to get married, many non-believers are drawn to churches for a simple reason: they look attractive.”

Although humanist groups in Scotland have monthly meetings, they seem wary of gatherings too akin to church. What seems more likely is that the pastoral aspects will continue to expand. Humanists may be involved in prison and hospital visiting, university chaplaincy and feeding the homeless, but this is not known widely. A New York Times article, published shortly after the Newtown massacre, noted that at moments of national crisis, humanists seem absent. If it is to offer a genuine alternative to religion, it will have to find a way to offer the same sense of comfort and community that faith provides to the masses who otherwise consider themselves faithless.

In the meantime, who can argue with the joy – and emotional heft – of humanist weddings? “We know what’s ahead of us,” Dave Lindsay says, his new wife Carole holding his hand. “And we’ll face that when we get there.”

Is that humanism? Certainly, it is a sentiment that expresses the best of what it means to be human.

Twitter: @PeterAlanRoss