An interview with our new Chair – Joan Smith

Earlier this year, Joan Smith became Chair of Labour Humanists. We interviewed her about her work, what Humanism means to her and how it relates to the Labour Party.


Tell us a little about your work, background and personal life

I was incredibly lucky to be born into a non-religious family. My father was an atheist, he didn’t stop me going to church – I went to Sunday school for all of two weeks – but he brought me up to question everything. I’ve never believed in a deity and I’ve always searched for rational explanations – I realised early on that you don’t have to understand everything about the universe to recognise a bad explanation for how it came about, eg any species of divine intervention. I withdrew myself from RE when I was a teenager because it certainly wasn’t my idea of education.

I’m a journalist and novelist, and I’ve been involved in human rights campaigns for almost two decades. I chaired the English PEN Writers in Prison Committee, campaigning for the release of imprisoned writers in many countries, and I’ve also advised the FCO on promoting freedom of expression. Since 2013, I’ve been Co-Chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Panel (now the VAWG Board), which draws up policy to reduce sexual and domestic violence for the whole of London.

I’m passionate about equality and universal rights, and I’ve always rejected the idea that people can’t behave well without religion. I even wrote a book (Moralities: How to end the abuse of money and power in the 21st century) about it.


What are the main achievements of Humanism in British public life so far?

I’m a big fan of the Enlightenment. Humanism has played a vital role in moving towards a more enlightened society where everyone has the same rights, regardless of whether they have a religion or not. For me, recognising the intrinsic value of the human spirit is the definition of being modern, especially at a time when there is so much evidence of what happens if the dark side of human nature is given free rein.

We are living in grim times and it’s easy to forget how much the UK has changed for the better in recent years, largely because of humanist and secular campaigns against religious privilege. It’s great that there are now humanist alternatives to religious weddings and funerals, and I loved the slogans on buses telling people there probably isn’t a god.


What drew you to Humanism?

It’s a natural home for someone with my beliefs. I’m delighted to be a patron of the BHA and many of its campaigns – exposing the disastrous and divisive effects of ‘faith’ schools, for example – are vital if we’re ever going to live together in a tolerant and diverse country. I know many people are religious but I think the right not to have a religion is as important as the right to manifest one.


In your mind, what makes Humanism and Labour natural bedfellows?

The Labour party is committed to a fairer, more equal society. Dismantling privilege, inherited and institutional, is a huge task but we wouldn’t have got as far as we have without a political party willing to take it on. Popular campaigns are important but change comes about through Parliament, and I see the job of Labour Humanists as trying to persuade as many MPs as possible to support humanist values and legislation. Humanist councillors are essential as well – local authorities need to be inclusive, and that means thinking about the needs of non-religious people as well as those put forward by ‘faith’ organisations.


What remains to be done to make British political life more secular?

A great deal, starting with the removal of automatic seats for Anglican bishops in the House of Lords. The upper chamber is in dire need of reform anyway, but the privileges enjoyed by the Church of England in the legislature are indefensible. There is a kind of default thinking that fails to see religious privileges for what they are – I could scream every time I hear ‘Thought For The Day’ starting on the Today programme.

I’ve already mentioned ’faith’ schools, which are a terrible idea – they take one small aspect of personal identity and privilege it above all others. We can see what that did in Northern Ireland. Children from different backgrounds – Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, non-religious – need to grow up, play and learn together.

I’ve written about the way politicians talk about people being in their ‘thoughts and prayers’ after a disaster, without knowing anything about the victims. The automatic resort to religious language in public life, no matter how inappropriate, needs to be challenged – and we could start with getting rid of prayers at the beginning of each day’s proceedings in Parliament. If people want to pray, it’s a private matter. I certainly don’t think that priests, vicars, imams or rabbis should have a special place in public life.


You’ve written extensively on feminist topics, how do you think feminism and humanism are linked?

They’re both rooted in universal human rights. Traditionally, women and girls did particularly badly under many religious dispensations, forced to accept theories about being ‘different but equal’ which were nothing of the sort. I wrote about the persecution of ‘witches’ in my book Misogynies and in a more recent book (The Public Woman) I looked at how some of those pernicious ideas remain influential today. I’ve always thought I was incredibly fortunate, as a woman, to grow up in Europe at a time when Christian ideas about women were losing much of their influence. I’m almost speechless when I read about the enslavement of Yazidi women by Islamist extremists in Syria and Iraq.


What drew you to the Labour Party?

I grew up in a Labour family. It isn’t just tribal loyalty, although there’s a bit of that – my father took me to my first Labour rally when I was eleven. The party’s core values are closer to mine than those of any other party – single-issue campaigns eg tackling climate change have a place, but they belong inside a wide-ranging programme based on fairness and equality.


What do you think is the greatest achievement of the Labour Party to date?

There are so many, starting with the NHS. Everything from the minimum wage to introducing civil partnerships and a mass of equality legislation stretching back to the first Sex Discrimination Act under Harold Wilson in 1975. Some of these achievements are vast, daunting even, and others are on a smaller scale – but the net effect is moving towards a kinder, more tolerant society. That’s what humanism and secular values are all about. There is a great deal still to do but the humanist tradition in Labour has some distinguished supporters and I hope we can build on that.



The Labour Leadership election: Owen Smith’s answers to our questionnaire

So far, the Labour leadership contest has seen little-to-no discussion of Humanist and Secularist issues. To attempt to rectify this situation, we sent both Owen and Jeremy a questionnaire. As of yet we have not got a response from Jeremy. Here is Owen Smith’s response in full:


Many thanks for your email on behalf of Labour Humanists. I really appreciate you getting in touch. I have replied to each of your questions in turn below:

Will you campaign to retain the Human Rights Act?

The passing of Labour’s Human Rights Act was an important milestone for Britain. From ensuring families and disabled people have a say about their own care to giving Hillsborough victims’ families the inquest they deserved, the Human Rights Act protects all of us. I will stand up to the Conservative Party’s obsession with removing citizen’s rights.

Would you defend freedoms of thought, expression and belief at home and internationally, including through opposing blasphemy laws?

Yes. The campaign of murder and violence targeted against atheist bloggers and now other minority groups in Bangladesh has been truly shocking. My commitment to human rights is universal. As Prime Minister I would work with Britain’s allies in Europe and across the world to promote freedom, equality and dignity for people of all faiths and none.

Do you oppose the ability of state-funded faith schools to discriminate on religious grounds against families and teachers?

Faith schools are part of our school system educating many thousands of children. I would not want them closed down. I am concerned by reports of unregistered schools operating outside of the scrutiny of OFSTED and I want to see greater action to protect any child denied a basic education.

Do you support the teaching of non-religious world views such as Humanism equally alongside religious perspectives in schools?

All children benefit from understanding the diverse range of beliefs and faiths – religious and non-religious – that flourish in modern Britain. I am keen to hear from those schools that already include non-religious world views, including Humanism, about their experiences.

Would you support legislation to ensure that humanists in England and Wales will be able to have a legal marriage ceremony, as they already can in Scotland?

Yes. I would right the wrong of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat broken 2014 promise and introduce legal recognition for humanist marriage in England and Wales.

Do you support an end to having reserved seats for Church of England Bishops in the House of Lords?

Yes. I support an elected second chamber to replace the House of Lords.

Do you think public services should be secular?

Yes – equal access to public services for people of all faiths and none is an essential contract between Government and citizens. Faith groups and secular charities are both important partners for public bodies and can help them to work with hard to reach groups, as well as bringing particular expertise.

Would you support a change in the law to permit assisted dying for people who are terminally ill or who are permanently and incurably suffering?

I personally voted in favour of the assisted dying bill but believe this is a matter of conscience for individual MPs.

Do you believe the NHS should fund unproven alternative “treatments” such as homeopathy?

I do not think public money should be used to pay for treatments that aren’t proven to be clinically effective. Clinical decisions should be taken by clinicians using an evidence based approach. Only science can determine what works.

Yours sincerely

Owen Smith


Government made an ‘error in law’ over exclusion of humanism from GCSE

Fantastic news from the British Humanist Association (BHA) – a High Court judge has ruled that the Government made an ‘error in law’ when it left out non-religious worldviews such as humanism from the content of GCSE Religious Studies (in the curriculum in England). The BHA supported three non-religious families who wanted to challenge the Government’s moves to relegate non-religious beliefs in the curriculum and helped the parents and their children to bring the case to court. This is a landmark judgement and a real victory for inclusive and balanced education. A huge congratulations to those families and to the BHA. More news on this story below and on their website.


BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson said, ‘We have made the case for many decades that the school curriculum on religions should include major non-religious worldviews such as humanism. It is great news that the Court has now said the law is with us. This is a stunning victory for the three humanist families who stood up to the Government on this issue. It is also a victory for the vast majority of people who believe in the importance of a religious education curriculum that is inclusive, balanced, and pluralistic, and which contributes to mutual understanding between people of all religions and none.

‘We look forward to working with the Government to ensure that the changes required by the judgement are implemented and hope they will use this as an opportunity to improve the GCSE for the benefit of all children. Continuing to exclude the views of a huge number of Britons, in the face of majority public opinion and all expert advice, would only be to the detriment of education in this country and a shameful path to follow.’


End Blasphemy Laws – we give our support

A new campaign has been launched to end blasphemy laws across the world. The campaign is led by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) and the European Humanist Federation (EHF), and is supported by the British Humanist Association (BHA), to which we are affiliated.

The BHA states that the campaign ‘will put pressure on states to repeal laws which restrict or punish speech which is deemed to commit ‘blasphemy’ or ‘religious insult’. Blasphemy laws were repealed in England and Wales in 2008 following years of campaigning from the BHA and other organisations. However, many countries, including an alarming number of EU member states, continue to silence and punish criticism of religion in the name of blasphemy laws. IHEU’s 2014 Freedom of Thought Report found that 55 countries had criminal laws restricting blasphemy. In 39 countries, it is an imprisonable offence. In six countries, it has the death penalty.’

Last year we submitted a paper to Labour’s policy review, which urged Labour to champion the human rights of freedom of thought and belief – including religious and non-religious beliefs – and of free expression. We see those rights as cornerstones of any free and democratic society, and we asked that the party defend them robustly at home and internationally, including through opposing blasphemy laws.

It is encouraging that Labour has recently set out that it will ‘Lead by example on human rights, upholding them domestically through the Human Rights Act, and advocating them overseas’. We will want this to include work with humanist organisations here and internationally to repeal existing blasphemy laws and vehemently oppose any new such laws being created.

We will keep working to raise this issue within Labour and aim for it to be prominent in the Party’s human rights work.

Find out more about the End Blasphemy Laws campaign.

Join us, follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook.


Tory-led Government deleting atheism from schools in England

New Government advice for schools on British values has actually taken out references to non-religious beliefs that appeared in previous versions.

Legally, schools are required to promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.’ In 2013, the Department for Education (DfE) published advice stating that, ‘There are many different actions that schools can take to meet this part of the standard, such as: …Use teaching resources from a wide variety of sources to help pupils understand a range of faiths, and beliefs such as atheism and humanism.’However, in updated advice on meeting this same standard, the DfE has removed ‘and beliefs such as atheism and humanism’ from the preceding sentence.

This retrograde step follows closely after a number of academics, teachers, and parents, together with the British Humanist Association (BHA) and the Religious Education Council of England and Wales (REC), condemned the exclusion of study of the non-religious worldview of humanism from new English GCSE and AS and A level criteria published by the Government.

The Government’s motive for the active exclusion of the study, or mention, of non-religious perspectives from schools is not clear. We have deep concerns about this clear inequality and the negative impact on education and social tolerance these moves may have. We have commented previously about the current Government’s agenda to promote religious faith and the anti-secularist and -atheist remarks made by prominent Tory MPs.

We’d like Labour’s education team to tackle this head on and demand that the DfE revise its advice on British values to include references to atheism and humanism again, and to ensure the study of non-religious worldviews is equal to that of religious beliefs.

We are an increasingly diverse and increasingly non-religious population and that is particularly true of younger generations. It makes no sense for the Government to ignore that reality and keep using state education to promote religion.

For more information, see the BHA’s news page.

Blog Events News

Labour Humanists’ Chair makes speech to party conference

Very pleased to see Labour’s commitment to education, to a stronger school admissions code, to supporting teachers, to compulsory SRE in every state school.

My constituency party Chipping Barnet supports inclusive schools and the best teachers free to teach in any state school.

That is why Labour needs to go further and address the issue of state-funded faith schools. A third of state schools have a religious character and that number is growing through the Tories’ largely unregulated and growing academies and free schools programme.

Many state funded faith schools can and do select pupils on the basis of the religion of their parents. Labour should strengthen its position to make clear that whether someone believes in god or not, or which god they believe in, should have no bearing on whether their child can access a high quality education at their local school.

Those schools can and do put religious requirements on teaching jobs too. Allowing state funded schools to hire, fire, or set a ceiling on promotion for, suitably qualified teachers on religious grounds, must be at odds to Labour’s commitments to equality and to improving teacher quality.

Where I live, all new primary schools just opened or proposed are religious ones- Jewish and Christian. In 5 years time my daughter will be starting school. As a non-religious person who absolutely shares Labour values of equality and for inclusive high quality education, in 5 years time where should I send my daughter, when my local schools are faith schools, not inclusive, and have religious indoctrination as part of the ethos and curriculum?

Conference, let there be no doubt – our education system is only safe with Labour. Only Labour truly supports teachers. Only Labour fights for every young person to reach their educational potential regardless of their background. That is why I am a member.

And that is why Labour should not ignore or play down the threat to our values of equality and inclusion.
Labour must continue to fight for the right to every young person to have a high quality education at their local school
And we should have a national review of religion in education, ensuring the teaching of non-religious world views such as Humanism equally alongside religious perspectives.
We must look to strengthen out policy and rule out any state funded school from discriminating, selecting and segregating along religious grounds.


Labour’s equality statement to include non-religious people

We are pleased to announce that the recently-adopted equality statement of the Labour Party will now cover non-religious people (including atheists and humanists), having previously only referred to ‘religion’.

Last month Labour’s policy making body – the National Policy Forum (NPF) – agreed an overarching equality statement as a commitment to the way it will implement policies and its manifesto. However, the equality statement appeared not to cover non-religious people and therefore Labour Humanists took action to campaign for the statement to be amended as a matter of urgency.

While we supported the otherwise excellent statement, we made clear to representatives from all major groups in the Labour party that if the statement went ahead as it was written, it would create serious inequalities between religious and non-religious people and could have profound implications for the status of humanists and other non-religious people within and outside of Labour.

Our concern went to Labour’s Joint Policy Committee (JPC), the senior body which has strategic oversight of policy development in the party. JPC officers have agreed a change to the statement to replace ‘religion’ with the term ‘religion or belief’, which includes non-religious people. The revised wording will be published in the equality statement and will be available at, if not before, Labour’s annual conference in September.

We would like to thank Labour Party Chair and Labour Humanists’ Patron Angela Eagle MP for overseeing this process, and to the many members of the National Policy Forum who contacted us to support this important change.


The equality statement had stated ‘religion’ but omitted ‘or belief’. This went against the letter of the Equality Act 2010 and human rights law, which use the term ‘religion or belief’ to cover both non-religious and religious people. In practice, just using ‘religion’ specifically does not cover humanists or any other person with philosophical beliefs which are not religious.

The revised equality statement:

Labour is the Party of equality. We believe that no person should suffer discrimination or a lack of opportunity because of their gender, gender identity, age, disability, race, religion or belief, socio-economic status or sexual orientation. In government, every decision we take will be taken with that in mind. We will ensure the policies across these eight documents and in our manifesto will be implemented ensuring that they further rather than hinder this cause.

Labour has always led the fight for equality, but our fight is not yet won. We will not rest until everyone can live their lives free from hatred, fear and oppression. In government we will work to remove the structural and social barriers that stand in our way.

For further information contact Naomi Phillips, Chair of Labour Humanists.

Blog News

World Humanist Congress a huge success

Over 1000 atheist, humanist and other non-religious organisations and activists from over 60 countries from the world gathered in the internationally renowned university city of Oxford  for the World Humanist Congress, hosted by the British Humanist Association (BHA). This was the first time the Congress has been held in the United Kingdom since 1978 and was the the biggest Congress in its history.

Congress celebrated freedom of thought and expression and, on closing the conference, the BHA unveiled the Oxford Declaration on Freedom of Thought and Expression. The Declaration was described by BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson as an ‘urgent manifesto’ for reform and subject to overwhelming popular endorsement on the Congress floor. The Declaration read that ‘The right to freedom of thought and belief is one and the same right for all; no one anywhere should ever be forced into or out of a belief; the right to freedom of expression is global in its scope; there is no right not to be offended, or not to hear contrary opinions; states must not restrict thought and expression merely to protect the government from criticism; and freedom of belief is absolute but the freedom to act on a belief is not.’

Catch up

The World Humanist Congress had many speakers and sessions over three days. The Congress was filmed and those will be available shortly. Many hundreds of photographs are beginning to be uploaded by the BHA and delegates to the World Humanist Congress group on Flickr. You can also catch up with what happened by reading the news reports on the BHA website, searching for #WHC2014 on Twitter, and checking out the Congress Facebook page.

At Congress, Labour Humanists’ chair Naomi Phillips led a session asking ‘Should Humanism matter in politics’ with a truly fantastic panel: Kerry McCarthy MP, Tom Copley AM, Julie Pernet (European Humanist Federation) and Maggie Ardiente (American Humanist Association). We will publish a report of this session soon.




House of Lords debates contribution of atheists and humanists to UK society

My Lords, today we speak up on behalf of the silent majority, for those of us who do not attend any place of worship, whether church, mosque or synagogue. It is a silent majority, whose full contribution to British society has perhaps been unsung for too long. In contrast, we find that religious voices are ever more present, and sometimes shrill, in the public square. However, because atheism is a philosophical viewpoint, arrived at individually and personally, we are not given to marching in the street chanting, “What do we want? Atheism! When do we want it? Now!”

– and so Labour’s Lord Harrison opened his debate on the contribution of atheists and humanists to United Kingdom society.

Peers from across the House of Lords joined the timely debate and Labour Peers in particular made strong contributions. The focus of the debate was the need for recognition of humanists in the public square, and on equality and human rights, on the importance of balanced education, on the dangers of religious sectarianism, on the rising numbers f non-religious in the UK population, and on the wide-ranging and valuable work of the British Humanist Association (BHA), to which Labour Humanists is affiliated. Here are some of the things that Labour Peers said:

Humanism is perhaps the default philosophical position for millions of people in the UK today, and millions of humanists in one way or another in their daily lives improve society by strengthening our democratic freedoms, involving themselves assiduously in charity work, increasing our body of scientific knowledge and enhancing the cultural and creative life of the United Kingdom – Lord Harrison

What I hope for is an understanding of the importance of ethics and morality that allows non-religious systems equal respect… I ask for an equal place in our counsels and advisory bodies, and, most of all, in the education of our children. It should be the primacy of an ethical framework in our public policy, not the primacy of religion, that matters – Baroness Whitaker

Secular morality is not anti-religious, it is areligious. Of course, the areligious increasingly are the majority of adults in our country – Lord Layard

We have just had riots on the streets of Belfast about—what?—religion. I come from the city of Glasgow, which is divided between two different Christian churches. If you look at the great movement for democracy throughout the Islamic world, what is stopping it from developing properly? It is religion and divisions within the Islamic faith – Lord Maxton

I shall not dwell on the growth of humanism or its many contributions to democracy and civil society—blasphemy laws, humanist weddings and other secular celebrations, educational equality and so on—nor shall I list prominent humanists and their wise or witty sayings. There are too many of them – Baroness Massey

One advantage of humanists is that not only do they not fight and kill each other in large numbers, they do not have problems about the roles of women and men, sexual identity, disability or any other similar thing. Trying to solve human problems by reason is the strength of humanism – Lord Soley

It is characteristic of humanism to believe in equality and goodwill between people, and therefore to be active in campaigns for human rights. It is gratifying to reflect on the improvements in women’s rights that have been made in this country during the past century. Many of the major religions—although by no means all—have opposed the campaigns that achieved these advances. Certain religions are still extraordinarily bad about women’s rights. In this country, we have an equality law. I would oppose any attempts to introduce Sharia law or practice, which is sometimes suggested. Our law is paramount. It is intended to protect women. I do not agree that culture or religion should prevent us from attempting to intervene – Baroness Turner

What is taking place in our society is generational replacement. Older, more religious generations are dying out and being replaced by generations without any religious beliefs. I hope that I can stick around long enough to see further progress. The data suggest that Governments and parliamentarians should be more cautious about listening to religious interests when changes in public policy are under consideration. We all know what these policy issues are because they are debated often enough in this House—abortion, assisted dying, embryo research, faith schools, employment law, and discrimination – Lord Warner, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group

More than 600 couples in England and Wales already choose to celebrate their marriage with a humanist ceremony, so I am delighted that, thanks to the amendment tabled by noble Lords and passed in this house, couples of the same and opposite sex will, in the not-too-distant future, be able to choose a humanist marriage – Baroness Royall

Read the British Humanist Association’s comment on the debate.

Read the full transcript of the debate.



Events News

Labour Humanists at BHA Conference, Leeds

We were busy speaking to people and signing up new members at the British Humanist Association‘s annual conference, held in Leeds 7-9. The conference had an absolutely fantastic programme, with speakers moving from philosophy and chemistry, to astronomy, literature and media sexism. You can have a look at what happened on Twitter and searching for #BHALeeds.

Our leaflets were popular, and it was great to see so many people declaring their affiliation by wearing our new ‘Labour Humanist’ badges!

It’s important for us to attend events such as this so we can raise awareness of our group, and for us to sign up new members. Without people, our voice cannot be heard within the Labour Party.

Join us via PayPal.

Follow us on Twitter.