Why humanist weddings should be legally recognised

A few weeks ago I emailed my MP to ask him to sign Early Day Motion 667 – a call for humanist wedding ceremonies to be legally recognised. Today I received a letter saying no.

Currently, humanist weddings require an additional ceremony at the register office – complete with vows – to make them legal. You can only be legally married in religious buildings, in a register office, or in a licensed venue. The marriage has to be performed by someone authorised, which means either a representative of the religion, or a registrar. Registrars are required by law to be neutral, and their ceremonies cannot express any religious beliefs.

As such, my MP said:

Whilst I respect the right of Humanists to have non-religious ceremonies, I am conscious that registry offices and other licensed venues already offer the choice to hold marriage ceremonies that do not contain any religious content and offer a degree of flexibility regarding content.

Indeed, I am aware that there are thousands of licensed venues across the UK that with the agreement of the attending registrar, can allow individualised ceremonies including for example, non-religious music, readings and personalised vows, in addition to those which are legally required. Consequently, I do not feel able to sign EDM 667.

Which, on the face of it, doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable – if non-religious services are available, why would humanists want something else?

But I think if you come at it from the other direction it seems completely reasonable that humanists should be allowed their own ceremonies – as, indeed, should any group that meets whatever criteria are deemed necessary for performing such events.

Current marriage law is an arbitrary mess. There’s no overriding philosophy to it – it’s just three centuries of exemptions and additions as culture shifted and individual religions became more prevalent. There are specific rules for Quakers. You still have to be a man and a woman. Sometimes you need a registrar, sometimes you don’t. It’s silly, and the whole thing needs massive reform. Sadly, that’s not currently on the cards.

But we can all agree that marriage is about two people publicly declaring their love for each other, and receiving legal recognition of this fact. Why this can only happen in specific places is a mystery to me, but I can see why only specific people should be allowed to perform the ceremonies. It’s an important occasion for the couple involved, and it seems reasonable that there should be a gravitas to the event. A vicar, registrar, rabbi, or whatever, comes with an air of authority. Their job is to make the ceremony an important ritual, with genuine significance for all involved. If we want to keep the institution important in this sense1, I find it hard to escape the idea of state accreditation of officiants (or, at least, the organisations that they belong to).

The BHA’s ceremonies department2 has for decades trained and run a network of humanist celebrants, who officiate at weddings, funerals and naming days. The training process is rigorous, and the network as a whole has a very good reputation. In Scotland, where humanist weddings are legally recognised, the number of humanist weddings now almost matches the number of Catholic weddings (8% are English or Welsh couples who’ve travelled north so they can have just the single ceremony). I’ve been to three humanist ceremonies, and to me they’ve been poignant, dignified and moving. This is obviously anecdotal, but there are countless testimonials to the same effect. We could draw up lists of criteria, and I’m sure the celebrants would tick all the boxes. I don’t see any qualities the celebrants network is lacking in order to perform ceremonies meaningful to the people involved.

So I’m entirely in favour of the celebrants network being granted permission to perform legal ceremonies. In practice, today, this means giving Humanism a special legal exemption, and in general I dislike that on principle. The point of much of the BHA’s campaigning is that everyone should be treated equally, and groups (almost always religions) not accorded unfair privileges. But my point is that any group who take the enterprise sufficiently seriously should be permitted. I wouldn’t like the job of judging some of the fringe cases, but the celebrants network is, in my view, clearly capable and competent.

But ok, sure – even if that’s all true, is there really that big a difference between a humanist ceremony and a registrar-lead non-religious one? Is it worth getting het up about? I would say yes.

A humanist ceremony isn’t a regular service with some different kinds of readings / music. They’re built around the couple (and their humanist ideals) from the ground-up, and can take any form desired (and in any location). Registrars differ in their flexibility, but their ceremonies generally have a set structure. And as their ceremonies are completely neutral, you’d have trouble mentioning Humanism at any point. Also: registrars rightly cannot express any kind of belief, but if I were getting married I wouldn’t want to think the person doing it might privately disagree with the whole thing – I’d want someone genuinely celebrating it with me. Which isn’t to knock registrars in the slightest – the few I’ve met have been professional and lovely. But there’s a difference between someone acting completely professionally and well, and someone you know shares your worldview. I appreciate this might seem subtle, but if I were getting married tomorrow it would make a big difference to me.

All of which I think is a valid argument for my MP signing the EDM. I just need to find a way to express it succinctly…

  1. I don’t mean culturally important in other ways – I’m not suggesting couples should feel they have to get married, and I find the idea of tax breaks etc. bloody weird – but that’s another argument []
  2. full disclosure: I’m interning with BHA Ceremonies at the moment, and spent last weekend photographing at the celebrants’ annual conference. []


Relief-o-matic - #12The BHA’s week of Protest the Pope events began on Monday with Relief-o-matic – a night of comedy and music, raising money for AIDS-relief charities. Robin Ince, Ed Byrne, Richard Herring, Andy Zaltzman and Ben Goldacre were amongst the star turns, and I had a tip-off about special surprise guest Tim Minchin. I was booked for the photography, and had been looking forward to it for weeks.

Then the operation on Friday knocked me back. I was determined to go, but, to be honest, by Monday I knew I’d be pushing my luck. Walking still hurt more than I was hoping it would, and sneezing (as I am prone to do) was Not Fun, but I dosed myself up on painkillers – keeping the if-you-have-to liquid morphine as an option – and headed down to London. Thankfully I was genuinely ok – adrenalin and ibuprofen kept the edge off for the evening, and I was able to bounce around without prolonged discomfort. Admittedly this was a bit lucky. Still – got away with it, and I’m really glad I went, as the night was great fun.

I’d never shot at the Bloomsbury Theatre before, and didn’t know where I’d be allowed to stand, or what their regulations would be on people moving around during the show. Thankfully they were relaxed about it. I pretty much had the run of the place, and was able to creep up and down the entire length of the side aisle without disturbing anyone, which meant I could get right up close to the stage with my telephoto lens.

Relief-o-matic - #23Shooting staged events is always tricky because the audience is darker than the performers. I’m used to lecture halls, where you can usually fudge a shot of both in the one image, but this was a proper theatre, and I had no chance. I could get a properly exposed shot of the performer looking out into The Endless Nothing, or I could get the audience staring into a nuclear fireball. And there was no happy medium. Which sounds annoying, but in practice is a no-brainer: you concentrate on the performers. So I did.

The show itself went very well. The BHA had learnt the lessons of the slightly-too-long early Godless concerts and paced the acts nicely, giving everybody ten minutes or so and alternating the comic styles. The tone was generally good, too – as with the godless concerts the audience is always going to be on-side, so you can say seemingly-contentious things without having to qualify them with the obvious caveats we all know apply. Ben Goldacre, Peter Tatchell and Johann Hari supplied the important messages, and were surrounded by comedians, all of whom I really enjoyed. I was particularly happy to see Andy Zaltzman in the flesh, as I’m a huge fan of The Bugle, and the BHA Choir put in a wonderful turn with The Vatican Rag and Every Sperm is Sacred (and made BBC London News!). And all the time there was a conspicuous piano.

Relief-o-matic - #31I was also allowed backstage, which was brilliant. At first I was in the green room, where the performers congregate, but it seemed like it’d be rude to take photos of people preparing for their act, so I didn’t shoot in there at all until the end of the night. So I mainly hovered, ate crisps, and watched @Psythor of The Pod Delusion do his stuff (and tried to figure out how he interviews people so well).

Tim Minchin came as a complete surprise to the audience, and rounded off the show with – obviously – The Pope Song, getting the biggest applause of the night. For he is awesome. I managed to say hi backstage, which was a moment of High Squeee, and he’s exactly as you’d hope – a really nice guy who had time for everybody. He went to the pub with the Choir afterwards.

The audience were really into the show from the off, and I haven’t heard anything but praise. I was happy with the photos, too. I had a really good time – I hope they make it an annual thing.

Upcoming events

Just to say I’m photographing at quite a few secular/skepticky events over the next month, in various cities. If anyone’s at / around any of these, it’d be cool to meet up. I’ll nag closer to the time, but I’m currently booked for:

  • Protest the Pope debate on the topic of “The Papal Visit should not be a State Visit”. AC Grayling and Peter Tatchell vs. Austen Ivereigh and Christopher Jamison.
    Wednesday 1st September. London. Conway Hall.
  • Come along to the Department of Health and become a registered practitioner of Old Wives’ Traditional Medicine. Sense about Science are highlighting the Department of Health’s proposed regulatory scheme for traditional medicine practitioners that doesn’t check whether the practitioner has any medical training, nor whether the medicine works.
    Wednesday 8th September. London. Department of Health, Whitehall.
  • Relief-o-matic comedy show, raising money for AIDS prevention and relief projects. Robin Ince, Ed Byrne, Natalie Haynes, Ben Goldacre, plus special guests.
    Monday 13th September. London. Bloomsbury Theatre.
  • Nope Pope: The Party. This is going to be an interesting one. Live music, dancing, deity-free weddings from ‘Pope Steve’, and fancy dress prizes.
    Friday 17th September. London. Conway Hall.
  • The big Protest the Pope march / rally. Starts Hyde Park at 1pm, then marches through Picadilly and Trafalgar Square to Downing Street.
    Saturday 18th September. London. Hyde Park.
  • BHA Liberal Democrat Conference Fringe Event. Discussion on ‘What role, if any, does faith have in the ‘Big Society’?’.
    Sunday 19th September. Liverpool. Liverpool Hilton.
  • BHA Labour Party Conference ‘No-prayer’ breakfast. Tea. Coffee. Secular pastries.
    Tuesday 28th September. Manchester. Manchester Central.
  • BHA Conservative Party Conference Event. A panel discussion on faith, multiculturalism and the ‘Big Society’, with Q&A.
    Tuesday 5th October. Birmingham. Hyatt Regency.
  • BHA Holyoake Lecture. Professor John Harris speaks on ‘Taking the “human” out of Humanism’.
    Thursday 21st October. Manchester. St Peter’s House, Precinct Centre.

Brian Cox photos

I’ve just uploaded the photos from the Brian Cox lecture (higher quality Flickr set here), and I’m happy they turned out ok. It was the first big gig I covered with the 7D, and I needed it – five minutes in they turned down the lights to make the projected image brighter, and the rest of the stage plunged into darkness. It was…challenging! My old 400D would have imploded, I think. I concentrated on photographing him framed by the projector light, but for the wider shots I was saved by very high ISOs and the Lightroom 3 beta. I love technology.

BHA Voltaire Lecture with Prof. Brian Cox

I was at the BHA’s Voltaire lecture this evening. It’s an annual talk, and this year it was given by Brian Cox – who was /excellent/.

Prof. Cox has catapulted to the forefront of UK science in the last year, particularly after his recent – brilliant – BBC1 show ‘Wonders of the Solar System’, and the lecture sold out weeks in advance. His subject was the nourishment science provides to both the imagination and the economy.

The former was a great primer on the current frontiers of physics and the work of the LHC, as well as an ode to exploration. It covered everything from the Standard Model and the search for the Higgs Boson, to the astonishing images being sent back by space probes – he had a couple of very new, as-yet-unprocessed shots from Cassini, showing ice geysers on Enceladus (it was awesome). Prof. Cox has a gift for explanation – think Lawrence Krauss, or Dawkins on biology – and he didn’t shirk from the more complex areas. For example, he showed how (hopefully I’ll get this right) the fundamental mathematics of the fundamental forces beautifully falls out of field invariance equations. I love theoretical physics, and while many of the concepts were familiar (although not always so clear in my head), this last info was all new.

So was the economic side of the talk. I was photographing the lecture so couldn’t catch everything, but, roughly: science research & development gets only a few billion of the UK’s budget (which is a low percentage compared with most first-world countries) yet makes up 40% of the GVA economic output (more than finance). This needs fixing. It’s hard to disagree.

It was engaging and fascinating – I want to see it again to pick up all the bits I missed. Beforehand I managed to photograph the Prof for a uni project, which I’m very pleased about. I haven’t been starstruck at a BHA gig for a while (Dawkins) but I was tonight – hopefully I didn’t say anything too weird. He was very friendly, gracious and down-to-earth, and certainly knew his cameras. After the lecture he spent an hour signing books and posing for photos, too. I’m glad he’s becoming a household name – he’s a great advert for science all round.

(written on WordPress for iPhone – please forgive any formatting weirdness.)

The Telegraph’s oh-so-shocking David Miliband story

The Telegraph are happily reporting that David Miliband, an atheist, sends his son to a faith school. He ‘has been accused of hypocrisy’, we’re told in the most passive of passive voices. It’s not the Telegraph accusing him of hypocrisy, in their website-front-page top-section headline; oh no: it’s other people. And what a terrible hypocrisy it is. It means…wait, what does it mean?

As ever with this type of story, it doesn’t mean much. 99% of hypocrisy stories are dickish, because they don’t go beyond risk-free attack. When newspapers accuse someone of inconsistency, they’re not making any statement on the rights or wrongs of the positions, so there’s no comeback. Media pure-hypocrisy stories conjure up an air of vague wrongness, without ever honing in on a specific problem. What is the Telegraph trying to say, here? That hypocrisy is a binary personality trait, and David Miliband can’t be trusted on anything, ever? That there’s something wrong with faith schools? What? It’s meaningless.

Everyone’s a hypocrite. Everyone fails to meet their ideals, and everyone has to compromise sometimes. Government ministers more than the rest of us. I suppose continuous, spectacular hypocrisy could eventually become a point unto itself, but most of the time you have to go beyond the inconsistency. You can use hypocrisy as the starting point – the minister says x, but does y, because the problem with x is… – but isolated it’s just trolling. If you want to be completely ridiculous you point out inconsistencies across the entire government, as if such a massive organisation could avoid such problems. This is all Private Eye does, as far as I can tell. Such things only feed cynicism, and stifle useful argument.

And, aside from that, mentioning a minister’s children is pushing it. There could be all sorts of reasons for the choice of school, none of which need bringing up in a newspaper. Anyway, the Telegraph eventually finds someone who’ll say the word ‘hypocrisy’, albeit more gently than you’d imagine from the headline. But they don’t have much luck elsewhere:

The British Humanist Association, which wants to remove the right of faith schools to discriminate on the basis of religion, said Mr Miliband’s choice of school was a private matter.

This is why I like the BHA: they’re classy.

Evolution in primary school science lessons

News came out this weekend that the theory of evolution is to be included in primary school science lessons for the first time. As of April this wasn’t the case, and the change is down to a successful campaign and a lot of hard work by the British Humanist Association – huge congrats to them for getting this through.

I left school knowing what vaguely what evolution was, but with no understanding of how it underpins all of biology. Now I don’t understand how you can teach biology without it. I remember GCSE biology just being a bunch of disparate facts about animals and plants. The closest we got to evolution was having it drilled into us that a) camels have large feet, as they’re adapted to the deserts, and b) polar bears have clear fur, the relevance of which is still a mystery1. These two facts were all we needed for the exam, so I duly wrote them down and paid no more attention. My science teacher obviously noticed this problem, and at the end of our final year gave a friend a copy of The Selfish Gene. Looking back, that was a pretty awesome thing to do. I didn’t find that book until three years later.

Hopefully these developments will see evolution built more fundamentally into the textbooks, and not just as another thing to learn.

  1. and, now I look it up, a bit more complex than is perhaps necessary for an introduction to evolution []

Dancing on the Plinth

There's probably no God

So I finally decided on an idea for my spot on the Fourth Plinth. I’ll be teaching the Thriller dance routine to anyone willing to learn, in front of an enormous ‘There’s probably no God…’ bus sign (kindly provided by the BHA). Do feel free to come along! There’s a Facebook event page here.

We’ve put the word out to as many London-based atheists and humanists as we can, so hopefully there’ll be a decent crowd.

If you fancy watching, I’m on 16:00-17:00 this Sunday, and it’ll be streamed live on oneandother.co.uk (it’ll also be archived to watch later). And if you get a minute, it’d be lovely if you could ‘Pledge to Watch’ on the oneandother site. Hopefully we can attract the attention of The Guardian’s PlinthWatch, and other plinthspotters.

Right. I’d better go practice…

Happy Humanists response

So I showed Happy Humanists at the BHA‘s AGM last Saturday. I had a table at the back of the room with three copies of the book and a monitor looping through the photos. I was pretty nervous, as I hadn’t shown it to anybody disinterested, and by the time it was all set up I really had no idea what the reaction would be. Thankfully, people seemed to like it. A couple of people actively tried to buy a copy – just some random people, not in the book or anything! – which pretty much made my day. Plenty also expressed interest in getting a copy, and one person came along specially to see me and the project, which was lovely. I was most chuffed, actually.

I’m still not sure what happens next. I was worried about model agreements, but a bit of research – tipped off by a helpful tweet from Damian – suggests that’s not too big a problem. Much more difficult is cost – the individual Blurb-printed books cost £18.95, which is obviously way too much. Bulk deals of over 200 – if there were that kind of interest, which is unlikely – would bring the price down by 10%, but that’s still not good enough; I reckon a tenner is about right. So I’m not sure how to get around that, other than looking for other printers.

I’m really pleased it went down so well! If I can just get over this final hurdle and produce something to sell, I’ll be happy indeed.