BHA: Non-religious members of the forces should be represented at the Remembrance cenotaph

by Pavan Dhaliwal, Head of Public Affairs, British Humanist Association

For All Who Serve: representing the non-religious at remembrance services

The British Humanist Association (BHA) is supporting ‘For All Who Serve’, the new campaign launched by the United Kingdom Armed Forces Humanist Association (UKAFHA), which calls for the recognition of non-religious members of the armed forces who have died in the line of duty at the national service of remembrance.  It is unfair that Humanist and non religious representatives are still denied representation at the Cenotaph.  British society is increasingly multi-faith, non-religious and secular, and an event in our national consciousness as important as the service of remembrance ought to reflect the nature of modern-day British society.

The service of remembrance should also reflect the beliefs of Armed Forces personnel themselves, an increasing number of which are non-religious.  Approximately 26,000 serving members of the Armed Forces now describe themselves as having ‘no religion’, which makes the non-religious the second largest belief group after Christianity.  The number of non-religious members outnumbers all those belonging to the non-Christian religions combined.  It should also be borne in mind that many Armed Forces personnel who identify as ‘Christian’ only do so because they were brought up in the faith, or feel a cultural affiliation to Christianity, not because they actively believe in or practise it.  Therefore the real number of non-religious members is likely to be even higher.

But despite the rise in the number of non-religious personnel, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), which coordinates the national service of remembrance, still refuses to include Humanist representatives at the ceremony, and have twice rejected the BHA and UKAFHA’s request for representation.  UKAFHA membership alone already exceeds that of religious groups such as Sikhs or Jews, but these religions do have representation at the Cenotaph.  The exclusion of Humanist and non-religious representatives is therefore completely unfair and discriminatory.

It should also be remembered that some of the British soldiers commemorated at the Cenotaph from the two World Wars were non-religious.  When British society was more overtly religious, many non-religious people, including members of the Armed Forces, kept quiet about their lack of faith for fear of social disapproval.  If we want to ensure that all of our war dead are honoured appropriately, we need to include non-religious representatives at remembrance ceremonies as well as religious ones.

Humanists have already been successful in gaining representation at some local remembrance ceremonies and services across the UK.  Last year ceremonies in Edinburgh, Belfast, Birmingham, Sheffield, and Richmond included representatives from local Humanist groups.  We hope to persuade the DCMS to follow their lead.