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Defence Humanists

Watch humanist members of the armed forces describe their work and their motivations
Defence Humanists is a section of Humanists UK that’s for serving military personnel, MoD civil servants, families, and veterans. There’s an opportunity for those who share similar views to be able to gain peer support from their colleagues, to identify where there were issues that were a particular concern to humanists or the non-religious, and also to increase awareness of humanism amongst our defence colleagues. It’s been a paradigm shift for me to realise that there are people like me out there and that we are amongst the defence community as well, and not only are we amongst the defence community, we’re a thriving part of it.
Today we’re doing our annual secular Remembrance event. Remembrance is obviously a national event which remembers the sacrifices that people have made in war. Often those events around the country are led by a Christian chaplain and a lot of our membership have informed us that they feel slightly uncomfortable with that. For those of us who aren’t religious, we can feel excluded, or that we somehow can’t fully participate - and yet at the same time there’s a tension, because we want to actively remember those who’ve gone before us and, indeed, in some cases, our friends and colleagues who are no longer with us.
So, it’s important that these sorts of events are as inclusive as possible and I see that that’s improving as time goes on.
As a humanist, I think we consider ourselves members of the human family, and that means that it’s our duty to try to protect the other members of that family. And I don’t think that, you know - in an ideal world there wouldn’t be a need for armed force to achieve that, but when situations arise where there is a need for an armed force, I think it is important that there are people who are prepared to do that. As I’ve read more into humanism, I reflect on whether going to war, and the impact it might have on myself, is the right thing to do or not.
And I’m now more clear than I ever was before that if my help, and therefore putting myself at risk, can be a benefit to others, then that’s a worthy thing to do. As a humanist, knowing that you do have only one life, it does make the decision to potentially sacrifice that life for the benefit of society, it makes it a very meaningful decision. And as a humanist, we are committed to improving the world and trying to make it a better place and being good to other people - and so if you can make a sacrifice in order to improve the lives of other people, then I think that does align with humanist values.
When I think about the reasons that we go to war - obviously, as a humanist, I would prefer that wasn’t the outcome that happened. because that’s clearly quite a challenging set of circumstances for those whom it affects. But I think there is an element of seeing it as the, almost the lesser of two evils, and not going to war arguably brings greater misery and suffering than, relatively speaking, a shorter conflict. I don’t I think there’s a perfect answer, and in each given scenario I think we need to examine the evidence closely and determine that that is indeed the best outcome.
I think there is an important role to be had for those who are pacifistic, because they can be a calming voice in what potentially could become an out-of- control situation. And by having those people who fight vociferously to stop a war, hopefully it makes us all think about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. But inevitably, at some point, conflicts do occur and it’s not something we as humans should ever shy away from, because there may be, for want of a better phrase, a greater good to work towards, and unfortunately that greater good may involve the loss of human life.
You want to try and minimize it and I think I take a great deal of solace from the fact that the the military today is a very different military to that one of a hundred years ago, where 20 million boys went to war and didn’t come back. The huge loss of life is not really part of what we do anymore.
It’s perfectly plausible to be an atheist in a fox hole, and to me it actually provides a great deal more comfort, to me personally, because I don’t have to rationalise, potentially, a greater being or goodness that is meant to exist in this realm, and to me, I think, that would cause me more confusion to think ‘Well why am I in this terrible situation if that individual actually exists?’ I’ve been in situations where the people around me are the ones that have helped me feel less afraid. I suppose that’s one of the points of humanism is that it’s the humans around us that can be the source of comfort.
My work has led me to encounter a lot of people and some of them are from very different backgrounds to me, and have very different views - worldviews - to me, and I think that my humanism has led me to be very tolerant, well, to try to be tolerant and patient, and to try to understand the views of others rather than dismissing them or getting into confrontations. So, I think it’s something that I call on quite often.

Defence Humanists brings together service personnel, veterans, Ministry of Defence staff, and their families to represent the interests of the non-religious in the armed forces. It organises events and community activities for its members and leads Humanists UK’s participation in Remembrance Day events and similar activities around the UK.

‘Humanism is an ethics of fellowship. Among those who work and serve together it is about loyalty, service, self-sacrifice, and commitment. It is about the mutual trust that forges the strong and enduring bonds of comradeship that underlie our duty to one another and our community.
‘Humanism crosses all barriers that other outlooks put up between people. It is an ethics premised on our shared humanity, and therefore with generosity and comradeliness brings us closer together. Without dogmas but with a profound belief in our duty to our fellows, it unites rather than divides, and strengthens us all.’
Professor AC Grayling, Defence Humanists Patron

Question: How might a humanist worldview help someone in times of peril?

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