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The conundrum of how to prove you hold a nonreligious worldview

When a Pakistani humanist, Hamza bin Walayat, was denied asylum in Britain in mid January after failing to identify Plato and Aristotle as humanist philosophers, it drew international attention.

The Home Office’s understanding of what it means to be a humanist and of humanism’s history is deeply flawed, and the potential consequences are very serious. Walayat’s application for asylum referred to death threats from members of his family for rejecting Islam, and fear for his life in Pakistan, which has strict blasphemy laws.

But it is also just the latest indication that illiteracy about what it means to be nonreligious is widespread – even in relatively nonreligious societies such as the UK.

At the last count in 2008, 37% of Britons said they had atheist outlooks of some kind – some 25m people, and likely to grow. Around the world the numbers of atheists rival adherents of major “world religions”.

Alongside concerns about a lack of religious literacy in the UK, understanding of the philosophies and values of people who say they have no religion is also very limited – and receives much less attention.

The state plays an important role in this. One issue is that public bodies are struggling to understand how nonreligious people come to their views about the nature of existence and the meaning of life without the help of institutions such churches.

Such nonreligious and secular worldviews come in many forms. There are different kinds of humanism, different kinds of materialism, different kinds of agnosticism. Most nonreligious worldviews are atheistic, but some are not. They are found all around the world, and take different forms in different contexts: atheism in Japan isn’t the same thing as atheism in Denmark, for example. But one thing that nonreligious worldviews have in common is that they are rarely institutionalised.

Yes, nonreligious worldviews are anchored in and shared through common cultures. Nonreligious people do not, for example, want for poems or songs to use in registry office wedding ceremonies or humanist funerals. Existential ideas – about what it means to be alive, and what makes life worth living – run through this material. These choices might feel very personal, but there are common themes that communicate and establish different nonreligious norms and values.

But shared themes are not the same as shared texts. In its questions about Plato and Aristotle, the Home Office tried to identify a body of writing that those sharing a humanist worldview might turn to – something similar to religious scripture. For humanism, as for other nonreligious worldviews, this simply doesn’t exist.

Think outside the institution

This isn’t necessarily a problem for nonreligious people themselves, but it’s a problem for public bodies, used to identifying worldviews through official institutions such as the Church of England and its representatives. Across public life – media, religious education, parliamentary committees or community forums – the strategy for including nonreligious perspectives has simply been to extend the old model to include humanist organisations. This is important to do, but it is not enough.

Religious people now increasingly explore and practice their beliefs outside formal institutions. This means that knowledge of religious texts or congregational participation is becoming almost as absurd an indicator of religious commitments as knowledge of Greek philosophy is of nonreligious ones.

The good news is that the will to engage with nonreligious outlooks is there – what is lacking is the way. It was good to see the BBC, for example, including nonreligious worldviews in a recent review of its coverage of religion, but the review did not include any ideas of what this might look like in practice.

Other worldviews are available. from

Understanding other worldviews

At the moment, the diversity of nonreligious worldviews is simply unrepresented in most public institutions. A major change is needed, but public bodies have their work cut out in bringing it about. Nonreligious worldviews are slippery fish – and nonreligious people often struggle as much as anyone else to put them into words.

It is only quite recently that researchers have worked to understand nonreligious perspectives in detail. New research – including my own work with the international Understanding Unbelief programme – is addressing this. For example, people tend to think about atheism in quite simple terms but our research is showing that it can take several very different forms. It’s also helping us develop terms to understand and talk about non-traditional belief systems that are difficult to describe as religions.

In the UK, nonreligious people often hold elite positions, but this doesn’t mean that they are properly represented or protected in public life, nor that they are free from discrimination and persecution – either at home or abroad. For all these reasons, our historically superficial understanding of atheism and other nonreligious worldviews demands an overhaul.

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