How would you describe yourself in terms of belief?
If it is framed in terms of belief I would have to go for humanist. I was brought up Catholic and I rejected that strongly, and was much more atheist, then became more sceptic, for a time I still felt uncomfortable assigning myself a label which had doctrines which I would be held to. But the more I appreciated that there was the whole freedom of thought element to humanism and that you are encouraged to think for yourself, I became a lot more comfortable with the label and now wholly endorse it.
Would you say that the GB/Scotland is an equal and tolerant society, especially in terms of religion and belief?
Across the UK as a whole, I’d find it hard to comment [as I’ve not lived outside Scotland at all]. My impression is that on the whole, yes, it is a tolerant place. There are incidents, and particular instances which cause issues and bring up things in Gazza and Israel, or elsewhere in the world and can increase Anti-Semitic and Islamophobic attacks. I did see though an interesting piece in the Guardian which said that only one Scottish Muslim has gone to join IS, and this is because Muslims in Scotland have better relations with the government and are much more respected. I haven’t done any research, but the figure is interesting, only 1 out of 600 hundred British Muslims joining ISIS came from Scotland. Overall it is a tolerant place, but there are exceptions.
I’m less certain I’d call it “equal” though.
How easy is it for you to live a humanist? Are there any challenges and if so, are they social, political or legal in nature?
Social, in Scotland no; in England and Wales you are still barred from having humanist marriage, but we have had humanist weddings for over 10 years. We have more weddings than the RC church and expect to have more than the Church of Scotland by the end of the year. I don’t have any issues identifying as humanist. I’ve never experienced any social backlash, other than from people who think that you identify as humanist to avoid identifying as feminist. Legally, there are still issues regarding opt outs from schools etc. can discriminate against you from teaching in particular schools. If you are the child of humanist parents you can be discriminated against by schools, state funded schools can choose to give you a less than adequate sex education. I think there are issues, but I wouldn’t say that it is anything approaching organised discrimination.
How do you think that humanism has contributed to or influenced the world’s understanding of human rights? How would it regard them?
In terms of an organised humanist movement, I’m not sure that I know enough to answer. In terms of more broadly, the Enlightenment thinkers, encouraging people to think more openly and critically. One thing about humanism is looking beyond nations to look at humans as a group, then that would be necessary for some sort of acceptable idea of human rights to come about.
Do you think that human rights which apply to everyone are a good or a bad thing for British society?
I would think that they are a good thing.
Are there any ways in which humanism has a practical impact on human rights in contemporary Scotland and Britain?
Absolutely, in Scotland the HSS alongside the Equality Network was very much campaigning for equal marriage. The first same sex marriage took place in Scotland just over six months ago, so that would be one area. Another would be, depending on how you interprets particular arguments, would be the right to end your life at a time and place of your choosing and manner. So that is something that HSS is campaigning for. With regards to the BHA it was pointed out at the 2015 AGM that the BHA is the only national organisation campaigning for assisted dying, not just for the terminally ill, but as a sort of principle for those whose suffering is unbearable. Those are two areas, but humanism should be allied with other equalities, whether that by feminism, or helping end discrimination toward other people.
Would you say that human rights are generally respected by public bodies?
It depends what you mean by respected, I imagine that there will be what would be viewed as busy bodies going around to make sure that everybody is compliant. But whether they are viewed as a good thing, probably not. When you read articles in particular papers about….one about some escaped prisoner who was refusing to come down from a roof somewhere, and it was alleged that because of his human rights they had to go and bring him a KFC. I think that the real story behind that was the police didn’t know why they were doing it so they said it was human rights. I think that they are probably not respected in terms of held in high regard as much as they should be, that is probably down to the media and certain politicians. But as far as they are implemented and followed I would say yes, probably as far as I know. But there are things which I would consider not to be in the spirit or even perhaps the letter of the law.
Would you say the State gets the balance right in relation to intervening in the lives of individuals and groups?
I’m not sure. I’d like to think.
Maybe the following question would help….when should the state definitely intervene to restrict the expression of religion or belief?
Definitely should if they are actively and specifically inciting violence. Beneath that, then for me it becomes more difficult. It is only through having freedom of expression that ideas which were once heretical, like having marriage between people of the same sex, it would only be through being able to mock and chastise deeply held beliefs that that can change. So I would say that you do need to be able to satirise religious beliefs and religious people……the figureheads rather than individuals, but there are still problems. If there is widespread anti-Muslim bigotry, and there is constant and repeated focus on one particular area rather than another which is equally problematic, then that is a difficulty. But I suppose if we are just discussing…..I think the state should intervene when violence is being actively solicited and encouraged…..and beneath that, probably not.
Would you say that living in a Parliamentary democratic society makes it easier or harder for you to live in accordance with your beliefs?
Easier, certainly than some systems. I don’t know what would be better.
Do you believe that you have a personal responsibility to vote?
From my humanism……..I feel like I have a duty to make clear my preference or lack one way or the other. Recently, I joined the Labour Party because I felt that it was an interesting time to be involved, but if I don’t feel that any of the leadership candidates are good for me then I might end up spoiling my ballot. Even in a general election, if none of the parties appeal then I at least feel I have…perhaps duty is too strong a word, so a pressure, a pressure I agree with to go and at least mark down the fact that I have participated, even if it is just to say that you are all crap.
Do you think that it is a good thing for judges to have the power to strike down legislation?
I am not familiar with any cases in which the law has been struck down……all Scottish legislation is secondary legislation and all has to work under the HRA because it is the closest thing we have to a Scottish Constitution. In practice I don’t know if there has been a case of non-compliance. It’s all swings and roundabouts. At some level something will have to give. It may well be the case that the Scottish Parliament has to comply with the HRA, but the UK Parliament could just change or abolish the HRA if they have a majority. In America the Constitution has been amended. I don’t think we have a permanent backstop anywhere. Obviously you can take things to do the ECHR in the UK. I am not uncomfortable with the idea that Parliament is constrained from acting in certain ways, as long as there are good reasons for doing that. Parliament can always amend the position. It’s not something I have given too much thought to.
Is Parliamentary democracy sufficiently inclusive of all groups here in Scotland?
I think that in terms of the people who have ended up being representatives, the most recent SNP intake of MPs, 7 or 8 of the 56 are LGBT which makes it the gayest Parliament in the world. Certainly, I’d imagine that people who are not straight, white men would find it easier to notice when things are not in balance, usually in their particular direction. I think that at the moment things are improving in terms of accessibility and inclusivity generally.
Does it concern you that the House of Lords is currently unelected?
I can see…..in depends on what the role and function, if they are unelected but put there because they are experts in their particular areas that is fine, but why should they be voting on things which are not their particular area? It makes sense for farming experts to vote on agriculture, but not assisted dying for instance. Couldn’t they have a stronger role on committees rather than legislation? I suppose that because of the Parliament Acts their power is to delay rather than to block for ever. I did have a thought that it would be good if the people could nominate anybody, and vote on them, rather than having a fixed list of people. Obviously, if people were nominated and didn’t want to do it then you could move on to the next person. I suppose that their might be a risk of getting lots of enthusiastic celebrities. It would be a bit like an Athenian democracy but elected I guess, so maybe that wouldn’t be a bad thing. Maybe it needs further thought.
How do you feel about the presence of bishops in the House of Lords?
Not in favour…..if they are there because they are elected or chosen for particular achievements or contributions then that is different. But they should not have any places reserved for them, or any other religious group. If you were to have privileged places I wouldn’t restrict it to religious voices, religions are just an interesting set of lobby groups……roughly that is what they are up to. If you were to reserve places for specific groups, I wouldn’t restrict it to religion, but where do you draw the line? No, I think that the simplest and cleanest thing would be to scrap the system of reserving.
Do you think that it is a good or a bad thing that some decision which affect GB as a whole are now made by the devolved assemblies?
With regard to devolution, I think that maybe the jury….I feel that it is a good thing. I know that people often point out that the Scottish Parliament has not used all of the powers it currently have, and say use the powers you have before asking for more….but I do think that the fact that different policy decisions can be made for different ideas which may have different needs is a good thing. It is a sort of halfway house as it were, what you have at the moment is not ideal. There is the illusion of having control over income tax rates, it is plus or minus three pence in the pound, on every tax level. I do think more devolution would be a good thing. I don’t know how things will go for the next few years, it’s my expectation that probably Scotland will end up being independent, but I am not convinced that it is down to a tide of nationalism. There is evidence of a decline in Scottish only or more Scottish than British identity since devolution, which does suggest that it hasn’t made people more nationalistic.
It looks at the moment as though Jeremy Corbyn may come out on top. The SNP have said that he is leader that they most fear and I think that Jeremy Corbyn would be a lot more appealing to a lot of people in Scotland than the others. Because at the last election, 75% of people voted for the Labour manifesto in one guise of another, because the SNP manifesto was quite similar in some places. So yes, I think that Labour could do very well in Scotland if they had Jeremy Corbyn, so it would be interesting if he were to win back a lot of Scotland and alienate a lot of England, then it would be almost the opposite of what you have now. It would make the case that it is not a nationalist thing which has been going on in Scotland, it is about policies.
What does you humanist belief teach you about people with power, and the ways in which they should be held accountable?
It may encourage certain values……but maybe certain values lead to humanism. I would be concerned about people with large wealth influencing things, buying elections or policies. But I’m not quite sure how you would go about dealing with it. You could set a cap on donations to parties, or have state funding of parties based on votes at the last election. More generally, I think that people should think a lot more about other people, and at the same time be more individualistic in acceptance of responsibility for their actions.
Would you say that humanists are appropriately and proportionately represented in public life?
No, at least not openly or in an organised fashioned. I know that a lot of people in the Lib Dems……certainly there will be a humanist faction in lots of political parties. I know that 3 or the 7 Lib Dem candidates in Glasgow in the last election were all members of Glasgow sceptics, which is a grassroots organisation which I run, committed to promoting science, understanding, critical thinking and freedom of expression. They were all there….they are all active. I feel uncomfortable in ascribing a status of humanists to them, but there values are consistent with it, and they are happy to take part in activities of HSS. But maybe in the future there will be organised humanist groups more in Parliament and local councils that is something to be taken forward.
Would you say that there is enough distance between Parliament and the judiciary in Scotland?
Perception-wise I have not been aware of any flagrant violation.
How do you seek to challenge decisions which you perceive as problematic?
Well, personally I don’t know, I’m becoming more willing to take part in public demonstrations than I would have in the past. I am quite not so much a fan, going through official processes I suppose. With Glasgow sceptics I organised a petition for e-petitions, because I thought that Glasgow City Council’s petitions committee was awful, perhaps deliberately. I have, with the backing of the University of Edinburgh Humanist Society, put forward motions to the Student Union. So when we understood that there was gender segregation being suggested, we put forward a motion to say that the union would not allow that, would discourage that. People could self-segregate to the best of their ability, but we wouldn’t allow someone to direct it from the door. The motion wasn’t about any particular group, it was about any source of segregation for any reason. Because for instance you have Islamic extremist preachers who can come to universities and might demand no gays here, so the end result was I was called an Islamophobe. Then a couple of months later I put forward a motionthe student association EUSA had passed a motion ‘EUSA is feminist’, andbecause that was passed with a large majority, to make sure that our motion was doing nothing that this motion wasn’t, we just changed all of the references to feminism to secularism, and changed all of the descriptive language to make it relevant. I did this with the permission of the author of the feminist petition, this was still accused of being sneaky and mocking the feminist position. It was not passed.
I think that there is weird imbalance in universities in terms of freedom of speech and accommodating views. So for instance you wouldn’t tolerate a political society splitting up men and women, or people on the basis of any other characteristic.
Do you think that public authorities have a good understanding of the needs of humanists?
I’d say that in general, no definitely not, there is conflation between humanist and militant atheist or militant secularist. The idea that humanists are negative, and just want to stop other people doing things, stamping out religious rights that this would ignore all of the stuff about allowing other people having rights which they should have access to, whether this be same sex marriage or allowing people to end their life. I think that that sort of conflation is unhelpful, often deliberately unhelpful. I think that humanism has a long way to go to be understood as being separate from or different from atheism. For me, personally, the atheism thing is pretty much irrelevant, it’s true that I am an atheist and where there are issues with people making strong claims about God or gods I will discuss that, and where there is violation of secularism we should deal with that. But for me it is much more a political and a social thing. I do think that atheism is an integral part, but it’s not the predominant thing. If atheism is not part of your humanism, I think that you are doing it wrong.
I think that councils are probably more willing and receptive, they are less known than the parliaments, they can do things because they are the right thing to do rather than because there are votes to be won. We have had people from the HSS being invited to give the time for reflection at Edinburgh City Council before and I think regularly than at the Scottish Parliament.
Is it important to you always to act within State law?
Yes, I don’t think that it is essential always to operate within the law. There are times when there are good principled reason to break the law. The law is not a constant, the law is not a good guide for me as to what is moral. If a friend were to have a debilitating illness and ask me to help with an assisted suicide, I would have to think hard about it, but one of the things I hope I would be able to consider less would be the law and would what happen to me, and would make a moral and ethical decision on the situation rather than what punishment might await. If I were incredibly poor, homeless and hungry I think it would be legitimate to take from somebody who would not miss a loaf of bread.
Do you humanist beliefs require you to speak out injustices which affect third parties?
Yes, I think so. Sometimes it’s hard to escape from the Student Union bubble -I was a student six months ago – but there can often be an opposition to speaking out if there are people who have no voice, it can be frowned upon to lend your voice. If you are a white man speaking for whomever, then there is an argument that you should remain silent and let them speak. And I can understand that point of view, but if they are voiceless and that is the result of a cultural and societal problem then it seems appropriate to do seeming. I feel moved to make, to speak out when I see injustices. It would only be fear of accusations of cultural imperialism which would cause me not to speak.
Do you think that the Rule of Law is applied equally in the GB?
With regards to systematic bias within decisions made, I don’t enough but I wouldn’t be surprised. With regards to access to the courts, people with more money have better access especially with cuts to legal aid. That is only going to disadvantage poor people. With regards to libel is still a big thing in Scotland and Northern Ireland. There was the whole thing about libel spearheaded by Simon Singh because he was pursued by the British Chiropractic Association because it still is the law in Scotland, if someone accuses you libel you have to prove that you have not. He happened to have been wealthy and could defend himself, but anybody who had less than £250k would not have to access to that.
What do you think about the ways in which generally speaking the State has increased police and surveillance powers over the past 15 years?
I don’t know. I am not convinced that the threat from the terrorists is great enough to warrant what has happened. You are more likely to be hit by a car than blown up on a bus. I am not convinced that the Snoopers Charter is needed.
Are there any legal rules which have a negative impact on your own life at present?
I suppose one thing would be experimenting drugs, it would be simpler and safer if they are legal or at least criminalised. Being able to pop into Tesco after 10pm and take some alcohol. Perhaps in the future things will change, but at present nothing else jumps out.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Nothing springs to mind, I’ll email you if it does.
Ian was raised Catholic and attended a Catholic primary school in Glasgow, Scotland. In his early teenage years at a non-denominational school, he began to question the idea of a god and came to identify as an atheist, and then as a humanist. After receiving their help in a dispute with his school about compulsory Christian assemblies, Ian joined the Humanist Society Scotland in 2009 at 16. For six years he was President of Glasgow Skeptics – a grassroots not-for-profit organisation promoting science and understanding, critical thinking, and freedom of expression – despite moving to Edinburgh to study Psychology soon after founding it. Under his lead, Glasgow Skeptics engaged the public in discussions of science and pseudoscience, politics and policy, going on to host one of the largest debates on Scottish Independence of the referendum campaign, with several Scottish party leaders taking part.
In May 2014 he was elected a trustee of the Humanist Society Scotland (HSS), and was appointed Chair soon after. He was Acting Chief Executive for a short period and led the charity’s recruitment process to fill the role permanently.
He now lives in London and works as Events Manager for the British Humanist Association.