Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry. Photo courtesy Fry and British Humanist Association.

Last month, the British Humanist Association (BHA) made waves around the world by launching a new video series, “That’s Humanism!

These concise, engaging, and thoughtful videos speak to important questions (“What makes something right or wrong?” “How can I be happy?” “What should we think about death?”) from a Humanist perspective.

For many, the voice addressing those questions was instantly recognizable—it belongs to Golden Globe Award-nominated actor, comedian, author, and activist Stephen Fry, who narrates the video series.

Fry, a distinguished supporter of the BHA, has been an outspoken voice for Humanism for years. I spoke with him about why he decided to narrate these videos, how Humanism informs his approach to life, and what else the BHA is currently working on.

Chris Stedman: Why did you decide to work on these videos?

Stephen Fry: The word atheism is a hard, negative one to some ears. Secularism is a confusing word, too. Humanism is better understood, and it seemed to us that the videos could encourage the young with no actual religious conviction to know that there is an intellectual, moral schema with a noble heritage out there.

Religions have deep pockets and much to gain from recruitment. Humanists are not interested in recruiting. There is no establishment of Humanism, no imam, pope or archbishop—merely the opportunity to test one’s own instincts and experience against the “revealed” truths.

Most people in Britain aren’t religious, and we wanted to let people know that there is a positive word for what they believe: Humanism. Younger people in Britain are generally not as religious as people from older generations—but as with anyone else it’s not always the case that it’s easier for young people who are questioning the world around them to encounter the full range of options available to them. That’s why it’s important for have campaigns like these, to reach new people.

CS: What do you hope viewers will take away from watching these videos?

SF: Enjoyment and recognition of the simplicity and splendor to be derived from opening of the door of choice. The empowerment of the individual in a universe of wonder that would be so dull, peculiar, callous and hostile if it had been deliberately made by some invisible and obviously malicious and capricious creator.

A screen capture from the British Humanist Association's "That's Humanism!" video series.

A screen capture from the British Humanist Association’s “That’s Humanism!” video series, courtesy of British Humanist Association.

CS: Are these videos targeted at helping Humanists? Educating non-Humanists?

SF: It’s a bit of both. Our original idea was for a campaign that could introduce Humanism to people in an easy and accessible way. We suspect that many people who live as Humanists in their daily lives may not know there is a community of like-minded people in Britain, or even a word for their nonreligious life stance. But at the same time, introducing people to humanism more broadly is also important to us, and we think we’ve managed to do both very well.

CS: How do you define Humanism? How does it inform the way in which you live your life?

SF: Humanism is an approach to life which encourages ethical and fulfilling living on the basis of reason and humanity, and rejects superstition and religion. The most immediate impact of living as a Humanist is that we believe this life is all there is—so what we do and the choices we make really count.

It inspires a lot of enthusiasm for everyday life and urges us to be better to one another, to work towards a better future and a common good. If I believed there was an afterlife I would have so much less motive for filling this life with every experience that is offered up to me.

CS: What is the BHA working on right now? 

SF: We’re very busy! At the moment we have a number of campaigns in full swing. Our education campaigning has had some recent victories—for example, we’ve recently persuaded Government to require more and more schools to teach evolution and to ban the teaching of creationism and pseudoscience in science lessons. We’re continuing to campaign against divisive “faith” schools, and we’ve taken our assisted dying campaign all the way to the Supreme Court, and are awaiting judgment any day now.

We’ve also got a number of critical time-sensitive campaigns on right now. For example, representatives of Humanist service personnel are currently excluded from the ceremony in November which marks 100 years since the end of World War I, and we’re doing everything we can to change that.

We’ve also expanded our volunteer Humanist counselors in hospitals and prisons, and we’re continuing to train volunteers who can be classroom assistants in Religious Education lessons. Along with our recently updated our Humanism for Schools website, this means that more teachers and pupils than ever have access to good resources for learning about Humanism. And later this year we’re sending a copy of Alom Shaha’s The Young Atheist Handbook to every secondary school in England and Wales. We’re very pleased about that—it’s a very special book.

CS: How can people get involved or support the BHA’s work?

SF: One of the best ways for people to support our work would be to sign up as members, which of course bolsters our everyday campaigning and supplies us with the funding we need to continue doing the work that we do. We don’t receive any Government funding, and often find ourselves outpaced in terms of wealth and means by some of our opposing campaigners. It continues to impress me, actually, how much we get done with such a small team.

The other way of course is volunteering. We rely on an enormous network of volunteers around the country. We wouldn’t have a fraction of the reach we have if not for their commitment. So truly, any help anyone can send our way, whether it comes in the form of a donation or offering to volunteer for us, would be of enormous benefit to us.

CS: How would you characterize the overall response to the videos? 

SF: It’s been incredible. We’ve reached hundreds of thousands of new people, and the vast majority of the responses we’ve had have been incredibly positive. People love the videos and images of famous humanists we’re sharing.

We’ve heard from teachers who say they’ll use the videos in lessons; young people who’ve written to us to say that these videos have helped them accept that they don’t believe in God; and we’ve had an unanticipated international reaction as well, with messages of thanks coming in from all over the world.

One of the amazing benefits of it is that people have been fed through to our website in large numbers, and a huge proportion of them are taking our ”Are you a Humanist?” quiz. That in itself has been great. We’re incredibly touched by it all.

28 Comments

    • Leading people AWAY from blind faith is a very good thing – naturally, those who are mired in the vice of faith describe the direction as “astray”.

        • Faith is, by definition, ‘blind’. part of its definition is that it’s belief without evidence. There’s a spectrum. At one end there’s (blind) Faith. Next to it sits Belief. Then comes Empirical Knowledge (i.e. knowledge based on evidence). Finally, there’s ‘Necessary Truth’ (e.g. ‘Either it’s raining or it isn’t.or ‘2+2=4′), in other words, truths which are logically self-evident and don’t require any evidence to be so.

  1. Hi,
    I’m bothered by the use of the word, ‘humanism.’ It seems connected to the idea that “Man is the measure of all things.” Besides the sexist use of the word ‘man,’ the adage is the very definition of the word ‘anthropocentrism.’ We share this planet with a multitude of other beings, may of whom are being destroyed because we believe we are the measure of all things. If we continue to make a list and put ourselves at the top of it, we will ultimately, I fear, destroy not just those further down the list but ourselves as well.
    Not sure of what would be the best word, but ‘humanism’ sends the wrong message, in my opinion.
    I like your website. I check in here daily.

    • Jeremy Rodell

      Humanism is simply a positive worldview based on our shared humanity. While most humanists are atheists, atheism alone is just a denial of what some others believe.
      It is only “sexist” to the same degree that the word “human” is sexist (or “woman”!).
      Nor is it “anthropocentric” when one of the defining features is emphasis on science and evidence to tell us about the universe. That means accepting we’re evolved animals on an insignificant planet in an insignificant part of one of billions of galaxies in a universe (which might turn out to be one of many).
      I’m happy to be called a humanist.

    • The existence of a supreme being can neither proved nor disproved. The known universe functions and excludes any interference from outside. Saying that a supreme being exists beyond what is known is contradiction of terms.

    • Ah. It is written..we MUST be wrong. Lol. Do you people EVER question anything? Or does the thought terrify you too much? You would rather forsake independent thinking in favour of the comfort of blind faith. The fact that the bible has a line ‘predicting’ the downright obvious and inevitable, means nothing. As an argument against Humanism (which exists as much as humans exist, whether we label it ‘Humanism’ or not) it has no weight. Humanism is a wonderful thing, and shares many values and principles inherent to any decent human being, religious or not. To criticise it too strongly would be to criticise your own humanity.

  2. ‘ATHEIST’ is a fine, honest and wonderful word. But it doesn’t describe activism as ‘HUMANIST’ does.

    But Stephen Fry is right that it sounds harsh particularly to those who give no thought to religion.

    God is not a real thing even religious people admit it. They say he is ‘beyond time and space’ which is a great way of saying God isn’t real. But we often must keep this to ourselves for the sake of humanity.

    When an old priest acquaintance of mine was dying in a hospital the only thing I could do to help ease his suffering was to join him in long prayers because that was his request. He did not know that I was an Atheist.

    I joined him in prayer because it was the HUMANE thing to do – not because I believed in the prayers.

    Being Humane is doing the right thing under the circumstances. Humanism has done more for people than any religion ever could. The Samaritan was a humanist – why ask for more?

  3. The word Humanism comes from human and humanity!!!What should we call it
    “Personism” ???!!!This is political correctness gone mad!!!!! What matters is the ideals and principles of being Humanist,which I am very proud to say describes me.Peace and love to everyone ,whatever your belief.As long as you wish no one harm !!!!!!

  4. Samuel Johnston

    “As long as you wish no one harm”.
    Wishing is not doing. Actions have consequences, regardless of intent. Therefore, the content of belief will matter if action is the likely result. “Do unto others”….. is not the same as “Do no harm”.

  5. Jeremy Rodell

    It took me about 25 years to realise that “humanist” was the word to describe what I believed, and that there were plenty of other people – good, interesting and thoughtful people – who thought the same.

    These short videos are a wonderful way to help others in the same position.

  6. I found those videos to be rather trite myself. This is why:
    http://aremonstrantsramblings.wordpress.com/2014/03/19/the-british-humanist-association-part-1-how-do-we-know-what-is-true/

    http://aremonstrantsramblings.wordpress.com/2014/03/20/the-british-humanist-association-part-2-what-makes-something-right-or-wrong/

    • Calling it “trite” is a typical way religious folk run from the truth. The “ramblings” in the link are just that. Typical theo-babble. The fact that Faraday was a Christian does not detract in any way from the argument about the scientific method. Quite the opposite. He is famous for his contribution to human understanding in his scientific work, not in his religious ideas. (Now if he had discovered electromagnetic induction in the Bible, that would be different!) I hear this fallacy so often. I say: Brilliant video. Rather trite truth that fallacious obfuscation!

  7. Religion is on it’s way out, mostly due to better education of the populous and our much improved ability to explain the World we live in (thank you scientific method!).

    It appears by some comments here that more effort is required to educate people and teach them to stop being so superstitious and adhering to mystic views.

    It’s time for the human race to stand on its own merits and stop laying this responsibly at the feet of your imagined god.

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