With Christianity in Decline, Britain Sees Rise of Humanist ‘Pastors’

Kevin McCandless | August 24, 2016 | 12:08am EDT
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(Image: British Humanist Association)

(Edited to make clear that the BHA does not itself refer to the pastoral support chaplains as “pastors” or provide formal counselling.)

London (CNSNews.com) – With participation in traditional faiths at near-record lows, Britain is seeing the rise of humanist chaplains providing “pastoral” support for the non-religious.

Last month the University of Westminster in London broke new ground by appointing its first official secular advisor for students.

The move followed efforts by the British Humanist Association since 2014 to train more than 100 volunteers to go into schools, hospitals and prisons in order to provide support for those who don’t believe in a deity.

Early this year hospitals run by Britain’s National Health Service (NSA) in Leicester also saw their first humanist appointed to the local chaplaincy team.

NSA England Chaplaincy Guidelines published in 2015 obligate medical trusts in England to provide pastoral support on an equal basis to those who are atheists as well as the religious.

This month, the landmark British Social Attitudes Survey showed that decline in religious belief in Britain has plateaued out but is still near its historic low point.

The survey, which has been run since 1983 and surveys roughly 3,000 British residents on a range of social-related issues, said that that 48 percent reported having “no religion.”

Ian Simpson, a senior researcher at NatCen, the social research firm that runs the survey, said that if anything this showed a small rebound for Christianity and other religions in the United Kingdom.

“The proportion of people saying they have no religion peaked at 51 percent in 2009 and has plateaued since then,” he said. “It appears that the steady decline of religion in Britain has come to a halt, at least for now.”

In the first year of the survey, only 31 percent of respondents described themselves as non-religious.

With nearly half of the population now describing themselves as not having a belief in God or gods, the British Humanist Association (BHA) says those people need a “listening ear” during difficult times in their lives, much in the same way that the religious have.

“Religious chaplains work to support people at some of life’s most trying times, or in moments of emotional difficulty or moral uncertainty,” said BHA chief executive Andrew Copson. “For a very long time, non-religious people haven’t been able to benefit in that same way from having a non-judgmental person to speak to who shares their outlook on the world.”

The association said it has also trained and accredited more than 300 people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to lead humanist-themed ceremonies for occasions such as weddings and funerals.

Simon O’Donoghue, head of pastoral support for the BHA, said that secular advisers in a campus setting would perform duties that were similar to reliigious chaplains but also act as a “non-religious ethical reference point.”

First-year students who were going through a difficult time adjusting to life at school but who were not comfortable talking to a chaplain could talk through their troubles with a secular adviser.

In a hospital setting, a patient facing a difficult operation would be able to talk to someone who shared their beliefs before going through with it, he said.

O’Donoghue said the association was keen to ensure that volunteers are there to provide one more option for people and would not be proselytizing for humanism.

During an initial two-day training course, potential humanist pastoral support volunteers are screened for such a tendency and monitored afterwards, he said.

“We’re really going to extreme lengths to make sure that people going on the course don’t have an agenda for that sort of thing.”

O’Donoghue said the idea is to compliment religious chaplains in any setting, not to replace them.

Ultimately, he said, the goal of the association is for Britain to emulate the Netherlands, where all institutions have a full range of faith and belief providers.

“It really is about choice,” he said. “And the best way is to work alongside religious people.”

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