I was surprised to learn last week that the Humanist Society of Scotland (HSS) has finally been granted permission to lay a wreath at the Stone of Remembrance during this year’s November 11th ceremonies.
Firstly, I was surprised at the news that this makes Scotland the first nation in the UK to allow a secular organisation to take part in national remembrance day events. In a country where less than 50% of people believe in a God, this seems far overdue. The HSS say they want to represent the servicemen and women of the war who did not have religious faith, but I hope they will also be laying the wreath on behalf of all the non-religious people in the UK who wish to remember those who gave their lives without referring to a God.
The HSS has requested to lay a wreath at Edinburgh’s Stone of Remembrance several times over the last few years but was repeatedly rejected. This year, its members were finally invited to participate. The Royal British Legion Scotland commented that: “We recognise that there are plenty of ex-servicemen and women who are humanists. They respect the act of remembrance and, as such, we had absolutely no objections to them taking part.” This rather raises the question of why they were ever rejected in the first place. Meanwhile, the British Humanist Association’s request to lay a wreath in London this year has, again, been turned down.
Secondly, I was surprised at HSS’s statement. “We feel strongly that those with no religion who lost their lives in combat should be represented,” they said. To me, this doesn’t seem to be in the spirit of humanism. Atheism or agnosticism is a major element of humanism, but it is not synonymous with it. Humanists are people who live their lives according to a secular morality. They want to build a society based on secular principles where people are not divided by religious beliefs and where a commitment to our shared humanity comes before anything else. They should not be undermining themselves by representing “those with no religion”. They should be representing every single man and woman who lost their lives fighting for our country.
But I was also surprised because it shouldn’t just be the humanists kicking up a fuss about representation. Every remembrance ceremony I’ve ever been to has been explicitly Christian, and this is not only a problem because of the rise in agnosticism but also because it isn’t just Christians we’re remembering. When the Allies committed themselves to war with the Central Powers, they also committed their empires and these stretched to all four corners of the globe. It is estimated that almost 20,000 African men died fighting for Britain, from countries with large Muslim or other non-Christian populations such Sierra Leone and Nigeria. India contributed around 1.4 million men to the war effort, mostly Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. Of these, more than 65,000 lost their lives.
Of course the majority of soldiers who fought and died for the Allies were Christians, and many of those celebrating Remembrance Day this November will also be. But it is hugely important that the minorities are not forgotten. All those people of other faiths and all the atheists and agnostics (whether humanists or not) must be remembered and celebrated too, and in a way appropriate to who they were. Rachid Bouchareb, director of the film Days of Glory, which documents the stories of North African soldiers during the first world war, once commented that “indigenes were written out of history”. It’s very difficult to see how this can be justified.