Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Our Members Survey is up and running!

Please spare a few minutes of your time to let us know how we’re doing, and how the Humanist Society of Scotland could work better for you!  As a fun incentive, we will be holding a prize draw from amongst the respondents, and the lucky winner will receive a Kindle!

To complete the survey, simply go to:

The winner will be chosen from among all entries received by 1st October and announced in the October issue of Humanitie Magazine.

What DO humanists believe?

I was asked to write this by the nice people at the magazine "Interfaith Matters" - let me know what you think?

It’s a good question, not least because most people only know what humanists don’t believe - in an afterlife, the existence of gods or devils and the possibility of divine intervention in human affairs. But leaving that to one side, humanists have much in common with people of faith, even if our reasons for doing so sometimes differ.

Humanism isn’t a faith. There are no high priests, no sacred texts, and no revealed truths. Instead, it’s a philosophy or life stance: a recognition that although we are fallible and the universe in which we live is mysterious, we are able to take responsibility for our lives, and create meaning in them.

Humanists believe that this life is the only life we have, and precisely because we won’t be reincarnated, or go to heaven or hell after we die, we should celebrate the miraculous fact that we in our ordinariness are here at all. As the humanist philosopher Stephen Law has said, “humanists deny that that if our lives are to have meaning, it must be bestowed from above by God. The lives of Pablo Picasso, Florence Nightingale, Mother Theresa and Einstein were all rich, significant and meaningful, whether there is a God or not”.

Humanists are secular. We believe that everyone should have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and the right to practice those beliefs, subject only to the laws necessary to protect the rights and freedoms of others. The state should be neutral in matters of belief, and children should be educated about all beliefs, rather than indoctrinated in any. While humanists oppose attempts to coerce people into religion, we are equally opposed to coercing people into atheism, as happened under the communist regimes of the 20th Century.

Like all the major faiths, humanists believe that we should behave towards other people as we would like them to behave towards us, but for us, the golden rule isn’t something revealed by god, but evolution. We believe that our moral sense has developed from that of our closest relatives, the great apes, and it is rooted in a concern for others - male and female, black and white, able and disabled, gay, straight and transgender. As we say in Scotland, 'we're a' Jock Tamson's bairns', which means that we're all the same under the skin.

We believe that we can lead good and worthwhile lives guided only by compassion and reason, and in this, we have good company. Both the former Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, and the Dalai Lama have rejected the notion that morality is divinely inspired, and instead they have persuasively argued the case for a secular system of morality and ethics.

Humanists are sceptical, in the best sense, and we don’t merely accept what we are told to believe. Humanists believe nothing is above question, and that all ideas should be subject to rational scrutiny. Humanist scepticism about beliefs in afterlives or homeopathy for example, is not a ‘faith position’ but the reasonable consequence of our sceptical enquiries.

That scepticism can be confronting. Richard Dawkins is famous for his forthright condemnation of the excesses committed in the name of religion, but neither he nor anyone else tagged with that misleading and inflammatory label, ‘militant secularist’ wants to murder priests, or bomb synagogues and mosques. Yes, we will argue our case, but we won’t burn you out of your house, or hijack planes and fly them into high-rise buildings in order to do so.

While humanists tend towards a scientific and rational explanation of life, we have to remember that all scientific knowledge is tentative, and that there is no ‘last word’ or absolute truth. Indeed, many humanists can identify with the poet Keats’s idea of ‘negative capability’, and are happy to live 'in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason'.

Humanists may be sceptical, but we are also optimistic. Since the Enlightenment, we have seen the gradual triumph of compassionate reason as human beings in most parts of the world have rejected slavery, torture, despotism, and cruelty to animals. Indeed it can be argued, as Stephen Pinker does in his most recent book, ‘The Angels of Our Better Nature’, that our era is less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence.

Above all, humanists celebrate life. Only in Scotland has the fifty-year decline in the rate of marriage been reversed. Why? Because more and more people are embracing humanist weddings, legal since 2005 and on course to become the second most popular form of marriage in a couple of years from now.

Even in death, we humanists celebrate life. Yes, we mourn and grieve for those we love, but we choose to focus on the miraculous reality of the life that has been lived, rather than an afterlife that we cannot imagine.

Having read this, you might want to ask yourself if you’re a humanist too. A couple of years ago, I created a little quiz for The Humanist Society of Scotland that will let you find out. Whatever the result, I hope you can agree, 'We’re a’ Jock Tamson’s Bairns' - we’re all the same under the skin!

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Evonne & David's Humanist Ceremony at Prestonfield House

I knew I was going to enjoy working with David and Evonne from the moment I read their homework where they told me a wonderful story about a showbiz legend - that sadly I can't share here! 

I did get to tell it at the wedding though, which was a total hoot, as you can see from these great photos from Tony Marsh. I'm the bald guy in the middle, in case you're wondering - there are three to choose from in this shot!

Evonne and David wanted their big day to be their beautiful daughter Isla's big day too, and she was very much a part of the ceremony. Both David and Evonne took the chance to say in their own words why they want to spend the rest of their lives together, and that was a very emotional moment.

Prestonfield is as glam as it gets, and Evonne look appropriately gorgeous in her diaphanous gown. It was a very sunny afternoon, and the sun was pouring right through the window behind us, but Tony's pics show why sometimes only the best will do!

I always think it's nice when couples ask their mums to be witnesses  - and there's Isla making sure that I spelled their names right! Thanks again, Evonne and David for asking me to be your celebrant: something tells me I will be seeing you both again soon!

Donna & Jonas's Humanist Wedding at Kirknewton Stables

Some days go perfectly and Jonas and Donna's was one. We had ideal weather, and they created a textbook example of how informal yet moving a humanist wedding can be.

Donna and Jonas wanted to start the ceremony by spending time with their friends, and they were waiting for me at the door when I arrived. About twenty minutes later, everyone went out into the garden, and we were ready to begin. The leaves of the cherry trees cast a welcome shadow, creating wonderfully dappled light that was a gift for the photographers, their friends Tim and Christian.

Jonas and Donna both made a formal entrance with their parents 

to a trumpet fanfare, played by Donna’s wee cousin Clara.

As you might have guessed from his name, Jonas is from Germany, while Donna hails from Scotland, and they did a very clever thing with their story. Not only did they get eight of their friends to read a paragraph each, they printed it out in two languages, so that everyone could follow what was being said. Thanks to Madi, George, Eike, Chrissi, Helen, Susan, Lisa, and Clare, it went down brilliantly.   

Their friend Kate read a poem by Ben Okri that I hadn't come across before, called To an English Friend in AfricaIt is advice to a friend living abroad for the first time, which applies equally well to two people getting married. Then Donna and Jonas spoke their very personal vows directly to one another. Because there were so many guests, they had a small PA system, so I held the mic for them as well as the cards.

After we signed the Marriage Schedule, Jonas’ parents and Aunt Andrea sang us a song called Wenn ich ein Voglein wär before their friend Mike wrapped up the whole ceremony with the ever-popular poem, Marriage Is.

I really liked their approach to photography. Everyone was invited to share their shots via Dropbox, and quite a few made the cut and are included in the album that Jonas and Donna then shared with all the guests on Flickr, where they were free to download whichever ones they liked best.

Along with these shots, Donna sent me a quick note to say "Thank you again for helping to make our ceremony perfect for us! We had a great day, and the ceremony was naturally a highlight. We have enjoyed watching the video again since, and I am really glad we recorded it as I completely forgot everything about the ceremony immediately! 

We had many lovely comments from guests about our ceremony such as  'never knew a wedding ceremony could be like that', so I think we did our bit for promoting Humanism! 

Not only the ceremony, but many people also commented that you were so calm and helpful in the way you conducted the ceremony - a sentiment with which we totally agree! Thank you again, and all the best!"

My pleasure Donna and Jonas, and thank you for so many great ideas that I am sure will inspire other couples who want to create a ceremony that really reflects who they are, and what's important to them.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Jane and Peter's Humanist Wedding at The Glasshouse Hotel

The Glasshouse Hotel at the top of Leith Walk has a glorious roof garden, and one day I'm going to be lucky enough to conduct a wedding on it. But on the day Peter and Jane chose earlier this year, the sun was hiding behind a veil of haar, so instead, they married indoors with a wonderful backdrop of mist and mellow fruitfulness.

The whole point of a humanist wedding is that it gives you a chance to say in your own words why you're doing what you're doing, and one of the things I ask all couples to think about is what love means to them. Jane and Peter's definition is perfect.

Peter and Jane know that they are very lucky to have each other. It may be a cliché but they really do say that they are each other’s best friend. They have the same taste (and always have). They like the same films and TV. They like nice restaurants and holidays. They like vintage furniture and bric-a-brac. They like markets and museums. They like dogs. They have stupid words for things, and Jane has approximately 10,000 nicknames, which change on a weekly basis. When they see old couples in teashops and antique markets and Jane says, “that will that be us someday”, Peter correctly says “that’s us now”. They couldn’t imagine not being in each other’s lives.  

And of course I was delighted to read their touching card, especially this bit - 'we really enjoyed the process of writing our ceremony together and got exactly what we wanted - a ceremony people said was very 'us''. 

Job done, as far as I'm concerned. Thank you, Peter and Jane, and thanks too to their lovely photographer, Lauren McGlynn who's made her own blog of the ceremony and very striking it looks too! 

Julie and Angus's Humanist Wedding at Balbirnie House

I got a lovely card this morning, from Jules and Gus. It was elegant, artistic and moving, just like their ceremony, back in May of this year.

I can think of nothing more appropriate than to share what their friend Frankie said, when she told the story of their relationship, "At first I thought that Jules and Gus’ relationship was the definition of opposites attract; a longhaired Mathematician, resembling a Gallagher brother, (Jules’ words not mine), and a soft-spoken sophisticated Arts student with golden tresses. 

But having taken the time to think more about them both, I started to see many similarities and I realised that I had, however, always imagined that Jules would be whisked off her feet, not only by broken heels, but by a funny, intelligent and caring person who was as grounded and kind as she is; as fun-loving and loyal". 

"I feel really lucky to have two such amazing friends as Jules and Gus and to be sharing this day with them – I’m so happy for them. In each other, they have found a best friend, someone who makes their world even more colourful, and a true partner to support them through anything - we can all see for ourselves that they are meant to be together.

We wish them so many blessings for all the fun moments and milestones that they have yet to spend together, including the blessing of a happy home and family of little Scorgies."  

Hear hear, I say! Thank you so much, Gus and Jules xxx

Monday, 12 August 2013

Leigh & Gregor's Humanist Wedding on Inchcolm Island

I always look forward to getting photos and cards from the couples I marry, telling me what made their day so special, but this is one I will never forget!

Leigh and Gregor chose their wedding date because it was 16 years to the day since they met. As they said in their ceremony, "Home, marriage then kids....that was the plan anyway. The house was the easy bit, but as the years flew by, the kids part felt like it was never going to happen."

But everything changed when, two and a half years ago, their gorgeous son Aaron was born. Then, in September last year, Gregor and Leigh were given the gift of a trip to the Island, and visited the abbey. As they wrote, "We walked in to this room, which was set up for a wedding; the sun was beaming in the windows. We walked down the aisle, stopped at the bottom, looked at each other, and said “Is this it? Have we found it? Let’s make it happen!”  

 Now I've done lots of weddings on Inchcolm over the years. It's a beautiful island of close-cropped green grass with a well-restored abbey founded in the twelfth century by monks from Iona, and it has an other-worldly, very tranquil atmosphere that makes it feel a lot further away than it is.

Unless you've got your own boat, the only way to get there is via the Maid of The Forth, and I've just realised that the very first wedding I ever conducted out there was six years ago yesterday, for Tracey Russell who - as the Maid of the Forth's web site will tell you - is now Tracey Robertson, the smiley face in their office on the pier just across from the Hawes Inn in South Queensferry and it's always lovely to see her when I check in for a ceremony.

So anyway, I turned up as I usually do, a quarter of an hour before The Maid of The Forth was due to set sail, but there was no sign of the vessel at the quayside. Puzzled but unconcerned, I went up to the office. Tracey wasn't there, so I asked the young guy who was when The Maid was due to depart. "She's already gone," came the reply. "You cannot be serious," may not have been quite what I said, as I reached for my phone. 

"Hello Gregor? It's Tim here, the guy who's going to marry you. Did you notice that I'm not on board?....Yes, that's right, I'm still in South Queensferry.... I wonder if you can have a word with the skipper..." 

So to cut a long story short, the Skipper called the RNLI, the station commander kindly agreed to lay on an exercise, and 30 minutes later and wearing a bright orange drysuit, I found myself skimming over the waves at 36 knots aboard the RNLI's super-fast ocean-going RIB. Just to put it in context, while The Maid takes a good 40 minutes to reach the island, we got there in 10, and even though it was a glorious day with a flat calm sea, it really was a very exciting way to arrive.

As luck would have it, there was a news agency photographer on the island, shooting a story about one of the wardens, so my arrival was thoroughly documented. The next morning we were all over the papers...

 and by the following evening, the story had even made the TV news.

So, yes of course I was embarrassed to miss the boat, but Leigh and Gregor were lovely about it.

Leigh was waiting for me as I came up to the abbey with the lifeboat crew at my back

the ceremony itself went like a dream

and it made for a very jolly journey back to South Queensferry with all the guests; I'd take a bet that it's one wedding they'll never forget either!

As Leigh and Gregor wrote when they sent these photos, "It was great working with you. We enjoyed the whole ceremony, and we get a lot of people telling us how great it was because it was all about us."

So my thanks go as always to Leigh and Gregor and their families, and to Philip Hawkins for his great action snaps, but I have to give a very special thanks to the gallant men of RNLI South Queensferry whose job is usually a lot more demanding, for getting me to the church on time!

It's time to celebrate, people!

I'm delighted to announce that from now on, I will be a celebrant with Celebrate People , a new Humanist organisation led by two of Scot...