The 2019 Summer Conference was held on 7th and 8th September in the Bridge House Hotel, Tullamore, Co. Offaly (below).
The theme was Humanism and the New Ireland.


 Speakers (alphabetical by surname)
Siona Cahill 
President of the Union of Students in Ireland  
What Young People want in the New Ireland
Martina Fitzgerald 
former Political Correspondent RTE; author of Madam Politician: Women at the Table of Irish Political Power
The Role of Women in the New Ireland 
Colin Harve
Professor of Human Rights Law at Queen’s University, Belfast, a Fellow of the Senator George J Mitchell Institute of Global Peace, Security and Justice, and an Associate Fellow of the Institute of Irish Studies
Uniting Our Shared Island
Liam Herrick 
Executive Director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties  
The future for Civil Society organisations, including humanist ones
Patsy McGarry 
Irish Times Religious Affairs Correspondent since 1990s  
Church/State Relations
 Alliance for Choice NI  
Is Northern Ireland at risk of being excluded from the New Ireland?
Catriona Twomey 
Co-ordinator, Cork Penny Dinners  
Diversity and Inclusion in the New Ireland

The 16th Summer School organised by the HAI and the IFH was held at Carlingford on 25th-26th August 2018 on the theme of Freethought, Humanism and Censorship.

The Conference was opened by Gary McLelland, Chief Executive, IHEU
Here is a transcript of Gary's speech:
Here's the speech he gave at the European Parliament on 11th April: 
Below: the 8 Speakers at the Conference

Harry Browne

Roy Brown

Isabella Evangelisti

Kitty Holland

Chris Hudson

Tony Keating

Anne Marie McNally

Fergus Whelan

Roy Brown's speech is here:



The 2017 Summer School took place, as is tradition, at the Carlingford Heritage Centre in Louth over the last weekend of August. The topic this year was Humanism, Religion, and Spirituality. The speakers brought both religious and secular perspectives, and together they gave the audience a varied and nuanced perspective on topics relating to the theme, with close looks at the common ground between religion and humanism, and, of course, the areas in which religious and non-religious people differ. There were close to 100 attendees over the weekend from humanist organisations North and South of the border, as well as European visitors, with close to a full house on Saturday morning. Julie Pernet of the European Humanist Federation in Brussels was a special guest in Carlingford, and chaired Sunday afternoon’s plenary session. 

HAI Summary of Summer School talks, 2017, Humanism, Religion and Spirituality

David McConnell gave this year’s opening address; Meetings in the Mind: Humanism, Religion & Spirituality. As usual, David’s presentation was one of the best received of the weekend. He spoke on the core ideas of an ethical life, taking responsibility for ourselves, for our communities, and for the world. Much of our ethics —although not their bases — would be shared by many religions; the most obvious example is the Golden Rule of treating others as you wish to be treated. That said, some Christian bishops and cardinals, as David pointed out, have described humanists as “not fully human”. This led to a discussion of the limits of tolerance and the nature of the state’s role in accommodating difference. This is increasingly important as humanism becomes a more mainstream life-stance, needing to be accommodated in national affairs, especially in health, education and social welfare.

Gill Bell is a Biodynamic Psychotherapist, whose presentation, An Organic Sense of Spirit, examined questions like whether a humanist, having rejected religion, can still be spiritual, and the nature of the soul. Her talk also dealt with her journey through cancer to health and wholeness. She touched on issues such as how the children of non-religious parents are often made to feel to others, noting that this challenges us to hold on to our ideals when people around us have different beliefs.

Rev David Armstrong spoke on Christian Fundamentalism, with particular emphasis on how he was affected when receiving death threats from loyalist paramilitaries in the 1980s. His talk caused controversy at times, inviting repudiation from the audience on a couple of occasions. But his message – that Christianity “is about doing, behaving, and showing how to live a good life”, or at least it should be – was well received. He “doesn’t blame humanists for not seeing Christ in people, because sometimes he doesn’t see it himself”. It is clear from how he spoke that Rev Armstrong is still very much affected by his experiences, but it is also clear that he is a man of great courage and moral character. His efforts at cross-community reconciliation in Northern Ireland in the 1980s anticipated those of politicians by a decade or more, and his talk was met with a standing ovation from parts of the floor.

Fr. Joe McDonald is parish priest at St Matthews in Ballyfermot and gave an enthralling overview of the common ground between humanists and religious people that received the second standing ovation of the day, this time from almost the entire floor. Fr. McDonald didn’t mince words as he spoke about the shared anger of the religious and non-religious about the transgressions of the Catholic Church, pondering how they managed to take a message of

love and turn it into one of fear. He talked candidly and vividly about his own experience of sexual abuse at the hands of a priest, and his journey to forgiving his abuser. Common ground with us humanists came in his assertion that the days of a dominant church are gone “and the Catholic Church needs to realise that. We need to stop sticking our noses in, stop telling our brothers and sisters how to live”. It was a position well received by attendees.

Brian McClinton opened his presentation by acknowledging that some of the previous speakers made a “good job selling Jesus”. He, however, does not buy it. “Jesus was not a philosopher”. And humanists do not wish to be linked to the narrow form of “religion”. We, as atheists, we cannot be religious. We reject in totality a social system in which, in the narrow sense, the worship and pleasing of supernatural beings is advocated. Nor do we support a social system which is dogmatic, doctrinal, or fundamentalist. Religion has suppressed free speech, restricted scientific advance, and propelled a negative ideal of sexuality and morality. But Brian advocates that we, as Humanists, move on from the “mental masturbation of knocking god” and on to a more positive philosophy beyond religion.

Joachim Duyndam is Professor of Humanism & Philosophy at The University of Humanistic Studies In Utrecht, and was one of our European guests in Carlingford. His talk was on humanistic interpretations of traditionally religious concepts, concentrating on issues related to fatherhood. He believes that an inclusive view of humanism is that it is not anti-religion; rather it is based on humaneness and independence of thought and values liberty, responsibility and justice. He spoke of how the nature of fatherhood has changed in Western society, from being the authoritative ruler of the family to a gentler more nurturing role.

Ailbhe Smyth is a former UCD lecturer, and a feminist and LGBT activist. Her talk, the final presentation of the weekend, was on the context and background of the continuing separation of Church from State. Ailbhe’s talk included a potent call for repeal of the Eight Amendment, in order that the rules governing abortion be left to legislation and not the Constitution. “There is clearly support for change. What kind of change, that remains to be seen”. But the debate should be evidence-based. As commented by David McConnell during the Q&A, most dramatic about the recent Citizens Assembly is the way in which opinion on the issue changed as more was learned about the topic and as the evidence available increased.


The theme for this year was Humanism and the Climate Crisis.

General Report on Speakers by Peter Deeny, HAI

Eamonn McCann, MLA, was our orator in the oratory. He illustrated concern for the environment with examples from local campaigns including Prehen Woods, an illegal dump near the river Faughan and gold mining in the Gortin Glen. His main point was that economics tended to trump all other considerations, including the law and the environment. He pointed out that the schools and sports groups in the Gortin area refused to take the bribes offered by the mining company, preferring to stand together with their community in defence of the beauty around them. Free market capitalism has been stopped before. During World War II, the US government took direct control of the steel and car industries. In the face of an existential threat necessity forces action.

Kate Ruddock of Friends of the Earth focused on climate change and the fact that while the more prosperous people in the world have caused it, the less prosperous are facing the most serious effects. In Ireland we produce a great deal of our greenhouse gasses from agriculture, and it’s not that we are feeding the hungry.We are providing burgers and milkshakes to people who can afford them. Ireland is not blameless, we produce more CO2 than the average for the EU. Globally we need to leave about 2/3 of the known fossil fuel reserves in the ground.These assets are stranded and cannot be used. Some solutions in an Irish context can be seen in

Caitriona Ruane, MLA, placed the context of climate change within the political and educational processes. In line with all our speakers she underlined the point that convincing people to take action is our most difficult task. She supported the idea that this was best done within political parties as it is they who form governments which can make changes. She pointed out the unfortunate fact that on the doorsteps during elections there is little popular concern for climate change.

Kevin Kerr of South West College, a former Humani Chair, explained that renewable energy was a viable option for individual homes. He encouraged us to insulate first to reduce energy consumption and to use the free energy which is available.The technology for solar, wind, heat pumps and heat transferred ventilation is all tested and working now.

Duncan Stewart, Architect and TV producer, passionately explained the size of the problem facing us.This is as big a threat as a World War and requires a similar-sized response.The mean global temperature during the last ice age was 4 degrees centigrade below the mean global temperature before the industrial revolution.We are heading towards a 4 degree increase by the end of this century.The changes will be immense, and it is we who are relatively wealthy who are causing the problem.We have to insulate homes to passive house standards, use pumped storage to allow renewables to operate properly and use the existing proven solutions.

John Barry of Queen’s University, Belfast, placed the problem of climate change within the consumer culture of constant carbon based consumption. He explained some of the difficulties experienced in the political arena when bringing green issues forward.There are two undeniable ways to convince people: first there is no peer reviewed scientific study denying climate change, second the insurance companies who are capitalists par excellence, are taking climate change into their calculations. He also said that Ireland is in an excellent position to take advantage of renewable energy.We have both the wind and the engineering expertise to lead the world in turbine design, we have tidal energy which hasn’t even been measured, and we have even got enough sunshine.

A common theme of the summer school was that there was no doubt whatsoever that climate change is happening and that we are the cause. It is the absence of political will that prevents solutions being implemented: all the science and technology is tried and tested.The development of the political will is therefore the major task.We can change society by acting together in our own best interests and not in the best interests of existing power structures and businesses. In addition, addressing climate change will lead to many opportunities and will bring many useful by-products. It will increase manufacturing opportunities and reduce dependence on imported fossil fuels. It will defuse tension when resources like water become more stressed and will reduce the power and money being sent to troubled parts of the world such as the Middle East. 


All Ireland Humanist Summer Conference
29th-30th August 2015, Carlingford Co Louth 

Theme: War and Peace

The 13th Annual Summer conference was a stimulating and enjoyable mixture of serious reflection and discussion and some convivial social activities. Reports of the aftermath of the dinner referred to excellent ‘party pieces’, brilliantly co-ordinated by Terry Moseley.

Ann James, former chair of HAI, welcomed about 80 humanists from the Humanist Association of Ireland and Humanism Northern Ireland, with a special welcome for those attending for the first time. The Summer School provides an opportunity to meet old friends and new and to discuss important topics in a humanist context.

Brian McClinton, editor of Humanism Ireland, who has held many roles in Northern Ireland Humanism, pointed out, by way of an overall introduction, that the intellectual position of humanists as ‘freethinkers’ means that there will always be difficulties in forming a consensus, without surrendering the freedom that is intrinsic to the concept. Western culture is saturated with war: there is far more about war in all media and stereotypical gender roles encourage males to glorify war while females are expected to be repelled by violence. A workshop led by Síle Headen will explore the question, ‘Can women can teach men the keys to peace?’

Humanists of all eras have been opposed to war from at least the time of Cicero, who, however, introduced the concept of the ’Just War’, which was the subject of David Pollock’s talk. Some humanists, such as Erasmus, have been absolute pacifists, opposed to all war. However, Bertrand Russell, described himself as a ‘relative political pacifist’; he was jailed for his opposition to WWI but supported WWII and was also jailed for his opposition to nuclear weapons.

Brian McClinton gave a tour d’horizon of the ways war has been viewed in the past by philosophers from Rousseau and Clausewitz who saw war as conducted between states; a definition which exclude civil war, or armed insurrection, such as the IRA’s campaign of the last few decades. Ruth Dudley Edwards’s presentation looked at aspects of the last.

It has been argued that religion has been the cause of only about 10% of all wars, but it has often been added as a potent ally to nationalism and imperialism. The myth of ‘redemptive violence’ has been deeply infused into Irish history. War has also been seen as inevitable and inherent in human society. Perhaps we are still slowly developing ideas of democracy and respect for the individual and building the international institutions which will make war harder to contemplate in future.

[A fuller account of Brian McClinton’s presentation appears in the November-December 2015 edition of Humanism Ireland.]

The Just War?

David Pollock

David Pollock is the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s representative at the Council of Europe, a Trustee of the British Humanist Association and a past president of the European Humanist Federation. In 2011 the IHEU gave him the Distinguished Service to Humanism Award for 50 years of activism in humanist affairs.

David Pollock started from the premise that war is vile and examined views on its possible justification. One view of war is that it is inevitable, having developed at the time the first human groups acquired property which was coveted and had to be defended. Some argue that human nature is irremediably sinful and violent. This is false and has been supported by the Christian doctrine of original sin; ‘primitive’ societies generally live in harmony.

Pacifism can be justified by dogmatic prescription, but humanist morality is ‘much more nuanced and more concerned with consequence. This means that ‘absolute pacifism cannot be justified by humanists.

The modern view has evolved from the thinking of the Classical writers and later ideas of Augustine of Hippo and Aquinas and is now very detailed and is incorporated into international law. The three elements are ius ad bellum (the justification of war), ius in bello (the conduct of war) and ius post bellum (dealing with its aftermath).

David Pollock focused on the ius ad bellum, the causes of war, and examined the criteria, all of which must be met for a just war. However, there are practical difficulties with each of them, in that it is not clear who should make the decisions and in some cases there is insufficient definition.

  • Just Cause — large-scale aggression or violation of human rights or a balanced view that ‘the injustice suffered by one party must significantly outweigh that suffered by the other’. (But is pre-emptive force justifiable?)
  • Competent Authority — nowadays means a sovereign state. This criterion also leaves unresolved the position of resistance movements and international bodies such as the UN.
  • Right Intention — force may be used to achieve the just cause, and no more.
  • Probability of Success. But what probability of success is necessary?
  • Last Resort. War is justifiable only after all other attempts at resolution have been exhausted. 
  • Proportionality. The benefits of war must outweigh its evils.

From the above, it is clear that, while just war theory provides a good starting point, it has serious limitations, and is often violated in practice. A serious drawback is that it is based on an analogy between states and individual rights. If states have grievances, they fight with armies of individual humans. To what extent is it acceptable to kill them — and non-combatants in a cause?

There are two possible alternatives to just war theory.

Utilitarianism — the principle that what is right is that which it the best for the greatest number. ‘It suggests that you can produce the greatest total of happiness for the maximum number of people by heaping all the suffering on just a few people.’ This would encourage unacceptable practices, such as carpet-bombing of civilians in order to bring victory in a just cause.

Human Rights. This provides a view based on the rights of individuals — especially the right to life — rather than the perspective of states contemplating war. The idea of human rights has its modern embodiment in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights which enshrines the moral rights we agree everyone should have.

States have rights in order to protect the rights of their citizens. An individual has right to self-defence, but when this is applied to states we reject the analogy because it personalises states and ignores the individuals in it. This leads to a possible justification for war in defence of human lives and rights. This would only apply to fundamental rights such as ‘the right to life, physical security and a minimal freedom to choose how to live one’s life.’ However, given the requirement of proportionality — perhaps the most important of all the criteria for a just war — this is a difficult case to make. War is crude and difficult to control and is almost bound to conflict with some human rights. 

‘The conclusion from the above arguments — taken in conjunction with other just war criteria — is that a war can be morally justified only if:

(a) it is fought in defence of the human rights of individuals in a community suffering serious aggression or oppression


(b) you can be sure on a basis of reasoning that any violation of the human rights of

individuals it entails will be clearly less than will be involved if the war is not fought but some other course taken to remedy or alleviate the ills.’

[A full version of David Pollock’s paper appears in the November-December edition 2015 of Humanism Ireland and is also available from his website:]


The practical difficulties of applying just war theory were revealed in historical examples, where civilian populations were often not protected; history is typically written by the victors and involves retrospective justification. Humanism does not provide easy solutions. There is a clear need for effective international organisations: has the UN failed? The Gulf War of 1991 was perhaps the best — or even only — example of a just war fought for a limited objective in order to liberate an invaded people. Some difficulties in applying just war theory in advance of conflict are: the possibility of self-deception and failure to try to understand the point of view of the opposition.

Are we awakening from Ireland’s violent past?

Ruth Dudley Edwards

Ruth Dudley Edwards is a freelance author with many awards for her often provoking (‘revisionist’) history books, as well as for her crime fiction. She is a prolific journalist and broadcaster in Irish and British media.

Ruth Dudley Edwards, in a sometimes mischievous and provoking presentation, considered the Irish nationalist obsession with commemorating the leaders of Ireland’s several insurrections, often with little regard for the reality of their motives and actions.

The short answer to the question in the title is that we are, but very slowly, because we are still honouring violent Irish nationalism. Irish political violence is essentially a tribal rather than a religious matter. The nationalist tradition has a particular love of honouring the dead heroes of previous times, even if their actions were not in any sense justifiable in terms of a just war. This pattern was established with IRB commemorations of Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet and continued with Padraig Pearse’s oration over O’Donovan Rossa’s grave. There was no such fuss over Daniel O’Connell who refused to endorse the use of violence. He and, later, Redmond were constitutional nationalists who did not approve of the use of violence. They did not see the need for a blood sacrifice. They are not commemorated to the extent that the Irish martyrs have been celebrated.

This worship of the dead continues even today when our politicians turn up again and again at the graves of past heroes and claim that the deceased would agree with their opinions and disagree with their opponents’ opinions. 

Of particular interest at present is the centenary of the 1916 Rising. There is of course no sense at all in which the Rising was a just war. Ireland at the time had democracy, even if it was imperfect by today’s standards. Home Rule had been granted by the Westminster government — but not enacted because of the war. At the time there were 200,000 Irish men fighting in World War I; at most about 1,000 took part in the Rising. However there are many memorials and celebrations of the dead of this Rising while those who went off to WWI were ignored. The Rising happening during a time of war and so it is understandable that the British government shot the 15 leaders. After all, had this happened in Paris or Berlin, such an insurrection would have been met with at least this level of official violence. 

The different parties in Ireland have different dates after which they condemn political violence. Fianna Fail condemns actions after the War of Independence, Fine Gael condemns violence after the Civil war, Sinn Fein condemns violence after 1998 and Republican dissidents haven’t picked a date yet. At least the dissidents are consistent: if you celebrate 1916 as a good idea, then you should celebrate present-day political violence as a good idea. 

Pearse was particularly good at marrying together the symbolism of Catholic sacrifice and martyrdom with the myths of nationalist Ireland. This idea struck a powerful chord in the Irish psyche. It was not however terribly well thought out. The aims of the signatories of the proclamation were disparate and disorganized. Clarke wanted to beat the English, Connolly wanted a Marxist revolution, McDermott wanted to organise a revolution, Kent was a good military strategist and fanatical Catholic, Plunkett was well educated, and McDonagh and Pearse were poets. 

As long as the Irish political establishment approves of 1916, it is approving the use of violence for political ends. We need to let the dead stay where they are, in their graves, and remember to celebrate constitutional Irish nationalism. We need to move on. 


Several commented that they approved of the use of levity and ‘black humour’ in dealing with a potentially sombre topic: ’there is no joy in a cemetery’; although there is plenty of pomposity at tribal commemorations of their dead.

The rise of secularism in Ireland is encouraging. Catholicism and Revolution were joined together by Pearse. The Roman Catholic church is no longer a force for nationalism. The younger generation is no longer impressed with it. Republicans hate the church.

Nationalism is not patriotism and is now much diluted by the EU. Patriotism is not an excuse for killing. Nationalism easily drifts to xenophobia.

The commemorations of 1916 might encourage more violence. The rise of Sinn Fein is worrying because it is essentially fascist. Sinn Fein encourages the 1981 hunger strikers as part of the same pantheon as the dead heroes of 1916. 

Workshop 1 (led by Oisín Carey): Should Humanists be Pacifists? Is the use of Violence a Human Right?

The participants examined attitudes to violent behaviour in all its forms: physical, emotional, sexual, racial, sectarian, bullying, economic, intellectual, propaganda etc. Are humanists entitled to carry out direct physical violence to another person? Does self-defence supply the necessary permission? Or is the state the only source of permission to do violence as Hobbes argued in Leviathan. What is our duty to actively safeguard human rights? Have we a duty to speak out when we see injustice?

The right to free speech had to be moderated somewhat by the need to avoid incitement to violence. But we do have the right to offend others if the offence is not deliberately the aim of the comment. 

Contenders for just wars might be the Balkan Intervention against Serbia, Gulf War I in Kuwait or World War II. Remember that the Holocaust was not known about when the decisions was made to start WWII. The decision was made in the UK as a response to the invasion of Poland.

Non-violence was essentially successful in India at the time of Gandhi. But the man in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square didn’t change Chinese government policy, yet. 

Workshop 2 (led by Síle Headen): Can Women Teach Men the Keys to Peace?

After agreeing to accept the implicit stereotyping of gender roles for the purpose of the discussion, the group identified the principal ‘keys to peace’ as empathy, security (in oneself), equality, opportunity and altruism. Education and the role of schools were also very important, as was ‘learning to love’ in a secure , loving home.

The roles of women in authority (‘the matriarchal role’) are increasing, as exemplified by increasing numbers in e.g. UN peacekeeping forces. Women’s role is key in nurturing, especially of children. (Many women in eastern countries are deprived of significant power and are therefore less influential.) Perhaps there is a role in helping men to understand their own tendency towards violence. Are matriarchal societies generally more peaceable? The contributions of power and conditioning in childhood are crucial in moulding gender roles and stereotyping, and especially in counteracting misogyny. Increasing acceptance of diversity will help to reduce stereotyping.

War: The Lessons of History

Philip Orr


Philip Orr is a historian and former teacher, specialising in the history of the Somme and the Gallipoli campaign. 

Who is learning what? After the huge number of deaths in Gallipoli, the army generals learned that amphibious assaults needed to be resourced to the hilt. (This was put into action on D-day.) We, on the other hand, need to learn how to make peace.

One way to encourage peace is to gather oral history so that the stories are about people not documents. Nations are selective in what bits of their stories they choose to remember. Even the starting and ending dates depend on who is remembering. Thus, World War I could be said to have started in 1912 in the Balkans; 1918 wasn’t the end of the action for there was trouble between the Greeks and Turks after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.

In Ireland we remember the Battle of the Somme when 2,000 young soldiers of the 36th Ulster Division died on 1st July 1916. This is remembered as a heroic moment when the loyalty of Unionist Ulster (from where most of the 2,000 had come) was proved beyond question. The deaths among the 16th Irish Division in the battle of Hulluch which happened during the 1916 Rising in Dublin, and the deaths at Guillemont and Ginchy were ignored. The survivors come home ‘on the wrong side of history’.

WWI made quick progress on account of several factors. Firstly, there had already been some small clashes in Africa. Secondly, Eisenhower’s ‘military-industrial complex’ meant that armaments were quickly available. The high urban population of factory workers meant that there were plenty of young men easily available for armies. The railway networks helped to facilitate movement of large numbers of material and soldiers.

 Support for the war came from both church and state and ironically, both sides called on the same deity. The motto of the Ulster Volunteers was ‘For God and Ulster’, the motto on the German uniform was ‘Gott mit uns’; the 10th Irish Division heard their Turkish opponents call on Allah. (The proclamation of the new Irish Republic called on God directly, as did the Ulster Covenant.)

Wars spawn revolution. In 1917 there was the Red vs White Russian revolution shortly after the 1916 Rising in Dublin. It is entirely possible that if the Rising had happened during peace time, there would not have been the executions which led to the War of Independence. In a time of war when soldiers were being shot for desertion it was impossible not to shoot revolutionaries.

A major issue regarding peace making is to ask how we commemorate wars. Our commemorations are too simple and do not take into account that both sides were heroes and both sides were villains. A way to correct this is to collect personal stories which add colour and detail to the story. Oral history is a record of how individuals recall history and leads to a more nuanced, complex view of events.


There is now wide access to archives which fosters a diversity of views. Oral history is important because it confounds the attempts of the mythmakers to simplify the story into good versus evil. Truth-telling is important for people whose very psyche has been militarised.

The commemoration or glorification of war can be used for propaganda purposes by governments. Thus, the ANZAC story in Australia is a good example of a foundation myth encouraged by the government. It helped to take the focus off the unjust treatment of the indigenous people and the government’s ‘White Australia’ policy. The story of ANZAC troops in Gallipoli is not relevant for a modern country on the Pacific rim beside China.

Individuals, too are selective in their recollections and commemorations: a Republican commented on the death of Irish soldiers at the Somme, ‘That’s an aspect of our history I choose to forget’. 

Healing is not brought about by commemorations. A more realistic understanding of the lived experience of war may go a long way. War damages individuals and communities and we must all try to improve our knowledge of the past and resist conflict in the future. 


The Role of a Dutch Humanist Chaplain in the Armed Forces

Norbert de Kooter

Norbert de Kooter is a Humanist Chaplain in the Netherland’s army and with experience in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Iraq.

Norbert de Kooter illustrated his role with stories of interactions with soldiers on active service, before considering the history of the humanist chaplaincy in the Dutch armed services. 

On Christmas Eve 2008 in a small tent in Afghanistan with an artificial Christmas tree, Norbert asks the group of 20 soldiers, ‘What does Christmas mean to you?’ The answers include having dinner with the family, and did not include being in a tent in Afghanistan. ‘Do you mind?’, Norbert asks. A soldier replies ‘Christmas is about light and we’re trying to bring a bit of light and security to this place, so I don’t mind missing being at home for this Christmas.’ 

Norbert reviewed the Christian Christmas story. He said it was about a man who discovered that his wife was pregnant by someone else and, despite the brutal cultural norms, he did not get rid of her. He did the decent humane thing and looked after another human being. This aspect of the story does not depend on divine intervention.

Two colleagues died in action. Norbert talked with their friends who were not religious. They told stories of their lost comrades who were killed by ‘friendly’ fire; there was a lot of pain in this situation. Later at base in the Netherlands, a sergeant-major connected Norbert to the soldier who fired the shots. This corporal wanted to leave the army and could talk with Norbert as he trusted him.

The personal relationship is the basis of the chaplain’s role. The chaplain’s main role is being there. When a country teaches people to shoot and puts them in harm’s way, it also needs to teach them to talk about their situation so that soldiers can stay healthy and sane. Chaplains listen and pick up the soldiers’ slow questions: ‘What is it about? Why am I here?’ A soldier who has thought through these questions is less likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder. Chaplains are not there for the organisation’s purpose but for the human beings. Chaplains are biased in favour of the people they look after; chaplains are not part of the organisation.

There have been humanist chaplains in the Dutch army for the past 50 years. There are 132 chaplains: 45 Protestant, 43 Catholic, 38 Humanist, 2 Jewish, 2 Hindu and 2 Muslim. In barracks it’s easy to get a chaplain of the appropriate ‘faith’ to suit the needs of an individual soldier but in the field this can be difficult but 52% of people in the army don’t care which group a chaplain is from, they just want a trustworthy person. Chaplains do need to come from a supporting group and the Humanist group which sponsors Norbert guarantees his professional standards. Chaplains must be honest about their own beliefs.

A chaplain’s own views about a mission are important. In the military soldiers take orders. They don’t always question the politics. However, soldiers do think about these things. If the chaplain doesn’t really support the mission, it affects the way the chaplain works. But Norbert de Kooter said that he could not be an absolute pacifist. If he were, he wouldn’t be able to understand soldiers. 

In response to a question about parity of esteem among the chaplains, Norbert de Kooter replied: ‘We’re way past this. All chaplains are treated as equals. Maybe 10% of Christian chaplains don’t like Humanist chaplains as such, the other 90% treat us as equals.’ 

Plenary Discussion

Chaired by Iain Deboys

The discussion was wide-ranging and all the speakers had opportunity to respond to the participants and to have a few last words.

The likelihood of all-out war between nations is perhaps reduced by the increasing number of mutual defence pacts and the threat of nuclear weapons. However, international structures are not evolving fast enough nor are they strong enough to resolve international conflicts. Many power structures are largely autonomous and not responsive to the wishes of citizens.

Progress will be made in small steps, by gradually expanding the circles of our relationships and increasing our understanding of other societies. At the same time more care over the nurture of children is crucial: psychopaths, who classically lack empathy, can resist their worst impulses if they have a loving upbringing. Various social experiments in preventing the spread of violence in communities offer encouragement.

Above all humanists need to keep reiterating the view that humans are essentially good and to reject view of the inherent badness of ‘human nature’.

Report prepared by Peter Deeney and Alan Tuffery, with much-appreciated co-operation from the presenters


  • 2018  – Humanism, Freethought and Censorship  (25th, 26th August)
  • 2017  – Humanism, Religion and Spirituality 
  • 2016  – Humanism and the Climate Crisis
  • 2015 – Humanism, War and Peace
  • 2014 – Humanism and Sexuality
  • 2013 – Humanism for Everyone
  • 2012 – Humanism and the Arts
  • 2011 – Humanism Morality
  • 2010 – Humanism and the Rights of Women
  • 2009 – Humanism and Human Rights
  • 2008 – Humanism in a Global Village
  • 2007 – The Joy of Humanism
  • 2006 – Freethinking and Diversity
  • 2005 – Evolving Humanism
  • 2004 – Positive Humanism
  • 2003 – Towards a Secular Future