How Humanism is helping non-religious military community honour war dead

About 40% of UK Armed Forces personnel do not define themselves as religious and that number increases to about 50% in the youngest of serving personnel, say the Humanist and Non-Religious Defence Network (HAND).

Therefore, when it comes to attending Remembrance services – an important part of service life for many with prayers and religious traditions – how are those who don't believe in a higher power included?

Volunteer military diversity network HAND is holding its eighth Remembrance service on 12 November at the RAF Club in London for members of the MOD and wider community that have a protected characteristic of belief and not faith.

While humanism might be an alien concept to some, many are living their lives in this way already. 

Listen: Cpl Michelle Hordern speaks to Tim Humphries about how a Humanist Remembrance service differs from a traditional religious one.

Air Vice Marshall Richard Maddison, Defence Champion HAND and Air Officer Commanding 22 Group RAF, spoke to Tim Humphries, a BFBS the Forces Station broadcaster, about what it means to be a humanist. 

He said: "A humanist, in the simplest sense, is someone that believes in being good, in values and the rest of it, but doesn't believe in God, devils, ghosts, the supernatural, if you want. 

"It is a belief that is founded on science, on the earth being the natural world, on not needing a book of scriptures or something passed down in order to direct how you should behave but in order to still behave properly in a way which is appropriate and caring for others in the world," he added.

Humanist Remembrance Symbol Scottish Poppy CREDIT BFBS
A Scottish poppy Humanist Remembrance symbol is pictured in the centre.

While Humanists are non-religious, many do want to remember all who made the ultimate sacrifice in service of their country. 

A Humanist Remembrance provides a place where non-religious military personnel and the wider Armed Forces community can honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice in a way that aligns with their world view and belief. 

Like many Remembrance services, the Humanist version will encourage all who attend to recall the horrors of war and the heroism of individuals through the retelling of their personal stories to remind people to live their life to the fullest and embrace each new day as a blessing. 

A veteran and a young girl at the launch of the Royal British Legion's 2022 Poppy Appeal
A veteran and a young girl at the launch of the Royal British Legion's 2022 Poppy Appeal (Picture: Royal British Legion).

The event, which will be led by Humanist celebrant and British Army Reservist Corporal Michelle Hordern, will feature a speech by Professor A C Grayling, author, philosopher and Vice President of Humanists UK, plus appearances via video link from TV presenter, historian and patron of Humanists UK Dan Snow and Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of Humanists UK. 

In addition, there will be a performance by the Humanist Choir and guests from the Belgium and Dutch armed forces. 

Since 2018, Humanists have also been represented at the annual Remembrance ceremony at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, central London. 

Lady Haig's Poppy Factory sells Humanist poppies which are made from plywood and have 'In Remembrance' printed below the bright red flower. 

A veteran remembers the fallen at the Cenotaph in London, November 2021 (Picture: Crown Copyright).
A veteran remembers the fallen at the Cenotaph in London, in 2021 (Picture: Crown Copyright).

Celebrant Cpl Hordern spoke with Tim about her role in this year's Humanist Remembrance service. 

She said: "I am acting, I suppose, as a Reverend would if you were in a church or an Imam maybe if you're a Muslim, and that is my role, I'll be the celebrant leading the service. 

"As far as the service goes, it's probably not too dissimilar to the way a religious service would run. 

"It's got a lot of familiar elements and we will have, of course, a two-minute silence during the service and there will be the epitaph. 

"We will also remember those that have given the ultimate sacrifice by sharing stories and poems from those that are directly or indirectly connected to individuals that have either lost their lives or have been affected by war in some way," she added.