Extensive Interview with Andrew James William Copson – President, Humanists International & Chief Executive, Humanists UK

by | January 12, 2020

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

“Andrew is Chief Executive of Humanists UK (formerly the British Humanist Association). He became Chief Executive in 2010 after five years coordinating Humanists UK’s education and public affairs work. Andrew is also President of Humanists International.

Together with A C Grayling, Andrew edited the Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Humanism (2015) and he is the author of Secularism: Politics, Religion, and Freedom (Oxford University Press, 2017) and Secularism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2019). He has written on humanist and secularist for The Guardian, The Independent, The Times, and New Statesman as well as for various journals.

Andrew has represented Humanists UK and the humanist movement extensively on national television including on BBC, ITV, Channel 4, and Sky, as well as on programmes such as Newsnight, The Daily Politics, Sunday Morning Live, and The Big Questions.

He has also appeared on BBC radio programmes such as the Today programme, You and Yours, Sunday, The World Tonight, The World at One, The Last Word, and Beyond Belief as well as on other local and national commercial radio stations.

Andrew is a former director of the European Humanist Federation (EHF) and is currently a trustee of the International Humanist Trust. He has previously served as head of the Humanists International delegation to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg and has represented humanist organisations at the United Nations and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

He has advised on humanism for the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Authority, the Department for Children, Schools, and Families, the BBC, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Office for National Statistics. For ten years, Andrew was a member and then Chair of the Westminster Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education. He was a member of the Advisory Group for the Humanist Library at London’s Conway Hall and, in a previous post in the office of Lord Macdonald of Tradeston in the House of Lords, he provided the secretariat for the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG).

Andrew served for many years as a director and trustee of the Religious Education Council, the Values Education Council, and the National Council for Faiths and Beliefs in Further Education.

Andrew was born in Nuneaton. He studied Classics and Ancient and Modern History at the University of Oxford and was a member of the winning team of the 2005 Young Educational Thinker of the Year Programme. He is currently studying for an MBA at the University of Warwick.

Andrew is a Member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, a Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and an Associate of the Centre for Law and Religion at Cardiff University.”

Source: https://andrewcopson.net/about/.

Here, we talk about news and updates in Humanism.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is the most exciting thing happening for Humanists International aside from rebranding as IHEU?

Andrew Copson: [Laughing] I think one of the most exciting things is our growing impact and presence in the international institutions. This week, as we are discussing here, the second international ministerial on freedom of religion or belief is taking place in the U.S. in Washington, hosted by the United States government. Humanists International has been invited to participate in a couple of sessions. I think that new international recognition gained for humanism as a non-religious worldview and not just a negation of religion provides an opportunity for greater international presence.

In Europe, national humanist organizations are working with their governments in a respected partnership, not just protesting outside of their doors, but helping with policy formation and that is exciting regionally, but with Humanists International, the most exciting thing is the new access that we are getting in the human rights world.

Jacobsen: If we are looking at some of the campaigns, there has been some funding for Humanists At Risk. What are some instances of Humanists At Risk? How can people become involved in their locale and in terms of fundraising?

Copson: Humanists are at risk in an increasing number of countries. The rising persecution of humanists is something noted by the United Nations Special Rapporteur and by many national governments and NGOs.

Now, to some extent, there is a good news story hiding way underneath that fact, which is that humanists around the world are increasingly organizing. They are emerging in countries where they have never emerged before. They are speaking out in countries where they have never spoken before. They are putting their heads above the parapet in new ways in countries where that has not happened historically.

The downside to that is that they are immediately lined up for persecution. They are visible. They can be found. They can be chased. They can be effectively quashed. There is scarcely a country in Asia and Africa where either systemic discrimination or active persecution is not in place.

As you probably know, Humanists International produces an annual Freedom of Thought Report on every country in the world. It shows clearly that there are increasing instances of persecution and bias against humanists.

We all know the example of the Bangladeshi bloggers. Effectively, it is a death list or death target list created by Islamists leading to a great number of the humanist bloggers on the list being killed, even in countries where the bad situations are less likely for them, including India.

We see rising persecution for humanist activists over the last three years – murdered with impunity. We have vigilante lynching in Pakistan. People having to go underground in countries like Egypt or fleeing from Saudi Arabia.

What the Humanists At Risk project does, as part of Humanists International’s work, is provide direct case support to those people, now, there is a lot that individual humanists can do to stand in solidarity with their fellow humanists around the world.

Obviously, the most important thing is donating their money if they have anything that they can spare to support that work. If they have no funds but are in strategically positioned countries – like Nepal, for example – then they can help in getting people across the borders and to provide safe havens to people in the region.

If they are in Western European countries, especially if they worked with a humanist organization, they can provide training and support to humanist organizations in countries that are less stable. They can also arrange things like student visas for people who might be at risk of persecution and might need to escape their countries of origin.

It is a good idea for people to sign up as individual supporters of Humanists International. Individuals can sign up and get involved in our work and can volunteer to do that. They should do so.

Jacobsen: What about a prominent case of Gulalai Ismail? What is the status of it? How can individuals bring more coverage to it, in a respectful light?

Copson: Gulalai’s situation is, of course, extremely serious. She is a young woman who already has an impressive C.V. around human rights activism. She is an activist for self-determination regionally and for women and girls to run a program that trained Malala Yousafzai – who, of course, has come to international prominence as a human rights campaigner for the rights of girls and women.

Gulalai has been subject for a couple of years now to petty official harassment. However, this has escalated rapidly in the last year and a bit. When she arrived home in Pakistan from her last speaking engagement abroad in the UK with the governing Conservative Party conference at the end of last year, when she went back to Pakistan, she was immediately arrested.

Her passport was confiscated. She was placed on an Exit Control List. It is a list or mechanism to stop critics of the government from leaving the country, preventing the freedom of movement of people who leave the government voluntarily.

After many months of campaigning and hard work in Pakistan by her own team, her passport was restored to her. Her name was removed from the Exit Control list. She proceeded to fly for Canada. She had a speaking engagement. Her passport was currently in the Canadian High Commission.

She was speaking out mostly a couple of months ago about the lack of justice for crimes against young women on one case. A warrant was issued for her arrest. It is quite difficult at this distance to know the circumstances.

Although, we are in touch with her family and her sister in the United States. It is difficult to know why she is being pursued by the authorities, what their real motivation is. She has an accusation of blasphemy against her once before.

She successfully managed to defend herself against it. But she got such a broad range of activism on human rights issues. It is hard to know what the government is going after her for. The current situation is that she is in hiding.

Her family is in hiding. They cannot leave their house. They are now threatened with imprisonment and with arbitrary torture that Pakistan enforces. What we’re trying to do at the moment is raise awareness of her case with Western governments and other governments in the region to the Pakistani government to prevent this unfair and arbitrary treatment of her, and to allow her to leave the country, it is very difficult to know what the situation on the ground is right now.

[Ed. Subsequent to this interview, Gulalai escaped to the U.S.]

Jacobsen: In Iceland, there was an addition of a significant number of organizations into the Humanists International MO listing. It was a significant growth. What was the reaction, internally, to this massive growth? What were the regions of emphasis for more growth than others?

Copson: Recently, we have been prioritizing certain global regions for growth. We have established a new growth and development program under our growth and development officer Giovanni, who has been working for us for a couple of years now.

He has managed that program incredibly capably with additional funding from generous donors and from MOs including Norway and the UK. We have established quite a substantial growth and development fund to move organizations – even from before becoming organizations as groups of people who want to create some humanist movement in their country on the ground – from the emergent beginnings to the state of an organizational development where they can stand together as a cohesive organization in their country.

One of the things that we have done with this growth and development program is prioritize some regions including Latin America and Africa. So, it was very gratifying to see new organizations come from those regions.

Hopefully, in the next couple of years, they will be joined by just a large of a group or more groups from Asia, which is a future priority. This is something that happened. In the last 70 years, Humanists International went from an almost white Western European or Anglo, or American and Western European organization to being genuinely global.

We have members from every continent. We have member organizations from every region in the world. This reflects the growth of humanism globally as a way of looking at the world and approaching life, but also the hard work of Humanists International – who themselves have grown over the last couple of years. 

Jacobsen: What about some of these grant programs that Humanists International is running now? What have been prominent cases? What have been some benefits to some of those involved in them?

Copson: I think the best overall scheme that has been running is this Café Humaniste, which is a way of stimulating organization or bringing people into the same place in a less formal way than we have in the past.

In the 1950s when the International Humanist and Ethical Union, which is Humanists International’s former name, there was this almost 19th century feeling in which there needed in every country to have an organization with a constitution and a chair, and well-governed rules. Then over time, they would be federated into a sort of global union. That model never really applied to more than a few organizations. Like I said, those in Western Europe. It, certainly, does not apply to things today when things are much more networked than they were in the past.

Today, we have been trying to stimulate things in terms of organization in terms of the connections between people and the connections between organizations internationally. One of the things that we have done, recently, is this Café Humaniste project.

We used to provide funding so people could get their organizations going: training in rules, how to have management, and so on. Now, we stimulate  activities like this. They can get together. They can discuss certain topics. This has been quite productive.

That, I think, has been the most effective use of growth and development money so far. We are still open for bids for that sort of money. They next thing that is of a piece with this idea in seeing the global humanist movement as a network as Humanists International’s role in strengthening those connections.

The idea is regional hubs in which you could have regional hubs for funding some standout activity that can be visible best practice for everyone else in the area. This has worked in Latin America. They have not only spread personal context in the region and build those up.

But also, examples of what has worked for some groups and other groups in their early stages can work from. In Guatemala, they really managed to spread some good ideas across the region. It does not take much money from Humanists International’s point of view to get those things going.

Jacobsen: In our prior contacts, in terms of publications last year [Ed. 2018], it was April 1st in Canadian Atheist. We did a short interview. Then on April 7th [Ed. 2018] in The Good Men Project, we covered some of the history of humanism work that you have presented on and written on.

Copson: Did we? You are very prolific, aren’t you?

Jacobsen: [Laughing] if we are looking at the early 21st century, who are some individuals who stand out in the humanist tradition, or who may not identify formally as humanist but, certainly, harbour humanistic values, principles, and ideals?

Copson: I think it is far too early to say that if you want to take a historical view.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Copson: Do you mean politicians or people in the world?

Jacobsen: Within the framework of the interview and the position today in Humanists International, I am framing globally. So, for instance, if we look at Humanist Canada, one of the first patrons was Bertrand Russell.

Copson: Oh really?

Jacobsen: Yes, often, people point to him. This is in the 20th century. Often, the early part of the 20th century. If we are looking at the 21st century, maybe, we could look to people who are doing good work in their respective countries for the work through, for instance, Aware Girls with Gulalai with women’s and girls’ rights.

Copson: Those are the people who we have given international awards to, in the last few years. Gulalai Ismail received Humanist of the Year. Narendra Nayak received Humanist of the Year. I think the work that activists against superstition in India are doing extremely important work from that view.

You are looking for grassroots people.

Jacobsen: Yes.

Copson: I suppose the thinker equivalent are people like Stephen Pinker or A.C. Grayling. Narendra and Gulalai are stand-up people. The 2014 World Humanist Congress had such amazing presentations from people who ran grassroots organizations, humanist organizations, in so many different countries in Uganda, Nigeria, or Ghana.

I think they would be the sort of heroes or unsung heroes that you are talking about. Otherwise, only time can tell. Don’t you think? Of course, Bertrand Russell was a legend in his own lifetime. We might have to wait a bit longer for others like that.

Jacobsen: What books have you been reading?

Copson: I have been mostly reading novels because I have been on holiday, including the latest by Madeline Miller, Circe. She wrote a wonderful reimagining of the Achilles story a few years ago and this latest novel from her is just as good. Other than that, it’s just trashy detective novels. I am afraid.

Jacobsen: [Laughing] if we’re looking at the advancements of humanism, as science advances, as societies develop, as we get new intellectuals, new books, new lectures, new framings of different topics within the aegis of humanism as a general worldview, life stance, and philosophy, what have been some interesting, or at least intriguing, proposals or developments in the Humanists International community?

Copson: I think some of the most challenging questions have been those raised by Stephen Pinker’s recent books, where he is attempting to defend the idea of progress and enlightenment – as a real phenomenon. I think that what is really interesting, to me, about that is some self-described humanists in the Western world saying, “Oh! This is outrageous.” And somewhat decrying the idea of progress. Then you see other humanists predominantly from Africa or Asia, but also, I think, to some extent Latin America or the global south in general with whom his books have resonated, saying, “Of course, progress is possible. It is part of the humanist agenda. It is what we stand for.”

That tension between the optimistic and not-so optimistic has been an interesting, not fault line as yet, but a potential fault line for humanists internationally. I think that is been interesting.

I think there has been an interesting tail end to the New Atheism where people in the liberal, Western world say, “This is over the top and aggressive now. We should all calm down now. We should be more courteous, and not, potentially, whip up hostile feelings towards minorities living in Western countries.” On the other hand, again, in the global south, they are energized by this new intellectual radicalism and iconoclastic approach of people like Richard Dawkins. It is another interesting tension that exists in the world.

Jacobsen: What region in the world probably has the longest road to go in terms of the advancement of humanist values?

Copson: The Arab world – obviously, we cannot stereotype the whole of the Arab world – but the Gulf region is so far from this, at the elite level anyway. There are also countries with things going backwards like Russia and China. Then there are countries in which progress might be occurring beneath the radar, but you are not quite sure. That is many countries in the Arab world. Old orders are very – although, they look robust – much more fragile than they appear. Populations have begun to become connected to the outside world, especially through the English language.

That great secularizing force of Anglo culture, which just spills out wherever English is spoken increasingly. The Arab world might surprise us. It would be – not amusing but – funny if the Arab world became a more humanist region before China.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Copson: It could happen. Places like China and Russia are going backwards.

Jacobsen: If we take some of the issues for and opposition to the humanist community globally, what are the opposition and issues?

Copson: There are several tendencies that stand against humanism and the growth of humanist values globally. One, obviously, is the oldest one, which is religion – especially, of course, more extreme manifestations of religion, whether that is in the Islamic world or in global Protestant NGOs or in the global reach of the Catholic Church.

All three of those forces in their own quite different ways stand against either liberal values or human rights, or equality of people or human beings of different types. It is the same as it ever was in terms of the source of opposition to humanism.

There is also a rising ethnic nationalism, which is against humanist values in a different way. It is a cultural conservatism that puts the idea of progressive aspects of the humanist vision in jeopardy. I think particularly in the Western world, but also in Russia and Middle and Eastern Europe, and the United States, and in some Western European countries where this idea of peculiar traditional values, or cultural values, as opposed to universal human rights, is gaining ground. Wherever that idea gains ground, the humanist idea that universal human rights should be the basis of that  sort of discussion, that we are one species, that it is possible to answer the question, “What is a good human life?” in a universal way rather than in a culturally specific way – all that is in jeopardy as those movements or trends gain ground. That would be the one to watch.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Andrew.

Copson: Thank you!

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-booksfree or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du QuébecAtheist FreethinkersCentral Ontario Humanist AssociationComox Valley HumanistsGrey Bruce HumanistsHalton-Peel Humanist CommunityHamilton HumanistsHumanist Association of LondonHumanist Association of OttawaHumanist Association of TorontoHumanists, Atheists and Agnostics of ManitobaOntario Humanist SocietySecular Connextions SeculaireSecular Humanists in CalgarySociety of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph)Thunder Bay HumanistsToronto OasisVictoria Secular Humanist Association.

Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an AgnostikerAmerican Atheists,American Humanist AssociationAssociação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and AgnosticsAtheist Alliance InternationalAtheist Alliance of AmericaAtheist CentreAtheist Foundation of AustraliaThe Brights MovementCenter for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist IrelandCamp Quest, Inc.Council for Secular HumanismDe Vrije GedachteEuropean Humanist FederationFederation of Indian Rationalist AssociationsFoundation Beyond BeliefFreedom From Religion FoundationHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist InternationalHumanist Association of GermanyHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist Society of ScotlandHumanists UKHumanisterna/Humanists SwedenInternet InfidelsInternational League of Non-Religious and AtheistsJames Randi Educational FoundationLeague of Militant AtheistsMilitary Association of Atheists and FreethinkersNational Secular SocietyRationalist InternationalRecovering From ReligionReligion News ServiceSecular Coalition for AmericaSecular Student AllianceThe Clergy ProjectThe Rational Response SquadThe Satanic TempleThe Sunday AssemblyUnited Coalition of ReasonUnion of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

Image Credit: Andrew Copson.

One thought on “Extensive Interview with Andrew James William Copson – President, Humanists International & Chief Executive, Humanists UK

  1. Trevor Bending

    Another very interesting post!
    Quite a coincidence that I mentioned Andrew Copson in an earlier comment on Canadian Atheist today.
    So a further reminder that Andrew will be addressing our conference at Friends’ House in London on Spirituality on 28th March.
    (I think he will find nontheist Quakers – of the Religious Society of Friends in Britain – an interesting bunch!)- see website attached to my name.
    Interesting here that in many cases we are looking not just at Freedom OF Religion but also Freedom FROM Religion. It turns out that the former doesn’t mean much without the latter.
    I note that our Friends in the Quaker Universalist Group say ‘Spiritual Awareness is accessible to everyone of any religion or none’ – see their website for the full quote https://qug.org.uk/ and for our conference details the NFN website https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/


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