Humanists reap what they sow and not in a good way

Sorry, regular readers, I’ll be back to ranting about quackery or religious nutjobs very soon but, in the meantime, my attention has been drawn to a story that concerns subjects particularly close to my heart: humanism and, in particular, the critical thinking skills that every humanist should be striving to develop, especially if they aspire to positions of responsibility that affect other people’s lives.

One thing that distinguishes humanism from most other world views is that humanists judge situations on their own merits according to standards of reason and humanity and not according to ‘received wisdom’ or their interpretation of some archaic book. This is a basic principle of humanism but, unfortunately, it seems nobody had told the Humanist Society of Scotland (HSS) Board of Trustees this before they sat, early last year, to consider an appeal from one of their members against a decision made by the Society’s celebrant training team. The appeal was upheld.

Earlier this week, that same successful appellant was the subject of a story in a grubby little Scottish tabloid, which the HSS seems keen to promote. That a link to this story appears on the HSS website suggests that the HSS approves of it — and I dare say the story was probably fed to the newspaper by someone on the HSS Board of Trustees. But I reckon the story that appeared in that particularly odious little rag of a newspaper was of virtually zero interest to regular readers and is already wrapping fish suppers.

The story behind the story is a tad more interesting, at least to me. Before I share it, I want to say that I have the utmost respect for the good people in the Humanist Society of Scotland and for the excellent work they do, especially in providing ceremonies. Having some 25 years experience of involvement in charities and other non-profit organisations, I know they are full of unsung heroes who are passionate about what they do and who do it brilliantly.

I also know that charities and voluntary organisations sometimes attract people who are well-meaning but unaware of their own limitations. (Read about the Dunning-Kruger effect here.) In fact, such people have often been successful in other fields of work and think that they can usefully contribute something to the management committees of non-profit organisations. But, all too often, they come heavily laden with the culture and values of whatever sector they built their career in. These are often out-of-kilter with voluntary sector culture and the resulting conflicts can tear small organisations apart unless the people in them can learn from their mistakes and try to rectify them. I believe this is as true of Humanist organisations as it is of any other and I think this story from the HSS is an illustration of it.

(By the way, I think a further, much smaller, category of people attracted to charity membership and volunteer work are entirely self-serving and I guess the subject of the tabloid story — the target of  the HSS Trustees’ wrath — is one of those.)

Here’s the story as told to me by a former HSS member:

The bloke in the newspaper — I’ll call him ‘Noddy’ — is a retired police officer who joined the Humanist Society of Scotland and became a registered celebrant, conducting funerals and weddings. Early last year, his son was convicted of supplying cocaine. This was considered newsworthy by the Scottish press because of Noddy’s high-profile police career and because his son was himself a serving police officer at the time of his illegal activities.

Now it turns out that Noddy has told Funeral Directors that his son — who’d been sentenced to 12 months in prison for the drug offence — is a humanist celebrant. Indeed, he has passed on ceremonies work to his son, even though the latter has not gone through any kind of selection procedure, let alone been trained and approved by the HSS to carry out ceremonies in their name.

Like the British Humanist Association, the Humanist Society of Scotland trains suitable men and women to produce and conduct ceremonies of a high standard. Most celebrants take the work seriously enough to adhere to a code of conduct defining what is acceptable. Funnily enough, that code doesn’t allow for the passing off of one’s ex-convict son as a trained and registered celebrant to Funeral Directors and bereaved families. Presumably this is because it is a betrayal of the trust of the former, cheats the latter of the quality of service they deserve and deprives other celebrants of work they — unlike Noddy’s son — were qualified to do, having each made a personal investment in becoming qualified by paying for and attending the training and having each been assessed as meeting the high standards demanded by the HSS.

According to the newspaper report, Noddy claims he has trained his son much better than the HSS could. I find this hard to believe for reasons that will become apparent.

Celebrant training involves attending a course run by a team of very experienced celebrant trainers. (Indeed, the senior trainer at the time was one of the Society’s most experienced celebrants as well as its most experienced trainer and had worked tirelessly for many years developing the training courses and review scheme for celebrants and establishing high professional standards.) At the end of the course, candidates are required to complete a written assignment — a ceremony script based on a scenario provided by the trainers.

Noddy trained first as an HSS funeral celebrant then, in November 2009, he attended the Society’s training course to conduct humanist weddings. According to a document signed by the four HSS trainers, Noddy’s first attempt at a funeral script was poor and he was given “full and detailed feedback on the areas in the script that did not meet the Funeral Celebrant Standards was given. He was then mentored to raise his standard of work and the second ceremony he presented achieved the required standard.” The same paper describes Noddy as “inattentive” and “disruptive” during the weddings training course; he talked over people and “showed a disregard for his colleagues and the training process.” Of his first attempt at the end of course assignment — a wedding ceremony script — the trainers say they were,

shocked to receive such a poor piece of work from this trainee, particularly given the fact that he had received a great deal of detailed feedback on previous material presented for review, most especially on the ceremony script he submitted for his review to be added to the Funeral Celebrant Register.

So, in addition to his inappropriate demeanour during the training, and in spite of everything he was supposed to have learned with all that extra help from his funeral training, Noddy had produced a terrible wedding script. Indeed, the script he’d produced had such serious flaws that if it were a real marriage ceremony, it would have meant the couple were not legally married! It was the — hardly unreasonable — view of the training team that, as these flaws had since been pointed out to Noddy, he may well be able to produce a script of the required standard now. But the production of a satisfactory script on second attempt and after he’d been told what was wrong with the first one would not, as far as the trainers were concerned, alleviate the many concerns raised overall about his ability and behaviour. The four members of the training team were as one in their opinion that Noddy should not be allowed the opportunity to resubmit his assignment this time. And who, in their right mind, could blame them?

In making this recommendation, we felt that we were acting in the best interests of both the trainee and the HSS as a whole, to ensure the maintenance of the highest professional standards.

That the training team’s recommendation was in the best interest of the HSS is indisputable. That is why it was supported by a majority of the charity’s Ceremonies sub-Committee, who evidently had their heads screwed on properly. All ceremonies are hugely important to the people having them and providers of these ceremonies can’t afford to make serious mistakes. This is particularly true of Humanist marriage ceremonies, which have — thanks to the good will of the Scottish Registrar General — had legal status in Scotland since 2005.

For the good of the HSS, Noddy should have accepted the training team’s decision but instead he complained about it to the charity’s Board of Trustees. I’m told — though I personally find it hard to believe — that Noddy was actually encouraged to do this by a member of that same Board of  Trustees who, as it happened, was another retired police officer. (But I’m not going to go there.)

Now come on, guys! Why would someone entrusted by a charity’s paid-up membership to act in the charity’s best interests, actively encourage someone — even if he is a mate — to challenge a decision that was clearly in the best interests of both the charity and the public it professes to serve? Especially someone who cares so much about the HSS that he’d managed to grab not one but two powerful jobs in the HSS leadership? (Seriously — he was the HSS Secretary and he doubled up as National Ceremonies Co-ordinator. I suspect this is why the HSS are so shy on their website about who they are compared to, say, the BHA. I understand he plays neither role now, however. No idea why.)

Encouraging an obnoxious and incompetent trainee to complain doesn’t make sense does it?

But it gets worse.

The group of four HSS office-bearers tasked with investigating what they called Noddy’s “complaint/appeal”, actually recommended that not only should his request to resubmit be granted but that he be offered mentoring to help him reach the required standard. The Board of Trustees agreed with these recommendations, thereby allowing this disruptive, inattentive, rude individual, whose ceremony script had been so poor it had shocked his trainers, to resubmit the assignment incorporating all the amendments he now knew it needed, thereby getting his name onto the Registrar General’s list of Humanist celebrants who are approved to conduct legal weddings in Scotland.

And they arrived at this decision through a piece of reasoning that a twelve-year-old would be ashamed of.

According to their report, the group “agreed immediately that they did not wish to disagree with the trainers’ evaluation and that there should therefore be no recommendation for approval or otherwise. The single issue facing them was one of fairness, precedent and equity with specific reference to the request to resubmit only.”


There was no “issue of fairness, precedent and equity” to be considered here. The HSS isn’t a tribunal or public examination board but a provider of a valued service to the public. The only “issue” was whether or not the candidate was suitable to conduct marriage ceremonies in the name of the HSS. The experienced team entrusted with the task of training and assessing candidates said that he wasn’t and they gave good reasons why he wasn’t. That should have been the end of the matter.

The investigating group, however, thought otherwise. Read this and weep:

“This decision we consider to have been contrary to natural justice, especially in a training situation. We are also aware that in what we consider to have been similar circumstances an earlier candidate was permitted to re-submit work and was subsequently recommended for registration. We do not accept that the differences between the two cases are of sufficient significance to merit such diverse treatment….Our determination is that in denying the candidate an opportunity to resubmit his work after appropriate remediation there is a danger that natural justice might have been denied him, and that humanist principles of fairness, equity, and good practice in this particular regard might have been breached.”

Rational thinkers will instantly spot biggest flaw in this execrable piece of reasoning. For the benefit of any numptyheids, I’ll point it out:

It is the patently ludicrous suggestion that, because an earlier candidate had been allowed to re-submit, Noddy should be allowed to as well. This, evidently, is the ‘precedent’ that the investigating group refer to.

It is normal practice in many training situations to fail no-hopers but to allow candidates who’ve shown promise and whose flaws are considered redeemable in the professional judgement of their trainers, to re-sit. If the earlier candidate’s behaviour and work was as bad as Noddy’s, then he or she shouldn’t have been allowed to resubmit. The fact that he or she was invited to resubmit indicates that, in the professional judgement of the HSS trainers, the earlier candidate wasn’t as bad as Noddy. (The investigating group repeatedly say in their report that they that didn’t assess Noddy’s work and weren’t questioning the evaluation of the trainers.)

So what precedents would be set by the training teams decisions to allow the earlier candidate to resubmit but to refuse Noddy the same opportunity?

That candidates who — unlike Noddy— show promise, should be given a second chance and that candidates — like Noddy — who don’t show promise, shouldn’t.

Anyone see a problem with that? I’m particularly interested in hearing how it breaches “humanist principles of fairness, equity, and good practice”?

In the meantime, let’s consider what precedent has been set as a result of the investigating group’s recommendations and the Trustees decision to endorse them?

That it doesn’t matter how obnoxious a candidate is and how bad their work, they must be virtually spoonfed into passing the course!

Nice one, HSS.

If precedents were as important to humanist principles as the HSS Board of Trustees seemed to think, one wonders how many more hopeless candidates they would have allowed to use up their people’s time and resources, before reason prevailed and they got their priorities right. Fortunately for them, precedents are totally irrelevant and they can ignore the consequences of their stupid reasoning and pretend it never happened (well, apart from the consequences of losing their training team, all of whom resigned in disgust at at the decision and quite right too).

And if they can’t understand why precedents don’t matter, I can do no better than refer them to late Professor Stuart Sutherland’s classic book ‘Irrationality’:

Anyone who has ever sat on a committee will have heard someone say, ‘We can’t do that: it will set a precedent.’ This remark is wholly irrational. The proposed action against which it is directed is either sensible or not. If it is sensible, taking it will set a good precedent; if it is not sensible, the action should not be taken. Whether or not a precedent is set is therefore irrelevant; the decision should be made on its own merits. Moreover, outside courts of law, nobody need be bound by past decisions: the past is finished, it cannot be changed, and its only use is that it may sometimes be possible to learn from it.

I recommend Sutherland’s book to all humanists and — to repeat what I said at the beginning — especially those who aspire to positions of responsibility that affect other people’s lives.

The HSS come out of the Noddy story (as it appears in newspaper) smelling like a rose but they don’t deserve to. Noddy had an unblemished (I presume)  30-year career in the police and who could blame the HSS Trustees for not foreseeing he might pull a stunt like that? Well, anybody who knew the inside story of how Noddy came to feel he could get away with anything, that’s who.

If those who are ultimately responsible for this debacle are seriously committed to humanist principles, they might yet demonstrate this by admitting to those who’ve been hurt the most that the recommendations and decisions made were the wrong ones.

But I’m not holding my breath.

5 thoughts on “Humanists reap what they sow and not in a good way”

  1. Very interesting, S. I know what you mean about non-profit orgs management boards attracting people who don’t know their limitations. They seem to come with a view that because a job is unpaid then it doesn’t require specific skills and, as they’ve given up their free time to do it, they are automatically competent to do so. Too many people use that kind of volunteer role to boost their profile and cv.

    What turns this story from one of normal human incompetence into something more sinister is the strong whiff of nepotism. It stinks, frankly.

  2. my attention has been drawn to a story that concerns subjects particularly close to my heart: humanism and, in particular, the critical thinking skills that every humanist should be striving to develop

    For a rational thinker/atheist/scientist, don’t you mean a subject close to your Limbic system?

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