The human touch

Simon O’DonoghueSimon O’Donoghue

Simon O'Donoghue, head of pastoral support at Humanists UK, will be speaking in Wanstead this month. Here, chair of the East London Humanists Paul Kaufman explains the value of non-religious support.

Most of us will require external assistance to get us through a tough period at some point in our lives. When it comes to the loss of a loved one, an increasing number choose a non-religious Humanist celebrant to guide them through the funeral. For those of us who are non-religious, their words of comfort, support and perspective are more likely to be in tune with our beliefs.

But what of non-religious people who need support in an institutional context? These include those in hospitals and hospices, students, prisoners and members of the armed services. Until recently, they have largely been deprived of choice when it comes to pastoral care. Historically, this has for the most part been provided by Christian chaplains, supplemented more recently by members of other faith groups. There are about 800 full-time equivalent chaplains employed by prisons and NHS hospitals. Currently, all but three are religious. There are also thousands of volunteers, of which it is estimated over 99% are religious. Yet, around a third of the prison population, and around half of hospital patients, are non-religious.

For someone who doesn't have a faith, it can be unhelpful at a time of emotional stress to be offered advice based on belief in a god or an afterlife that, to them, is meaningless and irrational. It is far better they should be given the opportunity to receive counsel to which they can relate.

Humanists UK (formerly the British Humanist Association) has made enormous strides in redressing this lack of choice. A pilot project was first conducted in 2011 at Winchester Prison. This included meeting inmates with 'nil' religion on admission, holding discussion groups and providing bereavement support. Humanists UK now works with the prison service to ensure that like-minded support is made available in prisons all over England and Wales. Similarly, Humanists UK pressed to ensure the NHS England Chaplaincy Guidelines 2015 for the first time included a recommendation for the provision of appropriate, like-minded care to the non-religious in all NHS hospitals.

In 2016 Humanists UK formed the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network, which provides training, accreditation and peer support for a growing band of volunteers and professionals. Simon O'Donoghue, Humanists UK's head of pastoral support, has a background in psychotherapeutic interventions and has completed Homerton Hospital's year-long chaplaincy training course. He has trained many of the network's accredited volunteers. At our meeting this month, Simon will explain more about Humanists UK's work providing care for the non-religious, as well as routes into training and volunteering for this important and rapidly expanding area.

Simon's talk will take place at Wanstead Library on 26 February, 7.30pm (visitors welcome; free). Visit

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