Losing my religion

Denis Cobell

My nurse training started in 1956. Coming from an orthodox Christian home I used to attend meetings of the Nurses’ Christian Fellowship.

Although I appreciated the support of like-minded nurses, my contact with the wider world of illness, suffering and death started a process of doubt. This was partly fuelled by the good practice I observed in colleagues who were quite content to live without an active faith.

Recognising that patients and staff had many and varied views on life lifted a veil for me after my rather sheltered upbringing. My thoughts on doubt and scepticism were enhanced by reading and attending Workers’ Educational Association classes on philosophy.

I was introduced to the works of philosophers such as Bertrand Russell, then at the height of his fame in leading the anti-nuclear protests. Among his writings, and an easy read, I found Why I am not a Christian. Though not without flaws, this essay had, I noted, first seen the light of day as a lecture given to the National Secular Society (NSS) at Battersea in 1927. I searched out the NSS and found it was part of the secular-humanist movement.

I eventually relinquished all belief in the supernatural and accepted the principle of the NSS that faith is “based on ignorance” and fights it as the “historic enemy of progress”.

At the practical level the NSS is a campaigning organisation seeking the complete separation of the church, with all its privileges, from the state. Currently it vigorously opposes the government’s plans to increase the number of state-funded, faith-based schools. The NSS believes it represents the views of many people: there was a continual decline in church attendance in the latter part of the 20th century, which is widely documented, and shows no sign of abating.

Along with many nurses, I am motivated to help people here and now, on the basis that this life is what really matters.

Nurses praying at Liberia's JFK Ebola clinic in September.

An exercise in futility: nurses filmed praying at Liberia’s JFK Ebola clinic in September, 2014.

As a secular humanist I think human happiness is extended in a very practical way by promoting good health. I am aware that a religious faith may be pivotal for some nurses; their belief and the diversity of faiths found among patients must not only be tolerated, but also respected. As a secularist I expect this to be reciprocated; unfortunately this is not always the case.

In this context the NSS wants to see the EH Employment Directive (Article 13), opposing discrimination at work, fully implemented. The Christian Institute opposes this. Unison has congratulated the NSS for its “campaign to ensure that the exemptions for religious bodies are not so wide as to jeopardise the anti-discrimination proposals” (NSS Annual Report 1999-2000) Patients also complain. A professor of philosophy told me he found himself rushed into a coronary care ward of a London hospital after collapsing in a shop on a Saturday.

On the Sunday, while “wired up”, as he put it, and unable to leave his bed, a group of evangelical Christians were permitted to hold a service.

He wondered if a group of secular humanists had wished to proselytise whether the ward sister would have been so indulgent. I can recall the days, at Guy’s Hospital where I worked for many years, when the ward sister had a duty to conduct daily prayers. These no longer take place.

In the nursing profession I hope we can work towards common interests – regardless of differences. Indeed I have been pleased to have been involved as a contact for an intercultural spiritual directory To Comfort Always produced for the Bromley group of hospitals.

It covers all faiths and those of none, with special emphasis on care of the dying and a patient’s death. This follows from my appointment as humanist chaplain at another south London hospital.

Secular funerals to celebrate the life of a deceased, as well as namings and weddings for other “rites of passage”, are not uncommon now.

I have officiated at many such ceremonies under the auspices of the British Humanist Association, a charity kindred to the NSS.

Claire Rayner is President of the British Humanist Association and Honorary Associate of the NSS. When I spoke with her we agreed it was appropriate that nurses – members of a profession with care at its heart – should be presidents of these sister groups.

In the words of the NSS’s objective, “this life is the only one of which we have any knowledge and human efforts should be directed wholly towards its improvement”.

• This article was first published in The Nursing Standard (January, 30, 2002). Claire Ray Rayner OBE died in 2010.

Note: Denis Cobell had a letter published in the London Evening Standard on October 15, which read:

It is good that 50,000 Irish-born soldiers whose lives were lost in the First World War are to be commemorated on Remembrance Sunday. An even larger group of the fallen who were nonbelievers are still not similarly recognised. The Cenotaph is a secular memorial without religious symbols, but the service is exclusively religious in format. Time that atheist or humanist servicemen were included.