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Interview with Neil Barber – Communications Officer, Edinburgh Secular Society


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Canadian Atheist

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2019/12/21

Neil Barber is the Communications Officer for the Edinburgh Secular Society. Here we talk about his life, work, and views.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is family background, e.g., geography, culture, language, and religion or lack thereof?

Neil Barber: I was Christened in a Catholic church to please my Grandmother. My mother unlearned her Catholicism when first married due to the church’s silly prescription on contraception: my parents couldn’t afford to have children at the time and were not about to abstain from sex! My dad was an atheist/agnostic.

Jacobsen: Following from the last question, how have these factors influenced personal life and views?

Barber: My parents wanted me to make up my own mind re: religion. As a child I’d liked to have believed: I was attracted to the ritual and mysticism… but then I discovered my rational intellectual self and Dungeons and Dragons!

Jacobsen: How does a rejection of the supernatural change the way one lives one’s life? How does an understanding of the natural influence views on life and meaning in the light of the aforementioned rejection?

Barber: When you realize that you only have one life and that meaning is not given by a supernatural being, you are free to maximize every waking moment of your brief and lucky existence.

The notion of “jam tomorrow” promised by religious notions of an afterlife can be a cruel and time-wasting distraction from that urgency, not to mention the warping of morality often associated with religious belief.

Jacobsen: What are your tasks and responsibilities at the Edinburgh Secular Society as the communications officer?

Barber: Writing letters and tweets on topical issues. Taking part in debates on television and radio. Fronting campaigns. Composing soundbites for impact.

Jacobsen: What does an average event or activist of the Edinburgh Secular Society look like?

Barber: Members tend to be atheist or humanist.

Meetings involve discussion to arrive at society-wide policy which licences my public statements as Communications Officer. We discuss tactics for ongoing campaigns. We sometimes have guest speakers.

Jacobsen: How is the integration with the larger culture for the Edinburgh Secular Society? How does secularism provide a greater range of flexibility than atheism?

Barber: Atheism (as actively expressed by Humanists) is, of course, the rejection of belief in any gods. Secularism, at least as understood in Scotland, has no philosophic position at all and is simply a principle of social administration by which religion is kept separate from the state. We say …believe what you want as long as you don’t presume to impose these views on others through privileged platforms in education and government bodies. You are free to recruit adults to your faith if you can, but children must be protected from proselytizing at an intellectually vulnerable age. 

In the UK we have bishops in The House of Lords; compulsory religious education in state schools; faith schools funded by the taxpayer; religions are exempt from many aspects of equality legislation; the state tiptoes politely around religious demands to the right surgically to alter the genitals of children, discriminate against gay people or promote non-stun animal slaughter;  religions are allowed charitable status (with the associated tax breaks) simply because they are “promoting religion”; despite now being a minority in the UK, religious leaders are the default stewards of civic events such as Remembrance.

Jacobsen: What are some joint activities with other faith/non-faith groups in the larger community?

Barber: There are some adherents to non-Christian religions who are secular sympathizers as they similarly don’t want to see the privileging of Christianity. Secularists have a qualified affiliation with Humanists: neither of us wants to see Christians being privileged but the Humanist solution sometimes is to have Humanists sharing the privilege which Secularists feel is a step in the wrong direction.

Jacobsen: Who are some recommended speakers, authors, or organizations?

Barber: We have had talks/discussions with many people who have a concern about religious privilege: LGBT leaders, academics, moderate religious groups, authors whose work has been censored by religious gatekeepers, those whose campaigns have been opposed by privileged religious pressure e.g. assisted dying, marriage equality, abortion etc.

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion?

Barber: I have a friend from Texas who was over in Scotland studying for a year. She reported that the Texas humanist/secularist/atheist scene was so small that there was little room for the delineations she discovered in Scotland.

Fewer than half of all Scots now identify as having any religion and Christianity is a further subset of that minority. Even if the numbers were more favourable to Christianity, as they used to be, it would still be wrong to impose religious views on others. The secular mantra is “Freedom of religion and freedom from religion.” Secularism protects all. In countries where the religion IS the state the first thing they do is discriminate against minority religions. The Pakistan government recently voted down a proposal to make it legal to have a non-Muslim prime minister! Of course ironically in The UK, we similarly have religious restrictions: the head of state (queen) must be a Protestant!

Edinburgh Secular Society is currently campaigning against a generations-old anachronism that is three unelected religious representatives sitting on all local education committees. This surely derives from a time when religion was deemed to be good for all.

We do not oppose the adult choice to hold religious beliefs but they should not be privileged in government, schools or the law.

There is, of course, a big overlap between secularists and atheists but, in campaigning, we are concerned to play that down to avoid our opponents saying, “Well you would say that…you’re an atheist”

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Neil

Barber: You’re welcome mate. Canada seems to lead the way on so many issues. Good luck in the future.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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