Linda Smith: God, the biggest joke of all

Linda Smith who died on Monday is to have a humanist funeral. Cahal Milmo finds out why the comedian spent her final years promoting a movement that counts most of us as unwitting members

After two decades of sharing her mirthful world-view, it was unsurprising that, even as Linda Smith entered her final days, she was working on one last public expression of her beliefs - her funeral. Hours before she died from the ovarian cancer which she had been privately fighting since 2002, the comedian laid down the law on her final farewell - small, private and, above all, humanist.

A separate memorial service, to be attended by the likes of Paul Merton and Jeremy Hardy, a fellow regular on BBC Radio 4's News Quiz, will be held at an East London theatre a day after the funeral next week.

Underpinning both celebrations of the life of a comedian whose down-to-earth humour endeared her to millions will be a set of beliefs which Smith held dear. In 2004, she became the president of the British Humanist Association (BHA). It is an organisation to which Smith pointed out she technically did not belong since had forgotten to fill out the membership form. But that is not to understate the extent to which Smith, who was 48 when she died on Monday, saw herself as a flag-bearer for humanism and for its burgeoning numbers of followers.

Caroline Black, the BHA celebrant who will conduct the comedian's funeral and who visited her last week, says: "She didn't have time for authority-figures. Her ideas were driven by being self-determining and being responsible for yourself. She knew she was not going to live much longer and she was very clear that she wanted humanism to be at the heart of her funeral."

In choosing a ceremony deliberately denuded of any notion of a deity or an afterlife, Smith and her partner, Warren Lakin, join a rapidly expanding group of Britons who choose secular ideals rather than religion when it comes to marking an important event in their lives.

Celebrants trained and registered by the BHA conducted more than 6,000 humanist funerals, weddings, baby namings and other ceremonies in 2004. The figures represent an increase in humanist ceremonies of more than 150 per cent in the last five years. Membership of the BHA has increased from 3,500 in 2000 to 5,000, including a host of high-profile scientists and intellectuals, while its number of celebrants now stands at 200. Unaffiliated celebrants are thought to carry out a further 8,000 ceremonies across Britain every year.

Among the celebrities to have had humanist funerals in recent years are three other fellow comedians - Ronnie Barker, Bob Monkhouse and Dave Allen - and the Olympic ice-skater John Curry. The preponderance of comics in this list is put down to their habit of saying what they think, according to Smith's fellow humanists.

Hanne Stinson, the executive director of the BHA, says: "Comedians tend to say things as they see them. A lot of people who see themselves as atheistic tend to end up having a religious funeral because it is the done thing. Perhaps comedians are more used to expressing a view and holding to it."

Marilyn Mason, the BHA's education officer, says: "A lot of people are probably humanist without realising it. What humanism offers is a life-stance based on reason and experience. It isn't something you necessarily join or participate in, but it gives a philosophical support to daily life. It offers an ethical system, but often people only come to us when they want to have a ceremony that reflects their views."

Chief among these "unwitting humanists" was Smith herself. In 2004 she said: "I only found out that the beliefs I hold are 'humanistic' when the BHA kindly invited me to be its president. I am sure that I'm typical of many unconscious humanists. I see publicising humanism in order that other people might identify themselves, not just negatively as atheists but positively as humanists, as a vital part of my role."

Such "evangelising" goes to the heart of the humanist cause. Founded in the mid-19th century by groups battling the domination of the nation's moral and ideological life by established religion, formal humanism grew from the emergence of figures such as Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution began to gnaw at the hitherto cast-iron certainties of Christianity.

Among its founding fathers were George Holyoake, a secularist campaigner who, in 1842, achieved the distinction of becoming the last person in England to be imprisoned for denying the existence of God.

Humanism 21st-century style is a combination of the rejection of dogma and of feel-good principles driven by self-reliance, the primacy of science and social cooperation. The BHA mission-statement says: "Humanism is the belief that we can live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs. Humanists make sense of the world using reason, experience and shared human values. We seek to make the best of the one life we have by creating meaning and purpose for ourselves. We take responsibility for our actions and work with others for the common good."

With the obvious exception of its rejection of religion, there is very little in this to which most people would take exception. But some critics argue that it is precisely such "truths self-evident" that make humanism a creed so broad that it lacks any distinctive purpose.

Dr Jason Roberts, an California-based lecturer in philosophy who has written on humanism, says: "The problem that humanism faces is that its tenets - such as mutual respect or personal freedom - sound like statements of the obvious in Western societies. What's the point of signing up to the intellectual equivalent of breathing or breaking wind?"

It is a problem which British humanists recognise and are seeking to combat by highlighting what they say is continuing discrimination against those who choose secular values. Mason says: "What we are doing is saying that there is still discrimination and there is still religious privilege in this country and seeking to redress the balance."

The BHA highlights the fact that a humanist wedding in England and Wales - of which there were 311 in 2004 - has no legal status, and that a couple must still have a separate register-office service, as evidence of discrimination against humanists. In June this year, Karen Watts, a community worker, and Martin Reijns, a Dutch-born student, exchanged vows in Scotland's first legally-binding humanist wedding, after the authorities agreed that withholding legal status was a breach of a couple's human rights. Campaigners are now aiming to persuade MPs that the same right should be extended to humanists in England and Wales.

The issues of public funding for faith schools, which particularly irked Linda Smith, and of the amount of the religious education curriculum devoted to non-religious beliefs, are also being targeted. Sam Bradler, the BHA's community services officer, says: "Our aim is to promote non-religious life, to separate the religious from the public domain in areas such as government or education. We find it difficult to see why faith schools should be subsidised when someone who is a humanist could have no chance of getting their child into that school because of their beliefs."

Humanists admit that their movement has a long way to go before it can claim influence on a par with the established religions it opposes. Its 5,158 funerals represent barely one per cent of the burials and cremations carried out by the Church of England in a year. One Midlands-based BHA celebrant says: "We're kidding ourselves if we think humanism is on a par with Hinduism or Judaism in terms of its influence, let alone the main Christian churches. But there is a tremendous opportunity here to provide structure and solace in a society which increasingly finds the notion of God irrelevant."

Smith recalled how her own experience of institutional religion was responsible for her conversion to humanism. She said: "It was secondary school that put me off God. I suddenly thought in assembly that this was all rubbish, the headmaster reading out this piffle." The comedian voiced a hope that she would one day organise a large showbiz benefit event to "bring in people who weren't necessarily humanism's normal audience". As fellow comedians gather next week for an evening of reminiscences about Smith, at the Theatre Royal in Stratford, the tragedy will be that the event she dreamed of will have been due to her death.

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