Based in Falkirk, the Humanist Society Scotland’s chief executive campaigns for change

It was while studying earth sciences at the University of Glasgow that campaigning first became part of Fraser Sutherland’s life.

By Julie Currie
Saturday, 15th June 2019, 11:48 am
Campaigning career...Fraser Sutherland has recently been appointed the Humanist Society Scotlands chief executive.
Campaigning career...Fraser Sutherland has recently been appointed the Humanist Society Scotlands chief executive.

After gaining his Masters degree, he was elected as a student representative.

And that stood him in good stead for his next role – a two-year stint as assistant for MSP Marco Biagi.

That gave Fraser an insight into politics and the Scottish Parliament, which proved helpful in his next role, working for four years in consumer policy research and campaigns for Citizens Advice Scotland.

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In his spare time, Fraser enjoys spending time with his wife Joanna in their adopted home town and with their much-loved Jack Russell, Poppy, pictured here at the Pineapple. Fraser is also a member of Falkirk Curling Club.

Two years ago, Fraser was appointed as campaigns and communications manager with the Humanist Society Scotland and last month became its chief executive.

Fighting for human rights will continue to play a key role in his new job.

And there’s plenty to fight for, as Fraser explained when we met in Central Perk, Falkirk – young people’s rights chief among them.

“There are a lot of human rights issues we need to tackle in the months and years ahead,” he said.

“All too often, we get characterised as anti-religious – I flat-out deny that. We believe everyone’s human rights should be respected. So it follows through that every type of religion should be respected.

“We’re not just fighting for non-religious people but for everyone.

“What we want is fairness and equality for all, no matter what your beliefs are.

“Part of that, though, is trying to challenge religious institutions having an unfair influence on public life.

“That means challenging the way things have been done in the past. Sometimes people think we’re trying to change them personally so we’re seen as a threat.

“But we’re not bigoted and do not hate religious people. In fact, we have really good inter-faith relationships.

“We simply believe that everyone has the right to make their own choices about religion, including children – particularly those in secondary education.”

The thorny issue of religious assemblies and events in schools is where the Humanist Society has hit a brick wall with some of Scotland’s elected MSPs.

But it’s an issue Fraser plans to continue to fight – and he has the backing of some heavy hitters.

He said: “Children can’t currently opt-out of religious worship in school. We don’t believe it’s fair to insist they attend, particularly children in secondary school.

“The Scottish Youth Parliament, the commissioner for children and young people’s rights in Scotland and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child have all argued that the Scottish Government is wrong not to change the law.

“The government is keen to make Scotland one of the best places for children to live but it’s not willing to budge on this issue.

“Some of the ministers are letting their own personal beliefs sway their decision and are not thinking of the children.”

In light of a recent decision in Perth and Kinross, Fraser is also keen to change hearts and minds in local council chambers.

“Each local authority area has an education committee, with three representatives of religious bodies who have voting rights, even though they’re not elected,” he said.

“We believe that they should not have a vote – it should be down to the elected members.

“Blairingone Primary School was closed on the casting vote of two unelected church representatives.

“It’s undemocractic as you can’t hold these people to account for their decision.

“It’s a clear example of religion having an unfair influence on public life and we need to challenge it.

“Perth and Kinross Council has now removed their voting rights – we want other councils to follow suit.”

Campaigning for assisted dying legislation and the LGBT community, which it has supported for years, will also remain mainstays of the society’s work.

It also has three homeless projects – in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Stirling – and 140 celebrants who perform weddings, funerals and naming ceremonies, in addition to volunteers who visit prisons and hospitals to offer pastoral care.

Any spare time Fraser (31) has is spent with his wife, Joanna, who is a school teacher, and their much-loved Jack Russell, Poppy.

Since moving to the town in 2011, thanks to its easy commute to Edinburgh, Fraser has also become a regular member of Falkirk Curling Club.

He added: “It was meant to be a temporary move but we made a lot of friends here and really liked the area so we decided to stay.”

Founded in 1989 to meet demand

The Humanist Society Scotland was formed in 1989 in response to rising demand.

It is part of a UK, European and wider international movement of people and organisations.

It is a registered charity, governed by a Board of Trustees elected by members.

The day-to-day work of the society is undertaken by a team of staff and volunteers, overseen by the senior management team.

Members have a clear vision of a secular Scotland, seeking a future in which the worth, dignity and autonomy of every person is respected and individual freedom is balanced with social responsibility.

It also aims to ensure that Scottish civic institutions are democratic and human rights are developed, embedded and protected; ethical and moral problems are addressed with compassion, knowledge and reason; and no belief system, religious or not, should have, nor expect, privilege in the democratic process.

Individual humanists will differ in the importance they give to different activities, such as seeking to improve human rights or the development of humanist ceremonies.

For some, humanism is primarily a life stance that influences the way they behave as individuals; some see humanism as being primarily a belief system or a set of coherent philosophical positions; and others view it as a series of values which should inform public policy.

But what unites Humanist Society members is the basis of their life stance.

Humanist Society Scotland and Humanists UK work together, particularly on policy matters that extend across the UK and internationally.

But their work on education and ceremonies is separate, reflecting their respective legislation differences.

For more information, visit www.humanism.scot.