Faith to Faithless was a grassroots organisation which was founded in 2015 to support apostates from all backgrounds, who can face discrimination and violence for leaving a religion or a cult. As an ex-Muslim who suffered when I left Islam it was important to me to make the lives of others facing similar issues to be happier and safer. The energy that was created when Faith to Faithless was launched was so positive. A lot of people were reaching out to us for support, so we came to quickly understand that apostates needed services to help them with their challenges. Around that time, we had a chance to sit down with Andrew Copson, the CEO of Humanists UK which is arguably the largest non-religious organisation in the UK. As FTF had gained momentum and we were looking into registering it as a charity we sought his advice on this issue. However, he gave warnings saying that registration comes with regulation which he described to be challenging. This was disheartening as it felt like our resources and capabilities were too inadequate for this purpose. Not much later, Copson and other senior people pursued integrating FTF into HUK and said that they would throw the resources of this seasoned charity into growing it with one director even saying it could be taken global. At that time, I believed that they really cared about helping vulnerable apostates. With the trust that they would do they would do best by this marginalised community, I agreed to give ownership of FTF to HUK. But what has happened to it and the apostates it should help, has not be kind and it has not been fair. I have volunteered for FTF in various ways since its integration however I resigned from my most recent role as its Chair earlier this year as I lost trust that HUK is operating in the best interests of apostates. Before leaving, I asked questions but only received what felt like excuses or jargon. To make sense of things, I looked deeper into the organisation.
I studied HUK’s history and went through years of financial reports available on the government website. I was surprised to see a pattern emerge during my research relating to a range of organisations that HUK has taken control of in the last decade. My findings suggest that HUK has become ensnared in a type of corruption called institutional capture. This when an agency such as a political entity is co-opted and no longer can serve the interests of those it should represent, but instead serves the interests of small group. As HUK’s income has tripled in the last decade, the remnants of every organisation that it has taken control of in this period have remained tiny in comparison to other parts of HUK with one even being shut down. This brings me to ask whether they were taken over in good faith, and to argue that the needs of marginalised communities like apostates are being neglected by HUK. I believe that the emergence of this pattern can be traced to the appointment of Andrew Copson as the CEO of HUK 11 years ago.
One of HUK’s key charitable activities is to support local humanist groups. This tradition can be traced back to the 1962 conference of the International Humanist and Ethical Union when British representatives concluded that a national body was needed to represent growing local and university groups. This went on to become what we recognise as HUK today. However, since the appointment of Copson it seems to have deviated from this tradition to also include seeking out other non-religious organisations to incorporate. In total it has taken over at least 4 organisations since he became the CEO, and I know of one other that was approached for this purpose in the last few years but HUK was unsuccessful in its attempt. This indicates that it is an ongoing process, and it is unclear how many organisations could be affected. HUK’s current income is 2.6 million pounds and according to the most detailed report available which was for 2019, it received £1,212, 273 in ‘unrestricted funds’ which can be spent on anything that the charity sees as fit to fulfil its aims. However, what remains of the organisations that HUK has taken over saw very little of these generous donations.
The oldest of them is the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association (now LGBT Humanists) which was founded in 1979. It was a pioneering organisation which was founded after the Gay news blasphemy trial. It proudly referred to itself as the world’s only autonomous gay and lesbian humanist organisation which was true until 2012. One of GALHA’s core aims was to bring about a world where LGBT people have complete equality with heterosexuals, and it sought to end offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel. Sadly, what remains of GALHA is very under resourced in comparisons to other parts of HUK. LGBT Humanists’ (GALHA) spending was only £10, 560 in 2019. Compare this with the £768, 162 in the same year on Public Affairs and Policy. When I saw the pitiful amount of £678 that HUK spent what remains of the UK Armed Forces Humanist Association (now Defence Humanists), I had to ask is this the future of FTF? In 2011 HUK also took over the Centre for Inquiry based in the UK which gave talks on reason, rationalism, and critical thinking. Since joining HUK it had a small amount spent on it, but this reduced to only £1, 461 by 2017. After this point it disappeared from HUK’s reports and it a shame to see that it comes up as ‘permanently closed’ now. The last organisation is of course FTF which represents apostates, many of whom are ethnic minorities and was taken over in 2016. It too has been passed over year after year. HUK spent £21,373 on FTF in 2019 whereas in the same year it allocated £710, 431 on promotion of humanism, an increase of £100, 000 from 2018.
The extravagant spending on promoting humanism over supporting communities which is ten times what it was before Copson became CEO, could indicate an unhealthy zeal and fanaticism about ideology at a senior level within the organisation. HUK uses these former organisations as examples of how it fulfils its charitable objectives in reports to the charity commission and yet it feels like they are outsiders when it comes to allocating resources. What is strange when looking at reports of the last ten years is that in many instances the budgeted funds of these former organisations were not spent in their entirety sometimes leaving tens of thousands unspent at the end of the year. This can give them the appearance that they don’t need more money however this doesn’t seem quite right. For instance, in 2019 HUK did not spend £15, 355 in budgeted funds for FTF, but as will become clearer in the next paragraph, there was so much that could have been done for apostates with this. It wasn’t like HUK were not given suggestions over the years by apostates at focus groups, as well as others including FTF’s volunteer led leadership team.
As a result of a lack of spending on it 5 years after HUK took over, FTF still does not have any dedicated full-time staff as it relies on the efforts of one part-time manager. It is not ready to deliver the full services which HUK announced was their aim for it upon integration. Without staff to focus on managing volunteers, HUK’s public vow to create a ‘robust volunteer’ force remains unfulfilled relying on a handful of volunteers. The new website that was discussed in year one has not materialised. Most panel events and talks are not recorded anymore and even when they are, they don’t make it online. The worst of all is that many apostates who contact FTF are sign posted away to other organisations as HUK has not provided the resources needed to handle their queries. FTF’s capability to help apostates has been scuppered by the fact that HUK has restricted its ability to fundraise on social media since taking ownership. A manager for HUK once voiced to me their confusion as they had advocated for fundraising for FTF online only to be told it wasn’t possible. The last time HUK directly organised any online fundraising for it was in the first year that it took control. So, what has HUK given FTF instead as its only real fundraising opportunity in the year? It was given the gala dinner at HUK’s annual conference.
In the first year it made sense to not get from existing HUK funds because I was told that budget for the year had already been assigned. But year after year, the gala dinner was all it was given to fundraise. Every year FTF’s aims are rolled out and an apostate would stand on a stage to tell their story to a group of around 100 people at a fancy dinner as collection boxes are handed out. At the last one I did I was asked to dig deep and think of a very sad story for the donors. Standing under the glare of the lights and reliving my worst traumas with the pressure that this was its main fundraising event was crushing for me. Members are generous for which I am thankful, but the most that has been raised at these dinners has been around £9,000 for the year, and it simply is not enough for the development, nor delivery of full services that apostates need.
As the gala dinner wasn’t happening last year because of covid and FTF was due to lose its main donor, I suggested (not for the first time) if it could have budget from HUK going forward. After all, FTF has been a part of HUK since 2016, only to be told that it was impossible. I was baffled by this response and I pressed for an explanation. The director subsequentially admitted that it wasn’t so impossible after all. A few months later, FTF’s volunteers were told that HUK is now considering allocating a part-time manager on a more permanent basis, but before this could happen that the team were asked to help put together some justifications for Copson. This felt like an unnecessary obstacle put in the way particularly as FTF needs so much more than a part-time manager to deliver wide reaching services to apostates. I had to ask myself, why is FTF being treated like this? It has been so hard to admit to myself that apostates are not being treated like equals at HUK, but now I must say it out loud.
HUK benefits from the cultural capital of the causes and the histories of the organisations that it takes over while it essentially starves them. It can claim the brave marches that GALHA did in the seventies as its own while it withholds lifesaving spending from what remains of it. It uses apostates at gala dinners as if to show off how diverse it is and yet wrings its hands over spending any real money on them. It basks in the glory of being able to say it helps these groups on social media until it is blue in the face but what on what leg does it stand when it invests 0% of unrestricted funds into their sections? Does HUK truly believe it is acting within the letter of, let alone the spirit of the equality law when it behaves like this? The strategic and systematic under funding of the remnants of organisations taken over by HUK under Copson’s leadership leads me to no other conclusion than the intention was never to grow their capabilities to fulfil their visions but instead to use them for whatever benefits they provided. This kind of behaviour can take resources away from vulnerable communities and it may go some way in explaining why certain social movements have slowed down. Each organisation taken over brought with it richness in dialogue and networks of supporters which would have increased HUK’s outreach and appeal. Consequentially this would have contributed to the increase in its donations as well as paid membership subscriptions. Copson might think it is a win to build the membership of his organisation in this way, but it is lazy, unethical, and unsustainable.
To take so much and give so little back to these important causes tells me that he is a charlatan and not someone to be trusted with vulnerable communities. In the last decade HUK’s income has grown substantially, but at what cost? At least four independent non-religious organisations have been consumed and to this day, there is not a single apostate focused charity that I know of registered in the UK. When we asked Copson’s advice all that time ago about registering FTF as a charity, if he was ethical, he would have encouraged us and supported us. Instead, he took control of FTF only to then clip its wings. I trusted him at a time when I was lacking familial support and vulnerable because of my apostasy. To take advantage of someone is cruel and not in line with the principles of compassion that HUK promotes. It is not fitting for the leader of the national body of humanists to behave in this way when his position is one of great responsibility and trust. Is it any wonder then that he doesn’t seem concerned that his organisation is regularly turning apostates away? The apparent failure to feel remorse as he turned these organisations into shells of what they could have become is a window into the truth of his character. In business big corporations swallow up and integrate competing organisations all the time in a world where mergers and acquisitions are the norm. That is the harsh reality of business where profit for profit’s sake trumps everything. But HUK is not operating within the business world. It is taking donations from good people for the betterment of society. It cannot apply ruthless practices to other non-profit organisations or continue to withhold financial aid from the vulnerable communities it represents.
As a lifelong member of HUK, I am worried for it and I ask other members to raise questions with me. The trustees of the organisation should consider this article to be an open letter and that I am requesting that they review this matter with urgency and take decisive actions to rectify the situation. It is my view that the time has come for Andrew to Copson to step down not only from HUK, but also from Humanists International where he acts as its President. When he has failed so dismally at taking care of apostates in the UK, how can he be trusted to advocate on a global stage about apostasy for people in countries where the stakes are life or death? FTF does not belong to any one person and it is not a commodity that can be treated like an accessory or used for the wrong reasons. It has been entrusted to HUK for the good of the people it represents. Therefore, HUK must fulfil its obligations to apostates, and all the communities of the organisations it has taken over by acting appropriately to fulfil their causes in fair way. It has inherited great causes and moral responsibilities from every organisation it has taken ownership of which must be borne and acknowledged. HUK ascribes its history to Dr Felix Adler who founded the Ethical Culture movement in the 1877. He was the son of a rabbi and lost his faith in Judaism which sent shockwaves through his community. He called for an ethical alternative to traditional religions, and it was his ideas that have developed into what we call humanism today. He created schools for children and advocated for housing reforms for disadvantaged people in society. It brings me great sadness to conclude, that somewhere in its long history, HUK has lost the way.