Humanism: not an ‘impossible dream’

Andrew Brown, at The Guardian‘s ‘Comment is Free’ (CIF) wrote an article a couple of weeks ago now rubbishing humanism and the British Humanist Association. I’ve responded today on the Huffington Post. Why has it taken so long? Well, I originally asked CIF if I could do a response. I was told yes but when I sent it to them they changed their mind and said it was too positive about humanism. I went back to them and said that this wasn’t quite fair and so they said okay, I could do a piece but it would have to be more general and not a response as such. So, I worked on another version, but then was told that it didn’t make sense. (You can judge that for yourself – I’ve pasted it below the Huffington Post one below).

The Huffington Post one:

Andrew Brown, in his blog last week, criticised the British Humanist Association (BHA) for promoting humanism as an essentially negative approach to life defined by what it isn’t and for being on an incoherent and self-defeating mission to eliminate all social bonds, based on an outmoded view of religion.

The blog set up humanism as a recent approach to life, grounded in an antagonism to Christianity. This is a narrow view. It is true that the word ‘humanism’ only began to be used in English in its contemporary sense about 150 years ago, but the philosophy it denotes and which the BHA promotes (although it is exceptionally well-suited to the modern world we live in) is not an entirely modern phenomenon. Throughout recorded history there have been non-religious people who have believed that this life is the only life we have, that the universe is a natural phenomenon with no supernatural side, and that we can live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and compassion. They have trusted to the scientific method, evidence, and reason to discover truths about the universe and placed human welfare and happiness at the centre of their ethic. It is these views in combination that constitute humanism – a naturalistic and morally aware approach to living in the here and now. No parasite on Christianity, it is in fact a stance from which, historically, Christianity borrowed much of its practical ethics. You can find millions of men and women with humanist views in Britain today and you can find their equivalents among the materialists of classical India, the Confucians of ancient China, the partisans of the European enlightenment, their distant forebears in the Mediterranean world of the Romans and Greeks, and the free minds of the short-lived Arab renaissance at the time of the European dark age – as well as among the uncounted men and women who have left no record or whose existence has been struck from history by institutions opposed to their values.

Much of the BHA’s work  – like providing resources to schools   or providing many thousands of non-religious funerals and other ceremonies every year – is focussed on providing support to people in Britain with humanist views today. This is all in addition to what attracts most media attention: our work to campaign for a secular state, challenge religious privilege, and promote equal treatment in law and policy of everyone regardless of religion or belief.

Brown’s blog saw these campaigns as ‘mopping up operations for a battle that has been strategically long won’. This is a strange view, as much of the religious discrimination and anti-secular activity that the BHA challenges is not just residual (like Bishops in our parliament) but new. There are more state-funded religious schools now than in previous decades: they continue to grow in number and as a proportion of our state schools overall. It is against the unfair powers of such schools to discriminate on religious grounds in their admissions, employment and curriculum – powers recently extended, not diminished – that one of the main campaigns of the BHA is directed. Also novel is the strategic repositioning of organised religion in the UK as a provider of social welfare, with services previously provided by the state being contracted out to religious groups that do not lose powers to discriminate even when they receive this public money to provide public services. This is a new and aggressive attempt to roll back the secularist advances of previous decades and it would not be an exaggeration to say that the exceptionalism some religious campaigners are seeking represents one of the most significant current challenges to the principle of the rule of law. I agree that the Christian theocratic view that Brown’s blog mentions is eccentric, but I don’t see that it is universally seen as quaint and it is not without its advocates at high political levels. To campaign against it is not to campaign against religion but against religious privilege, and the unfairness of a state that is still considerably less than secular – and it is campaigning that is much-needed.

Humanism itself is a self-sufficient worldview founded on the positive principles of reason, worldliness, sympathy and humanitarian conviction and the campaigns of humanist organisations are invariably based on the positive values of human rights, respect for the dignity of each person, and equality before the law. The slanders that humanism is negative and the campaigns of humanist organisations irrelevant or wrong-headed are just that.

And here’s the revised one I sent to CIF:

Too often, humanism is portrayed by its critics as an essentially negative approach to life defined by what it isn’t and for itself becoming a quasi-religion. This view often sets up humanism as a recent approach to life, grounded in an antagonism to Christianity. It is a narrow view. It is true that the word ‘humanism’ only began to be used in English in its contemporary sense about 150 years ago, but the philosophy it denotes and which humanist organisations promote (although it is exceptionally well-suited to the modern world we live in) is not an entirely modern phenomenon.

Throughout recorded history there have been non-religious people who have believed that this life is the only life we have, that the universe is a natural phenomenon with no supernatural side, and that we can live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and compassion. They have trusted to the scientific method, evidence, and reason to discover truths about the universe and placed human welfare and happiness at the centre of their ethic. It is these views in combination that constitute humanism – a naturalistic and morally aware approach to living in the here and now. No parasite on Christianity, it is in fact a stance from which, historically, Christianity borrowed much of its practical ethics. You can find millions of men and women with humanist views in Britain today and you can find their equivalents among the materialists of classical India, the Confucians of ancient China, the partisans of the European enlightenment, their distant forebears in the Mediterranean world of the Romans and Greeks, and the free minds of the short-lived Arab renaissance at the time of the European dark age – as well as among the uncounted men and women who have left no record or whose existence has been struck from history by institutions opposed to their values.

As well as wrong to see it as no more than anti-religion or non-religion, it is a mistake to see humanism as a quasi-religion. You can seek to make it so by a re-definition of religion – such as that performed by Andrew Brown – as ‘the stories and practices that individuals and societies use to explain and create their relation to each other and their meaning in the world.’ If that is your definition of religion then of course humanists would be religious – every single conscious human being would be. But this is not the definition of religion in everyday English. Even where religions don’t include a god, they invariably include some belief in a reality other than the one we directly experience. Religious approaches to life frequently base at least some of their principles on authority or revelation and at least some of their ethics on reference points outside of humanity. I think most people, using the word ‘religion’ expect what they’re talking about to correspond to at least one of these definitions; none of these aspects apply to humanism. The humanist view is a naturalistic one; a humanist approach to knowledge is based solely on free inquiry, reason and evidence; and humanism grounds morality in our humanity alone.

Just as humanism is not a quasi-religion, humanist organisations are not quasi-churches. To provide personalised non-religious funeral ceremonies is not the same as providing religious rituals derived from authority and tradition. To campaign against privilege and discrimination on grounds of religion or belief is not to make humanism a self-interested political movement in the way that many politically active churches are. It is to campaign for secularism in the sense of a more open and fairer society and politics. It is positive campaigning – invariably based on the positive values of human rights, respect for the dignity of each person, and equality before the law – and it is campaigning that is much-needed.

6 comments

  1. John Davis

    Have to say, as a long-time Grauniad & Observer reader, & subscriber for several years now, that their *constant* belittling of secularism, humanism & (particularly) atheism sits very badly with me & I am genuinely considering giving up on them.

    Their attempts at fairness are muddled & cowardly & too often end up in that muddy patch where they take two utterly irreconcilable views & arbitrarily decide that the truth must lie in the middle, regardless of what evidence either side brings to the argument.

  2. Eddie

    Indeedy. I have read about ancient asian humanism, spoken about by the likes of Confucius and who we now know as Buddha. Buddha was sceptical about an afterlife (surprising), and they obviously talked about being kind for the sake of it.

  3. Jeff Buck

    I’m very surprised that the Guardian, of all newspapers, appears to be so opposed to your right to a full and comprehensive reply. I’m glad that you’ve found other ways to make your very measured, sensible and very necessary piece public.

  4. Bob

    Brown is himself the editor of Cif Belief, right? Maybe your counter-argument was too good. Best work some flaws in next time, and maybe some flattery? Bit of a shame.

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