Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Meaning of Life Revealed on Buzzfeed

I am one of various humanists asked about meaning in life on Buzzfeed today by Tom Chivers.

Like all these things, it’s been edited a bit so here’s the full version of my response!

I can’t see any trace of ultimate purpose or direction to the universe in which we find ourselves, so there’s no meaning to be had from that source. When we talk about meaning in life, I think we have to be talking about the meaning we give to our own experiences; the gloss we put on what happens to us and what we do; the bigger shape we give to all these things in our own heads. This is the meaning that we create individually and collectively. Human beings for thousands of years have exerted themselves to carve out safe spaces in an indifferent universe – camps and villages and towns and cities obviously, but also laws and philosophies and religions and stories.

People ask how you can find any meaning in life when you know that one day you’ll be dead and in due course nothing of you will survive at all – not even people’s memories. This question has never made sense to me. When I’m reading a good book, or eating a good meal, or taking a scenic walk, or enjoying an evening with friends, or having sex, I don’t spend the whole time thinking, ‘Oh no! This book won’t last forever; this food will be gone soon; my walk will stop; my evening will end! – and so on.’ I enjoy the experiences. Although it’s stretched out over a (hopefully) much longer time, that’s the same way I think about life. We are here, we are alive. We can either choose to end that, or to embrace it and to live for as long as we can as fully and richly as possible.

Obviously this means that we all have different meanings in our lives – things that give us pleasure and purpose. The most meaningful experiences in my life have been relationships with people – friends and family, colleagues and classmates. I love connecting with other people and finding out more about them. I enjoy the novels and histories that I read for the same reason and I like to feel connected to the people who have gone before us. I hope that the work I do in different areas of my life will make the world a better place for people now and in the future and I feel connected to those future people too, all as part of a bigger human story.

Number 10 reportedly intervenes to stop humanist marriage

Thanks so much to everyone who has sent messages and texts to commiserate about humanist marriage following the Sunday Times story this morning. Obviously it has all been an enormous disappointment and a bitter pill for all of us who have worked so hard on this issue for over a decade – but especially in the last two intense years. I admit I have been a bit tearful!

We won the debate again and again in public, in the House of Commons, in the House of Lords, and in meeting after meeting with ministers and civil servants. Every single argument against humanist marriages was tried and tested in the light of day and open scrutiny, crumbled, and was demolished. If we do lose, it will be because of the sort of non-transparent inscrutable behind-the-scenes activity which, to be honest, make me despair of liberal democracy.

We won’t be giving up on this issue. We will continue to press for humanist marriages before the election, however unlikely that now seems given the Prime Minister’s intervention. If we don’t win, we will carry on after the election with whatever government is in power. Legal recognition for humanist marriages is still Liberal Democrat party policy and the Labour party is also in support. So it’s not over!

Support for Humanist marriages broad and overwhelming – why is the Government delaying?

As the Government continues to delay reporting on the legalisation of humanist marriages, we are seeing increased expressions of the political consensus in favour of it. Two dozen members of the House of Commons today have signed an Early Day Motion to urge the Government to move towards legalisation. They already include MPs from Labour, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, Green, Conservative, and even SNP making a rare venture into English and Welsh matters. They include Christians as well as humanists, and there are more signatories to come.

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This is a follow-up to a triple cross-party strike from a Labour, a Liberal Democrat, and Conservative MP on 11 November, who pressed the justice minister from three corners of the chamber as to what was taking the Government (which had originally told the British Humanist Association that the whole issue might be taken care of by about eight months ago!) quite so long:

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And on 4 December the Labour front bench, who were forced to compromise on humanist marriage at the time of the Marriage Bill last year when the Government threatened to delay same-sex marriage if the case for humanist marriage was taken to a vote, were showing their frustration:

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And it’s not just in the Commons. Last week, on 1 December, there was a mini-debate in the House of Lords in which there was not a single voice raised against humanist marriage and in which, again, there was cross-party support from Labour, Conservative, and Liberal Democrat, as well as independent peers. Again, support crossed belief lines with Christians such as cross-bencher Baroness Butler-Sloss also urging the Government to get on with legalisation. She and Baroness Thornton got pretty much as forthrightly critical of the Government as it is possible to be in the polite atmosphere of the Lords:

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Unfortunately, it does seem that the Government is just not listening. Even when the subject was raised directly with the Prime Minister by an MP of his own party at Prime Minister’s Questions on 19 November, there was no answer forthcoming on the substantive matter of humanist marriage, just the same ‘wait and see’ response, while Parliamentary time between now and the next general election bleeds away:

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When the Marriage Act was going through Parliament, it was clear that there was majority support for the legalisation of humanist marriages in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The British Humanist Association, though obviously much much smaller and poorer than the wealthier and more powerful lobbies against humanist marriages, at least was able to make its arguments and expose the disingenuous ones of critics in the light of day. Now that the matter is being considered behind closed doors, there is no such opportunity.

All that can be done is to state yet again the case for legal recognition, against which no coherent or just case has ever to this date been made.

In England and Wales, members of literally dozens of religions from Scientology to Methodism and from all the denominations of Judaism to the Spiritualists and the Aetherius Society (Yes – honestly!) can all have a legal marriage in the place most special to them, conducted by one who shares their beliefs, and in the form that embodies their most deeply held beliefs and values. Those with humanist, non-religious beliefs and values don’t have the same choice.

In Scotland, where humanist marriages are legal, they have proved hugely popular – so popular that they have contributed to a growth in marriages overall. Giving legal recognition to them in the whole of Britain would be fair, inexpensive, easy, uncontroversial, and beneficial for both individuals, wider society, and the economy. What can possibly be being discussed behind closed doors that weighs against all that?

A bit of humanist history

Here in the offices of the Dutch Humanist Association, they have this great bust of their founder Jaap van Praag (1911-1981). A pioneer of humanist counselling and psychology (in particular the concept of “resilience”, which he developed after investigating what it was that made Dutch people protect or join in the persecution of Jews), he was also a leader, organiser, administrator, prolific writer, and philosopher who moulded the modern Dutch conception of “Humanism”.

We have a very similar bust of Harold Blackham (1903-2009) in the British Humanist Association offices. The (re)founder of BHA, he too was a pioneer of humanist counselling (developing the concept of “whole-person” development), a prolific writer and philosopher as well as a tireless campaigner, and a celebrant. His writing in Britain moulded the modern British conception of “Humanism”.

Between them, van Praag and Harold founded the International Humanist and Ethical Union in 1952 to replace the old ‘World Union of Freethinkers, which had effectively collapsed under the twin onslaught of Communism and Fascism. In addition to all their work in their national organisations, they then led on international humanism for a couple of decades.

Constantly amazed by these humanist pioneers – they could make us feel inadequate but it’s preferable to be inspired, as we all have been in this week of humanist meetings in Amsterdam!

In the offices of the Dutch Humanist Association

In the offices of the Dutch Humanist Association

“The Muslims are Coming” Review

New Humanist have published my review of Arun Kundnani’s latest book. I would definitely recommend it. (Wrote this review before the present surge in Islamic State activity in Iraq and the involvement of many Britons in the brutality, but I don’t think I would change anything.):

The Muslims are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror (Verso) by Arun Kundnani

Islamophobia is a word with a bad reputation among many humanists: it has been used too often as an accusation to smear and silence reasonable critics of illiberal Islamic beliefs and ideologies. This is unfortunate because the phenomena that the word was intended to describe – prejudices about individual Muslims based on stereotypes, anti-Muslim bigotry, and unjustified discrimination against people purely because they are Muslims – are all too prevalent in the UK. We will not find ways to live together in the shared and diverse society that we are unless we deal with that prejudice and find ways to empower everyone to engage in a common citizenship. Any work of social or political analysis that aims to diagnose the causes of current social divisions and prescribe a solution has to be welcomed and that is at least one purpose of Arun Kundnani’s The Muslims are Coming!

Kundnani sets out to document the negative consequences of US and UK domestic counter-terrorism policies, expose anti-Muslim prejudice and hysteria as indicating a form of structural racism, and attribute the disaffection of Muslims who commit violent acts to a combination of that racism with socio-economic and political disadvantage.

All liberal-minded people know that the “war on terror” of the last decade – still ongoing – has led to a serious dilution of justice and freedom in both the UK and US. We also know that a plethora of media make it their business to spread stories about Muslims in ways calculated to inflame fear and prejudice. Kundnani gives a good account of these phenomena. In particular, he gives human faces to the victims of hatred and persecution. If you want a guide to the repressive measures our governments have engaged in, and a series of cast-iron case studies to expose the extent to which they have eroded civil rights, you will find a good compendium here.

The book is at its most persuasive when exposing the way in which governments on both sides of the Atlantic have got it wrong as they have tried to prevent violence, and gives an sharp account of how their efforts have exacerbated existing alienation. Its condemnation of many of these policies is precise and well justified. What is supposed to link the specific case studies together, however, is less clear and this problematic lack of a convincing framework is a recurring weakness in the book. Other weak points come when it moves too easily from the US to UK and treats the two situations as if they were essentially the same – unjustified in many respects – and in the way it fails to engage intelligently with alternative ideological and psychological explanations for both alienation and violence.

In particular, Kundnani does not rate religion as a factor; his preference as a secular analyst on the left is to identify socio-economic and political factors in their place. For him, the problem of acts of violence committed by individual Muslims is caused by a sense of political impotence and is to be solved by personal and civic empowerment. Many may have a justified degree of sympathy with this approach in general: religious motivation is rarely a sufficient explanation for this or that individual action or political trend – whether good deed or crime.

Clearly there are other factors at play and on one level, then, Kundnani is correct. If every child were to grow up confident and loved in an equal and fair society without prejudice, comfortable and secure economically and socially, no doubt all would be able to live confident and fulfilling lives and never feel the need to harm another in any way. Such a world is a world to fight for and to hope for. But I think he is wrong to imply that alienation alone is the cause of violence and that the foreign policies of Western democracies are responsible.

There is a confidence imparted to a person by religious ideology that can motivate excessive violence, and the intellectual and ideological content of religion needs to be considered in any full analysis.

Readers of Kundnani’s past work will know that his prose is vigorous and precise, that his tone is consistently thoughtful, and that his polemic is never hectoring. This book is no exception: a pleasure to read and be challenged by, even the parts that fail to convince.

Interview on Ignoranti

Have done an interview this week on Ignoranti about humanism, faith schools, apologetics and more.

Without a Prayer

In the latest edition of RE Today magazine there are a series of opinion pieces on prayer. Here’s mine:

A popular banner slogan of the working class humanist movement of the nineteenth century in England was ‘Hands that help are better than lips that pray.’ Today few humanists would be so crass as to deny that one can both pray and help but there is still force in the argument behind the slogan. In appealing to an entity outside of humanity for an amelioration of conditions, we run the risk of fatalism or resignation in practice and failing to see that improvements in our personal and social conditions come from taking our destinies into our own hands. Even if what we can achieve in doing so is much less than we might wish, because of the circumstances in which we find ourselves, it is still better than doing nothing – and praying is effectively doing nothing.

In fact it is worse than doing nothing. Praying can allow us to feel like we’re helping even though we’re not – and the feeling can be very powerful. Bertrand Russell hypothesized that the very source of the habit of prayer was and is in a human desire for control. If there is an all-powerful being that can be suborned by our prayers, we – in his words – ‘acquire a share in omnipotence’. The earliest prayer recorder in Europe is a prayer for rain and even later religions like Christianity foster the same view of prayer as petition. In the Bible, Jesus says that if you pray to god in faith then you will receive what you pray for.

But in fact, our prayers for a change in the external environment are useless and the feeling of control and sense is a fantasy. Double-blind tests carried out to assess the effect of prayers for the welfare of others have demonstrated that prayer has no effect on a sick person prayed for. In some studies, prayer has been recorded as having had a small negative effect on the health of the patients prayed for, if they know they are being prayed for. Those who are unwilling to let evidence disrupt a warming belief easily explain away this truth. Did you receive what you prayed for? Then rejoice – God is great! You didn’t get what you wanted? Well, the creator of the universe moves in mysterious ways… Either way: Praise the Lord!

Even though there is no such entity as the personal God of theism and therefore no one to pray to, might not the act of prayer be beneficial for what it can do for us who are praying? This is a popular defence of prayer and it comes in three guises. One is the argument that, although the feeling identified by Bertrand Russell is merely a fantasy, nonetheless it is a comforting fantasy – it can make us feel better about the tragedies that beset us. This is a secular case for prayer as placebo. The second secular defence of prayer is that the act of praying itself is healthy in that it has demonstrable physical and psychological benefits. A third defence is that group prayer can have socially cohesive effects, bonding a community together. Is there much force in these secular apologetics for prayer?

There might be, if we did not accept that truth was an equally – and perhaps more important – good than the three secular goods realised by prayer. I personally would certainly prize truth – in of itself and as the guarantee of other utilitarian goods unlikely to be achieved if one’s life is lived on the basis of lies – relatively highly. Simone De Beauvoir said, ‘I tore myself away from the safe comfort of certainties through my love for truth – and truth rewarded me.’ We can all feel those rewards. When we give up illusions like that of prayer, said Russell, ‘Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour of their own.’ In any case, there’s a whiff of hypocrisy around secular advocates of prayer as placebo and of paternalism around secular advocates of prayer as community building which many will find unpalatable.

This leaves us then with the defence of prayer that it has demonstrable health benefits on those who practice it. Studies show that time spent alone in prayer decreases stress and the likelihood of related mental and physical conditions. It can also play a part in building mental resilience, which has been pioneered by humanistic psychology as a desirable trait for mental health. The explanation of these effects is mundane, however, and not divine. Similar – and sometimes greater – positive effects can be obtained from certain types of meditation and related activities, and have been fully explained in physiological terms.

Contemplation, mindfulness, and personal reflection are useful and healthy activities, and a world away from the idea of prayer as a petition for favours. But even good things should be taken in due moderation. Time spent in such reflective solitude is an accompaniment, not an alternative, to time spent in dialogue and reflection with others, through which processes our thinking can be clarified still further and our moral and other choices be made in a more considered way. It’s through a combination of these two sorts of reflection and thought that we can live a more integrated human life in correspondence with reality – not by looking outside of humanity for favours or peace.

The Prime Minister’s ‘Christian Country’ Claims

Again and again in the past few years, more and more politicians have been joining church leaders in popping up to declare that Britain is a Christian country, that we ought to be proud of this fact, and that we ought to proclaim and promote it. Sometimes this takes the form of claiming that everything good about Britain – from state education to democracy to the welfare state – sprang from a Christian root (questionable historical claims) and sometimes that we are literally a Christian people (dubious in light of the fact that polls and surveys show a majority of us do not have Christian beliefs, do not go to church, and when asked if we have a religion and what it is, most of us don’t say ‘Christian’). This week it all got too much and one group of non-Christians decide to respond. Reacting to the most recent comments by the Prime Minister, they sent an open letter to him which was published in The Telegraph.

Most people in Britain will surely agree with the sentiments in our letter. Most of us aren’t Christian in our beliefs and know that our society has been shaped for the better by many pre-Christian, non-Christian, and post-Christian forces. Even more of us disagree with the specific use to which the Prime Minister put his ‘Christian country’ narrative. Elaborating on his main theme, the prime Minister said, it was his mission ‘to expand the role of faith and faith organisations in this country.’ He claimed that this has been a ‘consistent theme’ of his government and that ‘there’s more [government] can do to help make it easier for faith organisations.’ This divisive activity is unpopular and has negative consequences for the rights and freedoms of many in Britain. More generally, people certainly don’t want religion to have more influence in government – in a 2006 Ipsos MORI poll, “religious groups and leaders” actually topped the list of domestic groups that people said had too much influence on government. Domestically at least, the British people are content for government to keep out of the religious sphere and vice versa.

More generally, it’s the simple statement that Britain is a ‘Christian country’ itself which does harm. Some non-Christians – especially older people who grew up in a more Christian culture and leaders of other religions who value their relationship with a powerful established church – don’t mind it. But it alienates many of us who are not Christian, whether British for generations or newly arrived. In an increasingly diverse society and one with citizens of a range of religious and non-religious beliefs and identities, we need a national identity that will be inclusive not divisive.

The Birmingham ‘Trojan Horse’ story

In 2007 I was Education Officer at the British Humanist Association. My opposite number at the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) was Tahir Alam, who is now chair of governors at Park View in Birmingham – the non-denominational state school accused of deliberately Islamicising itself.

Tahir’s output at the MCB that year included this guidance which amongst many other things advises state community schools reform so that children from Muslim backgrounds don’t participate in dance after a certain age, be gender-segregated in a wide number of scenarios etc etc. Read it for yourself – this has all been on the public record ever since and was widely reported at the time, not least because it was controversial among Muslims, who were divided on its recommendations.

But in light of this guidance, I’m not surprised, media hyperbole aside, about many of the allegations being made about the school [just to be clear: I’m talking about the allegations to do with gender segregation, the religious atmosphere of the school etc and not the allegations of political extremism. I think the danger is that the hyped up talk of political extremism will actually conceal the many real concerns that should be had.]

(The Govt of the time, by the way, which was generally v amenable to this sort of thing, thankfully distanced itself)

Cataloguing Humanist History

There’s a great project going on at the moment to catalogue the humanist archives at the Bishopsgate Institute. You can look at some of their items on their Tumblr page but here’s one of my favourite items so far – an old BHA festive greetings card. Those crazy cats.