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Submitted by admin on 11 November, 1996 - 06:24
Jane Wynne Willson
Talk to International Conference, Mexico City, November 1996
Humanism has a learned and distinguished history. Its rational, non-theistic philosophy has attracted learned and distinguished people for hundreds of years in many countries of the world. This has proved at the same time its great strength and its great weakness. I will explain what I mean.
Too many people are intimidated by the academic aura that tends to go with Humanism. They feel you can only call yourself a Humanist if you are sufficiently educated to enjoy taking part in scientific debate and philosophical discussion. This is a grave mistake. It is noticeable that in India, where rational argument goes hand in hand with positive action, this has attracted large memberships to some of the organisations.
Humanism is about living. It is about living this life well in so far as this is possible. It is about living with fellow men and women and working with each other for the good of society now and in the future. You don't have to be an academic or particularly intellectual to feel that these things are important.
Academics play a crucial role in the study of ideas and in the promotion of scientific, rational thought. We need experts to sift through moral arguments and ethical dilemmas on our behalf, and to work out a coherent basis for morality. Then we can take this framework for granted in our day-to-day living. Surely that makes good sense?
For Humanists this life is the only one we expect to experience. Using the evidence of our own eyes, the balance of probability leads us to think that there is no Heaven or Hell waiting for us when we die; and that there is no all-powerful, benevolent God watching our every move, ready to reward or punish us, as he sees fit. So how we live this life is of the utmost importance to Humanists.
Outline of talk
In this talk I'd like to consider some of the ways in which Humanists act differently from others as a result of these beliefs. And then I'll say something about the kind of practical things Humanists tend to do, drawing mainly from my experience within Europe and also from what I know of humanist, rationalist and atheist activity in India. Finally (since this was the subject I was originally asked to speak about) I will talk in greater detail about Humanist ceremonies, which provide the commonest form of practical involvement in Humanism at the present time in Britain. It is also an area I have been heavily involved with over the last 20 years.
Do Humanists act differently?
So, do Humanists act differently? In many ways I think that they do. In Humanist families, from an early age, children expect to be given honest answers to their questions, both those questions that ask 'How?' and those that ask 'Why?'
Humanists are prepared to believe things only when they are satisfied that there is reasonable evidence for doing so. The 'leap in the dark' that is required of a religious believer, is alien to the Humanist. The fatalistic attitude that suffering should be endured 'because it is God's will' is also offensive to the Humanist. One reads that the small children in Mother Teresa's care in Calcutta suffer quite unnecessarily because of this attitude. And the irony is that the Catholic church, by actively promoting the birth of unwanted children, has itself caused much of the suffering. I do not need to point out that the better solution - in Humanist and humanitarian terms -is to make contraception and health care freely available, while relieving suffering with proper treatment.
I have given that as one example of a fundamental difference of approach. Other examples may not be so extreme, but there are many. Perhaps less obvious and less commonly pointed out, is the stark difference between Humanists and those people who have no religious belief but have adopted an "I'm all right Jack", materialistic attitude. Such people are not concerned about society outside their own immediate circle, and do not interest themselves in environmental or global issues. They do not help the humanist cause at all. Quite the reverse.
Examples of practical activity
The kind of activities that Humanists get involved in usually fall into one of two categories: campaigning and social action. Sometimes these categories overlap and the social action may form part of a campaign.
By campaigning I mean putting the Humanist or secular case in a dispute or debate on a contentious issue; publicising an injustice or an instance of religious discrimination; or lobbying for a change in the law. In India, where there is still a lot of superstition, much good and often courageous work is done by rationalists and Humanists to dispel belief in magical powers, witch doctors, and the like. Demonstrations of fire walking show the public that anyone can walk on hot embers with no ill effect; pregnant women exposed to an eclipse can be shown to give birth to perfectly normal babies. And so on .....
In the countries of Western Europe, campaigning issues are more likely to centre around such matters as what part, if any, religion should play in the school curriculum; the availability of contraception and (where necessary) abortion; the legalisation of voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide, and attititudes to women and minority groups. Everything hinges on the role religion plays in a particular society, the amount of discrimination there is against those who hold different religious beliefs, or none; and the practices that prevail.
Social action too varies greatly according to the social conditions in any particular country or district. At a local level, it depends to a large extent on the size of the organisation. A small Humanist community will not have enough families to run a successful mother and baby group, for example, or a lively youth club. This will also apply to other worthwhile projects such as prison and hospital visiting, projects for the rehabilitation of offenders, and counselling and support groups. You need a whole community of dedicated Humanists for effective and significant social action. The Atheist Centre at Vijayawada in India is perhaps the most striking example of a place where this has been achieved, under the name of Positive Atheism. On a national scale, much goes on in the Netherlands that we in Britain can still only dream about.
It is of course true that many individual Humanists are to be found in organisations such as Amnesty International, International Planned Parenthood and Oxfam, working alongside people from other life stances, but then they are not working specifically under a Humanist banner, which makes it rather different. Too often, in that situation, Humanists keep quiet about their own convictions, perhaps reacting against any suggestion of proselytising or 'spreading the word'. As a movement I do believe we are much too reluctant to 'come out' as Humanists,(and of course, when I say 'Humanist', I am following the essential practice prescribed so clearly by Levi Fragell just now. I am not qualifying the word, thereby blurring its identity).
We are also paranoid about hurting other people's feelings in a way that religious people most certainly are not. How many clergymen do you know who conduct funeral services which take account of the feelings of those present who hold no religious beliefs? I should guess the answer is "very few" or more likely "none". It is worth reminding ourselves- and others - that Humanists were pioneers in the foundation of many of the great international organisations. Sir Julian Huxley was the first Director of UNESCO; Lord Boyd-Orr was the first Director of FAO (the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation); Dr Brock Chisholm was the Director General of the World Health Organisation; and Lord Ritchie-Calder while working for UNESCO was instrumental in starting the UN Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy.
I would like to make the point very strongly that, unless and until Humanists make their beliefs known and, as I say, 'come out' as Humanists, misconceptions of what we stand for will go on, and our views and needs will continue to be ignored. And, in a sense, this will be nobody's fault but our own. To illustrate this, let me tell you one little anecdote.
I was taking part in a debate 2 years ago at the BBC on the place of religion in society. My opponent was a lesser bishop. A member of the invited audience, a Muslim, got very worked up and started blaming all the ills of society on the decline in religious belief. He then gave a vivid description of how he had personally witnessed 'a gang of Humanist vandals' running wild through the streets of Newcastle, wreaking havoc as they went!
When one is familiar with groups of Humanists this seems quite funny, but that one little story illustrates two major misconceptions: firstly, the Muslim labelled anyone 'a Humanist' who had no religious faith; and secondly he branded them 'immoral', since obviously they couldn't be moral since they had no religion!
Are we merely aping the religions?
When we do get involved openly in social action, we are sometimes accused of aping the religions. This is manifestly absurd. There are various basic human needs which are best catered for within a framework of belief or life stance that is congenial or 'simpatico'. Counselling is a case in point. Religious people I am sure derive comfort from counselling which has a strong religious element, whereas we much prefer that element to be absent and for Humanist ideals to be substituted. The same applies in the other types of social action I have mentioned. Not only is the religious dimension meaningless to Humanists: it also detracts from the human fellowship that is the core of Humanism.
I now get to ceremonies, and here the situation is further complicated by the widely held view that the religions hold a monopoly of the so-called 'rites of passage'. This again is clearly false. Throughout history, in societies all over the world, as any historian or anthropologist will confirm, important occasions such as birth, marriage and death have been marked by some kind of formal celebration or ritual. Such rites are as evident in pagan as in religious communities. I hesitate to say that this is a universal human need, because some people do not feel such a need - I know because I am married to one! So I usually say that, in my view, the majority of people find such occasions helpful.
In Britain, Humanist funeral ceremonies are now firmly established and widely accepted for what they are - namely dignified, personalised, alternative funerals for the non-religious. The British Humanist Association has a network of about 200 trained funeral officiants throughout the country, who between them took about 1300 funerals in 1995, and the number is growing rapidly. We also provide a do-it-yourself booklet, which enables families to organise and conduct ceremonies themselves. This is in some cases the ideal solution, although the majority prefer an outsider to officiate on the day.
We have recently established an accreditation scheme, with a code of practice, and there is a built-in complaints procedure for the rare occasions when something does go wrong. A sophisticated telephone system has been set up, so that enquiries are automatically transferred to the appropriate regional organiser, and of course there is a 24 hour helpline. This is all very different from the small group of amateurs who took a few Humanists funerals even ten years ago.
From the comments that are received by BHA officiants, there can be no doubt that we are performing an immensely valuable service. In the past terrible trauma was experienced by bereaved families who had to sit through a religious service where nothing that was said rang true or brought them any comfort at all.
Whereas Humanist funerals celebrate a life in retrospect, in our wedding ceremonies it is the prospect of a life together that is being celebrated. In Britain a couple still have to go through a civil marriage as well as the Humanist ceremony, and we are pressing for a change in the law to give us equal rights with the established Church. Our wedding ceremonies allow a couple to express in front of their family and friends their vision of their lives together, and the commitment they are undertaking. They can do this in their own words, and in the way that is right for them. Where a couple are less conventional than their families, this opportunity is especially important. Sometimes it is a gay partnership, and parents may have had difficulty accepting their son's or daughter's sexual orientation. Sometimes a couple may already have had children together and they can be involved in the ceremony; or it may be a remarriage after a divorce, the British Humanist Association has a network of members who are happy to perform these ceremonies, which are becoming popular and are often followed by welcoming or naming ceremonies, when children arrive. Unlike the Norwegians we in Britain do not have a coming-of-age ceremony, but, like them, it is often through our ceremonies that people first hear about Humanism.
On a less cheerful note, I gather that Prometheus Books is shortly to bring out a booklet on divorce ceremonies by Vern Bullough. I am sure this will be an enormous help to couples and their children at a very distressing time.
With more than one in three marriages in Britain ending in divorce, and with so much talk about the importance of family values, it is an ideal time to draw attention to the ideals of responsibility and commitment that underpin the Humanist concept of marriage and parenting.
I have spoken in some detail about the practical side of organising a properly trained network of officiants to undertake Humanist ceremony work. I was merely putting this forward as an example of practical Humanist action, because I happened to have been involved in it. Other people would have chosen other examples.
But I hope it has illustrated that being a Humanist does not mean you need spend your whole time sitting around discussing ethical issues - though that may well be the most important and fulfilling and enjoyable part for many Humanists. Puttting your Humanism into action is equally important and - if you are lucky - it can be equally fulfilling and enjoyable.