Is a Humanist Movement a bad idea?

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9 Responses

  1. Margaret Nelson says:

    I’m not keen on attempting to replicate the social functions of religion and I think that trying to do so would drive a wedge between two groups; people who think as you do, and others who want to organise Humanism, like organised religion. I’ve even read about BHA members who want to introduce Humanist choirs and country dancing, to foster some sort of togetherness. If I wanted choral singing or country dancing, I’d join a group that did that, but can’t see that it would have anything to do with Humanism, as I see it.

    However, I don’t think we should be too quiet about Humanism, as we know that many people appreciate knowing that there are others who think as they do. For many, meeting like-minded people gives them the courage to challenge religious assumptions and assert their independence.

    Won’t add any more for now, as I seem to do most of the talking/writing, and it’s good to have other people’s opinions for a change.

    • John Palmer says:

      Thinking about Mark Aaron’s post on the forum and Margaret’s reply, I realised that one of the most noticeable activities that humanists carry out (possibly the only one) is in providing non-religious ceremonies. For many people, a humanist ceremony is the only contact they have with humanists and humanism.

      Which lead me to ask myself: why do humanist celebrants do what they do?

      Is it out of altruism? Does it spread the word? It can’t be for the (tiny amounts of) money! I suspect the first two items are near the truth.

      If humanists can be seen and heard happily and successfully in this prominent manner, why shouldn’t they be seen and heard on a wider range of projects? Keeping too quiet could mean no British Humanist Association, no National Secular Society, no atheist buses, no Suffolk Humanists & Secularists Group, etc.

      • Margaret Nelson says:

        I hope that my colleagues might respond to this, but speaking for myself, I’d say we never ever use a funeral, or any other ceremony, as an opportunity to promote Humanism. That would be unethical. However, we may be asked what Humanism is, and pass on some information afterwards. When I give the client a copy of the script after the ceremony, it has our group website URL in small print on the front page. Several members of our group came to us via ceremonies, and three of the ceremonies team (past and present) were originally clients.

        I’m not as interested in doing weddings, so I used to leave those to Marie and now David does most of them. I got involved with doing funerals long before there were so many celebrants of all sorts everywhere. I’d had cancer and my parents had recently died within six months of each other, when I wondered what sort of a funeral I could have – my parents were Christians, and had non-denominational funerals conducted by a former Ipswich Hospital chaplain, who isn’t a proselytiser. I got thrown in the deep end after I’d enquired about becoming a celebrant and the BHA was asked for a one by a bereaved family in Suffolk, and there was no one. For a while, I was the only celebrant in the whole of Suffolk and N E Essex. So it wasn’t really something I’d thought much about; it just sort of happened. I found I was quite good at it, and it snowballed. I’ve probably done about 1000 funerals, though I haven’t done many over the last few years. However, though I got involved because there was a need for celebrants who could do ceremonies free from religion, that’s no longer the case, and I’m not really bothered about what sort of funeral I have, except that I’ve made it clear it shouldn’t be religious. I’ve bequeathed my body to the Department of Anatomy at Cambridge University. If they accept it, they deal with its disposal afterwards – they usually have a brief funeral somewhere near the university. A few years ago, when a Quaker friend died, her body was bequeathed to the anatomists too, and her sons arranged a memorial meeting in Ipswich when everyone who knew her was invited to say something, and many of us did. The ceremony was very simple, there was little structure, no religion, and no celebrant. One of her sons concluded things with a prepared speech, but it was mostly spontaneous. I liked it better than any other sort of funeral.

        Jane Wynne Willson, who wrote the BHA’s Funerals Without God, a book that provides suggested guidelines and readings for funerals, feels very strongly, as I do, that more people should be encouraged to do funerals themselves. That’s partly why she wrote the book. I dislike the way that funerals, and everything associated with them, have become more “professionalised”. Whether it’s a wedding, baby-naming or a funeral, the best ones can be those that are a collaborative effort within a circle of family and friends. So you see, I’m not very interested in promoting Humanist ceremonies. I’d rather help people to gain the confidence to do things themselves, and I have done that, several times.

        As for being seen and heard: there wouldn’t be a local group if I hadn’t been seen and heard, many times, though I’d rather not be.

        The BHA evolved from the ethical societies of the 19th century, in reaction to the Christian proselytising and moralising of the time, when the core of activists were also politically active, mainly left-wing. Nowadays, the interpretation of what it means to be a Humanist varies depending on who you’re talking to. As far as I’m concerned, it comes down to a simple acceptance of responsibility for your own actions and their effects, with no expectation of any other life but this one, and no supernaturalism. See The Amsterdam Declaration.

        The NSS is a campaigning organisation, fighting against religious privilege and for a truly secular state. It doesn’t offer any sort of philosophy, as Humanism does. There are plenty of things for it to campaign about, in politics, the law, education, and so on. The NSS says that “Religion should be a matter of private conscience”, and I agree. In a truly secular society, Humanism should be a matter of private conscience too; you can’t have things both ways. I’ve always said that, whether you’re religious or not, as far as other people are concerned, it’s how you behave that matters, not what you believe. I may think that some of the things that my religious friends believe are ridiculous, but as long as they don’t try to impose their beliefs on me or anyone else, that’s fine.

        And the atheist buses? That happened completely spontaneously, after Ariane had seen Christian ads that led to threatening messages for non-believers about burning in hell. What she suggested struck a chord in hundreds of people who were fed up with having religion of all sorts thrust in their faces at every opportunity, and judgemental pronouncements from religious nutcases given lots of publicity. It was all good fun, while being part of the backlash against the increasingly strident demands of those who are “offended” by criticism of their religion, and those who want more and more privileges, when they deserve less and less.

        To get back to your original question; why do I do it? I’ve been doing funerals because they’ve brought me into contact with hundreds of very interesting people, and I’m basically nosey. I’m also interested in death, and attitudes towards it. Read more on my death blog. Why have I been involved with Humanist activities for the last 17 years, or longer, if you count all the arguments I’ve had about religion since I was 13? I suppose because I feel strongly that the world would be a better place if people tried to think about what they say and do, rather than “believing” any old tosh, and the tosh can be bloody annoying. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to promote a Humanist movement, whatever that might be. Things just happened as a consequence of being a sort of secular subversive. I suppose that Humanism might mean setting an example; firstly, of trying to live ethically and be accountable for our actions; secondly, of thinking for ourselves and having the courage to question and challenge social and political conventions. It’s not a cause; it’s a way of life.

        I didn’t mean to write this much. I got a bit carried away. I recommend A C Grayling’s “Against all Gods” as food for thought; it’s only a little book, but it’s worth reading.

      • Sophie says:

        Hi John,

        been thinking a lot about this one over the last few days. I can categorically confirm that I’m not a celebrant for the money (I have another job which pays the bills and can’t always be available) and I don’t do it to “spread the word”. Although Humanist by conviction, I don’t attend meetings, mainly due to childcare issues and I don’t actively work to promote Humanism.

        I do it because it needs doing well. I conduct ceremonies because I believe very strongly that there should be a choice, and the ceremonies our team provide (after phenomenal training from Margaret supported by the SH&S ceremonies team) are *good*. We ensure that room is provided within the ceremony for everyone’s beliefs, whatever they may be, whilst not “selling out”- i.e. no hymns or prayers as they’d be inappropriate in a truly Humanist ceremony. I can’t say every single person that attends feels this, but I’m often approached by someone after the ceremony, professing a faith and yet saying that the ceremony was beautiful, or they’d not realised that Humanist ceremonies were so good. I love that the ceremony is about the person, and not about Humanism. Although I make reference to the Humanist understanding of death as the end of a person, it’s a small fraction of the ceremony compared to the story of the deceased’s life. I’m immensely proud of the quality of our work, and the way in which the family are given or read the tribute in advance, to ensure *every* word about the deceased is accurate.

        I am not so keen on conducting weddings any more, as I feel a bit of a hypocrite given my (relatively) recent divorce! I still do the odd baby-naming too, but most of what I do is funerals. It takes a particular combination of skills; excellent listening, the ability to write to quickly to a high standard, and of course public speaking abilities. These, combined with the fact that many people simply wouldn’t be able to hack attending a funeral a week, mean that it’s not a role for everyone.

        I love the role, and find it immensely rewarding. I meet a whole range of people, all of whom have a story to tell (and some of whom need more prompting than others). I get to pull together biographies of people, all of whom were unique, and all of whom were special in some way. It’s my job to find out why. It’s like detective work! And maybe, just maybe, I make a bad day that little bit easier, which for me is what makes it worthwhile.

  2. MarkAaron says:

    To me, Humanism does not involve converting those for who religion forms a part of their lives. Humanism is not a religion, nor is it an antidote for religion.
    In fact it appears that a having a sense of numinous is part of our species evolvement* (, so it’s reasonable to assume that at some time in our evolution, social bonding through religion has given our species an advantage, perhaps in the development of our cognition and speech.
    However, Humans are a social animal and have a need to bond and be collectively identified. It’s part of our well-being; to be approved of by our peers.

    Taking the above into consideration, I would argue that a Humanist Movement could simply replace the existence of God in many people’s lives, it would occupy the same intellectual niche and eventually give rise to a ‘Humanist doctrine’ and certain truths enshrined in Humanist sermons. This imagined dogma is the same sort of dogma that bedeviles the intellects of the world’s major religions as they struggle with stem-cell research, abortion, why the earth is really flat, and how any angels can actually dance on the head of a pin.

    Humanism is simply, ‘a good life without god’. It is not, ‘a good life without god and I’m going to tell everyone how liberating that feels’… it’s not gay pride. Identifying yourself as a Humanist must be a voyage of personal discovery, and for each of us possibly a long voyage that may occupy half a lifetime.
    For me, from those first questions of ‘does God really exist?’, ‘how can so many people believe the Bible but Evolution clearly makes it look foolish?’ and ‘Why does God allow for so much suffering?’, to where I am now, has taken 30 years.

    A Humanist movement would ‘convert’ the people who get married in a church but don’t really want to care about whether there’s a god or not (um, there must be a god right, I mean, who came up with all this stuff, it can’t just have happened, and anyway when I was ten I went to Sunday School and my Mum said it was a good thing, is Eastenders on yet? My uncle invited me to this humanist do at the community centre and they don’t believe in god, but they were all really nice – maybe I don’t believe in God either, do you think my Mum would be angry?)** .

    ** apologies for the rampant stereotyping 😉


  3. John Palmer says:

    Leaving aside the “rampant stereotyping”, or condescension as some might call it, Mark Aaron’s worries about people attaching themselves to humanism as a “new thing” and regarding religion as “so yesterday” seem, with all due respect, a little unnecessary.

    Talking of humanism as “demonstrating clear, flexible and objective thinking” and of it being “a quiet revolution in thinking, objectivity, freedom and compassion” is all well and good. Some of us, even after 50 adult years free from religion and a god, have yet to attain these Nirvana-like states. And I imagine that the Archbishop of Canterbury would claim to have achieved all of these conditions.

    I don’t believe anyone is advocating a HUMANIST MOVEMENT, along the lines of a political party. Maybe nobody is looking for “badges, flags, colours, evangelists, champions”, etc., although there has been worrying talk recently of Darwin/evolution car bumper stickers! Margaret Nelson is certainly not an evangelist, but I would say she is a champion of humanism.

    I do believe that there is a humanist movement, no longer as quiet as it used to be, trying to make a difference. The atheist (agnostic, actually) buses may have been fun, but they’ve done a NOT quiet job in making people aware of the movement.

    But, back to the original question in my Newsletter item. “Should there be a humanist equivalent of the church groups, going out to do good works but spreading the word at the same time? Or is it enough for us to volunteer and do the good work in existing projects and hope that humanism is promoted by our example?” If you don’t like the word “promoted”, perhaps “made known” will do.

    Yes, humanism is a way of life. Yes, it’s about living a good life without god. But this doesn’t mean it should be lived in isolation. If there are people who can sensibly and reasonably explain humanism and get the reaction – which so often happens – “that’s what I think, too” – what’s wrong with that? There are humanists who talk to children in schools about the humanist way of life. What should you say to a bright 11 year old when she says “What do humanists believe in?”. Saying she must work it out for herself is silly. Saying it’s a good life without religion is not enough. Children need more. Dare I say it, they need rules and advice, until they can think it through for themselves. If someone running a project to help the poor tells you that volunteers from the non-religious section of society would make a welcome change, instead of being currently totally absent, shouldn’t this give you pause to think whether there is something you could do to help? These examples are not preaching or symptoms of a cause.

    Professor Robin Dunbar, the evolutionary psychologist, in his book “The Human Story”, sums it up well:

    “Our challenge, as it has always been, is to live with our imperfections, yet leave the world a better place than we found it.”

    • MarkAaron says:

      John, my intention wasn’t meant to offend or condescend.
      I think the thrust of my argument (which I so inelegantly put in previous posts) regarding a Humanist Movement, is the worry of what else a Humanist Movement might stand for.

      Let’s take Secularism as an example. Can someone who is a Christian desire to be a secularist? Thomas Jefferson (3rd US President) drafted the first Amendment to the American Constitution which enshrines in US Law the separation of Church and State (I suspect he was a Christian). This website already gives the impression that all Humanists are (or should be) Secularists and vice versa (that isn’t a criticism about this site at all). From memory I think you’ll find that Baptists advocate Secularism.

      Should Humanists go into schools and talk about Humanism? Is that just as misguided a notion as anyone else eulogising about their creed? – Because of the context itself ‘taught in school’; from a child’s perspective would a Humanist argument be reduced to just another point of view? or do we simply have a collective desire to redress the balance of our children being indoctrinated?
      Should Humanists support Amnesty International? Should they support environmental issues?

      To summarise, polarising our collective belief (or lack of it) into a Humanist Movement would quickly collect a whole raft of ideologies. Isn’t that Human nature? – it reminds me of how Unions have worked – sign up for a Union and all of a sudden your voice is being used to vote for a political party, or to be added to a petition to support Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma.

      By all means if some Humanists want to offer services to charitable causes under a Humanist banner, there’s nothing directly wrong with that, however, I feel it’s important that Humanism should be separate from other ideologies as much as the State should be free of religion.

    • starman says:

      Hi all, I am new to this forum and to the Suffolk Group.

      I have been an atheist since the age of nine and have been aware of Humanism for many years. I even have a friend in Northants who is a celebrant whom I have known for about 20 years. In spite of that, I have never taken any interest in Humanism. It never caught my attention enough to act. I regret that very much. It took the bus advert to jar me into action. Actually, I haven’t actually seen the bus advert but it was the news coverage that attracted my attention. When I heard about it, I thought, ‘Good on you’ and decided that I would like to be identified with it. I have no view yet on whether we should have a Humanist Movement or not, but when I heard of that campaign I assumed that some sort of Humanist Movement had made it happen.

      I don’t think we should or could convert anyone to atheism. We don’t need to convert anyone. There are over 60 million people in the UK today and I have heard estimates that up to 30% of those admit to be atheists. I believe that the BHA only has only about 10,000 members. If accurate, that is seriously under performing. If enough people just owned up publicly to their non belief then enough momentum would be generated to allow a lot of good work to be done. If that happened, we wouldn’t have the need to even discuss a Humanist Movement, things would just happen on their own.

  4. Margaret Nelson says:

    I do go into schools to talk about Humanism and Secularism. As long as RE is still a separate subject, I think we should. It’s not proselyting; in fact, I initiated a set of guidelines for school visitors (with my SACRE hat on) that make it clear that they shouldn’t proselytise. Depending on what I’m asked to do, I offer a Humanist perspective on a range of issues and may provide a brief introduction to Humanism – how it originated and developed. As for a “creed”; we don’t have one. Humanism is about thinking, not believing. Students will often say that they’re glad to hear someone “talk sense”, and various research studies support my impression that a majority are sceptics, atheists or agnostics. They can be very cynical about religion but lack the knowledge to counter religious assertions, such as the fallacy that you need religion to be good.

    When I talk to younger children, I tend to use story-telling to encourage them to think about ethical behaviour, without referring to religion.

    Children aren’t being “indoctrinated” in most schools; faith schools are another matter. However, learning about religion seems to have the opposite effect from the one that most clergy, for example, would like. The more kids learn about it, the more they spot the inconsistencies and contradictions in various faiths. Most people’s understanding of religion, even those who’ll say they are religious, is sketchy. If you ask people about the orthodoxies of any faith, you’ll generally get a muddled explanation based on half-baked impressions. The more children learn about religion, when it’s taught properly, the less likely they are to be religious.

    You can see some local school students talk about their atheism in the DVD “Why Atheism?” I introduced some of them to the producer as they were from one of the schools I visit – Kesgrave High School. They are terrific! Articulate, thoughtful and totally independent, with strong ethical principles. That’s what Humanism means to me.

    Incidentally, I’m not just promoting the DVD because I’m on it – it shows me conducting a funeral at a green burial site, and a baby-naming.

    I think we differ about what we mean by a “humanist movement”, but as it’s a subject we’re likely to be discussing at a meeting sometime soon, I’ll be refining my thoughts about it.

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