Monday, September 01, 2008

What I don't know about humanism

When did humanism come to mean atheism? Erasmus wasn't an atheist.

I've been to a humanist funeral (eulogy and a reading from Tolkien), and the celebrant gave an embarrassed laugh when (out of habit) I shook his hand on leaving the crematorium.

Modern atheism doesn't seem quite rational to me. I can't find it easily, but there was an ancient Greek philosopher who, denying the soul, told his followers to throw his body into the road when he died, and when they raised the possibility that wild animals might come to eat him while still alive, told them to put a stick in his hand. That's being consistent with your beliefs.

"The Humanist view of life is progressive and optimistic, in awe of human potential, living without fear of judgement and death, finding enough purpose and meaning in life, love and leaving a good legacy," says the President of the British Humanist Association. Why all this preachiness?

Doubtless I'll be enlightened by some of these paradoxical zealots in the comments.


Anonymous said...

Surely the whole point of aetheism is to have sex with other people's wives, murder people you don't like and generally have a very good time at other people's expense? If you are gonna be a goody two-shoes you might as well be a happy-clapper Christian if you ask me.


Some people of a religious persuasion do the same, of course.

But proselytising atheism in the UK seems quite recent to me, it's only in the last few years I've noticed people making a big issue of it, as though declaring a faith.

It's not as though we haven't had British atheists for centuries, and I'm not sure (put me right!) that in the past they've been persecuted as Catholics and Protestants persecuted each other. Dr Johnson, a devout Christian, noted fairly and respectfully that David Hume died a good death.

But there is a sort of shrill smugness about some modern atheist types that cries out to be punctured. They don't go the whole hog. If I were as convinced as they, it'd be a sort of relief, I'd leave it all behind and carry on quietly with life. There's something else going on here. Maybe it's to do with an obscure kind of power-seeking.

Matt M said...

Personally, I don't think humanism is a purely atheistic viewpoint - there are plenty of religious humanists out there. It's one of the main issues I have with groups like the BHA.

I think that "proselytising atheism" has two main sources: 1) The belief that a lot of people are mistaken about the nature of the universe and might be better-off realising that, and 2) The various attempts by religious organisations to impose their views on others (ie. religious instruction is schools, stem cells, abortion).

(The idea that making TV shows and writing books and articles is "an obscure kind of power-seeking" is just silly, really.)

As to why it's suddenly become more prominent... partly it's just a case of momentum. You get a few popular anti-theist books and suddenly booksellers (and the media in general) realise there's a demand.


Hi, Matt. I don't mean political power - more a sense of importance, superiority etc.


... and I think it is perfectly possible to accept the Big Bang and all the rest, and still to have a religious faith.

CherryPie said...

I don't think the two concepts are mutually exclusive. So no I don't believe that all humanists are atheists.

John East said...

OK, we have Richard Dawkins as a high profile proselytising atheist, but I think you would be hard pressed to name many others, so I don't agree that we have seen much of an increase in atheism, more likely we've just seen a lot more of Richard Dawkins on the TV.

I suspect what increase there has been in public displays of atheism have been in response to the more extreme displays of religion such as the growth of Islam, born again Christianity, New Ageism, and the strongly growing Pentecostal Churches.

I suspect that these religions, which all tend to be more in your face than the old C of E, are more likely to encourage an antagonistic response from the 50% or so of the population who do not practice any religious faith.

Matt M said...

I don't mean political power - more a sense of importance, superiority etc.

Ah, I see.

... and I think it is perfectly possible to accept the Big Bang and all the rest, and still to have a religious faith.

I completely agree.

I think the problem with Richard Dawkins (when it comes to religion) is that his main point of contact seems to be with Biblical fundamentalists - whose religious views are very much in conflict with science.


There is some kind of ideological struggle going on, and I don't believe it's all down to a conceited Oxord don. I'm reminded of the time when "under God" was added to the US Pledge of Allegiance: a response to aggressive Communist threats of the 1950s. I wonder if the "atheism is a reaction to the Bible fundamentalists" is arsey-facey. Positions are hardening unreasonably on both sides. Maybe it has to do with the wider cultural undermining that Gramsci proposed.

Anonymous said...

Dawkins is paid to do his dull aetheistic proselytising by Charles Simonyi - so that's something else we can blame on bloody Microsoft.

I took on the biologists at one of the evolution forums on the net (can't remember what it's called) and after I ran rings around their contradictory arguments for human evolution I was told "please do not visit this site again. this isn't a site for discussing detailed science theory. this site is a place where we biologists take on christian fundamentalists head on. we have a big problem with christian fundamentalists in u.s. science because they are very influential in u.s. science funding. they can see to it that we don't get any funding for stem cell research and similar studies."

So i guess it's not about god, its about money (as usual).

Lord James Bigglesworth said...

Christianity, in it's root definition, is about humanism by this broader definition - it is for and about people, their capabilities and welfare. Atheism precludes a deity but it also precludes people.

dearieme said...

"Surely the whole point of atheism is..": but it doesn't have a point. It's just the realisation that God, like Santa Claus, doesn't exist.


"It's just the realisation that..."

I maintain there is no such realisation. It is a hypothesis, possibly accompanied by or caused by some emotional reaction. I do not have the answer, and wish I did, but both sides of the (non-)debate simply entrench.

When Alistair Campbell was in Blair's Lair, a common preface to political statements was "What's important is to recognise that...", subliminally coercing the listener into accepting an assertion as fact, and ditto dismissing as irrelevant any other objections or concerns. Religious dicussion is too often conducted in the style of partisan political debate.

However, since atheism appears to be an agenda of the BBC and other influential organs and people, I think it should be more sensitively explored than by that poseur from Oxford. I can provisionally accept the general drift of evolutionary theory (though it does have its own difficulties, I understand); and the Bible is a heterogeneous collection of texts of very different types and ages, salvaged from the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and redacted in later ages, so I wouldn't expect complete internal consistency there either.

However, Bible or not, creationism or not, is it not a mystery that the universe exists, had (according to both scientists and the Bible) a singular beginning, and appears to have physical laws that extend throughout all regions in space and time? (Is it not also a mystery why the unimaginable explosion of the Big Bang has not recurred in the last 15 billion years?) And the people who are so concerned to explain away notions (e,g, of God, creation, religious experience etc.) then sanguinely refuse to attempt an explanation of these things, as though they don't matter.

I repeat, I do not have the answer, and wish I did, but I suggest that the issues have NOT been decided and that they ARE important.

Anonymous said...

big bang - theory created by catholic monk and supported by catholic church. ask a kid how he would start building universe and he will say "start with planet earth, add sun". bible says god started with light. eh? did he need to be able to see what he was doing? big bang started with light - photons blasted over event horizon never to be seen by humans again. funny that. bible quite clever. can't explain quantum mechanics to jewish farmers of 3000 yrs ago mind. think you would have lost the plot i expect. adam and eve choose to eat apple - story of "free will". separates man from beasts. also quite clever. jesus and spiritual need vs material needs. quite clever too - psychologists took 2ooo years to catch up with that one.

leviticus really laughable though. obviously added "after the fact". you can understand dawkins derision. probably has no business being in bible though, as you suggest - slipped in by people that should have known better at later date to suit themselves. bible not history or even moderately reliable description of events - take your pick of the bits you agree with IMHO.