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Humanist, all too humanist January 2, 2007

Posted by smiffy in Ethics, Other Stuff, Skepticism.
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Last night’s Channel 4 documentary The Secret Life of Brian, on the making of and reaction to The Life of Brian, and the repeat of the film itself was a timely and welcome reminder of the importance of free and rational thinking and the dangers (not to mention absurdity) of blind faith. Watching the film again, it’s both shocking and depressing to see how relevant the jokes remain. Indeed, given the current climate of debate around matters of religion, it could well be argued that it’s more pertinent today than it was on its original release.

An important difference between the late 1970s and now, though, is that while religious groups (of whatever profession) are just as keen to protest in support of their right never to have the most ludicrous tenets of their faith challenged or ridiculed, today those who reject superstition and dogma appear to be far more willing to stand up publicly and make their case. The massive success of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and other, similar works, as well as a recent ICM poll in the UK showing a significant majority, to a greater or lesser extent, opposed to religion, points to a large constituency who are not only ‘lapsed’ from whatever religious background they hail from (if any) but are specifically opposed to it.

Which is why last week’s story about the Humanist Association of Ireland’s complaint (sub req’d)that the forum for dialogue between the State and religious groups hasn’t yet been established is so depressing.

I’ll put my cards on the table. I hate the Humanists. Not all humanists, to be sure. While I don’t particularly like the term (although it’s better than ‘Brights’), plenty of people worldwide use it in place of atheist (or anti-theist, if you want to be all Hari/Hitchens about it). Indeed, the magazine of the UK-based Rationalist Association, The New Humanist, can be fantastic, and well worth a read if you can get hold of it. No, it’s the particular Humanist organisation in Ireland which have been cluttering up the letters page of the Irish Times for years that tend to get under my skin. And last week’s story confirmed my distaste.

One would imagine that being a humanist might necessitate a distaste for all irrational, faith-based beliefs and a certain loyalty to logic and evidence-based argument. In particular, one would hope that a humanist (of all people) would reject the popular position that humanism, or atheism, was just another faith-position, no better or worse than any other: a kind of epistemological relativism. This being the case, one might think that the ‘humanist’ position on the proposed system of dialogue with religious groups should be to reject the entire concept. Why should what are, in effect, irrational superstitions be granted this kind of privileged access to government and who decides which cult gets a seat round the table, and which is rejected?

But no. The HAI appears to welcome this proposal, and is primarily concerned with ensuring that it gets its moment of glory. What’s worrying is the description in the story of the forum as being between the State and “representatives of people of faith and no faith in Ireland”. I consider myself a person of no faith, but I’m damned if I believe that Justin Keating or Dick Spicer represent me.

This is typical of the HAI, which appears to be less an organisation of freethinkers, than a group of people who’d desperately like to be religious, or to have a religious identity, but can’t quite get over the hurdle of not believing in God (perhaps they’ve never heard of the Unitarians. Or the Church of the Sub-genius). A quick look at their website is quite revealing. Helpfully, for those who aren’t members of a Church, but are fond of a party, the HAI has designed nice little ceremonies for things, including New Life, Joining Lives and Celebrating Life (Baptism, Wedding and Funeral, to be less Newgrange about it). All are as contrived and ridiculous as the worst excesses of so-called ‘Celtic Spirituality’, but I’m particularly taken with the ‘Joining Lives’ ceremony:

When two people decide to get married or to share their lives, they will want to show their commitment to each other in their own way. In a humanist ceremony a couple can express their ideals and aspirations among their family and friends, in words that are totally sincere and right for them.

A more naïve person might think that all this is covered in the civil marriage ceremony anyway, but the registry office on Lower Grand Canal Street doesn’t provide a nice little Humanist certificate like the HAI does, nor does it provide an accredited Humanist officiant (I wonder if Dick Spicer gets to sit beside the mother of the bride at the top table at Humanist wedding receptions).

Apparently there’s a also little credo for Humanists. Among the various platitudes, we are informed that

We attempt to transcend any divisive parochial loyalties based on race, religion, gender, nationality, creed, class, sexual orientation or ethnicity, and strive to work together for the common good of humanity

as well as the fact that

We are engaged by the arts no less than by the sciences

Oh, and finally

We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

Okay, not that last one, but you get the point, I hope. Maybe I’m missing something, but isn’t there a rather startling contradiction between, on the one hand, emphasising the importance of free thought and, on the other, providing a little catechism of beliefs (for those too stupid or lazy to do their free-thinking for themselves).

While it’s easy, then, to see The Life of Brian as an attack on religious faith, the real target is somewhat wider. If it’s a choice between lazy non-thought which involves a superhuman entity which controls the world and lazy non-thought which doesn’t, I’ll take the former. But over both I’ll take questioning things myself and trying not to rely on the crutch of groupthink, religious or otherwise.

Comments»

1. WorldbyStorm - January 2, 2007

I caught much of that programme too, and one thing that struck me was the sometimes incredibly negative power of local government, in this case in the UK to prohibit the showing of LoB.

By the by I have a copy of the Humanist Philosophy by Spicer and Snides, subtitle ‘with an Irish Guide to Non-Religious Ceremonies’. Great stuff. Wonder how long it took to think it up, and what if one disagreed? Wouldn’t one be anti-humanist?

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2. Pidge - January 2, 2007

This scene springs to mind – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qANMjwLmo6Y

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3. joemomma - January 2, 2007

I must say I’ve never thought of the HAI as representing humanists or atheists as such – rather they’re a provider of God-free religious ceremonies. I imagine that most people who avail of their wedding or funeral ceremonies never have any other contact with the HAI or any form of “organised non-religion” throughout their lives.

Having said that, I don’t bear them any specific ill-will, but I may be only saying that in order to demonstrate my independence from the CLR groupthink.

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4. joemomma - January 3, 2007

Also, watching The Life of Brian again last night reminded me that if you’re going to court religious controversy, it helps if the cultural product in question is a work of supreme genius. Can anyone imagine a similar programme being made in 20 years’ time about the pitiful Jerry Springer: The Opera?

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5. Dick - November 5, 2007

I actually never do stay for the meal or afters….when the ceremony is over…as I figure it is indeed too redolent of the priest at the wedding…!…Also it is not fair on the person at the wedding who is going to be designated to look after you and after a few minutes of conversation one begins to feel sorry for them (and ones self).
As to the dialogue process..with government..I detect a certain unreality ..? If other views are going to be listened to by the governement…why on earth shouldnt the views of the non-religious be listened to???? I for one ..would prefer secular practical advance than a detached puritanical ideological approach……And….! ceremonies are important….they make people happy!! and what greater reccomendation could there be ?..They harm no-one and that is not something one can say about a great deal of human activity????

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