Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Humanist religion, again

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly):

That nice Dave Belden over at Tikkun magazine has paid me the compliment of disagreeing with a piece I wrote for the Guardian's Comment is Free site, in which I argue against Dave's notion that humanists need to organise themselves like religious communities, have services, rituals, build a community that sort of thing. Dave thinks I am too individualistic and we will never heal the world if we can't build a strong 'base'. He may well be right.

His perspective, I think, would be that being a humanist implies a desire to improve the world - for humans and other animals - it's a commitment to a kind of activist attitude. (This is well expressed in Tikkun's strapline, they want to 'mend, repair and transform the world'). I wonder if my own humanism isn't more of the "I don't believe in God, I'm fascinated by what humans have done, do and might be capable of (good and bad), I want more peace and love, less war and greed, but life is short and full of sorrow (and plenty of laughs), most human endeavours and ambitions are fragile and misguided, if not ludicrous, and much harm is done by those with grand visions, so I don't want to join a movement, any movement, and I will choose my friends and confreres from the weird and (often) wacky individuals I gather to myself, for possibly perverse and certainly unexamined reasons, along the way," sort. Not a very snappy slogan, I grant you, but my own. I admire those with the courage to believe they can change the world and the drive to try - but they scare me too. So, good luck with your humanist religion, Dave, but include me out.

What about you?


Dave said...

Caspar, I'm an old leftie and green to boot, and my response to your honest and, for me, very attractive reply (I'd love to live like that too) is that the good old capitalist system has you exactly, 100%, where it wants you, as an individualist, a consumer and a non-rocker of the only boat that matters to them, which is profit.

Which might be fine, except that theirs is the most radical and ambitious human endeavor of all, and you and I are already full participants. It is in the long run so misguided that our fragile ecosystems cannot sustain it. Those good people at the New Scientist, probably humanists all, have been predicting that a 4% rise in global temperature, which is only the midpoint of the authoritative (but conservative) IPCC forecasts, might lead to the deaths of up to 90% of humanity by century's end (see

You are a younger man than I, and can hope to see more of all that as it develops. It may not be good spectator sport. It might be less ludicrous than agonizing. Or maybe you'll be OK with dying of some ghastly tropical disease, starvation, or in refugee riots, with a last quip, a good case of homemade brandy and an ironic smile: that's viable. I'm not knocking it.

I just want us to be clear about what we are being complicit with when we choose not to be activists, not to join movements, when we are all draftees already in the biggest activist movement of all.

I'm not claiming I know what to do about it, or that I am doing what needs to be done or anything, but I am trying as hard as I can: as you say, maybe creating as much harm as anyone along the way, though I doubt that. I enjoyed having free health care when I grew up in England and (especially as a US citizen now) I can't say I think the Fabians and co. whose movement made that happen created more harm than good by it.

Opting out of activism can be just as disastrous as opting in. There's no escaping the moral judgments of our descendants, should they exist.

I guess it just comes down to a personal preference. I'd rather die of that cruel disease or whatever knowing I had struggled for a better world actively, positively, risking failure. I would love to find humanists with similar personal preferences who want to create base communities to give each other support and love, including critiques about the potential harm we may do.

Maybe because I had so much faith in the future I had a kid. That does change you. That was a very activist thing to do. Now I want to help his future be better.

I'm not usually so passionately aggressive as this. Maybe there was something toxic in the water this morning.

geoih said...

Quote from Dave: "... I'm an old leftie and green to boot, ..."

Sounds like you're just substituting one religion for another.

I'm with Caspar.

mumfie said...

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I too am with Caspar.

If you care about an individual issue, you join the relevant organisation, find a local group. I am a member of a dozen or so such groups, partly because I don't belong to an umbrella organisation like a church which presumes to cover all of them.

I meet like minded people that way, some activists, some not, and we are deliberately joined because we both share a passion or interest in an issue.

Not just in the lack of a god, which is not a positive belief.

Clare said...

It seems to me that this discussion emphasises one underlying aspect of Humanism. That is, that there are no rules on how to be a humanist and each person decides that for themselves.

Some people do want social occasions and to feel part of a community that shares similar values.

Some people are happy to just do their own thing.

One of the basic stages of psychological development is the realisation that other people have needs and wants and opinions which differ from our own. Let those humanists who wish to celebrate, celebrate and let those who prefer to do their own thing, do their own thing.

Murli said...

I hope the geoih and mumfie who "are with Casper" do not rush and form a group. If so, I am sure Casper would not wish to be part of that group.

Either way, I hope it would not be too outrageous to point out that not wishing to change the world, let alone not wanting to be part of any movement for change, or even be an individual making small changes that may impact the larger world, is truly the vision of those who enjoy the privileges that a deeply unequal world offers them. It is also the vision of those who, as Dave points out, rule the world -- except they actually do want change -- only that kind that makes their rule even more secure.

Finally, I wonder how Casper can "want more peace and love, less war and greed" and expect someone else to somehow provide it for him? Since God is ruled out, must be those change-seekers...

SilverTiger said...

For the reasons stated in the post, I am not "with" anyone or with any group (not even a member of a humanist group) but I agree with the principles expressed.

People always will have grand visions and will always fail to see the potential disasters that these visions, if put into practice, would bring about. Humanists of all people should understood the fallibility of human foresight.

Just because freethinkers do not join together in an overarching organization does not mean that they cannot act together. They can and often do.

But spare us the visionaries and their dedication to the Cause (whatever it happens to be in the particular instance).

The world, incidentally, is not meant to be "repaired" whatever the heck that is supposed to mean. The world evolves with all the faults, blind alleys and extinctions along the way that that implies. If all the cobblers were to stick to their lasts instead of trying to conquer an empire, the world would already be a better place.

Oh, and just one more thing. I do wish people would stop equating the world with the human race. We are not the world, merely contained within it. If you think you have the right and duty to transform the world, then why should a baboon or an octopus or a snail not think that he has an equal right to do some world transforming? Of course, you would not like his transformed world any more than he will like yours.

It seems that religion is not the only bastion to knock down. Human arrogance might be an even more important one.

Caspar Melville said...

HI Dave (and others, thanks for the comments)

I love the passion and aggression Dave (a very polite form I must say) and thanks for such a comprehensive response. Lots to chew on, especially of course the 'privilege' + Capitalist lackey bit. Am I allowed to say that I not only believe in changing the world but believe that i can and do change the world by bringing my ethics (I do have them thought perhaps it didn't sound like it) to bear on each and every aspect of and interaction in my live). I act.. but I am not an 'activist' (or an actor, or and act of God). Oh and I change my mind a lot, so maybe, when I return to this blog on Monday I will be converted.
theres lots more to say, and I;ve found the responses so far very fascinating.
Until next week Dave, when I wil try a fuller answer... til then

Margaret said...

Someone I know speaks of a Humanist "movement" transforming life as we know it, and eliminating religion in the process. My response was that if there was a Humanist movement, I wouldn't be in it. Movements are for bowels.

Dave said...

So I guess not one of the commenters who object to "movements" and everyone in them bought my point that they are thereby full participating members of the most hubristic movement of all time? Individual dissent from capitalism in its present rush to destruction of ecosystems (will there be a wild baboon left when we're done, SilverTiger? the gorillas and chimps are almost gone) is not dissent at all: it is membership. Isn't it? Painting cabins while the ship goes down? Please persuade me otherwise.

I am in awe of mumfie's membership of a dozen issue organizations: that's dissent that can have an effect. Whether you also like to join an umbrella organization that gives more existential and caring support and other dimensions of community, well, that may just depend on whether you have ever experienced one that worked for you.

There are more comments from different angles over on our site so you're welcome to fulminate there as well:

TD said...

I'm shocked that you fell for House of Numbers (just listened to the Guardian podcast). Brent Leung is the Ben Stein of AIDS denial. The people you watched interspersed in his film were the exact equivalent of the Discovery Institute-associated people in Expelled; AIDS denial is a cult and has been peddling the same package of pseudoscience and misrepresentation for years. One of the film's Executive Producers has been on the "rethinking AIDS" list since 2007.

laBiscuitnapper said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
laBiscuitnapper said...

I think this is a typical misunderstanding of the role and evolution of religion. The fact is, some of the most 'successful' religions we have today, were not originally intended to be the religions we know them as today, but often a form of protest against the religion of the time. It seems to be that once the 'faith' or philosophy gets taken up by large enough numbers to the extent it reaches the ruling classes, then religion as we'd think of it with creeds and dogmas and official vs heretical theologies comes about.

I personally think this has already happened in the case of humanism, it's just that one of our 'creeds', if you will, is an appreciation of individualism. Besides, traditional religion was only useful when society needed or at least made use of that sort of glue. Now we've moved on.

As for 'religion' in the sense of a creation of a larger movement, I think we are at the stage where we are able to strongly critique any trends towards groupthink and resistance to change which frequently marred the religious groups of the past. But again, I think we are as close to that as we possibly could be in this day and age with our understandable skepticism of ideology based organisations.

David said...

How about leaving behind the old archaic religious forms and creating a more authentic spirituality that can carry us into the future - not a new religion that simply reinvents the same control structures and belief systems or replaces them with more of the same.