Archive for the ‘values’ Category

Belief without evidence (6 of 6): Comparing and evaluating

2014/06/20

So, since introducing this series, I have identified five elements which might be considered my “dogma” – things that I cannot prove with reason and evidence from other, more basic principles.

Claims about reality:
R1. Induction. (What has come before can tell us something about what to expect next.)
R2. Other people exist.
R3. Non-just-nowism. (The world is not a trick designed to deceive us.)
Values:
V1. People matter.
V2. Truth matters.

Ultimately, I can only support these by saying, “I choose this.” I do not say this with apology or sheepishness: everyone has basic beliefs. In fact, I think most people share these specific basic beliefs, or some other set that includes them. (Please let me know if you or someone else actually rejects any of these, and why.)

I have also pointed out a few things that have been claimed as points of secular dogma, but are not:
a. How to reason.
b. The methods and conclusions of science (including materialism).
c. Atheism.

And finally, I have noted some common things that religious people add to the above list of basic beliefs in order to hold their more elaborate (and, I think, more vulnerable to refutation) worldviews:
i. God exists (and has various definite properties or traits).
ii. Sacred scriptures communicate important truths about reality.
iii. Inner feelings can directly reveal cosmic truths.

If you think I have missed some point of dogma that I hold, or misrepresented one of the ones listed above, please tell me about it. If you think I have overstated the case for religious dogmas, please let me know how I’ve misstepped.

But in the end, what is the point of this?

At one level it is simply a response to those who accuse atheists and other skeptics of having as much faith as the believers (or more). My contention, given the above, is that I (and most humanists and atheists) have fewer assumptions than religious people. We accept less on faith than they do – though I acknowledge that we must all accept some things “on faith”.

To which most of you will respond “Obviously!” … In my defense, though, I wrote all of this because it is clearly not obvious to an astonishing number of the (religiously) faithful. One example prominent in my mind is Lesslie Newbigin, the author of a book I am currently reading with a friend.

At another level, I think the current undertaking is valuable as an exercise in introspection. It is common for atheists and other skeptics to assert that others take things on faith, but we don’t. This is a simplification. One goal of skepticism – an important and valuable goal - is to take less on faith, but nobody can entirely escape the burden of basic assumptions. It is important to be aware of our assumptions – not only to help us guard against wrong or unnecessary elements in our basic beliefs, but also in order that we can respond with appropriate frankness and, yes, humility, when confronted by claims (accusations?) that we, too, use faith.

So: introspection, self-knowledge, humility, and an appropriate basis for responding to our neighbours. I think this was worth six not-too-long posts. Here are some questions I have for you:

  • Do you agree that avoiding unnecessary assumptions is a worthwhile goal?
  • When you examine your own beliefs, do you find similar assumptions to mine? More? Fewer? Different?
  • I thought before starting this series that I’d come up with two or three basic assumptions, and I found five. Do you think I could (or should) pare my list down?
  • Do you think I actually have more assumptions I haven’t acknowledged? Please let me know.

 

Skepticism and personal demons

2014/06/14

Humanism isn’t just a lofty label to attach to what I aspire to, or to identify myself with a particular sect of humanity. It’s also a reminder to myself about how I want to live.

Today, I want to share something I read a while back on Greta Christina’s blog – a personal account of her struggle to reconcile her ideals as a skeptic with her daily life.

She opens her account with this question:

How do you be a fat-positive feminist who’s losing weight?

On the one hand, she believes that society has an insanely inflated idea of the dangers of excess body fat, and that this distortion is especially bad for women’s emotional well-being. In her own words,

My attitude towards my fatness has largely been shaped by the feminist fat-positive movement: I wasn’t going to make myself miserable trying to force my body into the mainstream image of ideal female beauty, and I was instead going to work on being as healthy as I could be — eating well, exercising, reducing stress, etc. — at the weight that I already was.

On the other hand, she has a knee problem that makes it very sensible for her to try to lose weight.

Now, I suspect that many of the rational types in the audience are already shrugging and thinking, “What’s the issue? Follow the evidence, lose the weight, problem solved.”

But of course, anyone who has ever been through the emotional turmoil of unsuccessful dieting in the general atmosphere of society’s condemnation of excess weight can tell you that it’s not that easy. There is a minefield of emotions to navigate through, even when one has a very supportive and accepting social circle.*

Here’s an example that Greta Christina relates:

It’s really hard not to feel like a traitor about this. When I reach a benchmark in my weight loss and get all excited and proud, or when someone compliments me on how good I look now and I get a little self-esteem-boosting thrill, it’s hard not to feel like a traitor to my feminist roots, and to the fat women who fought so hard to liberate me from the rigid and narrow social constructs of female beauty.

So, she doesn’t just want to assert the right answer; she is also after ways to make it work in the messy, emotional rough-and-tumble of real life.

What I’m looking for is psychological tips. Ways of walking through the emotional minefield. Ways of framing this that make it more sustainable.

That’s how she closes the article.

Fortunately for those of us who want more, she has a follow-up article or two. And an ongoing blog that occasionally dips back into this intimately personal (but immensely valuable) journey.

Footnotes:

* To be perfectly clear, I have not been through such emotional trauma firsthand, but I have at least one very close friend who has walked that minefield. I have the blind luck to have a naturally thin frame: on the ancient savannah, I would have starved in the first half-decent drought. As it is, I can indulge in the gastric excesses of our culture without visible consequences. But I must remember, a healthy diet and regular exercise are as good an idea for me as for anyone – most of their benefits are not dependent on body size.

 

Belief without evidence (3 of 6): A skeptic’s values

2014/06/12

On top of the metaphysical beliefs (inductivism, non-solipsism, non-just-nowism) I talked about in the previous post, I also have a couple of values that do not break down to simpler or more basic premises. I separate these from the metaphysical beliefs in acknowledgment of the irreducible is/ought divide identified by Hume. However, I include the values because they ground much of my worldview as a humanist. After all, humanism isn’t just about beliefs – it’s about moral and aesthetic values too.

Value 1: People matter.

The wishes and well-being of other people have value. This is the basis of all worthwhile social constraints. It’s a cultural universal.

Of course, cultural attitudes about which people matter have changed greatly through human history. Moral progress is often due to the extension of this rule beyond one’s own family or tribe, to all humans. Many historical and contemporary conflicts come down to disagreements over who counts as people. Consider the debate over slavery – largely resolved in most of the world: does this or that group of humans merit being treated with the same respect as I get, or not? Or the abortion debate, which in the eyes of the “pro-life” crowd is about treating the conceptus as a person from early in the pregnancy, and in the eyes of the eyes of the “pro-choice” crowd is about giving the mother the same sort of bodily autonomy given to every other breathing person. (Oh, do I have strong feelings on the topic! But this is not the time to air them.)

I have no more basic reason that I use to support my assertion that people matter. It cannot be logically derived from anything else I believe. This first value encompasses three main assertions:

  • Each person’s autonomy and personal choices should be respected.
  • Each person’s well-being and health should be protected.
  • The existence of many unique, autonomous people is desirable.

The definition of “person” also requires some definition – a non-trivial exercise that I am putting off for another post.

Value 2: Truth matters.

It is better to know the truth than (for example) to simply believe whatever we want to believe.

I think this value is held my just about everyone. Consider the cross-cultural consensus against lying, for example.

Of course, just because truth is important doesn’t mean that it’s never okay to lie. The value of human well-being can, sometimes, trump this one. The classic example is about hiding refugees when representatives of some oppressive power structure (such as the Nazis) come calling, but life is full of more benign practical instances where it seems better to lie than to hurt someone.

I think we should be rather conservative in granting such exceptions: It is easy to over-estimate the harm that would be done by telling the truth, and so excuse ourselves from difficult decisions. But sometimes, the best path does involve concealing or otherwise distorting the unvarnished truth.

So, this second value covers:

  • Beliefs should correspond to external reality.
  • Beliefs with more correspondence to external reality are better than those with less correspondence to external reality.

I’m glossing over the details of what it means for a belief to be “true”. I have in mind a rather simple correspondence definition: beliefs should correspond to external reality.

Labels that define me

2014/06/03

This post was originally inspired by a very animated discussion with Jamie Ian Swiss in the this 2012 episode of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast.

Long-time readers of this blog have learned something of my political views, my personal life, and various other things. But one thing I may never have explicitly done is lay out how I think these things interconnect.

For example, I am an atheist and a humanist. Some people think that “humanist” is just a euphemism for “atheist”, since most people who label themselves humanists are also atheists. But there is an important difference. In this article, I will briefly trace out some of the connections.

First, at the root, I consider myself a humanist. Though I consciously took on the label only a short time before beginning this blog, I think it has basically formed the basis of my approach to life since I was very young. As Bertrand Russell said, “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” That captures my two core values: compassion and the pursuit of understanding. To me, that is what humanism boils down to. (Notice that this definition doesn’t imply atheism.)

Now, I think the best way to pursue understanding is through scientific skepticism – I am a skeptic. I once quoted Steve Novella (of the above-mentioned podcast, Skeptics Guide to the Universe) defining skepticism: “Skepticism, as an intellectual endeavor, is the study of these mental pitfalls, for a thorough understanding of them is the best way to avoid them.” It’s not hard to form a belief; the trick is to filter good beliefs from bad ones. Skepticism is the toolkit for successful filtering.

One of the least important of my labels is atheism. This label simply means that nobody has yet convinced me that any god exists. It is one of many results of applying skepticism to claims that come at me. (Others of more consequence include accepting evolution, rejecting homeopathy, avoiding health fads, and a current push to learn more about Bayesian reasoning.) Though it has little importance in my epistemology, I would say that it is socially important. Atheists in some countries live under threat of violence and death. Even here in Canada, we are sometimes the targets of bigotry and hostility. So it is important for those who can safely do so to visibly identify as atheists (at least), so that others become aware of our existence and our normal humanness.

Another label that I like to hold is that of scientist. I am still very junior in this pursuit, and claim no particular prowess in it, but it is (in my mind) one of the most noble applications of skepticism, and I hope someday to contribute something significant to human knowledge through my scientific work.

I also have far more personal, less philosophical labels. I am a Mills by descent, and I have close ties with my family through shared traditions, history, and simple familial love. I am a daddy – a label whose meaning evolves as my children (now 4 and 6) develop into ever more amazing and surprising people. In no particular order, I am also a husband, a writer, a homeowner, a teacher, a son, and many other things. I try to exercise these parts of my identity in a way that aligns with my core values – values that come from my personal background and are defined, to some extent, by the main labels “humanist”, “skeptic”, and “scientist”.

There is much more to say about identity and labels, but I think this will suffice for now.

Bodily rights

2014/05/24

Just a little addendum to yesterday’s post about abortion in Canadian politics: I thought I’d give a very brief summary of why I think abortion should be allowed.

I realize that this is an important discussion to have, and that there are gray areas regarding appropriate term limits to abortion. But for me, the decisive argument for maintaining a basic right to abortion is the bodily rights argument, which I first heard presented by Tracey Harris on The Atheist Experience TV show. In a nutshell, the argument goes like this:

  1. You cannot be compelled to offer your body as life support for anyone who has already been born (such as another adult – even a dependent relative).
  2. Prohibiting abortion effectively compels a woman to offer her body as life support (for a conceptus that, depending on your personal beliefs, may or may not be “fully human”).
  3. Therefore, prohibiting abortion gives the conceptus more rights, and the woman fewer rights, than any other person.
  4. This is morally indefensible. Therefore, women should have the right to choose whether to continue a pregnancy or not.

I understand the depth of feeling that many people have about this issue. If you think that the conceptus is “fully human” in a morally-relevant way, then of course every pregnancy that does not carry to term is a tragedy. I feel fortunate that my wife and I were never in a position where we felt abortion was the best option – at the least, it is a medical procedure that carries some low level of risk.

Remember that allowing abortion is not the same as requiring abortion. A country with legal abortion could, in principle, have a 0% abortion rate. Wouldn’t that be a more meaningful triumph for the pro-lifers than persuading legislators to force people into the desired behaviour?

What we have, and what we need, is a legal system that permits abortion puts the decision in the hands of those people best suited to make that decision. The people best informed about the particulars of each case. The people with the greatest stake in the outcome, of any who can voice an opinion. The women who are pregnant.

To those who oppose abortion, please don’t use the law to force all women into your particular picture of the “good life”. Instead, use your inalienable right to free speech to make your case. Invite people to consider your arguments, and decide for themselves using the facts and values on offer.

 

Heritage

2011/07/28

The UK government recently reasserted its determination to privilege Christianity over other religions, and especially over unbelief, in public schools.*

There are plenty of rants one could indulge in over this – on the merits of a secular public sphere in general, on the dangers (to religious as well as secular values) of mixing religion and government, on the indoctrination of children.

Today, I’d like to simply reflect on the justification given: that the collective worship assemblies reflect the country’s broadly Christian heritage.

Many replies could be made to this statement. First, I will agree that Christianity has played a long and important role in shaping British history and culture. It would be a disservice to children and society to deny or downplay this fact in teaching kids about British history.

But what is, in fact, suggested, if we really take seriously the claim that British religious heritage should be imparted in school assemblies? You see, as I understand it, the religious heritage of the UK is not one of meekly accepting traditions that have been handed down. A large part of that heritage is a laissez-faire attitude: great numbers of people claiming religious affiliation for but doing nothing about it.

Leaving that very important part of the British character aside, the religious history of the isles is an exhilarating tale of reform, revolution, and advance. England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales have all been swept with waves of religious reform, from the Anglican break from Rome, through the Protestant Reformation, down through the Enlightenment and the rise of scientific scepticism.

British religious heritage includes ideals of Catholic universality, of Anglican nationalism, of Protestant individualism, and (very dear to me) of radical dissent from religious belief. The intellectual history of humanism is as indissoluble a part of this heritage as Christian traditions such as the “Lord’s Prayer” – and as necessary to understanding the contemporary character of British society.

To deny this – to privilege Christian beliefs and rituals over the other aspects of British heritage – is to reject the great advances that have been made by some of Britain’s most well-known and respected historical figures – NewtonHume,Darwin, Huxley, and many others. It is also to reject the growing portion of the population that finds fulfilment in life without any reference to a god or religion.

If the government really wants to impart British heritage to schoolchildren, to give them a real experiential connection to the grand themes of British religious identity and heritage, then it should open up the scope of the religious assemblies to explore all of that heritage, rather than only one corner. How were things in Britain different before and after Henry VIII’s break with Rome? How have different religious groups, when in power, persecuted or protected other religious groups? Perhaps children could watch (or, even better, participate in) re-enactments of the encounters between John Knox and Mary Queen of Scots, or between Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce.

Having grown up mostly oblivious of religion in Canada, I rather like the British idea of openly discussing and learning about religion in the classroom. Too many of the ills of religion are due to (or exacerbated by) ignorance of other beliefs. It is a shame that the UK government undermines their basically positive principle by cravenly catering to sectarian influences, as in the case of collective worship.

I have to agree with this statement by Lord Avebury at the end of this piece that,  “this is going to happen in the end” … “whether they like it or not, it is going to come. Sooner or later we shall get rid of the act of compulsory worship in schools, and the sooner the better.” Britain is becoming more secular, and secularists are gaining a stronger voice. But sooner would be better, for the children’s sake.

Footnotes:

* The media at large doesn’t seem to have picked up on this, so I can only link to the BHA’s summary. See also this report by the Accord Coalition, a group of religious and non-religious organizations working to improve education and religious rights in the UK.

The flock is not the flocker

2010/09/21

Humanitie is out again, so here’s my latest column.  Here is the Not-Quite-So-Friendly Humanist’s take on the issue we decided to tackle this time around.  We decided to blog on the Pope’s visit to the UK.

The pope will be is visiting as a head of state and as a moral authority.  Both of these roles are highly dubious in our modern democratic context.  Ignoring a mountain of other things, the fact alone that this man seems to have been involved in an institutional cover-up for dozens of child rapists should prevent any decent head of state from inviting him to visit.

It’s important to remember, however, that the Catholic Church is composed not only of pedophile priests and those who cover up for them, but also of non-pedophile priests and non-corrupt administrators.  Even more, it is composed of hundreds of millions of people trying to live as well as they can in a confusing world.

And before anyone retorts that passive acceptance of repressive and harmful dogmas is hardly respectable, let me introduce a couple of Catholic organisations that specifically combat the church’s problems – both doctrinal and institutional:  “Catholics for Choice” and “Catholics for a Changing Church“.

Here is what Catholics for Choice say about themselves:  “We are part of the great majority who believes that Catholic teachings on conscience mean that every individual must follow his or her own conscience – and respect others’ right to do the same.”  That sounds a lot like the humanist principle of free-thinking.  The group “helps people and organizations confidently challenge the power of the Catholic hierarchy which uses every means at its disposal to punish and publicly shame Catholics who don’t unquestioningly follow its edicts. The hierarchy also seeks to impose its narrow view of morality – and dangerous positions on public health issues – on Catholics and non-Catholics around the world.”  This is a firm condemnation of the same institutional abuse of power that humanists find so repugnant in the Catholic hierarchy.

In a similar vein, Catholics for a Changing Church declare that “Justice in the Church should be manifest and subject to public scrutiny and aim at least to equal the spirit of justice in the civil community. It should be based on the love, understanding and trust that ought to exist between Christians. Canon Law should be radically reformed in accord with these principles.”  Humanists may disagree about the beliefs that undergird these values, but we cannot disagree with the values themselves:  public accountability of those in power, and being motivated by love and understanding.  Note that they are holding up the “civil community” – what many religionists (for example, this guy!) decry as the secularised public arena – as a standard for the church to live *up* to.

We could ask why these obviously open-minded and ethical people don’t just leave the church.  Isn’t that a much easier way to win free of its oppressive dogmas and policies?  But when a community is being oppressed, it can be better to remain and work to improve it than to simply leave.  Remember that these people have family in the church, personal history, and of course, retain many of the beliefs of Catholicism.  Is it really rational to expect them to leave?  And is it really a bad thing to know that there is a movement within the church campaigning for change?

So where does that leave us as humanists?  I’m not about to suggest we shut up and hope that the church reforms from within.  But, when we point out the evils of the dogmas and the hierarchy, I think it is worth sparing a word or two of encouragement and praise for those brave Catholics who remain in the church and challenge its outdated and harmful aspects, just as we praise the thinkers of the Enlightenment who forged modern humanist principles amid a sea of fearful dogma.

Here are some other thoughts on the pope and his visit:


On moral obligation

2010/01/05

One complaint levelled against entirely naturalistic worldviews is this:

What is the basis of morality? By what right can you expect anyone to follow moral rules, if there is no transcendent reality to ground them in? 

I have had a very engaging discussion of this (and related issues) with Ken Brown and other commenters on his blog, and have posted some of my own thoughts here. Ken and colleagues are coming specifically from a Christian perspective. (I have yet to see them give a satisfactory justification for how a “transcendent reality” solves the problem – but that’s a topic for another time. As is the whole burden of actually demonstrating that such a reality exists – which would seem to be a prerequisite if one is to pin one’s entire moral philosophy on it.)

I thought I might pick out the key points of my answer here.

First, I come back to a very pragmatic position: most of the key elements of morality (love, fairness, honesty, nonviolence, etc) are built into most humans. (This fact has very interesting naturalistic explanations in the context of evolution as a social species, but that too, is a topic for another time.) So we have a useful basis for discussing moral issues without either an esoteric knowledge of the philosophical underpinnings of morality or a belief in a transcendent basis for moral claims. This is the basis of secular government: we build our society on the foundations we all share.

Second and more important, how I can derive another’s obligation from my “relativist” moral stance? Very cautiously and humbly. For most cases where someone says “there ought to be a law”, there probably oughtn’t. Law – the formal, coercive expression of our shared moral principles – is a blunt instrument that should not be used to solve all problems.

But even aside from the law, I do expect people to act morally, and I reserve the right to hold them accountable when they don’t. How do I do this? What gives me, a relativist with no ultimate explanation for right and wrong, the right to project my moral judgments on others? Why should someone else do the right thing rather than some other thing? The most honest answer I can give is very simple:

People should do the right thing, because it’s the right thing to do. 

I know that’s not very philosophical or subtle. But, so long as we all share a basic sense of right and wrong, it’s sufficient for the vast majority of life’s decisions.

And for those issues where we don’t instinctively agree on the right answer – abortion, euthanasia, drug control, etc – pretending that a hypothetical transcendent realm holds the answer does not seem to solve things. It may give some people a sense of self-righteousness to bolster their support of one position, but it is useless in seeking a practical solution or persuading people who believe in a different hypothetical set of transcendent moral truths (or folks like me who doubt such a set exists at all). In these cases, we have to fall back on the nasty, brutish, fallible strategy of using rhetoric and reason to pursue the best solution and persuade each other of it.

Photo credits:

Justice statue on Old Bailey, London: from Wikipedia, shared by user Erasoft24 under Creative Commons Attribution licence 2.5.

Foundation Beyond Belief

2010/01/01

I am delighted to announce the launch of a new humanist-driven charity initiative, the Foundation Beyond Belief. Go to the site itself for full details, and to sign up.

I’m just going to point out some of the things about the Foundation that I find particularly awesome:

  • Though it is explicitly modelled on humanist values, religious individuals are explicitly invited to participate.
  • Social networking will be a key part of the Foundation’s interaction with members – this is not just a conduit for money, but a place to build community around shared values and actions.
  • Members can choose where their donations are spent, among ten categories (education, peace, health care, environment, and others).
  • Charities will be selected not just on the values they profess, but on efficiency and effectiveness as well.
  • Religious charities are not explicitly ruled out, but charities that use their funds for proselytizing are (regardless of the worldview they promote).
  • Though based in the US, the Foundation explicitly looks to support charities with an international reach.
  • Two of the key people involved in the Foundation – Dale McGowan and Hemant Mehta – were instrumental in my decision to become a blogger (though I have yet to meet either of them in person).

I look forward to seeing the Foundation help people around the world, and I’m excited to participate in it. I’ll close with words from the Foundation itself: a mission statement, a launch blurb, and a video:

Mission statement:

To demonstrate humanism at its best by supporting efforts to improve this world and this life; to challenge humanists to embody the highest principles of humanism, including mutual care and responsibility; and to help and encourage humanist parents to raise confident children with open minds and compassionate hearts.

Launch blurb:

Beginning on January 1, 2010, Foundation Beyond Belief will highlight ten charitable organizations per quarter — one in each of ten categories. Among other considerations, beneficiaries will be chosen for efficiency, effectiveness, moderate size (annual budget <$10M), compatibility with humanist focus on mutual care of this world and this life, no direct promotion or proselytizing of a particular worldview, and geographical diversity.

Video:

Why should humanists be in chaplaincy?

2009/12/18

Humanitie, the quarterly magazine of the Humanist Society of Scotland, has a new issue out. Once again, Mike and I present our rather different perspectives – this time, on the relationship between humanists and chaplaincy. Don’t forget to read Mike’s column over at his blog.

I was recently asked a question about the place of humanists in chaplaincy life. In a chaplaincy, even an inclusive multi-faith chaplaincy, most people are religious. To what extent is it worthwhile and appropriate for humanists and other non-religious people to seek a place in chaplaincy?

The answer is obvious to me. Clearly, though, some religious people and even many humanists don’t see things as I do. So here is my take on it.

First, some background. Our university chaplaincy is very deliberately open to students and staff of “all faiths and none“.

My earliest experience with the chaplaincy was when I was first learning and reading about humanism, and coming to realize that it reflected a deep part of my identity. I started looking for like-minded people, for a community to connect with. I had heard of the chaplaincy and its openness to people of no religion. I visited the chaplain and asked if she knew of any humanist groups at the university. She didn’t, but she thought it would be wonderful if there were a group. She also pointed me to the Humanist Society of Scotland (HSS), which has an Edinburgh group.

There is a whole story following on from that – of attending an HSS philosophy book group, of meeting another humanist student, of forming a student group with him that has become far more active and successful than I expected – but for now let’s look at that first move on my part. Why did I go to the chaplaincy in search of humanists?

First, there was my awareness that the chaplaincy branded itself as inclusive – they reach out not only to religious folks, but to folks like me. Second, for all that some humanists like to distance themselves from religious believers, there is a crucial feature that we share. Humanism is a framework for seeking meaning, for defining an ethical stance, and for sharing inspiration and expressing awe. For most religious people I’ve talked to, their religion does just the same: it provides meaning, defines ethics, and it is the lens through which inspiration and awe are experienced and shared. Also, perhaps even more importantly, both humanism and religions are identities around which human communities gather. So humanism is to me as religion is to religious folks. Even then, new as I was to humanism, I could see that.

So it seemed obvious that the chaplaincy – a place for religious folks to meet like-minded people, a place for people to go for spiritual counselling, and a place that explicitly included non-religious people in its remit – was the right place to look for humanist groups at the university.

And of course, that answers the question I opened with too. If chaplaincy is an obvious place for a lone humanist to go in search of kindred spirits, then chaplaincy is an obvious place for a humanist group to be connected with so that those lone humanists can find us.

Yes, there is the Internet. Yes, there are other avenues for us to find one another. But that’s no reason to shut such an obvious means of connection. Besides, the sort of personal bond that people visiting the chaplaincy tend to seek is not something that can be transmitted through a computer screen.

Of course, there is more to the chaplaincy than just finding folks like yourself. There is also the inter-faith element*. The idea of people of different backgrounds coming together to discover common ground. And I think that’s incredibly valuable. It’s something that’s lacking from a lot of the “culture war” discussions that get headlines. It’s important that humanists are involved in that as well.

True, I may think that the other guy’s god is imaginary. True, he may think that I’m destined for hell if I don’t come to believe as he does. But equally true is the fact that we both value compassion. We both try to buy products whose production doesn’t exploit the vulnerable. We both try to act in ways that will preserve the planet for the next generation. We both strongly believe in each other’s right to believe as we will.

In my experience, there is no place like a multi-faith chaplaincy for bringing people of different backgrounds together and helping us to realize how much we share. Not just superficial stuff. Deep stuff. Important stuff.**

Stuff we can draw on to make the world a better place, together.

That’s why humanists should be involved in chaplaincy, and in other inter-faith endeavours.

Footnotes (not included in the print version):

* Yes, I know, the term inter-faith is problematic for people like us, who consciously set ourselves apart from religious faith. It is also often used in a manner that really does exclude us. But until you can come up with a better term for a meeting of religious and non-religious worldviews, and show that other people will use and understand it, it’s better than nothing.

** A Unitarian church may do the same, but I don’t have enough experience at one yet to say for sure.

 


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