Archive for the ‘values’ Category

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.

 

Saqib Ali – my new hero

2009/09/29

Saqib Ali, an American politician and a Muslim, supports gay marriage. Not personally – it goes against his faith. But he understands that his job as a legislator is to represent his constituents and to uphold democratic values.

In an editorial, Ali says “If I tried to enforce religion by law — as in a theocracy — I would be doing a disservice to my both constituents and to my religion.” So, as a legislative policy, he supports extending marriage rights to same-sex couples. He is not subverting his values to those of the society he finds himself in. He is simply finding a path that allows him to stay true to his values, while upholding his responsibility to the people he represents. (There are many ways to oppose gay marriage without making it illegal; just as there are many ways to oppose abortions without making them illegal.)

Thanks to the Friendly Atheist for making me aware of this.

Right or obligation?

2009/08/20

I was hanging out with my friend Marc the other day, when he said something that I only half-noticed at the time:

In all you do or say or think, recollect that at any time the power of withdrawal from life is in your own hands. (Meditations, book 2, paragraph 11)

It came back to me, however, when I read of the death of Edward and Joan Downes.

I feel that they have done nothing evil; nor have those at Dignitas who helped them. From what statements are available, it sounds like the couple’s children agree with their decision.

I could spend post after post discussing and weighing the arguments presented by people who think that assisted suicide should be legal, and those who think it should not. But I honestly don’t think I’d come up with anything that hasn’t been said before.

I do have a question, though. Is life a right? Or is it an obligation? Should people be allowed to take their own lives? To help others do so? Should doctors expend their efforts on the possibility of extending someone’s pain-ridden life by a few days? Or is that simply a cowardly form of torture, accepted because of the fear we healthy people have of unwanted death?

As with so many real-world problems, the answer is not easy. But the story of Edward and Joan Downes forces us to wonder if the current state of affairs is appropriate.

As I understand it, British law criminalizes those who participate in assisted suicide overseas; but nobody gets prosecuted for it, possibly because such people always seem to be loving family members, as far from criminal as one can get, morally speaking.

[I have to apologize to my readers - somehow, I managed to post this without actually writing the last paragraph. Here it is.]

It is inexcusable for a legal system to prohibit an act but to systematically refrain from executing the prescribed sanctions. The law is an ass – but when carried out appropriately, it is at least a consistent ass. Those involved in this law (legislators, police, etc) should either repeal the law or enforce it as it stands. I think they should repeal it, but either solution would be better than the current state of affairs.

Competing religious liberties

2009/08/05

This is further to a post from a few weeks back about a petition to expand religious freedom regarding civil partnerships.

Civil partnerships are the closest thing same-sex couples in the UK have to marriage. Religious organizations are not allowed to perform civil partnerships in the UK. Several religious communities, including the Unitarians that I heard it through, would like to perform these ceremonies, and feel that it is an arbitrary restriction on their freedom of conscience not to allow them to do so. I completely agree, and support them in their effort to reform the law.

Some weeks later, I was chatting with a conservative Christian friend of mine, and this topic came up. I thought this was a straightforward issue – nobody could reasonably oppose the petition, even if they didn’t want to support it.

My friend put an interesting argument for the other side, though. She said that, if religious groups are allowed to perform these ceremonies, equality legislation regarding the provision of services to people regardless of sexual orientation might lead to churches being forced to perform civil partnership ceremonies. Otherwise, they’d be up for human-rights violations for unfairly discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. This, she said, would unfairly impose on their freedom of conscience.

I actually agree – such an eventuality would be unjust in much the same way that the current situation is unjust: it would prevent people from exercising their freedom of conscience.

Now, the obvious (not just to me) solution to the whole mess is to separate state marriage from church marriage entirely. If you want government recognition of your marriage, you would register it at a government office. No church ceremony would have any legal weight, and therefore churches could be put under no obligation to perform services that their consciences object to. Her church would be safe from discrimination. The Unitarians and other liberal churches would be free to treat same-sex unions the same as opposite-sex unions. Everybody would be happy.

But of course, the complete disentangling of church and state, especially in Britain, especially for marriage, would be a difficult task. (A worthy task, I think, but a difficult one.)

So we seem to be left with the choice about whose freedom of conscience to protect – the liberals’ or the conservatives’? (Put more personally, is it my freedom of conscience, or my friend’s, that gets violated?)

But that’s not really the choice before us. It’s a choice between a real and present restriction on the liberal churches’ freedom on the one hand, and a hypothetical and avoidable restriction on the conservative churches’ freedom on the other. The liberal churches are currently currently unable to treat same-sex couples as equal to opposite-sex couples, and this deeply offends their moral sensibilities. The conservative churches are not forced to do anything. The only way they would be is if legislators made the law more equal without including protection for freedom of conscience. I seriously doubt that they would overlook such a detail, given the undeniably strong political force wielded by the religious lobby. Not only that, but many others (such as me) would object to conservative churches being forced to marry couples they don’t want to – be they of the same-sex, of different religions, of different races – whatever.

So again, I’m back to my original position. The ideal solution would be to keep church ceremonies completely separate from state-recognized marriage. This isn’t a radical idea – even Mexico, with a largely religious population, does it. In Britain, the solution more likely to be worked out in the short term is to remove the prohibition on churches performing same-sex marriages, while maintaining the important freedom of conscience that would allow conservative churches to continue discriminating in this area.

Joss Whedon on humanism

2009/04/20

Joss Whedon, creator of great television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, has won an award for achievement in cultural humanism from the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. Here’s part of his excellent acceptance speech.

Is this why I love his shows? Because he’s a humanist?

Hat tip to Hemant, the Friendly Atheist.

What is morality?

2009/04/14

I am not a philosopher, but I think this is a fascinating question to explore. I’d like to point you all to a post by Christian blogger Ken Brown, in which he explores the implications of an interventionist god who does not prevent all evils.

We had such a vigorous discussion in the comments that he made a second post to further explore the difference between theistic and atheistic approaches to morality and the problems of evil.

Please read the comments there and participate if you are so inclined. My question for you, my dear readers, is what you think the nature of morality is?

Ken sees moral codes as truth claims: if something is good, that is a fact about the world, in something like the way that gravity or the structure of the atom are facts. So, is a claim like “Murder is bad” something that can be true or false in an objective sense?

I see moral codes as personal choices – sometimes (nearly) universal, but nevertheless inherently subjective. I follow Hume in seeing “is” and “ought” statements as inherently separate types of statements. Is a claim like “murder is bad” more of a preference than a fact?

This divide is not simply a theist-atheist divide: I know atheists who would agree with Ken that morality has an objective basis external to us, and I suspect that there are theists who do not. What do you think? How do you understand morality?


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