Archive for September, 2007

A humanist continuum


In a recent comment, Hugo brought up the fact that there are different factions within the community of humanism/freethought/atheism/brights/etc (the multitude of labels kind of says it all). And it can be difficult to bring us all together under one tent long enough to do something constructive.

In our little fledgling student society here in Edinburgh, we have few active members but they are scattered across the spectrum. One illustration of some of the more incendiary differences is how we view liberal believers.

If you (as a humanist) come across someone who self-identifies as Christian, but who acknowledges that God’s existence is not absolutely certain, and whose actions embody values you share – honesty, care for human beings, respect for science, concern for the environment – what is your attitude to that person?

Do you:

(a) feel they are being intellectually dishonest or inconsistent? If they are Christians, they should believe the Bible as it is written, not just take the “nice” bits and ignore the rest. If they can’t swallow the Bible whole, then they shouldn’t call themselves Christians at all. They should pick a belief system and be consistent, rather than trying to straddle incompatible worldviews.

Or do you:

(b) rejoice that, though religious, this person is not a threat to the secular society or to the things you most value as a humanist? You want a world where people uphold values like honesty, respect, and all the rest. It doesn’t matter if they do that while calling themselves humanists or Christians or Muslims or Pastafarians or whatever.

I hereby dub those who prefer option (a) the conversionists. The label matters as much as the beliefs, because sensible people using the label “Christian” simply provide cover for the nutcases who also use that label. If the content of their beliefs is humanist, they should convert to calling themselves “humanist” rather than “Christian”.

Those who take option (b) are the substantivists. It does not matter that someone calls herself a Christian, so long as the substance – her actual beliefs, values, and actions – include honesty, care for others, respect for science, and so on.

I tend to take the substantivist position. Our student humanist group had Christian students signing our form (we needed 20 student signatures) so we could become an official university society. “I’m not a humanist, but I support you in forming your society.” If they can do that without becoming humanists, then I think we can cooperate on other fronts too without feeling as though we need to convert them.

On the other hand, the conversionist idea that labels are important becomes very attractive to me when I’m told that my humanist values amount to belief in a god. (I’ve had this from a believer and from a non-believer). They don’t. A god is a very particular kind of being: omnipresent, powerful, intelligent, conscious. I don’t believe such a being exists. Trying to redefine god to prove that everyone believes in one is insulting both to most believers (who believe in something more than an amorphous “whatever” god) and to most nonbelievers (who tend to have well-considered reasons for their position).

My humanist friends here at both ends of the scale seem to agree with me that this distinction is useful. What do you think? Is it informative and helpful to identify conversionist and substantivist influences in the humanist community (or in yourself)? Or is this simply another way to divide us into smaller, weaker groups?


The Value of Celebrity


This post is inspired by the Celebrity Atheist List. Thanks Hemant for reminding me of that website.

What is the point of celebrities? Should humanists look for celebrities among their ranks?

There are different ways to see this.

Looking at the reality TV shows, the singing and dancing contests, designed to generate celebrities under our watchful eyes, it’s easy to become cynical. Celebrities exist to be famous. No real point there, except for the celebrities.

Try this alternative out, though. Celebrities are billboards for ideas. When people learn that intelligent, entertaining, and famous people like Joss Whedon, Isaac Asimov, Keanu Reeves, and Carrie Fisher are non-religious, it might make them think. It probably won’t make them become humanists, but it might make them think twice before painting us with too vile a brush. They’ve seen the billboard, and it’s given them the opportunity to think about the product being offered. And the more billboards there are out there advertising humanism, the more likely someone is to try out the product – learn a little more about these ideas that so many people share.

There is a third way to see it. If you are a humanist living in a community where nobody is openly non-religious, where the atmosphere is hostile to skepticism, celebrities seen on television or read about in books may be the only exposure you have to people who think like you. If you know (for example) that two of the cutest actors in show-biz are non-theists, then every time you see a movie with Keanu Reeves or David Duchovny in it you’ll feel a little less lonely. It may be somewhat escapist, but sometimes you do just need to escape for a bit.

I don’t read the celebrity magazines, but I do have some favorite celebrities. I am a fan, not just of people whose celebrity is based on their humanism (Julia Sweeney, Richard Dawkins, Hemant Mehta, Dale McGowan), but of actors.

And not all of them are humanists. Before I say something withering about believers, I have to consider whether I want to paint Christians such as Bishop Spong, Tom Hanks, Mr T, or Alice Cooper with the same brush.

And, moving beyond celebrities, I am lucky enough to have people in my own life who exemplify a wide variety of beliefs and positions. I have my own Russes for Christianity, for Islam, for conservative politics, even for people who enjoy eating that orange stuff.

It’s best to have such people among those we know personally. But failing that, celebrities are a good backup.

My newest humanist hero


Deena and I are big readers, and so part of our preparation for parenthood has been to get hold of some key parenting books.

One which we have already read cover-to-cover, but whose practical relevance may not kick in for a couple of years, is Dale McGowan‘s collection of essays by various humanists, atheists, and others: Parenting Beyond Belief. Awesome book, by the way. Even before our kids are old enough to start trying some of the things mentioned in the book, it provides great reassurance for us as secular parents.

For some reason, I didn’t really notice that he also has a blog sparked by the book. It was just before I started this blog that I found it, through his interview with my Friendly Role-Model, Hemant Mehta.

And it’s great. The whole blog. I’ve read a good dozen or so of his blog posts now, and they’re brilliant. Funny, moving, informative. He does what I aspire to do – describe what it’s like to live as a humanist, compellingly and with mind-ticklingly lyrical wordcraft. It’s brilliant.

Read it.

How did you come to humanism?


I’ve sometimes wondered how a person’s history might affect their attitudes as a humanist.

For example, I sometimes suspect that people who were once evangelical believers become even more vocal non-believers – either because they are predisposed to that brand of belief, or because they want to distance themselves from beliefs they once held so firmly, and now reject. I know that the behaviours that I am most impatient with in others are those that I have overcome myself in the past.

For myself, I was raised non-religiously in a country where religion is neither widely-scorned nor overly prominent in the public sphere. Perhaps this is why I feel generally unthreatened by religion even though I have no religious beliefs. (I like to think this makes me a more balanced humanist, but all it makes me is more balance with respect to my particular experience of secularism. How well this translates to other situations is an open question.)

What do you think? Have you noticed a pattern in how different humanists’ past experiences affect their attitudes to religion and believers?

Belief and understanding


Two podcasts that I listen to regularly are Skepticality and Point of Inquiry. And both of them have recently done pieces featuring religious believers. Skepticality included as a large part of a recent podcast a speech that deist Hal Bidlack gave at The Amazing Meeting. Point of Inquiry featured an interview with human genome scientist and evangelical Christian Francis Collins.

I was nodding (and, at times, almost crying) throughout Bidlack’s speech – it moved and inspired me.

The interview with Francis Collins, on the other hand, had me shaking my head and grinding my teeth. I couldn’t believe that someone with such apparently superb scientific talent could trot out such an uninformed critique of the non-theistic worldview.

Now, I don’t want this blog to become a place for me to rant about people I disagree with being stupid, and why, and where they can put their blankety-blank opinions. One of my values as a humanist is to focus on actions and consequences. Why does Collins bother me, while Bidlack doesn’t? What do I want my reaction to accomplish? How can I help that come about?

First, self-understanding. Why does Collins bother me? He bothers me for the same reason that Richard Dawkins bothers him: because the thing he takes to be my worldview is in fact a caricature of how I actually see the world. He presents a simplistic, ill-thought-out atheism as though that is the best that millennia of skeptical philosophy and reason have to offer. When DJ Groethe suggests that there are more sophisticated ways of seeing the world naturalistically, Collins dismisses those as not being what most atheists hold. I wonder how many humanist gatherings he’s gone to? I wonder how many non-theistic weddings or funerals he has attended? (Of course, this is exactly the response that Dawkins and others provoke from believers – including Collins. “That’s not what I believe in. You’re ignoring the more sophisticated theologians through history. Most people don’t believe that any more.”)

So Collins irritates me because, when he talks about my beliefs, he misrepresents them.

Why doesn’t Bidlack bother me? Because he doesn’t mention my beliefs. Simple as that. His speech is about his own beliefs – their merits and their weaknesses – not about the merits or weaknesses he perceives in mine.

For this same reason, religious people are much less upset at Julia Sweeney‘s Letting Go of God or the book Parenting Beyond Belief (edited by Dale McGowan) than they are at the “evangelical atheist” books of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and others. It works both ways.

Second, the goals. What do I want my reaction to accomplish? Well, I would love for Francis Collins to learn more about my beliefs. Not necessarily to convert him – it’d be nice, but it’s unlikely. More so that, next time he talks to someone, he doesn’t misrepresent me and my fellow humanists. Also, I think he is ideally placed to influence the many religious believers, both in the US and elsewhere. The Baptists I know here in Edinburgh are more likely to be persuaded by Collins, a fellow evangelical, that evolution is a safe idea to believe and that ID isn’t supportable, than they are to listen to me or even a qualified scientist like Dawkins telling them the same thing.

Finally, the means. How do I accomplish these goals? Well, I could rant about how wrong Collins is about so many things. But this would not incline him to listen to me, so my first goal would fail. And it wouldn’t have any positive effect on other believers’ uptake of the constructive side of his message. All it would do is give me some emotional release, and I can get that just ranting with my fellow humanists in private. Alternatively, I could try something more constructive.

I could recommend that Francis Collins (and any other religious person who wants to speak from knowledge rather than ignorance) read one of the many excellent introductions to the humanist perspective. Richard Norman‘s On Humanism is an easy read, and is gentler toward believers than Dawkins or Harris. (It’s the book that introduced me to humanism as an organized and coherent worldview, rather than just a disparate list of things I already happened to believe, so I recommend it to people new to humanism too.) Julian Baggini‘s What’s It All About? is an excellent exploration of the meaning of life by a humanist philosopher. Julia Sweeney’s Letting Go of God monologue is excellent, so order the CDs, Dr. Collins.

As for how to help Dr. Collins influence other evangelicals positively, if a religious person expresses doubts about (or interest in) evolution, I can point them to his book. It has a far better chance of being read with an open mind (and thus influencing them) than Hitchens or Harris, or even the relatively gentle and thoughtful Dawkins.

Okay, I think I’ve managed to avoid ranting and be constructive. Perhaps I’ll wrap up this post here. I have to confess, it takes effort and attention to focus on what I want to accomplish with a reaction, rather than just to react. Good humanist lesson, though.

Fame already!


I only created this blog yesterday, and already I’m famous!

Yesterday, I may have been only half-serious. But now I really have to make a go of it, to justify Hemant’s faith in me. (He called me cool!) Any bloggers with wise words to share on how not to let a blog fizzle and die after an enthusiastic start, please let me know.

I’m writing this at 3 in the morning, because a pack of feral young apes is making an appalling racket in the central green outside my window, and I can’t sleep. Which makes me think about the drink culture here. (I don’t know if they’re drunk or just idiots, but it reminds me of the many people who are frequently both in this city.)

Which in turn reminds me of one of the more unexpected realizations I made when we started the Edinburgh University Humanist Society. The first time we had our Thursday evening pub meeting, we realized that most of us were either teetotal or very infrequent drinkers. We still have a great time at the pub, drinking and chatting and all (join us if you’re ever in the city). But easily 90% of the drinks we order are Pepsi or juice.

Now, I know there is nothing explicitly anti-alcohol in humanism, so I wonder whether we’re an anomaly or if there’s something about humanism that makes us less likely to imbibe? Perhaps our willingness to face the world as it is, without distortion? Perhaps our vivid awareness of how easily people can be fooled into false belief even with a clear head and all our faculties intact?

What do you think?