Archive for September, 2010

Getting friendly with Friends


Foundation Beyond Belief logoI’m sure all of you humanists out there are members by now of the Foundation Beyond Belief – the umbrella charity designed to “focus, encourage, and demonstrate the generosity and compassion of atheists and humanists in the interest of a better world.” And I’m sure you all know that the FBB is set up so that each quarter, a new slate of charities is chosen in different categories, such as Peace, Education, and Animal Protection.

And of course, who could forget that members are able to divvy up their contributions in any way they want – all to one charity, evenly between the ten, or any other way. And they can do it differently for every new slate of charities. And all their money goes to the named charities. (One of the charities each quarter is the FBB itself, in case you’re wondering how it funds its operations.)

Two quarters have come and passed, and seen donations of $35000. The third set of charities has been chosen, and one of them has become the focus of a (so far tiny) controversy.

You see, it’s a religious organization: Quaker Peace and Social Witness.

So far, I’ve only seen five discussions of it – at Daylight Atheism, No Forbidden Questions, the FBB’s own blog, Atheist Revolution, and the Meming of Life (by Dale McGowan, brainfather of FBB). So, to the extent that it is a controversy, it’s a fairly limited one.

The objections come in different flavours: that this amounts to promoting religion, that it (perhaps covertly) undermines humanist principles, even that it may be the start of a slippery slope (toward what is not made clear).

Now, I quite like the idea of reaching out like this. The liberal Quakers have a long and proud history of pacifism, so I think they have earned some credentials in the promotion of peace. And they are not proselytizing (that’s a prerequisite for consideration by the FBB). In all, they seem to demonstrate quite well the positive humanist values that the FBB and its members stand for, without slipping in any contradictory religious dogma. So it would be very easy for me to snark back at these naysayers.

I might facetiously agree, “That’s right: what could humanists and Quakers possibly have in common?”

And then, tongue still in cheek, add a few caveats. “You know, besides an aversion to unnecessary violence. And a love of religious liberty. And strong support for women’s equality, gay rights, and civil action. And, a distrust of religious authority – in the form of hierarchies, or simply of ‘sacred’ books. And, you know, a significant number of nontheists in their ranks.”

But, on reflection, I think such snarkiness might be counterproductive.

On the other hand, I could try to respond to every little point made by the detractors. But, aside from being exhausting and uninteresting to read, I think that would miss the point too.

The fact is that, depending on what you feel is most important about your humanism/atheism/[insert nontheistic label of preference], there actually can be different right answers here. Is a lack of religious belief more important to you than a lack of overt proselytizing? Then you may want to avoid donating to Quakers. Do you find pacifists to be too idealistic for your taste? Then you might want to avoid the FBB’s Peace category altogether, and definitely stay away from Quakers.

On the other hand, maybe you feel that a person’s actions are far more important than their beliefs. Maybe you really value peace, and would like to support an organization with a track record of effective promotion of peace. Or maybe you want to support those religious believers who don’t step on our freedom to disbelieve, who don’t try to push their beliefs into our laws, into our homes, into our bedrooms. Who actually understand that true religious freedom necessarily includes the freedom to withhold belief. In that case, this may be a charity worth donating to.

Now, it seems to me that the positions on both sides are both perfectly legitimate expressions of nontheistic worldviews. And, as an organization that wants to represent and empower all of us, the Foundation Beyond Belief really ought to be giving us all the opportunity to express our charitable values. I think that, by occasionally including charities like Quaker Peace and Social Witness, while always giving clear information to members and making it easy to opt out of any one (or two or more) charities in a given quarter, they are living up to their stated aims.

At any rate, I’m not overly worried. Some ideologues in the discussions have vowed to stay away from FBB. But most people seem willing to simply include or exclude the Quaker charity according to their own conscience, and let others do the same.

I hope that we as a community can continue to take this high road – neither compromising our values nor schisming along unnecessary fracture lines. We shall see.


The flock is not the flocker


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:

While you wait …


My last job ended recently, and after a long search I have found another one.  As this is academia, this one will also be temporary – I am slowly working my way through post-docs until I can achieve that great dream, the Permanent Position (also known as tenure-track).

But I’m not complaining.  This new post will let me work on a very interesting project.  And, while it will take me and my family away from Edinburgh, a fabulous city with wonderful people, it will be taking us to Boston.  Boston is also, reputedly, a fabulous city.  And it also houses many amazing folks.

One of my soon-to-be-fellow-Bostonians, Doug Muder, recently posted some thoughts on humanist spirituality that I thought you might enjoy.  That’s from his blog “Free and Responsible Search”, where he explores the philosophy and theology of Unitarian Universalism.

In this post, he attempts to answer the question “Does spirituality mean anything?” from a humanist standpoint.

I hope to share more thoughts with you after the move, once we are settled in Boston.