‘Of making many books there is no end’ – The Bible (Ecclesiastes 12 v 12).
Although Everyday Humanism edited by Dale McGowan, above left, and Anthony B Pinn, hopes to provide a “soft landing” for those deserting their supernatural faith or belief, it joins many other recent texts with “humanism” in their title. But a practical guide to life without the sense of community a faith offers still seems lacking.
Some people hang on to religion because it is part of their “family”; there is a difference in “belief’” and “belonging”. For some who leave the fold of faith, there is more than just alienation; there can be physical isolation or even worse, violent attack. On the other hand some feel a great relief no longer to be involved in ritual and practice they no longer accept as true.
Corliss Lamont published his The Philosophy of Humanism in 1949. It takes an academic stand. Since then others, including H J Blackham, first Director of the British Humanist Association, Jim Herrick, a former editor of the Freethinker, Barbara Smoker, a former President of the National Secular Society, Bill McIlroy, a former Secretary of the NSS, Peter Cave of the humanist philosophers, and various others have written books with “humanism” in their title.
Recently Tony Akkermans published Happily Godless – Humanism for a Better World. I commend Akkermans’ book, in which he says:
You could say we are all born ‘humanists’: that is until parentage or place of birth assign us to a religion.
This follows closely what Charles Bradlaugh wrote in 19th century:
Every child is born into the world an atheist.
In other words humanists are atheists.
Everyday Humanism does contain some academic chapters, but also more down to earth and practical offerings. It shows how families and groups can engage in activities which contain ritual for ceremonies at birth, death and marriage. There are examples of chaplaincy services, and meetings to acknowledge our human centred lives. Co-operation with religious groups which are flexible is important, but so is the retention of our own critical thinking.
For those who like to join with others to expose a whole range of irrational suppositions, there are groups such as the Sceptics in the Pub, while the recent formation of Sunday Assemblies, also known as “atheist churches”, may fulfil the needs of those wishing to gather with the like-minded.
Apart from Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association, and two Dutch contributors, all the writers in Everyday Humanism are American.
Copson argues for individual engagement and the Dutch writers for a “green” approach. One of the editors, Anthony B Pinn, looks at the value of charity; the final chapter urges for “advance directives” prior to our death.
The US has a secular constitution, but far greater religious practice than the UK; here, apart from Conway Hall in London and the Secular Hall in Leicester, there are no dedicated buildings for humanist gatherings.
I recall the South Place Ethical Society, now Conway Hall Ethical Society, in the 1950s; their Sunday morning meetings were held at 11am – a time associated with Matins. Although that is still the time they meet, they no longer include secular hymns, readings and music. But they do continue to meet weekly, unlike most humanist groups. Some humanists who were brought up in a church or chapel environment miss regular contact with like minds in a congenial manner.
Alain de Botton’s recent Religion for Atheists asserted our need for something “more” – though gave little hint beyond our aesthetic appreciation of the arts.
Discovering our “ignorance” is a feature of the humanist approach; most religions enjoy “certainty”. This is the root of their attraction. Humanists are aware that the universe is indifferent to our lives, and we are prepared to live with ambiguity. We make our own meanings.
In various surveys, those claiming “no religion” are on the increase; but even within these groups many still believe in a “god” or “intelligent” universe. Attendance at church and school from an early age inclines towards accepting this doctrine.
Everyday Humanism has a good bibliography but a poor index.
Editor’s note: The latest edition of the Catholic magazine, The Tablet, has a cover story entitled “Humanism needs God“.