Atheism, Humanism and Secularism

Yesterday’s news stories about prayer in Bideford council meetings and the Christian guesthouse owners have triggered the expected levels of outrage from the usual suspects.

One thing that critics of this ruling often seem to (deliberately?) misunderstand is the differences between atheism, humanism and secularism. I thought it might be useful to post simple definitions of the meanings of these three words.

Atheism is simply the absence of belief in any kind of deity. Atheists just don’t belief in your god. In fact they don’t believe in any gods. They don’t believe in your god for pretty much the same reasons they you don’t believe in other people’s gods. Atheists don’t hate god. It would be incredibly silly to hate something that you don’t believe if. For obvious reasons there is are very few religious people who would call themselves atheists.

Humanism is a philosophical approach which assumes that the best way to build a system of morals and ethics is to approach the problems logically and rationally and with humanity. Humanists don’t want to take moral instruction from a supernatural entity, but rather assume that moral and ethical decisions should be taken on the basis of the effects that they will have on human beings. Despite what some people would have you believe, this does not lead to them murdering babies. Although there is nothing intrinsically preventing religious people from being humanists, many religious people prefer to take moral and ethical stances prescribed by their religion rather than thinking things through for themselves.

Secularism is the belief that religion has no place in public affairs and that there should be complete separation between church and state. This means that the USA is, by definition, a secular country (it’s in their constitution) whereas the UK, which is by any measure a less religious country than the USA still has an established church and therefore (by definition, at least) is not a secular country. Whilst many religious people can see no problem with their religion being tightly integrated with the state, they can often recognise the problems when someone else’s religion is in control. For this reason many religious people (although by no means all of them) are keen supporters of secularism.

The three concepts are completely separate, although (of course) many people subscribe to all three beliefs. In the UK we have separate organisations to promote each of these ideas – Atheism UK, the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society. You can join any combination of the three and members of each of these organisations should not be assumed to hold the beliefs of the other two.

In particular, the campaign that led to the Bideford council ruling was run by the National Secular Society. Therefore it cannot be seen as an attack on religion in any way. If it is an attack on anything, it is an attack on the influence that one particular religion (actually one particular church within that religion) has (or, rather, had) over the governance of that local council.

No-one has been told that they can’t pray. They haven’t even been told that they can’t pray before their council meetings. They have been told that they can’t pray on the meeting’s agenda. Effectively, they can’t pray on taxpayers’ money. And I’m astonished that people are seeing this as an attack on their. faith.

Don’t believe the stories that church leaders and the tabloid press are telling you. The full text of Mr Justice Ouseley’s ruling is available online. Read that and see exactly what he said.

Even if you can’t be an atheist, or you’re doubtful about humanism, please accept that secularism makes sense.


Pod Delusion Plug

It’s Friday, which means there’s a new episode of the Pod Delusion out. I’m plugging it because I’m in it. The first report is me talking about Nadine Dorries and her bizarre opinions of humanism. There’s another story about her too as the Pod Delustion’s editor, James O’Malley interviews New Humanist’s Paul Sims about her reaction to their Bad Faith Poll.

If I’ve done this right, then you’ll be able to listen to the show using the embedded doohickey below, but it’s on their web site too. I’m at 1:42 and Paul Sims is at 7:12 – but listen to the whole thing.


Dorries on Humanism

Humanism is an approach in study, philosophy, world view or practice that focuses on human values and concerns. In philosophy and social science, humanism is a perspective which affirms some notion of human nature, and is contrasted with anti-humanism.

That’s how Wikipedia starts its article on Humanism. Humanists (and I count myself as one) believe that it is possible to ethical and fulfilling lives without the need to rely on supernatural explanations. As the British Humanist Association says:

We take responsibility for our actions and base our ethics on the goals of human welfare, happiness and fulfilment. We seek to make the best of the one life we have by creating meaning and purpose for ourselves, individually and together.

Surely it’s hard to take offence at these beliefs?

Step forward Nadine Dorries. In a blog post late on Friday night she took an altogether different view of Humanism, saying “I am not sure why anyone would admit to being a humanist and part of an organisation which has such extreme views.”

And what are these “extreme views” that some humanist organisation holds? She explains:

A humanist recently commented that, not only did he believe that abortion was acceptable right up to the moment of birth, but that termination of a child’s life was acceptable up until the point where the child had the ability to reason, understand and justify life.

Now, I don’t know if a humanist recently said that or not. Dorries doesn’t deem it important to give us a reference so that we can confirm her claim. So, of course, the claim should be seen on the same level as something that some bloke down the pub said he’d read on the internet once. In fact her blog post is likely to become the source that is used to justify conversations like that. Spreading unsubstantiated rumours like this is never helpful. But it’s a tactic that Dorries specialises in.

And, of course, even if someone say what Dorries claims, extrapolating the beliefs of a whole group of people from one extremist is ridiculous. To illustrate that, here are a few other “facts”. Just to redress the balance.

  • A Christian once commented that all homosexuals should be chemically castrated. I’m not sure why anyone would admit to being part of an organisation which holds such extreme views.
  • A Tory once told commented that he wanted to make the NHS into a marketplace. I’m not sure why anyone would admit to being part of an organisation which holds such extreme views.
  • An MP once commented that she thought it was acceptable for a politician’s blog to be 70% fiction. I’m not sure why anyone would admit to being part of an organisation which holds such extreme views.

You might be wondering what humanists have done to invoke Dorries’ anger. The New Humanist magazine holds an annual “Bad Faith” poll to dishonour “the year’s most outspoken enemy of reason”. This year’s poll opened last week and Dorries is one of the nominations. Even before her bizarre outburst, she was in the lead. Now she has over twice the number of votes of her nearest competitor. I never thought I’d write this, but please… Vote For Dorries.

Update: In a blog post yesterday, Dorries published the “proof” of her claims. It turns out that the “recent” comment by a humanist is an out-of-context quote from a book that Peter Singer wrote in 1979. It’s clear that Dorries has a vastly different understanding of  the meaning of the words “proof” and “recent” to the rest us.

The Ministry of Truth does a fine job of deconstructing Dorries’ claims.


Darwin, Humanism and Science

Darwin Humanism Science
Darwin Humanism Science

Yesterday I was at the British Humanist Association’s one day conference, Darwin, Humanism and Science, at the Conway Hall. I confess that I was really going to see Richard Dawkins speak, but actually I got a whole day of fascinating speakers.

Following a brief introduction by Polly Toynbee, Dawkins was the first speaker. His talk was based around the final words from The Origin of Species.

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Dawkins dissected these words and showed how they are a powerful and succinct summary of Darwin’s ideas. It was a very interesting talk and serves as a good precursor to Dawkins’ book, The Greatest Show on Earth, which will be published later this year.

Following Dawkins, Professor Charles Susanne talked about how the teaching of evolution in schools is under attack in various parts of Europe. Many different religious groups (sometimes with the help and support of national governments) are suppressing the teaching of evolution in favour of myths of legends.

Next up was James Williams with a talk entitled “Insidious Creationism”. This was the highlight of the day for me. Williams talked about the amount of creationist literature which is aimed at young children. Many of the images he showed were very funny (the one of Jesus cuddling a baby dinosaur was a particular favourite) but there is, of course, a very serious side to this. He talked about creationist books that were found in school libraries having been donated by parents. He also mentioned Genesis Expo, a creationist museum in Portsmouth which sounds worth a visit – if only to point and laugh.

I think that it was during the Q&A following these talks that we had the only nutter question of the day. Well, it wasn’t really a question. Someone a few rows behind me stood up and tried to use evolution as evidence that homosexuality was wrong. There was stunned silence from the hall and the moderator moved swiftly on to the next question.

Following lunch, we had the most scientific lecture of the day. Johan De Smedt talked about we may well have evolved brains which find it counter-intuitive to accept evolution as a fact. Then Michael Schmidt-Salomon talked about fighting the idea that evolution leads to a lack of morals. He ended by showing us a rather bizarre video called “Children of Evolution” – Darwin reinvented as a rock star!

After a coffee break we had what was, to me at least, one of the most surprising talks. I’ve always had this sneaking suspicion that Hindism was slightly more rational than other religions. Babu Gogineni soon put me straight. He told us about an Indian university that had started a department of astrology (and cut back the study of chemistry and physics to pay for it). His talk was full of interesting (but worrying) anecdotes of religious stupidity in India.

The final speaker of the day was AC Grayling. Whilst many of the day’s speakers had mentioned this year’s Darwinian anniversaries, Grayling took as his theme the 50th anniversary of CP Snow’s influential lecture The Two Cultures. Grayling suggested that the gap between the two cultures (art and science) is now wider that it was fifty years ago and that we need to do what we can to bring the two together.

It was a very interesting day. I’m grateful to the BHA and the South Place Ethical Society for organising it. I’ll certainly be looking out for similar events in the future.

All of the talks were filmed. I hope that means that they’ll appear on the BHA web site at some point in the future.

There were a few twitterers there. You might be interested to read what they said during the day. James O’Malley has also blogged the event.