Listened to Beyond Belief BBC R4 broadcast Sun 24th May on iPlayer this morning. It featured Stephen Law (@_CFIUK), Nick Spencer (@TheosNick), Marylin Mason (BHA) – with a brief inserted piece from Rory Fenton (also of the BHA) – in conversation with Ernie Rea.
Stephen and Marylin’s stories are similar to mine. Naturally atheist, yes, but that’s a negative statement, about something not believed, so more than that. Atheism-plus. Finding Humanism when noticing boxes being ticked in positive outlook and values. Few actual requirements in the accepted definitions of atheism; so possible for Christian atheism too, though usage of the word can vary the intended definition with context.
Whether “science alone” can answer the big questions of morality is a matter of broad & narrow definitions. Narrowly defined no, but broadly yes, knowledge believed based on evidence of experience. Certainly moral values have evolved with us.
Some debate about the origins of humanism, much as per two recent posts. Ancient Greek – Epicurian/Stoic origins – thinking about good lives leaving gods aside, very human gods anyway at this time. (Same as Grayling’s talk here). Versus Nick’s focus on post enlightenment / renaissance forms of humanism. Stephen conceded humanism does not preclude Christianity, it does not necessitate atheism. Marylin “hostile” to religion only where it impinges on individual daily politics – essentially the secular view.
Discussion of Humanism being used in an anti-religious sense, is really one of boring semantics. There is a lot of shared history. In fact Stephen called it a “phoney war” and then (dare I say) engaged in it – putting prickly straw-men into the discussion with “Of course what Nick thinks … / what Nick is attempting to …”
From my perspective, there was no real disagreement here. The origins of humanism are important in understanding its evolution, but no-one owns the resulting reality or its definition. Humans probably evolved humanist values independent of religion, and religion may have focussed on co-opting, codifying and maintaining them. What matters is what’s positive about it in a secular society; certainly not exclusively atheist, more atheism-plus, to use Stephen’s word. In fact surely, the more we share claims to subscribe to the content of Humanism the better? They’re in our custody now and in future.
Two significant points as the discussion drew to a close:
The idea of “bedrock” in education. Something people can be taught before and whilst they learn by thinking for themselves from experience and first principles. Humanism should be a part of that. (We may not want codification cast in stone, but there needs to be a resource – see also the Grayling piece again.)
Secondly, in defining that Humanism, Nick highlighted one possible point of difference. The clue is in its name. One key aspect is in understanding “what it means to be human“.