Humanist Religious Toxin

After the “Relaxed About Theology” post, I largely drafted this one in response to another twitter exchange involving a tweeter who clearly wasn’t at all relaxed about the religious connections between the Sheldonian and the recent World Humanist Congress (#WHC2014) held there. Having drafted it I decided not to post it, since although he had a point his aggressive motive wasn’t clear, and no-one from BHA or other humanist organisation seemed to have engaged. So maybe better let sleeping trolls lie. Well I discover today BHA did engage – totally defensively and dismissively, so I feel moved to share my view:

@getyourshare1 was making the point that the Sheldonian as a “religious” building was not appropriate as a humanist venue. Of course troll-style, he was making his point with emotive terms like “hypocrites”,  “betrayal”, etc. and making claims that were exaggerating what may (or may not) have been partly true. My initial tweeted response was that 1000 humanists taking over the (ex-religious) asylum had a certain delicious irony to it. But, he responded suggesting the church may have made rent out of the event at the expense of humanism. After one attempt to put a positive spin on it – “OK if that were true, what would you suggest we do about it” (other than hurl abuse)? But the hint wasn’t taken, so I shut up – Monday I think.

Anyway, it seems BHA have as recently as today simply been denying and dismissing his claims. My take is this:

The Church(es) are massive landowners in the UK. The major ancient universities were to a great extent founded by the churches, and as well as having that heritage, if Oxford is anything like Cambridge and Durham, we can be sure the churches still own a great deal of the property with ground rents and covenants and the like where the whole buildings are no longer owned. No doubt the concerns that run the academic institutions as businesses and charities have quite complex relations to their landlords, so whilst the Sheldonian is not “owned” by the church, or any hiring rents paid directly to the church, I wouldn’t be surprised if the church did benefit indirectly to some extent. (Tried to research that out of interest, but very difficult to bottom out the detail.)

What is undeniable however, is that the Sheldonian has religious heritage and a “congregational” layout, not to mention the organ and other religious artefacts, symbols and mottos all over it. Denied by the BHA.

The congregational element of humanism’s congress, and indeed of its Sunday “assemblies”, was one of the features that led Andrew Brown to point out similarities between humanism and a religion. Denied and indeed attacked with ridiculing and dismissive rhetoric by the BHA members.

Clearly not everyone in humanism is Relaxed About Theology, but the worry is that so many voices associated with humanism feel the need to attack or deny it every time some point of contact arises, rather than engage in reasonable dialogue.

[Links to all the twitter tags, handles and tweets deliberately omitted here, anyone following who has interest in reasonable dialogue knows how to make contact. Stoking trolls in 140 character sound bites is not reasonable dialogue.]

[Post Note : a particularly “shrill” denial of any case comparing humanism to religion, as a response to the Andrew Brown piece, posted at almost exactly the same time as this post.]

2 thoughts on “Humanist Religious Toxin”

  1. Pity no-one took the trouble to look up the history of the Sheldonian. It was financed by an Archbishop precisely because he wanted a separate, non-religious building in which university ceremonies could be conducted, instead of doing them in the university church. The design is based on a 1st century BC Roman theatre, not a church.

    It is owned by the University of Oxford, not the Church of England.

  2. Ownership by the University as an institution not in doubt, as I say.

    I did read that page and others in fact. I saw the separation as a two way thing, as much to avoid hosting secular “rowdy crowd” events in his church. Its funding and heritage came from the archbishop and it does contain symbols and features associated with the church. The point was more one of cultural heritage and appearance.

    I’m cool with it. My point is about the style of response – “Pity no-one took the trouble … ” disrepectful rhetoric and direct denial (of the original tweeters points) that cuts off any dialogue with religious heritage.

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