Atheist, Rationalist, Secularist and Humanist – What’s in a Name?

Interesting responses to my critical post of the recent LAAG event below. Defensive and now, sadly, largely ad-hominem. Apparently the number and size of my balls affect the arguments. I’d drafted a couple of yards of replies on Friday afternoon, to the initial handful of comments that day, but the aggressive responses continued over the weekend until yesterday afternoon. Anyway, I’ve now cut back the response to a few inserts to the original critical post below, which, since I’m a lifelong atheist, secularist, rationalist and humanist, with an active project now for 15 years, I still very much intend to progress this debate constructively.

The block-quotes below are the original post, with additional responses inserted. So, here goes:

Perhaps not the environment for a constructive conversation

It’s a passionate and unruly group – which is a good thing – but it has its downsides if human respect is lost.

– speaker talks for over 40 minutes and individual audience members get to ask a single question –

The advertised format, in advance and in the introduction on the evening, is an uninterrupted talk followed by Q&A. Furthermore, given the range of potentially related topics, questioners are asked to ask straightforward questions about the talk and not make their own statements.

The moderator invites those who indicate with a show of the hand that they have a question. For me personally, given that I have a 1001 points and questions relevant to the myriad topics, I tend to restrict my questions to a minimum of simple requests for clarification or elaboration of the actual content of the event, so as not to dominate proceedings with my own prior interests. I can always follow up with more considered views afterwards via the blog. On this particular evening I asked a single question about the relevance of one topic that was generating many minutes of dialogue between the speaker and a prior questioner (the blasphemy law in relation to the Paris events). In fact many other questioners made long preamble statements about topics beyond the talk, By the time I was moved to raise my hand a second time, the facilitator was already scanning for “anyone with their hand up who hadn’t yet asked a question“, and had quite rightly reserved a little platform time for one overseas guest to make their statements. So many topics and issues, many introduced by “questioners” that I personally no longer had any particular questions.

but for me a disappointing evening at LAAG to hear Charlie Klendjian talk on – well – a bag of loosely related topics.

Disappointed enough to record these constructive criticisms, given how good the previous event had been (referenced and linked in the original piece below).

A lot of “whataboutness”

See above. A lot of digression into related areas not directly within the agenda of the talk itself, driven by interaction with questioners who made their own statements.

and Godwin’s law (!) in evidence – Nazis, Antisemitism, Khmer Rouge, Communism (sic) for a start.

Apparently to cite Godwin’s law is “déclassé” – clearly I need educating on that – the but the topics aired were as recorded, and I forgot to mention Jews and the Palestinians, and ….

Post Paris and Copenhagen a lot of chaotic opinion on freedom of thought and speech as a “right to offend” and post Rotherham about the PC-Paralysis of “not mentioning” religion and/or race.

(Aside – Interesting statements from Trevor Phillips race and religion yesterday. Another post.)

Then there’s Salman Rushdie – we bottled it (?) Charlie Hebdo and Blasphemy Law (?) – man, what’s that all about? (Blasphemy & Political Correctness) A lot of western-(middle-class)-white-male war-like talk of attacking and victories.

What would I do different? Ensure organisers and speaker had a sufficiently focussed agenda for the single event, and ensure that facilitation followed the rules, sanctioning those that failed to show respect for the rules and the agenda. A mix of talk and debate could be planned-in, but with an open debate the rules, perversely, are even more important.

Anyway, eventually the focal point, a thesis that using Islamism instead of Islam itself was a veil behind which to hide fears, and deflect accusations of racism.

The speaker asked several times, and I made it clear I disagreed with the thesis, and hadn’t heard any valid arguments to change that. Indeed, as I note below, several points to reinforce the disagreement. Nothing was made of this on the evening. (Additional clarification – as I suggest later and in the conclusions “PC”ness is part of the problem, and certainly some may choose to use it as such a veil of true meaning. The word itself has distinct meaning.)

No doubt fear and courage play a big part in debates and actions around the current slew of knotty topics, and the successful campaign by Charlie and the LSS to remove any Sharia-specific content(*) from UK legal framework is to be applauded. An aberration by The Law Society surely anyway, but also encouraging to see it not only withdrawn entirely, but with an apology too for the initial error. Unusual courage.

Positive applause for the speaker and more. No doubt about the size of his balls.

But why the constantly repeated references to “not being racist” and being “friendly and open-minded” ? Methinks it can only give the impression of having to protest too much. Better to address the topic(s) IMHO. For that reason we should use every word in our vocabulary to understand the complexity of the human political and psychological processes involved. (Contrast with the sharpness of Anne-Marie Waters’ agenda at the previous LAAG meeting.)

This criticism still stands and has so far received no response.

So, to the meat.

The meat of my constructive criticism:

First: Active and Atheist in LAAG? “Active” = talking (and campaigning), “Atheist Group” = about critical thinking. What ? A form of critical thinking that rejects and mocks humanism as apologist at every turn, apparently. And yet apparently we need “unity” amongst rationalist campaigns? Atheism is about not believing in god(s) as part of the explanatory workings of the world. Full stop. (ie it’s about what we’re agreed we’re against. Rationalism and Humanism and Liberalism, unlike Atheism on the other hand, are examples of things we might be for.)

There has been some discussion on this criticism. Many LAAG members self-identify as humanists, and many are cross-members of other humanist organisations and groups. It is hardly welcoming to those members to constantly make snide remarks against humanism. If LAAG has criticism of humanism, humanists or particular humanist organisations or individuals, it should voice them carefully and respectfully.

Or, as I would recommend, find the common ground where we can agree constructive progress. All groups and campaigns need allies. Mocking each other is hardly helpful, even if it is everyone’s right. (As I say later, it is both sad and ironic that careless talk about who is being mocked and attacked is allowed to happen when our topic is why “careful” wording associated with one of our target issues is considered unhelpful. As I say, I disagree.)

Next: Secular in LSS? Secularism is “about ideas being separate from people”. What? Sounds like a concept of objectivism, though as quoted I couldn’t actually agree with it – ideas are absolutely not separable from people anywhere other than conceptual discourse. Secularism is about not having any established religious position in the lawful governance of the land. Full stop.

There has been no response so far to this criticism.

Full stop, like murdering cartoonists (and Jews) is not just illegal, but evil. Full stop.

I’m not actually a fan of linguistic definitions and gymnastics as solutions to any problem, but we do need multiple tools to have any understanding of the dialogue necessary if we are to achieve any solutions. Different problems require different / multiple solutions. We can jettison definitive language once we have that shared understanding, and only use it lightly even when having the conversation.

Sadly, ironically, the “PC” attempts to massage meaning and language, as Orwellian as any examples criticised (and mocked), display exactly the PC attitudes to the topics pointed out at the last meeting. Pointing in fact to the very problem screaming to be discussed in the questions from the floor – political correctness. Whether driven by fear or pragmatism – perhaps we can agree on that?

Despite highlighting this potential starting point for constructive dialogue, there has been no response so far. After several polite reminders, I think the only suggestion so far has been to put this dialogue somewhere else? I may take up that offer if there are any signs of criticism and constructive suggestions being heeded.

No doubt efforts here (LAAG and LSS) are sincere and courageous, just my fear that throwing every issue into one pot and shaking vigorously is unlikely to achieve more than lowest-common-denominator progress, or worse, degenerative developments.

Positive wish to build on the commitment, and a summarising suggestion that too many issues on the table at once, particuarly with a rejection of any clarity of language is not going to be productive. No acknowledgement of the issue. Apart from the “what would I do differently?” question answered above, and the ongoing anti-humanist and ad-hominem rhetoric, there have been no responses to the actual points made.


[(*) And here’s a thought. It’s a simple – no-brainer – corollary of secularism that says there should be no religion-specific privileges or exceptions in established legal arrangements. (Secular Muslims would agree whole-heartedly too, even if islamists or jihadists  would – by definition – disagree.) But, given that the existence of Sharia is a real phenomenon, albeit fragmented and ill-defined with patchy support and rejection even in the Muslim world, it might not be a bad thing to have advice on how to proceed when it presents itself in a real dispute or claim situation. That might actually be useful?]

Simply one of the suggestions made. Another suggestion, read Kenan Malik.

[And post note – sadly only response was “Yawn”]

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