Tag Archives: humanism

Terry Pratchett with librarian

On angels, apes and Terry Pratchett

I’m what you might call a lapsed Terry Pratchett fan. For most of my adolescence, his work was a huge influence on me. But, as was typical of my late-teenage self, I walked away when he hit his most prolific period out of indignation about “cashing in” or some such self-righteous bullshit (I like to think I have a more sophisticated and generous view of artists these days). I never went back because the backlog got overwhelming, although I still intend to at some point.

Like everyone else, I was saddened to hear of his death yesterday. Amid all the tributes and an affectionate quotes that filled my various feeds, one image particularly jarred with me. Intended as a tribute, it was this British Humanist Association image, repeating the oft-cited quote “I’d rather be a rising ape than a fallen angel”:
"I'd rather be a rising ape than a falling angel" Sir Terry Pratchett
There are several things I could say about this. The first thing is, that I thought it was a shame that the first thing the BHA reached for was the most divisive quote they could find. The second is that, the concept of a “rising ape” is nonsense. The enlightenment notion that we are on a progressive path from amoeba to divine being was actually pretty much refuted by Darwin himself, whose own views about evolution did away with concepts that were very much steeped in notions of progressivism such as Lamarckism. Of course, much of that was subsequently undermined by Herbert Spencer and his championing of the most un-Darwinian Social Darwinism, but we emerged from that intellectual cul-de-sac 70 years ago.

To be fair on Pratchett, this is an off the cuff quip he made, apparently inebriated, at the end of a very long answer he answered at a Guardian event at few years ago. It’s not a quote from Pratchett as much as it is a quote from the anonymous sub-editor who chose to give this clip that title. His full answer is much more nuanced:

For me, the far more inspiring quote is at the start of the same section, when he makes largely the same point in a much more sophisticated (and funny) way:

“I find it far more interesting; in a sense, far more religiously interesting; that a bunch of monkeys got down off trees and stopped arguing long enough, to build this; to build that; to build everything. And we’re monkeys. Our heritage is [unintelligible] to climb trees and throw shit at other [monkeys]. And actually, that’s so much more interesting than being fallen angels.”

But the third point I would make, via my friend James Blanchard, is that this in turn is an evolution of something Death says in The Hogfather:


Both the last two quotes are classic, brilliant, wonderful Pratchett. The first one is not. It is such a shame that the former seems to be the one that is being parroted by the media today.

Giles Fraser, intolerance and double standards

I wrote this in the hope that the Guardian might be interested in publishing it in their “response” column in the paper – they weren’t. Waste not want not…

Reading Giles Fraser harrumphing about Ariane Sherine and the British Humanist Association’s latest campaign (“Choosing for oneself”, 2 December 2009), it occurred to me that the BHA’s next project should be to launch a range of posters with the slogan “motherhood and apple pie – we love them!” just as an experiment to see quite how much ink Christians would then go on to spill, condemning them for it in no uncertain terms.

For Fraser is not the only Christian to impugn sinister motives behind the “don’t label me” campaign. Writing for the Guardian, the most spiteful insult he could think of was to compare Ms Sherine to Thatcher; the Telegraph’s Ed West has decided that the campaign smacks of Stalinism and a quick Google search will reveal plenty of examples of Reductio ad Hitlerum.

This response represents a bit of a problem for a determinedly non-chippy atheist such as myself. I always used to detest the proselytising habit of some of my fellow non-believers. The BHA newsletter which I was sent a few years ago advertising Christmas cards with the crosses all replaced with a humanist “H” quickly went in the bin. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on Dawkins and his religious critics in 1997[1] (long before it was fashionable) in which I took the man to task for suggesting in his Reith lecture that the X-Files’ weekly stream of monsters and the unexplained was akin to racist propaganda.

But something changed. I think it was December 2006 when the newspapers were filled with Archbishops claiming that “aggressive secularists” were trying to ban Christmas in response to a series of tabloid stories making inaccurate allegations about a few councils and a few government ministers’ Christmas cards containing the dread phrase “seasons greetings”. Up until that point I had naively assumed that secularism was something we could all agree on. Perhaps that was true 20 years ago but the rise of evangelism seems to have changed all that.

What I don’t understand is why so many “moderate” believers set the standard of acceptable behaviour more highly for atheists than they do for their fellow religionists. Just as Ariane Sherine’s plea for tolerance has been denounced by Fraser et al as extremism, so the Dean of Southwark compared Dawkins in this paper a few years ago for being “just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs on the tube.”

The “don’t label me” campaign is about consciousness raising. It isn’t about saying that parents shouldn’t be allowed to tell their children about what they believe, it is about letting them choose their identity for themselves. Many Christians – including my own parents – already do this. But it is an issue which resonates with many atheists because, sadly, many of them bear the scars of such an upbringing. It is a shame that Giles Fraser treats their plea for tolerance with scorn and not compassion.

[1] BA Hons (Theology and Religious Studies), natch.

Thought for the day: does Giles Fraser have a point?

The Vicar of Putney writes:

The problem is that atheism is defined by what it’s against, that it is not theism. And to introduce such a sense of “againstness” would fundamentally alter TftD’s character.

Some years ago, Richard Dawkins was offered a slot to experiment with a secular TftD. He told us religious explanations were “childish and self-indulgent”, “infantile regression” and “lazy”. The whole thing was one long assault.

Of course, lots of people will agree with Dawkins. And they absolutely must have equal access to the BBC’s airwaves. But this sort of denunciation is not what TftD is about.

On one level, I have to agree with him. “Atheism” is indeed defined by what it is against. Dawkins’ foray into the Today programme was indeed an attack on religion rather than a positive contribution. If the only thing non-believers could contribute to the slot was “againstness” then I wouldn’t want them doing it either.

With that said, you can veritably feel the tremble in Fraser’s writing; the hatred; the bile. It isn’t enough for atheists to define themselves as not believing in God, but then most – including Dawkins – don’t. Fraser might be able to cite a single essay penned for Radio Four, but anyone who has ever read Dawkins can testify that 90% of his writing is overwhelmingly positive and in awe of the world. Atheism may by definition be negative but you can’t apply the same argument to humanism, rationalism, pantheism or even (despite its inherent silliness) Brightism. By contrast, the same argument does apply to a monotheist (“our god is the one true god”). According to Fraser’s argument then we should restrict Thought for the Day to Hindus and the odd witch.

Is it really true that Thought for the Day contributors don’t denounce? Only yesterday, Richard Harries was tut-tutting the Atheist Bus Campaign (and its religious imitators) for telling people to not worry. At it’s best, Thought for the Day is often about denunciation – I always liked Antonia Swinson’s uncomfortable truths about the excesses of capitalism (perhaps that’s why she was only allowed to record three editions). At its worst, it is often about denunciation as well – I am surely not the only person in the world who has found himself leaping out of bed and shouting at the radio because the TftD presenter has just casually just damned half the population (in their usual polite, measured tones). As much as Giles Fraser might like to think otherwise, you cannot argue for something without implicitly opposing – and thus denouncing – something. This is what happens on Thought for the Day, day after day. Hasn’t he been listening?

It is a shame that Fraser doesn’t even try responding to Sue Blackmore’s points about TftD last month, also published on Comment is Free. The best he can do is denounce Dawkins for being denunciatory and to tell us all to “get a life.” All in all, it is a little lame and condescending.

Telegraph brands Christians as objectively anti-human

What the hell is Alex Singleton going on about? He has taken Christian Aid to task for using the slogan “We stand for humanity” on the grounds that it doesn’t “fit with the brand name.”

Now, it happens that I’m an atheist-pantheist-rationalist-secularist-humanist-whateverthemoodtakesmeist (I think that just about sums it up), but the last – the last – thing I would ever criticise a Christian group for being is pro-human. Quite the opposite; anything that emphasises the strong humanist thread that can be found throughout the Gospel (as opposed to the bits which get Mel Gibson all excited and quivery over) should be applauded. Without meaning to be patronising, well done chaps, you actually get it (millions don’t). Stick with that brand of Christianity and you won’t hear a peep of criticism from me.

Back to the blog, some eejit has commented: “I think it’s fair to say they have somewhat lost the plot.” I think its fair to say that only someone who doesn’t actually know the plot of the Gospels would actually write that. Who needs Dawkins, Hitchens et al, when you have fellow Christians, eh?

Heretical Thinking

Sue Blackmore reports on a pledge which I hadn’t heard of but certainly will comply with, undertaking to write to the BBC and request that they allow atheists, humanists and “brights” (sorry, cannot bring myself to use that term unironically) to speak on Thought for the Day.

The difference between Blackmore’s sensible approach, and the rather more incendiary wording of the pledge itself, is what I’m getting at when I express my wariness about “new” atheism. I’m all for forthright views, but not angry ones. The Atheist Bus Campaign is great because, fundamentally, it is a lighthearted response to something quite genuinely offensive. Blackmore’s emphasis is not on banning Thought for the Day but expanding it – and in the process appraising what it is there to do.

Nine wishes for 2009 #2: A NEW new atheism

Most of this article was written on Monday but I’ve only just got around to finishing it.

I enjoyed the Nine Carols and Lessons for Godless People enormously and 2009 will, by all accounts, be a bit of a party for atheists. Starting in January we have the Atheist Bus Campaign and then throughout the year people will be celebrating both the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. And yet, and yet…

If there was one thing that bugged me about the Carol Service, it was the level of reverence that Richard Dawkins was given by some of the performers, most notably Robin Ince. I suppose it would have been impolite to actually criticise the guy while he was waiting in the wings and the truth is he has provided a much needed corrective to the religious narrative over the past decade (and more). But he remains a deeply divisive figure, alienating almost as much as he engages. His call to arms and for agnostics to get off the fence leaves many ducking for cover.

The real problem atheists have is one of taxonomy. Atheism is just what is says on the tin – a lack of belief in God. To try and make it out to be anything more is frankly ludicrous and falls foul of the very naturalistic fallacy that people like Dawkins warn against. Secularism doesn’t help much either, although it still puzzles me why this has become such a swear word with the adherents of organised religion. That leaves rationalism – which is rather cold and too often veers towards positivism – and humanism – which is warm and fuzzy and often suspiciously so. Joining the British Humanist Association is on my to do list. My reason for not having done so already is rooted in me receiving an unsolicited copy of their newsletter a few years ago which had a bizarre article about a “humanist picnic” at which humanist families spent an afternoon bemoaning about how terrible religion is (I can think of more fun ways of passing the day, such as jabbing my eyes out with a rusty spoon) and urging me to buy humanist Christmas cards with all the crosses replaced with aitches.

I have been assured that they have come on a lot since then (although asking people to donate money so their Chief Executive can brand herself doesn’t exactly convince – can’t I donate money to prevent her from doing so?), but living caricatures of the humourless “militant atheist” are never that far from the surface. I adore New Humanist magazine for example, but the letters page is full of freaks. Then again, the letters pages of all publications are full of freaks – consisting as they do of blog trolls who lack the wherewithall to find the “on” switch of their PCs – but at least they aren’t always “our” freaks.

In this respect, finding a new voice for atheist comedy – which Robin Ince seems to have taken on as a personal mission – is a positive development. Laughing at ourselves is an absolute must for 2009 – something which, as I noted previously, is often sadly lacking.

One group we could do with hearing a little from is ex-Catholics. It has to be said that it doesn’t say much for a religion that creates so many of its most fervant critics. I mean, when the Pope says something stupid, I’m happy to join in the chorus of disapproval, but much of the anti-Catholic stuff out there borders on The Da Vinci Code in terms of paranoia (not that I’m obsessed with God Trumps, but the Catholicism one is a case in point). I’m always impressed at the way Catholics tend to choose the bits of their religion that they like and ignore the rest, as if it is some metaphysical branch of Woolies (RIP) – my favourites are the Catholics who are fine about having sex before marriage but think it is a sin to use a condom – but profound mass-hypocrisy does rather undermine the claims that it is simultaneously a vast conspiracy against mankind.

Fundamentally, we need a rational, reasonable voice out there to counter the rational, reasonable theist nonsense out there, of which Madeleine Bunting provides us with an excellent example today. Her claim that Darwin has been “hijacked” by atheists on the basis that he was probably agnostic is a crime of intellectual pygmyism, but one which many Guardian readers will have nodded sagely to today. But it is a ludicrous argument, similar to the sneering by Christian groups who thought it was hilarious that the Atheist Bus Campaign uses the less-than-forthright slogan “there’s probably no God” while ignoring the fact that the Alpha Course adverts which inspired it use the even less assertive slogan “if there was a God, what would you ask him?”

Yes, Darwin almost certainly sat on the fence when it came to the question of whether God existed or not, but to the extent that he believed in any God at all he was a deist. In other words, while he might have conceded the possibility of God, he was clear that there was no activist God playing a role in worldly affairs. Evolution is by definition a refutation of theism. Attempts have been made to square the circle – I spent many wasted hours researching panentheism for my undergraduate dissertation – but all of them reduce God to, at best, a “not dead yet” cameo role in the creation.

The new new atheism would be self-confident, not too concerned about what people think and far more concerned about how people act (yes, the two are related but no, the two are not causal). It wouldn’t tolerate the sort of argument advanced by Bunting above, but it would at the same time accept that a lack of religion by itself can never be a substitute for an ethical system. Ethical systems needn’t come from religion – indeed at some point I may find time to write about how the much-vaunted “golden rule” predates religion and is in many ways hindered by it. But ethics and morality are a) important and b) not informed by atheism per se. The answers are not easy, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t search for them.

God Trumps: Bonus Cards

The New Humanists’ God Trumps appears to be becoming a bit of a mini-phenomenon. Catholic Herald editor Damian Thompson has claimed it is Islamophobic because it pointedly refuses to make any Muslim jokes (the satirical point being made is rather lost of Mr Thompson).

Personally I found the feature quite amusing, but a couple of things irked me about it (both of which are common to a lot of what comes out of humanist stables). First of all, the anti-Catholic sentiment was a little over the top. The simple fact is, most Catholics don’t follow every word the Pope utters to the letter. Indeed, one issue that is ripe for mockery is the way Catholicism seems to accomodate that, allowing Tony Blair into the faith despite helping to start a war which the Pope opposed, and letting people off the hook as long as they confess every now and then. Follower Dedication: 9/10? You must be joking!

The second weakness is the failure to see the funny side about the Godless. Agnostics come in for a hard time, which is well and good. But in lumping secularists, atheists and humanists together into a single category, you end up with a lowest common denominator mush. Do the Godless really only have a wealth rating of 1/10? Some of the richest countries in the world have secular constitutions and secularists have control over a lot of the world’s media? Sounds pretty wealthy to me. And there is a broad spectrum of the Godless. If you are going to mock the agnostics, then why not take a few potshots at the Brights and Outs. It seems to me we need some new cards:

Age: founded in 2003 – 1/10
Wealth: small, but growing – 1/10
Follower Dedication: try suggesting not all religious people are eeevil to them and see how they react – 7/10
Daffiest Doctrine: er, the name ‘brights’? The urge to slavishly copy evangelicals by having their own bumper stickers? Alvin the Chipmunk has a good look? – 8/10
Weapon of Choice: whining – 8/10
Easily Offended? oh yes – 10/10

Age: 17th century – 4/10
Wealth: Friends’ Meeting Houses and several foundations and trusts set up by Friends’ after spending a lifetime of rotting children’s teeth – 5/10
Follower Dedication: for goodness’ sake, you can even be a Buddhist Quaker – 3/10
Daffiest Doctrine: er, that people should experience the Holy Spirit for themselves and not believe in doctrine? – 3/10
Weapon of Choice: chocolate, porridge – 10/10
Easily Offended? haven’t managed to yet – 1/10

Age: 11/10
Wealth: when you’re going to be eaten, what need for material possessions? 1/10
Follower Dedication: absolute – 10/10
Daffiest Doctrine: there’s nothing daffy about believing God lies sleeping at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and will rise up and eat us all. But in this context – 11/10
Weapon of Choice: Great Cthulhu, of course – 11/10
Easily Offended? He has a thick skin – 1/10

Bad Faith Awards: it’s like being asked to choose between my children!

How on Earth is anyone supposed to be able to pick a winner amongst this set on bozos shortlisted in the New Humanist’s Bad Faith Awards?

It makes you realise quite what a year it has been on the culture wars front. Personally, on reflection, I’ve gone for the governors of St Monica’s School, Prestwich for the simple reason that their decision to deny their pupils access to the cervical cancer vaccination is so transparently mysogynist and so physically harmful that it deserves a lot more attention than it has been getting.

But New Humanist really ought to consider using a different voting system. As it stands, the high profile nominees are leading by miles while the others simply aren’t getting the exposure they deserve. Do we really need Sarah Palin to win? The good people of the USA have already found her wanting. What does it achieve letting her win, or for that matter someone like Ann Coulter who is just begging for the publicity? And wouldn’t it be better using a system which would better establish the consensus candidate?

Frankly, they should be doing a death match (or, to be more pretentious, the Condorcet method). Fundamentally, it is a shame humanists aren’t using a system which encourages deliberation rather than simple knee-jerk reaction. That’s for the other lot.

Dawkins’ influence over party politics

The Labour Humanists have been quite high profile at this conference and have been actively promoting their fringe meeting with A.C. Grayling on Monday. A year old, the group is mainly campaigning against faith schools. My erstwhile Doughty Street sparring partner Kris Brown is their Vice Chair and has been running around all week.

This is part of a growing trend. The Humanist and Secularist Liberal Democrats also only formed in the last few years. I have to confess to not joining this group when it was first set up. I remain wary of humanism in its more happy-clappy guise and the full page advert of the BHA in New Humanist this month, emphasising the need to “belong,” doesn’t exactly help (while recognising my own hypocrisy in that it is a sense of belonging that is one of the main attractions of party politics for me). But Richard Dawkins’ rallying cry, following the increasingly vocal anti-secularism of organised religions in the UK, has forced me to consider getting off the fence. It would appear that this is a cross-party phenomenon.

The BHA have also been high profile this past fortnight. I don’t remember them having a stand at the Lib Dem conference exhibition in the past and they are at Labour as well this week. Clearly they too are sensing the need to be more vocal and visible at the moment.

Where this will all lead is unclear. The anti-Dawkins’ backlash is already midflow, while a veritable anti-God publishing industry has taken the book world by storm. What is clear is that there is a lot of latent frustration out there. The emergence of these political groups is definitely a positive development but we need to be clear about our aims and I suspect will need to work together on a cross-party basis to be effective.

Christian brainwashing? Yes please!

Jonathan Calder beats me to it and does a much better write up on Polly Toynbee‘s article on Narnia today than I could hope to aspire.

I planned to merely say this: Toynbee here falls for the same inconsistency and double standard that a lot of atheist/humanist writers fall for (I write as an atheist myself): that of getting apopleptic about Christian didactism while being infinitely forgiveable of the secular version.

I don’t have the slightest problem with bombarding children with religious allegory, even dodgy ones. Anything that encourages kids to think about ethics is surely a good thing? Reading the Narnia Chronicles when I was 8 didn’t make me into a rabid Christian, but I have no doubt that it helped my development.

Another thing: surely anything that encourages Christians in Bible Belt America to think about their religion in terms of allegory and move away from the paucity of believing in the literal truth of the Bible has got to be a good thing? That is the first step towards taking on a more nuanced view of Christianity that isn’t threatened by scientific facts of life such as evolution. Muscular Christianity or not, the concept that a book can contain truth and yet not be literally true is an acid we ought to be quite comfortable to have burning away inside of the minds of Redneck America.