A response to Deborah Orr

The Census Campaign received a generous amount of attention yesterday in the Comment is Free section of the Guardian, courtesy of an article written by Deborah Orr.  Unfortunately, the commentary was not entirely complimentary with respect to the campaign and humanism more generally.

You can read the article here on the Guardian website.

In response, we would like to draw attention to a comment written by one of our trustees, David Pollock: we couldn’t have said it better ourselves!

David wrote:

Deborah Orr should find out a bit more about humanism and humanists before she next writes about us. She might find that she has a lot more in common with us than she imagines – but sadly articles like hers perpetuate the myth that the British Humanist Association is a bastion of “combative and dogmatic atheism” combined in some odd emulsion with “irreligious mumbo-jumbo” – accusations that are so far off beam as to be ludicrous.

Humanists agree with her that dogma – religious or other – is the root of many evils – hence our emphasis on reason. Humanists are far less combative than are most religious groups – and certainly do not go in for “proselytising” (when did you last have a humanist trying to convert you at your front door, Deborah?)

We are committed to human rights and to the freedom of those with “beliefs we can’t share” to pursue them and – yes – to evangelise about them. As long as multiculturalism does not mean separation and political bribes, we are multiculturalists – certainly in Deborah’s “wet” sense. So we too “don’t want to stand against ‘believers'” – except that (a) in explaining Humanism we will say why we disagree with religious belief, and (b) we will certainly stand against privileges for religion such as have been showered on so-called ‘faith communities’ for the last decade (partly excused by reference to the 2001 Census), and that not just because of the unfairness of the policy but (mainly) because in our view it is bad for society and the non-religous majority of people.

Deborah attributes to us “the idea that humans are essentially good and wise”. Wrong again. In our view humans have the capacity to be good and wise – but also to be the opposite, and it is our responsibility to foster the one capacity and tame the other.

Deborah says that “humanism sounds like religion without God”. Wrong again. Humanism is certainly a lifestance, a worldview – if you like, a way of making sense of life. But religions are a particular sort of lifestance, characterised typically by beliefs in the transcendental, by sacred books, by required rituals, by mystery and unquestionable truths and by moral injunctions that sometimes have little to do with human consequences. Non-religious lifestances such as Humanism share none of these characteristics.

So, sorry, no: it’s not “dogma – really”. Humanism is – really – not an “-ism”: it has no source book of unquestionable rules or doctrine. You don’t ‘convert’ to Humanism and then have to take the rough with the smooth. Instead, most people become humanists without contact with any humanist organisation or even necessarily knowing of the word. Rather, Humanism rather is a label for a range of beliefs and attitudes. To the extent that your beliefs and attitudes coincide with that range, then the label humanist is more or less appropriate for you.

So, Humanism is an ethical position. It is not just atheism, which along with afairyism and agoblinism is a metaphysical position. Nor (at last, something Deborah gets right!) should Humanism “be confused with secularism”. Secularism is a political philosophy mandating separation of religion and politics. Humanists are very much in favour of that – but so are very many religious people. (And forget the self-interested bleatings from the religious fringe that secularism means banning the religious from the public square: far from it, for if so, humanists also would be banned. What it means is that religious institutions should not be privileged in politics and that religious doctrines should not have any part in the formation of government policy.)

Deborah concludes that “The tide of history is running against the religious”. For the moment, in some parts of the world, this may be true. But this has not just happened: it is the result in part at least of demonstrating that living without religion is not a matter of casting adrift from all meaning and morality. Humanism in all its many variants is not only a possible but a rewarding way of life that offers value to both the individual and society.

Now, Deborah – how about another article based on the facts?

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One Response to A response to Deborah Orr

  1. It’s irritating that Ms Orr should display her ignorance like this but her article is a distraction that’s irrelevant to the census. Just tick ‘no religion’ to ensure that the census gives an accurate and honest picture of the religious/non-religious balance of the UK. No need to qualify that by calling yourself a humanist, and don’t ignore the question and leave it blank, or you won’t count.