The first Wednesday of the month meant it was time for another trip to Greenwich Skeptics in the Pub - and what a glorious day for it too. After the regulation pie'n'mash c/o Goddards I had a stroll, and a nice lie down, in Greenwich Park and a quick pint in CPFC pub The Plume of Feathers before heading down to The Star & Garter to get my skepticism on.
The evening's talk was being given by Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association Andrew Copson. He took over that position in January 2010 before he'd even celebrated his 30th birthday and I shan't allow my envy to colour my judgement of the evening.
He was here to offer an Introduction to Humanism and began by refuting some of the more common canards that often come attached to it. Humanism is not a western idea, it's a global one. It's not a post-religious idea that's evolved as a logical conclusion of spiritual ideas. Humanists haven't simply removed God (or gods) from the equation. They were never there.
For as long as human thought has been documented there have been humanist ideas and philosophies. 600BC (yes, we're using a Christian measuring stick - we don't need to throw out perfectly workable and reasonable ideas simply because they come from a different background) saw a flowering of humanist thought in Europe, specifically among ancient Greek philosophers from the Ionian school to Epicurus and Democritus, but also in India and China.
1200AD saw reason and rationality dominate debate in the Arabic world. It was, alas, a light that shined briefly. There's a great clip on YouTube where American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson lays the blame for the end of these advances squarely at the door of Persian Muslim theologian Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali who proposed a far more fundamentalist reading of the Qu'ran which has closed down scientific advances from a huge, and massively populous, area of the world for nearly a millennium. Very sad.
Heading further east Andrew spoke a little about the classical Indian materialists. Even an audience full of skeptics seemed to be in the dark here so it was enlightening to hear about the Charvaka school from 2,600 years ago who held as a mantra "O, the highly wise! Arrive at a conclusion, therefore, that there is
nothing beyond this Universe. Give precedence to that which meets the
eye and turn your back on what is beyond our knowledge."
Such is the vastness of Hindu philosophy and belief that the Charvaka philosophy was soon accepted as a Hindu school of thought. It seems bamboozling, if actually rather pleasant to me, that a system of belief can be so broad as to accept monotheistic worship, polytheistic gods, and atheism all under one banner. It made me curious to learn more about Hinduism.
Chinese religions and belief systems are another area I've never been very clear on. According to Andrew many of them (Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism) manage to include both spiritual and secular aspects. Again, for me this is difficult to consolidate but something I'm certainly interested in learning more of.
Mengzi (or Mencius) was the most obviously humanist of the Confucian philosophers. He looked at the beauty of peacocks and decided that this beauty had not come from on high but from nature itself.
This, in many ways, predated the Utalitarianist beliefs of John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. The rise of Christianity around 600AD saw Europe entering the Dark Ages and much humanist literature destroyed by fundamentalist Christian clerics. Luckily they erred in holding on to the tracts which denounced these 'infidels' so, by fault rather than design, some invaluable historical documentation has been kept for the ages.
Andrew explained how humanism differed from atheism and skepticism. Though all humanists could be said to be both atheist and skeptical it's not necessarily true that all atheists could be said to be humanists. An atheist may see that there is no God, no higher power, no spiritual dimension, and take that to be a green light to lead a rapacious, selfish, and destructive life. Humanism insists upon its adherents working for the greater good. It looks for kindness, dialogue, and selflessness.
Obviously these aren't always possible but this is the ideal. This is what we should be striving for. In the Q&A after the talk Andrew was asked if there had been schisms within humanist groups. He said, on the whole, there hadn't. This is because humanism is not immutable. Ideas are not set in stone but there to be debated and, sometimes, changed.
Most countries have one main humanist group. In the USA and India there are many so it could be said there'd been disagreements there but they were more of an organisational and logistical nature than a philosophical one.
In Indonesia, Pakistan, and Malaysia humanist groups have to meet under false pretenses as they are outlawed. It's certainly Islamic majority countries, at the moment, that have the most problem with rational beliefs. You only need to read about the ongoing murders of atheist (and gay) bloggers in Bangladesh to realise this problem's not going away anytime soon.
In the West we shouldn't sit on our laurels although things have progressed reasonably well since the 50s. During that decade a lady suggested on the radio that religion and the state should be separated and religious instruction (not education) should not be taught in schools. This received more complaints than anything ever before broadcast and still held the record until Jerry Springer - The Opera a decade or so back.
Plenty of complaints also flooded in regarding the design of the Cenotaph. Now accepted and respected as an important monument to the war dead initially bishops were furious that it was not surmounted by a Christian cross. The lack of Christian insignia wasn't done as a sop to humanists or atheists, of course, but to not offend and pay tribute to the vast number of Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and Sikhs who fought against fascism in World War II.
Rightly so. But it does illustrate how those of no faith are still struggling to be held in equal regard to those of faith, any faith. On a day to day basis it doesn't really affect one's life. I've not heard of anyone being refused a job because they're godless but during larger state occasions it's noteworthy that heads of most major religions are offered an invite but there is nobody to represent the non-believers.
Andrew spoke about his dealings with various Archbishops of Canterbury and made it very clear he found Rowan Williams a much easier man to deal with than either his successor, George Carey, or his predecessor, Justin Welby.
This is sadly indicative of a trend in the last decade where the growth of rational thought has slowed down and many people have retreated into spiritualism or religion. Blame the Tories (they're to blame for most things so why not?). Blame the confusing and violent world we now live in. We really don't know why sometimes the most sensible belief systems struggle to gain ascendancy. It seems like it may always be thus.
That's quite depressing but I left the talk with a positive feeling and enamoured of the way Andrew dealt with a question from the audience. When asked if he respected religious people he replied, somewhat incredulously, that of course he did. He'd worked with many on humanitarian projects and would continue to do so. In fact he respected people of faith so much that he'd not do them the discourtesy of not questioning their beliefs.
So if you know someone who brings religion into the debate all the time, and it offends you or you think it's wrong, don't be afraid to tell them their views suck. Nicely though, of course.
With that I went home. My mind full of Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins, A C Grayling etc; Another inspiring evening down Greenwich way.