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Humanism: a worldview for all seasons

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Andrew Brown, in a Guardian blog last week, criticised the British Humanist Association (BHA) for promoting humanism as an essentially negative approach to life defined by what it isn't and for being on an incoherent and self-defeating mission to eliminate all social bonds, based on an outmoded view of religion.

The blog set up humanism as a recent approach to life, grounded in an antagonism to Christianity. This is a narrow view. It is true that the word 'humanism' only began to be used in English in its contemporary sense about 150 years ago, but the philosophy it denotes and which the BHA promotes (although it is exceptionally well-suited to the modern world we live in) is not an entirely modern phenomenon. Throughout recorded history there have been non-religious people who have believed that this life is the only life we have, that the universe is a natural phenomenon with no supernatural side, and that we can live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and compassion. They have trusted to the scientific method, evidence, and reason to discover truths about the universe and placed human welfare and happiness at the centre of their ethic. It is these views in combination that constitute humanism - a naturalistic and morally aware approach to living in the here and now. No parasite on Christianity, it is in fact a stance from which, historically, Christianity borrowed much of its practical ethics. You can find millions of men and women with humanist views in Britain today and you can find their equivalents among the materialists of classical India, the Confucians of ancient China, the partisans of the European enlightenment, their distant forebears in the Mediterranean world of the Romans and Greeks, and the free minds of the short-lived Arab renaissance at the time of the European dark age - as well as among the uncounted men and women who have left no record or whose existence has been struck from history by institutions opposed to their values.

Much of the BHA's work - like providing resources to schools or providing many thousands of non-religious funerals and other ceremonies [links to: http://www.humanism.org.uk/ceremonies] every year - is focussed on providing support to people in Britain with humanist views today. This is all in addition to what attracts most media attention: our work to campaign for a secular state, challenge religious privilege, and promote equal treatment in law and policy of everyone regardless of religion or belief.

Brown's blog saw these campaigns as 'mopping up operations for a battle that has been strategically long won'. This is a strange view, as much of the religious discrimination and anti-secular activity that the BHA challenges is not just residual (like Bishops in our parliament) but new. There are more state-funded religious schools now than in previous decades: they continue to grow in number and as a proportion of our state schools overall. It is against the unfair powers of such schools to discriminate on religious grounds in their admissions, employment and curriculum - powers recently extended, not diminished - that one of the main campaigns of the BHA is directed. Also novel is the strategic repositioning of organised religion in the UK as a provider of social welfare, with services previously provided by the state being contracted out to religious groups that do not lose powers to discriminate even when they receive this public money to provide public services. This is a new and aggressive attempt to roll back the secularist advances of previous decades and it would not be an exaggeration to say that the exceptionalism some religious campaigners are seeking represents one of the most significant current challenges to the principle of the rule of law. I agree that the Christian theocratic view that Brown's blog mentions is eccentric, but I don't see that it is universally seen as quaint and it is not without its advocates at high political levels. To campaign against it is not to campaign against religion but against religious privilege, and the unfairness of a state that is still considerably less than secular - and it is campaigning that is much-needed.

Humanism itself is a self-sufficient worldview founded on the positive principles of reason, worldliness, sympathy and humanitarian conviction and the campaigns of humanist organisations are invariably based on the positive values of human rights, respect for the dignity of each person, and equality before the law. The slanders that humanism is negative and the campaigns of humanist organisations irrelevant or wrong-headed are just that.