09 February 2013

What can people learn from Humanism?

'What can people learn from Humanism? 
Humour, love and respect for each other. 
We all have so much in common'

That's the title the Leicester Mercury placed above an interview piece about me and my work in the community as a non-religious celebrant and volunteer hospital chaplaincy visitor (More Mercury, 9 Feb 2013, pp 10-11).

I couldn't find it on their website, so here it is:

I was 8 years old when I decided that I didn’t believe in god.  I’d thought about it a lot, and worked out that it simply didn’t stack up.  It wasn’t a subject that was often spoken about at home.  My grandmother had an expectation that I attend Sunday School, which I did until I was 11.  I spoke to my mother about my atheism, who thought it was no big deal and that I should be allowed to make my own mind up about such matters.  It’s only in recent years that people have started to identify themselves by their religion.  We used to simply refer to each other as ‘people’ rather than as Christians, Sikhs, whatever.  It’s very sad to see society being segregated like this.  It is tragic that children are being educated in segregated schools, not mixing with each other.

During my late twenties and early thirties I attended the Church of England, and looked into other branches of Christianity; I explored Buddhism and Islam.  I enjoyed the journey to some extent, as a learning exercise, but then got on with life without further recourse to religion.

Humanism came into my life through my passion for reading.  Its positive slant on life encompassed my feelings in that I don’t believe in gods but I do believe in other human beings; that we should make the very best we can of our lives – not only for ourselves but also for the wider community.

The latest Census revealed a significant cultural shift, with a 67% relative rise in the number of people identifying themselves with ‘no religion’.  A huge proportion of us here in Leicester are non-religious and hold humanist principles, whether or not we call ourselves humanists!

I realised that non-religious people were getting a raw deal when it came to provision for rites of passage.  People who choose to live without religion in their lives should be afforded dignity and respect when it comes to funerals, weddings/civil partnerships, baby namings, memorials.  I trained with the British Humanist Association to become an accredited Celebrant.

Humanist wedding ceremonies and civil partnerships reflect the wishes and lifestyles of the bride and groom/partners for life.  I help them to design their ceremony, and to write their own vows from the love in their hearts.  Humanist baby naming ceremonies are also popular, because the emphasis is on a ceremony tailored to suit that particular family, bringing joy and hope to everyone involved.

The ceremonies contain no religious liturgy.  A typical funeral ceremony is customised to pay tribute to the deceased, outlining their life and character with respect, compassion and often humour.  Poetry and favourite music reflect the deceased's personality, and family and friends usually contribute to the ceremony.  Photographs, paintings, mementoes which meant a lot to the person who has died might be displayed.  Space is set aside during the service to remember the deceased in accordance with mourners' personal beliefs.  The ceremonies are inclusive and bring consolation to those who are grieving - whatever their beliefs.  A growing number of people like to arrange the style and content of their funeral ceremony before death.

What happens to us after death?  We simply cease to exist.  Our bodies go back, either in the form of cremation or burial, to the earth or to the seas, back to star dust – just like before we were born.  But we carry the dead with us in the love and memories that we keep for them; that’s how they live on.  Some people leave tangible memories like paintings, writing, architecture.  I believe that if you have made someone’s life breathe just that little bit easier, then it’s all been worth it.  Love never dies.

What I say to people who state that there must be a point to life is that The Point of Life is Life!  Humanists find meaning, beauty and happiness in the one life we have.  We are lucky to be here; let’s make the most of it.  To attain any kind of life at all in this great universe is quite an achievement.  To quote Bill Bryson in his ‘A Short History of Everything’: For us to have come into existence, trillions of drifting atoms somehow assembled in an intricate manner.  Without atoms there would be no water or air or rocks, no stars and planets, no distant gassy clouds or swirling nebulae; no you and me.  It’s great that nowadays we have easy access to the wonders of scientific exploration.  We can watch Brian Cox on television, read Richard Dawkins’ erudite and poetic essays on evolution.  Dawkins has clarified so much – filled in the blanks between Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel and ecology, and made biology into a rigorous science unified around evolution.

One of the lessons I learnt from Dawkins is that every single creature that exists is at the pinnacle of an evolutionary tree, a whole continuum of survivors.

As a story or fairy tale Creationism doesn’t worry me although it amazes me that people entertain Creationism, and horrifies me that it might be taught in schools.  When folk put their faith in a creator god they think they’re absolved from responsibility – a very dangerous notion to promote as part of education.  We’re living in the twenty-first century; it is pointless to drag civilization back to a despotic, grim and authoritarian past.

I see Fate as a device used by authors in theatre and literature, but it’s not part of real life.

Our guide to living a worthwhile and moral existence is to analyse the effect of the things we do and say.  It is futile and cruel to promise people a ‘better life in the hereafter’; we should encourage everyone to grab life by the shoulders, shake it up and enjoy it.  Look for adventures but take responsibility for our actions.  Above all, demand justice and peace.

On a voluntary basis I am part of the Leicester Hospitals’ Chaplaincy Team, available to anyone in the hospital community who would prefer to seek pastoral and spiritual support from someone of their own life-stance.  Religious chaplains (some full-, some part-time) of several denominations plus chapels and offices are funded from taxes paid by all whereas there is no paid chaplain for the non-religious, although about a quarter of the Leicester population is not religious.  It’s a good thing that the NHS provides chaplaincy, but it should be there on equal terms for all and adhere to NHS equality and diversity provisions.  

Apparently, research shows that society is becoming more secular.  Sadly, I see society becoming more polarised in many ways as feelings of identity, particularly religious identity, are fostered to the detriment of initiatives like anti-racism of just a generation ago.  Everyone should be free to practise their faith, just as they should not be disadvantaged for not having one.  As a Humanist I campaign for the separation of religion and State, for an end to religious privilege – be it in the Lords or state-funded faith schools.  It is inappropriate to include prayers as part of local council meetings.  I believe it imperative that the Council reflects the diversity of our community and excludes no part of it, and it should therefore move away from prayers enabling councillors to serve the community without bias.  We need those in power to promote equal treatment in law and policy for everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

We are fortunate in Leicester to host the world’s longest surviving Secular Society.  Members have met in Secular Hall since 1881 and we continue to challenge the status quo.  It’s the natural home for anyone who is not religious.  We warmly welcome anyone to our weekly talks and events.  It is monumentally important to acknowledge that – whether we are religious or not – we all have so much in common.  Our common humanity bonds us, and we should all fight to keep these bonds strong, to build on them and to look to the future as an integrated and harmonious community.

What can people learn from Humanism?  Love, humour, a way to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity, and respect for each other.  We could all have better lives if we pay attention to the welfare of everyone in all countries and if we act as if we’re the trustees of the world and its resources for future generations.