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Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Humanist answers needed, too

Good to see humanism getting a good airing in one of the heavies over the weekend. It's not often it gets an article to itself in the mainstream press.

Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association, who's also the chair of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association (GALHA) presents a profile of what has been a much-misunderstood philosophy in the Guardian's "Comment is Free" slot (with the usual comments from readers).

I rather liked a description of humanism from GALHA's immediate former secretary, Cliff James, who said in a magazine interview earlier this year that it was atheism with values. And I agree with the description given by the veteran humanist Roy Saich: "Humanists are agnostics and atheists who apply reason and goodwill to build happy lives." (You can read more on the Humanists website.)

Copson goes further, of course, since the whole article is about humanism, triggered by the fact that the OCR exam board will now include it in its RE curriculum in schools (see here and here). Copson's article concludes that humanist points of view should be part of the typical RE lesson, alongside the usual ones.

It goes without saying that we at the Pink Triangle Trust welcomed the move, too.

What strikes me is how lazy journalists have treated humanism in the past. Copson talks of how the Observer had the headline "Children to study atheism in schools" back in 2004 when the idea of including humanism was mooted. The Sun (but, then, I'd expect nothing less from the Sun) had "Schools are told to teach atheism" (as if atheism could be taught, since it's just a lack of belief in deities, the default belief system (i.e. no beliefs) that a child has when it emerges from the womb).

Interestingly – ironically, perhaps – Copson's article is also labelled as being part of the Guardian's "Face to Faith" section, which is subtitled "a weekly walk on the spiritual side".

And we should be clear that, in talking of humanism, Copson is, we assume, talking mainly of secular humanism. As one reader's comment points out, "[T]here are about twenty kinds of humanism, and lots of them are religious."

This comment goes on, "If I was teaching it, I'd start with Renaissance Humanism, and go from there. I think it's important to let kids know that believing in God doesn't disqualify them from humanism or secularism."

True, but it probably gives them a predisposition to ignore rational thought in favour of beliefs based on thousands-year-old scriptures, on certainties and on beliefs that not believing in these things makes one inferior – especially if one's sexuality doesn't quite come up to the religionist's ideal.

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