Humanist Talk at Horsham InterFaith Forum

Horsham InterFaith Forum invited British Humanist Association representative Andrew Edmondson to give a talk entitled "A Humanist looks at Faith" on 27th February 2010.

The Unitarian Church hall was filled with a lively group of people of varying beliefs. Several Humanists attended.

After a brief introduction by the Chair Tim, Andrew began his talk by describing what it means to be a Humanist, and who they are. He then explained the role of the British Humanist Association (BHA) and described some of the issues they are involved with, as well as mentioning their increasingly popular ceremonies.

Andrew revealed how the BHA's Local Development Project had enabled him to become more engaged with local Councils and InterFaith organisations.

He then drew attention to the new West Sussex Humanists and this website, including the petition for Humanist membership of West Sussex SACRE.

After a brief account of his personal background, he considered the term "faith": its ambiguous nature and political use, and the government's focus on religious organisations and the InterFaith movement to the exclusion of the non-religious.

He reaffirmed the BHA's support for freedom of belief and its commitment to work with people of all beliefs. He said that the BHA wants a secular state in which no religion or belief group has special privileges, e.g. bishops in the House of Lords, exemptions from discrimination law.

Andrew ended his talk by giving some personal views about his approach to religion and belief. In his opinion, there is no point in arguing about the supernatural; these beliefs are often deeply held, culturally determined from childhood and not open to rational argument. He also said that deriding a person's beliefs can only cause pain and social division.

In contrast, Andrew throught that much could be gained by discussing the real, present-day issues that are informed by our beliefs, especially the controversial ones that can cause division, e.g. contraception, abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, “faith” schools, worship in schools, religious education, religious symbols, terrorism, war. He suggested that this could be one of the roles of the InterFaith movement in the future.

Andrew described a moral act as one that increases human happiness and/or reduces human suffering, on balance. This principle can be used to solve moral problems, and Andrew thinks it should be taught in all schools from the earliest age. He said that it should be used to evaluate the consequences of our beliefs.

Finally, Andrew mentioned Dorothy Rowe, clinical psychologist and author of “What Should I Believe?”, who stresses the importance of developing a personal belief system, religious or non-religious, which does not cause ourselves or others to suffer. Each of us must choose the beliefs that help us best cope with life and ultimately death; no one can do this for us. Forcing our beliefs on others, especially children, can have negative consequences in later life.

Questions and discussion followed the talk Some questions of a theological nature were asked, to which Andrew replied that he did not debate the supernatural. Here are some of the questions and Andrew's replies.

Q: What is the position of Humanism regarding the natural world?

A: The BHA does not have an official position, as it does not fall under the their articles of association. Recently, this was raised by a member in the BHA forum. Clearly, there are moral issues to be considered though. There are many such issues I support, e.g. an end to intensive animal farming, Halal slaughter; organic and sustainable farming, including permaculture; reduction of greenhouse gases and pollution.

Q: Isn't Humanism in danger of becoming a new religion, with its own dogma and perhaps Richard Dawkins as a prophet?

A: This is unlikely because of the nature of open inquiry that underpins Humanism. Humanists think indenepently but often arrive at the same conclusions simply because they are using powers of reason.

Q: What is your moral framework? Christian morality is steeped in history and tradition.

A: My sense of morality is derived through reason and experience, largely based on the principle that a moral act is one that increases human happiness. Although ancient history may teach us valuable lessons, it is unecessary for the derivation of a moral framework.

Q: How does this principle work in practice? Who decides human happiness is?

A: Take the example of genetic research. Some religious groups think it is immoral to manipulate human DNA, especially using stem cells or human/animal hybrid cells. Imagine a pair of weighing scales. On one side is the displeasure (suffering) that these people genuinely feel. There is also the risk that genetic research may be abused, e.g. creating mature human/animal hybrids and their associated suffering. Laws could be put in place to largely prevent this. At the moment, there is no evidence of abuse. On the other side of the weighing scales are possibly millions of people cured of illness. The first case has just been announced, where 12 children have been cured of degenerative eye disease using a genetic treatment. I would conclude that genetic research is a moral act, because the net effect is a huge reduction in human suffering. Other cases are more complex, e.g. the maximum number of weeks  of pregnancy at which an abortion can be carried out.

Q: People of "faith" should be allowed to exercise their rights, e.g. have their children raised in "faith" schools. Why would you deny them this right?

A: It would be impossible to build enough schools to give every different belief group a local school of their own. Religious schools are divisive; just look at Northern Ireland. Government research has shown that any academic advantage of religious schools is due to selection (by the school or by parents). Research has also shown religious schools to be no better at instilling morality than non-religious schools. Indeed, parents often fake religious conviction in order to get their children into a religious school; not a very good moral lesson. I live in a village where there is a single primary school that is run by the Church of England. There is no choice for parents but to send their children to a religious school. How fair is that? What about the rights of the non-religious 43% and those of other beliefs? Under the Human Rights Act, parents are free to raise their children according to their beliefs, but this must not infringe other more important rights of the child, e.g. the right to receive knowledge of all kinds. School should be the one place that a child is free to learn about all aspects of life in a fair and balanced manner. Religious schools are, by their very nature, biased. Of course, schools should accommodate children from all backgrounds; but their emphasis must be on equality and social cohesion, as well as diversity.

After the meeting, the first meeting of Horsham Humanists took place in the gallery. Interested members of Horsham InterFaith forum were invited to attend.


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