Humanist Ethics

Last night, the Humanist Society held its Big Event of the Semester (BEotS), a panel discussion on Humanist Ethics in the 21st Century, with:

  • Roger Redondo, a neuroscientist and president of the Humanist Society
  • Sue England, a human rights lawyer and women’s rights expert
  • Patrick Harvie MSP, a humanist member of the Scottish Greens Parliamentary Party
  • June Maxwell, leader of the Humanist Academy, who stepped in at the eleventh hour to replace another speaker who fell ill

Each of the speakers made a 20 minute talk or so taking their own spin on the question, “why do we need evolving humanist ethics in the 21st Century?” Roger concentrated on how we know that morality is wired into each of our brains genetically. There is evidence of a sense of justice in chimpanzees, and the ‘Trolley Problems‘ show us that morals are to a large extent universal, regardless of social conditioning.

The other speakers spoke more about humanist ethics in action. Sue England’s talk was particularly interesting because she led with the statement that religious discrimination is nothing whatsoever like other types of discrimination, in that you can’t easily change your sex or your race or get rid of a disability, but you can very easily change your religion or get rid of it completely. She then went on to show how religious organisations are gaining ground and getting privileged consultation in the EU, exemption from taxation and widely in Europe in such places as Germany, the Church gets money directly from pay packets like a second “voluntary” income tax. She also claimed that the European Convention on Human Rights mentions nothing about religion, but the Human Rights Act 1998 had section 13 put into it by Blair, which means courts have to respect the rights of a person to freedom of thought and religion. I’ve since been and checked this out, and article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights does outline freedom of thought and religion, so I think she must have got her wires crossed there.

Patrick Harvie’s talk was also very interesting. He concentrated on his time as the shadow for the Communities Portfolio, during which he was lobbied by all kinds of religious groups, and how religious groups get privileged in all kinds of ways in politics as well as in law. It tied in quite well with what Sue was saying. He finished by saying emphatically that a fixed moral worldview can’t adapt to new ethical problems such as stem cell research, abortion and climate change. We can’t just look in the Bible and ask “what did Jesus say about nanotechnology?”

June Maxwell’s talk was understandably a little less well jointed, since she had no time to prepare it. She concentrated on education, and how an evolving humanist ethic taught in schools would encourage children to be more responsible, and to think more about their actions rather than just not doing something because they’ve been told to.

She also claimed that Abraham, Moses and even Jesus never existed, which was more than a little controversial with 2 of the members of the Edinburgh Creation Group who came along for the show, missing their own event which was happening at the same time. She justified this by saying that the pagan gods that were celebrated on the 25th of December bore startling resemblances with Jesus, citing Attis, Osiris, Dionysus and Mithras as examples. I’ve checked a few of these out and the theory doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Mithras was worshipped after Jesus died, so if anything he was a copy of Jesus, and I can only find very tenuous similarities between Jesus and Dionysus. Lots of people know the links between Osiris and Christianity, but since the legend of Osiris is so old (about 2400 BC), I think it’s more likely to have affected the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah than the legends surrounding Jesus himself. I think it’s more likely that he did exist as a person, but that he was exaggerated and lied about by his followers in order to fulfil the OT prophecies. I’ve heard a theory on my local radio phone-in show that Jesus was a drug dealer (I am from Liverpool), but I’ll leave that for now.

There was also a lot of controversy during the Q&A session when someone raised the issue of faith schools. The question-asker said that she’d been to a faith secondary school and she was always taught to be open minded, and she was taught about other faiths as well. June then replied (very passionately, I might add, she was almost shouting by the time she finished) by taking the example of the story of Abraham, which teaches obedience, but says nothing about the right of his son to live. I don’t know when June was last in a faith school, but I spent 14 years in the faith school system and I only ever learned about that story when I read the Bible in my own time, it wasn’t taught as part of the curriculum. Generally speaking my school was very liberal, it taught evolution and everyone I know believed in it, and I came out with a good sense of morals and a good education. There were certain problems which I won’t go into, but it certainly wasn’t the brainwashing zombie-factory June seems to think they are.

This entry’s getting far too long and I’ve had nothing to eat yet today (in my Chinese oral exam this morning I apparently told the examiner that my dad’s a professional socialist, instead of a social worker), so I’ll wrap it up with a comment. I was a little disappointed. I was hoping this would be something I could point to in the future and say “look, humanism isn’t just about bashing religion”, but religion was a topic which came up far too much throughout the evening. Sue England’s talk was not much more than arguing against religious practices in Europe, and the only talk that didn’t have religion at its centre was Roger’s, who I’m pretty sure didn’t talk about it at all.

All in all though, it was a good event and I’m glad I went, even if it did mean I didn’t do enough revision for my Chinese exam.


11 Responses to Humanist Ethics

  1. Clare says:

    Good post. If your father was Tony Benn you might have got away with the slight slip up in the Chinese exam.

  2. Tim Mills says:

    Yes, good post. Just a minor point – it’s the 21st century, not the 20th. I made the same mistake talking about this with someone today.

    One point that Sue England made that I thought was appropriate was that giving rights to a group (such as giving some aspects of Sharia law official status in the UK for the sake of the Muslim community) doesn’t necessarily mean that individuals within the group enjoy more rights, and may even mean the reverse.

  3. Stuart Ritchie says:

    Quite apart from whether Faith Schools are brainwashing zombie-factories (my guess would be that some are and most aren’t), I thought Sue England’s more political point about Faith Schools being one way religions increase their level of power within society and infiltrate areas which should really be under the control of a democratic government was much more interesting (and concerning!).

  4. grammarking says:

    I agree Stuart and I do oppose faith schools, but it’s not going to help the cause if we misrepresent what they’re actually like. I also think there’s potential for offence and heavier opposition if people start claiming that Jesus never existed. Then humanists look like they’ve just got a grudge against religion or something, rather than making reasoned and rational arguments on issues like faith schools.

  5. grammarking says:

    I can’t believe I didn’t once mention Darwin Day… wow.

  6. It is of concern that none of the ‘speakers’ were official representatives of the largest UK secular humanist organisations (pro-rata population). Had the HSS been represented, there would not have been the ‘religion bash’ which appears to have prevailed in part of the debates. For that, we apologise on the basis of our well established inclusion and tolerance of those who would believe that which they do. That is their entitlement under the law and the Humanist Society of Scotland will continue to engage with all faiths and none, for the betterment of Scotland.

  7. grammarking says:

    Actually, Roger is a member of the HSS and June, as mentioned, is a representative of the HA. I don’t know how official that is for you, but I’d rather we had specialists in different fields (environment, law, feminism, politics, science, education) rather than just a designated general humanist.

    It’s strange that there’s such rivalry between the HA and the HSS. I’ve heard it said before that the HSS are only interested in making money from ceremonies, and on the other hand that the HA don’t really do anything. Surely both are looking for the same thing? It’s a divisive force that can’t be good for humanism.

  8. I am only pointing out that those who profess a religious faith are perfectly entitled to do so. And the ‘only interested in making money from ceremonies’ is entirely misplaced. A valuable public service accrues from the network that we provide. Certainly we need specialist views but not those that are framed in offense. The way forward is via inclusion and tolerance and I hope that the HA are aligned with that.

  9. grammarking says:

    I entirely agree, and I fully support the ceremonial role of the HSS, but I don’t see how you can claim that it wouldn’t have been a religion bash if the HSS were involved. No offence intended.

  10. Maria says:

    Thank you for this very interesting review, which I have only just come across.

    It seems to be true that many individual humanists are very preoccupied with religion. The high proportion of religion-related meetings held by HSS local groups would suggest this is as true of HSS members as it is of anyone else. Given the current climate, I don’t find this particularly surprising; concern about the power and privilege of relgion and wanting to do something about it is the stimulus for many people joining humanist organisations.

    But the challenge facing all of us as humanists is to develop humanism as a positive worldview for the 21st century and the constant focus on religion isn’t doing much towards this objective. The HA has many distinguished ‘Honorary Associates’ some of whom are contributing greatly to humanist thought. I would hope that they will be speakers at Humanist Academy events in future – or do any of the other things promised on the HA website. At present their role appears to be to lend the HA an air of credibility that it would otherwise lack. It is early days, however, and at least the HA are trying to do something. Hopefully the HA will learn from its mistakes.

    By the way, I would have expected that, instead of sniping because they weren’t invited to the party, the HSS would be supporting initiatives by other humanists as well as organising their own public, national events geared at developing a positive humanist philosophy. If I’m not mistaken, the only public HSS debate held recently was by a local group on the existence of God!

    Finally, all those interested in humanism – regardless of their personal theological stance or world view – are welcome to join in the discussions at

  11. grammarking says:

    Marie, thanks very much for commenting. I’ve just registered at Think Humanism and hopefully tomorrow I’ll think of something post-worthy.

    You’re definitely right that it is a *challenge* for all humanists to make it a positive worldview. I only have to compare my posts here to Tim’s over at The Friendly Humanist to see that mine are dripping in negativity. But then that’s more my style, and more in line with my personality. I call a spade a spade and I don’t suffer fools.

    Don’t get me wrong, by the way, I’ve heard sniping from both the HA and the HSS. It’s weird but some of it seems to be on a very personal level which is genuinely surprising for me. You’d think the similarities would outweigh their differences.

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