Humanist Ethics

February 13, 2008

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.


January 21, 2008

I sound like a lecturer, but before I start I’d like to remind anyone reading in Edinburgh that THIS WEDNESDAY 23rd January, the Edinburgh University Humanist Society will be showing the Richard Dawkins “Dawkumentary”, ‘The Root of all Evil?’, at 6pm in Room 3 of Appleton Tower, George Square. It will be followed by a group discussion on topics raised in the documentary.

Today I had a politics lecture on ideology in the British political system. It was rubbish, but it’s got me thinking about things only tenuously related, so that’s always good. Anyway the vast majority of socially liberal people are concerned about people’s rights and liberties: the right to free speech, freedom of assembly and things like that being the main ones, (although today someone started harrassing me with leaflets and stuff while I was eating my lunch in Teviot. I’d like people to care more about my right to eat in peace).

Another of the more highly esteemed basic rights is the freedom of religion, ie:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.

Source: Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Now call me ultramodern, but I think this is a bit out of date. Ok, everyone generally accepts that this also includes the freedom to follow no religion (although it’d be nice to have it in writing one of these days), but I think that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought” and “to manifest his religion or belief in teaching” can sometimes be very slightly contradictory. Only a little bit, not completely.

How can you have freedom of thought if you’re not making informed choices? Anyone who doesn’t have the whole story will naturally believe what they’ve been told. I think you know where I’m going with this, bloggers. The right “to manifest his religion or belief in teaching”, which has been cemented into International Law, basically gives any religious nutcase (no offence) justification to set up a faith school and brainwash kids that are too young to know any different with nonsense. I’m fairly certain that anyone who knows that we can explain the world without resorting to a fairy tale would not choose to believe religion, not unless it had been instilled in them from a young age or it was a big part of their family’s culture or some other excuse which has nothing to do with what’s correct and what isn’t.

I now firmly oppose teaching religion to children in schools. Earlier I wasn’t so sure, but it’s sick. How can we encourage our children to be thinking for themselves, rather than just regurgitate facts in exams, when from such an early age they’re being brainwashed with some dodgy worldview which doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, but permeates much of their lifestyle? Especially in an environment where they’re otherwise being exposed to useful, factual information. It’s just plain confusing and it shouldn’t be allowed. I remember once when I was about 8, we’d just finished RE and were moving on to our science class. The teacher asked the question “how do we see?”, and one kid replied without hesitation, “because Jesus is the light of the world.” It’s not right to expect kids to separate facts from fiction for themselves at such an early age.

But what about if parents want to teach their kids about religion privately? Personally I’d probably charge them with child abuse, but it’s a subject of some controversy. As the child is under the age of consent, the parents make decisions in her name, so they decide whether they can teach her or not, even though they themselves are the ones teaching her. It’s the equivalent of telling them repeatedly in all seriousness that if they don’t do something pointless like clap their hands 30 times at midday, then a big scary man will come and torture them forever. It’s probably perfectly legal, but I’m sure you’ll all agree it’s wrong. Actually it’s not the equivalent at all, that’s exactly what it is, just replace the hand clapping with praying, believing nonsense and following the 10 Commandments.

In my opinion, religion should not be taught. It’s spreading lies. Maybe teaching it to people who have already given consent by becoming a member of the church would be ok (and of course I don’t think baptising children counts, they can’t consent). But I don’t think many will turn to the church if it hasn’t been part of their lifestyle previously. It should be there if people want it, but it shouldn’t be taught as the norm, as is the situation now.

But what about teaching about religion? Censoring religion is no better than brainwashing kids in faith schools, so we shouldn’t do that. Religion has also been a big part of our culture, so it is definitely worthy of being taught about. BUT I think it should be made perfectly clear that it’s not necessarily true, and I think other non-religious worldviews should be taught alongside it, such as humanism. It should be in the history books by now anyway.

Maybe religion should be taught similarly to the way we teach about political or philosophical ideologies. Often religion, philosophy and politics are very closely linked, so it’s certainly appropriate.