This week the Humanist Society of Scotland has launched a new series of the Thought for the World podcasts which were so successful last year. This gives a positive viewpoint from such atheist thinkers as AC Grayling and Polly Toynbee, as well as former Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, as an alternative source of reflection to the BBC’s Thought for the Day, from which atheists are excluded. The podcasts from last time are still up and well worth a listen, and for the first time Thought for the World will be featured daily on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website. I encourage you all to listen here.
I haven’t mentioned this so far, but Tim over at the Friendly Humanist and I were approached some time ago to write a column for Humanitie, the quarterly magazine of the Humanist Society of Scotland. The columns are supposed to complement each other, so take a gander at his and judge for yourself. The magazine is out now so keep an eye out for it.
There are two sayings that my mum can’t stand. One of them is ‘a rollercoaster of emotions’ and the other is ‘I’ve been on a journey’, both very common on the TV makeover shows she often insists on watching (personally I’d also add ‘a catalogue of errors’ and the infuriating ‘Error 404. Page cannot be found’). But this image of a track or some kind of journey is most prevalent when we’re talking about death. I’ve been to funerals where there’s been talk of ships passing over the horizon or water flies passing through the surface of a pond. Even Hamlet (and a certain Klingon in Star Trek VI) described death as “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns.”
But why do we use this journey imagery to talk about the unknown, when really it’s lots more likely to be the end of anything we might call ‘life’? It’s a metaphor that doesn’t really strike me as particularly factual or illuminating, and one that many believe to be literally true. You could say it is to alleviate our own fear of death, but upon further thought that doesn’t make sense to me. I would much rather have my life end after a contented existence and leave it at that, than have it carry on and take a gamble which might (probably will) leave me in eternal torment. I’m sure by the time I’m 90 years old and well into my second childhood, unable to walk up the stairs or remember my own name, I’ll be gagging for it all to end! Let’s not forget that we’ve all spent billions of years in ‘oblivion’ before we were born; it’s not nearly as scary as it sounds!
This idea of a journey or another life after death would be harmless if it didn’t influence people whilst they lived. The Romans believed that the body must be intact and hold a coin in its mouth for the soul to take its ferry ride across the River Styx. Similar beliefs about an afterlife in the Romany community, as well as the beliefs of some Christian denominations about the rapture, prevent organ donation or the donation of bodies to science after death. This in turn is a contributing factor to people dying unnecessarily on transplant lists and to a lack of bodies available for medical study and research. Furthermore, a belief in some kind of judgement to come after death is often cited in favour of the death penalty. Martyrdom and thoughts of the afterlife help suicide bombers go through with their threats. There are many other examples.
Anthropologists like Malinowski, as well as general clever-sods Bertrand Russell and Einstein, suggested that our fear of death could be a major reason for the existence of religious belief about an afterlife in the first place. Until we can conquer this fear, it’s likely that religious superstition will be sticking with us for some time to come.
A plug first . Today and tomorrow are the EUSA election days. If you’re a student at the University of Edinburgh, I don’t care who you vote for but it’s very important that you vote. Don’t leave the decision in the hands of the politically-minded cronies in the various party headquarters, pull your finger out and go and vote. It’s a shame that, yet again, the elections are so male-dominated and that there isn’t such a diversity of choice, but there’s bound to be someone who says something you agree with.
I haven’t got a lot to say today seeing as I’ve mostly been writing essays or working for the past few weeks, so I’m just going to try and update the outside world on what we at the Edinburgh University Humanist Society are up to. I should be doing another essay so I really am just procrastinating.
This coming Friday is the last in our series of “God’s Warriors” video showings in Appleton Tower. Starting at 6 sharp, this week will concentrate on ‘God’s Christian Warriors’, perhaps tacking the sticky issue of Christian fundamentalism in the US. I urge you to come and see for yourself. It’ll be followed by a discussion, and in the past 2 showings these have proven to be refreshingly open-minded.
Talk at the moment is about the upcoming AGM (date TBC but at the moment we’re thinking late March/early April) and nominations for officer positions next year. It’s a little awkward because out of our active membership, several people are leaving the university, and so won’t be able to take positions. I think one of the main aims next year will be to attract some new blood, as I know we’re going to have similar problems this time next year. I for one will be going on my year abroad and other people will be either graduating or finishing off post-grad courses.
Recently we’ve been trying to get an honorary humanist chaplain at the Chaplaincy, with our preferred candidate being Tim Maguire from the HSS. This would be someone that any person at the university with humanist tendencies could go to for advice or counselling, rather than the Advice Place or any of the religious chaplains that exist already. In particular, we were keen to get more of a voice on issues relating to inter-belief events at the university and in the wider community, and although not in an evangelical sense, we thought Tim would be particularly useful when someone is considering leaving their faith, as some of us have found it quite distressing in the past.
Nevertheless, Di at the Chaplaincy has suggested that Tim take the slightly different role of humanist contact, which half-suits us at the moment because we don’t know how well used a humanist chaplain would be, and until we know we can’t really demand a chaplain, but at the same time we’re out of the loop just slightly on Chaplaincy issues. We’ll see if Tim gets much use as a humanist contact and try and raise his profile a little if possible.
The next thing on the agenda to consider is what we’re going to do during Fresher’s Week. Gordon Aikman, the current EUSA Vice President Societies and Activities, has given us until Monday to decide on what we’re going to do and give him some details. Suggestions today involved some kind of debate or discussion about what to do if your friend is a nutcase, something else which would involve going out and informing people about humanism (something similar to the prayer contest was mentioned, during which we tried to use scientific experimentation to find out which deity was best to pray for for divine intervention – IIRC it turned out to be Emmeline Pankhurst, the women’s rights campaigner who famously threw herself in front of a horse), and my own suggestion was a walk up Arthur’s Seat, not an awful lot to do with humanism except for an appreciation of nature, but it’s a good way to get people together.
So that’s what we’re up to at the moment.