Thursday, 26 September 2013

Humanism and Me

This is a talk I prepared for the inaugural meeting of the Warwickshire Humanist group:-

"Good evening folks. My name is Andy Pickering. I am a local lad having been born and brought up in Coventry, and then after a 3 year break to study at York University, moved to Rugby where we've lived ever since. I was invited by Benjamin to deputise for the new Warwickshire Humanist group - my main qualification I think being "the first person to like the facebook page". So here I am...

I've been asked to talk tonight about "Humanism and Me". I have to apologise in advance that there is rather a lot about "Me" but I do get round to talking about "Humanism" eventually.

So... as the youngest child in a conventional Christian family, I was taught about God and Jesus from a very early age. We used to go to church every week and I went to my local Church of England primary school where we had prayers and hymns every day. It was all very nice and friendly.

Like most young children I was fascinated with everything in the world around me. I hated not knowing things. I was very fortunate that my parents were members of the Reader's Digest and had some marvellous books which I could barely read of course, but which I was fully encouraged to look at and whose pictures I found utterly captivating. In particular I remember a huge atlas which included a picture of a cutaway section of the Earth showing all its different layers. And I wondered how anyone could really know that: it seemed impossible to me. My mum explained that "clever people" called scientists had worked it out.

Another book on natural history had lots of photos of different animals - so many weird and wonderful creatures. But the most exciting picture of all was obviously hand-painted. It showed a montage of these huge animals called dinosaurs wallowing in a swampy forest landscape like nothing I'd ever seen. I felt so disappointed when it was explained that there were no photos of dinosaurs as they no longer existed: we only knew what they looked like because of fossils and that no-one had ever really seen a dinosaur... Those clever people called scientists had again worked it out.

As well as trying to read factual books, my thirst for knowledge meant I asked lots of questions. In hindsight I was probably really annoying, but was always treated with patience by my parents and teachers. There were no questions I wasn't allowed to ask, but that didn't necessarily mean I'd simply uncritically accept the answers. If I was told something that didn't seem right to me, I generally wouldn't remonstrate; I'd just go away to mull it over quietly thinking "nah! that can't be right...".

And maybe that's partly why all the religious instruction never fully swayed me. Even at my young age there seemed to be things that didn't make sense: at church we were being told about heaven being up in the sky, but at home we were watching the Apollo missions on TV - not an angel in sight. And how could hell really be a place? I'd already read about volcanoes and the inner structure of the Earth.

So as far as I was concerned I was quite happy to treat Bible stories as just that - stories - my bible being firmly placed in the "fiction" section of my personal book collection. That said, I did find some of the stories about Jesus quite inspiring. Three in particular being about "turning the other cheek", "the good Samaritan" and "the poor widow's offering".
[It was only only on much later reflection that I realised that none of these stories has any supernatural element to them and maybe that's why I related to them: the first two are essentially about caring for fellow human beings, whilst the last is basically about maths.]

And of course there were still the Christian festivals to enjoy. With presents at Christmas time and chocolate at Easter, it did appear to be a recurring source of welcome goodies irrespective of the philosophies behind it.

At 11 I moved up to secondary school. Daily school assemblies were de rigeur comprising incredibly badly sung hymns and prayers where one of the teachers on stage would drone on whilst we closed our eyes. There were no seats so we were standing throughout and it was quite frequent for one of the younger pupils in particular to faint and be dragged out by the teachers to the recovery area so it wasn't entirely lacking in entertainment value, but generally it was just a bore.

There were quite a few kids from Indian backgrounds at the school and I was intrigued that they were allowed to sit out of the start of assembly and just come in for the school announcements at the end. When they explained to me it was because they were Sikh or Muslim or Hindu or whatever and didn't want to participate in the Christian worship I was quite aghast. "It's just meaningless waffle", I thought, "no need to take it so seriously".

In spite of my personal lack of conviction, it never occurred to me to object to this daily ritual or to try applying for an exemption. It was just what we all did: I was a de facto Christian.

We also had compulsory religious education for the first few years, which again was entirely Christian doctrine - no pandering to religious diversity in those days. I remember finally being taught the 10 Commandments which I'd heard so much about as a child. Having been led to believe these were some sort of magical secret code for how to live one's life, I found them totally fatuous and underwhelming. My ambivalence for religion just continued to grow.

Still by far the best thing about secondary school for me was being able to properly learn about science. This seemed to me to be the way to really find out how everything worked and to understand the fascinating world around us. Maybe I might even learn how those "clever people" could possibly know about the Earth's core and about dinosaurs etc.

In particular I was enthused by my physics teacher, affectionately known as Doc. If you had a question, rather than simply giving you the answer he would try to help you deduce it for yourself by drip-feeding the necessary clues needed to resolve your understanding. Some of my peers found this infuriating, but I found it refreshing and invigorating. Rather than simply accepting something from an authority figure, he was encouraging us to find our own answers based on what we already knew. An invaluable lesson in itself for critical thinking.

At the end of my 3rd year when he'd been our form teacher, Doc also left us with this one snippet of lifestyle advice: "Do whatever you want in life, as long as you don't hurt others". As a natural liberal I found this more inspiring and far more profound than anything from religious teachings. And it's amazing just how far you can get in the moral maze of life just by following that one simple principle. God could have saved Moses at least one stone tablet and an awful lot of weight if he'd just stuck with that, or gone for the even snappier abbreviated version "Just don't be a dick."

So by my mid-teens I had pretty well rejected religion. I didn't feel antipathy towards it - as far as I was concerned it was just harmless fun. And it had a nice social side that some people obviously found comforting so I was perfectly happy to let them get on with it. I do remember being quite surprised to find one of my fellow scientists was a regular church-goer though, as he'd never struck me as the devout type.

"Do you really believe in that stuff?" I asked him.

"No not really", he replied, "but it's quite fun... and anyway there are some really hot girls who go there!".

In my late teens I met my own hot girl - who would eventually become my wife. Elaine and I had actually been to the same Church of England primary school and that Christmas she gave me a copy of Carl Sagan's "Cosmos". I was totally absorbed reading this as it was the first time I'd ever read about the history of science and looked back to just how human kind had falteringly learned the facts about our universe that we today take for granted. In particular though, it opened my eyes to the fact that religion wasn't just an irrelevant world view for science; it was positively detrimental to it. It was no coincidence that the Ancient Greeks with their relatively liberal social and religious attitudes had taken such huge steps in establishing the basics of mathematical and scientific philosophy. Neither was it any coincidence that scientific progress in Europe had ground to a standstill for centuries during the dark and middle ages when the Roman Catholic church were the ruling authority and controlled all intellectual criticism. Anything published that didn't match with the official doctrine was labelled as heresy and quashed, with severe punishment meted out on the instigators.

It was shocking to read of Giordano Bruno's being burned at the stake, and of Galileo's effective imprisonment, both for having the temerity to suggest the Earth orbited the Sun rather than being the centre of God's creation. The fact that they were ultimately proved right only intensified the injustice, and hardened my disaffection with religious thinking.

In spite of this, when we got married we still had a church wedding. For my part it was mainly for the expectations of our families. It might seem hypocritical but was more about pragmatism and not wanting to be antagonistic to the sensibilities of others. Maybe I just wasn't really cut out to be a hardened heretic, though if I was to remarry now I'm sure things would be different.

In my adult life I've now become far more aware of political and social issues both in the UK and around the world. I'm also far more savvy about the duplicitous nature of organised religion: on one hand it does give many people community and support, social structure and moral guidance; on the other hand it frequently fans the flames of hatred and division, and has been a root cause of incalculable human suffering. Many religions assert they have some sort of moral superiority over non-believers or people of other faiths, but the actions of their fervent adherents frequently prove the opposite.

Conversely my continued enlightenment about scientific and technological developments has only intensified my admiration for science and for us humans as a species who have proved so smart and resourceful in its advancement.

I find it truly wondrous that we can look out across the universe and understand so much about how it works and how it came into existence, back to the first trillionth of a millisecond. And how we've managed to trace the history of our own Earth and solar system back to 4 billion years ago. With our understanding of evolution and DNA we now know that every living thing on our planet had a single common ancestor and that we share the same basic chemistry with everything from a blue whale to a bluebell. And we know that there are still dinosaurs - though nowadays we call them "birds"...

It's also inspiring to ponder the feats we humans have achieved with our knowledge. Advances in medicine have provided antibiotics and vaccinations which have saved untold lives, and led to the virtual eradication of many previously life-threatening diseases. Birth control has liberated us to enjoy greater sexual fulfillment whilst giving us control over our lives and particularly given women power to claim their own reproductive rights. Without medical intervention I myself would have died at 3 years old from appendicitis, and it's likely many others here would have suffered similar fates.

Our unquenchable curiosity has led us to investigate the fundamental mechanisms that govern the world around us. The resulting theories of quantum mechanics and electrodynamics provided the foundation for modern electronics that pervades every aspect of our modern lives, allowing us to transfer data at the blink of an eye and communicate around the globe.

Again I think it's no coincidence that many of these advances have been made in the last 200 years when the church's stranglehold of power in Europe has been on the wane. When given freedom to think and analyse and experiment, what humans can achieve is amazing!

But as well as the esoteric deliberations of science, we humans are uniquely capable of rational analyis on a more mundane level - relating to the laws and principles which we should apply to our own society in order to make our lives and those of others happier and healthier; granting freedom to allow people to live their lives as they wish while protecting the rights of anyone on whom that might impinge.

This is essentially the same sound principle instilled in me by my physics teacher back at school and which I'd endeavoured to live by thereafter. It is also fundamental to many humanist beliefs, yet if you'd asked me 8 years ago if I was a humanist, I'd have answered "a what!?".

For all my pontifications on life, the universe and everything, I'm ashamed to admit that I don't think I'd ever heard the term "humanist". In fact my first conscious recollection of the word was after the death of the wonderfully witty radio 4 comedienne, Linda Smith, who died tragically from ovarian cancer at the age of 48 in February 2006. Linda had requested a humanist funeral, and when it was outlined on the radio what that meant - the rejection of supernatural spiritualism, and the celebration of human endeavour - I thought "I think I might be one of them!".

So that's when I first discovered the humanist movement. Since then I've realised that nearly all my views on life are a reflection of humanist values:
A belief in basic human rights,
Gender and sex equality,
Opposition to capital punishment,
Opposition to religious segregation and faith schools
Universal equality.

These are all values that I think are a rational conclusion from a simple aim to make the world a better, fairer place for all.

So there you are: for most of my life I've been a humanist and didn't even know it!

It may be that I'm unique in that, but I prefer to think that there are probably many other people out there who share our humanist beliefs but are unaware of organisations like the BHA who represent us. It's up to us to broadcast that message and get those people on board to help seed our views in society and make the world a better, fairer place.

Thank you..."

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