Posts Tagged ‘humanism’

At the time of the Pope’s visit to Britain, you had the impression that any meaningful dialogue between Catholics and secular humanists about anything beyond the weather would have been unthinkable. Paul Sims writes at the New Humanist website about his experience of  trying to cross the great divide and actually enter into a conversation with Catholics.

I’ll be honest. Discussing gay adoption and condoms with Benedictine monks and spokesmen for Opus Dei is not something I normally find myself doing on a Tuesday evening. But there I was, at the invitation of Alan Palmer of the Central London Humanist Group, who had responded to a post I had written on the New Humanist blog, in which I’d recorded my concerns over the tone of the debate during the Pope’s UK visit. There are crucial disagreements between the Catholic Church and its opponents over issues such as AIDS, gay rights and child abuse, but, I asked, was the opportunity to debate these in danger of being buried beneath the headlines and protest slogans?

In my blog I’d mentioned by way of example the behaviour of sections of the audience at a pre-visit debate at London’s Conway Hall, when the Catholic speakers were frequently drowned out by rowdy heckling. Palmer, the organiser of that debate, read my post and invited me to a smaller discussion between Catholics and humanists, with the aim of discussing some of our key disagreements without the bellicose tone. I agreed.

Which is how a group of 25 of us, evenly balanced between faithful and faithless, came to meet in a room rented from the University of London near Euston. After brief introductions, the three main Catholic speakers – Austen Ivereigh, a journalist and former press secretary to the Archbishop of Westminster, Jack Valero, press officer for Opus Dei, and Fr Christopher Jamison, a Benedictine monk who featured in the BBC series The Monastery, together the founders of Catholic Voices, a group formed to speak up for the Catholic side in the media during the Papal visit – put forward their arguments on gay adoption, condoms and faith schools. The humanists then challenged them in an open discussion. In what felt like a particularly useful exercise, one of the humanists had to sum up the Catholic arguments, and one of the Catholics did the same for the humanist case.

As my first foray into the world of “inter-faith dialogue” (if we extend the definition to include the godless) I thought the meeting had been a good one. As you might expect, there was strong disagreement between the two sides, and I doubt anyone went home with their mind changed on any of the issues. But, while people had expressed strong opinions, the debate was conducted in a manner that meant it could continue over a drink afterwards. Given the way Catholics and humanists were portrayed in some of the press coverage of the Pope’s visit, that’s something you might have thought as likely as West Ham and Milwall fans enjoying a pre-match pint together on derby day. With the religious and non-religious often talking past each other in the public square, it felt constructive for a group to meet and discuss their differences in an amiable fashion. For me, it served as a reminder that you can still get on with someone even if you disagree. This may seem like an obvious point, but it is easily forgotten amid the belligerent tone of the religion debate. And if we can find a way to talk calmly about our disagreements, perhaps it would be possible to find some common ground where we could agree.

Read the rest of his article to see how unhappy some of his secularist friends were about this whole project.

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After spending the whole of yesterday at Westminster, seeing the Popemobile drive past the excited crowds, and later on managing to see him emerge from Westminster Abbey, it’s hard not to blog about the Papal Visit.

The speeches of the last two days have been really powerful. (You can read them all here.) All the headlines have been about how the Pope has been attacking the ‘aggressive secularism’ that is sweeping through Britain. But this misses the main point, which is how Pope Benedict’s first thought has been to praise British history and British values. It’s not flattery; it’s genuine, heartfelt appreciation – for the values and the people who (amongst many other great achievements) created modern democracy, ended the slave trade, and fought valiantly against the Nazis. Britain has emerged as:

a pluralist democracy which places great value on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law, with a strong sense of the individual’s rights and duties, and of the equality of all citizens before the law.

Then come the questions: How are you going to hold onto these values? What has been their foundation in the past? What will serve to secure and sustain these noble values for the future? How will you do this without some sense of an objective moral order, a transcendent meaning, a loving creator, and an ultimate purpose? The hard questions that he does ask, the challenges to ‘aggressive secularism’, only arise because he actually cares for this British culture and worries that it is in danger of undoing itself.

Here are some of my favourite passages from today. The first, about sanctity and the search for happiness, from his address to children this morning at the ‘Big Assembly’:

I hope that among those of you listening to me today there are some of the future saints of the twenty-first century. What God wants most of all for each one of you is that you should become holy. He loves you much more than you could ever begin to imagine, and he wants the very best for you. And by far the best thing for you is to grow in holiness.

Perhaps some of you have never thought about this before. Perhaps some of you think being a saint is not for you. Let me explain what I mean. When we are young, we can usually think of people that we look up to, people we admire, people we want to be like. It could be someone we meet in our daily lives that we hold in great esteem. Or it could be someone famous. We live in a celebrity culture, and young people are often encouraged to model themselves on figures from the world of sport or entertainment. My question for you is this: what are the qualities you see in others that you would most like to have yourselves? What kind of person would you really like to be?

When I invite you to become saints, I am asking you not to be content with second best. I am asking you not to pursue one limited goal and ignore all the others. Having money makes it possible to be generous and to do good in the world, but on its own, it is not enough to make us happy. Being highly skilled in some activity or profession is good, but it will not satisfy us unless we aim for something greater still. It might make us famous, but it will not make us happy. Happiness is something we all want, but one of the great tragedies in this world is that so many people never find it, because they look for it in the wrong places. The key to it is very simple – true happiness is to be found in God. We need to have the courage to place our deepest hopes in God alone, not in money, in a career, in worldly success, or in our relationships with others, but in God. Only he can satisfy the deepest needs of our hearts.

Not only does God love us with a depth and an intensity that we can scarcely begin to comprehend, but he invites us to respond to that love. You all know what it is like when you meet someone interesting and attractive, and you want to be that person’s friend. You always hope they will find you interesting and attractive, and want to be your friend. God wants your friendship. And once you enter into friendship with God, everything in your life begins to change. As you come to know him better, you find you want to reflect something of his infinite goodness in your own life. You are attracted to the practice of virtue. You begin to see greed and selfishness and all the other sins for what they really are, destructive and dangerous tendencies that cause deep suffering and do great damage, and you want to avoid falling into that trap yourselves. You begin to feel compassion for people in difficulties and you are eager to do something to help them. You want to come to the aid of the poor and the hungry, you want to comfort the sorrowful, you want to be kind and generous. And once these things begin to matter to you, you are well on the way to becoming saints.

The second passages are from his speech at Westminster Hall:

Allow me also to express my esteem for the Parliament which has existed on this site for centuries and which has had such a profound influence on the development of participative government among the nations, especially in the Commonwealth and the English-speaking world at large. Your common law tradition serves as the basis of legal systems in many parts of the world, and your particular vision of the respective rights and duties of the state and the individual, and of the separation of powers, remains an inspiration to many across the globe.

As I speak to you in this historic setting, I think of the countless men and women down the centuries who have played their part in the momentous events that have taken place within these walls and have shaped the lives of many generations of Britons, and others besides. In particular, I recall the figure of Saint Thomas More, the great English scholar and statesman, who is admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign whose “good servant” he was, because he chose to serve God first. The dilemma which faced More in those difficult times, the perennial question of the relationship between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God, allows me the opportunity to reflect with you briefly on the proper place of religious belief within the political process.

This country’s Parliamentary tradition owes much to the national instinct for moderation, to the desire to achieve a genuine balance between the legitimate claims of government and the rights of those subject to it. While decisive steps have been taken at several points in your history to place limits on the exercise of power, the nation’s political institutions have been able to evolve with a remarkable degree of stability. In the process, Britain has emerged as a pluralist democracy which places great value on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law, with a strong sense of the individual’s rights and duties, and of the equality of all citizens before the law. While couched in different language, Catholic social teaching has much in common with this approach, in its overriding concern to safeguard the unique dignity of every human person, created in the image and likeness of God, and in its emphasis on the duty of civil authority to foster the common good.

And yet the fundamental questions at stake in Thomas More’s trial continue to present themselves in ever-changing terms as new social conditions emerge. Each generation, as it seeks to advance the common good, must ask anew: what are the requirements that governments may reasonably impose upon citizens, and how far do they extend? By appeal to what authority can moral dilemmas be resolved? These questions take us directly to the ethical foundations of civil discourse. If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident – herein lies the real challenge for democracy.

The inadequacy of pragmatic, short-term solutions to complex social and ethical problems has been illustrated all too clearly by the recent global financial crisis. There is widespread agreement that the lack of a solid ethical foundation for economic activity has contributed to the grave difficulties now being experienced by millions of people throughout the world. Just as “every economic decision has a moral consequence” (Caritas in Veritate, 37), so too in the political field, the ethical dimension of policy has far-reaching consequences that no government can afford to ignore. A positive illustration of this is found in one of the British Parliament’s particularly notable achievements – the abolition of the slave trade. The campaign that led to this landmark legislation was built upon firm ethical principles, rooted in the natural law, and it has made a contribution to civilization of which this nation may be justly proud.

The central question at issue, then, is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles. This “corrective” role of religion vis-à-vis reason is not always welcomed, though, partly because distorted forms of religion, such as sectarianism and fundamentalism, can be seen to create serious social problems themselves. And in their turn, these distortions of religion arise when insufficient attention is given to the purifying and structuring role of reason within religion. It is a two-way process. Without the corrective supplied by religion, though, reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person. Such misuse of reason, after all, was what gave rise to the slave trade in the first place and to many other social evils, not least the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century. This is why I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization.

Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation. In this light, I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance. There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere. There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none. And there are those who argue – paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination – that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience. These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square. I would invite all of you, therefore, within your respective spheres of influence, to seek ways of promoting and encouraging dialogue between faith and reason at every level of national life.

And finally, for a bit of fun, for those of you have made it to the bottom of the post, here is me inspecting the Popemobile for CNN.

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Is religious education a form of brainwashing? Should children be free to make their own decisions about fundamental matters of faith? These questions are provoked by the new poster sponsored by the British Humanist Association. [See it here.] Two gloriously happy children hold their hands in the air as if they are about to do a cartwheel. The main text reads: “Please don’t label me. Let me grow up and choose for myself.” And floating in the background are the various labels under attack: “Buddhist child. Agnostic child. Protestant child. Humanist child. Catholic child. Atheist child…”

Candelaria religious education 1 + 2 by John Donaghy.

Religious education in Candelaria

I have an article in Timesonline in response to this. I’ll copy most of it below, but put it in quote marks just to acknowledge that it was not written for this blog. I give four reasons why the call to liberate children is superficially appealing but fundamentally naive:

First: The exercise of freedom requires some prior foundation. Children have to learn how to make choices: how to weigh things up, how to judge what is best, how to take responsibility. Any child psychologist knows this. Freedom doesn’t just happen. And an essential part of learning to choose is having some sense of the meaning of the world we inhabit, of the value of our actions, and of the significance of their consequences. In other words, freedom can’t be learnt outside a context of meaning and values.

Religious faith can help establish this context; so can a robust humanism. But to think that freedom can be learnt in a vacuum, without the sharing of any moral or philosophical convictions, is simply naïve. Children who are brought up without inherited values of any kind are actually less able to exercise their freedom and choose for themselves. Just as children who are brought up without boundaries will never be able to learn the significance of crossing them.

Second: If you believe something important to be true, then you shouldn’t pretend it is an open question. This goes for secular humanists as much as for religious believers. If, for example, you are a convinced atheist, and you think that belief in God is false at an intellectual level and damaging through its distorting effects on morality, then of course you would want to share this conviction with your children. It would be unjust to keep it from them. Similarly, if you believe in God, and you believe that this faith is not just a lifestyle choice or a cultural imperative but an objective truth with profound implications for human existence, how could you not share this conviction with your children? Yes, you want to nurture their freedom and you hope they will discover things for themselves. But if it is a question of truth – whether scientific or moral or spiritual – then you will inevitably want to guide your children along a certain path, knowing full well that they may one day choose to veer off in another direction.

Third: It’s a fantasy to imagine that children can be raised in a philosophically neutral environment without some dominant world-view. Theism – as much as atheism, materialism, or secular humanism (these terms are not synonymous) – provides a particular understanding of the meaning of the world and of human life, which will help structure a child’s understanding and values. But if you try to bring your children up in an environment which is indifferent to questions of ultimate meaning, then your purported neutrality will already have been lost. If, in effect, you say to your children, “I don’t care enough about these values or convictions to share them with you”, or “they are important to me but not important in themselves”, then you are presenting them with a very particular world-view. In this view, religious questions and all questions of ultimate meaning are relativised, and indifference is taken to be the predominant value.

To say to a child, “I don’t mind – you choose!” is to give the child the strongest possible impression that the available options are all equally significant, which is to say that none is uniquely significant. So this apparently ‘soft’ form of neutrality suggested in the poster is actually a ‘hard’ form of relativism which relegates religious and philosophical questions to the periphery of human interest.

Fourth: A strong notion of autonomy, which is essential to an individual’s freedom, requires an appreciation of one’s human dignity. Children need to know not just that they are loved but that their life has meaning and is valuable in itself. If this is not communicated in some way, then the love of the parents, however profound, will become distorted, because the children will see themselves as valuable to their parents but not valuable as persons in their own right. It doesn’t matter how this innate value is framed (‘human dignity’, ‘the sanctity of life’, etc.) as long as it is articulated somehow.

Human autonomy, rightly cherished by secular humanists, needs some notion of intrinsic human dignity to support it – otherwise it has no foundation and no meaning. So, paradoxically, in order to liberate children from the limited vision of their parents and culture, you have to imbue them with a strong sense of their own worth, of their dignity, of their significance in a framework of meaning. The humanism of the early Enlightenment held on to a strong notion of human dignity and human uniqueness, even as it became more secular. But as secular humanists have become more and more materialist in their outlook, and as materialism has failed to offer any satisfying accounts of human dignity, it has become almost impossible to avoid describing human nature in reductivist terms.

Contemporary secular humanists are largely unable to explain to children why their freedom and autonomy have any significance, why their life has any meaning – and this is why the exaltation of freedom proposed in this poster feels a bit hollow. If you really want your children to be free, you need to tell them why their freedom matters, and help them appreciate some of the values they might pursue. And to do that, you need to use at least a few labels

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