Humanist Society of NSW Inc.

The Humanist Society of NSW View

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At the Council of Australian Humanist Societies (CAHS) Convention held in Melbourne at Easter 1995 delegates were of the view that at least in the current climate the essential character of humanism to be maintained is that it is non-religious. While it was agreed that the Humanist Societies need to attract new (younger) members it was not to be at the expense of our essential character which a particular group in the movement is inclined to under value.

CAHS was highly critical of NSW attempting to become a denominational religion "for the purposes of the Marriage Act". They did not think the qualification was adequate defence against our enemies. NSW agreed to rescind the motion adopted in the 1994 AGM that we seek to become a "non-denominational religion (for the purposes of the Marriage Act)".

CAHS's agenda is very much about fighting the hegemony of the Christian expropriation of the terms "religion" and "values".

While at the political level the varying definitions of religion in the dictionaries are irrelevant we, because of who we are and what our interests are, need to consider its meaning. But first the political dimension.

"Religion" in Australia today means, in common parlance (demonstrating the Christian hegemony we are struggling against) values:- what is proper behaviour and belief and what isn't, the definition of your citizenship - that if you don't belong to a religion then to some extent you are a non-person etc. Roland Farrant's (WA) workshop about our Census campaign showed this quite clearly.

Humanists need to consider these points of political strategy in relation to the Census because it is a key national program that determines the allocation of public resources to the various interests of community groupings. The tax-free status of churches we know only too well. Gaining recognition means gaining resources. The struggle we are in is to gain recognition for people who have no religion. It is essential to gain recognition in humanist terms, that we have an inclusive value system that arises from considerations quite different from those in religions, traditionally understood or understood in general common parlance.

We shan't discuss this campaign any further here as we are not directly involved in running it.

NSW asserts strongly to state Societies and the Humanist/Rationalist movement generally that while we agree to stick with the conventional understanding of religion and our group policy implications flowing from this for political reasons, we are not going to be unfriendly to genuinely religious people.

Now ethical/moral/philosophical discussion.

This is where NSW's thinking of what precisely is meant by "religion" becomes important. We appreciate that the general understanding of "religion" involves a theistic dimension. Certainly this is an overwhelming concern of Australian Humanists. Nevertheless we need to remember that this is an accident of Western cultural history. However, even sticking just to Western culture, from a comparison of American dictionary definitions of religion with Australian/UK definitions you can see a clear difference, illustrating the role history and culture plays in shaping how a population understands a word including religion. Undoubtedly due to the influence of the American pragmatic philosophers, notably William James, the social aspects of religion is much more important there than the cognitive aspect which finds strong expression in the English definition. Compare William James with Anthony Flew or A.J. Ayre. English people tend to be cold and aloof. Americans have a much more entrepreneurial get in and do it cast of mind and their religious life reflects this difference.

NSW is attracted to the social meaning of religion and the majority of members finds the cognitive aspects of little interest. Many NSW members found Dr James Birx's CAHS visit in 1993 boring and irrelevant, politely heard him out and quietly forgot about the "unfortunate" occasion. There was a similar reaction to Dr Joachim Kahl's The Jesus Rort talk in 1992. These remarks need to be temperred by realising that perhaps there is a lack of general intellectual interests. Even the meeting with Dr Dorothy Rowe about Wanting Everything which was about dealing with our own emotional states did not attract significant attendance from NSW Humanist members. The majority of NSW Humanists are into socialising with a humanist flavour.

The problem NSW has with much humanist/rationalist discussion or rather polemic against religion is its over-emphasis on the cognitive. A vital aspect about religion is its existential aspect which is reflected in Jan Tendy's phrase "life stance". In other words, religion also has important links into behaviour and attitudes (normative and empathy aspects) as well as beliefs. The British environmentalist Jonathon Porritt spoke about the "binding together" meaning of religion at a talk in Sydney a few years ago.

The author came to humanism essentially by a process of intellectual maturation. During his transition from a Christian believer to an agnostic, and for practical purposes an atheist, he suffered emotional turmoil mainly to accept the finality of his own mortality. He appreciates that many humanists and rationalists have suffered similar emotional problems, some severely, under the hands of their parents and surrounding community who brought them up under misguided fundamentalist strictness and consequently deeply resent Christian belief. He himself did not get much sympathy for his sufferings. People say, "tough we all die - so what?" So while he sympathises with the suffering these humanists underwent in their formative years, he doesn't sympathise with their rancour. It may be painful, but he think we have to take a large and generous view of religion generally, and Christianity/Christendom in particular, because Christian belief and its influence is larger than the unfortunate experiences we individually may have gone through! In any case people have suffered all kinds of emotional problems, so what is all that special about religion as a cause?

G.K. Chesterton's aphorism was that, "when people stop believing in God, the danger is not they will believe in nothing, but that they will believe in anything". This captures a vital aspect of religion that humanists seem to forget about, that people want to believe something because of the awful reality of our human mortality. As William James remarked, it's not so much that God is such and such (the cognitive "domain") but that if the belief works for you then God is real (the affective "domain"). Literature is full of this kind of reflection on religion. Other authors, classified as existentialists, that come to mind that had important things to say about the effect of failure of belief are Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Sartre.

Humanists have to admit that they have no comfort to sell and to that extent it is an unsaleable philosophy. Humanist Societies can be regarded as refuges for unbelievers and refuges don't have glamour like say the Creation Science Foundation! I believe this is the main reason explaining the lack of growth of Humanist Societies whereas entities like the Assembly of God and Islamic mosques attract hordes because it addresses people's needs even if what they offer turns out to be false - which most humanists are convinced are false. Humanists and rationalists often jibe these people as being promised, "a pie in the sky when you die!" But such a jibe doesn't help things, it inflames passions, is not conducive to peace and we should respect other people's sensitivities and desist from making them!

Christian and Islamic belief apart from all that sin stuff does promise eternal life. It is the claimed positive answers to human mortality that gives theistic religions their driving force. If we take the attractiveness of promise of eternal life as a benchmark in the market of contending ideas, we have to admit that humanism is at a severe disadvantage. Further, it is at a disadvantage in more ways than one.

Christian vitality prompts them to run a variety of functions such as the Uniting Churches "Kids Club", they have a large number of broadcasting outlets and can field many times the "intellectuals" or scholars that we can. The Kids Club attracts my younger child, a boy. Even though I know the church people will try to rope us in to "the faith" (they do!) and they teach the Bible to my boy, as a humanist I just let all this "roll off a duck's back". (We do also send him to secular things like district basket ball and both our children to foreign language schools.) The point of mentioning all this is that Humanists don't have anything comparable to the churches. NSW did have young people's groups in the 60s but these fizzled out and not one of those young people have subsequently become significant in the Humanist Society. Most of them aren't even members!

I think we have to conclude that a lack of faith is very corrosive of an on-going cultural identity! A cultural identity may or may not be a good thing. Opinions will vary. Good or bad is not relevant at this point. The point is that the lack of a burning faith makes humanists complacent and dissipated - a severe disadvantage for adhering together even for the negative purpose of opposing religious influence. Because we haven't anything to sell in the eternal-life stakes we have to have something else to attract non-religious people to be members (assuming that we want to be religious in its binding together sense and we don't want to be dissipated - "eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die!). We think that that something has qualities like the social aspects of a religious community. Churches call that fellowship. The basis of fellowship would be mutual comfort in unbelief and a pool of people interested in exchanging secular and humanist ideas. The relations between members would be a whole-of-life (existential) relation. This is partly what Jan Tendys had in mind with her term "life stance". This would be the secular equivalent of the church's interest in the "souls" of their "flock". The whole-of-life orientation is implicit in humanist involvement in marriage, funeral and other "rites of passage" celebrations. However, you wouldn't be obliged to "bare your soul to the Society". You can keep to yourself if you like and you can control the degree of contact that you want. You wouldn't even be obliged to give special credence to the institution of marriage as many humanists don't. Humanists believe in self-determination! However, for such people their membership would be more "nominal".

That the Societies develop a culture and reputation of whole person relating (around a distinct set of views of course - so we wouldn't degenerate into merely a social club) would be a key expression of positive humanism.

A movement and outcome of non-belief that humanists are likely to quarrel with is the New Age movement. The New Age movement is characterised as the "me generation". In this respect they are a manifestation of the grim forecast of some existentialist writers that a failure of a belief in God would result in failure to live morally because it would be felt that only the self counts.

It was felt that dialogues should be started with other secular non-theistic positions/orientations such as New Agers, Unitarians, Buddhists, Confucianists etc.

In any case at the political level, the Societies need lots more members because numbers count but more importantly to provide a pool of people who can be called on to do various things - things such as our census campaign led by Roland Farrant.

However, it remains to be seen whether in the end taking into account the FAQ (fair average quality) of the population at large, a lack of belief will turn out to be fatally corrosive to on-going viable Humanist Societies.

Victor Bien

On behalf of the Committee
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