Humanist Society of NSW Inc.
The Humanist Society of NSW View
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
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
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
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.
On behalf of the Committee