Humanist Society of NSW Inc.
The late Jim McClelland on the planned Australis2000 congress
As One who has from the outset been less than enchanted by the prospect of the Olympic Games planned for Sydney in 2000, I was delighted to hear recently what strikes me as far more significant event which is to occur in the same year. The Council of Australian Humanist Societies has announced that it is planning to hold an international congress at the University of Melbourne campus from September 22 to 26, 2000, on the subject of Ethics and Values for the Next Century.
It is refreshing to think that while all the tumult and shouting will be about the world athletic records being reduced by fractions of seconds, some of the world's best minds will be addressing matters of far greater pith and moment for the human spirit.
The terms "humanist", "secularist" and "rationalist" have been considered more or less interchangeable, their common factor being the negative one of disbelief in a supernatural "supreme being". For that reason, there has always been a faint aura of elitism about those terms, a suggestions that shaking off the shackles of superstition confers a title of intellectual superiority on those who have been set free.
I confess to having harboured such feelings for some years, especially during the period when I was under the spell of the most myth-ridden of all the religions - Marxism. Hostility to religion is also fed by the wars of recent years, some of which have been fuelled by old religious hatreds, such as those between the Catholic Croats, the Orthodox Serbs and the Bosnian Muslims. Not to mention Jerusalem, where the big religions - Christianity, Islam and Judaism - continue to clash with bloody consequences.
I have come around to the view that it is fanciful to believe that religion will wither and disappear from the earth within the foreseeable future. While in no way abating my atheism, I concede that for reasons which have nothing to do with reason, the flawed species called humanity seems most unable to do without the crutch of some transcendental belief. So I have lowered my sights from hostility to all religions to a continuing fight against religious fundamentalism.
In recent years I have been pleased to observe the spread of what once would have been called heresy in some of the main Christian sects. The widespread questioning amongst practising Catholics of the
Pope's infallability and of the church's teaching on such subjects as contraception, abortion, celibacy of the clergy, ordination of women priests, acceptance of homosexuality, euthanasia and other once closed subjects testifies that fundamentalism is under attack from within the citadel.|
The departure from the scene of the present Pope may well open the floodgates of liberalism. In the Anglican Church, the diehards are even more seriously challenged.
Fundamentalism continues to flourish in the US and I dare say it would be unthinkable for a self-confessed atheist to be elected President. (You can bet on a few closet godless ones, though. Jack Kennedy had other things to do with his hands than say the rosary!)
But religion plays a very small role in Australian politics and the old contest between Labor Micks and Conservative Proddies is just a bad memory. Fred Nile and Brian Harradine stand out as quaint survivors.
The decision to hold the humanist congress is to be applauded. It is high time humanists shed their negative image as disbelievers.
Humanism is an affirmation of a system of beliefs and values, hopes, fears, joys and aspirations without expectation of eternal rewards or fears of eternal punishment. This face of humanism often has been obscured by its steadfast refusal to grant a monopoly on what constitutes true belief to Judeo-Christian tradition or Islam or any of the world's "great religions".
There is no mystery about the survival of the various religions, even though in attenuated form. It is rooted in the unwillingness of people to face their own ultimate extinction.
There has been a spate of reminders lately of the fate which awaits us all - glamorous Prince Diana, saintly Mother Teresa, transient fashion star Versace and seedy old Jeffrey Bernard to name just the most publicised. After all the church bells fall silent, I am reminded of the words of a steadfast rationalist, Nobel Prize winner Sir Macfarlane Burnet: "In the end, we die and for most of us it is as if we never had been. To the individual, death is the same nothingness as existed before mind began to develop in infancy."
A bleak conclusion from which most of us prefer to avert our gaze. I will not be calling for a priest on my deathbed, but I can understand why so many do.
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