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Friday, 30 November 2012

Do Humanists Sing?

"Do Humanists sing?" was one question discovered by Dr Matthew Engelke during his research on British humanism which he presented to the Annual Lecture of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network earlier this week at Conway Hall in Central London.

Well I found out that some do and some don't! Indeed, the British Humanist Association (BHA) have a choir. The subtext was, of course, is singing too much like a church.

Dr Engelke's lecture "In Spite of Christianity - Humanism and Its Others in Contemporary Britain" was based on his current ethnographic study of humanist organisations; the national BHA and a local group. Unitarians were mentioned twice in a positive context.

 For a Unitarian I found it valuable to seek comparisons and contrasts. He talked about a process of realisation by which many humanist came to identify as humanists. This seems similar to those who claim to have been unitarian all their adult lives before they find their home in the Unitarian Movement. 

Many humanists see that it is important to break with the past and expunge all signs of religion from the public sphere. He described opposition to the use of the term "acts of god" in a risk register being replaced with "acts of nature" despite its well known use as a legal term. 

He wondered, however, about continuity with a religious past. Humanism and Evangelicalism are often seen as the "opposites to each other". To some humanism is therefore cast as another faith. Some humanists cling to religious traditions, such as Philip Pullman who uses the term "CoE athiest". Dr Engelke did not see humanism as a religion by another name. 

Some humanists acknowledged the "goodness" of religion. The various ceremonies recognised aspects of being human. Churches provided a sense of belonging. They were opportunities for like-minded people to engage. Should humanist groups provide these?

Like many Unitarian groups in Britain the humanist group were in 50s and retired or semi-retired. They lamented the absence of humanist spaces unlike most religions, apart from Conway Hall. This is all rather ironic to a Unitarian given the origins of South Place Ethical Society as South Place Chapel, Finsbury a Unitarian congregation whose journey into ethical culture has been described as lonely.  

The local group studied had worked on social justice with a local Unitarian congregation and liked what they did - "I think what they do is interesting" reported one.

There is a clear contrast between the philosophical approach of many humanists and those who act as celebrants who provide services to many non-religious people. This is also a particular danger to Unitarians as well with its attraction to well educated middle class people.

He was surprised that for all the claims for reason and rationality that in practice humanists were prepared to act on irrationality and emotion when confronted with an ethical decision-making exercise. Indeed, many humanists wished to retain some sense of spirituality. This could be a bridge with many Unitarians?

Humanism is embraced by the Unitarian and Free Christian movement in Britain, however, not to the extent of the Unitarian Universalist Association in the US. British Humanists would probably struggle to with the religious elements of our tradition but there is clearly common ground. Nationally, the General Assembly has worked with the BHA on education issues within Accord and on LGBT rights as part of the Cutting Edge Consortium. Locally I am aware of dialogue and exchange. We need to learn more about each other.