Category Archives: Religion

Art and Creativity in Islam

Tile from the Alhambra, Granada, Spain

Islam places creativity and art at the centre of human existence. Everything humans produce has an aesthetic quality, even the way we drive or speak. Art is the ability to generate beauty and we can all be artists in whatever we do, by doing it beautifully. This is ihsan. For example, our relationships need the quality of ihsan. Sound relationships are creative, and are based on the recognition of others’ souls. Human beings are the summit of creation, not to exploit others but to help the rest of creation to flourish. The Muslim as khalifa is a gardener, an artist, a carer of ophans. If we behave in these beautiful ways we will naturally embue our surroundings with beauty, just as the “classical mosques were built in the form of peoples’ souls” (1) as natural expressions of beauty rather than deliberate artistic creations.

Human beings have a special ability to distill and recycle beauty, meaning that we take the beauty of the natural world in through our senses, receive inspiration from the spirit (ruh), and then +add+ to the beauty of the natural world through our artistic creations. This cycle of creativity is the true source of sustainability.

Al-Ghazali said that “True art is in hearth and earth” (1). Abdal Hakim Murad (AHM) comments that ‘earth’ represents the natural realm and ‘hearth’ represents the human realm. The natural world, particularly its mineral and vegetal forms, provides inspiration for Muslim art. The human form is not a basis for Muslim art and AHM criticises Michelangelo as a “pagan restoration” – not monotheistic. AHM said there is something ‘theophanic’ about the human face which naturally draws our attention and changes the nature of a space, therefore human images are not suitable in a place of worship. However, even with regard to the mineral and vegetal, Muslims go beyond the outward forms and observe the underlying archetypes. In mosques we rarely see actual pictures of flowers or trees, but instead we see patterns of sacred geometry which abstract the underlying archetypes from the natural world and create serenity in our hearts.

(1) Abdal Hakim Murad, Al-Ghazali Retreat 2012

(2) ‘Contentions’, 17th set, number 2

Post-Modern Religion

Passage from modern to post-modern era according to Hiroki Azuma in "Génération Otaku - Les enfants de la postmodernité"

I would like to compare attitudes to religion across three periods of history: the traditional period, the modern period, and the post-modern period. Religions are generally associated with the traditional period, when they held sway, whereas the modern period is characterised by religion’s loss of dominance. It should be noted that different people, countries and areas of the world are at different points in the cycle: even within the same city it is possible to find modern and even post-modern people living in close proximity with traditional people.

Religion has survived in the modern period, although it has lost its dominance. Modern religion has different characteristics from traditional religion. A good place to find a systematic characterisation of modern religion is Donald Lopez’ book “A Modern Buddhist Bible” where he writes:

“Certainly, modern Buddhism shares many of the characteristics of other projects of modernity, including the identification of the present as a standpoint from which to reflect upon previous periods in history and to identify their deficiencies in relation to the present. Modern Buddhism rejects many of the ritual and magical elements of previous forms of Buddhism, it stresses equality over hierarchy, the universal over the local, and often exalts the individual over the community. (p.ix)”

Lopez also points out that modern Buddhism, like other modern expressions of religion, seeks to associate itself with the ideals of the European ‘Enlightenment’ such as “reason, empiricism, science, universalism, individualism, tolerance, freedom and the rejection of religious orthodoxy” (p.x).

Regarding the modern notion of progress which identifies “the present as a standpoint from which to reflect upon previous periods in history and to identify their deficiencies”, this is in sharp contrast to the traditional religious notion of degeneration (found in both Islam and Buddhism), which views the original teaching / revelation period (via the Prophet Mohammed and the Buddha respectively) as the ‘Golden Age’ and all subsequent generations as degenerating, more or less steeply, in virtues and accomplishments. Modernism is enamoured with the idea of progress and views the present as the most progressive age, looking down upon the ‘backwardness’ of previous ages, even the times of Mohammed and the Buddha.

The trick with modernism, as with all ideological prisms, is to recognise it as such from within. It appears so neutral, so objective, yet it is anything but. For example, the project of presenting Ibn Arabi’s philosophy to a ‘modern’ audience presupposes that such an audience even exists – in fact ‘modern’ times may be over, and the assumptions of modernism may be as (ir)relevant as the assumptions of Victorian Christianity.

Unlike modernism, post-modernism is not opposed to traditional religion. Post-modernism is basically looking for good stories (texts) and religions provide these (though it is worth noting that post-modernism prefers to relativise rather than accept any one story’s claim to absolute truth). The real strength of post-modernism comes from inhabiting the text: only by immersing oneself in the text and appreciating it from its own perspective can the story exert its full weight and narrative drive. Modernism, weighed down by its positivist agenda and burden of ‘objectivity’, can never cross the threshold of the religious text – it can only view it as a ‘spectacle’, like a tourist visiting Westminster Abbey. That is why modernists cannot truly appreciate religion.

Like traditionalists, post-modernists can and do step over the threshold of participation, and experience the force of the religious text. In this respect both are the “blind followers” so derided by modernists. The difference is that, unlike traditionalists, post-modernists retain a ‘knowing’ attitude (almost like Orwellian double-think) which enables them to simultaneous immerse themselves in and retain distance from the text.

Spiritual Constrictions

Based on the Taoist notion of Yin-Yang, I would like to introduce the idea of a ‘Yin’ constriction. (Please bear with me if you are already familiar with the basic concepts). Yin and Yang represent the two different aspects of the cosmos (similar to Jamal and Jalal in Islam). Yin and Yang have many different characteristics, which are all essentially relative, so I am not talking in absolutes here. In relation to each other, Yin is passive and Yang is active, Yin is yielding and Yang is penetrating, Yin is unstructured and Yang is structured, and Yin is soft and Yang is hard. As the popular Yin-Yang symbol suggests, cosmic balance is achieved when Yin and Yang are in balance with each other, and neither predominates overall.

Energy does not flow well if there is an unhealthy predominance of either Yin or Yang. In other words, an excess of either Yin or Yang is a constriction. A Yin constriction would occur if something is +too+ soft, +too+ unstructured, +too+ yielding. In spirituality (as with furniture) we require a combination of structure and unstructure, form and space, hardness and softness – otherwise we will end up falling on the floor. In this context the hardness means fixed points. Archimedes said “give me a fixed point and I can move the world”. If nothing is fixed them we have nothing to lever against to move through space, and we become immobile. In my opinion the ‘fixed points’ (principles) of religion should not just be criticised and dismissed as “precepts and dogma”, as then we will lose the opportunity to lever off them and gain spiritual momentum. This does not mean these principles have to be swallowed hook, line, and sinker: obviously an intelligent process of interpretation and jurisprudence is necessary.

Individual spiritual practitioners need different combinations of Yang and Yin, hard and soft, structure and unstructure, form and formlessness. A ‘one size fits all approach’ is not appropriate. The practitioners of the Yin side are just as capable of being dogmatic with their insistence on stripping away form as the Yang practitioners with their insistence on erecting it. Individuals should be free to choose the right balance for them.

Pushing religion at people is counter-productive – but so is pulling it away from them. Following the Buddhist example, it is important to develop equanimity (the middle way between attachment and aversion) to all phenomena including religion. The attitude of equanimity towards religion means understanding what it is, without prejudice, and making a conscious decision about how to relate to it. Certain modern, ‘spiritual’ schools express aversion to religion by focusing exclusively on the dangers of attachment to religion, ignoring the benefits of religion when practised appropriately.

Kashmiri Sufism and the Yogini Lal Ded

Yogini Lal Ded

The two founding figures of Kashmiri Sufism are Sheikh Nooruddin Noorani (1377 – 1440 CE) and Sheikh Ali Hamadani (1314 – 1384 CE). Both of them are said to have encountered a female Hindu yogini called Lal Ded (1320 – 1392 CE) who was in the habit of wandering around naked.

One story of Lal Ded mentions how she was teased by a number of children. A nearby cloth merchant scolded the children for their disrespect. Lal Ded asked the merchant for two lengths of cloth, equal in weight. That day as she walked around naked, she wore a piece of cloth over each shoulder and, whenever she was met with respect or scorn, she tied a knot in one or other cloth. In the evening, she brought the cloths back to the merchant, and asked him to weigh them again. Both cloths were equal in weight no matter how many knots were in each, showing that respect and scorn have no weight of their own.

It is said that, when Sheikh Nooruddin Noorani was born, initially he wouldn’t feed from his mother. After 3 days, Lal Ded arrived and suckled him herself. She said to the baby that, since he hadn’t been ashamed to be born, why should he be ashamed to drink from his mother’s breast?

According to another story, when Lal Ded encountered Sheikh Ali Hamadani she jumped into a tandoor (clay oven) and, when the Sheikh lifted the lid, Lal Ded came out dressed in flowers. When she was asked why she was dressed for the first time she replied saying “Today I saw a man for the first time”.

These stories are related to the differing attitudes of Kashmiris to the two Sheikhs: Sheikh Nooruddin is revered by both Hindu and Muslim Kashmiris alike as a harmonizing force, the embodiment of Kashmiriyat. Sheikh Hamadani, revered by Kashmiri Muslims as a saint and true man (Insan Kamil), is resented by some Hindus as a Muslim supremacist.

The Kashmiri Sufi poet Shams Faqir paid tribute to Lal Ded (Lalla) in the following poem:

O you enlightened one,
Recognize the vital air and attain gnosis
To realize God:
Real worship is performed
In life’s workshop itself:
What the holy scriptures truly mean
By “the house of idols”;
Lalla achieved the fusion
Of her vital air and ether,
And thus realized God;
Sodabhai (on the other hand) got lachrymose,
What would he ask of the stone image?
Lalla dropped the pitcher of water
Inside the house of idols
And attained god-realization:
Intoxicated (as a mystic) she contrived
To bathe at the confluence of ‘sixteen rivers’,
And she built a ‘bridge’
Across the ocean of temporal existence;
She knocked off the Devil’s head
And gained self-recognition;
The ‘unskilled carpenter’,
Having built the palace in wilderness,
Learnt a lesson from Lalla!
She had to bear with the stone
Her mother-in-law kept concealed
In the plate of rice served to her
(She stood to gain from this austerity);
Lalla went to Nunda Rishi’s to teach him her doctrine –
What the rinda mystics call gnosis (irfaan);
She played ‘hide and seek’ with Shah Hamdan
And had a direct ‘encounter’ with God;
O, you learned Shams,
The sun does not have a shadow;
Lalla ascended to heaven like a cloud,
Realize God (as she did).

quoted from:
Lal Ded: The Great Kashmiri Saint-Poetess
Edited by: Dr. S. S. Toshkhani
Proceedings of the National Seminar
Conducted by Kashmir Education, Culture and Science Society,
B-36, Pamposh Enclave, New Delhi – 110 048
November 12, 2000

Varieties Of Liberation Theology

Liberation Theology is normally associated with Latin American Catholicism. However, it can be understood as a radical tendency existing within all the major world religions, which each contain currents emphasising the following themes:

* working with the poor
* challenging authority
* seeking liberation in this life as well as the next
* favouring activism over contemplation

Liberation theology focuses on the needs of the poor and, in their interest, is prepared to challenge political and ecclesiastical hierarchies. In Latin America, the prototype was Bartolomé De Las Casas (1484 – 1566), a Dominican priest who became Bishop of Chiapas (the area which in recent times gave birth to the Zapatista movement). Against the grain of Spanish colonialism, De Las Casas envisioned a just society where indigenous people would co-exist peacefully and freely with the colonists instead of as slaves.

In the 20th Century, an important figure was Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, assasinated in 1980. Previously a conservative, Romero inclined to liberation theology after a Jesuit colleague was killed for creating self-reliant groups among poor peasants. When the government refused to investigate, Romero spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assasinations and torture, until the death squads killed him too.

Within Hinduism, Gandhi pioneered liberation theology. He successfully challenged the colonial power, and he also challenged the orthodox Hindu authorities, particularly with regard to untouchability, which led to his assasination by a Hindu extremist in 1948. Gandhi practiced karma yoga, the path to liberation through work, which in his case meant social and political activism. Gandhi combined the traditional Indian ideal of non-violence (ahimsa) with the Christian ideal of active love, to produce satyagraha, the theory and practice of non-violent direct action. Later, satyagraha was successfully adopted by Martin Luther King, another major figure in the history of liberation theology.

Sheikh Amadou Bamba of Senegal (1853 – 1927) offers a great example of liberation theology in an Islamic context. Founder of the Mouride Sufi movement, Bamba led a non-violent struggle against French colonialism. The French exiled and tortured him, which only strengthened his movement. Notably, Bamba emphasised work as a spiritual practice, and his followers are renowned for their industriousness, being involved in many economic enterprises throughout Senegal, such as groundnut cultivation.

In Sri Lanka the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement uses traditional Buddhist teachings such as the Four Noble Truths and the Wheel of Life to improve worldly conditions such as sanitation and food cultivation.

Reflections On Satyagraha

Activating our soul isn’t easy, and finding a way to change the world through soul-power (God we need it) can be even harder. This is the meaning of Satyagraha, the term first introduced by Mahatma Gandhi to describe his campaign in South Africa, now made into an opera by Philip Glass. Satyagraha the opera places Gandhi’s life in a mythological context, showing how Gandhi was first inspired by the Bhagavad Gita and the figures of Tagore and Tolstoy, and how he in turn came to be an inspiration to others, notably Martin Luther King.

At the start of the opera we see Gandhi inhabiting the mythical battlefield between the Pandava and Kaurava clans, together with the hero Arjuna and the god Krishna. Just as Arjuna is caught between the competing claims of the two clans, towards both of whom he feels loyalty, so Gandhi is caught between the rival claims of the British empire and the Indian people, towards both of who he feels loyalty. Just as Arjuna’s soul (Atman) is activated by Krishna’s wise counsel that he must have the courage to do his duty in the face of life’s conflicts, so too is Gandhi’s. The scene ends with the solemn vow of Brahmacarya, as Gandhi / Arjuna promises to dedicate his life to courageous service.

Mobilising the soul as an active force in human politics and the affairs of the world is no easy task, and Gandhi draws hostility, ridicule and even violence upon himself as he adopts the dress and lifestyle of a renunciate. Yet the ways of the spirit are subtle, and profoundly affect the human sphere through what appear, on the surface, to be simple acts, but which are imbued with great symbolism and resonance. We see this played out  as Gandhi and his followers burn their identity cards (‘passes’) to protest against the racist laws of the time. This simple act is incredibly liberating, both spiritually and politically, and lifts them to a new plane of existence.

Satyagraha is ‘the surgery of the soul’, because it is a method for bringing about a profound change of heart in ourselves and others which leads to political and social change. The Satyagrahi must be courageous and willing to sacrifice his or her own well-being in order to demonstrate truth. It is only the courageous demonstration of truth that can touch the soul of the oppressor, and cause him to change or at least relent. This, finally, is the meaning of Satyagraha – that profound, long-lasting change, whether personal or political, must originate from within, and the only method that ultimately works is one based on understanding and harnessing the soul.

Fundamentalism and Interpretation

Major religious figures such as the Buddha, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed revealed eternal truths in specific times and places. The truths they revealed must be understood within those contexts. We might prefer, if it were possible, to receive the eternal truth context-free, but then we would be even less able to relate it to our own lives and draw practical conclusions. Even though the world has changed since our great religious teachers, the basic context — being human — has not.

Religious scholars from all traditions have applied great effort to the ongoing process of interpreting the original teachings in ways that apply today. It is difficult to be both faithful and relevant, and not all get the balance right. If they get the balance wrong they achieve neither faithfulness nor relevance. The fundamentalists are desperate to cling on to the literal meaning of every single word, and in doing so they lose the spirit of the original teaching. The modernists are desperate to update the teaching, and in doing so they distort the tradition and throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Within both Judaism and Islam there are sophisticated schools of jurisprudence, which seek to apply the holy law today. The Talmud contains a record of how rabbis have applied the Torah in particular times and places, with their reasoning and discussions. Islam developed four main schools of jurisprudence (fiqh), and the process of interpretation (itjihad) continues today.

It is important to understand attitudes towards itjihad when studying Islamic fundamentalism. Interestingly, the modern Islamic movements most associated with fundamentalism, such as Wahhabi and Salafi, sought to reinterpret Islam, rather than accept the previous interpretations handed down by generations. Their interpretation was very much about taking Islam back to basics, trying to live exactly as the Prophet and his companions would have lived, and strongly rejecting anything they saw as ‘innovation’. But by rejecting the tradition of interpretation handed down through generations they in fact lost touch with the living essence of Islam, relating instead to an idealised version of the religion that they themselves had invented.

The beauty of the religions is their appearance in particular times and places, and their ongoing relevance today. God mercifully provided specific guidance for real human situations.  Specificity in religion is a strength, not a weakness. There is a parallel with art here: no painting or novel would show anything true or beautiful were it not for the specific detail. The skill of the artist is to take a specific scene and, while being true to it, lift it beyond the mundane. God has done the same, by offering real people the solutions to their actual, mundane problems, and at the same time revealing eternal truth.

Politics and Religion

The two basic points are 1) every religion has a valid political dimension 2) every religion has suffered from being harnessed to political interests which have no basis in religion.

Buddhism has a valid political dimension. The Buddha gives clear advice to rulers in the Kutadanta and Cakkavatti-Sihanada Suttas. Islam and Judaism have more obvious political dimensions because both Mohammed and Moses were law-givers. The Qur’an and Torah both provide the bases for legal systems to govern polities of various shapes and sizes.

The Qur’an and the Torah both combine the eternal and the temporal, and this reveals the nature of politics. God is eternal and Truth is eternal, but the actual, temporal conditions in which man finds himself are far from God. Man must find a way back to God so, through the prophets, God reveals His spiritual truths and His laws for good-living.

Politics is an aspect of humanity’s collective striving for good. In our political activity we should be guided by the religious truths to which we are the heirs, but we must not make the mistakes of over-literalism, dogmatism, sectarianism, etc. which have so bedevilled our civilisation.

Within the Islamic world the Islamist tendency over-emphasises the political dimension of Islam at the expense of the spiritual. Because it is has lost connection with the loving aspect of God it is prepared to contemplate or perform violence and terrorism to accomplish its sectarian goals. Islamism has more in common with Trotskyism than it does with Islam.

Although Islamism is a corruption of Islam, this does not mean that Muslims should withdraw entirely from the political sphere. On the contrary, it is important that Muslims who are in touch with the spiritual heart of their religion should be socially and politically engaged, in order to reduce the space available to Islamists. Muslims have an important role to play combating the ever-strengthening tide of greed, materialism, addiction, violence and environmental destruction. Organisations like Christian Aid provide an example of how religious people can make vital contributions if they engage with the key political issues of our time.


January 2008

As many of us come from a Christian background, one of the main things we consciously or unconsciously expect from a religion is forgiveness. Christianity’s starting point is our imperfection, our inability to keep moral laws (mitzvah), the fact that we are ‘sinners’. Christ embodies God’s forgiveness. His role is to restore our relationship (Covenant) with God despite the fact that we are unable to keep moral discipline ourselves.

I think we can say with some confidence that some of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s disciples have trouble keeping moral discipline. Some of us are ‘sinners’ who need forgiveness. We need to forgive ourselves, and we would like to be forgiven by others. When forgiveness from others is in short supply it can be difficult to have the confidence to forgive yourself.

The opposite of forgiving yourself is blaming yourself. It took me a long time to stop blaming myself for my failure to keep my moral discipline and fulfil the mission my spiritual guide had given me, of setting up Dharma Centres in Mexico. Learning not to blame myself doesn’t mean ignoring the faults that led to my downfall. For me it means looking at the wider context, and understanding that my downfall was a dependent-arising, and my own faults were just part of the story.

Given the type of person I was, with the limited skills I had, it was almost inevitable that I would fail. But as Hazrat Ali said, “failure is my greatest teacher”. I have learned a lot about myself as a result, and I have been forced to look at some of the parts of myself that I least wanted to see.

I think that one of the real challenges for Buddhism in the West – not just the NKT – is whether it can incorporate forgiveness. If it cannot, then maybe it will not flourish here. As with all these things, we are the ones who have to make it happen, we can’t be waiting around expecting others to do it. We need to forgive ourselves and others. If we can truly practice forgiveness then us `sinners’ can make Buddhism in the West great. Christianity is a religion for sinners which has produced great saints. Can Buddhism be the same?

A few years after I disrobed I had a dream. The dream was set 500 years in the future (about 2500CE). Kadampa Buddhism was flourishing. A group of historians were reviewing the different phases of its development. They concluded that the first generation, the Old Kadampas, were saints. The second generation, the New Kadampas, were scholars and yogis, and the third generation, the New New Kadampas were criminals! They had succeeded BECAUSE they were able to come to terms with and deal with their impurity — they had not made the mistakes of denial and holier-than-thou pretence.

Wishful dreaming on my part, no doubt. And there are many New New Kadampas practising purely to whom the word criminal certainly doesn’t apply. But to those of us who are ‘criminals’ I think we have a great part to play if we can really learn to forgive ourselves and others.

An Interview with Humanists – by Sally Bannister

April 2009

Jane Bannister is chairperson of Dorset Humanists and is involved in Bournemouth’s Big Green Fortnight in May 2009.  Dennis Bannister is currently holding a series of talks on Evolutionary Theory at Bournemouth U3A.  In this interview, they both give their personal take on the Humanist perspective.  Their responses are not necessarily representative of the Dorset Humanist group or the British Humanist Association.  They both embrace a secular approach to Humanism.  The interview begins as a formal Q&A session and evolves into a more in depth discussion, particularly regarding the issue of dogma.

Sally Bannister: What does the word ‘Humanism’ mean to you?

Jane Bannister: To me it means trying to lead a good life without the need for a religious influence.

Dennis Bannister: I’d say it was freedom of thought, being totally free to think as you wish, experiencing a lack of dogma.

SB: What do you mean by ‘a good life’?

JB: Making the most of our potential as human beings which I think would come from doing our best to try and help other people’s lives to become better, starting from our family and working out from there.  This indirectly improves the quality of our own life.

SB: What would you say was the most important guiding principle in life?

DB: Empathy.

JB: Love.

SB: What is Love?

DB: Sympathy; empathy; self-sacrifice; desire for another person’s happiness.

SB: Does the Humanist movement have an agenda? If so, what is it?

JB: Humanists like myself focus on campaigns against injustices imposed by religious institutions, but Humanists vary so much.  There would be people that don’t agree with this approach and feel we should remove religion altogether from public life and make it a purely private concern.

DB:  One of the Humanist agendas is to give people who don’t hold religious beliefs a voice, for instance in the education system.  We oppose single-faith schools.  Humanist organisations strive to represent all those non-religious people who need to speak up against the enforcement of religious viewpoints in law/statutes/politics/education/marriage/civic ceremonies etc.   The secular perspective should be acknowledged as a choice but it is often overlooked in our society as Church and state are still combined.

SB: What about injustices that are not imposed by religion? Are these not of concern to Humanists?

JB: We tend to focus on religious injustice in particular because part of the reason for forming the Humanist group is to offer support and help to those people that are being discriminated against by religious institutions.  Our gay and lesbian members say they feel comfortable with the Humanist philosophy as religious organisations can often be archaic in their official stance on sexuality.

SB: Mark Vernon was a guest speaker at the Dorset Humanist group.  He claims that the diversity of different forms of Humanism is a strength.  Would this lack of consensus amongst Humanists not make it harder to form a set of distinct guidelines for humans to live by?

DB: It is a splinter group, which doesn’t make for effective policy forming.

JB: Even within Dorset Humanist group there is a division between those people that feel we should form a set of aims and objectives, and those who feel this would be too dogmatic.

SB: Are you happy to be defined negatively (i.e. by what you don’t believe) and does this not alienate potential Humanists?

JB:  Yes this could be alienating which, of course, is something we would want to avoid.  We recently had Jonathan Miller as a guest speaker at the Dorset Humanists.  He isn’t religious, but feels that he shouldn’t have to have a label such as ‘Humanist’ or ‘atheist’.  The word ‘atheist’ means without God, rather than against God.  He said that although he doesn’t believe in the tooth fairy he is not forced to have a label for this lack of belief, and so claims it is equally ridiculous to feel the need to adopt a label for anything else that he doesn’t believe exists.

SB: Do you see any positive role for religion either in society or for the individual?

DB: For the individual, if that’s what they wish to believe, but not for society.

SB: Is there ever a time when it is better to believe something that is not true? For example, a bereaved mother that lost her child under especially unpleasant circumstances, such as a murder, might have her happiness overshadowed by an overwhelming sense of loss for the rest of her life.  If she is to believe that she will be reunited with her child in heaven (a falsehood, in your eyes) her pain will be greatly reduced.

JB:  If that belief helps relieve her suffering then it’s fine to hold it, as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else.   Ideally she would come to terms with her loss through bereavement counselling.

DB: No. It’s better to feel pain than delude yourself.

SB: Is being a Humanist likely to lead to individual happiness and fulfilment more than spiritual belief/activity.  If so why?

JB: I think it depends on the individual.  For me it works as I feel it gives me freedom to take responsibility for myself.  If a person thinks that there is some higher force/omnipotent being in their life then maybe feelings of freedom would be reduced.  Having said that, a religious person can get a lot of fulfilment from their beliefs and so it is up to the individual to decide what makes them happy.  Humanism does not function to stop people having religious belief, it exists to ensure that people without religious belief can go about their life without other peoples faith impinging upon their freedom or welfare.  The only time a Humanist believes there is need for more active interference is when people’s health is put at risk by a society’s predominant religion.  The act of female genital mutilation might be an example of this, or the refusal to use contraception in countries where there is an AIDS epidemic.

SB: This sense of freedom is something that one of the original secular Humanist thinkers, Jean-Paul Satre, discussed.  Religious systems of belief often attribute a meaning to life that has value over and above the individual.  Existentialists, such as Satre, claimed the reverse – that ‘existence comes before essence’.  In this sense there is no moral yard stick or standard external to oneself by which an individual can measure their behaviour.  Satre’s perspective can be criticised for potential moral relativism.  He also admitted himself that the immense freedom that a person has thrust upon them by their very existence can be nauseating and causes great anxiety. How does the Humanist deal with these criticisms?

DB: An understanding of science and evolution is important with regards to the first point.  We’ve evolved as social creatures.  Society couldn’t exist if it didn’t have moral codes of conduct.  People recognise that in order to protect the welfare of their society/group it’s in their interest to behave in a considerate way towards other members of that group – it is in our instinct as human beings.  That ‘group’ can include all members of the world.  With regards to the point about moral freedom being a great burden – maybe religion is there as a crutch for the weak minded that can’t come to terms with this uncomfortable responsibility.

SB: A naturally evolved morality is a nice idea, but we don’t have to look far to see that the world is full of violence and aggression – both directed internally – towards our own social network, and directed towards other peoples countries.

DB: Throughout history, violence and religion have been intertwined.  The dogmatic nature of religious institutions has meant that religion has often been used to justify acts of violence ‘for the greater good’.

SB: This might be true, but do you not feel that this is more an indication of human tendency, particularly when in power, to become dogmatic.  Shouldn’t the way a person holds their beliefs be even more important than the beliefs themselves?  For instance, most of us agree that democracy is a favourable political system to dictatorship yet the valuable approaches of liberalism and democracy have been dogmatically and aggressively forced upon other societies by the West.   Usually the real reasons for war involve power and greed, and the excuses given by leaders are whatever they can get their hands on at the time.  ‘Political freedom’ is currently the fashionable excuse used by western politicians to justify aggression towards other countries.  This is a secular excuse, not a religious excuse. If Humanists believe that dogma is a bad thing, and believe that there is something intrinsic to religion that is dogmatic, then one would have to conclude that in order to eradicate dogma from society we would have to eradicate religion.  But we also know that there are many atheists that can be dogmatic, just as we know that there are many religious people that are very accepting of other people’s alternative beliefs.  Is there not a danger that Humanists appear to claim that religion has a monopoly on dogma?

DB:  This might be because religious people are so certain that they are right, and so there is a lack of flexibility and an inability to move with the times due to the fact that they are often referring to documents that are hundreds of years old for their moral guidance.

SB: Do you not feel, though, that there is a difference between having confidence in one’s own beliefs and being inflexible?  Rigidity comes from a lack of willingness to cooperate with others or attempt to understand their viewpoint.  Both religious and non-religious people can be guilty of this.  Would it not be more constructive for Humanists to focus on those moral concepts that they share with religious believers/that unite us as human beings, and work from there, rather than paying great attention to the differences?  Many of the principles that you both mention at the beginning of the interview would be happily endorsed by pretty much anyone.  There are many religious people who acknowledge that dogmatic attitudes hold human beings back from communication, cooperation and peaceful relationships.

DB: 30 – 40% of the British population are non-religious and have no adequate representation in the areas I mentioned earlier.  That is why our activities centre on the non-religious.  It is not that we are trying to exclude anyone, but we do feel that there is a growing minority in the world, particluarly the west, whose interests are being overlooked.  This is not only a problem for the individuals concerned but is also a problem for society as a whole.  Religious believers and leaders will often monopolise moral debate, sometimes ignoring or holding back scientific progress.  The non-religious need a moral voice-piece.  Humanist organisations attempt to provide that.

SB: In relation to this issue of scientific progress, some people argue that religious influence will decline as society advances scientifically.  This suggestion does not seem to be supported by the example set by the United States.  The U.S. is considered to be one of the most scientifically advanced countries in the world yet its percentage of adults who adhere to “no religion”’ is below 10%.   Across the globe religion plays a significant part in the personal, social and political life of many individuals.     If Humanist groups are keen to see a world free from indoctrination and dogma, could they not set a precedent by forming a set of secular principles/moral guidelines that did not have secular belief as a prerequisite?  These principles would still be secular in the sense that their endorsement would not be dependent on religious belief.  They would also be characterised by a mature pragmatism and universal appeal.

JB: I will put that idea forward to the Dorset Humanist group for discussion.