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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.