The name for not having a religion

I think I was fortunate in my ‘spiritual’ upbringing. My parents sent their children to a Congregational Sunday school, but they never showed any evidence of religious belief and I suspect that was mainly to get us from under their feet on Sunday morning. (This was in the days when children could be trusted to walk a couple of miles by themselves.) And, conveniently, we could collect the ice cream for Sunday lunch from the sweetshop on the way home. I can remember very little of the experience that had anything to do with religion, although I enjoyed the social side of it (including quizzes led by our young teacher instead of bible lessons!) and discussions on all sorts of things, including psychic phenomena and non-belief. I read plenty of books, including Bertrand Russell. I had a sort of kind of type of vague sixties view of a supernatural being until my late teens. And then it just went.

Before I went to University, I discovered the local Young Humanist group, and on going up I found that the university Humanist Group was one of the largest and most active student societies. It had a major speaker every week and a Sunday afternoon discussion. I even joined the committee for a while, although I drifted off as I followed other interests.

The issue came up a while ago as to whether I’m an “atheist”, but I don’t see any reason to call myself that. I don’t like the word. It’s defined by theists, to imply an opposition to their own point of view, regarded as some kind of standard. I simply don’t have a religion. My own lack of belief in any god or supernatural power is exactly the same as my lack of belief in fairies, tree-spirits, ghosts or interstellar teapots. What all these have in common (apart, perhaps, from the teapot) is that people have expressed a belief in them, without presenting any evidence at all. But I don’t call myself an ‘afairyist’ or ‘aghostist’.

There is always the possibility that there is some first cause, ground of existence, transcendent force, Supreme Being or what-have-you, but as it never seems to make its existence known by any effects in the real world I just remain ‘agnostic’ to it.

All the arguments for the existence of God, whatever their merit, are really irrelevant to the real world. People do not practice ‘faith’ or believe in ‘God’ – they practise specific religions, which make very specific assertions about what their god is and what he wants from humans: he was crucified and rose again, he wants you to fast every year and to pray five times a day, or not to work on a Saturday, and always to regard other religions as mistaken. As far as I know, no theologian has ever been able to make that leap by argument from ‘God’ to any specific god that people really believe in. There is only one argument that really matters in religion, and that is ‘my revelation (or my teacher’s revelation) is better than your revelation’. It is at root a remarkably self-centred attitude. I would like to think that one need not be concerned about convincing people to abandon their beliefs, only to convince them not to force the beliefs on other people. However, because of the nature of theistic belief, anyone who believes something different, even another theistic doctrine, will always be a threat and a source of ‘offence’.

In organised religion, this is backed up by force and ultimately violence: ‘God’ threatens retribution if you don’t behave as he wishes, but since he unaccountably fails to do this, it must be enforced by old men, often with beards. And, if that doesn’t work, the young men will come and get you on their behalf.

I guess that, like most people, I could describe myself using various terms. I don’t believe any ontological claim without good reason – that probably makes me a ‘sceptic’ (this is entirely different from denying that something exists, either without evidence or disregarding good evidence). My attitude to discovering what exists is both ‘critical rationalist’ (after Karl Popper) and ‘scientific’. To the (considerable) extent that religious people try to force their beliefs on others, I am a ‘secularist’, that is, someone who thinks that people should be entitled to their beliefs, but that no religion should be an organising principle for society.

It seems clear that the origin of moral beliefs is based on people’s shared humanity, with an innate core of (not necessarily consistent) emotional responses that originated from our evolution as a social species. These beliefs are modified and added to (and not infrequently perverted) by religion and culture. Equally it is possible to modify them and add to them through rational thought, based on what best benefits individuals, society and the wider environment on which we are all dependent. I’d call this a form of ‘humanism’.

Richard Burnham

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How I lost God

Picture the upbringing. Daily bible reading (very selective) and prayers at home. Daily prayer and homilies at school. Church on Sunday. Social life revolving around the church. Harvest suppers and silly games. Visits to hear Billy Graham and Gladys Aylward and the like. Embarrassment on the toilet because God sees us everywhere – all the time. I still remember the terror I felt when one day I accidentally dropped my Bible.

Every letter received was carefully perused by my parents. I was never sure what they expected to find. A school friend lent me a copy of a Bertrand Russell book and its reading was forbidden.

We were aware of other beliefs. Jews were nice people but misguided, Catholics superstitious and, oh, the parental pursed lips when I came home saying I had learned who Mohammed was!

On to university and boyfriends and some debate. I heard the question, “Do you believe in God?” It is hard to credit but it had never occurred to me that there were people who did not. (I know – I find this hard to believe as well.)

I stopped attending church simply from boredom at first, but retained some type of unconsidered beliefs. I married in church but, becoming increasingly doubtful, faced down opposition and did not have my daughter christened. She was brought up without god at home, but he was still a big presence in both her primary and secondary schools. I felt a vague permeating sense of guilt. Should I at least take her to church to give her the chance to make up her own mind?

Years and years of slow decline in belief followed. I read the parts of the bible that had not been selected, and realised what a vicious and vindictive god I had worshipped. Yet I still missed the ritual, the carols at Christmas and the ready-made social life. The whole package is very hard to shake off, especially the feeling that is instilled that those who do not believe are wicked.

I cast around for something else, but I will spare you the details!

I had heard of Humanists, but had met only one or two and knew next to nothing about them. I started reading and talking, and realised this is where I fit. Humanists believe that as we only have one life it is essential to make it the best we can. For ourselves, and of course for others. It came as a massive relief and a revelation akin to St Paul’s that it really is OK not to believe. That there are thousands of people who do not and with better education these numbers would undoubtedly grow.

I feel sad for those who retain weird beliefs, but I understand how easy it is not to question. It is their prerogative to go on believing, but they have no right to inflict this on others in any way, particularly on children.

Helen Taylor

How I became a Humanist

by Sue Falder, Secretary, Shropshire Humanist Group

Like many others of my generation and background, I was brought up within a C of E Christian framework – that is to say it was an accepted part of life to have a reading from the bible every morning in school assembly followed by a hymn, and going to church was a respectable occupation.

My mother, much concerned with what was done, rather than what she herself would like to do, made sure we jumped through the baptism and confirmation hoops, and, since she was musical, attended church regularly to sing in the choir.

I, too, became part of the church choir, became utterly, tediously, familiar with the liturgy and marvelled at the singing and dramatic presentation of the vicar during services. I toyed with ideas of vocation and spirituality, but it dawned on me fairly early on that in fact there was an emptiness in the ritual unless you yourself were prepared to pretend otherwise; and God/religion apparently had no place in the ordinary everyday traffic of life.

Experience taught me that judging people according to pre-conceived notions of what one should or shouldn’t be or do was inappropriate, and I came to the realisation that `right’ and `wrong’ are complex and relative terms.

By the time I was eighteen I privately considered myself an atheist, and I haven’t changed that view since. I have no belief in a supernatural power, in any metaphysical experience which cannot or will not be explained scientifically, or in any version of life after death.

Knowledge of humanism came upon me gradually. I didn’t really recognise it as a philosophy of life or know about its history, but when we wanted a non-religious funeral ceremony for a member of the family I knew that humanist funerals were available. Subsequently I joined the BHA. and began to find out more about what humanism means and has meant.

The more I find out, the more at home I feel within the bounds of the word `humanist’.

Religion – A secular view

By Gordon Hillier

I prepare this note as a person who has only recently become a ‘humanist’ in formal terms – at least as I have interpreted the word ‘humanism’. That, in the simplest terms, is to believe ‘that man controls his own destiny’, In other words, there is not, nor ever has been, a ‘Supreme Being’ or any such supernatural influence upon this planet or upon any processes or living thing hereon.

Through most of my late teens and adult life I became increasingly sceptical of religious teaching of all denominations – for many reasons beyond the scope of these notes. Suffice to say that I accept logical and rational explanations of all events that have occurred on this earth – from the ‘beginning’ (the big bang?) to the present. This includes the evolution of the human race and its behaviour, both individually and collectively, through pre-history to today. The argument that certain things or happenings cannot be explained in purely scientific or holistic terms does not negate my opinion – there is still much to learn! In fact I will accept the idea of a ‘life force’, for want of a better term, which has not, and may never be, defined – but which may exist as a product of animal and human minds and as a product of evolution. After all, what is ‘instinct’ in both the lower animals and in human animals, what controls activities such as migration……?

So I embrace the concept of evolution in the human mind as well as body, from the development of territorial behaviour to protect the group by the dominant male, to the formation of tribes each with different behaviour and customs, and so on to ‘super-tribes’ and thence to nations in historic times. With this simple concept (perhaps expressed here in too simple terms), surely one can understand the progression of humanity to the present potentially catastrophic global situation, where human is pitted against human, nation against nation. The need to protect has now become, by development of a powerful intellect and the acquisition of knowledge about all earthly things, a tool for domination by the powerful over the weak, very often in the name of religion. And so ‘goodness1 and ‘badness’ can be ascribed to human actions, and the effects thereof, which may be good or bad for the society that is involved. Consequently, words such as ‘morality’ and ‘conscience’, which can be (and should be) defined in a nonreligious context, have been taken and exhaustively redefined in many different forms by ‘philosophers’ until the straight-forward meanings relating directly to ‘goodness’ or otherwise, has been obscured by jargon and religious hypocrisy.

Hence, whether a religious institution is Christian, Islamic, Buddhist or any other is of no consequence to me. It is evident to me that their doctrines and teachings give rise equally to goodness and badness in their followers, depending upon the degree of moderation or extremism brought about in the individual human. I cannot believe in the existence of a ‘Supreme Being, God or Gods’ or that such beings could directly control human actions in any way whatsoever. But of course, those with faith in such religion as they may believe in will be influenced to a greater or lesser degree by their teachers in that faith. Their subsequent actions may be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ with respect to other humans, this goodness or otherwise being explained and accepted as having been given by the god or gods of their faith.

With that background in mind, it may be understood that I have had no need for the philosophers and apologists to help my deliberations regarding the acceptance of humanism as my philosophy of life. My sympathy is with those who need to use religion as a comforter and a crutch. Such deliberations are behind me, and no feelings of confusion and doubt remain – I am content.

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