It would be naïve and dangerous and corrupt to claim that Humanism is beyond criticism, and that its central teachings, organizations, elected representatives, etc, (including myself in my capacity of writer, former BHA Executive Committee Trustee, and one time Secretary of the Manchester Humanists) are in any way beyond criticism or reproach. An organization that tries to appear infallible, is a cult; Humanism is run by people for people, and people make mistakes. Some Humanist journals probably play down the number of critical letters and articles they receive regarding their policies. This should not be. Criticism is healthy. It stops us behaving like priests and gurus.
My advise to anyone joining any ideological, or belief centred organization, from a Church society, to Humanism, to a political party should ask the people already there to tell them any reasons that exist for why they shouldn't join. If the leaders become evasive, or try to claim no such reasons exist, press for news of any criticism or controversies that have arisen in the organization's past, or which are ongoing at the present time. If they claim everything is hunky-dory and tickety boo, and that everyone is happily smiling and getting along fine with no such problems, then leave. They are not being honest.
So; what are the central problems with Humanism in Britain today?
1/. The various Humanist bodies; British Humanist Association, Rationalist Press Association, and South Place Ethical Society, etc, don't always see eye to eye. The BHA's abortive decision in 1997 to move from the shared headquarters of the main organizations in Theobald's Road, London, provoked much anger from BHA members who want such alliances upheld, especially from members who support more than one of the organizations involved. Solutions - Generally, the groups do get on, bar from occasional angry letters in their respective journals; and a change of premises by one or more such groups from that which they currently share shouldn't mean they can't live together ideologically too. As an organisation grows, it inevitably requires more space for its growing staff and resources. The BHA has always been more membership and recruitment focused than its smaller rivals, and so may be the main group likely to want to move on and upwards. It won't mean that it has departed from its kindred organizations on bad terms. Just because someone moves out of the parental home to set up his or her own family doesn't mean they won't writer, phone, stay in touch and visit home from time to time. People seem to see the BHA, RPA, SPES and NSS alliance as a binding permanent nuclear family relationship, but the day of a geographical parting may prove inevitable as the organizations grow. Members of any and each of the groups should learn to respect the interests, and know the nature and history of their relationships to one another. No one should, (but some do) write scurrilous, badly researched pieces of papparatzi doggeral in magazines critisising one group or another, for mischief and embarrassment making purposes, and catch the groups in a silly season trap from which they end up defending themselves and issuing apologetic statements to clear their reputations. Such infighting is juvenile and pointless. It ultimately leaves organizers of all the groups feeling their work is getting nowhere, and leads to a great deal of depression and frustration.
2/. Criticism must be constructive and not simply abusive heckling. If you feel the need to critisise some area of Humanist activity, policy making, etc; check with the people you are critisising first, as to whether they have a view on the matter. Always give the people being critisised a right to reply. It is unfair for someone to find they have been savaged in a report written in some Humanist magazine or newsletter without having received a simple phone call, e-mail message, or letter inviting them to have their say first.
3/. If criticised, in a letter to their own group, or organization, some Humanists will shelve the letter and not print it up, but will use letters praising their policies in other areas. We should not be so resentful of criticism, but should welcome and embrace it.
4/. Criticism should focus on a particular area of a Humanist group's activity and not try to imply that the group is wrong in everything it says and does (unless that view is your criticism). If the group has done other work that you feel merits praise, you should always say so in the critique being issued. Don't complain for the sake of it. Don't disrupt meetings addressing other issues to air a grievance.
5/. Humanism tends to have a strong middle class intellectual bias. It is vital that we widen our audience appeal. Many people have not had the benefit of a college and/or university education but will still want to believe that they are Humanists as they don't believe in some supernatural entity or other. A few times I have seen people at local and national meetings looking baffled because the level of discussion has been too articulate and over their heads. Such people seldom come back. It is not their fault, but the fault of the established Humanists failing to address their concerns in terms graspable by the man in the street. Some few (I emphasize a minority here) Humanists come across as pompous windbags to me, frankly and try to engage a speaker or guest in a monologue rather than asking a question. We should keep questions short to allow others to speak, and co-operate more with our MC's and Chairpersons. Many Humanists, like rude children, interrupt and hog the speaker's attention, and this runs the risk of making meetings look like politicians in the House Of Commons during Prime Minister's Question time. Stop it now, please.
6/. Humanism tends to underplay its radical, atheistic, agnostic roots. Many definitions of Humanism, in trying to promote Humanism as a positive social force. (Which it certainly is), fail to address the important point that we are a non-religious ethical approach to life. This leads to some confusion, and has even on occasion lead people with strong religious beliefs to consider joining a Humanist group. They generally leave quickly once they realize where they are, but clearer presentation of our views on such matters would save them, and us much embarrassment.
7/. Humanists are often uncompromising and insensitive to people not sharing their beliefs. An American Humanist e-mailed me earlier this year to tell me that when he told members of his group that he believed in ESP precognition due to personal experiences, the other members of the group not only challenged that view, but positively turned unpleasant with him on the matter. He wrote to me in considerable emotional distress to seek assurances that he wouldn't get similar short shrift from Humanists elsewhere. I hope not.
8/. Our middle class pretentiousness can border on the snobbish and make us seem very insular. When I suggested some popular writers and singers as possible supporters of Humanism, one reply I got was that such a move would cheapen us, and that we might as well associate with 'The Spice Girls'. To this I have to ask, why not the Spice Girls? I ask this only suggestively, as their personal beliefs are unknown to me. The girls have a popular following, mostly among the younger generation, and Humanism always laments its lack of younger members, and the girls have made 'girl power' a catch phrase of contemporary feminism. Surely the 'girls' if they show an interest in Humanism, would be ideal supporters for us? The publicity alone would make that worth while. See my article onPOPULAR CULTURE to see more on how we should widen our popular appeal.
9/. Some members are critical of British Humanism having an official list of distinguished supporters at all; but the fact is that such support works. People frequently ask me who we have association with that is famous, or a leading light in some field of social activity. If anything, we need more distinguished supporters, not fewer. Some members criticise us for having distinguished supporters who pay nothing to have such status; whilst ordinary members pay membership and subscription fees. This is because a distinguished supporter is in effect granting us official permission to use his/her name for our publicity purposes. We can hardly have them pay us for using them as walking billboards can we? Also, their work means they have less time to attend meetings and meet fellow Humanists or benefit from their Humanism in the way most British Humanists can do.
Who should or shouldn't support us at a distinguished level? Generally; to me any one who's life and work is celebrated or distinguished, and who happens to have Humanistic leanings. If someone is a leading scientist, associated with a particular field of research, as Sir Hermann Bondi (honorary President of the BHA) has excelled in astronomy, and who has expressed strongly a view that there is no God, or no cause to believe in a God, they should be invited. If someone has excelled in the arts or politics, or popular entertainment fields, they should be invited, providing they have a Humanistic inclination. A few suggestions raised by myself, and others in British Humanism have been turned down unnessacarily; as the selectors (elected heads of the respective Humanist Organizations) have either not heard of them personally, dislike a particular film or show they were in once, or feel that the nominated celebrity has either a/. been too vocal about his/her atheism, or b/. not vocal enough about it.
I believe such criteria is too closeted and guarded by far. To me; if a celebrity or a leading politician has a Humanistic leaning, isn't religious, no history or convictions for crimes against humanity, etc; then they should receive an invitation to be an official distinguished supporter. To me, not inviting someone as a distinguished supporter, is no better than denying them an ordinary membership. Would those who turn their noses up at the film work of a particular actor go so far as to excommunicate that actor from membership of our group if that actor was an ordinary member? No; of course not, so there is no reason not to invite him or her in as a supporter either. We cannot afford to be as choosy or picky as we are about who our distinguished supporters are. We should be reaching every potential Humanist we can; not selectively breeding for the ones we like personally.
10/. Criticism should be open, and candid. No one should be resented or ostrasized or suppressed for daring to suggest other Humanists are wrong about anything. We make mistakes because that is a human thing to do. We correct them when we find them too. We do not sweep such worries under the carpet and carry on regardless.
11/. Secrecy is something we definitely don't need. I believe all documentation should be open to public view in the BHA, and from local groups. The only exception should be personal membership addresses and contact details; I represent the BHA as its spokesman to the Campaign For The Freedom Of Information Act, and I believe it would be wrong and hypocritical for us to support such a worthy act in the wider social, political arena, if we are not prepared to be totally open about our own activities. There are Humanists who think criticism gets us a bad press and so it should therefore be kept ultra hush-hush. I believe we should operate in total glasnost and abense of secrecy. I have always been shockingly open and candid about the darker aspects of my life. I used to have the fact that I was in a cult on my CV for potential employers to read; the alternative was to lie about what I was up to between 1981-85 or leave that area of my life blank. We need criticism, honesty and transparency.
© Copyright. Arthur Chappell
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