By Jeremy Rodell, Humanists UK
I’m a humanist (and an atheist), but I spend time with people of faith and encourage fellow humanists to do the same.
Confusing? Well, I’m the (volunteer) Dialogue Officer for Humanists UK – and this is the crux of my work.
Of course, you may be thinking:
What on earth is a “Dialogue Officer”? And why are “humanists” interested in dialogue with religious people? Who are they anyway?
I’ll come to the dialogue bit in a minute. Let’s start with humanists first.
You may think they’re just the same as ‘atheists’, right? Well, there’s a bit more to it than that…
Humanism: What’s it all about?
So, what is humanism? Well, firstly, humanism isn’t a religion. And humanists are big on free-thinking, so you’ll find plenty of different definitions.
But, as well as free thought, there are a few things on which most would agree.
Firstly: the view that science and evidence provide the best way to find out about the world. That means being willing to change your mind when new evidence comes along.
But, it’s also the reason why humanists generally don’t believe in a god or any sort of afterlife. They just don’t see any evidence for either of them and see religions as human creations.
That means that there’s no external source of morality. Instead, most humanists would say it emerges from the fact that we are social animals who need to be able to get along. Our natural ability to empathise, to communicate well and to apply reason are the tools that enable us to decide what is right and wrong.
It’s no coincidence that the Golden Rule — treat others are you would wish to be treated if you were in them — has come up in different forms in all sorts of human societies, going back at least to Confucius 2500 years ago. It’s there in all the Abrahamic faiths, including Islam.
And we’re still making progress on how to apply it…
As humanists generally don’t think there’s an afterlife, they believe this is the one life we have. Not only does that imply making the most of it, but – given that the Universe has no discernible purpose — it also means creating life’s meaning and purpose for ourselves.
For humanists, the richness of life comes from our relationships with others, the things we do, the experiences we have and the contributions we make.
Humanism is therefore the term for this worldview. It’s broadly shared by a lot of people.
Research undertaken by YouGov for Humanists UK asked non-religious people for their views on:
- What makes something right or wrong
- The role of science and evidence in understanding the universe
- The role of empathy and compassion in moral decisions
The results indicate that around half of non-religious Brits – which amounts to between 1 in 4 and 1 in 5 of the population — have a broadly humanist worldview, regardless of whether or not they know or use the term themselves (in fact — most don’t).
I was a humanist for 20 years before I realised that humanism described what I believed. And that is quite a common story!
Secularism: Protecting human rights
Another principle that most humanists — and many others — agree on is “secularism“. And that leads us towards dialogue.
How? Well, secularism — in the ‘political’ sense as used by most British secularists — has three key elements:
1) Separation of the state from religious institutions or power, so that the state is neutral
2) Guaranteed freedom of religion or belief and expression — including the freedom to change belief — to the maximum degree possible without limiting the rights and freedoms of others
3) Non-discrimination against (or in favour of) anyone simply on the basis of their religion or belief
The main organisation for British humanists is Humanists UK. As well as supporting humanists and other non-religious people to live their lives, the organisation also campaigns against religious privilege, in line with its commitment to secularism.
For example, it thinks state-funded religious schools are divisive and damaging, especially where they select pupils based on their parents’ religion (which in most cases means social selection). Likewise, it also doesn’t think there should be 26 appointed Anglican Bishops sitting in the House of Lords (Iran is the only other country that does anything like this).
In Britain today, the religious and belief landscape is unprecedented. According to the annual British Social Attitudes Survey, just over half of Brits don’t identify with a religion.
Among those who do, there’s a greater variety of faiths than ever before. And in almost every category, including the non-religious, there is diversity.
When you have a complex plural society like that, secularism is surely the only fair basis for running things. It won’t eliminate every problem, but at least it provides a firm foundation on which to build a fair, functioning and free society.
But even if we were perfectly secular – which we’re not — we know there’s still a risk that people from different communities can live “parallel lives”, passing each other in the street but barely interacting with “The Other” in any meaningful way.
That’s not a recipe for a harmonious society, especially if fear, tension and division are exacerbated by current events or phenomena, such as terrorist attacks or unemployment. Muslims and Jews, in particular, are only too aware of how dangerous ill-informed generalisations and prejudices can be.
And that’s why dialogue is so important.
Dialogue: Building bridges and understanding
Dialogue can take many forms. People may engage in philosophical discussions, discuss current affairs, or even carry out joint activities together such as social action projects.
Above all, such dialogue aims to bring people from different backgrounds together for a common good — not to stir adversarial debate and certainly not to proselytise others.
Dialogue helps us listen to others. It helps us to build mutual understanding, and most crucially: it enables us to relate to each other as fellow human beings.
Finding common ground is a crucial part of this. However, engaging in good dialogue doesn’t mean you have to hide or compromise your own deeply held convictions.
Done well, it actually enables us to “disagree better”, understanding the nuances and complexities. This also includes the fact that people with the same religion or belief identity don’t always think the same way or share the same beliefs!
As a humanist, I want to talk with religious people both because I want them to understand me and my humanism better and also because I want to understand them and their faith better too. That’s why Humanists UK has a “Dialogue Officer”.
We want to encourage dialogue and help humanists engage. In a modest way, maybe we can help make our pluralistic society function better.
It’s true that dialogue can’t reach everyone. Fundamentalists are not usually interested in engaging with people of other beliefs.
However, it’s also true that the most difficult battles liberally-minded people face are often with their own fundamentalists, rather than with those from other backgrounds. Dialogue can therefore yield informed allies, as well as friends.
Oh, and it can be fun and fulfilling too!
So, isn’t it time we all started putting dialogue on the agenda?
About the author:
Jeremy Rodell is Dialogue Officer for Humanists UK. He has a particular interest in the changes taking place in the British religion and belief landscape, and the role of open and constructive interactions between people with humanist and religious worldviews.
For many years he has been a humanist school speaker for both Humanists UK and the Faith & Belief Forum.
Find out more about Humanists UK via their website.
The views expressed in this blog are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Voice of Salam.