Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The trouble with labels

I've been asked to supply an account of how I came to be a humanist by my friends at Suffolk Inter-Faith Resource (SIFRE), who'll use it, together with other testimonies, as a training resource to be accessed by schools, colleges, and various statutory and voluntary bodies, including the police and local authority staff.

I first wrote a similar account for a SIFRE publication, Finding Our Way and Sharing Our Stories, written by women from the various local faith communities, and me, some time ago. It needed revision.


The older I get, the less I’m inclined to adopt any label to describe how I view life, the universe, and everything. The trouble with labels is that they encourage laziness. If you’re in a social situation and someone asks you what you do, or what you are, and you tell them, they’ll be inclined to refer to whatever they’ve heard or read about that label and apply it to you. It’s more interesting to be mysterious; to learn about each other through a process of discovery. Labels lead to pre-conceived ideas about what they stand for. If someone identifies him or herself as a Christian or a Muslim, what do you assume about him or her, and his or her attitudes to, say, morality or privilege? You’re likely to be wrong. We form our values and opinions through our experience and the people and ideas that have influenced us, including religious ideas, and we react to these things differently.

So, if I describe myself as a humanist, some may assume that I’m part of a trend towards what a friend calls “fluffy, cuddly humanism”, which can be summarised as simply being good without God. In its campaign for legal humanist weddings in England and Wales, the British Humanist Association has, perhaps unintentionally, given the impression that everyone who has a humanist rite of passage celebration (a humanist ceremony) is a humanist, and that humanism is equivalent to religion, which it isn’t.

Humanism, to me, is a way of thinking, of viewing the world, in the only way we can; as human beings, without reference to any supernatural explanations for life, the universe, and everything. The philosopher Bertrand Russell said, “Many people would sooner die than think. In fact they do.” I'm not sure that he was entirely right, as it seems to me that not thinking isn't necessarily a choice for many; they’re just not very curious. A humanist friend was asked, "Don't you have to be really brainy to be a humanist?" "No," she replied, "you just have to use the brains you've got." Humanism is a philosophy for the insatiably curious, who never stop asking questions. Far from being fluffy and cuddly, humanism can sometimes lead you to lonely places. But it can also be bracing to find yourself in a different place from other people, discovering things for yourself. Humanists habitually ask “Why?” Sometimes, there isn’t an answer – yet.

This approach to life has been described as a scientific one; science is defined as the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment. It’s also been claimed as a philosophical approach, since philosophy is the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence. But we’re back to labels again, and possibly the claims of different disciplines, when a humanist approach to life is limitless. Creative expression through the arts, social innovation, psychology, political theory, the evolving uses of language, are all avenues through which we’re free to explore, if we choose.

How did I get here? As a child, I drove my parents and teachers mad by constantly questioning what I was told. My parents, whose families originated in Scotland, were raised as Presbyterians – a rather dour bunch of non-conformists who disapproved of the pleasures of the senses, particularly on Sundays. Mother, who enjoyed a wee dram, didn’t appear to be wholly convinced by this brand of Christianity and, like many others, developed her own, private version, which didn’t involve going to church. Dad did go to church until his deafness meant he couldn’t follow the services. I was sent to church, and the church youth club, where I got into trouble for arguing with the minister. By the time I was in my early teens, having explored some alternative ways of thinking in the public library and with a friend’s more liberal parents, I announced I didn’t believe any of it, and that was that. I wasn’t put under any pressure to continue going to church. A Quaker RE teacher listened to some of my half-formed ideas and didn’t try to impose any kind of orthodoxy, which helped. By the time I left school at sixteen to work in a bank, religion played no part in my life. It has been an irrelevance ever since.

Going to Art College and university in the 1960s and early 1970s brought me into contact with bright people from a wide range of disciplines, as well as some students whose upbringing had been far more religious than mine. One sad case was a boy who’d been raised a Catholic, and who found it hard to cope with all the students’ sexual activity going on around him. Deeply conflicted, he had a breakdown and was found wandering the streets naked late one night. Another Catholic friend coped by spending a lot of time in the confessional, joking that they’d had to install a loo in there, just for him. At university, studying for a post-graduate teaching qualification with an assortment of graduates from all disciplines, one of my tutors was the mathematician Dick Tahta, who’d inspired Stephen Hawking as a schoolboy. Dick was very keen on existentialism. He took a small group of us for an intense weekend in a remote bungalow owned by the Monkton Wyld Centre in Dorset (my son was fortunate go there, years later, for a holiday organised for bright schoolchildren). To this day, I’m still not sure what the purpose of this weekend was, and I’m none the wiser about existentialism (a rather nihilistic movement), but Dick encouraged us to question just about everything, which some of us did. One friend, a fellow artist, took to spending a lot of time in the garden paying his violin. If I could remember more about it, it would make a good film. Dick was among several of the staff at college and university who encouraged a non-conformist approach to life and although I didn’t end up with particularly impressive qualifications, as I was never very good at sticking to a syllabus, I’ll be forever grateful to them.

It wasn’t until much later, over twenty years later, that I got involved with organised humanism. At that time, the British Humanist Association was a small organisation that campaigned against religious privilege and encouraged non-religious people to openly reject the status quo, where the church claimed the moral high ground and dominated public ceremonial, and children were not taught about alternatives to Christianity, including the free-thinking alternative. I had surgery and treatment for cancer and soon afterwards my parents died within six months of one another. These events led me to consider what sort of funeral my son might arrange for me, as it wouldn’t be appropriate to invite God. Funeral directors only offered religious funerals, so I volunteered to become a humanist celebrant in 1991. In December that year, I founded the Suffolk Humanist group, where like-minded people have met to share ideas and raise awareness of alternatives to religion. The rest, as they say, is history. After those first few years, most people became aware that religious ministers don’t have a monopoly of rite of passage ceremonies, which can be as personal as you choose. What started as a small subversive movement has resulted in a widespread rejection of convention. Humanists still have a role to play, but we’re among many who offer a choice. What most people don’t realise is that we were here first.

Having given over twenty years as a secular subversive, I’m no longer very active in organised humanism, but I’ll be a humanist freethinker until the day I die, unless I go doolally, in which case, I won’t care.

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