23 January 2009

No Really, Some of My Best Friends Are Human

Clicking idly along a string of links from a friend's LiveJournal brought me to the "Are You a Humanist?" quiz at the British Humanist Association website.

Now, it's possible I'm reading too much into a harmless piece of fun on the internet. But the notes do state that the quiz is "a more or less serious set of questions designed to help you think about whether you are committed to a religious view of the world, and how this affects your moral beliefs," so I feel entitled to be equally "more or less serious" in investigating its assumptions.

Although the quiz is of the "which of these statements do you agree with?" type, the introductory spiel does specify that you're allowed to choose as many answers as apply. That being the case I actually get twenty answers from the ten questions, but never mind. While I get three or four each of the As, Bs and Cs, I end up with nine Ds -- and it would have been a full 10 if question 3 hadn't appended a stunningly mendacious question-begging rider to the end of that option ("How did the Universe begin? D. The scientific explanations are the best ones available -- no gods were involved.").

Since the Ds are clearly the desirable answers, why doesn't this make me a humanist? According to the interpretive notes, "Humanists don't agree about everything, and you may have collected some other answers too, though if they include As and Bs you’re unlikely to be a humanist."

Well, possibly. It's clear that some of the As ("I can tell right from wrong by... A. reading a holy book or listening to a religious leader") are supposed to be expressive of an uncompromisingly fundamentalist position (so much so, in fact, that it's obvious the quiz compiler has never bothered actually listening to any religious people, but instead has been conversing with a tiny straw man they carry round in their pocket for the purpose). Others, however ("Animals should be treated... A. with respect because they are part of God' s creation"), are ones from which even the most liberal of christians could hardly withhold their assent. (Admittedly I also agree with both the C and D options there, albeit I wouldn't claim C as a philosophical position.)

It's clear enough that the quiz is designed to distinguish between humanists and people "committed to a religious view of the world" -- the elephant in the room being the assumption that these two philosophies are incompatible. Said assumption being in turn, and with all due respect to the B.H.A. and the invaluable social service they provide in the form of, for instance, funeral services for families of a non-religious persuasion, a quivering pile of bollocks.

The fundamentals of humanism -- which emerged as an essentially christian movement during the Renaissance -- are the value and dignity of human life, and the centrality of human freedom and aspirations to the decisions we make about the present and future. I mean, surely. Aren't they?

All of which are things I believe absolutely, based on my religious faith. I'm also very happy to get behind the B.H.A.'s "Vision" of "A world without religious privilege or discrimination, where people are free to live good lives on the basis of reason, experience and shared human values." Honestly, how could I not?

You see, that thing about humanity being created in God's image (see question 8, where it seems the strongest argument the B.H.A. can muster in response is the frankly feeble "Other people matter and should be treated with respect because... D. we will all be happier if we treat each other well")... it's not an anomaly, or a concession, or a platitude. It's the absolute bedrock of anything I'd recognise as christianity.

Christian humanism is a vibrant and fertile philosophical tradition in its own right, as even Wikipedia seems to be aware. (Hell, even the B.H.A. website itself acknowledges that such thinking has existed.) So why does the B.H.A. elect to define humanists as "atheists and agnostics who make sense of the world using reason, experience and shared human values"? Why not just people who do that, for God's sake? Or for Allah's sake, or the Buddha's, or for the sake of our common humanity, or for the sake of future generations or of society or...

...well, for pity's sake, basically. If the B.H.A. are honestly committed to "A world without religious privilege or discrimination," why do they actively exclude the large numbers of people whose humanism derives from, or walks hand-in-hand with, a religious faith? Can it really be sheer prejudice?

Or do they really want to be the British Atheist Foundation? Because, honestly, I wouldn't have a problem with that, if they had the nerve. Meanwhile, they're co-opting a word I've used for years to describe myself, and telling me I'm not allowed it any more. And that pisses me off.

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