This morning Facebook directed me towards a clip from ‘The Big Questions’, a BBC series that runs in the UK. They tackle three questions in an episode and the Big Question the clip is of is this: “Should humanists have equal rights to religions?” To be honest, the question made me laugh. I’ve long believed that humour is a type de-bugging, so I spent a moment trying to understand what logical or discursive error I had laughed at. My best guess is the error being that the question might be relevant in any way. I live in the UK, and I thought we were proudly not bigots. The answer struck me as so patently clear–we should not be bigots–the question became comical.
The question was raised because the UK government vetoed Humanist weddings in England just before Christmas, and they did it very quietly. This was despite their review finding a majority of people were in favour of it. In Scotland, where they used their autonomy allow Humanist weddings in 2005, Humanist weddings are now the third most popular style of wedding, over taking Catholic weddings, and resulting in more marriages as people who identify as Humanists opt for marriage instead of just cohabiting. The question also includes aspects about student education: should Humanism be a part of the Religious Education Curriculum?
To the former question–should Humanist ceremonies be legal–the answer is clearly yes, if we wish to continue being a multicultural and tolerant country. Religion has no monopoly on marriage. The Catholic Church, for example, didn’t declare any rights to define a marriage until it argued (very unbiblically) for monogamy in the 6th century and (sort of) won by the 9th century. But it was a contract between families until 1215 when the Catholic Church decreed any marriage should be public knowledge. Even then, the Church accepted that such contract had been wilfully arranged without requiring a witness until the 16th Century (according to this). Not only that, but marriage appears to be at least 4,350 years old. Religions have no special rights to marriage, except the ones they demanded when they had power (and that’s not a right, that’s tyranny). I don’t think it would be sensible to undo marriage, therefore it should be extended. I find it an interesting concession on religion’s part of acknowledge the marriages of other religions, admitting that no one religion has dominion over marriage, but many religious people still maintain the state should not be able to reclaim dominion over marriages, as has always been the case.
To that latter question (of education), the first speaker demonstrated the need for a ‘yes’ answer. Taiwo Adewuyi, the founder of Discuss Jesus, described Humanism as the “cancer of Thanksgiving” (an odd reference to an American, non-religious, holiday) and “the Devil’s PR; it is a first-class ticket to the sea of wantonness and debauchery”. Taiwo also blamed today’s “very hypersexualised culture”. But Andrew Copson, the Chief Executive of The British Humanist Association describes humanism as “the non-religious worldview that, instead of looking to revelation or authority, we look to reason and evidence to understand the universe. Instead of looking to moral rules that come from outside human beings, we look to other human being to generate value in the here and now… the Humanist view is that men and women, in the course of our lives, create and sustain meaning together…” Given the disparity here, at least one of the speakers would have benefited from an impartial education.
Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain wished to thank Humanists and secularism for a very important contribution they have made to public discourse: freedom of speech. As he points out “freedom of speech was never a religious value… we’ve had to learn it from the secular world.” Another good reason that Humanism should have a position in the British education system.
The last reason I think Humanism belongs in the Religious Studies curriculum is because of the presentation of Humanism as anti-religious. The Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin was “quite puzzled” as to why an organisation “that is anti-religion is then trying to take the religious practices”. Taiwo (he is a bundle of laughs) accuses secularism of “forcing down people’s throats” the “doctrine… that there is no God”. That’s not Humanism. And it makes a similar confusion that I have faced in the comments section of other blogs, so it does need addressing. In the comments section here you will note a blogger called TFBW intentionally equate ‘nontheist activism’ with anti-theism. It’s like calling all feminists “supremacists”. It’s simply a mistake. When there is inequality and the group getting the shorter-end of the deal requests equality, it is not anti-other. Humanists are not necessarily anti-religion; feminists are not necessarily anti-men. It’s a false equivocation. It requires education, but I think the roots of the mistake are easy to discuss.
I have done a study that you too can repeat. Go to YouTube and look for videos where a secular person and a religious person discuss the place of religion or secularism in society. Draw up a table with “Religious” on one side and “Secular” on the other. Then, tally each time someone behaves aggressively: every time someone interrupts, tally that; record everyone who shouts; count the number of times the opposition is, without provocation, compared to a heinous historical event. When I do this I find the religious side to be approximately three times more aggressive than the secular side. (You can repeat this for education, by marking each misrepresentation of the opposition or of facts, or each logical fallacy. But that’s a lot harder to be accurate and unbiased.) I admit that a bulk of the aggression-scoring events are carried out by a subgroup of the religious side (Taiwo, in this example), but the reason for the aggression and simultaneous accusation that the opposition is the one being aggressive can be understood in terms of psychology: loss hurts more than gain pleases.
It is called the Endowment effect; to value things more because you have them. Religion has an artificial special place in society. People believe that marriage is a religious institution, that there should be Bishops in the House of Lords on no greater merit than being Bishops, that religion belongs in politics. In an argument for equality, the religious stand to lose this special position. Because they already have this special position, they value it more highly than people without it value it. Therefore, the greatest invested emotions are on the side that stand to lose. More emotional investment results in a higher probability aggression and ad hominen.