T + 630 Enquiry Conference Part Two

As previously advertised here are my reviews and reflections on the talks delivered at the Enquiry 2010 Conference.

Andrew Copson

Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanism Association, the umbrella organisation for humanist groups in the UK, gave the first talk at the conference.

Always a tricky spot in any conference Andrew gave an excellent talk about the objections to Humanism which went through some of the principle objections people often raise to the idea of being a Humanist and then in turn provide counter-arguments to those objections.

His style and delivery was light and entertaining whilst being extremely erudite and he was able to easily draw on a vast knowledge of some of the key writers on the subject of humanism.

To paraphrase his definition of what humanists believe:-

  • There is natural and scientific understanding of the world without recourse to the supernatural or belief in a deity.
  • Humans have only one life and there is no afterlife.
  • Morals come naturally out of being human.
  • Believe that what is right is that which promotes human welfare
  • Humans can and should create meaning and purpose in their own lives.
You can think of it as a sort of "Atheism+" creating a proactive, positive approach to life and living.

Each of the objections were described in a couple of sentences but also summed up in a more direct and amusing quote which was usually something that had been said directly to Andrew at some point.

These included:

I can't understand why you aren't a rapist.

The argument is that without God it is not possible to have a valid moral code for life. One of the key arguments to counter this is that it is not really a truly moral or good act if you are only doing it because you hope to get reward in the afterlife or avoid punishment and divine retribution. It is a bit like naughty school children only behaving when Sir is in the room.

The actual quote was said to Andrew by a priest and perhaps says more about what the priest thought his moral code was stopping him from naturally wanting to do.

Science can't explain love.

The idea that science can't explain everything and in particular cannot explain the emotions like love and joy is is a charge laid at the door of humanists who are often described as too rational and too dry.

Whether or not science can provide an explanation for the workings of emotions or not is something of a moot point, even though it seems plausible that the further investigation of the structures of the brain and the nature of consciousness will provide a basis for such understanding.

The point is moot because the emotions are not diminished by any physiological explanation of them any more than the enjoyment of listening to a song and being moved by it is undermined by being able to read music or play an instrument.

Richard Dawkins is your Pope

The idea that humanism is just another form of religion with the same goals and structures is expressed by this sentiment.

Andrew's argument against this showed that the ideas behind humanism existed in various forms long before the term was coined in the way it is used now back in the 18th Century. As such it is a term that is applied retrospectively to a number of different movements that have existed in different cultures going back thousands of years.

This idea of humanism basically being a religion was something that would have a lot of resonance throughout the conference especially in relation to humanist communities and humanist chaplains.

Is this all there is?

The idea that because humanists don't believe in an afterlife or a supernatural creator somehow diminishes either humanity or the wonder of human existence is extremely short-sighted and in some ways rather sad.

Richard Dawkins has tackled this with an expansive response along the lines of "yes this is ALL there is" and going on the list all the amazing achievements of humankind and all the joy and wonder that there is in the natural world.

Andrew also quoted in a full a beautiful poem by Matthew Arnold that showed how impoverishing it was to only be looking towards the afterlife.

I have been able to track down the poem "From the Hymn of Empedocles" and quote the relevant part here:-

Is it so small a thing
To have enjoy'd the sun,
To have lived light in the spring,
To have loved, to have thought, to have done;
To have advanced true friends, and beat down baffling foes;

That we must feign a bliss
Of doubtful future date,
And while we dream on this
Lose all our present state,
And relegate to worlds yet distant our repose?


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