In the UK today, many people are very sceptical of religious claims to truth and hold values which are broadly humanist. There is a growing community of people who explicitly use the term ‘humanist’ of themselves. In doing so they refer to their positive affirmation of life and nature and our place within it all.
A popular message and a ‘New Atheism’
There has been a tremendous public and media interest about non-religious belief in the UK in recent years. There has been a surge of discussion about ‘New Atheism’ prompted by BHA Patron Richard Dawkins‘ book The God Delusion. Some have a feeling that as church authority wanes and secular advances are made, organised religion is lashing out (in its ‘death throes’, according to BHA Vice President, A C Grayling).
There was a great outpouring of support for the ‘Atheist Bus Campaign’ which hit the road in January ’09. In response to hellfire-and-damnation adverts by a Christian organisation, the slogan proposed by BHA Patron Ariane Sherine offered a comical but reassuring, “humanised” message: There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.
The idea sparked imaginations up and down the country, and so much money was raised that the adverts appeared on towns and cities across the UK. Most importantly, like-minded people across the UK offered not just their financial support but their considered, good-natured, humanistic endorsement.
In November we launched a follow-up to the Bus Campaign: The ‘Please Don’t Label Me’ billboard campaign, drawing attention to the strange practice of labelling children with a religion from birth.
Active humanist campaigning
After years of campaigning by humanists, 2008 finally saw the outdated blasphemy laws abolished, and the BHA lobbied to keep the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill from making abortion law more restrictive or from blocking important scientific research. The BHA held firm on public service reform and welfare reform, on religious discrimination in schools as well as in employment, and advocated the good standing of non-religious people, on children’s rights and on human rights. Professor Grayling heralded the 60th anniversay of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in a brilliant, powerful series of commemorative articles for the Guardian.
2009 has seen a flurry of celebration to mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, as well as the 200th year since the birth of Charles Darwin himself – one of Britain’s greatest historical thinkers and the greatest of historical naturalists. National public celebrations of intellectual and scientific achievement are rare but precious, wonderful opportunities.
All this activism and open debate are good things. Humanism encompasses all this and it taps, also, into an even deeper vein of thought and feeling. Speaking of his involvement in New Humanist magazine’s inspirational festive comedy show (December 2008) the comedian and campaigner Mark Thomas said, ‘Yes, you have to remind people about the reactionary Christian actions against something like Jerry Springer: The Opera, but you also have to celebrate the humanist side.’ There is so much positive joy and awe to be found in life and family, in knowledge and wisdom, in friends and freedom –and as each person realises that it cannot all be contained in terms of negation, then ‘Humanism’ finds another voice.