The talk at Skeptics in the Pub last night was Objections to Humanism. Here are some of mine:
Andrew Copson of the BHA spoke at length about evolution, science, morality without religion and the value of optimism. While there was nothing much to disagree with, nor was there anything specific or unique to humanism. I asked in the Q&A what is added by claiming as humanist the acceptance of evolution, the value of scientific enquiry and so on. The reply (eventually) was that 'It's just a word thing' and that humanism is a useful label. But labels are useful only if they make it clear what something is.
There are plenty of people who accept evolution and subscribe to a non-religious moral code but who do not call themselves humanist. It is however a useful bit of soft soap if you're a politician who can't bring themselves to admit publicly that you're an atheist.
According to the BHA website: 'Humanism is the view that we can make sense of the world using reason, experience and shared human values and that we can live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs'.
Although they make no claim to be the sole purveyors of this view, they also make no claim to say anything original or to add anything to these views. In other words, humanism has no USP.
The website continues: 'Humanists seek to make the best of the one life we have by creating meaning and purpose for ourselves. We choose to take responsibility for our actions and work with others for the common good'.
Again, nothing unique there, no added value.
One argument against humanism by some believers is that it denies the 'specialness' of humanity. This is an argument levelled against evolutionists and atheists too - even its accusers can't find anything original about it to attack.
Copson countered this by quoting (and agreeing with) another humanist (whose name I didn't catch) who said: 'It is love that makes sex human'.
Does this mean that sex without love is not human or is less than fully human? Billions of people throughout history might disagree with him. Condemning or at least dismissing sex without love is sailing close to certain religious points of view. Moreover, it is rather prudish and twee. Or maybe whoever said it just wasn't having the right kind of sex.
It was said that it is the bond between us that makes us special. There was no real explanation of what 'special' means. He did allow that we are possibly special only to each other but this still supports an anthropocentric view. Why do we need to see ourselves as special? Certainly we are different from other animals but they are also very different from each other.
There was also a retrospective look at various philosophers and others throughout history whose ideas were described as humanist in some form. This is like firing shots at a wall and then drawing a target round them. The people mentioned were not humanists, most of them existed before the term was coined. Democritus and Epicurus, for example, were cited as forefathers of humanism but they are just as much the precursors of scientific rationalism. Nothing is gained by tagging them as proto-humanists except to try and give humanism some sort of historical weight and worth.
The BHA have claimed that there are 17 million humanists in the UK after a poll found that 36% of people have a naturalistic world view. This will be news to 16.999 million of them. Nothing is gained for the cause if people are humanist without knowing it and trying to claim 17 million kind of looks a bit needy.
Humanism as a world view is sometimes accused of being 'just' an alternative to religion. Although Copson denied this, many humanists say that humanism gives them an identity, a worldview and set of moral values/rules similar to those provided by religion but without any supernatural element. In this case, humanism appears to be the methadone to the opiate of religion.
The BHA provide non-religious celebrants for funerals and other ceremonies. This is a much-needed service but could quite easily exist independently of humanism. They just happen to be the organisation behind this service, but they need not be.
There were possibly stronger reasons for joining a humanist group in the past when religious people and values dominated and non-believers of any kind were often isolated. But with current technology, wherever you live and whatever you believe, you can find like-minded people. There is of course still a value for some people in meeting up with others who share their worldview - we are social animals after all - but humanism is no more significant a definition than being a member of any other special interest club that contributes to or informs your identity and relationship with others.
The non-religious are still under-represented in some areas of public life while religious groups are accorded privileges so it can be useful to have a term to set yourself apart and distance yourself from claims made by religious leaders to represent the whole of society. But humanist does this no better than atheist, agnostic, non-believer, rationalist, freethinker, secularist and others.
To identify as humanist is to identify as either atheist or agnostic along with some or all of a rather vague set of ethical and pro-science statements. But for me, it's such an inchoate, nebulous concept that I can't engage with it at all.