Leading humanist calls for renewed cooperation with believers
Sir Bernard Crick, a distinguished political scientist and biographer of George Orwell, has called for renewed conversation and cooperation between humanists and forward-thinking religious believers in the face of the global rise of fanaticism.
Writing in the Guardian newspaper on Saturday, Crick who is a vice-president of the British Humanist Association, said that secularists and skeptics ought to be able to 'work together with those of all beliefs who fight against Ö the real threats to democracy, freedom and international law now posed by both Christian and Muslim fundamentalists.'
Praising Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and his recent lecture on ëLaw, Power and Peace', Sir Bernard spoke positively about his own cooperation with Christians, Jews, Muslims and others in the Citizen Organizing Foundation, which uses the grassroots political tactics of American radical Saul Alinsky to push for cross-community social change.
But in suggesting that believers and humanists may have more in common than they often credit, Crick - a Fabian and one-time adviser to former Labour leader Neil Kinnock - did wonder, good humouredly, whether he 'risked a humanist blasphemy trial.'
Speaking to Ekklesia, British Humanist Association executive director Hanne Stinson made it clear that this was not so, and stressed that the BHA 'has a long record of cooperation with believers, especially in the area of moral and religious education and on issues relating to equality and social cohesion.'
She continued: 'Our campaigning is based on advocating a secular society where the government is neutral on issues of religion and belief and people with different beliefs cooperate for the common good. The BHA works with and alongside religious groups on a variety of religion and belief forums and consultative groups.'
Stinson added that the British Humanist Association 'would readily join the Inter Faith Network if they would let us in. We also [linked up with] the Muslim Council of Britain in trying to get an acceptable version of a religious hatred law, and we are engaged at the heart of preparations for the new Commission on Equality and Human Rights.'
BHA employee Maryam Namazie, an Iranian human rights and women's rights campaigner, was given the inaugural Secularist of the Year award earlier this month. She has been an outspoken opponent of theocracy in Iran and autocratic Islam throughout the world. The £5,000 annual prize was presented by journalist Polly Toynbee at the Montcalm Hotel in London.
In her BHA role Ms Namazie is responsible for the development of humanist funerals, weddings, namings and other civil ceremonies, for which there is a growing demand in Britain.
Hanne Stinson explained: 'Maryam does her campaigning work as a private individual, but we are still immensely pleased that her commitment to human rights in Iran and elsewhere in the Muslim world has been recognized in this way.'
Some representatives of faith communities have in the past stressed the need to work together against what they have seen as the threatening rise of secularism. But others recognize that the differences and commonalities need to be explored in new ways, especially in light of the rise of extremism.
At the end of September the UK Christian think-tank, Ekklesia, said in response to a critical BBC TV documentary on the role of religion in politics that 'repairing the conversation and trust between forward-thinking religionists and those of humanist and secularist opinion is vital.'
Explained Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow: 'We want to see Christians fully involved in public debate, but as advocates and partners, not theocrats. The Gospel's vision of justice and peace is incompatible with the tactics of coercion and domination which have often characterized the now-fading Christendom era.'
He added: 'The churches need to be clear in their disavowal of imperial religion. There is a crucial theological argument to be had, both inside and outside Christianity, about the difference between life-giving and death-dealing faith'
The willingness to cooperate does to mean the end of disagreement or robust debate, however. Sir Bernard Crick says: '[R]eligious differences, if insisted on at every turn, would render impossible [a] common commitment to concrete objectives of justice and human rightsÖ We humanists do not need to mute our intellectual criticism of religion, but for social and political purposes we should work with those who can be the most effective combatants against fanaticism.'
Meanwhile, writing in the same edition of the Guardian, Ekklesia associate Giles Fraser who is vicar of Putney and lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford - complained: 'Many born-again atheists remain trapped in a 19th-century time warp, reheating the standard refutations of religious belief based on a form of rationalism that harks back to an era of fob-watches and long sideburns.'
However Fraser, who has penned a critical appreciation of the atheist philosopher Nietzsche, called ëThe Piety of Unbelief', agreed that 'Christianity has been responsible for some of the worst moral outrages of western history. Those who dislike religion provide a much-needed counterweight, holding the faithful to account.'
Hanne Stinson of the British Humanist Association also wants humanists and believers to be honest about their differences. But she is also concerned to tone down the antagonistic rhetoric and to focus on concrete issues.
She told Ekklesia: 'The majority of atheists and humanists, although [they] seek a secular society with a level playing field for religious and non-religious beliefs, only attack religion when they feel that other people's religious beliefs are being imposed on society as a whole, or where religious beliefs and practices are actually harmful.'
Urging commentators like Giles Fraser not to lump all atheists and secularists together as being fanatically anti-religion, Stinson added: 'One of the problems we have is that the media will generally only pick up the more extremist views. Cooperation between humanists and religious organizations is not perceived as news. We have been told more than once that our views are ëtoo reasonable'.'
Recently the Archbishop of Canterbury commended secularity as a necessity for enabling believers and non-believers to maintain a plural society. And the Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster advocated ëspiritual humanism' as an antidote to religious fanaticism.
Also on Ekklesia:
Should God get a name check?