The occasion was the third annual Jeremy Bentham lecture, named after the eighteenth century philosopher who is a hero of secular rationalists. It was given by Tim Crane, a self-confessed atheist and professor of philosophy at University College London – the place where Bentham’s preserved remains, or ‘Auto-Icon’, can be seen to this day in a wooden cabinet at the end of the South Cloisters.
The invitation to give the lecture, delivered in November 2007, was made by the British Humanist Association (BHA). The event was open to anyone but was intended as a humanist meeting of minds. ‘Like with like together strike’, as the saying goes. So, as a religiously-inclined agnostic, I felt a bit like an Anglican attending Catholic Mass who hopes they won’t be caught out receiving communion.
Sure enough, Crane took it as read that being a humanist entails being an atheist. He also seemed to have a pretty silly idea about religion – making references to creation in 4004 BCE as if that was standard thought, for example. Though perhaps he was just playing to his supposedly atheistic audience. But then something surprising happened. He turned on them too. He launched into a scathing critique of many humanists’ fundamental beliefs, denouncing them as delusions.
His starting point was Richard Dawkins’ comment that humanism is ‘the moral outlook associated with atheism.’ What, Crane asked, does this moral outlook consist of? He turned to the website of the BHA, his host, for enlightenment – and came away disappointed. On the site, several statements are listed as core humanist beliefs. These include the centrality of scientific evidence as the basis for knowledge, and the determination of right and wrong as a matter for human beings and human beings alone. But Crane, for one, cannot assert any of these creedal confessions without qualification, clarification, and possibly not at all. Is he, then, not really a humanist?
Crane widened the divide between himself and his erstwhile fellows. He declared that he does not want atheistic holidays commemorating scientific big-hitters like Charles Darwin. Why do individuals like Richard Dawkins want to ape the religion they so loathe by starting new ‘saints days’, Crane asked bemused? Turning to another secularist bête noire, he similarly doesn’t understand the obsession with campaigning for humanist contributions to ‘Thought for the Day’ on the radio. He believes they would be no better than the candyfloss confections that are served up now, just with different sugar-sweet pieties.
And then there is the ‘Brights’ movement, the campaign by some atheists to ditch the inherent negativity in their position – not believing in this, objecting to that – with the power of positive feeling: rather than calling themselves Atheists, they want to call themselves Brights. Once more, the trappings of religion seem to be inherent in the concept, to say nothing of the cheap artwork of their logo which has all the saltiness of stick-figures in the Good News Bible, Crane declared. He agrees with Christopher Hitchens on Brights: ‘cringe-making and conceited.’
All in all, Crane believes humanism cannot add up to being a moral outlook. There is just not enough meat in it. Turning to the New Humanist magazine as another possible source of enlightenment, he was again dismayed. It appears to consist mostly in slagging off religion. There is nothing wrong with that but it does not make for a worldview or a flourishing way of life. Ouch!
So what is humanism? Crane offered a minimal definition: it is a kind of rallying point or pressure group – more like Amnesty International than an alternative to religion. He argued that it is actions in the world that matter not beliefs. Atheists would do better to address that, rather than obsessively attacking people’s beliefs. After all, religion will not go away, he continued. So humanists should avoid writing creeds, and cultivating blanket attitudes against all religion. A better goal would be to seek a framework that makes for harmony between people of different views – one driven by a quest for peace rather than truth, by being based upon tolerance.
Now, at one level it was cathartic to witness disagreements amongst atheists that are quite as uncomfortable and divisive as those that are never far from the surface between Christians. But the lecture suggested something else about the human condition to me too. The present age is a context with which all people are trying to grapple. They may be of religious faith or atheistic conviction: but no-one has a complete answer to the forces that shape and shake the modern world. Hence all the disagreements.
To put it another way, the persistent pluralism of our times, even within apparently homogeneous groups, is evidence enough that no one worldview is universally satisfactory. Moreover, many of the faults that one side finds in the other – such as that atheism is empty, or that theism is primitive – actually conceal the same flaws in the side being defended too.
Yet Crane’s lecture also suggested a way forward that can be adopted by anyone. If we are to make progress, and defuse the apparently escalating clash of convictions, self-honesty, self-examination and self-critique are crucial virtues. Strident creeds and dogmatic certainties – again whether secular or religious – may keep the subterranean anxieties of those who confess them at bay.
Alternatively, it is easy to define yourself by whom you are against. But the result is an intolerant rationalism, on the one hand, and on the other hand, an oppressive religiosity. It is a tolerant pluralism that counts. What cultivates that, at least in part, is the questioning of all assertions, the unsettling of all shibboleths. Even when among friends.
(c) Mark Vernon is the author of two new books: ‘After Atheism’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007 - a new paperback edition of Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life ) and ‘What Not To Say’ (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2007). See www.markvernon.com  for more information and for Mark's blog.