A Ben Goldacre tweet led me recently to the website of the New Humanist magazine. I’ve subscribed to the British Humanist Association’s e-newsletter for a little while, and taken a passing interest in stories about the BHA’s campaign against a zoo in Bristol that incorporated creationism into its displays, and the efforts to secure funding for atheist bus banners. But I don’t think I had a particularly clear idea of what humanism was in a positive sense, apart from being an alternative to a religious philosophy.
A little browsing of the magazine’s site – it’s the publication of the Rationalist Association – led me to a short piece on humanism by someone called Hermann Bondi, who as well as being a former president of the Rationalist Press Association was (thankyou Wikipedia) a mathematician with a role in developing the theory of general relativity. The passage that, for me, really stood out, and gave me a better feel for humanism as an active ideal, started by emphasising that “One of our common strengths is the ability to learn from experience”, and that “through communication we can acquire a large body of knowledge [based on these experiences], in principle accessible to everybody equally”: a body of knowledge that because it’s testable, universal and open to everyone, we call science.
So far: so so. The key section though was this:
Just as the Humanist is attracted by something like science, accessible and applicable to, and testable by, all of us, so we are suspicious of anything that by its nature is divisive. Foremost among these must be religions. [...]
If one asks for the basis of religions it is not a belief in a god (for some, like Buddhism, have none, others have one, yet others have many), but belief in a revelation. This is supposedly a special kind of knowledge, superior to knowledge acquired by experience and accessible only to the believer. It is the very opposite of public knowledge; it is confined to the eyes of those who have faith.
This really resonates with me. It correctly pinpoints the inherent arrogance associated with religious creeds. Whereas a humanist or rationalist approach feels fair, equal, accessible and emphasises sharing of insights (but also a shared system of comparing and assessing them; a common platform), a religion must, by definition, be exclusive.
But there was more: the article finishes by extolling the virtues of not joining the chorus of ‘I am right, therefore you must be wrong’, and the fairness in recognising that as part of the diversity of human attitudes some people find real personal value in faith. “We can no more quarrel with such a choice than with a taste for the music of one particular composer”, says Bondi (however true this may be it’s such an inflammatory way of putting it, and rather negates the conciliatory tone of the earlier statement: he might as well have said that choosing one god over another is like having a preference for Mars bars over Snickers!).
This is now going to seem like a really trite comparison, worthy of inclusion in Private Eye‘s Pseuds’ Corner, but it feels right to me: the recent explosion in social networking technology, and blogging and twittering in particular, can be seen as adding important new weapons to the armoury of humanism. Yes of course they can be used to cement existing alliances and fertilise and spread dogmatic thinking (I read in TIME magazine the other day that the US Christian Right has rediscovered the power of the internet, having felt the full weight of its power used against them in 2008), but they are also, generally speaking, open media.
By posting on the web you are – whether you like it or not – inviting a response and accepting, in the face of the sheer diversity of the online population, that at least some of your respondents will not agree with you. It’s the conversation that counts, and no-one is immune from challenge, which makes the notion of an objective Truth rather redundant, or at least unworkable. New social media are also socialist in character: an example of the common person taking control of the means of production (pace the Google world domination conspiracists).
Until recently one could fairly have taken the view that the online domain was also a rather hierarchical one, and exclusive in its own way, with those most ‘in the know’ – the people with the time, knowledge and inclincation to spend hours on the net – having considerably greater power and access than those making only tentative forays into the world wide web. I think Twitter changes all this. It certainly has for me. It provides a backbone for the web, a central nervous system which lets you take advantage of the know-how of people who are better connected than you are. Forget all the stuff about keeping in touch with family or friends; that might be part of the fun but Twitter has much more potential than that. Each tweet is a signpost, each twitterer a modern Mercator, mapping an outpost of the virtual world for others to find more easily.