Alright, settle down, class, settle down. Come on, you’ve had your fun. It’s time for our- who threw that? Come on, who was it? I’ve warned you before about what’ll happen if you keep hurling homeopathic solutions all over the place. What was it, lemon juice? Don’t taste it, Watson, you’ll get scurvy. Or something. Is that how it’s supposed to work? Anyway, why is there even homeopathy in here? This isn’t the Skeptic’s Circle, this is Humanism class. Will you please sit down?
Right. Maybe we can get on with things now. This afternoon, as you know, we’re going to be doing Show and Tell, so I hope you’ve all remembered to bring something in to discuss with the class. Who wants to go first? …Anyone? Oh come on, we’ll be hearing from all of you eventually. No? Well, alright, I’ll break the ice. I’ve brought in a discussion about The Atheist’s Guide To Christmas.
Decorating a tree, exchanging presents, eating a gorgeous roast dinner, spending time with my increasingly half-heartedly religious family… count me in. Even listening to some seasonal carols, and maybe singing along with some songs about Jesus. Whether these are important parts of somebody else’s belief system needn’t concern me at all. Whether I’m having fun (within the limits of my regular, secular principles) is the only thing that I need to feel obliged to.
There you are. So, any volunteers? Ah, Mr Fincke, very good of you. Your item is called… On Meeting People Where They Are. Well, stand up, boy, and speak clearly.
What bothered me about Briggs’s criticisms of Dennett though was that he tried to exploit the awkward clash of beliefs between people who love each other as an unseemly opportunity to try to find some pathetic flaw in atheists. I found his dismissive remark that “atheism has no cubicle for love” really insulting. And I just wanted to stress that it is false and slanderous to say that my or Daniel Dennett’s ideas about how we want to love or to be loved are either weak or cold.
Very good! It’s a shame some people still need it explained to them that loving other people doesn’t need to be presided over and orchestrated by a supreme being. We’re off to an excellent start. Who wants to go next? Ah, some of you aren’t feeling so shy now, excellent. You can go next, I think, Mr Michael. This is On religious interpretation that you want to read from, is it? Well, off you go.
If only followers of religion would accept the human origins of their belief systems and the fallible nature of the writers of their holy texts, then they could take these books in their proper spirit: as attempts to improve human life, rather than as final verdicts on the state of humanity and the universe.
Well done, a nice analysis of some of the problems caused by the dichotomy between strict adherence to the text and allowance for personal interpretation. We’ve set the bar pretty high, so let’s see if Ms Raven can keep up the standard. She’s asking is this fast enough?, but she is doing so rhetorically, Watson, which means you do not interrupt with your stupid answers to the question.
I do not feel comfortable with the idea that our highest selves are somehow removed from our most physical, most HUMAN of selves. I turn away from religion because I believe that being human is, in fact, our highest calling.
That was lovely, Ms Raven. I think that kind of personal honesty and openness is something it would do us all good to aspire to, whether or not we’re trying to decide what some religious traditions ought to mean to us as non-believers. Mr Fridman, would you like to tell us all about The ReBrook Gambit?
As Peter Singer argues in The Expanding Circle, moral progress is about bringing more and more beings into the ingroup – since we can commit atrocities against the outgroup so easily.
I think the reverse is also true: most cases of moral regress seek to dehumanise by drawing a sharp distinction between the ingroup (where you and the speaker are) and the outgroup. They try and contract the circle.
I’m not entirely sure the details of a rape trial are appropriate material for the classroom, Mr Fridman, but you make a good point about the ways in which this kind of social division can be used to justify immoral acts. Okay, Mr Chief, why don’t you- Watson, stop chewing that unless you’ve brought enough to share with the whole class. Mr Chief, as I was saying, please- what in Randi’s name are you doing, Watson? Handing out sweets to all your friends? This is a classroom, for pity’s sake! Put them away at once. Right. Mr Chief, I think the interruptions are over for now, so tell everyone what you’ve got to say about Disengaging the auto-pilot.
I think that for most of us, there’s a great deal of what we do which we’ve simply forgotten precisely how we do it or in some cases, are completely oblivious to doing it like breathing. It’s here where ideas such as intuition, gut feelings, psychic abilities and the like come from. Furthermore, I think this is also where the idea of dualism comes from.
A very interesting notion. I think some of us in particular could benefit from switching our auto-pilot off once in a while, and waking up to the world around us, and engaging consciously with our surroundings, and paying attention when we’re being talked about, isn’t that right, Watson? Yes, boy, I’m talking to you. Try and rouse yourself from slumber while Mr Alexander presents A Modern Version of Genesis Chapter 1.
1In the beginning, you dreamed of the heavens and the earth. 2And your dream was dark and without form, but within the darkness, your mind was stirring. 3You took thought of light: and there was light. 4You reveled in the beauty of the light, distinguishing it from the darkness. 5The light was like day, and the dark like night, though day nor night had yet occurred. This concluded the first stage of your dream.
I’m not at all sure whether so much solipsism’s good for you, Mr Alexander. You might go blind. Or maybe you just shouldn’t go swimming for an hour. A thoughtful piece, all the same. Well done. Mr Ray, I believe you want to share your Three Imperatives with the class?
I am an atheist only as long as reason demands that I hold such a position. This means that my conviction in the reliability of reason is a primary absolute; atheism is merely a secondary consequence. To indentify myself as an atheist is not only misleading but it is deceptive – it implies that I hold atheism as a primary absolute. It implies that I start with atheism and try to figure things out from there.
Mystics don’t identify themselves in reference to what they don’t believe – why do we? Of course we are atheists, but it’s not our identity. To identify yourself intellectually or philosophically as “atheist” is tantamount to introducing yourself to a stranger as “not-John”.
You may be ruffling the odd non-believing feather there, Mr Ray, but a good Humanism class ought to be able to handle some internal debate now and then. Yes, alright, you can go next, Ms Chaplain, what’s your item about? Reproductive Privacy Not OK in OK… Well, try and keep it classroom-friendly.
What anti-abortion activists don’t seem to understand is that oppressive laws won’t prevent women from having abortions; they’ll simply drive the activity underground, as it was before 1973 (in the USA). Intimidating laws don’t save babies, they harm women. But, what the hell, maybe they’re just the sort of women who deserve to be harmed.
Or, maybe they’re not.
True, this really doesn’t seem like something that needs to be made any harder for women who are probably having a tough time with it already. Incidentally, it still puzzles me that your parents decided to give you the forename “The”, Ms Chaplain. I imagine it must lead to all sorts of humourous mishaps. It seems particularly incongruous in a school such as this, but no matter. Mr Fidalgo has something for us now, titled Secular Coalition chief to atheist convention: ‘Our efforts are not yet worthy’.
Faircloth called upon fellow atheists to look to fellow nonbelievers and doubters like Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, James Madison and Mark Twain for inspiration, and noted how they would find difficulty being as open about their religious doubt today as they were in their own times. “All we’re asking,” said Faircloth, “is that Mark Twain be included in the American discussion.”
Some important points made, though it seems your friend Mr Faircloth’s imperatives don’t match up exactly with those we heard earlier from Mr Ray. But being free of any rigid, universal dogma is one of our greatest strengths, and our differences of opinion often lead to much constructive debate. What’s going on back there? Watson, are you playing cards? I don’t care if they’re God Trumps, nobody wants to know how daffy your Shi’ite doctrine is. Stop sniggering and put them away. Mr Blackford, I believe you’re going to return us to the idea of disagreement among humanists themselves, and the debate over the most suitable political approach, as you tell us A tale of three generations: CFI and Blasphemy Day.
Regardless whether the CFI leadership made the most adroit decision, supporting, or engaging in, acts of blasphemy is not intolerant in the way that Kurtz must mean. I.e., it is not inconsistent with Millian liberalism. The latter requires that we not attempt to suppress religion by force. It does not require that we must like religion, be polite about it, or refrain from protesting against it or making fun of it. Indeed, ridicule is sometimes necessary to get across how absurd a position or practice is. It’s not a method that I prefer, but it has its place in public discourse, and engaging in it to make a political point to the effect that it does have a place, and should not be prevented, is, however undignified, perfectly legitimate speech.
I’m inclined to agree that this kind of brash satire must be allowed to have its place, but the problem of when best to deploy it, and when to tread more sensitively without conceding the importance of your position, is a sticky one. Mr Perlman, what are you getting so agitated about? You want to give your piece on a similar theme next? Alright then, let’s hear about Blasphemy Day: What humanists believe in.
A secular humanist believes in physical reality – in the vast, mysterious, perhaps multi-dimensional cosmos, which continues to amaze us with its complexity.
We believe in the scientific way of knowing – the Way of experience, documentation, verifiability, replicability, and honesty (unfortunately, scientists sometimes fake their data).
Those are the only ways in which human beings have ever made progress, not by torturing or killing those who disagree with the prevailing religious fantasy. And certainly not by prayer and worship.
It’s good every so often to remind ourselves what it is that unites us, and why we’re justified in considering it important. Well done. I think we’re ready to hear from Mr Vjack next, as he shares his Thoughts on the Out Campaign Two Years Later.
I’ve learned to accept the scarlet A, and I continue to support the OUT Campaign (although I do so with the caveat that nobody should be blindly encouraged to “come out” without first assessing the potential risks to their personal safety for doing so). That said, I continue to have one substantive complaint with the OUT Campaign: it continues to me much too closely linked to Richard Dawkins, and I think that this is a recipe for disaster.
Mr Dawkins is another divisive figure among atheists and humanists all by himself. Is it, or would it be, good to have a “Dawkins campaign” to rally around, or should we aim to avoid appointing any such figureheads at all costs? Ms D, feel free to answer or completely ignore this question as you see fit, as you tell us about Rethinking the Evolutionary Ethic: Towards a Scientific Ethics Once More.
We cooperate with most of the bacteria in our gut, and look how well that has worked out! We’ve also cooperated in the past to get our mitochondria and various other organelles, and that’s also been a rather resounding success for all involved parties. We imagine ourselves to be integrated individuals, but the truth of the matter is that every single one of us is a messy zoo of confederates – and this is the lesson: be a messy zoo of confederates at the societal level as well. Diseases either kill us or get killed, and this is the inevitable destructive result of competition. There is risk in cooperation (there is always risk in anything), but the dangers pretty much tautologically come from outside, as any individual who engages in hawkery will be immediately out-grouped because the in-group is defined by conspiratorial lovey-dovery.
Well. A little coarse in parts, but undeniably insightful and well considered. At least, the parts I understood. Watson! Wake up, boy! I know some of these are a bit long, and strain your attention span for more than a few minutes at a time, but you have an opportunity to learn something here. I suspect that few opportunities to acquire such knowledge may be derived from dutifully studying the ceiling with your mouth hanging open. That’s better. I think we’ll have Mr Hallquist now, to speak to us about Marriage, morals, and the green-eyed monster.
One thing that makes Marriage and Morals a good read 80 years later is that Russell got things that most people today still have trouble with. Dan Savage, for example, is fond of saying that human beings aren’t naturally monogamous, which is true, but he routinely ignores the fact that human beings don’t naturally accept our parterns’ non-monogamy. Russell got the need for compromise here, and he got that it wasn’t always easy: I understand that at the time he wrote Marriage and Morals, his wife was openly having an affair. Eventually Russell left her after she had two children with her lover and began saying he didn’t know what to say about sexual ethics.
Yes, very insightful in its own way as well, Mr Hallquist, thank you. Well, who’s left? I think we’re almost there, and a truly intriguing set of thoughts and ideas we’ve had expressed here today. You’ve all done very well. Mr Watson, if you’ve quite finished balancing that plastic dinosaur on its head, its your turn at last. Come on, then we can all get some lunch.
What? For goodness’ sake, boy, you’ve done nothing? You’ve had weeks to prepare something to share with the class here today, you had plenty of forewarning, and you’ve not managed to concoct a single worthwhile thought? What on earth goes on inside that alleged brain of yours, you ridiculous child? I’m almost tempted to give you a passing grade based on the elegance with which you provide a scathing rebuttal for any sort of intelligent design, merely based on the hopeless inadequacy you exhibit as a corporeal being. I said “almost”, Watson, don’t look so hopeful.
The rest of you, splendid work, you can all go and take the afternoon off. Watson, you stay behind and write “In future, I will endeavour to be worthy of the oxygen of which I continually deprive my hard-working classmates” one hundred times. And make sure you spell “endeavour” correctly or you’ll have to do it all again. And for the love of mercy, use chalk on the blackboard this time.
There you go. Many thanks for all your submissions. I hope my presentation of them was more or less coherent. And happy birthday to both my dad and Rebecca Watson. I hope that your very different approaches to the celebrations work out well for both of you.
[Edited 18/10/09 to correct the gender of some pronouns. Sorry about that.]