SoF and the Humanist Tradition

The third in the series of articles looking at the relationship between SoF and other religions is by Margaret Chisman, a member of several humanist organisations and author of 'The Weekend Haiku Book'

One of the streams that feed the Sea of Faith is itself quite a large river. Humanism is a system of belief and behaviour which developed in the West from the philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome, the modern Renaissance and Enlightenment, the scientific and political revolutions, and the growth of liberty, equality and fraternity. Its theory is based on the assumption that this life and this world is all we know and on the assertion that the most important factor in all our thought and action is our common humanity. Its practice is based on the steady decline of organised religion and the general secularisation of society.

Various organisations have been formed at different times calling themselves secularist or rationalist or ethical or humanist and filling various functions within the general area of free-thought. These - now all under the same roof in Bradlaugh House, Theobalds Road, London WC1 - are linked by a strong liaison committee.

Of the four main humanist organisations the Ethical Society is the oldest. It developed from a radical religious congregation in the late 18th century, gradually abandoning theism and religious forms and eventually acquiring the status of a non-religious charity. It is now a cultural social organisation whose chief objects are the study and dissemination of ethical principles, the cultivation of a rational and humane way of life, and the advancement of education in fields relevant to these objects.

Its meetings comprise classes and discussions and a traditional Sunday morning talk at the Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London WC1, by one of its Appointed Lecturers and guest speakers as well as the annual Conway Memorial Lecture. Other activities include the Sunday evening chamber-music concerts and acting as host to other humanist organisations. Its journal The Ethical Record appears monthly.

The Ethical Society invited Anthony Freeman to give a personal testimony at Conway Hall about his experiences as a result of the publication of his book God in Us: a Case for Christian Humanism. One of his phrases I found particularly helpful was that he practised "reverent agnosticism" .

The committee of the Ethical Society also invited the Central London SoF group to hold its monthly meetings in one of the rooms at Conway Hall free of charge.

The National Secular Society, formed in the l9th century, aimed to unite the various secular societies which had developed from the Owenite and Chartist movements. It still retains some of the robustness of their down-to-earth character as the most militant element in the humanist movement.

It campaigns for the promotion of free-thought, civil liberties and rational ethics, for the rights of minorities, race and sex equality, and on many other urgent social issues. It publishes a monthly magazine, The Freethinker.

The Rationalist Press Association was formed in 1899 by a group of freethinkers as a publishing organisation producing magazines, books, pamphlets and leaflets on all subjects of interest to the general cause of free thought. Its distinctive feature is its commitment to the principle of rationalism - defined as the mental attitude which accepts the primacy of reason - and it aims at establishing a system of philosophy and ethics verifiable by experience and independent of all arbitrary assumptions or authority. It publishes the quarterly New Humanist and an occasional Rationalist Review.

The British Humanist Association, formed in the 1960s and recognised since 1981 as a non-religious charity, is concerned with moral issues from a non-religious point of view and with the achievement of a more open, just and caring society. It seeks to put an alternative moral view of current personal and social issues.

Among the BHA's most influential work since its formation has been that in the field of religious education, and much has been done to encourage progress away from dogmatic instruction and towards an objective, fair and balanced system.

The BHA also plays an important part in arranging humanist naming ceremonies, weddings and funerals. It holds a well-attended annual conference and publishes Humanist News quarterly. There are many local groups. Most meet at least once a month for intellectual or social activities.

In most human groupings, members' beliefs and activities fall between the ends of a spectrum. The humanist movement is no exception: it is sometimes humorously stated that if there were ten humanists in a room there would be eleven different opinions. However, most are in agreement that there is no god or gods, that we have to solve our human problems by our own efforts, and we must seek meaning and purpose for ourselves. Life should be lived with the aid of reason, not relying on any supernatural aid.

Members' interests and activities are varied, some concentrating on seeking to obtain full freedom for and acceptance of atheism, others preferring to contribute to working parties gathering data for presentation to appropriate government committees. Yet others are keen to train as officiants for the ever-increasing demand for humanist funerals, weddings and naming ceremonies.

I have been a member of all four organisations for over 30 years and have done my stint on various committees, having at one time the responsibility of organising the annual Summer School for the BHA. Being a humanist has invigorated my outlook and brought me many deep and lasting friendships. In 1965 I felt the movement needed a world-wide symbol and a resolution was passed at the BHA AGM calling for a competition. The winning entry, based on the letter H, has won international recognition and is sometimes known as "the Happy Humanist".

The question is, What attracted me to the Sea of Faith? Indeed, this can also be asked of church attenders! Is it that we feel that something is wrong or lacking in our long-standing affiliations? Or is it even more difficult to describe: a wordless feeling of something about to come to life?

I feel that what SoF is providing is not in conflict with my humanist views. It can be likened to going beyond the range of the spectrum and seeing ultra-violet or infra-red as different colours - or as if echoes of some new and vital insights are sounding just out of hearing range.

I see a similar dawning awareness of something waiting to be born in discussions in other organisations about the nature of spirituality. This ferment reminds me of the work a distinguished humanist, Margaret Knight, did thirty-odd years ago in her book and broadcast Morals Without Religion.

She pointed out that the ecclesiastical establishment arrogated to itself the entirety of morality. All morality was church morality and non-believers were ipso facto without morals. Along with some other humanists, I am contending that the concept of spirituality must be seen in the same way as Margaret Knight saw morality.

Our struggle is more difficult because there are two different words available: religion and morality. We, now, have to hack our way through a jungle of religious spirituality and non-religious spirituality. In fact, the situation, ironically, is that many humanists view spirituality much as churchgoers viewed morality - as if there were no secular equivalent.

I contend that humanists must insist that spirituality is not the exclusive terrain of the churches and religion. To refuse to acknowledge that this aspect of our lives applies equally - if not more so - to humanism is to ignore an essential component part of the intrinsic nature of all humans.

What is the way forward? We have the enormous task of constructing a non-religious spirituality. I meet many people who are not consciously either humanist or religious, and I gather that they too feel that something new, fresh and life-giving is needed to combat the stale and engulfing climate of consumerism. Many agree that we need to devote deep and urgent attention to the development of a non-religious spirituality. I believe that the Sea of Faith Network is one of the most promising and helpful groupings to aid us in this search.

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