A little over a year ago, I attended a talk by the humanist philosopher Julian Baggini. He was talking about religion: what it offered people and how Humanism measured up to that. I’m not sure I agreed with everything he said that evening but it was a topic that I found myself drawn to periodically because it says so much to me about what I want from Humanism. It is far too easy for sceptics to reduce religious belief to a set of metaphysical ideas and forget the individuals and communities behind the ideas. Beyond the personal belief in a deity or deities, belief leads to a lifestyle, identity and a community. These are very real needs and benefits. Humans cannot live on food, water and shelter alone, we need friends, family, love, art, music, games and meaning. This is a challenge that Humanism needs to embrace.
Religious life creates community. I keep reading that women are apparently more religious than men and this makes some sense to me. If one assumes a society where women have responsibility for children and the home, then the local church is an invaluable resource. Beyond religious services, churches, mosques and similar play host to children’s play groups, family events, study groups, choirs and much more. Joining a church means finding a community of people who share your outlook on life and have similar values. Religious institutions have a long history of serving their community and it would be foolish to overlook these aspects. Humanism needs to look beyond its ideas and look at its people too.
Another important part of religion is the offering of love, trust and forgiveness. Humanists often talk of fairness, respect and equality but we rarely talk of love. Deciding that opportunity and responsibility lies within oneself can be empowering and inspiring but it can also be lonely and difficult. It is so easy to blame oneself and see only flaws and failings. Belief in a higher being or beings allows for a different perspective. All humanists would agree that every life has value but sometimes it is hard to see your own. Human relationships can be difficult but to know that better, more patient beings love you absolutely at all times allows you to accept and love yourself. Harder still is the challenge to forgive yourself. To move on from mistakes and regrettable behaviour is hard but necessary. Humanists recognise that we must learn from our mistakes but we must remember to forgive ourselves and others in order to keep believing in and realising the world and lives we believe possible.
Finally, a lot of believers will tell you that their faith is what gives their life meaning. The world is baffling and complex but religious texts and religious teachers or leaders can offer guidance, presenting a less personally involved and more neutral perspective. Making sense of the world and deciding what to do with your life is pretty much the most difficult decision there is. Humanism can’t tell you what to do with your life or what it all means but it asks a lot of relevant questions. Approaching the world with an open mind, respect for all life and a willingness to learn is a first step. Humanists can help each other develop the tools for living a worthwhile and meaningful life and provide examples through our own lives – as varied and chaotic as that may be.