Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Event report: Andrew Copson - ‘Objections To Humanism’

Time: Thursday 6th October 19:00-21:00
Place: Darwin Biochemistry lecture theatre, Malet Place, University College London

For the first event of the academic year the society hosted a talk by Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA) titled ‘Objections to Humanism.’ Andrew became Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association in January 2010 after five years coordinating the BHA's education and public affairs work. His writing on humanist and secularist issues has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, The Times and New Statesman as well as in various journals and he has represented the BHA and Humanism extensively on television news on BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky, as well as on television programmes such as Newsnight, The Daily Politics and The Big Questions. He is a former director of the European Humanist Federation (EHF) and is currently a Vice President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU).

Andrew began by pointing out that being aware of the objections raised about humanism enables those who are humanist to be better armed to counter those criticisms raised, he also continued by saying that it is an obligation to be self-critical of one’s own world view including a humanist world view. Andrew went on to structure the talk on the basis of each criticism and how these should be addressed individually, the first being:

1. It diminishes the dignity of humanity.
Andrew points out here that essentially people are arguing that if we accept the evidence that people are nothing more than animals then how are we to act in any other way. His response consisted of the fact that just because we do not like the fact that we are animals it does not change it, being animals does not make us bestial.

2. Humanists can have no morals.
Here he gave an anecdote of a train journey back from a conference detailing his conversation with a priest, in which the priest could not believe how without religious dictate someone ‘wasn’t a rapist.’ Despite the raucous laughter in the room this and similar questions are often faced by many non- religious people. Clearly in response Andrew points out how this is a very bleak and false view of humanity, morals are not given by god, morality is an evolved system we use to coexist peacefully and sociably.

3. Too dry, too rational.
An example he uses is that often people argue that science cannot explain love. He counters this point by suggesting that science is the way to understand much because it is rational, universal and enquiry based, and that science can also be an inspiration.

4. It isn’t the way to explain everything.
In this rebuttal he states that explanations enhance but do not diminish, and that science’s remit is not to answer all the questions but to understand that which we can know.

5. A secular religion or “your pope Richard Dawkins.”
In response to this he describes the major tenets and concepts behind humanism as a movement, in doing so he explains how humanism is a collection of ideals and beliefs that have always existed in society. You cannot be a Christian without ever hearing of Christ, but you can be a humanist without ever hearing of humanism; as humanism describes an implicit belief system that already exists, the beliefs and values are as old as human history and are a permanent alternative.

6. A myth of human progress.
It is pointed out here that humanists are criticised for being too optimistic with an unwarranted sense of utopianism. Andrew talks about how we should be looking cautiously on the bright side, citing the BHA bus campaigns as an example. He also suggests that if you don’t believe in external help then you have to believe that normal men and women will do something, which makes progress more likely.

7. The pointlessness of it all or Nihilism.
To this idea Andrew calls the idea of the universe being meaningless a vain and ludicrous position. He also accepts here that from this perspective people often bring up a fear of death, but he suggests that death is something we should accept and live our life in accordance with reality.

8. What do you mean “that is all there is?”
He begins addressing this point by stating, what do you mean ‘all’? He adds that in making such statements you run the risk of undervaluing all that is here and now, in life the meaning comes in living, emphasizing the one life we have to live principle of humanism.

From Andrew concluding on the merits of the principle of having one life to live, the talk moved to a Q and A with members of the audience. Questions ranged from asking whether he altered his talk depending upon the audience being hostile or a ‘preaching to the choir situation’, Gaia theory, whether truth should be valued above all else, how best to enlighten your religious grandma (A C Grayling being suggested by Andrew) and how one could have hope knowing that people know right from wrong but do not always implement it. Andrew graciously continued the debate in the Jeremy Bentham pub afterward where as usual the conversation extended to various related and non-related topics. We would like to thank both Andrew Copson and everyone who attended the talk in making our first event of the new academic year a huge success.

If you would like to know more about humanism or become a member of the BHA there is a wealth of information at the BHA website: http://www.humanism.org.uk/home

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