Today was the first meeting of the semester for the University of Edinburgh Humanist Society, of which I’m a member. One of the issues that came up, and one that has come up before, is the need to organise positive events that are about humanism rather than being about what non-humanists believe. This is something I strongly agree with. Humanism is a fundamentally positive philosophy. But coming up with suitable events that stress this turns out to be rather difficult, and suggestions tend to fall into the following categories:
1) Events centred on non-humanist beliefs (e.g. fundamentalist religion, superstition, creationism etc). These may take the form of debates or video showings or the like. While valuable, this kind of event is rather negative in tone. It is important to challenge irrationality, but humanism is about rather more than challenging the beliefs of others. Also falling into this category are rather more positive events where we invite members of religious societies to tell us about what they believe. This is a nice idea, although there’s a slight danger it may be interpreted as patronising. It’s also not really about humanism.
2) General social events with no specific humanist connection. This kind of event is obviously valuable, and a good thing, provided it doesn’t dominate the society’s activities.
3) Good-deed events with no specific humanist connection (e.g. giving blood, raising money for charity). Again, this kind of event is valuable and good. But it’s also something almost any society could do.
There’s an obvious fourth category missing: events that are just about humanism with no direct reference to non-humanist beliefs. This could include talks about humanist ceremonies and rites of passage, or about issues of scientific interest.
But not much else suggests itself. Part of the problem is that humanism is really a set of beliefs and attitudes — something which doesn’t translate well into specific activities, except in challenging those who disagree. What’s more, since idolatry and hero-worship are rather un-humanist activities, another kind of event is excluded. A trip to visit David Hume’s grave would be a nice thing to do, but it also feels unhappily like a pilgrimage to see the relics of a saint.
Perhaps there’s something else too: events that challenge other people’s beliefs are of interest to lots of people. Talks about humanist weddings probably aren’t. There’s nothing wrong with having talks that are only really of interest to members. But there’s a big danger here: if all the positive humanism-specific events are only of interest to members, then the outsiders view of the society is shaped by the more negative events. There is an elusive fifth category of activities: events that draw the attention of outsiders to the positive aspects of what humanism is about. But I’m actually not sure what form these can take, short of relying on being able to book speakers like Philip Pullman. Making humanism sexy without being belligerent is not an easy task.
Suggestions are welcome.