Making humanism sexy

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.



Filed under Humanism, Religion, Atheism etc.

3 responses to “Making humanism sexy

  1. Interesting topic – just some few things that occured to me as I read your entry: I’d say you’d get far just by being visible and specifically open to non-members, to be advertising what you do, even though it is ‘only’ a talk on humanist rites of passage or what have you. I would think that even events that mightn’t be of interest to lots of people, if openly announced, would still help create an awareness of humanism as having an ongoing and viable presence. (That’s what has been achieved at least to some extent in Norway, anyway.)And since you mention focusing on specific people: I’m sure there are plenty of generally well-known names (Hume and Pullman included) who might not usually be associated with humanism, which could make talks along the lines of ‘X and humanism’ interesting for people other than society members?

  2. Sorry, haven’t been round here in a while.Well one thing you mention is a great idea, we’ve never done anything on humanist ceremonies. I’m sure Tim or another celebrant wouldn’t mind doing a brief talk, even if it’s immediately followed by (or takes place at) the pub! Not so shabby.Mike

  3. Yeah. I have a feeling we did talk about this once, generally approvingly (I think Clare suggested it), but it sort of got put on the back burner. We should do it.

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