Andrew Brown has an annoying piece about the Global Humanist Conference that wastes most of its space ruminating about how close the resemblance is between humanism and religion haw haw geddit no god but it’s still like a religion yawn.
The World Humanist Conference in Oxford at the weekend struck me as a completely religious gathering, even though it is predicated on atheism. If it hadn’t been for the words of the sermons, we might have been at any Protestant missionary society.
Part of this was the architecture. The old parts of Oxford University date from the time when there was no clear distinction between religion and society, and most of them now have a faintly sacerdotal air. Part of it was the people: lots of beards, formidable middle-aged women and younger gay men.
Everyone was united and sharing in a sense of relief at being in a safe space where what was important to them was no longer strange or dangerous.
Yes yes yes, Andrew, we get it; very droll.
However he did manage to spare one short paragraph to talk sensibly about Gulalai Ismail. He should have taken much more space to do that and less space to recycle the atheism-is-another-belief trope, but at least there’s the one short paragraph.
It is difficult to know who was the bravest, but my nomination would go toGululai Ismail, a young woman who has set up networks to spread ideas of human rights and peace in some of the most lawless and dangerous parts of Pakistan and who has, in consequence, had her family home shot up and death threats made against her.
Well that’s actually just one sentence. He gives it its own paragraph, but it’s still just one sentence.
Al Dente says
That’s pretty much a given.
“Formidable women”….anyone that reminds me of mom and makes me nervous.
Anthony K says
Or any orthodontist’s convention, if you want to play that fast and loose with ‘sermon’; and you kind of have to, if you don’t want to beg the question.
Okay, you got us there. In that respect, humanism is very much like any other religion in that its members routinely get threatened and attacked for heresy by religionists who generally aren’t humanists. They probably don’t tell a lot of stories about getting shot at by religious people at orthodontist’s conventions.
Yeah, that stuck out to me too, Anthony Kay. It’s like they’re exactly the same except for what they believe, do and say.
John Morales says
chrislawson @4, had you not quotemined, your “do” would not have belonged.
(The context—and thus applicability—was gatherings)
I’m not so sure, John. I suspect there are many activities at the average Protestant mission meeting that were not replicated. For instance, did the WHC have any prayer meetings? Were there official humanist church priests in attendance wearing identifiable uniforms? Was grace spoken before meals? Were plans made to raise funds to send missionaries across the globe to convert people to atheism*? Were there frequent appeals to supernatural entities for blessings?
*Yes, I know the difference between humanism and atheism, but apparently Andrew Brown doesn’t.
I just don’t get the comparison of atheist conferences with religious services. I have spent many more hours than I wanted in church; I have spent many pleasant hours at atheist conferences. The conferences are nothing like church; they are like – conferences. They much more resemble scientific conferences or business conferences. No one compares those sorts of conferences to religions…but then, no one wants to make the “cute” joke that ecology is just like religion, or physics is just like religion, so those conferences are OK to be business conferences, in spite of the fact that they are set up almost exactly the same way as atheist conferences, including the same sorts of mixers, the same sorts of entertainment. But I don’t think it’s ignorance on their part. I think they’re desperate to dismiss atheism in whatever way they can.
John Morales says
chrislawson @6, sure, everything you note. But the quoted bit was impressionistic artistic license rather than literal, and the sentiment expressed is what’s of relevance; thus the reaction “Yes yes yes, Andrew, we get it; very droll.”
John, I think you’re giving Andrew Brown far too much benefit. He has a long history of articles equating atheism to religion. It’s not just an off-hand bit of artistic license; it’s what he believes and what he writes repeatedly. Ophelia was addressing it in an off-hand way because the main point she wanted to make was his under-reporting of what was really important at the conference.
(And I would point out that Brown is still getting things wrong in other ways. This was a *humanism* conference, not an *atheism* conference, and being an avowed humanist has not been dangerous in the West for more than two centuries. It’s not the same as being an atheist — another important distinction Brown perpetually elides.)
iknklast: to be fair, Brown didn’t compare the conference to a religious service but to a mission meeting. So he’s a hair’s-breadth closer to the truth than that. But it’s still very misleading.
John Morales says
chrislawson @9, good response. Thanks.
Raging Bee says
Part of this was the architecture…Part of it was the people: lots of beards, formidable middle-aged women and younger gay men.
In other words, his two primary excuses for comparing humanism to religion have nothing at all to do with what was actually said at the humanist conference.
I chose to read “Andrew Brown has an annoying piece…” as “Andrew Brown is an annoying piece…”, is that wrong?
Well obviously atheists and religionists are both groups of people so must be just the same, amirite?
Thanks, John. The important thing is that we agree with each other 100%. Wouldn’t want any Deep Rifts :-]
Ophelia Benson says
Well at any rate there were some people breathing in and out there, just as there are at “a completely religious gathering” that really is a completely religious gathering, so I totally see what Andrew is getting at.
Pieter B, FCD says
Protip for Mr Brown from a word nerd. If one is attempting to impress others with his erudition, one should not describe buildings as having “a faintly sacerdotal air,” especially when one’s next sentence is about people, presented as a separate class of things.
sacerdotal, adjective: of, relating to, or characteristic of priests
How is Brown STILL getting money to write what is basically the same article over and over again?
exactly what I was thinking.
“Droll” covers everything he’s ever written. I suppose that in itself is the unique skillset the Guardian was paying him for?