How is it possible that a humanist organization could fail to address the travesty of an attack on another nation state under false claims?
Some years ago, I was disappointed by the policy direction of the British Humanist Association (BHA). At the time, I had become intrigued by the atheist bus campaign. As an atheist myself, I found the initiative imaginative and a clever manner in which to take the debate over religious belief public. In fact, I had just published a book myself, The Bridge, where I set out the arguments in support of an atheist philosophy. Hence, I joined the BHA and jumped on the bus, so to speak. The disappointment came later. The BHA subsequently began a campaign to request humanist representation in ceremonies honoring the deaths of British soldiers in the Iraq-2 conflict. I found this new campaign highly inappropriate. Surely the real political issue was not whether fallen soldiers ought to be commemorated through a Christian service or through some alternative ceremony. The real issue was and remains: Why were soldiers sent on a mission of regime change under false pretenses? How can such acts of preemptive warfare possibly be justified?
In my own book, I went much further than to simply argue for an atheist perspective. I went on to examine other social beliefs that fail the test of scientific scrutiny, e.g., the concept of race and nationalist ideology. As part of my promotion efforts for the book I had written three short articles for the New Statesman, where I examined such questions briefly.
Unfortunately. the humanist agenda has been taken hostage by the so called militant atheists, who are on a mission to eliminate religious influence in public life. It’s not that I object to the attempt to stop state support for religious schools or other similar campaigns. That is an appropriate goal and is in keeping with the separation of church and state. But eliminating religion from public life is quite possibly a hopeless task. More importantly, though, the BHA has become a one issue organization. And they are failing to critically consider the broader political arena and to take a stand against belligerent governments, against unjustifiable offensive wars. How is it possible that a humanist organization could fail to address the travesty of an attack on another nation state under false claims? And instead whine about the type of ceremonial service held to commemorate a soldier’s loss of life, a life wasted for imperial adventure? And what of the loss of life among Iraqi civilians (the so called collateral damage)? Shouldn’t a humanist organization worthy of the name take a strong stand against military adventure?
Not surprisingly, I have parted ways with the BHA. True humanists must support a broad social agenda. We must not shy away from political criticism when governments embark on criminal, military adventures. All political agendas need to be screened against the test of impartial reason. All social beliefs must be subjected to rational scrutiny. An organization that limits its activities solely to a militant atheist agenda is failing as measured against its own mission statement.
The best known member of the BHA and the most widely read militant atheist is, of course, Richard Dawkins. Most of his books are outstanding contributions to science. And I concur in his well-reasoned assessment that there are no gods. We are products of the physical universe, an environment on planet earth that is conducive to life and several billion years of evolution. But as humanists, we need to promote a broad and truly humanist political agenda. We need to display human compassion and most importantly to practice non-violence and to protest state-sponsored terror.
Richard Dawkins fails miserably on this last score. Today I read a tweet he posted where he juxtaposes a Christian and a Muslim, both guilty of terrorist acts, against himself, a militant atheist who restricts his activity to writing books and giving lectures. He really should know better. His argument is against a strawman. More telling still, he is ignoring the fact of state terror perpetrated by the US and British governments. It is simply not true that all violence stems from religious belief. To the contrary, most wars in history can be traced to secular goals, imperial conquest, and national interest. Karen Armstrong’s new book, Fields of Blood, argues this point very effectively. So, let me suggest that Richard Dawkins read the book and begin to reflect on the bankruptcy of his castrated political agenda.
[CORRECTION: This article originally stated that “The BHA subsequently began a campaign to request humanist ceremonies in place of the standard religious ones honoring the deaths of British soldiers in the Iraq-2 conflict.” A spokesperson for the BHA, Pavan Dhaliwal, contacted FPJ to object to this statement as the organization was not campaigning to have religious ceremonies replaced with humanist ones, but merely to have humanism also represented. Accordingly, the text has been changed to read: “The BHA subsequently began a campaign to request humanist representation in ceremonies honoring the deaths of British soldiers in the Iraq-2 conflict.”
Ms. Dhaliwal further explained that for the BHA to take a position on military interventionism would “mean taking a political stance which could jeopardise our charitable status.”]