I became a humanist last year, but am still not sure what that means. I have noticed no changes in myself so far. There is a tendency to define humanism in terms of what it is not, for example: not an organised religion, no belief in the supernatural, not racist, not extremist, etc. Friday night, at a humanist lecture on the jihadist mentality, the speaker tried to redefine humanism; I believe his intention was to reach out towards religious moderates and hence isolate the crazies.
His name is Roger Griffin, he’s an historian with a specialism in Nazism which he has now extended to terrorism. He began by describing the modern world’s tendency to rob people of meaning in their lives, particularly the erosion of unquestioning belief (in religion, government, law, morality, etc). This, he said, leaves a hole which can, on the one hand, be filled by an addiction to shopping, watching programmes like the X Factor or gardening, or, on the other hand, by creativity in art, music, theatre or whatever. But for some this is not enough, their search for meaning becomes obsessive and idealistic. In the worst cases they latch on to some extreme idea (e.g. distorted Islam) and become so strongly addicted to that idea that they are willing to kill and be killed for it: hence the Twin Towers, etc.
I’m sure that Roger would regard this as a vast over simplification of what he said, but that’s it in essence. He gave us many examples of terrorists and their bizarre creeds including Brusthom Ziamani, the 19 year old arrested in London carrying a flag of Islam, a hammer and a knife with the express intention of beheading a soldier. This man was brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness and converted to Islam in his teens. In London, he joined a group of followers of some radical Muslim cleric. His ex-girlfriend said that, “he wanted to die a martyr and do things to get to heaven and to please god”.
That night the audience were clamouring for solutions to the ghastly problems of extremism rather than reasons for it. The speaker’s response was that those who have been turned can be unturned - given the right treatment. He referred to the Danish solution in which radicals returning from ISIS in Syria are treated kindly, rather than being imprisoned as they are here. They are re-educated and once converted released to become educators themselves, thus creating people with the ability to reach out to the terrorists groups that they themselves once belonged to and to reason with them. This was treated with some scepticism, but what really got the assembled humanists off their chairs was a suggestion that the humanist view should be more tolerant towards religion. Here the speaker was, I think, suggesting that the “militant” humanists (he mentioned Hitchens and Dawkins) attacks on religion sent the religious scurrying to their defensive positions and the nutters to their guns.
I think he has a point. There is, to my mind, a large area of overlap between the beliefs of atheistic humanists and the moderately religious. ‘Do unto others as you would have done to yourselves’ is surely an aim to strive for: for oneself, one’s family and the community at large. Unless, of course, you are a terrorist.
Serious as this topic is, there was a lighter side to the evening. The speaker talked of the depressing effect of news broadcasts and suggested this is why BBC Radio 4 has a comedy half-hour immediately after the six o’clock news. Naturally, this led onto the calming effect of The Archers which follows the seven o’clock news. And this sparked a brief debate about the main story currently unwinding in this long-running radio soap. And then to the disclosure (fresh from that night’s episode) that David is not leaving Ambridge. Phew, great relief all round. Sorry if this seems obscure or even irrelevant, but it does go to prove that humanists are human.