I listened with interest this Sunday morning to Polly Toynbee, the new President of the British Humanist Association. She was speaking about her appointment on Radio 4’s religious and current affairs program, Sunday.
I’ve got a lot of time for Polly. She has always been willing to openly and intelligently debate matters of faith and religion and the role these should or shouldn’t have in the public square, without resorting to the the kind of hyperbolic ranting of the likes of Dawkings. So, I’m looking forward to reading and listening to her opinions in this new role.
That said, I didn’t hear much this morning that enlightened me as to why she thinks the agenda of humanists has a value over and above a fully-formed and authentically lived out religious position, or why and how we should move to eradicate religious influence from the public square, as if this is ever going to be a viable agenda, given the centrality of faith to so many people. Indeed, it almost seems an anti-human agenda to suppress something which is so central to the humanity of the majority of people around the world.
When pressed about the human pervasiveness of religious and spiritual experience, Polly suggested that this was simply a matter of semantics. What others would suggest is spiritual, she would call the ‘life of the imagination’. Given that I think the likes of imagination and intuition play an important role in religious experience, I don’t have a massive problem with such a suggestion. What I feel the comment denies, however, is that this human imagination is far more likely to play with ideas of the transcendent and divine presence, rather than an absence of god(s) and empty universe. Indeed, I hope Polly would agree that it may simply be the imagination’s of humanists that tell them there is no god(s) rather than the rational logic they more commonly appeal to. Which of course, brings you back to the question, why have an agenda that seeks to remove the influence of religious teaching from the public arena? Especially as so many faiths affirm and value the human in time and place and aren’t simply obsessed with proselytizing and the afterlife, which so often seems to be what’s implied in the argument.
The fact is, the purpose of religion in regards to humanity isn’t that far removed from the positive, person-centered agenda of humanists. Therefore, I suggest that Polly and her friends would generate something more becoming of the name humanist if they sought an agenda which allowed the religious voice to be heard all the more in the public square, rather than muffling it, because the religious voice is so often the voice of humanity.