Do we get offended or join?

By Ian Bushfield

On the About Us page: “The British Columbia Humanist Association has been providing a community and voice for Humanists, atheists, agnostics, and the non-religious of Metro Vancouver and British Columbia since 1982. We support the growth of Humanist communities across BC, provide Humanist ceremonies, and campaign for progressive and secular values.

We are a registered charitable organization. Our mission is:

  • to promote the ideas and philosophy of secular humanism by all available means of education and communication;
  • to serve the educational needs of its members and others of humanistic, scientific and naturalistic outlook, in a democratic, non-dogmatic manner free from authoritarian doctrine;
  • to provide opportunities for fellowship, study and service at all levels of humanistic endeavour, and to advance the values and welfare of humanity in dedication to the continuing enhancement of human life through human effort and understanding;
  • to offer and provide meaningful ceremonies to members and non-members at significant times such as marriage and death; and
  • to elaborate and to express publicly Humanist positions on issues of concern to people, including values, morality and ethics.

Find out more about Humanism or the issues we support.

We are run by a democratically-elected volunteer Board of Directors and a small staff. We are funded entirely by donations from individuals who share our vision for a world based on reason and compassion.”

As a Humanist, I often get trapped between wanting a more secular world while also wanting to promote my worldview. It’s a dilemma over how best to deal with religious privilege.

While it may be intellectually honest to oppose religious privilege at every instance, in many cases the easier and potentially more successful (in terms of gaining widespread acceptance of Humanist values) route is to co-opt some of the privileges afforded to the religious for our own purposes.

One example of this dilemma comes in the discussions over performing Humanist marriages.

In British Columbia, marriages are either performed by “religious organizations” or by civic marriage commissioners. The commissioners are hired by the province and have a couple contractual lines of text that must be forced into every ceremony. Clergy must register with the province but there are no obvious restrictions on their ceremonies.

We generally scoff at the notion that Humanism is a religion or that the BCHA should be considered a religious organization. On the other hand, we see value in marriages, even secular ones (I myself was married by Lorrie Williams, BCHA member and marriage commissioner), and realized the difficulty and slow timeline in lobbying for a change to the BC Marriage Act.

In the end, we decided to hold our noses while checking the religious organization box on the form, in order to reap some of the privilege that is bestowed upon the religious. This is not unprecedented in Humanism, as Humanist Canada (in Ontario), the Ontario Humanist Society, The Humanist Society of the USA, and various Ethical Culture societies have all pursued similar paths to gain this right.

The same debate comes around when we discuss interfaith events, which bring a number of speakers together representing different religious traditions. Humanists and atheists are sometimes invited (and sometimes we force our way in) but many are still uncomfortable with the idea of considering Humanism (much less atheism) as a faith.

The current dilemma in my mind is the discovery of the Fraser Health Spiritual Care program which “provides spiritual and religious support to patients and families within programs such as End of Life and Residential as well as at our Acute Care sites in the region.” Basically, depending which side of the bed I wake up on, I have two minds about this program and what I would advocate Humanists to do about it.

If I give in to my New Atheist leanings, I would decry this egregious violation of church and state. What business is it of the public health system to be giving space to these peddlers of false hope. This is made worse by the fact that people are at their most vulnerable in these situations. We should clearly rally and protest this entire system.

Alternatively, I have my New Humanism (via Greg Epstein) side, where I recognize the opportunity for Humanists to provide an alternative to these false prophets. I think we need to recognize the psychological and emotional (not spiritual, that word is meaningless) needs of people facing their own mortality and further view this as a chance not to promote our own ideology, but to provide some comfort to those who know that their life may end sooner than they wish and that there will be no afterlife. This is where I see a chance for Humanist Officiants and Chaplains to reach out and to provide a service.

I think this entire debate, for me, comes down to an inconvenient secular puritanism versus chances to reach out to people who just want to live a good life (with or without god). The cultural definition of religion seems to be quite a bit looser than what the New Atheists choose to fight against (which is primarily unfounded supernaturalism)and may properly include Humanism (since it already includes Unitarian Universalism and often Buddhism). In many cases (taxes, charity law, etc.) it seems like it would just be easier to give in and adopt the religious language rather than fighting a system over semantics.

I guess a final way to consider this dilemma is looking at two alternatives to ending religious privilege. The first involves trying to undo it, destroy it, and remove any advantage religion is given. The alternative is to open up the definition so wide as to render it nearly meaningless. Traditional religions would no longer hold their privilege were anyone allowed to join the club. The former option is long, difficult, and potentially unwinnable (especially with an apathetic public) while the latter can be considered intellectual cowardice or selling out.

I am not attempting to advocate for either course of action here. I think good arguments can be made for and against both approaches and I find myself flipping back and forth between the two. Often the solution, like with the confrontation-accommodation debate, lies in rejecting the false dichotomy and seeing the shades of grey.

Originally published on the British Columbia Humanist Association website on January 31, 2012.

Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du QuébecAtheist FreethinkersCentral Ontario Humanist AssociationComox Valley HumanistsGrey Bruce HumanistsHalton-Peel Humanist CommunityHamilton HumanistsHumanist Association of LondonHumanist Association of OttawaHumanist Association of TorontoHumanists, Atheists and Agnostics of ManitobaOntario Humanist SocietySecular Connextions SeculaireSecular Humanists in CalgarySociety of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph)Thunder Bay HumanistsToronto OasisVictoria Secular Humanist Association.

Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an AgnostikerAmerican Atheists,American Humanist AssociationAssociação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and AgnosticsAtheist Alliance InternationalAtheist Alliance of AmericaAtheist CentreAtheist Foundation of AustraliaThe Brights MovementCenter for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist IrelandCamp Quest, Inc.Council for Secular HumanismDe Vrije GedachteEuropean Humanist FederationFederation of Indian Rationalist AssociationsFoundation Beyond BeliefFreedom From Religion FoundationHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist InternationalHumanist Association of GermanyHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist Society of ScotlandHumanists UKHumanisterna/Humanists SwedenInternet InfidelsInternational League of Non-Religious and AtheistsJames Randi Educational FoundationLeague of Militant AtheistsMilitary Association of Atheists and FreethinkersNational Secular SocietyRationalist InternationalRecovering From ReligionReligion News ServiceSecular Coalition for AmericaSecular Student AllianceThe Clergy ProjectThe Rational Response SquadThe Satanic TempleThe Sunday AssemblyUnited Coalition of ReasonUnion of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

Image Credit: British Columbia Humanist Association.

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