That Humanist

So how do you deal with religious belief in someone you like?
January 25, 2008, 3:57 am
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Wherein I consider how I treat my friends, and how a government agency considers “three little pigs” offensive to Muslims.


A friend recently asked me how I dealt with religious belief in someone I liked, and in particular, if I would be bothered by their beliefs and how they spent their time.

I responded with, “Well, I guess I tend not to behave any differently,” and “I respect people – but I don’t respect religions,” which sums up the situation quite nicely.

I have a wonderful friend who is religious. That doesn’t stop me from talking to her, nor does it make me switch into some evangelical atheist mode. At the same time, if she said something that did relate to her belief system, I may say something about it if I didn’t agree. It would also not stop me from discussing one of my passions, evolution or humanism for example.

In other words, I treat my friends equally, irrespective of their religion, without tiptoeing around topics. I believe this is honest and respectful. Perhaps I have lost potential friends due to this. I can quite imagine someone being offended by something I’ve said, though without them telling me their belief system I would not know.

Should we go around assuming someone may be offended by secular humanism given that we know that (depending on context) many people we meet may be religious? No. Do you go around assuming someone may be offended by a description of the wonderful cannelloni you had last night given that there is a probability that you may be talking to a vegan?


My relationship with my friends is quite different to that of a government and its people. How does a government deal with religious belief in its people? In Britain there is a push to respect multiple faiths in schools and elsewhere by the government (at least I perceive that there is – I should find proof).

But how far do you take this? Clare wrote about “a test to see whether a particular decision is secular or whether it privileges religion.” Now take for example this BBC story that Three Little Pigs considered ‘too offensive’ by a government body . I’m not sure if this is respecting Muslims, or insulting them.

It’s obviously a decision that privileges a religion. Perhaps they’re doing it for “respect” of that religion, or to promote “multi-faith”.

But this brings with it a host of questions: Why only that religion though? Should we expect a ban on the phrase “The cow jumped over the moon?” Does the size and vociferousness of the religion determine how much respect the government should give it? What about my beliefs about a secular government?

I’m hoping this particular case is simply a bad decision by a few individuals obsessed with political correctness, but it does highlight concerns about just what respect means to a government. Unlike the situation with a friend where there are only two parties involved, here there are multiple parties, each with their own beliefs, rights, wishes and traditions. I like to treat my friends honestly, equally: the government, it seems, has no such desire.


Morality – From Altruism through Religion to Neurobiology and Beyond
January 22, 2008, 2:53 pm
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Panda’s Thumb has an interesting post on Evolution of altruistic cooperation and communication in robot societies. Here we have dumb robots exhibiting behaviour many would think is exclusively in the domain of humanity. This goes some way to “increases our understanding of how cooperation, cheating and altruism arose.” Obviously this in turn sheds some light on morality.

There appears to be a tremendous amount of science uncovering aspects of our moral intuitions. Here’s some of the stuff I’m reading about right now:

  • The theory of reciprocal altruism (introduce by Robert Trivers) shows how we can evolve mechanisms of guilt, altruism, cheating, trust, reputation and cheat detection.
  • Kin selection explains how “some organisms tend to exhibit strategies that favor the reproductive success of their relatives, even at a cost to their own survival and/or reproduction.” In other words, why I would give my life for that of my sister.
  • Inclusive fitness is a generalisation of kin selection, looking at how social behaviours rather than simply kin. For example, how the monkey will scream to warn its troop of an approaching leopard, but at the same time give away its own location.
  • Moral Psychology/Evolutionary Psychology/Neurobiology and more are uncovering fascinating details about how we think and make moral judgements. This includes the role of emotion in making a moral decision, and a set of moral foundations common to all of man, and a weighted universal moral grammar. Here I’m looking at some of the works by Jonathon Haidt, Marc Hauser and others.
  • Anthropologists such as Pascal Boyer theorise about how some of these innate human instincts guide our predilections towards religious belief, as does some of the work by moral psychologists. For example, how our feeling of disgust (in food) is captured by moral notions of disgust (“How could you perform that immoral act? It’s disgusting!”) and how religions (and other social systems) play on this .

Here we have a rich vein of science, spanning everything from philosophy, anthropology and psychology to social sciences, neurobiology and evolution. Yes, we even have robots displaying altruistic cooperation. How much more rewarding than the flat deistic notion of morality—”it is written!” Now we have real insights into how we rationally decide what is right or wrong, and how we evolved to have some innate notion of what is right and wrong, how these sometimes conflict, making us the humans that we are.

The Root of All Morality?
January 20, 2008, 9:33 pm
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After admitting that I’m an atheist (and humanist), I’m often asked “but what about morals?”  Morals are very important to all of us, and many believe that throwing out their religious-book-of-choice will throw out morality as well. 

A little reflection should rule this out.  There are many secular countries where the absence of a god does not result in a culture of chaos and iniquity—obviously a justice system, cultural norms and instincts can do the job just as well. The result may be different to what you may wish, but still stable.

I wonder why these people ask about morality in the absence of religion. The Edinburgh University Humanist Society has
an upcoming event on “Humanist Ethics for 21st century” in February, so I thought I’d start exploring this and other aspects of morality in a series of blog posts. In starting out, I’m left with a series of questions I hope to be able to answer one day:

  • Does removing religion from a society leave a gap that needs to be filled? Do we naturally feel the need to have a visible authority on the matter, traditionally handled by the priesthood? In promoting humanism, do we need to assuage any concerns about morality, and if so, how do we do this most effectively?
  • Do we understand enough about our natural moral instincts? For example, here’s what the Amsterdam Declaration of Humanist principles says about morality:
    Humanists believe that morality is an intrinsic part of human nature based on understanding and a concern for others, needing no external sanction. If morality is intrinsic, I’d like to know more about it. What are our natural inclinations, and how do they differ across cultures? What are the evolutionary drivers for morality and what can science tell us?

In starting this quest, it’s probably worth defining just what morality is. My dictionary defines moral as:

concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character
concerned with or adhering to the code of interpersonal behavior that is considered right or acceptable in a particular society

Of course, the right and wrong leads me immediately to think about good and evil as portrayed in religious texts. Religious folk would leave the ultimate arbiter to an imagined god. Right and wrong, demands more. Who is the arbiter? This is why that second clause in the definition is so important to me: “considered right or acceptable in a particular society.” But then, is “good” simply relative?

Darn, another question to add to the list…

That humanist
January 15, 2008, 11:37 am
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Rather blatantly inspired by this humanist, here is that humanist!

I hope to write about humanism and living. I care about both. I am currently alive, and trying to figure out this whole living thing. I’m also an atheist secular humanist. Don’t let that fool you though, I’m much more than that.

We humans like labels and labeling things. The Humanist Network News Podcast recently had a number of interviews about “the problem of atheism“. Or rather, with the word “atheism.” It’s a label, generally perceived as a negative one, and Sam Harris suspects that we should qualify it when we use it. As he says:

“We don’t label ourselves non-racists. We don’t advocate non-racism as an ideology. We simply repudiate racism.”

Of course, if more folk thought like humanists then there would be no need for the label of “atheist” – we’d simply be using reason and evidence and perhaps have a word for those that don’t. “Irrational” perhaps, a little tongue-in-cheek.

So now I’m that humanist, the tall one in the corner. The one interested in beliefs, in psychology, morality, fulfillment, genetics, biology, happiness, evolution and what it means to be me. Let’s see where this takes me!