Confessions of a secular humanist


It was the quote from a recent New York Times Magazine that gave me the jolt. Analysing the success of the high class, Canadian teen soap ‘Degrassi’, the article blithely said ‘[Producer Shelley] Scarrow’s and Canada’s old fashioned liberal openness hasn’t always played well abroad.’ (New York Times Magazine, March 20) This was in reference to an episode that American networks had refused to broadcast about a teenager who had an abortion without much angst or ill effects. This tut-tutting about lack of a sticky end for the supposed wrong doer, however, wasn’t what stopped me in my tracks. It is, after all, only relatively recently that American film and television has stopped moralising, particularly about sex. America has always been the great evangelical nation, happy to preach its rightness and your wrongness at any available opportunity.

No, it was the phrase ‘old fashioned liberal openness’ that sent the electric shock through my neurones.

For the first time I registered just how completely out of date I am. Mind you, the blow to my ego was somewhat softened by the fact that the New York Times also appears to regard an entire nation – namely Canada – as just so five minutes ago.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

I am a child of the seventies, a feminist, a small ‘l’ liberal, a card carrying, if not quite flag waving, secular humanist. After being on the cutting edge so long, I am finding it rather hard to come to terms with being, at least as far as the New York Times is concerned, passé.

Worse, I was born a secular humanist, I am no convert. I was brought up with no religion, my father’s family lapsed from Judaism so long ago we’d forgotten all about it, and my mother is so ferocious about her childhood faith she could accurately be described as anti-Methodist. Secular humanism is then, for me, quite literally the faith of my fathers.

For most of my life, this faith was in the ascendant, winning more converts than any other philosophy. Smugly, perhaps, I took it for granted that I was in step with the times and that it was the slightly nerdy god-botherers who were out of it. Now, it seems, the boot is on the other foot.

But if the current fashionable moral arguments I am seeing and hearing are anything to go by, I shall have to remain out of date a while longer.

Perhaps it is my upbringing, but I often find myself bewildered by the reasoning used by the religious to justify their positions; the ghastly situation of Terri Schiavo and her family being the most recent example. I can completely understand the desire of her parents to cling to the hope that she may recover. This seems only human to me. It is those who took up what they saw as her cause, sometimes to the extent of vilifying her equally tragic husband as a money-grubbing, unfaithful, wife-murderer, left me open-mouthed. Apparently this was a Christian position. As everyone now knows, a very long legal battle had taken place and the courts had decided to remove the poor woman’s feeding tube, not once, but many times. Those who are much trendier than I am, namely the US Congress, rushed back from holidays to try and keep the tube in place. They failed, and Terri Schiavo has been allowed to die. As a result, it has also been discovered that some 80 per cent of the American public have more in common with Canada than those groovers in the White House, and believe that no-one would want to stay alive in her circumstances.

In fact, the practical result of Terri Schiavo’s tragedy has been that many people are now stating unequivocally, in front of witnesses, that they do not want to be kept alive if something similar should happen to them. One elderly doctor has even gone so far as to tattoo Do Not Resuscitate on his chest.

Sometimes when I try to unravel the difference between my world view and those with a religious perspective, it seems to me that it is less about the sanctity of life and more about who decides who will live and who will die. Many who pleaded for Terri Schiavo’s life are also supporters of the death penalty, the right to own guns and the right to go to war. So perhaps the New York Times is right, and a closed authoritarianism is now hip and happening.

Somebody once said to me that we all become the thing we most despise. It’s interesting that just at the time the West sees itself as going into battle against fundamentalism, we seem to be becoming more fundamentalist ourselves.

The passing of the Pope was also an event this secular humanist watched with interest. Devout Catholics will hate this, and I do not say it to offend, but we haven’t seen such an outpouring of public grief since Princess Diana died. Such grief for people who most of the mourners could never have known must, surely, say more about them than it does about the person who has died. What did John Paul and Diana represent in the wider world that touched so many so profoundly? With the Pope, it is easier to tease out. He literally represents Papa, the father, our guide and protector, albeit a very authoritarian one. As those who have experienced the death of a parent have told me, it is frightening to face the world without your father between you and the sky. And Diana? It seemed to me that women were more affected by her death than men. Perhaps she represented the death of the belief in the old fairy tale, the promise of romance, of happily ever after, that somewhere there was a man (with bucket loads of money, of course) who would protect you and love you and guide you, stand, perhaps, between you and the sky. My truth would be that such a belief is always an illusion. There is no-one between us and the sky, there never has been. What we grieve for over Pope and Princess is the loss of that illusion.

As Polly Toynbee pointed out in a very powerful piece in The Guardian on Friday ‘Yet again, rationalists who thought they understood this secular, sceptical age have been shocked at the coverage from Rome.’ Perhaps Polly and I should migrate to Canada.

“OMG!…I Love Ellie and Asley…Craig Is Totally HOTTTT….Dgrassi Is the Best Teen TV N da WRLD!” Ben Neihart, The New York Times Magazine, March 20, 2005

“Not in My Name.” Polly Toynbee, The Guardian , April 8, 2005

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