Reach for the Sky
Editorial by Jim Herrick
Welcome to the new New Humanist. As readers will be aware we have been making improvements to the magazine for the last two years. Although this process is by no means complete, we have engaged a gallery of well-known writers for this issue to deal with some of the burning questions of the day. It is our aim that the New Humanist, while retaining its humanist base, should engage with and influence contemporary intellectual currents.
This issue therefore has Tom Baldwin, a political editor at the Times, considering religious aspects of the government, and Jonathan Rée, the philosopher, looking at Popper on the centenary of his birth. Christopher Hitchens in conversation with Laurie Taylor analyses Orwell's humanism, and Brian Stableford examines the cultural implications of Spiderman. Brenda Maddox, the biographer, gives an account of the underestimated scientist Rosalind Franklin, and Howard Jacobson, the novelist, puzzles at the relationship of Jews with God.
Simon Hoggart, the Guardian columnist, vents his spleen about the Observer's new astrology column. And so it goes on. And will go on in future issues. Tell your friends that the New Humanist is a magazine they should not miss. We will certainly be looking at every possibility of making it reach into new spheres.
There has recently been a campaign to make Thought for the Day reach out in new ways in particular to the non-religious. Thought for the Day is well ensconced in the BBC Radio 4 Today programme with a remit to be a 'religious thought'. An approach to the Today programme and the BBC governors came from the National Secular Society, the British Humanist Association and the Rationalist Press Association. The approach was given weight by the accompanying list of 120 well-known names. These included the playwrights Harold Pinter, Edward Bond and Arnold Wesker, the novelists Philip Pullman and Maureen Duffy, the scientists Colin Blakemore, Richard Dawkins, Hermann Bondi and Helena Cronin. The well-known jazz singer George Melly and broadcaster Ludovic Kennedy were also included, as were more than 20 MPs.
The Today programme responded with interviews, discussion and an alternative Thought for the Day by Richard Dawkins. The public rushed to give their opinion and the balance was apparently in favour of including 'non-religious thoughts'. However, the department of religion and ethics (note the last word) has stuck to its guns so far.
I took part in a discussion on the Radio 4 Sunday programme, in which representatives of the three humanist organisations that had initiated the campaign discussed the campaign and humanism in general. Asked what was distinctive about rationalism, I emphasised that it proposed the use of reason as a means of understanding the natural world and human behaviour. Thus science was very important as a process which enabled us to understand the world around us. Of course, the aesthetic and the emotional are also important and scientific discoveries can be applied to bad ends. But I stressed that morality was not the preserve of the religious and arose from our human needs as social animals.
There will always be the historical ebb and flow of ideas but the current seems to be moving our way. I've noticed the word 'humanism' used more frequently recently. For instance, Jonathan Freedland writing in the Guardian about the use of pornography in advertising suggested that "informed neither by puritanism nor old-line feminism we should adopt perhaps a new guiding star: humanism." The cellist Steven Isserlis, in talking about the Proms, said that he didn't like the Last Night and would prefer Beethoven's Ninth Symphony "'something humanistic rather than nationalistic".
On the radio I said that I would like to see rationalism reach into society as whole and I would like to see the same happen to the New Humanist.