Give us a sign
Why shouldn't humanists have their own code for conveying solidarity, asks Alan Brownjohn
I was on a bus on a warm morning in a busy foreign city. The young woman sitting next to me had just provided some very kind and clear instructions about where I should alight for the hospital where a friend had been admitted that morning. A few more sentences of conversation in English revealed that she was studying the language. She was helpful, welcoming, relaxed. Suddenly she lowered her head, started muttering to herself, and seemed to be scratching in a frantic manner at the front of her woollen sweater; except that her fingers were not making contact with it. I was quite concerned for her. Then I saw that the bus was passing a small Orthodox church, and that she had been respectfully and fanatically crossing herself in the customary, paroxysmic manner of believers in that country.
In moments she brought herself back to normality. When she reached her own stop she turned to me, smiled, wished me and my friend well, and got off. I thanked her again; but with a smile a little more forced than previously. I realised again how irritated, alienated, even a little bit frightened I felt at the sight of a very pleasant and apparently sane person going into that kind of bizarre convulsion.
At the same time I felt a certain inadequacy as a humanist, and wondered, as I often had before, whether there should not be some sort of humanist sign? A gesture one could give to express specifically humanist emotions of approval, disapproval, gratitude, or irony?
I am well aware that many agnostics and atheists will be wary of such a suggestion. They might be perfectly happy to be utterly free of the pressure or obligation to make gestures of that sort, and unhappy lest there might seem to be, in making any sign, a connection with or respect for the habit of religious signmaking.
Nevertheless, I want to press ahead with the idea: if certain people wish to make their religious beliefs obtrusively visible in public, why should I not have a sign that represents rational decency, and allows me to avow my beliefs in the same way? The only problem is, what kind of sign could I make that would emphatically not be taken as religious?
To raise both arms in the style of the Happy Humanist, the little Hshaped figure used by humanist associations all over the world, would be too large and vigorous a gesture. It would be too like a hearty greeting to someone, or worse, the beginning of an enjoyable yawn. Besides, your hands might knock the lampshade.
So I am going to suggest something simpler, something I have seen great performers well, specifically one great actor do after a heartbreakingly marvellous performance. Laurence Olivier, at the end of a performance, would take his solo bow inclining the top half of his body forward, placing his right hand on his heart, then slowly removing it and moving his opening hand in a quartercircle gesture of exhausted thanks to an enthralled audience.
That gesture was saying, 'Please receive my gratitude to you for your sustained ovation. My gratitude comes from my heart, the centre of life, the symbolic repository of the profoundest feelings.'
No one using such a gesture for humanist expressions of feeling would have to worry that it resembled any religious sign that I can think of. Certainly it's not crossing oneself like the Catholics, or doing the furious introverted scratchings of the Orthodox, or kneeling towards Mecca like the Muslims. It is simply an ageold sign, meaning 'I am moved/ happy/ grateful'. Or 'I feel for you in your misfortune/ bereavement/ failure to win the tennis tournament'. And it could, of course, be used with irony, or despair, for disgust or apology. In the case of disapproval or contempt, the hand could be removed from the heart and dropped dismissively, though too camp a flourish would best be avoided!
So will I start using this as a personal humanist sign which I shall commend to others? Yes. In fact I have started already, and can report that it seems to be recognised as a genuine and perfectly proper emotional expression. I was carelessly late for a social appointment, and used it with a selfdeprecating smile to indicate heartfelt regret for inconsiderate behaviour. I used it to say how sad I was that a friend had not succeeded in a job interview. More importantly, it came in useful for thanking the clergyman who had given a decent enough funeral tribute to a dead friend (thankfully not the chap I was seeing in the foreign hospital).
I shall attempt to compile a list of other times and places in which it could be used as an expression of sincere feeling and when possible, I shall explain what I am doing, in the hope that it might catch on. The hand conveying something 'from the heart' could be a very flexible and adaptable gesture. But I am very prepared to consider any better idea New Humanist readers can offer.