In a debate in the last issue of New Humanist, Dave Belden wrote that humanists have already met the philosophical challenges set by religion. We know that morality and meaning do not require belief in God. But, he asserted, "Rationalist argument alone gets boring. To build a good society you need vibrant connections", for we are a "tribal species. We need communal rituals, songs to sing together, not alone in our rooms." And he recalled that in the 19th century Ethical Culture Societies were formed to provide a functional equivalent to religion, though they did not thrive. AC Grayling replied that he had no doubt why they failed: They were unnecessary nonsense. Humanism is not "a substitute version of church membership" but "a quite different thing". For humanism, he asserted, is a general outlook based on two allied premises: "that there are no supernatural entities or agencies in the universe" and "that ethics must be based on human nature and circumstances." And he concluded that "by definition" it is the case that "a humanistic outlook is as far from religion as it can be."

Oddly, I can agree with them both. Belden, the activist, tells how in his "rural American backwater", faced with Christian homophobic, racist and anti-Semitic attitudes, he joined and could enjoy a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Ordinary people coming together can indeed experience "awe and gratitude, humility, joy, despair or power in face of the mystery of life." Even atheists, he says, "may call these experiences religious." Well, he is right to stress sociability as part of human nature, whereas Grayling seems austerely individualistic (holding the ancient Stoics as exemplars of conduct); yet the English philosopher is right to caution against (in fact I think he scorns) the 'mystery of life' and especially to warn against calling it 'religious'.

A line has to be drawn somewhere, certainly philosophically but not necessarily socially. The old Ethical Culture Societies could end up looking backward and foolish. That stout pillar of old rationalism, William Kent in his London for Heretics (1932) told how the former West London Ethical Church [sic] had a liturgy of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. But the South Place Ethical Society, under Tom Paine's biographer, Moncure Conway, an apostate American Unitarian, finally drew the line at his using secular incense. All this catered for a need at the time – 'human nature and circumstances' indeed. Circumstances are different now, but the times can call (as Belden has found) for extraordinary alliances. Grayling's 'two minimal premises' are philosophically wholly defensible, but they can be too austere in practice. Ethical beliefs and practices based on 'human nature and circumstances' move into historical, social and empirical territories whose nature, while always subject to a philosopher's criticism and clarification, have meanings of their own. If ceremonies should, for most of us, be minimal, they remain necessary in human society. Consider how popular are new humanist guides for the main ceremonies of life and death. Let me remind Grayling of the late Ernest Gellner's dictum: "intellectually tolerant, never; socially tolerant, always." Individually we can live by 'science and reason alone', but not collectively. In different moods or different company I can be with either Belden or Grayling.

Actually their dispute is not for the soul, as it were, of a humanist movement, for Grayling seems to deny that humanism is or should be a 'movement', and Belden ends: "I am not saying that humanism should be this, only that it's one way to try it."

In his circumstances, one understands. We must find allies and make friends wherever we can in common cause against the newly fortified bigoteries and fundamentalisms. The embarrassment for some humanists is that often the most effective opponents of religious fanaticism are Christians and Muslims themselves. So a deeper issue underlies the more superficial matter of ceremonies: that of working together against the growth of militant fundamentalism.

While working and advising on immigrant settlement and integration, I have found that inter-faith groups are often the most effective. Being inter-faith, they cannot proselytise. One of the best of them is the Citizenship Organising Foundation in London's East End of which I am an honorary fellow – I felt that humanists should be represented. We should turn on ourselves the good old joke of Voltaire on his deathbed. "Denounce the devil and all his works!", cried the intruding priest. "But this is no time", Voltaire replied, "to make enemies." There are theologians who call themselves 'Christian humanists' and hold that politics, as the necessary compromising of real values and interests, is indeed a secular activity. They are worth listening to, or even if not, worth working with for issues of social reform and war and peace.

Bernard Crick is author of George Orwell: a Life and In Defence of Politics

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