Ways of Expressing Meaning

 

Appreciating that individuals and cultures express their beliefs and values through many different forms.

 

 

Learning from Stories and Narratives

There are no key stories in Humanism, and no sacred stories.

On the other hand, it seems to be a general characteristic of human beings to enjoy and learn from stories, both true ones and fiction, and so stories of various kinds are important to humanists. Though they distinguish carefully between truth and fiction, humanists find psychological and moral truths in both.

Most humanists in Europe and North and South America are familiar with the stories of the Bible and the great works of mythology and literature that are part of our common culture and which encourage us to think about the human condition and our place in the universe. Humanists are capable of appreciating stories from the world’s religions without believing that they are necessarily literally true. Most humanists appreciate the power of imaginative fiction, poetry, myth, drama and metaphor to move us and persuade us to empathise with characters both like and unlike ourselves and to think about important moral questions. Teachers will be familiar with the way even quite banal stories can stimulate intense discussion about motivations and morality.

Historical and scientific narratives can also be inspirational for humanists, who, for example, find meaning and beauty in the immense “story” of evolution or in stories of human benevolence, courage and creativity.

Stories can be taken at face value, as mere entertainment – and humanists are unlikely to object to “mere” entertainment. But fictional and non-fictional narratives are often also a way of exploring the world and learning more about it, ourselves and other people. The works of Shakespeare, for example, are valued for their psychological and moral insights as well as for their drama, poetry and narrative drive.

Humanists also see the scientific account of evolution of life on Earth, and the accounts of the discoveries which led to it, as both true and fascinating, placing humankind firmly in the natural world (a place which is not seen by humanists as demeaning) and offering powerful explanations of human beings, their nature and behaviour, as well as of other species.

Humanists do not necessarily share stories, so their impact will tend to be personal rather than communal. As a group, however, they do attach great importance to the scientific accounts of life on Earth; the developing understanding of this in the 19th century was instrumental in moving many Christians away from literalist interpretations of the Bible, and for some caused a loss of religious faith and a shift towards Humanism.

Symbolism

There is no great range of symbols unique to Humanism and none of any great age. The best known is perhaps the “Happy Human” symbol. This was the winning design in a competition in the 1960s and has been adopted and adapted by humanist organisations all around the world. It was chosen for its happy appearance, happiness and humanity being central concepts to humanists, and for its H-shape, standing for Humanism. The slightly higher arm on the left was intended to hold different national flags.

The meaning of the “Happy Human” symbol is easily understood, but it is a human creation and has no special or sacred status.

The “Happy Human” symbol is very distinctive, but humanists do not always choose to appear distinctive and many do not wear or display the symbol. It is useful as a well understood logo that links together many different humanist organisations around the world.

While they understand the symbolism and the need for symbolism of some faith groups, some humanists object to religious symbols being on permanent display in shared public spaces such as crematoria or schools because they feel excluded by them.

The Arts

The “Happy Human” symbol has not yet permeated into art, music, literature and architecture, and on the whole humanists share many of the symbols and symbolic language of the rest of humanity, such as flowers signifying transience at funerals, but also representing beauty and nature at other times, rings and the stars suggesting eternity. We are all surrounded by artistic, literary and practical symbols (such as warning signs, brands and logos) – and it would seem to a humanist that using and understanding symbolic images and language are natural aspects of being human.

Meeting Places

Humanists have very few buildings of their own in the UK. Two examples are Leicester Secular Society and Conway Hall in Holborn, London; both are large buildings with many rooms of various sizes suitable for meetings and lectures.

Leicester Secular Society’s building is particularly interesting. Built in 1881, partly because of the difficulties atheists and freethinkers had in finding places to meet, its façade features busts of Socrates, Jesus, Voltaire, Thomas Paine and Robert Owen.

Conway Hall was opened in 1929 when the South Place Ethical Society needed a new home. The Society wanted “a dignified and commodious building, which it is hoped may become the Headquarters of the Ethical Movement in the British Isles, and also provide an open platform for speakers from any part of the world.” Conway Hall remains a centre for free speech and progressive ideas. It holds a library of free-thought and hosts the world’s longest running continuous series of chamber music concerts, which began as secular alternatives to church-going on Sundays. Ethical Societies still thrive in many cities in the USA, where there is also an Ethical Union based in New York, with a slogan “Deed before creed”.

Expressing Humanist Beliefs at Meetings

Humanists today do not worship, as they do not believe in a deity to be worshipped. However, the 19th century forerunners of contemporary Humanism, Ethical Churches, were run like very liberal churches, with sermons, ministers and hymns, and the British Humanist Association has in its archives copies of the 1818 Ethical Church / Ethical Society hymn book “Social Worship”. Ethical Churches, later Ethical Societies, fulfilled a need for non-conformists and freethinkers to get together for an inspirational communal experience, usually on a Sunday when everyone else was at church. The focus was on doing good and inspirational ideas such as peace, liberty, justice, duty and courage. These were reflected in the language and format of meetings, though their roots in Christian services are evident, with references to God and Jesus alongside poems by Keats, Wordsworth and Tennyson set to music.

Later, Ethical Societies in the UK joined together as the Ethical Union, which in the 1950s became the British Humanist Association.

Humanists who choose to meet with other humanists today can do so freely. They meet in each other’s homes or in public spaces such as libraries, meeting rooms or pubs. Their meetings vary according to the interests of the group but might include visiting speakers, discussions on ethical subjects, or planning social events or fund-raising for charities, but not worship or prayers. The meetings are important to their members as spaces where they can meet like minds and find support for their humanist worldview.

Inspirational Places

There are no sacred places or places of pilgrimage for humanists. Some find inspiration in places of natural beauty or in museums or art galleries or places where inspirational figures lived or concert halls, locations which remind them of humankind’s place in nature or human creativity and culture.

Websites

Bibliography

Aesop’s Fables, ancient secular stories with strong moral (and practical) messages

Baggini, J., 2003. Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford Very Short Introductions). Oxford: OUP.

Blackburn, S., 2002. Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics.Oxford: Oxford Paperback.

Blackburn, S., 2006. Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: Penguin.

Cicero, (tr. Grant, M.), 1979. On the Good Life. London: Penguin Classics.

Condon, R.J., 1974. Our Pagan Christmas. London: National Secular Society.

Dawkins, R., 1998. Unweaving the Rainbow. London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press.

Dawkins, R., 2006. The God Delusion. London: Bantam Press.

Fisher, R. 1996. Stories for Thinking. London: Nash Pollock Publishing.

Fisher, R. 1999. First Stories for Thinking. London, Nash Pollock Publishing.

Gould, S.J., 2002. Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. London: Ballantine Books.

Grayling, A.C., 2003. What is Good?. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson.

Herrick, J., 2005. Introduction to Humanism. London: Rationalist Association.

Hinde, R., 1997. Religion and Darwinism. London: British Humanist Association.

Hobson, A. & Jenkins, N., 2000. Modern Humanism – Living Without Religion. London: Rationalist Press Association.

Holloway, R., 2004. Godless Morality. London: Canongate.

Humanist Philosophers’ Group, 2002. What is Humanism?. London: British Humanist Association.

Humanist Philosophers’ Group, 2004. Thinking about Death. London: British Humanist Association

Humanist Philosophers’ Group, 2005. Humanist Perspectives 1. London: British Humanist Association.

Humanist Philosophers’ Group, 2005. Humanist Perspectives 2. London: British Humanist Association.

Humanist Philosophers’ Group, 2007. The Case for Secularism. London: British Humanist Association.

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Lipman, M. & Stottlemeier, H., 1982. Discovery. London: Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children.

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Russell, B., 1927. Why I Am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects. London: Routledge Classics. (See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Why_I_Am_Not_a_Christian)

Sagan, C., 1997. Billions and Billions. London: Headline.

Taverne, D., 2007. Are Religion and Science Compatible?. London: British Humanist Association.

Walter, N., 1997. Humanism: What’s in the Word?. London: Rationalist Press Association.

Warburton, N. 2004. Philosophy: The Basics. London: Routledge Paperback.

Wilson, E.O., 2006. The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. London: W W Norton.

Wynne Willson, J. & Ashby, R., n.d. New Arrivals. London: British Humanist Association.

Wynne Willson, J., n.d. Funerals Without God. London: British Humanist Association.

Wynne Willson, J., n.d. Sharing the Future. London: British Humanist Association.

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