Religion and Humanism

Until recently, it was widely assumed in the West that the whole world was becoming ever more secular, and that religion would fade away or become a purely private matter as people embraced the rational, scientific worldview associated with liberal democracy and the market, or more radical humanist alternatives. But religion has not only resolutely failed to disappear: in recent years it appears to have made a comeback, sweeping the developing world and increasingly sparking controversy in the West. Debates rage about veils, religious hatred, creationism and so on. Religious extremism, and more generally ‘faith-based politics’ are seen as a threat to secular liberalism. Meanwhile, religious communities often feel under siege, with their values not recognised or respected by wider society.

The chief critics of religion today are not revolutionaries and reformers, but scientists and other rationalists – the so-called New Atheists – seemingly bewildered by people’s willingness to believe without evidence. Whereas progressive critics once argued that religion breeds passivity, detractors now worry that it inspires a little too much political activism and fosters conflict. With the political significance of religion and atheism seemingly in flux, the meaning of ‘humanism’ is up for grabs. These reviews and articles explore the shifting debate about religion and humanism as expressed in popular culture and the arts, as well as books and current affairs.

Saturday 18 September 2010

The politics of secularism

Taming the Gods: religion and democracy on three continents, by Ian Buruma (Princeton University Press, 2010)

While faith flourished in secular America, radical anti-clericalism in Europe was historically a reaction to its relative lack of secularisation. It is ironic that ‘secularism’ (increasingly implying a suspicion of faith rather than mere neutrality concerning religion) has become a kind of official ideology of Europe’s ruling elite and intellectual class.

Thursday 4 March 2010

‘You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain…’

On late modern heroism

The virtues the Rocky films portray have a long moral history in Western culture and yet for most of us the narrative which portrays them is one we struggle to take seriously. But contemporary cynicism helps, in a sense, bring about the reality it purports to reflect.

Tuesday 16 February 2010

Pulsating with pluralism

11 & 12, Barbican, London

I found the particularities of less import than the abstract archetypes underpinning them. To exert too much effort into the narrative is almost to lose sight of the pointed philosophy beneath. The preaching, in other words, has more resonance than the preachers.

Thursday 28 January 2010

Secularism and Multiculturalism: an encounter with Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor, University of Westminster, 15 January 2010

As compelling a speaker and thinker as Taylor is, there seemed to be something rather muted and unsatisfying about his account. One was left with the impression that his experience holding public hearings on cultural integration in Quebec had left him slightly fazed by what the anthropologist Robin Fox called ‘ethnographic dazzle’ and, with it, a movement towards an understanding of social integration which over-estimates the need for social unity and under-estimates the real tensions which stand as obstacles to it.

Thursday 7 January 2010

Refocusing remembrance

The case for rethinking poppy day to acknowledge the reality of war

At one point during the traditional Festival of Remembrance, thousands of poppies flutter down from the roof of the Albert Hall. It is a moment of riveting theatricality as young men and women in their spick and span uniforms stand to attention and let the silent flowers settle on their shoulders and on their heads. Yet, we need to be reminded how the poppy came to be adopted as such a powerful symbol.

Friday 4 December 2009

Meekness in the face of the great big unknown

Reason, Faith and Revolution, by Terry Eagleton, (Yale University Press 2009)

Reading Eagleton’s book one begins to suspect that Eagleton would like to believe in the traditional deity of his Roman Catholic Irish ancestors, except his university-acquired reason and rationality prevents it. So instead he examines the nature of that reason and rationality and is pleased to find them heavily laden with belief of an almost religious nature.

Friday 20 November 2009

Asian food for thought

On the remarkable malleability of the human palate

I wondered: is it really true that the Chinese will eat any part of just about anything that moves? How did they turn out this way? How can two neighbouring Asian countries have such divergent approaches to what they consider food?

Friday 16 October 2009

Children’s rites

'I'm Adult! Aren't I': Understanding Juvenile Delinquency and Creating Adults out of Children: The Case For A Formal Rite of Passage, by Geoffrey Ben-Nathan (Rubin Mass 2009)

Geoffrey Ben-Nathan’s intentions are admirable, and his prose pleasant, but he fails to differentiate between state and society. Officialised rituals can emerge organically, and state intervention needn’t be the default panacea for any of society’s perceived ailments.

Thursday 15 October 2009

Escaping the recession

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), directed by Wes Anderson

In this Dahl adaptation we find all of the director’s trademarks as well as his unique vision that defines him as an artist, yet both of these are enhanced by a serene clarity that makes that vision truly accessible to both critics and the larger public alike.

Friday 14 August 2009

The depraved genius of John Calvin

Lessons for humanism on the five-hundredth anniversary of a sage of anti-humanism

You don’t have to embrace either theological pessimism or evolutionary fatalism to acknowledge that human history since the Enlightenment has dealt many blows to a simplistic belief in progress and human perfectibility. Indeed it is those of us most committed to social and moral progress who must take this most seriously, look into the depravity in our own hearts, even, and not repent but resolve to go on.

Friday 17 July 2009

Legal limits

Choosing Life, Choosing Death: the Tyranny of Autonomy in Medical Ethics and Law, by Charles Foster (Hart Publishing)

It is only when Foster’s thesis is bought in line with modern political debate that his argument is interesting and important, because it highlights the tension between an assumption in favour of life and an assumption in favour of personal autonomy.

Friday 19 June 2009

Fight and faith

Twenty-somethings and the recession

Playwright Ella Hickson, whose new play Eight explores the discontentment of privileged twenty-somethings, argues the recession will prove a stern test for a generation unused to hardship and lacking strong beliefs, but also an opportunity to work out what really matters and might be worth fighting for.

Friday 8 May 2009

The humble agnostic shrugs

Agnosticism, properly understood, and not atheism, represents the sceptical attitude, and also the most rationally justified position with respect to the question of the existence of God (or gods) as the ultimate creator(s) and/or designer(s) of our universe. 

Friday 3 April 2009

‘We’re never gonna survive, unless, we get a little crazy’

Wildlife, by Joe Stretch (Vintage)

Life should be renamed McLife, a homogenised version of what we experience on a daily basis. Her ultimate goal is to seek ‘a way of life that was…smiles without brains, love without odour and sex without stains’.

The unquiet grave

Federico García Lorca and the politics of the dead

During his final—for most Spaniards, long overdue—illness, Generalissimo Franco had St Teresa of Avila’s desiccated forearm at his bedside the whole while, and to this day, everyone mimes back-scratching whenever the subject is brought up.

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A collection of essays edited by Culture Wars editor Dolan Cummings

Institute of Ideas with Bishopsgate Institute: Secularism 2008 Series

The resurrection of religion: Moving beyond secularism or losing faith in politics?
Alex Hochuli interviewed Catholic sociologist François Houtart about religion, secularism and radical politics.

Political Theology
A journal of religion and politics

British Humanist Association

Christian think tank

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