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.

Friday 20 March 2009

Pink kindness

On Kindness, by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor (Hamish Hamilton)

The authors favour open kindness, freely given, which includes a rough erotic generosity over and against free-market individualism that creates hate and division and debases affection. The kindness they hope for is haunted by its opposite: kindness as veiled egoism; as disguised sexual seduction; as a cover for aggression, or all three together.

Wednesday 11 February 2009

Eerie and profound

Bill Viola, Haunch of Venison, Berlin

In this place where the past and the present are constantly trying to accomodate each other, Viola’s videos, reconciling the two, are refreshing and inspiring.

Friday 6 February 2009

What Confucius said

An exploration of Confucianism as a humanist discourse on civil conduct and personal liberty, and its changing relationship with the Chinese state.

The gradual appropriation of Confucianism as a state-endorsed Chinese ideology undermines the Confucian ideal of personal liberty, virtue and civil social harmony.

Friday 30 January 2009

Dread and existentialism

Alfred Hitchcock Presents: The Case of Mr. Pelham (1955), directed by Alfred Hitchcock

As always, Hitchcock is having a field day with one of America’s sacred cows, the business world. The guy who has completely lost his soul and is completely without meaning is by far the best businessman.

Wednesday 7 January 2009

The Protestant origins of our liberal tradition

The author of Milton’s Vision: the Birth of Christian Liberty argues for a liberalism that is open to its religious origins

Luther and others discovered a basic theme of Paul’s letters was the contrast between rules-based Judaism, and freedom-loving Christianity.

Tuesday 16 December 2008

A life with no hope of escape

Du levande [You, the Living] (2007), directed by Roy Andersson

The film bathes in the banal: during a fantastically impressive storm, one luckless man finds no respite in the overcrowded bus shelter, another repeatedly tries (and fails) to choose the fastest queue to wait in, another runs for an elevator whose doors close just a moment too soon – its occupants unmoved and unresponsive.

Friday 21 November 2008

Ballooning humanity

BLAST! (2008), directed by Paul Devlin

The personal importance of the experiment to the lives of those involved is the central theme of the film, which at times boils over into genuine desperation and elation over its ups and downs.

Friday 7 November 2008

Against an ‘Ethical Lifestyle’

A short essay looking at the idea of ever-progressing ethics, and how 'ethical living' relates to our ideas about right and wrong

Through ever-progressing ethics we ‘learned’ slavery was wrong a couple of centuries ago; racism and sexism turned out to be bad sometime during the 20th century; and homophobia became unethical a decade or so later. In another half century we’ll all become vegetarians. 

Wednesday 22 October 2008

Illuminating the path

What doctors can learn from death and dying in literature

At the moment death truly becomes inevitable, reaching an acceptance is vital: literature may show doctors ways to help our patients achieve this, and indeed help us to be better doctors at a time when our patients need special understanding and skill.

The belief in God: a French analysis

Parc (2007), directed by Arnaud des Pallières / La possibilité d'une île [Possibility of an Island] (2008), directed by Michel Houellebecq

The existence of a supreme power is paradoxically a non-subject, as humanity is purely interested in the potential a belief in that power might have for an understanding of oneself. Arguably, it is this conundrum that elicits the sheer failure to comprehend, which the spectator experiences at the end of these films.

Thursday 18 September 2008

Motivating the pursuit of science in neo-Darwinian times

A response to Robin Walsh’s review of Dissent over Descent, by the author

Steve Fuller makes a pragmatic defence of Intelligent Design theory, arguing that positing an intelligent designer, God, motivates the attempt to make scientific sense of the natural world in a way Darwinism cannot.

Thursday 4 September 2008

Evolving consensus

Dissent Over Descent: Evolution's 500-year War on Intelligent Design, by Steve Fuller (Icon Books)

Whilst on one level, being suspicious of elite organisations and challenging the unearned political authority of science is useful, Fuller misses the point that just because the elite believe it, doesn’t make it automatically wrong for the rest of us to agree.

Tuesday 1 July 2008

Beyond the dogma: the real abortion debate

What’s so bad about abortion?, Future of Abortion conference, London, 24 June 2008

While acknowledging that nobody ever sets out to have an abortion for fun, Ann Furedi made the case boldly that abortion can be a morally good thing, as opposed to a ‘necessary evil’. This position is rarely heard, but it is crucial to any serious debate about abortion.

Saturday 21 June 2008

One of our decade’s quintessential stories

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Moshin Hamid (Hamish Hamilton Ltd)

What really sets this novel above other material on America is the tone of it – which far from being angry or boring – has a fragile and almost fairytale quality.

Wednesday 21 May 2008

Demystifying secularism?

A Short History of Secularism, by Graeme Smith (IB Tauris)

Smith suggests that ‘because of the radical equality of Christianity, expressed in the universal notion that all people are moral agents… then liberalism is but a different form of Christianity’. The individual relationship with God that characterises Christian thought thus enables the individual-centred outlook that respects human rights, so that the relationship is continued in a modern ‘secular’ form.

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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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