Bigger fish to Fry?

Forget the problem of evil, argues Matthew Hicks. Why aren’t we getting more het up about injustice and human suffering?

Last week saw a media storm over an interview with Stephen Fry. During the interview (embedded below), Fry was asked: ‘What if you’re wrong? What would you say to God if you found you were at the pearly gates?’ Fry said that he would ask this benevolent, compassionate, all-knowing God what bone cancer in children was all about before becoming reservedly enraged about the level of suffering on this planet against a backdrop of a supposedly benevolent, compassionate, all-powerful, and all-knowing being.

Fry’s response was by no means novel, but he articulated himself sufficiently well that people either identified with it or took disagreement with it strongly enough to result in millions of shares and retweets . What stuck out to me however, was not his articulacy or verbosity, but rather his rage at injustice and suffering in the world today, an emotion which was almost palpable.

The question posed to Fry was a narrow-minded, both philosophically and spiritually, and Fry very eloquently answered back in those same terms. But it was the narrowness of Fry’s response which has led to people from both ends of the belief spectrum rushing in to claim an intellectual or spiritual high ground.

With Fry’s rage about suffering so effectively bypassed by those responders, I would like to ask a question. If we are so concerned with the nature of this dilemma, and so many of those with faith or lack thereof are, then why can’t we find it in ourselves to stand alongside Fry in this rage regardless of our belief?

The realms of the supernatural and the rational can fight all they want, split verbal hairs and claim immaturity and narrow-mindedness on the other’s part.  Any one of us can detail the insides of our navels over this issue and wait sneeringly for a response. If we do that however, and jump on the difference of opinion rather than share in the rage of injustice, then we are no different from an allegedly all-powerful, all-compassionate God who sits on his divine derrière.

We live in an age where we who have access to Fry’s interview (and the ability to share it) have a comprehension of the world and its affairs that is unprecedented in history. We are as close to an all-knowing animal as we can get right now! And through the Internet, we also now have the ability to change so much that which is unjust. We are not ourselves all-powerful but as men and women, we have countless opportunities to effect change through democratic activity.

‘For me the evil of inactivity is so much more malignant than the evil of difference of opinion.’

My point is that rage spent on attempting to reverse injustice and suffering is much more productive than rage spent on pointless debate. Are we not better off expending energy on real issues at stake in the world today through channels such as scientific research, foreign aid, and the promotion of human rights? Surely that is a more worthwhile display of our better human qualities than arguments which have no benefit except to fuel the ego of those arguing their point.

Whether there is a divine being is irrelevant to the point in hand. What Fry’s response encapsulates is a sense of anger that we all feel and identify with at some level regardless of belief.  Of course highlighting our differences is so much easier than seeking common ground. To do the latter would open up a whole can of worms with regards our sense of responsibility toward our fellow humans. For me the evil of inactivity is so much more malignant than the evil of difference of opinion.

As Martin Niemoller said:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Matt Hicks can be often found touring Devon with a bag full of songs and his ukulele. He blogs at The Wooden Duck.


Please don’t bash our media freedoms: one humanist’s plea for careful language

Tony Charlesworth is alarmed by what he sees as crude generalisations about ‘the media’ at the recent ‘Common Ground’ event between humanists and Muslims at Conway Hall.

Alom Shaha chaired four Muslim panellists in front of a mainly humanist audience.

Alom Shaha chaired four Muslim panellists in front of a mainly humanist audience.

People are not punchbags. Mutual comprehension is always preferable to conflict. ‘Jaw, jaw’, said Winston Churchill, is always better than ‘war, war’. So the recent ‘Common Ground Dialogue’ at Conway Hall between a panel of four moderate Muslims, chaired by BHA trustee Alom Shaha, and an audience largely made up of humanists was to be welcomed. And it proved worthwhile. The panel was composed of intelligent, reasoning people with interesting things to say.

Any initiative that says we should listen in a reasoned way to people with opposing ideas, rather than shouting at each other, is always to be welcomed. The organisers and the panelists are to be congratulated. And certainly it was useful to hear about the spectrum of ideas that exist within Islam.

The speakers asked probing questions about their own Muslim faith. They spoke about the treatment of women; the deep-rooted sectarianism within Islam; and about the problems that flow from literal interpretations of holy texts. Questions from the audience shed light on matters to do with ‘faith’ schools; homosexuality; and links between Islam and violence.

Given the issues that the panel members experienced with their own faith, it was a pity that they weren’t pressed more on what it is they continue to get out of this faith themselves and what it means to them as individuals. That was an opportunity missed.

And while we’re at it, we also need to be honest and acknowledge that very many humanists don’t feel quite so sanguine about this kind of ‘interfaith’ dialogue. I should stress that I am not one of them. But as a member of the BHA, I’m acutely aware that many of my fellow atheists feel that religion must be directly addressed rather than tolerated. They would argue that it’s a highly problematic circle to square: both to live harmoniously alongside the religious, whilst also being strongly opposed to religion. But that’s a big separate discussion for another time.

Loose language

So now let me come to the one major aspect of this Conway Hall event that troubled me greatly. And it’s a matter thrown sharply onto centre-stage by the recent freedom of expression discussions in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo affair.

The panel’s niceness and reasonableness (together with the niceness and reasonableness of the humanist event organisers) flew out of the window when it came to one important group: the media. As far as the media was concerned, instead of reasoned thought, we heard worryingly loose language from the panel and organisers, as well as lazy thinking, unquestioned assumptions, and sweeping generalisations. All things I would say are unforgivable for a humanist meeting.

This isn’t merely a peripheral matter. It was precisely those kind of sweeping unthinking generalisations about groups of people that this event was intended to tackle!

Let me start with the recent article in HumanistLife which reported on this event, written by Jeremy Rodell, one of the organisers.It was headlined: ‘Common Ground dialogue: how can humanists and Muslims live and work together in 21st century London?’ (Jeremy, by the way, is a friend of mine and he already knows my views.)

Jeremy’s opening introductory paragraph says that the purpose of the event was to ‘get behind the media stereotypes’ and ‘beyond the black-and-white “isn’t Islam terrible” rhetoric.’  But exactly what ‘media’, and which ‘stereotypes’ and what ‘rhetoric’ was he referring to? We’re not told.

He goes on to say that the purpose of the event was to ‘start to understand what real Muslims think’. But what actually is a ‘real Muslim’?  What would an ‘unreal Muslim’ look like?

By simply lumping together ‘the media’ as if it were a single monolithic entity, Jeremy and his fellow humanist event organisers, together with the panelists, fell straight into the intellectual beartrap of precisely the kind of undifferentiating generalisation that they criticize others for when they lump together people as:  ‘the Muslims’, ‘the Christians’, ‘the Jews’, and ‘the humanists’!

Lack of evidence

I’ve spent my entire career working as a journalist and TV producer for the BBC, Reuters, and the Associated Press. They differ markedly as organisations. Yet depressingly, this phenomenon of referring airily in general to ‘the media’ is something one comes across a great deal. When Jeremy and the panelists refer to ‘the media’ (and actually ‘the media’ are people too!), whom and what do they have in mind?  Is it:  the Financial Times?  Playboy?  Channel Four News? The Daily Mail?  Al-Jazeera?  The Sun?  Charlie Hebdo? The Chinese Peoples’ Daily?  Have I Got News For You?  The Guardian?  I could go on.

It was certainly striking that the humanist event organisers, the Muslim panelists and Alom Shaha as chair all tacitly indicated that for them ‘the media’ was a hostile force. Underlying this entire discussion was an unquestioned and untested assumption that ‘the media’ is to blame (partly or even perhaps wholly) for at least some of the current difficulties that Muslims find themselves in. A further unquestioned and for me objectionable underlying assumption throughout was that the work of ‘the media’ is somehow morally reprehensible.

At one point, one of the panelists spoke about the influence of ‘the global media empire’. I don’t recognize such an ‘empire’. It doesn’t exist. Such a phrase belongs to the most absurd kind of paranoid delusion. Yet nobody questioned it.

The evidence of reprehensible media influence adduced by the panel was pitifully weak and highly selective. The examples produced were: one interview with a radical cleric on BBC Radio’s Today programme; an opinion piece in the Spectator; unspecified headlines in the Daily Mail. We also had some fanciful speculation about how the Dr Harold Shipman case might have been reported had he been a Muslim. And a propos of nothing at all, a panelist spoke about disliking ‘wall to wall satellite news images of Muslim fighters in Chechnya’. Another panelist baldly asserted: ‘the headlines are always grabbed by the Muslims’. Really? Are they?

Thinking humanists (and thinking moderate Muslims) really need to do a lot better than this.

If none of this amounted to any kind of coherent case against ‘the media’ as a whole, perhaps most depressingly of all there was also no recognition at all given to the fair, objective job of reporting Muslim issues that professional, responsible, serious media organisations undertake in free societies.

At one point in the proceedings it was mentioned that one of the speakers had written several articles for various British newspapers. No details were given, but presumably she had been given a platform to present her views. Isn’t therefore generalized denigration of ‘the media’ a case of biting the hand that feeds?

The point is that ‘the media’ is a spectrum as varied and as diverse as any other social grouping, be it religious, political or whatever. But ‘the media’ became a convenient punchbag (a scapegoat even?) at this event. Let’s please be careful about crude simplifications!

The messenger is not the message

Media organisations in free societies in all their complex, highly varied pluralistic aspects communicate about, reflect on and report on the, often extremely shocking, events that are happening in our world.  But media organisations are not the people who are actually carrying out what is happening in our world. The messenger who carries messages to and fro is not the same  person as the person who is carrying out the actual events about which the messages are being communicated. Media organisations undertake communication of messages; they are not the people who decide the manner in which those messages are then received by an audience or how those messages should subsequently be interpreted by that audience. 

Furthermore, it is also self-evident that, as well as reporting on world events, media organisations in free societies do a huge amount to facilitate and provide a platform for precisely the kind of open debate and discussion on current issues and problems that is needed in our world. Yet the organisers of this event and the event speakers simply chose to ignore all of this.

Just like democratic politics, the fact that we have free uncensored media is something that has been hard-won and shouldn’t be easily taken for granted. Moreover, much media reporting in authoritarian unfree places (such as we see in parts of the Muslim world), where it exists at all, is often undertaken by journalists at no small personal danger and risk. But once again, none of any of this was ever remotely acknowledged by either the event organisers or the panellists.

Shining a spotlight

I can entirely understand that moderate Muslims may feel extremely sensitive and feel under (real or imagined) threat when it appears to them that a glaring media spotlight is being shone on them personally because of the activities of extremist Muslims. Likewise, ordinary Jews, for example, may also feel extremely uncomfortable about the hostility (real or imagined) directed towards themselves because of the activities of the current Israeli government with regard to Gaza. I personally felt extremely uncomfortable when some of my French friends said that British people were war criminals because our government had approved the invasion of Iraq.

But the fact that people are made to feel uncomfortable about what they see, read and hear from media organisations should never in a free and open society be any reason whatsoever for the often very unpalatable and disturbing things that are going on in the world not to be reported fully, unflinchingly and unsparingly by media organisations. Nor should it be any reason to suppress the publication of what some might regard as unwelcome opinions.

Free expression, the mark of open democratic societies, needs pluralistic, vigorous, robust, questioning, often insolent, hard-nosed media organisations to hold people accountable and to shine a bright spotlight on what is happening in our world. It is precisely the mark of authoritarian, unfree societies that everything there is presented as officially rosy, no one is made to feel uncomfortable, and nothing is questioned or brought to light.

Hard-won privileges

I’m not saying that media organisations are beyond criticism. Far from it. Appalling criminal activities, for instance, like the phone hacking and entrapment that have been practiced for so long by the Rupert Murdoch-owned press must be punished hard.

And I certainly support the British Humanist Association (BHA)’s recent call to Ofcom for the BBC to carry more humanist and specifically non-religious content.

‘We just want to be allowed to get on with our lives,’ pleaded one of the panellists. But actually where is the evidence that in Britain today, Muslim people are not being allowed to do just exactly that?  A sense of victimhood can become an identity.

No one should ever be racially abused. But racial hatred is now covered by British laws – unlike in the past, as Alom described it, when people were abused in the street and called ‘Paki’. There are also defamation laws that protect attacks on personal reputation. So while we’re at it, let’s also give two cheers (three’s probably too many!) for a legal system which we (unlike certain other countries in the world I can think of) are also fortunate to possess.

It’s very easy to take our media freedoms for granted. Just like we can take our democratic political institutions for granted. But these are precious, hard-won things. Much of the world doesn’t have any of our privileges. We should be celebrating these things, not denigrating them. And as humanists especially we always have the clear duty to beware of loose language, unquestioned assumptions and sweeping generalisations wherever they are found.

Tony Charlesworth is a former journalist and television producer on the staffs of the BBC, Reuters and Associated Press.  He runs Tony Charlesworth Associates, a television and communications agency, and is a member of the BHA.


What is TTIP, what’s going on, and should we care?

An anti-TTIP flashmob in Hamburg, Germany.

An anti-TTIP flashmob in Hamburg, Germany.

TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, sounds pretty dull, doesn’t it? I had to force myself to take an interest and read up on TTIP (pronounced ‘T-tip’) when a friend in the local World Justice Movement group persuaded me to organise a small delegation to my MP late last year. Even though I was merely the channel to a local MP and others in the group would do most of the talking, I thought it would be embarrassing to introduce a topic about which I knew little or nothing. So I did some homework.

And like most people who read up about TTIP, apparently the world’s biggest ever trade deal, I became increasingly concerned. It’s not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with removing tariffs and freeing up trade between the USA and the EU, which is the main purpose of TTIP. On the whole, with the exception of a few developing industries in a few developing countries, protectionism does not seem like a good or necessary thing. But ‘harmonisation’ of regulations and standards, another aim of TTIP, could be a thoroughly bad thing, depending on whether this raised standards or reduced them – and, as the negotiations seem to be dominated by large corporations and their requirements, one can guess which way that will go.

I use words like ‘seem’ and ‘guess’ advisedly, as another concern about the TTIP negotiations is their secrecy, the lack of opportunity for proper democratic scrutiny, and the haste with which some supporters want to push through the deal – though, fortunately for democracy, the negotiations seem to be proceeding at glacial speed.

Our December meeting with my MP, Zac Goldsmith, went well. He, like many others, had found that the more he learnt about TTIP the more concerned he became – and he is keen to get other MPs (of all parties) interested and concerned.  Since then, I have emailed all my (London) MEPs and received a couple of replies – one from a UKIP MEP who opposes the TTIP and a thoughtful response from a Conservative MEP, Syed Kamall, who supports it and has written about it for The Huffington Post here and here.  It could be, as Syed Kamall suggests, that there is some exaggeration and scaremongering on the anti-TTIP side. It has been called by the World Justice Movement ‘the most dangerous free trade deal in a decade, [which] threatens democracy, public services and the environment.’  But if this ‘scaremongering’ is provoking debate and calls for openness and scrutiny it might not be a bad thing.

For TTIP does now seem to be emerging from the shadows, with increasing interest from MPs and the media. In January, backbench MPs initiated a debate on the motion: ‘That this House believes that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and any associated investor-state dispute settlement provisions should be subject to scrutiny in the European Parliament and the UK Parliament’ (Hansard report here). Business Secretary Vince Cable and the Liberal Democrats seem to be pulling back on TTIP, perhaps as part of a pre-election distancing from the Tories and the Coalition. There was some speculation that the sudden government rush to legislate for plain cigarette packaging was at least partly because it could become much more difficult post-TTIP. And there was also a useful half-hour discussion on Radio 4’s In Business programme in January.

So the discussion does seem to be hotting up, and that’s an achievement for the charities and pressure groups that have been campaigning on TTIP. However, it often seems as if the different sides are talking about different things, and what one thinks about TTIP does depend on one’s personal priorities and preferences: a boost for economic growth and businesses versus protections for consumers and national rights to regulate corporations.

Like many of the issues highlighted by Humanists for a Better World, TTIP is not a core BHA policy concern, and it’s certainly not an exclusively or particularly humanist issue – it’s one for all active citizens. At the very least, thoughtful voters should ask questions about TTIP and try to persuade our democratically elected representatives to take an interest in it and insist on transparency and opportunities to scrutinise and amend the treaty before it’s a done deal. If you’d like to know more about TTIP or take action on it, do please have a look at H4BW’s December 2014 briefing on TTIP.


Common ground dialogue: how can humanists and Muslims live and work together in 21st century London?

BHA trustee Alom Shaha led the discussion, joined by several Muslim panellists

BHA trustee Alom Shaha (centre) led the discussion, joined by several Muslim panellists

According to the 2011 Census, one in eight Londoners identifies themselves as a Muslim. In November 2014, a group of us decided it was time to move beyond the black-and-white ‘isn’t Islam terrible’ rhetoric and start talking with, and listening to, fellow Londoners who are Muslim. The aim was not to debate whether Islamic beliefs were right or wrong, but to respect the fact that most Muslims will continue to see their faith as an element of their identity. We wanted to get behind the media stereotypes and start to understand what real Muslims think, and where the real differences and common ground lie. Above all, we wanted to start seeing Muslim Londoners as fellow human beings, and not as ‘The Other’.  So we invited four of them to a dialogue at Conway Hall on 25 November 2014, chaired by Alom Shaha, author of The Young Atheist’s Handbook and an ex-Muslim from a Bangladeshi background.

Our guests were Mamadou Bocoum – Public Relations Officer for the Sharia Council; Huda Jawad – Advisor at the Centre for Academic Shi’a Studies and research Coordinator for Solace Women’s Aid; Sara Khan – Co-Founder and Director of the human rights charity Inspire, and Yasmin Rehman – from the Centre for Secular Space and researcher into polygamy and the law.

140 people turned up – mainly humanists but also a number of Muslims. The feedback afterwards was overwhelmingly positive. As one of the attendees said this was ‘a chance for humanists to hear a range of views from intelligent and non-stereotypical, politically-engaged Muslims, without anyone demanding that they justify their religious belief’. We see it as a first step.

This report ‘tells it as it was’ – barring a rearrangement of points into a logical order – without comment, reflecting our aim to improve understanding. You can hear the full audio recording here.

Muslim identity, racism, victimhood

Yasmin’s parents came to the UK in the 1950s and 1960s. Growing up in a small mining town in the North East meant facing routine racism and the threat of violence. On the day of her father’s funeral, someone posted a note through their door saying ‘That’s one less Paki to worry about.’ Then there was the Rushdie Affair, the point at which it felt that the Government started to consider ‘Muslims’ as a group that needed special attention. That was powerfully reinforced by the September 11 (‘9/11′) and July 7 (‘7/7′) terror attacks in New York and London. Unfortunately even now, when dealing with officials, Yasmin reports ’you get a seat if you say the right thing’. Faith leaders were only too happy to respond by providing a strengthened faith identity. From being a Punjabi Muslim, with more in common culturally with Hindu and Christian Punjabis than Muslims from other parts of the world, Yasmin found her Muslim identity promoted to the top of the list and with it, increased pressure on her generation to practice their faith and adopt its outward signs.

Racism then morphed into anti-Muslim prejudice and hatred. Yasmin’s son, then aged 18, was brutally assaulted on a London bus in the wake of the 7/7 attacks and has moved to the Far East. She fears he will never return home to the UK.

Huda was a child in a Sunni area of Saddam’s Iraq. She was taught to conceal her Shia identity in order to protect her family from persecution. When she came to the UK, she did not even identify herself primarily as a Muslim, and the Islam she heard about in school RE lessons seemed unrecognisable. But things changed after the Rushdie Affair ‘when the question became, ‘Are you British or are you Muslim?”, and so began a personal journey to explore her faith and its texts.

Alom too grew up in a UK in the 1970s and 1980s where racial prejudice was considered normal and unremarkable. He saw 9/11 as the turning point when his generation began to be pigeon-holed as ‘Muslim’, and racism evolved into anti-Muslim prejudice. In his experience as an ex-Muslim, sometimes people use their atheism to mask covert racism and anti-Muslim bigotry. And too often ‘terrorist’ is equated with ‘Muslim’, despite the data.

But the Muslim communities themselves also had to take some responsibility for the current ‘us and them’ position. Firstly, in Sara’s view, they had been let down by poor leadership, making them vulnerable to pressure from extremists. Frequently she had seen leaders unwilling to counter extremist on-line narratives, simply claiming ‘there’s no problem, it’s all to do with foreign policy’. Inadequate leadership was particularly serious when failing to confront gender issues: when police or Local Authorities approached mosques to discuss issues such as violence against women, they were often told there was no issue and found it impossible to talk directly to Muslim women. Mosques became ’gatekeepers, not gateways’.

Secondly, in Yasmin’s view, a sense of victimhood pervaded Muslim households, especially on the back of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Satellite TV channels were filled with reports of Sunni victimhood from Chechnya and other places across the world. Yet when she tried to challenge this outlook, she found herself accused of ‘Islamophobia’.

The panellists felt that the media gave an extremely misleading portrayal of British Muslims, which then formed the basis for the opinions of the wider population, which added to a ‘bunker’ mentality. The result, in Mamadou’s view, was that Islam was being hijacked by the hardliners. Sara gave the example of the BBC giving Anjem Choudary the key 8.10am interview slot on Radio 4’s Today programme after the Lee Rigby murder, despite his extreme views being detested by most British Muslims.

The rise of ISIS and of extremism in the UK

All the panellists were horrified by ISIS and what Sara referred to as their ‘takfiri’ form of Salafist-Jihadist Islam, in which anyone who does not share their extreme dogma is considered ’not a true Muslim’ and is therefore dispensable – a ’school of thought alien to most Muslims’. Sara pointed out that the Islamic State, in the sense that ISIS was pursuing it, was a modern idea. She saw it as part of the wider challenge of reconciling Islam with modernity.

Extremist ideas generally, and ISIS in particular, posed a serious challenge to Muslim parents in the UK. Young British Muslims who were already feeling alienated and angry were easy prey for jihadist propaganda. But the underlying causes of radicalisation are complex. Sara explained that the government’s ‘Prevent’ strategy had evolved considerably in recent years, and there was now a wealth of academic research available in this area. It showed no single cause or route, and no correlation with poverty or lack of education.

It was true that British Sikh and Hindu communities, which had also suffered from racism, did not suffer from extremism to the same degree as the Muslims communities, though Huda pointed out that every religion had the capacity for violence. She gave the example of Buddhist monks who persecuted Muslims in Burma. A number of factors had impacted the particular position of Muslims in the UK. Foreign policy was one. But it was also significant that, unlike some other immigrant communities, most British Muslims had their origins in relatively poor rural areas in the Indian sub-continent. Children of first generation immigrants often came from homes where they were told not to question their parents’ views and authority, while at school they were being taught that questioning and enquiry were a good thing.

At the same time, in addition to the influence on them of extremists in social media, Sara pointed to the millions of pounds that has been spent by Saudi Arabia on pushing Wahhabism, a hardline variety of Islam with a bigoted view of those who do not share it, and which takes no account of cultural background.

The pressure towards hardline thinking was therefore significant. And, as Huda said, ISIS were especially good at media management and recruitment, while at the same time in Britain ‘my sons are being told they are the enemy and potential terrorists. How do I prevent them from walking into the arms of ISIS?’

Extremism affected both Muslims and non-Muslims: a Pakistani police colleague of Yasmin’s had been killed by a suicide bomber when he shook his hand in a mosque. In Belgium a Shia Imam had been killed by Sunni extremists, and in the Edgware Road in London, a mob of Anjem Choudary followers had attacked a man simply for being a Shia. Meanwhile, the Far Right was exploiting ISIS and other Islamist extremists to stoke anti-Muslim hatred. Huda felt the pressure acutely: ’This is home. But I’m increasingly feeling there will be a time when I need to find the bags that I’ve packed, but I don’t know where I’m going. I’m not Muslim enough, not secular enough, not Shia enough. How many more headlines do I need to read in the Daily Mail before it’s time to go?’

Yasmin felt that women could play a vital role in combating the trend, citing the example of Northern Ireland, where women from both sides who had lost children in the conflict had come together.

There was agreement that it was better for Anjem Choudary and other hardliners’ activities  to be visible, rather than driven underground, but disagreement over whether there was any benefit in attempting dialogue with them.

‘We have a problem with the text’

Mamadou knows the Qu’ran intimately – he memorised the whole thing when he was fourteen and can quote chapter and verse. But he thinks ’we have a problem with the text’. In his view the main issue is people taking verses out of context and interpreting them literally. He agreed with the Christian theologian who said ‘Any text without context is a pretext’, and pointed out that, if he were following the Qu’ran literally ‘I would not be sitting here’, because humanists are not Muslims, and there is a verse which says non-Muslims are enemies.

But the Qu’ran itself asked readers to contemplate and think for themselves about its meaning, so that ‘the understanding of the text is greater than the divinity of the text itself’. He called for Muslims to be brave enough to question the meaning of the text and to understand and apply Kant’s approach to hermeneutics in order to move beyond literalism.

Sara and Huda shared this interpretive thinking. ‘The text will be as moral as the reader’ in Sara’s view. Like Mamadou, Huda saw the text as ‘all about enquiry’, with verses requiring Muslims to reflect, ponder and understand too often overlooked in favour of simple ’dos and don’ts’. It concerned her that many Muslims forget the blossoming of science and philosophy which took place in Muslim Spain, an empire where rational enquiry was valued and which lasted for 300 years.

In Mamadou’s view, Muslims could learn from humanists to ‘put human beings at the centre of what we do.’ ‘I have a human being in front of me, not God,’ she conceded.

Multiple Islams

On the panel were three Sunnis – if we include Yasmin, who preferred not to discuss the details of her beliefs – and one Shia Muslim.

Huda explained the split between Sunni and Shia (literally ‘the followers of Ali’) as originally a political disagreement about the leadership of Islam after Mohammed’s death, with the Sunnis backing the leader chosen by his followers, and the Shia believing that it should be his descendants, starting with Ali, cousin and son-in-law. Despite agreement over the basic tenets of Islam and the Qu’ran, over time that had developed into a religious, cultural and political difference to the extent that the Sunni-Shia schism is one of the main underlying factors in the current wars in the Middle East. Conservative Sunni clerics do not consider Shias true Muslims. Huda sees ISIS as an unholy alliance between jihadis and Baathists formally loyal to Saddam Hussein who consider Shias the ‘number one enemy’, echoing Saddam’s view that they are ‘worse than Jews, worse than flies’.

She saw massive diversity within British Islam, with no single identity. Instead she regarded her faith as a framework for people to find their own path. Her mother was a science teacher and her family includes converts, secularists. Her personal view was that ‘Islam is all about rationality – we are told to forget tradition’. Unlike Yasmin and Sara, Huda wears a hijab, not because it is a religious requirement but because she has worn it for so long it is part of her personal identity.

Mamadou was born and brought up in Senegal. Among his identities was Sunni Islam with an African flavour which he continues to develop. Arriving in the UK, he found an alien ‘chicken tikka masala Islam’ in which the culture and practices of rural villages of the Indian sub-continent dominated. He argued for the development of a British ’fish and chips’ Islam reflecting both the diversity of the Muslim communities and British values and culture. As he pointed out ‘You cannot have this platform in the Middle East, or in the sub-continent. This is “fish and chips Islam”’.

Feminism and women’s rights

Sara identifies herself as a ‘Muslim feminist’, a term that some atheists, and some Muslims, tell her is an oxymoron. For her, ‘my faith… has given me a notion of equality, freedom of belief’ and it was her reading of the Qu’ran that inspired her to fight for justice, regardless of a personal cost which has included abuse and death threats. Attacks have come both from jihadists and, ironically, from their most virulent critics. Rod Liddle, for example, referred to her in the The Spectator as a ‘pseudo-apologist for the jihadis’ because she challenged media generalisations about British Muslims.

In her view, many Muslims do not know their own history. Islam promoted early ideas of women’s rights in seventh century Arabia, which included numerous social, political and economic rights. She recommended Lenn Goodman’s book Islamic Humanism. Unfortunately, the faith has been largely developed by men opposed to challenge on the grounds of gender equality. Ultra conservatives are trying to extend this thinking, for instance, by introducing gender segregation into British universities and denouncing those who oppose them as ‘non-Muslims’, echoing ISIS. Globally, extremist Muslims are targeting Muslim feminists, as in the case of the Libyan activist who was recently murdered.

But that was not the only source of opposition to progress. As Huda said, moderate Muslim feminists in the West find themselves in a triple bind: they have the general challenges associated with being western Muslims; their co-religionists use ‘feminist’ as a form of insult; and their co-feminists attack them either for being too religious or not religious enough. Sara has even been accused by white, non-Muslim feminists of being an ‘Islamophobe’.

LGBT rights

A questioner quoted a Gallup survey of 500 British Muslims in which none had considered homosexuality acceptable. How can gay people live freely alongside Muslims, for example, in East London?

Huda’s view was that ‘God is the only judge’. But she was not surprised by the data because people would tend to answer this question the way they think was expected. In fact Muslims in her community talk about the issue in private all the time, but consider it taboo to discuss it publicly.

But there was no question that the current view across Islam is unfavourable towards homosexuality. A particular reason for resistance to change was that, for a community that feels under siege, the traditional teaching is seen as a bastion against ‘the West’.

Mamadou compared the development of Christianity and Judaism with Islam, which he saw as still a relatively young religion that needed time to reform.

But things may be slowly shifting: there is an organisation called Imaan, set up to support LGBT Muslim people – it held a conference earlier this year; TellMAMA, which tracks anti-Muslim attacks in the UK, had recently recruited Peter Tatchell on to its board; Shereen El Feki’s book ‘Sex and the Citadel’ covered the reality of gay life in Arab society; and the Safra Project, which supports Muslim LBT women. Mamadou had worked with a gay imam in Washington.

On the other hand, Safra had received threats for campaigning against forced marriage, and the liberal Muslim Institute had come under attack for a discussion on gay rights.

Yasmin ‘called out’ the East London Mosque, which she said had been taken over by Islamists who were strongly homophobic. And Sara demanded zero tolerance of homophobia, pointing out that Muslims cannot complain about Islamophobia without at the same time challenging homophobia.

Freedom of speech

In response to a question about threats of violence directed by Islamists at people deemed to be ‘insulting Islam’, Huda said that they must always be condemned, provided it was done even-handedly. ‘God and the Prophet can take care of themselves’ and she thought most Muslims don’t take violent offence to challenges. But she wondered whether sometimes the target is not so much faith but a particular community. For example, she wondered what the headlines would have looked like if Harold Shipman had been Muslim rather than Jewish.

Faith schools

The question of whether the state should be paying for sectarian religious schools clearly divided the panel

The question of whether the state should be paying for sectarian religious schools clearly divided the panel

There was a clear difference in view among the speakers on faith schools. They did not all support Alom’s call to back the British Humanist Association’s position opposing ‘faith’ schools as sectarian, divisive, and in a majority of cases discriminatory.

Huda said she did not send her children to a ‘faith’ school, but understood the need for a safe space where parents could ensure children know enough about their religious and cultural backgrounds to defend themselves against ISIS propaganda.

Mamadou thought that some faith schools were doing a ‘wonderful job’ and they should not be closed down. But support for them also meant being ready to criticise when they got it wrong.

Yasmin had herself attended a convent and considered separating children on the basis of faith a form of apartheid. And she had been very disturbed to come across a junior school where young girls were wearing hijabs. She felt strongly that the state should not fund faith schools, which only increased division on the basis of religion and class, and. She wanted to see global religions taught as an academic subject, with less ‘Eurocentricity’.

Sara had two daughters at a local community school. She had no confidence in what a Muslim faith school or a madrassa would teach them, and preferred to do it herself. She recognised that there are some good faith schools and felt parental choice should be respected, but good governance was essential.

Sharia and apostasy

Although Mamadou is the Public Relations Officer for The Muslim Law (Sharia) Council UK, there were only a couple of references to Sharia during the meeting. The first was from Yasmin, who pointed out that there is not just one Sharia law, with four distinct schools within Sunni Islam. She was ‘really troubled by government support for sharia councils for dispute resolution’, and wanted ‘all women to have equal access before the law’. She wondered why it was that only in the past 20 years have British Muslim women who want a divorce been expected to go to a sharia court: did that mean all the previous divorces were invalid? Huda later pointed out that in fact there were five schools of Sharia Law, four Sunni plus one Shia.

Surprisingly, the issue of apostasy did not come up in the questions, although the speakers’ rejection of Qu’aranic literalism suggested what their views might be.

Were speakers representative of the wider Muslim community?

A questioner cited opinion polling suggesting the speakers’ liberal views were not representative of the general views of British Muslims.

Yasmin was critical of much of the polling data, which she did not recognise on the basis of the many people she knew. It was often unclear who actually got to fill in the questionnaire. Sara pointed out that over 80% of British Muslims were very patriotic, and even the extremists seemed to prefer the benefits and freedoms of living in the west.

Messages to humanists

During the discussion there were a few points directed at humanists hosting the event:

  • Sara ‘We value your support and assistance in combating extremism’.
  • Huda: ‘It’s better to ask and enquire than hold back for fear of causing offence’.
  • Mamadou: It’s important to avoid ‘the arrogance of exclusiveness – what I believe is right, what others believe is wrong’. He called for the non-religious to be ‘modest enough to accept the religious person’.
  • Huda: ‘When I’m reaching out to humanists and secularists, I do so in the hope that they will accept me without trying to demonise my religious beliefs or identity’ or ignore me because ‘you’re not rich enough or educated enough.’

I for one would like to think that these misconceptions about humanists were greatly clarified by the event.

All four speakers welcomed the opportunity for the dialogue and wanted to see it continued.

The event was organised by local humanist groups in London and Conway Hall Ethical Society. The core team was Helen Palmer (Chair, Central London Humanists), Jeremy Rodell (Chair, South West London Humanists), and Rory Fenton (Dialogue Officer, British Humanist Association).

On the death of Debbie Purdy

The BHA has long campaigned for a humane assisted suicide not just for the terminally ill, but for the incurably suffering as well - people like Debbie Purdy, Jean Davies, and Tony Nicklinson

The BHA has long campaigned for a humane assisted suicide law not just for the terminally ill, but for the incurably suffering as well – people like Debbie Purdy, Jean Davies, and Tony Nicklinson

Everyone at the British Humanist Association (BHA) was deeply saddened to hear about the death of Debbie Purdy just before Christmas, after taking the decision to starve herself. Debbie was an inspirational campaigner for reforming the law on assisted dying, and hers was an enormously dignified voice in public debate over many years. It was her brave campaigning that led to the publication of new legal guidance on the prosecution of family members who help loved ones to end their lives.

This was a step forward, but only a very small one because the new guidelines did not change the law. In spite of all Debbie’s courageous efforts and campaigning until the very end, assisted dying remains against the law in the UK. This means that thousands of terminally ill and permanently and incurably suffering people across the country are unable to enjoy their lives as much as they can, because they cannot rely on receiving the assistance they may need to end their lives in circumstances of their choosing, in dignity and free from pain.

Much recent media attention has focused on Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill, currently before the House of Lords. If passed, the Bill would allow terminally ill patients to request life-ending medication from their doctor. This represents another step forward, preventing unnecessary, prolonged suffering by providing those who are terminally ill with choice and control over how and when they end their lives.

But though this is a step in the right direction, it does not go anywhere near far enough. As Debbie Purdy pointed out in her final article before her death, the Bill only extends to terminally ill people judged by a doctor to be within six months of the end of their life. That excludes people who are permanently and incurably suffering – people like Debbie as well as the late Tony Nicklinson and Jean Davies, whose illnesses were not terminal but who had reached a point where they simply could not tolerate continuing to suffer any longer.

As Debbie made clear, the Bill must be passed – but it is just not enough. It does not provide a solution for people like her who seek permission to get support to end their lives in dignity, should living become truly unbearable. The BHA has long wished to see an assisted dying law which is responsive to the needs of people like Debbie who are permanently and incurably suffering, as well as those who are suffering from a terminal illness – and the majority of the public agrees.

Now is the time to act, by reforming the law to legalise assisted dying both for people suffering from a terminal illness and for those who are permanently and incurably suffering. If the law is not changed, people will continue to die after suffering for prolonged periods, in pain and robbed of their dignity. We owe it to courageous people like Debbie Purdy to make sure that this is no longer the case.

Systematic discrimination against the non-religious is happening all over the world. And Britain faces a crossroads.

‘Systematic discrimination; in flux.’

That is how the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) described the United Kingdom in its annual Freedom of Thought Report, which arrived last week for Human Rights Day on 10 December. It is the authoritative annual report into the legal status of and discrimination against the non-religious around the world.

In Saudi Arabia, atheism is now ‘terrorism'; in Malaysia, ‘humanism and secularism as well as liberalism’ have been singled out by the leader of the nation as prime causes of moral degradation. In 13 countries, atheism is punishable by death. This represents one end of the spectrum, and it would be tempting on the basis of this comparison to view Britain as a paradise for non-believers. But the reality isn’t quite so; only nine countries support full legal equality for religious and non-religious alike, IHEU finds.

As in previous years, the UK has been given an amber rating, signifying ‘Systemic Discrimination’, because of entrenched problems such as discrimination in admissions and employment by state-funded ‘faith’ schools, the presence of established churches in England and Scotland, and reserved seats for bishops in the House of Lords.

The UK was also one of only a handful countries this year to receive the special ‘In Flux’ rating because of conflicting signs about the future of discrimination against the non-religious in Britain. Despite the distance we’ve travelled to ensure that most non-religious people can live happily, confidently, and without harassment in their everyday lives, systemic problems remain, and 2014 was a year of marked attempts to politicise issues around religion or belief, as well as for claiming special significance for Christianity in Britain. And in parts of the country such as Northern Ireland, religious influence over politicians still remains the primary roadblock to sexual health rights for women and marriage rights for gay people.

The BHA will of course continue to work towards a secular state ensuring equal treatment of everyone, regardless of religion or belief. You can help this work by becoming a member, if you haven’t done so already, or by encouraging your friends to sign up. Your membership directly empowers our work financially – running campaigns can be expensive – just as your support infuses our work with energy and vitality.

Remembering our common humanity: a story from Afghanistan

‘Although in some things we are opposed, we share an irreducible humanity.’ Julian Sheather reflects on a touching tale of human compassion. 


Afghanistan. Photo: Ricymar Photography.

A friend recently sent me a news story from Afghanistan. As a slanting light can show hidden dips and lines in a landscape, so the story gradually revealed the knots and burrs of some of my half-buried prejudices. The story was about an Afghan psychiatrist, Nader Alemi, who practices in Mazar-e-Sharif, a major trading city in the north of the country. The city was taken by the Taliban in 1998 and they overran much of the surrounding countryside. At the time, Alemi was the only psychiatrist in the north of Afghanistan who spoke Pashto, the language of the majority of Taliban. For more than three years, with at least the tacit agreement of their commanders, thousands of Taliban fighters made their way to his consulting rooms. And what they bought to him during those years was the terrible psychological fall-out of war. The minds of these men were broken by it: lonely, scared and depressed, many of them admitted to a longing for death.

As I read about the damaged minds of those Taliban fighters I sensed the falling of that oblique light. The image of the Taliban I had absorbed – abbreviated and buckled by the media – did not have room for such ordinary human vulnerability. If I thought of them at all then it was as men trained from birth, like mountain Spartans, to be a warrior caste – inured to hardship and brutality, not degraded by warfare but born to it, nurtured by it. And to this I added, from out the ever-present stock of received ideas, the impregnable shield of a fundamentalist Islamism: for me the Taliban were the militarised dervishes of an orientalising fantasy.

But despite the furious and repellent ideology of the Taliban, the men that found their way to Alemi’s neutral and forgiving consulting rooms were suffering from the ordinary human consequences of combat. Mullah Akhtar, second in command to the Taliban’s spiritual leader, Mullah Omar, habituated to the horrors of front-line combat, was delusional and hallucinating. Powerlessness fed depression: men had given over their fates entirely to their commanding officers and had no idea whether they would see the day out. Despite being depicted as men with medieval minds intent on burying the modern world, and despite seldom having seen a doctor before, they had no problem with modern psychiatry. Perhaps they reached for it as if it were a lifeline.

No doubt there were times when Alemi struggled with the men who were ravaging his country, but he held to the humane dictates of his professional codes:

I used to treat the Taliban as human beings, same as I would treat my other patients…even though I knew they had caused all the problems in our society…Sometimes they would weep and I would comfort them.

Taliban orthodoxy prohibits the education of girls, but while Alemi tried to heal the minds of Taliban fighters, his wife, Parvin, ran an underground school designed to do precisely that, for up to a hundred girls at a time. Given that Alemi was trying to hold the minds of their fighters together, the Taliban turning a blind eye to a modern psychiatrist in their midst is understandable. Parvin’s was maybe the greater risk. But somehow both she and the school survived. Some of her pupils have gone on to become doctors and engineers. There was that slanting light again.

When I read that news report, along with the slight unknotting of a prejudice or two came a strange shuffle of thoughts that revealed to me some of my deepest commitments. It is commonplace that ideas and beliefs rigidly gripped will divide us. The ways of the Taliban are about as remote from mine as I figure contemporaries can get. But one can condemn a regime, an inhuman ideology, while still acknowledging the humanity of those who promote it, or who are held, one way or another, physically or mentally captive by it. Although in some things we are opposed, we share an irreducible humanity. And so that oblique light came from somewhere. It had its origins in a set of humane practices that all humanists can celebrate: in the scientific medicine that can distance itself from conflict and quietly focus on a suffering human being; in the feeding and forming of young and growing minds through educating the whole human being. And in the belief, or call it a hope, integral to journalism at its best, that a news story set down in northern Afghanistan can open the mind, however slightly, of someone sitting at his desk in a very different city several thousands of miles away.

Support for humanist marriage is broad and overwhelming – so why is the Government delaying?

As the Government continues to delay reporting on the legalisation of humanist marriages, we are seeing increased expressions of the political consensus in favour of it. Two dozen members of the House of Commons today have signed an Early Day Motion to urge the Government to move towards legalisation. They already include MPs from Labour, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, Green, Conservative, and even SNP making a rare venture into English and Welsh matters. They include Christians as well as humanists, and there are more signatories to come.


This is a follow-up to a triple cross-party strike from a Labour, a Liberal Democrat, and Conservative MP on 11 November, who pressed the justice minister from three corners of the chamber as to what was taking the Government (which had originally told the British Humanist Association that the whole issue might be taken care of by about eight months ago!) quite so long:


And on 4 December the Labour front bench, who were forced to compromise on humanist marriage at the time of the Marriage Bill last year when the Government threatened to delay same-sex marriage if the case for humanist marriage was taken to a vote, were showing their frustration:


And it’s not just in the Commons. Last week, on 1 December, there was a mini-debate in the House of Lords in which there was not a single voice raised against humanist marriage and in which, again, there was cross-party support from Labour, Conservative, and Liberal Democrat, as well as independent peers. Again, support crossed belief lines with Christians such as cross-bencher Baroness Butler-Sloss also urging the Government to get on with legalisation. She and Baroness Thornton got pretty much as forthrightly critical of the Government as it is possible to be in the polite atmosphere of the Lords:


Unfortunately, it does seem that the Government is just not listening. Even when the subject was raised directly with the Prime Minister by an MP of his own party at Prime Minister’s Questions on 19 November, there was no answer forthcoming on the substantive matter of humanist marriage, just the same ‘wait and see’ response, while Parliamentary time between now and the next general election bleeds away:


When the Marriage Act was going through Parliament, it was clear that there was majority support for the legalisation of humanist marriages in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The British Humanist Association, though obviously much much smaller and poorer than the wealthier and more powerful lobbies against humanist marriages, at least was able to make its arguments and expose the disingenuous ones of critics in the light of day. Now that the matter is being considered behind closed doors, there is no such opportunity.

All that can be done is to state yet again the case for legal recognition, against which no coherent or just case has ever to this date been made.

In England and Wales, members of literally dozens of religions from Scientology to Methodism and from all the denominations of Judaism to the Spiritualists and the Aetherius Society (Yes – honestly!) can all have a legal marriage in the place most special to them, conducted by one who shares their beliefs, and in the form that embodies their most deeply held beliefs and values. Those with humanist, non-religious beliefs and values don’t have the same choice.

In Scotland, where humanist marriages are legal, they have proved hugely popular – so popular that they have contributed to a growth in marriages overall. Giving legal recognition to them in the whole of Britain would be fair, inexpensive, easy, uncontroversial, and beneficial for both individuals, wider society, and the economy. What can possibly be being discussed behind closed doors that weighs against all that?

10 tips for a happy humanist Christmas

Marilyn Mason’s 10 top tips for humanists this festive season.

'Christmas' is a time for family and friends - and to overidentify it with Christian tradition specifically, or to fret about the name, is a waste of time. Photo: Josn McGinn.

25 December and thereabouts has been a special time for celebrating with friends for thousands of years. Some would say that to overidentify the holiday we call ‘Christmas’ with Christian tradition, or to fret about that name, is a royal waste of time. Photo: Christmas Eve dinner by John McGinn.



Accept that Christmas Day is what we call 25 December and you’re not going to change that, any more that we humanists can rename Easter weekend, Eid, Divali, Passover… Enjoy the fact that it’s the one day of the year when almost everything is shut, you can’t shop, almost no one goes to work, the roads are empty… Relax.


Send a card if you want to keep in touch with friends at this time of year — as many people still prefer a hand-written card to an email. But if you think they wouldn’t appreciate a physical card, send an e-card instead and give the money you would have spent on cards and postage to a worthy (secular) charity like the BHA (or wherever you like). If you want to support a charity and send a card to your loved ones, then a great way to do that would be to buy the from the BHA’s range at 80p a card (in packs of 10).


Keep present-giving simple: give to those who need stuff, come to an agreement with those who don’t (which is most people past their youth). There is nothing particularly virtuous in buying things that people don’t need which will probably end up in a charity shop – you could cut out the middle-man and give the cash to charity instead.


See friends and family when it suits you and them — don’t get too hung up on 25 December (remember Christmas is no big deal for humanists). Most people have several relatives they feel obliged to visit on Christmas Day – make life easier for them by opting out of the competition for their presence and see them another time.


If you’re on your own over the holiday, just think — you can eat what you like, watch what you like on television, read a book, go to bed as early or late as you like… Relax.


Eat, drink, and be merry, but pace yourself. You don’t have to drink alcohol at breakfast time or eat Christmas pudding, mince pies and Christmas cake all on the same day – or at all. You don’t have to cook or eat turkey or Brussel sprouts if you don’t like them. Admittedly this is harder when you are a guest, but tiny helpings may help!


Feed the birds, and enjoy watching them eat the inevitable leftovers


Go for a walk somewhere lovely on Christmas or Boxing or New Year’s Day — roads will be empty if you time it right, and few other people will be out. Be prepared to wish the few a Happy Christmas and New Year.


Take pleasure in in singing. Not all Christmas songs or carols are religious, and music of all kinds can be very uplifting.


Focus on enjoying yourself. Christmas can be a pleasantly sociable or self-indulgent time of year if you don’t get too caught up in the competitive consumerist rush. Relax.

Humanist Hero: Joss Whedon

Here Liam Whitton writes about his admiration for writer-director Joss Whedon

There are few bigger names in entertainment today than Joss Whedon, who steered Marvel’s The Avengers to box office record-breaking success in 2012.

For his fans, this day was inevitable. Many of us had watched — or in my case, grown up on — Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and knew as early as then what a remarkable talent Joss Whedon was.

Buffy's enduring popularity hasn't just changed televisions, but several other mediums as well. Art by Jo Chen.

Buffy‘s enduring popularity hasn’t just changed television, but several other mediums as well. Art by Jo Chen.

What was also apparent to many, although perhaps many wouldn’t know it by name, was the extraordinary humanist quality to Buffy, and which can be found throughout Whedon’s work.

An obvious theme in Whedon’s work is the empowerment of women. But Whedon’s feminism is only a constituent piece of his larger, more encompassing humanist philosophy. Buffy, crudely summarised, is about a young woman with supernatural strength and physical attributes who fights the forces of evil. What elevated the show above its television forebears and contemporaries, and which continues to make it a seminal work of TV-as-art, is the programme’s relentless focus on the inner lives of its characters. The writers on the show were told to write with one question in mind: how does Buffy feel? From this spawned a rich show of complex characters encountering philosophical problems as often as social ones, making some of the most fully realised drama in all of fiction, and spawning an entire academic sub-field known as ‘Buffy studies’.

Whedon’s other themes are capitalism and greed, as explored largely in Angel, Dollhouse, and the comic book Fray; the fundamental dignity that comes with personhood, explored through Dawn and Connor in Buffy and Angel and as the central premise of the show Dollhouse; and secular explorations of redemption, as seen in all of his shows, where characters who have done terrible things attempt to make amends for their actions, and all learn in various ways that redemption is never finished, and that simple human compassion motivates the most profound and honest sacrifices.

Andrew West has written for HumansitLife about his love of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry before, and BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson has written admiringly of Roddenberry as well. Star Trek‘s popularity with humanists is partially rooted in its optimism for the human race, and its almost Utopian depiction of a universe where the Humanism Roddenberry so passionately felt has motivated humankind to explore, develop rational scepticism, and foster cooperation, all to great success. And I myself have written on Doctor Who‘s humanist themes, particularly in the form of its non-human main character the Doctor, a firebrand humanist with one advantage the rest of us don’t have — he knows much more than we do about the world (which is often used to justify the show’s forays into fairly fantastical heights of speculative fiction). But neither of these programmes achieve what Joss Whedon has consistently done throughout his work, which is to present Humanism and explore its implications in a world where essential human problems share the scale of epics.

Whedon’s worlds are alive with Humansim despite these worlds often not being humanistic or physical materialist in conception. In Buffy and Angel, the characters confront monsters, demons, witches, and deities, and accept that these things exist. They have a good reason to believe these things exist which we do not: in Buffy and Angel they really do. The ‘soul’ is a major plot device in both those shows as well, as it accounts in a nebulous and nonspecific way for the presence of morality. An early Angel episode, ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin,’ even suggests that the absence of a ‘soul’ explains true human psychopathy. Yet as both those shows go on, Whedon becomes increasingly interested in using the supernatural framework of the show for exploring the human problems we all really face, and to advocate the evidence-based and compassion-led approach to ethics we should be using to make decisions our daily lives.

From the beginning, Buffy used the supernatural to generously provide metaphors for all manner of social issues. Often the personal struggles of a character would be reflected in those of the monster of the week, or some atrocity in a character’s past would contain meaningful wisdom the audience could apply to another person’s present-day dilemma. Good fiction has long done this: the most successful novels take a chosen theme and stretch it into every line of dialogue, every visual motif, make their pages blossom with insight into the world. With cinema and theatre, the visual and textual have long been aligned in this effort, but until Buffy, television was a odd-man-out, a place for episodic dramas about buddy cops and the like. Buffy itself quickly moved from ‘high school’ themes to more mature ones. Season one’s ‘Invisible Girl’ provides a fairly mundane example of this: high school social alienation (and the fact that Sunnydale High sits above a Hellmouth) literally makes a shy girl turn invisible. By its later seasons, Buffy was commenting on the same theme with all the deftness of a poet.

Buffy‘s most fantastical and high-concept episodes are probably season four’s ‘Hush’ and season six’s ‘Once More, With Feeling,’ a silent episode and a musical respectively. The musical television episode had been pioneered for the modern age with Xena: Warrior Princess (several times in fact) before then, but it was ‘Once More, With Feeling’ which set the bar for TV concept episodes to come. In both ‘Hush’ and ‘Once More, With Feeling,’ Whedon’s characters, who are otherwise known for their verbal dexterity and linguistic playfulness, struggle to express themselves. In ‘Hush,’ they fail to articulate and say what they truly mean, and gradually find through the silence which has enveloped Sunnydale that in fact, language can be a barrier to honest communication; a hindrance rather than a tool. When the silence ends, Buffy and her boyfriend Riley sit in awkward silence, failing to at all express what they truly feel.  In ‘Once More, With Feeling,’ subtle characterisation and running plot threads in the character’s emotional lives come to the surface when the people of Sunnydale find themselves living in a musical. For all their exposed personal dilemmas, Buffy’s is the greatest, and it is the tortured character of Spike who must remind Buffy (through song) of her reason for living, despite her life-as-hell experience with severe depression:

Life’s not a song
Life isn’t bliss
Life is just this
It’s living
You’ll get along
The pain that you feel
You only can heal
By living
You have to go one living

…echoing Buffy’s own advice to her sister Dawn, in the previous season. You see, Buffy’s depressed in season six because she died, went to Heaven, and came back against her will. But her realisation in the season five finale ‘The Gift’ was that her love of her sister was a gift, and to sacrifice herself to save her sister’s life was her personal privilege. ‘Death is your gift,’ Buffy was told prophetically earlier in the season. She struggled to understand what that meant, if anything, before later arriving at a subtler understanding of life and death, and how one cannot have true meaning without the other. A humanist message in itself. ‘The hardest thing in this world is to live in it,’ Buffy counsels Dawn. Even in the supernatural world of Buffy, Whedon systematically undermines the supernatural to force the characters to explore the world as we ourselves face it.

The best example of this is in Buffy’s sister show Angel, when the beloved character Winifred ‘Fred’ Burkle dies in ‘A Hole in the World.’ The literal hole of that episode aside, which was a actual cavity running end to end through the Earth, the central ‘hole’ encountered was an emotional one for the characters as Fred died, possessed and eaten out from the inside by the ancient demon Illyria. In the ensuing episode ‘Shells,’ remembering Buffy’s aforementioned resurrection, Angel travels the world looking for a quick fix to the problem, before learning that Fred’s ‘soul’ was ‘consumed in the fires of Illyria’s resurrection.’ The hole in their world then becomes that much deeper, and I remember being 14 at the time it aired and really being hit powerfully for the first time by the reality and permanence of death. It made Buffy’s sacrifice (which for her, was to an unknown end) carry the same weight in subsequent rewatchings, and deepened my admiration for non-religious people who risk their lives for the good of others. It also reminds me of the Greek proverb: ‘A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.’

Another example of the undermining of religious supernaturalism in Buffy is that ‘Heaven’ is probably just another alternate dimension (called ‘hell dimensions’) of the infinite number which exist in the the show’s multiverse: merely an especially benign type of the world, among many more of infinite horror, and several others such as the World Without Shrimp and the World With Nothing But Shrimp. When the character Cordelia goes to one such heavenly dimension in Angel, she finds it is simply inconsolably boring, and later the characters learn that the heavenly beings behind Cordelia’s ascension are really just as nasty as the demons they typically encounter down on Earth — except relentlessly mean-spirited in their pursuit of a bigger-picture, consequentialist ‘good’, providing a healthy rejoinder to that Christian maxim that ‘God works in mysterious ways.’ In Angel, gods work in mysterious ways because they’re dicks. Or rather, because sometimes people are. Angel‘s deities are just another set or kind of fallible people, and in Whedon’s world, the bigger and tougher of us always face greater propensity to be bullies.

For all she’s seen, Buffy remains an agnostic atheist: unconvinced that the supernaturalism of her world means anything. Not that it’s mentioned much; it’s sort of inconsequential to her life of kicking butt and stopping evil. ‘The jury’s out,’ she says, when asked if there’s a (Judeo-Christian conception of) ‘God’ early on in season two.

Dollhouse was perhaps Whedon's darkest television show, set in a science fiction universe full of bad people abusing one another. But it also explores hope.

Dollhouse was perhaps Whedon’s darkest television show, set in a science fiction universe full of flawed and sometimes extremely devious people abusing one another. But it also explores hope.

Whedon’s later series Dollhouse is very much rooted within a materialist universe like the one we really live in, and is as much as anything else about human corruptibility, and mankind’s negative traits, including (through a science fiction lens) the world or prostitution, sex trafficking, organised crime, and how badly we treat the mentally ill, the disabled, and the less fortunate. Unlike Buffy and Angel, there is no ‘soul,’ no secret sauce to the human experience outside of our material bodies. We can be uploaded, downloaded, altered all through changes to the electrochemical states of our brains, as new hardware allows brains to be treated like hard drives for minds. And yet even so, as main character Echo goes on, she cobbles together a personhood formed from fragmentary fictional and borrowed identities which is just as valuable and ‘real’ as any of the ‘real’ people with real personalities she encounters. When humankind is given greater power and propensity to abuse, humankind abuses it (which is perhaps the show’s sole environmentalist message), but even so, it is only people — in all their diversities — who can champion and stand up for all that is good in the world, too.

They do so in spite of impossible odds. In Angel season four, the character of Gunn is told that by a shady character that higher powers manipulate their lives to such a degree that their active choices carry little weight; he presents a free will problem we’ve probably all thought of before. We’re all shaped by forces outside of ourselves. Some big, some small. Can free will exist in a deterministic universe? Gunn makes, as best he can, a passionate plea that our choices still matter. Like Sam Harris would say, even in a world without free will, we can still find meaning in our lives, and make our decisions count.

Similarly, in season two’s ‘Epiphany,’ Angel, who spends much of his long life on one crusade or another, always reaching for the grand gesture which will redeem him in his own eyes and in the eyes of others, reflects on finding meaning in a universe with no ‘cosmic plan’, and no certainty. He concludes, in his titular epiphany, which is presented as a milestone for the character’s development:

If there’s no great glorious end to all this, [and] if nothing we do matters… then all that matters is what we do.

It’s really no surprise that Angel’s ‘mission statement’, and the character’s last words (which closed out Angel‘s five-year run) are ‘Let’s go to work.’ Whedon symbolically had Buffy repeat the line in the concluding issue of Buffy‘s first canonical comic book season five years later, reflecting the fact that these two heroes are united by the same basic purpose. They separately arrive at the conclusion that your good work is never finished. Good work is their shared duty simply because it needs doing; no more, no less. Whedon’s characters are unlikely ever to arrive at the paradisiacal future of Star Trek, or the easy happy endings which characterise Doctor Who, but still they continue, hoping to plant oak trees for future generations.

Unlike Roddenberry’s vision, in which humankind has on the whole shown its best possible face, the characters in Dollhouse face the fullest extremes of human deplorability and summon up the strength to fight it with the only weapon they have: their humanity. (That and advanced fighting skills.) In Whedon’s shows, religion is not the enemy of Humanism, but nor is it really on the agenda (or of any interest) to any of its crypto-humanists. Instead, they are tackling the world in all its complexity and all its difficulties, across dimensions of class, creed, (species,) gender, and health. Whedon depicts the world at its worst and people at their best. And when they’re at the best, they’re grappling with the world as it really is, in all its difficulty and strangeness, and still finding the strength and motivation to go on in their Humanism.