Why Humanism and feminism go hand in hand

For International Women’s Day (8 March 2015), Cordelia Tucker O’Sullivan explores the profound unity of Humanism and feminism.

Supporters of feminist, anticlerical activist band Pussy Riot outside the Russian embassy in London. Photo: Sean Comiskey.

Supporters of feminist, anticlerical activist band Pussy Riot outside the Russian embassy in London. Photo: Sean Comiskey.

‘Why feminism and not just humanism?’ is a question often invoked by closet misogynists attempting to highlight some imagined incoherence or hypocrisy embedded in the feminist ethical perspective. It is a question which lacks the intended effect, given that it incorrectly defines both Humanism and feminism, but does actually provoke some deeper questions about the historical and philosophical relationship between the two. So, even though the questioner is at best ignorant and at worst bigoted, there is a silver lining.

So what is the difference? Feminism is defined most commonly (and I believe most accurately) as ‘the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of equality of the sexes’, whereas a humanist believes in the authority of the scientific method in understanding the world, rejecting the supernatural (including a belief in god), and in seeking to live an ethically fulfilling life on the basis of common reason and humanity, challenging religious privilege in the public sphere. Not only does the inquirer demonstrably rely on ill-defined terms for their criticism of modern feminism, they clearly have not done their research – the overlap between feminist and humanist beliefs and goals is deep and significant.

To start, the suffragette movement in both the UK and the US was against a background of voracious defence of male privilege by the church, an idea found in bountiful supply in the Bible (among other religious texts). The claim was that god created women as inferior to men, and it is part of god’s plan that it remains that way. Jesus, the earthly incarnation of god, was also a bloke – if he existed at all. We of course can’t relegate this archaic attitude to the past, as the Church of England consecrated its first female bishop in January this year. It therefore seems natural, or even obvious, that there would be a significant overlap between humanist and feminist objectives and beliefs.

In fact, two out of three leaders of the suffragette movement in the US were explicit ‘free thinkers’ (a term used to denote those who reach ‘unorthodox’ conclusions about religion), who criticised the church for their institutionalisation of discrimination against women. The British Humanist Association (BHA) holds an emphatically pro-choice position on the issue of abortion, and actively campaigns for reproductive rights for all women. Diane Munday, the feminist campaigner who lobbied successfully for the passing of the Abortion Act 1967, numbers among their patrons. The BHA and other humanist organisations actively campaign for the provision of human rights to all, and support progress in the direction of women’s substantive emancipation worldwide. Evidently, these are both issues which feminists typically support (I would be slightly confused if I came across a feminist who was ‘pro-life’, let alone who thought that women’s emancipation was no big deal!).

So what exactly is responsible for this extensive common ground amongst feminists and humanists? At first glance, it looks like it might be mere coincidence that those of both ethical stripes pursue similar political goals. Humanists criticise the abortion prohibition because it is grounded in religious exceptionalism, as such the non-religious ought not to be compelled to comply, whereas feminists are more concerned with the woman’s right to choose, and the rights she enjoys over her own body. This is superficial. To get a more coherent and profound analysis of humanism and feminism, we must look to the moral bases of each, which, as it turns out, they have in common. Humanism grounds morality in the welfare of humans and other sentient beings, seeking moral guidance on the basis of our common reason and humanity. As such, the right to autonomy is of paramount importance, as it is a central feature of living a good human life – whatever that entails for the individual (that’s the point). Therefore, a humanist considers the legalisation of abortion a moral imperative not just because it respects the beliefs of the non-religious, but because it is a matter of respecting one’s right to self-determination. Similarly, coherent feminists are not misandrists, they seek equal rights for men and women on the basis that both sexes have the ability and the right to lead self-determining lives for which control and ownership over one’s body is a necessary component.

So, in response to ‘why feminism, and not just Humanism’ I say this: the only real difference between the two is an explicit denial of the existence of a deity for humanists. What these philosophies share is a deep commitment to equal rights, non-discrimination, and the right to self-determination and autonomy, and that is what is really important.

Cordelia Tucker O’Sullivan is a master’s student in political theory at the London School of Economics and a public affairs volunteer at the British Humanist Association.

A victory for universality: UN Human Rights Council adopts resolution protecting LGBTI persons

Amelia Cooper reports again from the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, where she speaks on behalf of the British Humanist Association

Amelia Cooper reports again from the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, where she speaks on behalf of the British Humanist Association

‘There is no justification ever, for the degrading, the debasing or the exploitation of other human beings – on whatever basis: nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age or caste.’

This statement was made by the new High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, in his introductory remarks to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva: a powerful, timely reminder of the universality of human rights. Notable in this statement is the inclusion of ‘sexual orientation’, which has faced numerous attacks and denunciations as being outside the remit of the Council, despite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ emphasis that there will be no distinction ‘of any kind’ in the application of human rights. However, it is with great pleasure that I write to say that last night, following fierce debate, tense votes, and years of global advocacy, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution based on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI), only the second of its kind.

The past year has been a tumultuous one for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) people, with great successes regarding equal marriage taking place in the US and the UK, while elsewhere, such as in Russia, Nigeria, and Uganda, a spate of anti-homosexuality legislation has criminalized certain types of love, or made it impossible for LGBTI people to live openly. The global increase in homophobic aggression led one gay man to remark that ‘a hunting season is open, and we are the hunted’[1].

Without direct experience, however, it is easy to forget the rampant homophobia, both state-sanctioned and carried out by vigilantes, that permeates every aspect of daily life for LGBTI persons throughout the world – including in Europe.

Last week, I attended a side event hosted by ARC International, a leading advocacy group focused on achieving equality for LGBTI, and was shocked and heartbroken in equal measures to hear of the brutal violence that individuals suffer because of who they love.

Jabulani, from the South African Iranti Organisation, detailed innumerable cases of corrective rape and attacks carried out with impunity, ending by saying ‘The fact is that loving someone of your same sex is a direct threat to your bodily integrity’.

In Latin America, there are ‘curative clinics’ where LGBTI people are taken, abused and violated to ‘normalise’ their bodies. In the psyche of the perpetrator, this is not sexual abuse: it is a method by which people be ‘cured’ of their identity. The suicide rate among LGBTI youth in Latin America is 50% higher than their peers; in Central America, the life expectancy for transgender individuals is 24-28 years old. Transgender people do not have the benefit of ‘the closet’, due to their gender expression, and are therefore visible and oft targeted.

In Europe, Nori Spauwen of COC Netherlands said that the protection of LGBTI persons remains ‘a patchwork of national policy and Council of Europe recommendations’, and emphasized that having a legal, pro-equality framework is an indispensable precondition to elimination discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. In the EU, more than half of all lesbian women have faced violence or verbal abuse in the past year, while crimes committed against LGBTI persons continue to be grossly underreported, due to the victims’ belief that nothing will change, or because they fear a homo/transphobic police reaction.

Any of these cases, on an individual basis, would suffice to show that discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity must stop; when together, they illustrate that this is a global scourge that must stop now.

Yesterday’s adoption of the resolution ‘combating violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity’ is a critically important achievement in upholding the universality of human rights and creating a global framework to combat discrimination against LGBTI persons.

Introduced by Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Uruguay, and subsequently co-sponsored by an additional 42 states, the resolution expresses grave concern at acts of violence and discrimination suffered by LGBTI, calls for an updated study to be carried out by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and ensures that the issue will remain on the Human Rights Council agenda.

The resolution faced a number of hostile amendments, including a proposal by Egypt (on behalf of ten states) to delete all references to sexual orientation and gender identity from the text. The Brazilian ambassador remarked that ‘Deleting all reference to sexual orientation and gender identity from this resolution would be the same as eliminating all references to women from the resolution on violence against women’. However, given that Egypt formed part of the core group who proposed the pernicious Protection of the Family resolution in June, their hostility to this resolution was hardly surprising.

A number of states spoke during the voting process, with impassioned statements from the resolution sponsors, including Chile’s statement that ‘this resolution does not seek to create new rights…there are some whose rights are more violated and need more protection’. Pakistan, speaking on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Conference, framed LGBTI equality as a danger to the country, saying ‘The wider connotations of the term ‘sexual orientation’ can be extremely detrimental and inimical to our Muslim societies in particular, and to our youth as a whole’.

Thankfully, the resolution survived the persistent attempts to undermine it and was passed with by a vote of 25-14 (with seven abstentions, including from China and India) to huge smiles, happy tears and close embraces in a rare moment of emotional diplomacy.

While the resolution alone will not bring an end to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, it is a remarkable achievement in enshrining LGBTI equality as part of the international agenda, and provides a framework for further discussion of the issue. As the final regular session of the 2014 Human Rights Council has now closed, the resolution is an enormous step forward in terms of LGBTI equality, undermining the national legislation that criminalizes love and proving that human rights are truly universal.



For further information, see the joint NGO statement following the passage of the resolution.

[1] Dima, a Russian man who was left blind in one eye after an armed group stormed a gay community centre. Quoted by Channel 4, and featured in their documentary ‘Hunted’. http://www.channel4.com/news/gay-russian-sochi-hunting-season-we-are-the-hunted


Great essays in the humanist tradition: ‘Evangelical Teaching: Dr Cumming’ by George Eliot

George Eliot, as painted by Samuel Laurence, c. 1860

George Eliot, as painted by Samuel Laurence, c. 1860

In the first of a series, HumanistLife brings you a great essay from the public domain.

Born Mary Ann Evans, George Eliot was a remarkable person. Not only did she pen brilliant novels such as Middlemarch, she was a fierce and formidable essayist.

Even in her personal life, she defied the oppressive Victorian morality of her day to live with her married boyfriend, the philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes.

Today Eliot is buried in Highgate Cemetery in an area reserved for agnostics and dissenters. Since her death, many great men and women have been inspired by the excoriating wit of her essays; the influence of her non-fiction is especially evident in writers like Christopher Hitchens.

The below essay is called ‘Evangelical Teaching: Dr. Cumming’, a scathing attack on the intellectual dishonesty of the clergyman Rev. John Cumming, and in which Eliot expresses in clear and beautiful language her own humanist perspective.

Beware only one thing: she writes in long paragraphs.

[Read more…]

Doctor Who: fifty years of Humanism

Celebrating 50 years of Humanism: Matt Smith, David Tennant and guest star John Hurt, all playing the Doctor.

Celebrating 50 years of Humanism: Matt Smith, David Tennant and guest star John Hurt, all playing the Doctor.


Tonight is the airing of a Doctor Who special, The Day of the Doctor. Fans are celebrating the show’s fiftieth anniversary, and as well as lighting up TV screens around the world, the special is showing in cinemas around the UK in 3D.

It’s worth celebrating the show from another perspective, however. It’s one of the most humanist television shows of all time. In fact, at practically every turn up to now it has presented the philosophy of its title character, the Doctor, as an emphatically humanist one. If there’s one thing the Doctor values, it’s human life, and if there’s one thing he consistently stands in awe of, it’s human potential. He abhors superstition; he scorns pointless prejudices; he believes fervently in reason; he is sympathetic to the beliefs of others, but will not kowtow to them when a fundamental liberty is under threat.

The show began in 1963 as a children’s program with an educational mandate. A mysterious old miser known as the Doctor, played by William Hartnell, would take his granddaughter and her two schoolteachers back in time to visit the Earth’s history, as well as into the future and into outer space, using speculative fiction as a means to explore philosophical questions and scientific ideas.

Its second story, The Daleks, was a parable about the evils of Nazism. It gave birth to rich science fiction concepts which took the show into a bold new direction, and would go on to test better with audiences than the historical format of later serials such as The Aztecs. The Daleks produced a strong template for the show’s future, in which it would continue to delve into history, but never again lose the science fiction backdrop which led it to discuss bold themes and big ideas.

The Doctor is one of pop culture’s most popular atheists. Famous atheists on TV tend to play into negative stereotypes. They are either the curmudgeonly, misanthropic intellectual (Dr. Gregory House on House, Dr. Perry Cox on Scrubs) or the sanctimonious liberal douche (Brian Griffin on Family Guy, Kurt Hummel on Glee). But the Doctor, by contrast, has evolved into a life-affirming, swashbuckling hero who is adored by children everywhere.

To maintain the show’s longevity, it introduced the plot device where if the Doctor is fatally injured, his alien physiology can “regenerate,” creating a new body with new personality quirks and a different face. The mantle of the Doctor has been passed on officially to a dozen or so actors in the show’s history, with many other actors playing alternative versions or unofficial Doctors over the last half-century. Like no other character on TV, over fifty years we have seen his many sides. He has been a narcissist, a boor, a clown, a grump, a convincing portrayal of a bipolar person (David Tennant, I’m looking at you) and a wide-eyed dreamer. Whatever his face however, the Doctor always believes in the values of the Enlightenment.

The show has some great pedigree with British Humanism as a movement, as well. Douglas Adams, the legendary writer and ardent humanist, was one of the show’s most influential scriptwriters. It was he who introduced the show’s former leading lady, Lalla Ward, to scientist and BHA Vice-President Richard Dawkins at a party in 1992, with BHA Distinguished Supporter Stephen Fry looking on. The pair would later marry. Professor Dawkins would himself become one of the show’s many scientist cameos, which have included Distinguished Supporter Professor Brian Cox.

The programme’s showrunners have also tended to be socially conscious atheists. When the show was brought back from cancellation in 2005, Russell T Davies didn’t shy away from expressing his opinion of religion. The second episode after its revival features the joke that “weapons, teleportation and religion” are banned aboard a fictional satellite. For its season finale that same year, Davies clearly asked himself what could make a Dalek scarier, given that they were already pitiless aliens bent on racial purity. His answer made terrifyingly good sense:  religion.

Steven Moffat has taken this theme further. All delivered in absurdist good humour, he shows that in the distant future, ‘the Church’ has become a military institution which patrols the galaxy. It is an organisation of superstitious cowards with guns, fearful of its so-called ‘Papal Mainframe’. It is also susceptible to manipulation and influence from others in power. To the Doctor, like every religion, this is just one of the absurd things humans do – he loves them for their potential as much as for their naivety. The Doctor exploits the Church’s weaknesses to great effect in A Good Man Goes to War (2011), when the Doctor (played by Matt Smith), who is for the most part a staunch pacifist, must rescue his companion Amy who has been held captive for the duration of her pregnancy.

When religion is portrayed positively, the show stops short of crediting the tenets of belief themselves. In Davies’ 2007 episode Gridlock, the singing of hymns binds people together in despair. But these hymns are not to a God who will save them. These people are singing to themselves. They are coming together as a community. It is the Doctor who saves them, a man of science who burns with moral conviction. Though he is himself sometimes revered as a god, and even presented with Biblical imagery, he knows better than anyone how far this is from the truth. He is someone who lives with the burden of a dark past, and the knowledge of his own frailty – both moral and physical.

In tonight’s fiftieth anniversary, the two most popular Doctors in the show’s history (David Tennant and Matt Smith), who just so happen to be the most recent, will confront this same dark past. With the exception of the young Doctor played by the old William Hartnell who tried to brutally kill a caveman in An Unearthly Child, the show’s premiere story, the Doctor has always married his Enlightenment values to an adjacent set of progressive ethics. But in 2013, the show has introduced a “dark Doctor,” played by John Hurt, who hails from a time in the Doctor’s life when he was forced to fight a war between his own people, the Time Lords, and the Nazi-like Daleks. The Doctor eradicated both species.

This act is so violent, and so contradicts the Doctor’s strict moral code, that he has worked hard to forget this incarnation of himself and make peace with what he did. As stated in its most recent finale episode, The Name of the Doctor, this is a man who broke the vow his name signifies, and has lost the right to call himself the Doctor. Though John Hurt’s ‘Doctor’ is the same essential person and a man of science, he is also also a warrior, one whose valuation of life is subject to a consequentialist philosophy. Not a great deal is known about him, but he would seem to mark a break away from the Doctor’s strict humanist code. He will go head to head with his less morally flexible replacements.

In its fiftieth year, the show is putting its title character’s values at the heart of the action. Let us see if in the next fifty years, the Doctor’s Humanism will win out.

I haven’t read it, but there’s a critical book on the subject (Humanism and Doctor Who: A Critical Study in Science Fiction and Philosophy by David Layton), and a nifty video on this subject did the rounds on YouTube earlier this year, before getting taken down by a copyright claim. If you can find it, it’s got fifty years of the Doctor’s humanist speeches edited together to great effect.

EDIT: Ah, the creator of the video managed to resolve the copyright issue and upload it anew yesterday. Enjoy!