Peter Tatchell: My journey to Humanism – how I made the transition from dogma and superstition to rationalism

Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell writes about the story of his journey to Humanism. This article was originally published in Humanism Ireland under the title ‘My Journey from superstition to rationalism.’

Peter Tatchell: Why I'm...

Peter Tatchell: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is proof that humans don’t need a god to tell right from wrong, and something we as humans can be proud of.

Organised religion is the world’s greatest fount of obscurantism, prejudice, superstition and oppression. It has caused misery to billions of people for millennia, and continues to do so in many countries. So how come I was once in thrall to it?

Nowadays, I am a human rights activist motivated by love and compassion for other people. I do evidence-based campaigning, based on humanitarian and rational values.

But I once had a very different perspective. Indeed, I grew up in a devout evangelical Christian family in Melbourne, Australia, in the 1950s and ’60s. My mother and stepfather (with whom I spent most of my childhood) were prim and proper working class parents, with very conservative views on everything. The Bible, every word of it, was deemed to be the actual and definitive word of God. Their Christianity was largely devoid of social conscience, more Old Testament than New. It was all about personal salvation.

According to our church, some of the worst sins were swearing, drinking alcohol, smoking, dancing, sex outside of marriage, communism, belief in evolution, not praying and failing to go to church every Sunday. All my extended family was of the same persuasion. Naturally, I also embraced God.

But in secondary school, aged 13, I began to think for myself. I remember a rather smug religious education teacher who one day gave us a lesson in faith. He argued that when we switch on a light we don’t think about it; we have faith that the room will light up. He suggested that faith in the power of God was the same as faith in the power of electricity to turn on a light.

Bad analogy, I thought. What causes a light to go on when one flicks the switch is not faith; it is man-made electricity and wiring – and this can be demonstrated by empirical evidence. The existence of God cannot. This set my mind thinking sceptical thoughts.

This nascent doubt was not, however, strong enough to stop me, at the age of 16,from becoming a Sunday school teacher to six year olds. Being of an artistic persuasion, I made colourful cardboard tableaux of Biblical stories. The children loved it. My classes were popular and well attended.

The first serious cracks in my faith had begun to appear the previous year, 1967, when an escaped convict, Ronald Ryan, was hanged for a murder he almost certainly did not commit. At age 15, I worked out that the trajectory of the bullet through the dead man’s body meant that it would be virtually impossible for Ryan to have fired the fatal shot. Despite this contrary evidence, he was executed anyway. This not only shattered my confidence in the police, courts and government, it also got me thinking about my faith.

According to St Paul (The Bible, Romans 13:1-2), all governments and authorities are ordained by God. To oppose them is to oppose God. But why would God, I asked myself, ordain a government that allowed an apparent injustice, such as Ryan’s execution? If he did ordain it, did God deserve respect? And what about other excesses by tyrannical governments? Did God really ordain the Nazi regime? Stalin’s Soviet Union? Apartheid? And closer to home, the 19th century British colonial administration which decimated, by intent or neglect, the Aboriginal peoples of Australia?

I began to develop my own version of liberation theology, long before I had ever heard the phrase. During the 1960s, the nightly TV news was dominated by footage of the black civil rights struggle, led by the Baptist pastor, Martin Luther King Jr. His faith was not mere pious words; he put Christian values into action.

This is what Christianity should be about, I concluded. Accordingly, at 14, I left my parents’ Pentecostal church and started going to the local Baptist church instead. Alas, it was not what I expected – not even a quarter as radical as Martin Luther King’s Baptist social conscience. A huge disappointment.

Undeterred, I began to articulate my own revolutionary Christian gospel of ‘Jesus Christ the Liberator’, based on ideas in the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the Good Samaritan.

This soon led me into Christian-inspired activism for Aboriginal rights, as well as against the death penalty, apartheid, the draft and the Vietnam War. I linked up with members of the radical Student Christian Movement. In 1970, aged 18, I initiated Christians for Peace, an inter-denominational anti-war organisation which organised a spectacular candlelit march through Melbourne, calling for the withdrawal of Australian and US troops from Vietnam.

At the age of 17, I had realised I was gay. From the first time I had sex with a man I felt emotionally and sexually fulfilled, without any shame at all. This positive experience overwhelmed all the years of anti-gay religious dogma that had been pummelled into me.

Amazingly, I never experienced a moment’s doubt or guilt. I reasoned: how could something so wonderful and mutually fulfilling be wrong? Instantly, I accepted my sexuality and was determined to do my bit to help end the persecution of lesbian and gay people.

By the time I turned 20, rationality finally triumphed over superstition and dogma. I didn’t need God anymore. I was intelligent, confident and mature enough to live without the security blanket of religion and its theological account of human life and the universe.

Accordingly, I renounced religion and embraced reason, science and an ethics based on love and compassion. I concluded: we don’t need God to tell us what is right and wrong. We humans are quite capable of figuring it out for ourselves. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is proof of this. It’s not God-given dogma and intolerance, but a fine example of high moral values, without religion. Bravo!

Why the faithful need secularism

Jeremy Rodell discusses the meaning of ‘secularism,’ among other things. Note: this article first appeared on Sarah Ager’s Interfaith Ramadan blog.

Hundreds rally for the March for a Secular Europe

Hundreds rally for the March for a Secular Europe

What is Secularism?

Let’s start with what secularism means to secularists.

The British Humanist Association (BHA) defines secularism as ‘the principle that, in a plural, open society where people follow many different religious and non-religious ways of life, the communal institutions that we share (and together pay for) should provide a neutral public space where we can all meet on equal terms. State Secularism, where… the state is neutral on matters of religion or belief, guarantees the maximum freedom for all, including religious believers.’

The UK’s National Secular Society (NSS) adds that it’s ‘not about curtailing religious freedoms; it is about ensuring that the freedoms of thought and conscience apply equally to all believers and non-believers alike.’

So a secular state does not mean denying the role of Christianity and other religions – for both good and ill – in history and culture. It does not mean that religious people must forego their principles if they enter public life. Perhaps most important of all, it does not mean a society lacking in values. There’s a fairly clear set of liberal, human values shared by the majority in the UK and most other western countries, including freedom of speech, thought and belief; respect for democracy and the rule of law; equality of gender, age and sexual orientation and the view that fairness and compassion are virtues. Many of these values are enshrined in law.

The BHA and the NSS really ought to know what they’re talking about here. Unfortunately, many people, usually people who are not themselves secularists, use ‘secularism’ interchangeably with ‘atheism’ or ‘Humanism’.  The previous Pope even talked of “militant Secularism”, meaning “militant Atheism” (despite the fact that the weapons used by ‘militants’ like Richard Dawkins are writing books and giving lectures, not planting bombs). But you can be religious and secularist. In fact the unequivocally Muslim, anti-Islamist campaigner, Maajid Nawaz, has just become an Honorary Associate of the NSS.

The reason for this confusion is that western countries have only become secular – to varying degrees – after many centuries in which the Church was a major power in society and there were constraints on freedom of thought and expression. Much of that power has been eroded since the Enlightenment, but battles are still going on. For example, 26 unelected bishops remain sitting as of right in the British Parliament, and many state-funded schools can discriminate in their admissions simply on the basis of parental belief. It’s no surprise that the protagonists in these battles are usually churches on one side, and humanists and other atheists on the other. If you’re on the side of the churches, it probably feels that secularism and atheism are the same thing – The Enemy.

That’s a mistake. Not only does it ignore the common ground between Christians and humanists, but it focusses on loss of religious privilege and influence, ignoring the fact that Secularism also guarantees freedom of religion and belief, and the freedom of thought and expression that goes with it. That’s important, given the realities of faith and belief in much of the modern world.

Growth of pluralism

According to the 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey, 51% of the British population are now “Nones” – people who do not consider themselves as belonging to any religion. It was 31% in 1983. Only 16% are now Anglicans, the Established Church (40% in 1983), 12% non-denominational Christians, such as African Pentecostal (3% in 1983), 9% Catholics (10% in 1983) and 5% Muslims (0.6% in 1983), with Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Buddhists and other types of Christians making up most of the balance (all under 2%). Within each of these groups there is a lot of diversity: at least 10 different sects comprise the 5% Muslims, and the 0.5% British Jews range from ultra-Orthodox to Liberal. So we’re seeing both a big decline in religiosity and an increase in pluralism. It’s hard to imagine a more plural global city than London.

In many non-western countries, the inter-connectedness of the modern world, and wider awareness of differing beliefs – including Atheism – is also tending to increase pluralism, or at least the desire for pluralism. At the same time, it is increasingly under threat, often because of war and the active spread of an intolerant Wahhabi strain of Islam.

Secularism versus oppression

Secularism is as necessary to protect believers from other believers as it is to protect atheists.

You can currently be put to death simply for the ‘crime’ of atheism in 13 countries, according to the International Humanist andEthical Union’s 2013 Freedom of Thought Report. Saudi Arabia has now passed a law declaring atheists to be terrorists. In Mosul, in northern Iraq, there has been a Christian community for around 1600 years. In 2003 there were 70,000 Christians living there. Now ISIS have taken over and they have all fled. In Burma the government seems to be doing little or nothing to stop extremist nationalist Buddhist groups from massacring Rohinga Muslims. In Pakistan there’s growing evidence of ethnic cleansing of Shia Muslims by Sunni terrorist groups – the word ‘genocide’ is appearing – and it is illegal for Ahmadiyya Muslims to claim to be Muslim. Often they are simply killed. In Malaysia, Christians have been legally forbidden to use the word “Allah” to refer to God, even though they have been doing so for hundreds of years. In Iran there is institutionalised persecution of Baha’is .

Sadly, there are many other examples where the response to pluralism is oppression. Often it’s entwined with political power, driven by fear of losing power – or simply of change – and lack of confidence that the favoured belief will succeed in a plural environment.

Secularism is the alternative response to pluralism. Ideally it’s complemented by the type of mature democracy that avoids “winner takes all” outcomes such as we saw in Egypt under President Morsi.

The faithful need secularism because it guarantees their freedom, and in some cases their survival. It is the only alternative to oppression in a fast-changing, inter-connected plural world.

 

Infographic: Is Britain a ‘Christian country’?

Last Monday the British Humanist Association coordinated an open letter, signed by more than 50 public figures, including authors, scientists, broadcasters, campaigners and comedians, who wrote to the Prime Minister to challenge his statement that Britain was a Christian country.

The story dominated the news agenda for the past week, and today the BHA has released an infographic which compiles statistics on the current state of religious identity, belief, and values in contemporary Britain. You can view the graphic below:

2014 04 28 LW v5 Infographic Christian Country