Saturday, June 23, 2007

Humanism in 4 minutes

This is the script of a talk given by Margaret Nelson of ‘Suffolk Humanists’ in the UK to Holbrook High School on 23 February 1999.

I’m Margaret, and I’m a Humanist. Humanism isn’t a religion. It’s an approach to life based on reason and our common humanity, the Humanist tradition goes back thousands of years, to great thinkers of ancient Greece, like Protagoras, and Epicurus. But Humanism wasn’t founded by one person, or group of people. It has developed over time. It requires us to think and be open minded. There’s no book of rules, no set way of doing things, no complicated ritual to observe.

Many ordinary people are Humanists. Among better known ones are a number of MPs, actors and writers including Roy Hattersley, Jane Asher, and Stephen Fry (currently presenting Comic Relief programmes on TV), Terry Pratchett and Salman Rushdie, and lots of leading scientists, journalists and other movers and shakers. They’ve stood up and been counted to demonstrate that you don’t need religion to be successful or to benefit society.

So why, you may ask, haven’t we heard much about Humanism before? A lot of people, over half the population, don’t believe in god. More and more, when they hear about Humanism, say, “That’s what I am, I just didn’t know it had a name”. Unlike religions, we don’t go round trying to convert anyone, but I spend a lot of my time pointing out that it’s OK not to believe in god; you don’t have to apologise for it.

I was brought up by religious parents - not exceptionally religious, but they believed in god. When I was about 13 or so I started questioning the things I was taught in church and RE lessons (the syllabus was a lot different then). I read about science - astronomy, the development of life on earth and so on, and started making up my own mind about things. It seemed to me that some of the people I knew who liked to think of themselves as ‘good Christians’ were actually quite mean and miserable. It also became obvious that some people I knew who weren’t at all religious were good, generous, decent people. I realised I was a Humanist.

It’s only in the last ten years that I’ve become an active representative of Humanism, since I developed ME and had to give up full-time work, leaving me free to be a Humanist officiant. This means that I conduct non-religious ceremonies, mainly funerals, but a few weddings and namings too. The need to mark significant events in our lives with rite of passage ceremonies goes back millennia; the religious have no special claim to them.

My funerals contain no hymns, prayers or religious readings. We use appropriate music and poems instead. They’re all different, just as people are different. I talk about life and death, love and loss, memories and influences, family and friends, but mainly I talk about the person who’s died. I’ll conduct a funeral for anyone as long as I’m not expected to include any religion It might seem a strange thing to say, but I enjoy what I do. Sometimes people ask, “Doesn’t it depress you?”, and I say no, or I wouldn’t do it. It gives me satisfaction to help people come to terms with a loss, and to provide some comfort and consolation.

I’m not afraid to die. I won’t know anything about it. It will be like someone switching off a light. I enjoy life, and intend to make the most of it while I can. Being happy depends to a large extent on helping to make other people happy.

I don’t care what other people believe. Lots of my friends are believers, and they accept me as I accept them. It’s how we behave towards each other that counts. We’re all responsible for our own behaviour, and how it affects ourselves, other people, and the world around us. Whatever we believe, we’ve all got to get along together if we’re to be happy. This is what Humanism’s all about.

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