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Time to state humanist values

04 December 2015

President François Hollande led a tribute last Friday to those who died in the Paris massacres. It was a very secular affair. In his address, the President spoke of the French love of life, and promised, in response to the terrorists, more songs, concerts, shows, and sports.

The note of defiance was powerful and moving, but it left me longing for someone to say something about why the values and ideals of our near neighbour are precious — and, yes, vastly superior to those espoused by IS and other extremist terror groups.

It often seems that Europeans are nervous about owning their heritage of humanism. This is not humanism as an anti-religious movement, but one that draws deeply on the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It also goes back to Greek philosophy, especially Stoicism, and evolved in a more secular direction through the European enlightenment.

Humanism, as one might expect, values the humanity of each person, and holds to the Golden Rule. It is an expression of what Christians see as the image of God in every person, and its ethics echo the Sermon on the Mount, although they are also found elsewhere. Humanism treasures freedom of expression. It expects everyone to play a part in the creation of a fair society. It affirms religious freedom, and is tolerant of religious difference.

To list these things is to make clear the unbridgeable divide between the values of the terrorists and those of Europe in particular, and the West in general. Yet these values, widely shared by religious believers and unbelievers alike, are rarely stated, affirmed, and defended.

President Hollande’s address seemed to suggest that love of life means being chiefly interested in concerts and sport. If this were true, it would reduce us to being nothing more than pleasure-seekers, confident in our affluence; selfish and self-satisfied. This, of course, is exactly what those drawn to IS believe.

Christians have other qualities to add to the humanism that we share with others. First would be an understanding of sacrifice. Defeating evil is costly, and we must be prepared to pay the price, taking risks for the sake of freedom, and being ready to live with less.

Next would be the power of forgiveness. We must love our enemies, and forgive as we hope to be forgiven. Finally, there is the hope of eternal life. However dreadful the outrages perpetrated against us, this life is not all there is. We have been given the unconquerable hope of the resurrection; and much is required of those to whom much is given.


The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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