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Humanists should not be dismissed

01 January 2016

I WONDER whether 2016 is going to be the year in which humanism will replace the Church of England as the quasi-established religion of the UK. Humanism, as I have noted before, has a Christian history, and even in its present secular form shares much with Christianity.

For some years now, though, active humanists have been on a mission. They are moving into the space that the Church of England appears to be vacating, and bidding to become the moderators of a common spirituality and set of values, the neutral zone through which competing religious groups must negotiate for a chance to be heard.

Membership of the British Humanist Association is actually very small. But those who claim that humanism is the new common ground are doing something that the Church of England has often done: claiming a much wider allegiance for their views than those who actually sign up to them.

We should not be too surprised that the humanists have stolen this strategy from us. It goes along with their success at promoting humanist funerals and their long-term aim of becoming a strong voice on religious education and on the BBC.

It would also be foolish to pretend that they are not good at what they do. I attended a humanist funeral some years ago, and it was beautifully and sensitively conducted, and inclusive — those who wished to pray in silence were given “permission” to do so.

Historically speaking, British humanists grew from the Freethinkers at the radical end of Nonconformity. Rejecting their Christian roots, they see themselves most typically as ethically minded rationalists. They are not quite as secular as all-out secularists, but they certainly present themselves as morally and intellectually superior to those who still believe and worship.

They are convinced that their gospel of goodwill to all without God simply is the neutral ground, the safe space in British religious life. The claim is clearly a plausible one to many. And we cannot afford to be too dismissive about it.

The C of E is now too dominated by Evangelicals; and a weakness of Evangelicalism is that it cannot cope with rejection. The Lord’s Prayer cinema ad was a classic example of an own goal, revealing the Church as “bewildered” (read: hurt and cross) that cinemas had turned down its expensive offering (News, 27 November).

The débâcle will have confirmed many in the view that the C of E is now a minority faith that has lost confidence in its history, culture, and tradition. No wonder humanists appear wiser, more sophisticated, and inclusive, even though their ultimate aim is to persuade us that we would be better off without God.

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