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Angela Tilby: Humanists have their dogmas, too

03 September 2021

YouTube/Harvard University

Greg Epstein, a humanist, who is to be the new head chaplain at Harvard University

Greg Epstein, a humanist, who is to be the new head chaplain at Harvard University

HARVARD UNIVERSITY has recently announced that its new head chaplain is to be a humanist: Greg Epstein, author of the book Good without God: What a billion nonreligious people do believe. He will manage chaplains from 40 different faith communities, although he himself is an atheist.

Humanist chaplaincies might seem an attractive option in a society concerned with diversity and inclusivity. There is, perhaps, an unexamined assumption that humanists are somehow neutral, and are, therefore, ideally placed to arbitrate between different belief systems. There are humanist chaplains in prisons, in universities, and in the NHS.

There is, of course, a Christian humanism, which is an orthodox expression of Christian faith. And even non-religious humanism could be said to have Christian roots, having evolved out of radical Protestant Nonconformity. The Conway Hall (South Place) Ethical Society was one of the first groups to assert “good without God”, tracing its foundation back to 1787.

And I get that. As we drift from God, we keep something of the Christian ethic. I once accidentally attended a humanist funeral. (I was due to officiate at a funeral in an unfamiliar crematorium, and I sneaked in to see how the mechanics worked.) I was impressed. After announcing that humanists did not believe in an afterlife, the celebrant conducted the service beautifully. She gave space to those who might wish to pray; she reminded us that nature is a cycle of living and dying. It was all very fitting.

It made me realise that what distinguishes a Christian funeral is something jarring: the undesired trumpet call of resurrection. It’s fine just dissolving into nature — we can accept it as our fate, like the fate of everything else in this passing world. But Christianity does not fulfil our expectations.

Christianity is a dogmatic faith. Its ethics are based not on the inherent goodness of the human person, but on the grace of God. The early Christians received the Creed at baptism as a gift and a blessing, because it liberated them not only of sin, but from fate. They were no longer controlled by the natural cycle of living and dying, or by the stars or the gods. That jarring resurrection note blasts away what seems natural and rational, making us question everything that we take for granted, including our capacity for goodness.

It is a mistake to think that “Good without God” is a neutral creed, acceptable to everyone. Atheism is a dogma as much as belief. It is just a very successful dogma for a materialist world in which failure and suffering are an embarrassment. It is interesting that the armed forces have so far resisted the pressure for humanist chaplains. Perhaps where men and women are risking their lives for their country, they need something more than belief in human goodness and a resigned acquiescence to fate.

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