In my capacity as a Humanist Chaplain and Executive and Trustee of the Devon Faith and Belief Forum I gave the following addresses during Interfaith Week 2020:
Address at the Devon Faith and Belief Forum event ‘Sharing Faith and Belief Perspectives on Racism and Prejudice’ on Tuesday 10th November 2020
Humanism asserts that every human being has equal worth and dignity, not because of what they believe, where they were born or which community they belong to but simply by virtue of their humanity. We are all part of the same species and the same long story going back about 300,000 years to a common ancestor in Africa. We therefore have a shared history, a shared identity and a shared experience of everything it means to be human. Humanists have always sought to cultivate this sense of kinship and empathy.
Like all species, we are also part of an even longer story going back 3.7 billion years to the beginning of life on earth, and so kinship and empathy should also extend to life beyond humanity, albeit in a different way. Humans, and indeed all life forms are connected, ever more so in a globalised world, and so we are all dependent on one another. We need each other as much as we ever did to survive and flourish.
Humanists have a long history of campaigning for racial justice and equality. Indeed, along with movements to extend the franchise to women and the working classes, abolition was one of the great causes of the 19th Century, which brought progressive minded people together; people who saw that the universal values underpinning abolition needed to be forever defended; people who went on to found the humanist ethical societies. Humanists organised the first global races congress in 1911, which was an early effort at anti-racism. They campaigned against colonialism in the early twentieth century, and campaigned for laws against racial discrimination from the mid-twentieth century onwards.
Leading Humanists like Eleanor Roosevelt sought to ground the Humanist sense of kinship and empathy in universal human rights, and the rights they developed have proven to be the best way to create peaceful societies. As a long-standing friend of the humanist run New York Society for Ethical Culture and a speaker at many of its meetings, Roosevelt fully supported its summer youth program, the Encampment for Citizenship, which was very ahead of its time with its empowerment of both black and white youth who attended together. Martin Luther King also spoke there. Eleanor Roosevelt was instrumental in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was based on these humanist ideals, and which was presented to the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948.
Humanist organisations and movements have long been very diverse. Black people who have shaped modern Humanism, for example, include James Baldwin, Zadie Smith, Richard Wright, Lorraine Hansberry, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Zora Neale Hurston and Wole Soyinka. The current Vice-President of Humanists UK is of course Jim Al-Khalili and many other people of colour are patrons and leaders of Humanist groups around the world.Humanists have always been champions of universal human rights and human flourishing, and to this day, an important part of this is our condemnation of racism and racial discrimination in all its forms. We remain as committed as ever to campaigning for racial equality across all aspects of society.
Address at the Devon Faith and Belief Forum ‘Universal Peace Prayers’ event on Sunday 8th November 2020
Rather than engaging in prayer to a deity or deities, many Humanists participate regularly in a variety of reflective practices. We reflect on our thoughts, feelings and actions, and on our values, aspirations and ideals. As well as using our own faculties of reason and empathy, we use readings from across literature, meditation techniques, and experiences of nature and the arts to guide and inspire us. As we reflect, we cultivate awareness and compassion for others; other humans, other animals and indeed all living things.
For a Humanist, public reflection and ceremony is a time to strengthen shared values. Events like this promote cooperation and build community. They create a time and a space for the whole community to reflect, learn and grow. We need to come together often to remember the lessons of the past, to consider the perspectives of others, to nurture empathy for those far and near and to encourage a variety of activities to address need and alleviate suffering.
Peace is an especially important subject for public reflection, since few of us can survive and none of us can truly flourish where there is hostility and warfare. We are all connected in a globalised world, and thus we are all dependent on one another. When one suffers, we all suffer, when one thrives, we all thrive.
A quotation from The Oslo Declaration on Peace, made at the 2011 World Humanist Congress…
“Peace is more than just the absence of war. Peace requires respect for the worth and dignity of our fellow human beings, tolerance among individuals and harmony within each person. It also requires global justice in place of global inequalities, not least the elimination of hunger and thirst in a world that produces plenty.”
And finally, a quotation from one of my favourite Humanists, the diplomat and human right activist, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was instrumental in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and presenting it to the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948:
“It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.”