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 Alain de Botton - towards a new Humanism? 
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Alain de Botton has, sort of, raised a matter, though mainly concerning atheism in his case, that has been in my mind for the last 30 or 40 years - the role of Humanism and its place in society. He was on R4 this am

I came to the conclusion a long time ago that the religions had some aspects that were not necessarily allied to the supernatural but were supportive of its members. Churches, a local place of common purpose, is one such thing - somewhere that you will know you are among those of a common mind(ish). The sense of "community", that exists more on this forum than any other I have looked at on line, is important.

There are not many dedicated Humanists around, no group in Gloucester and the Cheltenham one looks more like an ego trip for the bloke that formed it. Apart from that they do not answer emails other than to send one a programme of events and a link to their web site; not even that the first time I contacted them.

A de B has written a book it seems, know nothing about it except that which was on Radio 4 this am and this.

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January 28th, 2012, 1:41 pm
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Religions do indeed offer more to their followers than just a set of supernatural beliefs. But what they offer – community, ceremonies, a sense of common purpose, a way of organising good works, whatever - are not things that rise uniquely out of religion. There seems to be an assumption in some quarters that only the established religions can provide them. But we shouldn’t indulge in a form of ‘religion envy’. Instead, if we see shortcomings in our societies, we should address them directly, basing our responses on our understanding of common human needs and values (which is where religion has taken them from) rather than borrow them second hand and somewhat stained by misuse


January 28th, 2012, 4:36 pm
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not things that rise uniquely out of religion
Have to agree with you there, Stark, however it is a case that the religious have "preserved" these things whereas the bulk of society has lost them. Hate it though I might I have to agree with the politicians and the religious leaders on this count. When Maggie said that there was, "no such thing as society," she was in some ways correct. We will ignore that fact that she did her damnedest to divide society into "them and us" and her legacy is still with us!

We have lost a lot of the sense of community that even I remember from the 50s, I hardly ever speak to my neighbours (but I have to say that we all take in parcels for each other, give lifts or help in other ways when there is a real need - so not all so bad then. The Polish couple next to me are the most standoffish of the lot, despite overtures of friendship!)

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January 28th, 2012, 5:26 pm
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Yes, you’re right; religion has preserved some desirable features now missing from a wider society that has largely abandoned any significant affiliation to faith. But is that a reason to praise religion and hanker after some of its values? I’m not so sure, though probably because I fear if we do we may inadvertently endorse some of its less attractive characteristics. More preferable, in my opinion is to start afresh and, for instance, try to rebuild a sense of community in ways that don’t assume we must all share a common belief system. Quite how, though, is another question entirely...


January 28th, 2012, 6:45 pm
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I think you are in danger of defeating your own argument, Stark! :wink:

We agree that the religious "preserved" these estimable social qualities, that are not really "theirs" but part of the human races' "survival kit", then you doubt that we should "praise" religion and be envious of them. The confusing factor is that, to a large degree, they have it and we do not - at least not on the same scale of numbers. I would also add that, in my experience, there are also many anti-social types in the churches as well!

OK, do we want those good social qualities to spread? Is it untrue to say that if we were to establish "temples of man" of some sort we would be stealing from the church? Yes we would in some ways. But if another has something that you want it does not mean that you condone everything about them because of it. Called "cherry picking" I believe, but still acceptable providing you "pick" a sincere and valid system and accept the responsibilities that implies.

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January 28th, 2012, 6:57 pm
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If you subtract the supernatural, I wonder whether there are any bits of the culture subsumed by religion which are not available elsewhere in a secular context.

Births, marriages and deaths can be marked by humanist ceremonies. Holidays are celebrated in secular ways by many. A sense of community can be found by joining any number of shared interest groups (photography instead of worship, for example). Humanism provides an ethical foundation. Science provides an understanding of the world. The arts are mostly secular.

What are the things atheists are supposed to be missing out on? Alain de Botton clearly thinks we need temples. :shrug:

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January 28th, 2012, 7:37 pm
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The last thing we need is a Humanist temple I'd have thought :headbang: A Humanist crematorium would be good if only to turn the tables on religion: "The Happy Human is immoveable, and there is no physical way it can be covered up" :D

I do think there is a community issue though. When I self identified as a Humanist in my late teens I didn't join anything or specifically meet any other Humanists, and although I was aware of some atheists it was not a polite topic of conversation in my English CofE middle class mid last century upbringing. I didn't join a Humanist organisation until I became a Celebrant and have made some wonderful friends. Later the interweb helped hugely, as Dave recognised. A young person now only has to access the internet to reach folk all over the connected world...

An HSS member has come up with an interesting idea. Instead of having a virtual office in Glasgow we should invest in buying a ruralish property, where all meetings can be held and folk can stay over, encompassing an office, library and the space for individuals/families/groups to stay, offering courses introductory weekends etc. I'd rather like to see a load of these dotted around the UK... We are surely past the days when an organisation needs a city address to be reputable. To my mind this sort of investment makes a load more sense than having yet another grandiose space in an expensive city confusing folk all the more as to whether humanism is a religion.


January 28th, 2012, 9:49 pm
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You have points, skepticle, in that there are all kinds of secular activity that we can indulge in, but little that draws communities - in the sense of people who live fairly close to each other - together for mutual support. This forum certainly does help, we all know that we can seek a little help, in public or via PM, for things that are bothering us and none of the constant members will think badly of us for expressing that need. It is a human thing that all need at some time in their lives.

There is a chance that not all church communities offer better support, it is the vicar who really forms the character of the community. We do have a strength there in that we have no one "leader" but manage to offer considered mutual support - that is in some ways better.

Perhaps the old argument about whether or not Humanists have a "spiritual" side comes into A de B's ideas. Atheists hate the word "spiritual" defining it as a part of the supernatural. But it also gets used as a sort of shorthand to encompass those emotional aspects of human nature that are not so easy to tag with the usual words. "Esprit de corps" comes to mind, the uniting thing, sometimes called group bonding, buddy power etc, that ties a group who have a common aim and value system together in a way too complex to explain in ordinary words. Trouble is if you have never experienced it, in the armed forces, as part of a rescue team or an well knitted expedition group, you cannot really understand it. When it works you will risk your life to save your mates from danger.

Fia, like the idea of the secular centre a lot. I believe that there are secular retreats but something that is more community orientated, aimed at communication and joined experience sounds better to me.

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January 29th, 2012, 12:02 am
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I quite like the idea of secular humanist community centres (for want of a better term), but I do wonder what a humanist community would get together *for* - not questioning the obvious value we get from a community, but what the activity would be at the centre of the community.

Religious communities gather regularly for ceremonies which combine activities such as worship, prayer, teaching, meditation, chants and rituals, etc. Secular humanists don't need a lot of this stuff (although discussion of ethics and a spot of quiet reflection would probably fit in quite well with a humanist outlook). Without believing in the supernatural it is harder to buy in to the ritual elements which help to bind such a community.

Perhaps the main thing is simply meeting like-minded people. I'd love it if I could pop into my local humanists' club for a quiet drink and chat about ethics and science of an evening.

Not sure about spirituality. As far as I can tell, spirituality is an emotion you can induce by contemplating amazing things or taking certain drugs. Humanists could probably spend some of their time feeling spiritual. I suppose they could do it in a special building.

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January 29th, 2012, 1:59 pm
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Some churches also have "families" where mutual support for everyday problems is also discussed. Call it "self-help" in a way but it can be a chance to possibly resolve dilemmas about ethics in schooling, shopping, banking etc., shared experience can be very valuable. Simply getting together with the like minded is a feature of this forum, some members meet up, I hope to be able to make it to one this year! Talking face to face is often better than over the Internet.

Apart from that it's difficult to share a a drink or four through the computer! Fia, would this get-togerthery have a licence?

I agree that the feelings we have for anything are a emotions and are, basically, electro-chemical changes in the brain and endocrine system caused by external stimuli - but . . . Perhaps it is the smidgeon of artist in me that wants to embrace those feelings as something more than physics and chemistry, something greater. The concept of the "spirit of man (or woman)", rather than the supernatural kind, has a concrete foundation and origin but also an abstract quality in our minds. The "mind" has so far dodged any real definition or analysis.

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January 29th, 2012, 2:20 pm
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Dave B wrote:
I think you are in danger of defeating your own argument, Stark! :wink:


See? That’s what happens when you throw a few words together in a rush before shooting off to do something else. Fortunately skepticle and Fia have made the points I was trying to get over.


Finding a way of forming communities without some common belief or widespread shared activity is never going to be easy. With today’s diverse society I’m not even sure it’s possible.

Probably the nearest thing we have to form a bond amongst what would otherwise be strangers, now church-going has fallen out of favour, is football. As has been said many times, going to watch the local team play can become the nearest thing to a ritual it’s possible to find outside religion. But even then not everyone is a fan. For humanists and atheists, I’m afraid just not enough people are interested and want to get actively involved for us to form our own communities, at least not of any size.


January 29th, 2012, 2:54 pm
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For humanists and atheists, I’m afraid just not enough people are interested . . .
I think that is almost certainly the determining factor, stark.

Many group things require a degree of commonality that borders almost on dependency (I am sure I have heard/seen a mention of a paper/book/article on this recently.) Is there a case to say that most people who are dedicated atheists, who made a conscious decision to follow that path are often also fairly self reliant* and/or individualistic? There are many atheists (I know some) who just sort of grew into that category and would feel surprised if I were to call them that. Some seem to still equate atheism with some sort of anarchy, immorality etc. whilst being atheists because they are not interested in God or the supernatural. Hmm, some that I know are fatalists as well in the, "No good praying, if it is going to happen it is going to happen, there is no God to appeal to!" sense.

Yeah, not quite as difficult as herding cats but close . . .

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January 29th, 2012, 4:16 pm
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Hello, I am new to this forum. I have found this thread stimulating and thoughtful. May I ask you to consider the value of the notion of proximity humanism? To me you seem to be making points which can easily be expressed by this concept in that it entails a non-organisational (with all of the machinery and baggage that such organisations carry with them) as well as a small community and personalized approach to humanism. Coupled with another aspect that seems to follow on from this is the concept of moral proximity, a much larger idea perhaps but somehow arising from the accounts given in this thread concerning relationships with neighbours, helping out and the like. Does this make sense?


February 20th, 2012, 8:52 am
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Welcome, phalarope. I hope you enjoy participation in our friendly forum. We have an Introductions thread here. Why not tell us a little about yourself?

I'm interested in the concept of Proximity Humanism. I have searched for it and found nothing, but Moral Proximity comes up on lots of religious websites. Perhaps you could expand a bit on what you mean by Proximity Humanism.

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February 20th, 2012, 9:39 am
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Yes, greetings, phalarope.

I too was interested in the idea and tried searching on "proximal humanism" since Lewis found little under "Proximity . . ."

Go to Google books, search for the title, "Humanism after colonialism" then go to page 300 of that book and the second complete paragraph. Further reading required.

In fact search the whole book for "humanism", there are some interesting ideas and references there! Don't bother looking for the book on Amazon unless you have £47 to spare!

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February 20th, 2012, 10:48 am
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Thanks Lewist and Dave. What I am trying to account for by the use of the term proximity humanism is a kind of personalisation of humanist relationships that narrows the scope of connection between two or more humanists to a smaller community in terms of location, preferably face-to-face (does this raise problems about this online happening?) and familiarity. My way of elaborating on this might be by way of thinking about organisations, larger experiences, controlled or designed functionally, that bring other factors into play that vitiate the proximity of the personal. Personalization would have to come first for me in order to help my humanism to make meaning of things in terms of otherness, of human nearness, with all its quirks and gaps that happens in one-to-one conversation. I'm not against humanist organisations per se, but they tend in my experience to introduce formalisms and distance by virtue and necessity of their functioning and their structures.

There's nothing new in all this as I feel sure you know, however my coinage could be a neologism in respect of how we think about what humanism is, or ought to be. For example, if humanism is based on proximity, would this guarantee a type of solidarity or Hume's 'sympathy' that large, or small, organisations cannot deliver? And is this what humanism is really about, the sort of community closeness speculated in many of the postings to this thread? Is this proximity about micro-humanism, coffee morning secularism, a kind of emulation of xian church mornings and house visits?

The small is beautiful cliche could be what I am using here and this could also denigrate larger humanist structures when such overarching patterns are necessary (but not sufficient?). :smile:


February 20th, 2012, 12:27 pm
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Hmm, I am having problems getting my head round your "proximity humanism" phalarope!

In my understanding the "ideal" humanist accepts responsibility (within the scope of the possible) to and for all other humans. I try to practice this in terms of driving well, respecting the needs of others . . . This is really no more than the conscious exercise of "manners" in the main, but it may go beyond that to deliberate actions to assist people I may never meet in the future.

I cannot reconcile humanism (as I see it) and any form of exclusivity or restriction to a small, intimate, group.

Or have I misunderstood?

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February 20th, 2012, 4:00 pm
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Thanks Dave for helping me out on this. What you argue makes sense to me too and perhaps I am on the wrong lines here. I have just finished reading through the empathy thread elsewhere in this forum and especially liked the post of August 3rd by animist where he talks (sic) about physical proximity and personalised communication. Looking back over what I have posted I think that maybe what I am getting at is that personal feelings (your driving considerately example is good here) are an example of moral thinking that entails yourself as subject within the specific context of your immediate environment and that of others, a context that by definition is localised awareness with rule-governed behaviour. In the Empathy thread I also picked up on the part about borders and the changes thereon of feelings about the group, the nation, and the self. Location, both as a physical construct and a mental thing, seems to bear down on the notion of time and place. If the time and place is your part and position within a corporation, e.g; a large NHS hospital, say as a nurse, and your nurse's empathy for your patient(s) is a given in order to do your job humanely (humanistic nursing?), then what happens when the role of complex technical devices, say in an ITU, might seem to place the less-technologically trained nurse in one locus, such as the low touch wards of geriatric and general nursing, and the high tech ITU or surgery in another? Devices do the caring in one place, humans in the other.

I may be straying off the point here but in terms of proximity humanism (as with my earlier post), the effect of a larger context and division of labour, so to say, can dehumanise, if not exploit nurses and their emotional labour, whereas within the same hospital (do I contradict myself?) the relatively device-lessness of the location of high touching of the patient speaks a lot about the empathy that is involved. I am not overlooking the notorious events of neglect of the elderly in hospitals and care homes (what about care homes as more intimately defined locii of proximity?), but in terms of humanistic nursing isn't there a case to be made for small scale within the larger setting?

Please forgive if I have been talking past you Dave. I am groping about here and am aware of the mish mash of what I am saying.


February 20th, 2012, 4:46 pm
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I am well aware of the phenomena of, "talking past"! I find it too easy to start a reply on a specific subject then develop the theme well beyond the point where I should pass the staff on to the other for their response!

Not sure about your hospital care analogy, phalarope. As I see it machines (as yet . . .) do not "care" for the patient any more than computers "think". They are ideal for monitoring the patient to an extent that people never could (unless we employed thousands of times more nurses!) It still takes a human to make decisions on treatment.

Yes this is getting on the edge of things - though if all employers ran their companies on Humanist lines they might get better responses from their staff!

Hmm, the effect of physical limits, of any kind, on how we respond to others? The expression, "them and us," antithetical in humanism perhaps, came to mind. We are bound to respond more often and, perhaps, in a deeper way to those who are "close" to us, either genetically/emotionally (family/friends) or physically (neighbours/colleagues). These may get specifically tailored responses from us, "personal attention". For those more "remote" it is a more of a case of offering a set of standard "habitual" responses in my case.

So, yes, proximity may modify the response type and depth but does that affect basic model of the humanism on has in one's mind?

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February 20th, 2012, 5:28 pm
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