Meeting with the Humanists: “You don’t have to be a Christian to consider yourself a good person” | Philosophy
When Heidi Nicholl moved to Australia five years ago, she remembers thinking, “Where is he – where is humanism? “
Nicholl, of British origin, had been drawn to humanism, a secular, values-based movement, in her twenties. In her work as a hospital ethicist, she was never far from asking questions about life, death and the reality of human beings.
“The types of decisions hospital ethicists have to make are all about human reality, without the certainly heartwarming idea that a supernatural being would come and fix everything,” says Nicholl, who now heads the newly formed Humanists Australia.
“Knowing that in the UK and America where I had lived there were humanistic communities and societies, I looked around to see what my options were to get involved in something and find people who lead an ethical life based on evidence and values. led. But I couldn’t find anything.
When she went in search of a like-minded community in Australia, she found that it was more common to hear about atheism than humanism. The first, she says, is mostly “saying what you are not” – a person who does not believe in God – while the second is “almost always presented as something and for something.” Nicholl says humanists are not “anti-religion and we are not against religion, we are in fact pro-values, meaning and fulfillment”.
Nicholl herself grew up with religion. As a teenager, she identified “very, very strongly with this charismatic evangelical message of Christianity”.
She had gone to church until she realized there were other ways to spend her free time (and also found a non-religious boyfriend). She was 28 when she got a scholarship for a doctorate in secular bioethics, before working in a hospital. At that point, she knew she was a humanist.
As the leader of the new Humanists Australia, Nicholl hopes to bring the movement to life in his adopted country. The organization is a member of the global umbrella organization for the movement which embraces democracy and ethics, reason and free examination, is not theistic and does not believe in the supernatural. The Melbourne-based charity was launched last December.
It comes as the number of Australians who say they have no faith increased to almost a third in the last census in 2016. A recent study found that seven in 10 Australians (71%) say religion is not personally important.
Humanism is nothing new to Australia, however. the Council of Australian Humanist Societies was founded in 1965. But Humanism Australia marks the first time that there is a national humanist organization for individuals to join, which focuses on their support, says Nicholl.
In his First days the Humanist Society of NSW had 770 members, and its town hall meetings drew crowds of 200 or more.
“The outrage over the Vietnam War was one of the main drivers of the large membership,” recalls Victor Bien, who joined the Queensland branch in 1968 when he “de-converted from the United States. ‘Anglican Christian Evangelism’.
“Other issues that prompted people to join were abortion and the call for law reform, civil liberties, euthanasia, and religious indoctrination in public schools.
Australian society was very conservative back then, and the many distinct interest groups we have today had yet to emerge, says Bien. Once they did, the number of humanist members decreased.
Nicholl hopes to provide a vehicle that can give representation to those who subscribe to secularism in Australia, to create a more inclusive space.
With another census coming in August, he wants to “build more humanistic communities” by organizing local gatherings through which people can hold discussions or debates, volunteer or participate in activism.
Although humanists have no rituals or rites of passage, they always mark major life changes such as weddings, births and funerals.
“But we choose to do this by referring to the good in humans and sharing time with each other, not celebrating an unknown force in the universe,” says Nicholl.
Collin Acton did not grow up in a religious home, so he had little understanding of the faith when he joined the Navy in 1979. A personal crisis in his twenties led him to church. Being deployed to the Middle East in 2012 “took me away from any notion of a lovable or loving God to see it as a human construct,” he says.
When the former director general of the naval chaplaincy attempted to introduce the first non-religious “maritime spiritual welfare officers”, he encountered high-level resistance from a government committee made up of chiefs. religious civilians and chaplains of the ADF. It still shaped his opinions.
“I went from being a moderate humanist when I started in this role to becoming a deeply convinced and committed humanist when my term ended,” Acton says.
The committee, he said, “fought tooth and nail” against attempts to modernize the navy. Acton was “absolutely stunned” by the pushback from the religious advisory committee to services and a number of religious chaplains.
“The Navy never sought to remove religion from the ADF – it was always about giving the workforce a choice when seeking pastoral support,” he said, adding that more than half of naval personnel are no longer associated with religion.
As a humanist celebrant for 26 years, Sally Cant was inspired by her atheist father and humanist grandmother four decades ago to seek an alternative to faith.
“I don’t know if she would have been involved in some type of humanist movement, but I remember having a conversation with (my grandmother) saying that I found her the nicest person I have ever had. met, and she said, “Look, it’s not difficult,” Cant said.
“She was definitely non-religious but had a very strong interest in human well-being and was very clear that you didn’t have to be a Christian to think of yourself as a good person.”
Cant, based in St Leonards on the Bellarine Peninsula in Victoria, has organized around 2,500 wedding ceremonies and set up The Celebrants’ Training College.
“I had seen so many religious weddings where religion was just thrown down your throat, especially from the Catholic Church where they require you to do pre-marriage education and wanted to bring a humanistic perspective to society in the ceremony and make sure I listen to people’s values very carefully, ”she said.
There has been an increase in the number of civilian celebrants, including humanist officiants, from around 1,200 in 1995 when Cant started, to just under 10,000 today.
“People want choices – and they were above religious dogma – and wanted to be true to themselves. They were looking for something that had substance, meaning and dignity, ”she says.
Des Cahill, Emeritus Professor of Intercultural Studies at RMIT University and Chair of Religions for Peace Australia, argues that these can be found in faith.
“It’s not against the humanist point of view, but often I think they don’t appreciate the positive functions of religion,” he says.
Studies have also shown that religious people volunteer more than non-religious, Cahill says.
“Religious communities inspire and maintain human dignity, offer – and we certainly saw this during Covid-19 – partial comfort, hope and healing as well as moral wisdom”, adds he, noting that religious groups such as Hindu and Sikh groups distributed thousands of free hot meals during the pandemic.
But some, like Nicholl, were “quite traumatized by the fact that Jesus pushed me so, so hard, so often” by family and society in general. It was only recently that she realized the anguish she endured.
“I just want my rights to be respected – for people to accept that I am a thoughtful, kind, intelligent person who does not believe in divine revelation and that I can make my own thoughtful path in the world without believing in their God, Nicholl said.