The title is a signature expression from the TV series “Mission Impossible,” but every time I read an op-ed by Andrew Brown I think of it. There is something peculiar about Andrew Brown, something ephemeral, something that seems likely simply to self-destruct once you have read it. Whether it is the shallowness or the smugness, or, sometimes, just the sheer, unrehearsed lunacy of what he writes, what he says often seems to be expendable, even throw-away language, something like the individual ice-cream containers from which you used to eat with a wooden spoon and then throw in the garbage. His latest op-ed — or whatever his evanescent attempts at profundity are called — is perhaps the acme of this kind of irrelevance, but it is something he never tires of. Whether he is himself religious or not, it is yet another attempt to show that any alternative to religion is a religion too, and so essentially incoherent. Does he not read his stuff over again, just to make sure that it makes sense, before he sends it out naked into the world? He entitles it “Humanism is an impossible dream,” but then goes on in what is perhaps the most extended digression that he has ever indulged, and really doesn’t get to the point at all. As I have said before, it’s time the Grauniad (did you know that grauniad.co.uk directs you to the Guardian?) gave him a golden handshake and let him retire to the Home Counties, where he will still be close enough to the centres of power he conceives himself to be influencing, but not close enough to continue to embarrass himself and his newspaper.
The British Humanist Association (BHA) is the national charity representing and supporting the non-religious and campaigning for an end to religious privilege and discrimination based on religion or belief. It exists to support and represent people who seek to live good and responsible lives without religious or superstitious beliefs.
Brown (God love him!) thinks that this is not a coherent idea. He suggests — contrary to Paul Wallace, who thinks that atheists are altogether too optimistic — that a programme defined in this way makes itself “dependent on what you are not.” It’s a bit like saying that the religious believers in a god are dependent on those who claim that there is not one. Saying that the BHA represents people who live responsibly without religious beliefs, says nothing at all that is dependent on those beliefs. But there are believers and unbelievers. Believers have possessed, for almost the entirety of history, special and privileged access to the corridors of power, something about which Brown cannot be completely oblivious. And yet that is how it seems. Unbelievers do need someone to represent them, for the religious have so many powerful voices that it is hard for the message of unbelief to be heard above the cacophony of competing religious voices.
And that’s the next thing. Historically, I suppose, it was true. Secular humanism (or humanism for short) had framed itself largely in opposition to Christian believing (though this, of course, simply ignores the ex-Muslims, the champions of freethought in India who stand against the madnesses of Hindu superstitions, such as Meera Nanda — does Brown not read anything other than his own columns?!). Not Christendom, as Brown suggests, because Christendom was long a memory by the time humanism began to make an imprint on the public mind, an imprint so shallow that it is still scarcely noticed by most religious believers, who consider disbelief an entirely marginal affair. Listen to religious believers talk, and you’ll soon see that they don’t even consider the phenomenon of unbelief — or at least that used to be true, before the new atheism began to make a splash in the public media. Maybe only a little splash, but big enough so that people like Brown believe it is obligatory upon them to mention it in some way at every opportunity that befalls them — like this one.
Who would have thought, a generation ago, that the press in most developed nations would have become so entangled in the discussion of disbelief, in the endeavour to cut the nerve of its success? And yet that is what has happened. Scarcely a day goes by when someone, like the intellectually lightweight Brown, does not tell us how ridiculous, impossible or simply obtuse unbelievers are. The funny thing is that Brown hasn’t noticed that humanism had long ago slipped the leading strings of religion, and is not dependent for its own self-understanding on the quicksilver movements of the religions trying to find a few hand-holds on the cliff of modernity to keep it from falling to its demise.
Contrary, however, to what Brown seems to imagine, humanism (as well other forms of disbelief that do not subscribe to the programme of humanism) does not need to redefine itself every time “the definition of ‘religion’ or ‘superstition’ shifts.” Humanism does not define itself over against religion. Indeed, disbelief has been so successful lately, that religion, even the big religions like Roman Catholicism, have been placed on the defensive, and are beginning to define themselves over against disbelief, and specifically against the new atheism. (Now there’s a transformation that Brown seems to have missed!) Indeed, so general has this tendency become, that religion has been hard put to it to oppose disbelief, and, in some cases, has so defined itself that it becomes scarcely distinguishable from disbelief itself. How many religionists lately have begun to stress the lack of importance of belief to religion, and the importance, indeed, the centrality of practice (like Karen Armstrong, who compares religious “believing” to riding a bicycle)? The creeds and the holy texts of the religions, we are being led to think, really do not define religion at all, and no one, or practically no one, aside from the fundamentalists — and they are simply anomalous, because modern attempts to find a way of expressing themselves that has been foisted on them by science — put believing at the centre of the religious enterprise.
However, not being deterred by the facts, Brown goes so far as to say that
[t]he humanism that the BHA stands for is quite clearly defined in opposition to Christendom.
And he goes on to say that
[b]y “Christendom”, I mean the idea that the normative and proper state of society is Christian.
And then he goes on, further, to suggest that the main Christian denominations are now “all painfully aware of their status as largely decorative.” Who on earth does he think he is kidding?! Do decorations act in such obstreperous ways as the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Pope? The supposition that such overdressed and privileged men actually think of themselves as baubles on the fringes of a secular society would be laughable if Brown had not taken the trouble to express it. No, they do not think of themselves in this way. They are doubtless aware of their loss of centrality to the main undertakings of their societies. That’s why they keep trying to find ways to inject themselves, by fair means or foul, back into the mainstream of society where decisions are made. But to suggest for one moment that they are aware of their status as decorative, as though they recognise their sole purpose as dressing up public occasions such as the coronation of monarchs or marrying and burying their self-excommunicated members, is to ignore the public statements that they make, and their assurance that without them and the structures of religious meaning built up over thousands of years society would simply crumble into a rabble of self-seeking opportunists.
In any event, the BHA statement to which Brown refers is directed against the ritual slaughter of animals which has nothing whatever to do with the Christendom against which he unaccountably thinks that humanism is defined. Brown, however, doesn’t miss a step, because he thinks that the contemporary understanding of religion is so different from the religion that had for so long been a foil to humanism that humanism now exists in a kind of ideological void. Religion has become so different from the norms to which humanism refers, that humanism can now be rendered anomalous in contemporary society by the very cultural expressions to which it purports to stand in opposition. Religion now refers, according to Brown, to communities which are defined by scientists in terms of — here quoting from Robert Bellah –
the stories and practices that individuals and societies use to explain and create their relation to each other and their meaning in the world.
And so, we are to understand, religion and humanism are very much in the same boat, but, more seriously than that, if we do define religion in this way, the problem is that if we were to
eliminate religion, in this wider definition, [we would] eliminate all social bonds.
At this point, you will notice, Brown backtracks, because he is aware that societies where religion has largely disappeared as a social force, as in the Scandinavian countries, still have lots of social capital to keep them flourishing as societies. So, instead of suggesting that the success of atheism and humanism in society will result in a crumbling of the social fabric, he suggests that
atheism, or post-Christianity, can itself become a myth by which society understands and constitutes itself.
But then what has become of the impossibility of the “humanist dream”? For the “myths” that would be required in the kinds of post-Christian or post-religious societies defined in this way would not be myths of supernatural beings and their intervention in the human world, but merely accounts of what it is to be human in an immanent, human world, where what we have to consider are not the desires or wills of beings who are and cannot be comprehended by the human mind, and cannot even be known to exist, but the needs of human beings as purely natural beings, and products of evolution, as we are. If this is myth, it is very different from the myths that the religious are in the process (at least in some cases) of emptying of transcendent significance. But is it not, after all, just a misunderstanding to speak of myth in this way? Myths are by definition, about other-worldly or at least superhuman beings, and what will be left, after humanism has done its work, will be the human world, and is this really such an impossible dream? Brown has in fact shown that his basic premise is simply false, and by this means has swallowed his tail! It’s a wondeful example, as my title suggests, of a self-destructing message. It may have taken more than five seconds, but he manages it in the time it takes you to read the column.