Am I Really a Humanist?

A few days ago I received an unexpected note from a man who had previously self identified himself to me as a Bible literalist, accusing me of rejecting the truth of the Bible in the writing on my website and strongly implying I was so “humanistic” that I had no right to offer any form of ministry. From the tone of his angry note I gathered that he would be happy with nothing less than I conform to the “every word inspired” formula of belief.

Although humanism is generally accepted to mean (cf Wikipedia) “….. a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers critical thinking and evidence (rationalism, empiricism) over established doctrine or faith (fideism) “… and although I place a high value on critical thinking, evidence and the value of human beings, I would have thought the numerous sermons based on Bible passages on this site (one for each Sunday of the three year lectionary cycle) and the numerous articles in which I seek to find ways of clarifying my own thinking about the Christian faith show (at least to me) that I place a high value particularly on the teachings of Christ and what they might mean for modern human societies. In other words I do not ignore established doctrine or faith even if I often fall very short of the ideals I find in the words of inspiration.

One place I suspect I do differ with my accuser is that I don’t automatically accept that all the Bible instructions still apply to a changed society. For example since I assume my accuser is a Baptist, I am quite comfortable that there are some Baptist churches where despite Paul’s clear instructions, women have been allowed to speak in Church and even help lead worship. Paul accepted slavery, yet even most fundamentalists do not accept slavery as an inevitable part of modern society.

My accuser says my preaching would not be acceptable to Baptists. I fear he is right for some Baptists, yet I happen to know that one or two Baptist ministers are regular supporters of my web site. I might even go so far as to suggest some Baptist preaching would not be acceptable to some Methodists, some Roman Catholics, some Anglicans, some Orthodox Christians etc etc We all travel different roads because we all have different life experiences and different faith histories.

My accuser is horrified that I am much less fundamentalist than he, and it follows that he cannot accept my views on the Bible. Although I quite understand we have different views on the Bible I would have thought that does not automatically mean I never read the Bible, or for that matter respect and value many of its insights. Certainly I also happen to disagree with some of the more extremist Christian views throughout history. For example I am horrified that the Bible was used to identify and burn witches, to justify the slaughter of the Crusades, to launch numerous attacks on the Jews, and even more recently used as a partial justification for invading Iraq.

For my accuser, “believing in the Bible” means accepting that it is the word of God in its entirety. What I am less certain about is how that certainty works out in practice. To take one small example “Thou shall not kill” is a clear commandment in several places in the Bible. Is it important to believe God said it – or rather is it more important to take the instruction and act on it? Eg must my Bible believing Baptist accuser be a pacifist and a peacemaker when the nation goes to war.

Jesus said: “Love your neighbour as yourself”. Should our emphasis be on believing he said those exact words and be admired for his wisdom or should this love of neighbour play out in the everyday life for his followers. I understand that prior to the sixteenth century the word “believe” meant to “Be love”. In other words a statement which is believed is one loved so much that it becomes part of us and affects the way we live. Perhaps there is a case for getting back to this meaning. For me believing in the Bible means attempting to find how what it is saying might help me edge towards a more compassionate attitude to my fellows, and a more responsible attitude to what I think of as God’s creation.

Because others start at different points I do not assume that others will necessarily agree. Comments are welcome.

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2 Responses to Am I Really a Humanist?

  1. Barry says:

    I have been accused of being a Christian (in a pejorative sense) by atheists, and an atheist (in a pejorative sense) by Christians. I have also had other Christians and atheists claim I hold similar beliefs as they do. I don’t claim to be Christian or atheist. In fact I’m comfortable enough to leave the labelling to others. I feel most at home amongst Quakers, which of course does little to identify what I actually believe.

    In the definition of humanism you emphasised over established doctrine or faith, which of course begs the question whose established doctrine or faith?. But more importantly, surely anyone who has the ability to think, will vary in some degree from others of the same faith. If this wasn’t true, we’d still be burning witches, owning slaves, and perhaps all be on a crusade to kill the infidel. Holding blindly to a set of rules/dogma is, in my view, not a position from which we can grow.

    I like your understanding of believe. The word has come to hold several subtle variations of holding something to be true, and from a religious point of view, I think you have hit the nail on the head. I think many Bible literalists confuse their uses of believe. For example I can believe in the theory of evolution and I can also believe that God is Love. The former describes what I accept as the most likely explanation of how life developed on Earth, while the latter describes how I try to live my life.

    In some ways it’s similar to what many Quakers mean when they say that to them faith is a verb. In other words, it’s not what you believe (faith as a noun), but how you you believe (faith as a verb) – what you do as a consequence of what you believe.

  2. peddiebill says:

    Thanks for these comments Barry. You open up some interesting points. I particularly liked the Quaker view of “faith as a verb” and the literalist confusion about the use of the word “believe”.

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