Humanism: The alternative to religion
Myrtle Ewing's life centres around her husband, children and grandchildren, her garden and her voluntary work. A passing stranger might take her for a pillar of her local church. But, though married in church and having had her children baptised, Myrtle, from Belfast, found a new philosophy in the middle age - Humanism. She is a celebrant at non-religious weddings and funerals and tells Jane Bell what this way of life and thinking means to her.
Published 27/04/2005 | 00:00
What, in a nutshell, is Humanism?
What, in a nutshell, is Humanism?
It's an alternative life stance for those who choose to live without religion. There's nothing new about Humanism - it's an ancient concept with origins dating back to the ancient Greeks and Confucius in China. Fundamentally, this life and this world are all we have. The acceptance of this fact enhances life. You devalue life if you think there's something better somewhere else. This isn't a rehearsal for the afterlife. This is it. I suppose 'caring atheists' would be a shorthand; people searching for something they will embrace as their truth. We're a 'broad church', if you'll pardon the pun. The fundamentals of modern Humanism are laid out in the Amsterdam Declaration 2002, adopted at the World Humanist Congress in the Netherlands.
Was religion part of your upbringing?
I was born and bred in Northern Ireland and, like most people of that generation here, was brought up in a church-attending home. I was raised in the Methodist tradition. I was married in church and had my children Christened in church.
So what changed?
When I was about 40, I was sitting in church one Sunday morning and I thought: 'I don't believe a word of this.' Religion was something I'd had from my mother's milk and never questioned. Partly, with the death of my parents, I'd started thinking more deeply, as we all do. It's a big watershed in your life. I found myself really questioning: 'Is there a life after death?'; 'Is there a God?' I became more and more convinced that there wasn't. I had always been a healthy sceptic. I'm a very practical person. I prefer knowledge to belief. For belief you have to suspend knowledge.
Are you anti-religion?
I'm not vehemently anti-religion. We must respect others and their sincerely held beliefs. I recognise that there are those for whom religion brings comfort, people who face great troubles and couldn't get through it without religious belief. But it's not for me.
Does Humanism encompass a 'moral code' concerning our relationship with others? Or is it all about the self?
Humanists would say: 'I have to take responsibility for my own life and for others.' No, it's not a selfish thing. Humanists are aware of the wider society and our role in it. To me, all religion is based on guilt or fear. You are made to feel guilty because you are here at all - you are 'born in sin.' And you are made to feel fearful about the hereafter. But with Humanism, there's no guilt or fear, no carrot or stick.
It's about doing that which is most beneficial to humanity and the environment, being aware that our time is very brief and that we share it with all living things. And to tolerate difference and sincerely held views - whether of religion, race, sexual orientation or class.
The best morality is that which shows concern for our fellow human beings. It doesn't require cant or creed. I see Humanist morality as superior to religious morality. We do what's right because it's right not because there's a carrot and a stick.
You are a celebrant at Humanist weddings and funerals. Did you undertake training?
It's an intrinsic part of the human psyche to celebrate rites of passage, even in primitive societies. The British Humanist Association accept that there's a great need among people without religion to have these ceremonies. They have a training programme for celebrants and I did that seven years ago. We have wedding, funeral and baby naming ceremonies. There's myself - I'm retired - and another Humanist, a man who works full-time, who do this work. But I'm concerned not to create a demand that we can't fulfill.
Is a Humanist wedding a legal ceremony or more a celebration?
Humanist celebrants have no authority to conduct the legal ceremony. This is usually performed earlier in a Registry Office. My son Mark's wedding was the first that I was celebrant at and it made it all the more special.
Is there much demand for Humanist funerals?
There is an increasing demand for non-religious funeral ceremonies, where people have chosen to live without religion. The funeral is essentially a tribute to the person who has died. Humanism is about celebrating life, whether it's new life at birth, commitment at marriage or part of a funeral ceremony.
How do you prepare?
I would get maybe 48 hours notice. I put everything on hold and go and see the family and talk to them to put together a pen portrait of the person who has died for a tribute that is meaningful and appropriate.
This person lived a unique life and made a unique contribution. It should be a joyous occasion.
Not everyone at a funeral will be of like mind. How do you accommodate those attending who are religious?
The ceremony will have been discussed with the immediate family and is in accordance with the deceased's wishes and the way they lived their life. Yes, sometimes there is dissent from other individuals.
I've had religious tracts thrust at me afterwards. At the moment of commital everyone is asked to stand for a moment of silent tribute or prayer as they feel appropriate.
Have your thought about your own death and funeral?
Yes. I'm 63. I might have a few years left, I might have 20 years ahead of me. We are all life-limited. It's the beginning of life to appreciate that it's limited. Your only immortality is the influence you will leave behind - for good or ill. So make it good! There is no fear of the hereafter.
We will return to the state of non-existence that was before our birth. What's scary about that? At the funeral ceremony there would be poems or readings, music - maybe some trad jazz.
As a gardener, I know that after cremation I will make very good quality bone meal. I want to be trowelled - not scattered - into my garden. My son-in-law tells me there's no point in wasting me in my garden - I can go in his!
You laugh a lot. Is a sense of humour important to you?
Absolutely. I have three wonderful little grandaughters, the children of my son Mark and his wife, and my daughter Fiona, and her husband. If there were one life gift I could bestow on a child it would be a sense of humour.
Do Humanists gather for meetings or discussions?
In Northern Ireland there are two groups. Humani - or the Humanist Association of Northern Ireland - which I belong to, and the Belfast Humanist Group. We have monthly meetings.
Two groups. A schism already?
There were two groups even when I joined. I don't know why. One of our number, when asked about that, said: 'Don't regret that there are two groups. Just regret there aren't more.' There's also the Humanist Association of Ireland in Dublin. We all get together once a year for a conference in Carlingford. We swap news and look at the societies in which we live. There's a growing secularism in Southern Ireland but secularism isn't necessarily Humanism - it's maybe more materialism.
Being from Northern Ireland are you ever asked: 'But are you a Protestant Humanist or a Catholic Humanist?'
How could it be Northern Ireland without somebody asking you that? I don't think there's anybody in Ireland who has not been brought up in some sort of religious influence. By and large, you're Roman Catholic or Protestant at the point of birth, but life leads us all in different ways. Humanists are an eclectic mix. We would want to be as diverse as possible. Humanists appreciate difference, whereas the religious fear difference. We all have a common humanity. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell said: 'Remember your humanity - forget the rest.'
All this reference to philosophers and thinking - and the websites are full of it - makes Humanism sound like a path for the intellectual elite. Is it?
I'm not an intellectual. But you have to be a thinking person. There are those who can get through life with a handed-down belief system and they never question it. When I started questioning, I found Humanism was the answer for me. But it's not for everybody. Sadly, our group is largely middle aged and middle class. The Belfast group maybe has more young people.
Is Humanism just another religion, all be it a godless one?
No, though some may see it that way. As one man put it to me: 'Why make a religion out of not having one?' I replied: 'It's not a religion, it's a life stance.' He replied: 'It sounds like a religion to me.' Well, that's his opinion. I'm the happiest woman. My children said to me: 'Humanism has made a new woman out of you.'
It's funny - people tend to have pre-conceived notions about what a Humanist even looks like. All beads and sandals and New Age thinking. And then they meet me - a dumpy little granny!
Do you ever get together with religious people?
Last year our group got together with Muslims, Jews and Christians to look at morality and we had a very lively discussion. I thought wasn't that amazing - where else in Belfast would you get Muslims, Jews, Christians and the godless sitting down together for a respectful debate? But someone I mentioned this to said to me: 'That's very interesting but I'm in the biggest group of all - the Indifferentists. We're only interested in football, shopping and soap operas and you can keep the rest.' I find Humanism a wonderful philosophy which has enhanced my happiness but it's not for me to say, 'You should walk in my light.' I don't want to become a Humanist Holy Joe!
Is charity part of Humanist philosophy?
It should be, just as it should be part of Christianity. We should be concerned with the wider world. I support Oxfam and the Hospice and work two days a week for the Citizens' Advice Bureau (CAB). But I don't think we have to justify ourselves by good works. We have a right to be here. And I believe strongly in personal responsibility. I've been with the CAB 12 years. I've met so many people demanding their rights. I've yet to meet somebody demanding their responsibilities.
If, as you hold, Humanism is older and more universal than Christianity, why aren't you better organised? Does Humanism need leaders?
No, we don't need figureheads - we are all free-thinkers. In terms of focus, it can be a bit like nailing jelly to the ceiling. But, as I say, we're not evangelical, we don't hand out tracts. Free-thinking taken to extremes is anarchy. To avoid anarchy we have a moral code which says: yes, think for yourself, but remember you are only one member of society and you have to interact with others.
Can you conceive of any personal crisis that might lead you to prayer and God?
I've been there. And it didn't. Ten years ago my husband, Sidney, was awaiting open heart surgery. I was alone in London. I walked through the hospital grounds and thought that if I ever needed religion, it was then.
Then it came to me - just hope the surgeon doing the operation knows what he's about and he hasn't just had a row with his wife! I knew then there would never be a time when I'd have to reach for some deity. I was completely convinced. I can't envisage a situation that would shatter my disbelief.
÷For further information go to www.nireland.humanists.net