Author Archive for James Croft

08
Jun
10

AHA Conference Day 2 – Art & Religion & Science & Reason – Zelda Gatuskin

A session on the final day of the conference, this one was close to my heart. I am an artist myself, having sung in choirs for around fifteen years, and performed on stage in over fifty productions. I love to recite poetry and prose, and derive some of my greatest pleasure from theatre, film, and music. I studied ballet as a child, and have recently taken up dancing classes again. I studied Drama and Education as an undergraduate while teaching Shakespeare in prisons around Britain, then taught English Literature and Drama as a High School teacher, before receiving my Master’s degree in Arts in Education here at Harvard. And now, I’m studying my doctorate, preparing to write a dissertation on how the arts promote human development. In short, the arts have been central to my personal and professional life for many, many years.

Perhaps because of this personal involvement, I feel that the role of the arts in modern Humanism has been deeply undervalued – indeed I explored this in my first article for The New Humanism. Generally, in nonreligious circles, science is given more weight and attention than the arts and this, I think, has somewhat unbalanced Humanism. Therefore, I was excited to see this presentation advertised in the program, and made sure to attend.

In general, I felt Gatuskin made a well-argued presentation that covered many of the central points: too often the arts are marginalized in Humanist discoursed due to the focus on science, and particularly due to the mistaken idea that, while the sciences are rational and of cognitive value, the arts are emotive and cannot help us develop our understanding. Further, NAME pointed out that the arts are often associated with religion (much great art takes religious subjects or was inspired by religious texts, after all), and that this has further undermined their place in the Humanist movement.

As far as this goes, this is a valuable analysis, one I agree with wholeheartedly. What I thought to be missing was a consideration of what strategies we might use to better integrate the arts into the Humanist movement: the problem was powerfully articulated, but the solution was almost completely absent.

It seems to me that any attempt to integrate the arts robustly into the Humanist movement must address at least the following three challenges: first, the parlous state of the arts in US public schools; second, the development of Humanist artistic rituals to accompany significant moments in life; and third, the recovery and reinvigoration of a truly Humanist artistic tradition. None of these challenges will be easy to solve: in these times of economic hardship, the arts are facing ruthless cuts in classrooms and communities; some Humanists are extraordinarily ritual-averse, even to the extent of a seeming allergy to communal singing of any kind; and the idea of creating “Humanist art” is controversial even within the nonreligious community.

Nonetheless, here are some ideas. Securing the place of the arts in schools will depend on our ability to take control of the discussion around educational ends, and argue in favor of an expanded concept of the purpose of education which is not only broader than meeting scores in standardized tests, but is broader than preparing students to be successful in a 21st Century economy. If we can convince parents (who, of course, are also voters) that their children will be best-served by a full education which introduces them to the great modes of thinking developed by human beings over millennia of civilization, then the role of the arts will seem obvious. If we keep playing catch-up, trying to argue that the arts can fulfill the goals of education established by others, then the arts will struggle to hang on to even the precarious position they now cling to.

In order to increase the level of comfort in the Humanist community with artistic ritual, I think it’s best to start by simply developing some, and encouraging people to attend. My experience is that even those who think that they hate the arts can be won over if they actually participate. While working in UK prisons, I met many inmates who thought that theatre wasn’t for them. But after engaging, with others, in that artistic experience, they found value in it, and many, now, wouldn’t give up theatre for the world. I’m not suggesting that every Humanist will immediately become a choirboy after one singalong, but I do feel that simply encouraging people to get involved in communal art making will demonstrate its value to some.

Finally the question of “Humanist Art”. I have two suggestions here. First, let’s reclaim the artistic heritage of humankind for Humanism. Even though much, perhaps most, of the greatest art created across the millennia does take a religious subject or was created as part of a religious tradition, it was all created by human beings. And, from a Humanist perspective, it is a representation of the extraordinary creativity of the human species. Since we reject any concept of true religious “inspiration”, we can happily claim the great religious art as a manifestation of human ability. Second, I do not see any problem with creating artworks which explicitly or implicitly promote Humanist values. Pullman’s His Dark Materials is a perfect example of such a work – not only is it a compelling story, filled with literary references and appealing to children and adults alike, but it also contains a powerful Humanist message. We should not be ashamed of works like this – the arts have always been used as methods to convey a message and to promote a cause, and by refusing to develop Humanist art which does the same for us, we abdicate the field and leave it to the religious, who will certainly make use of art to promote their message.

If we were to take these three steps, I think the Humanist movement would be much more vibrant, inclusive, exciting and beautiful.

08
Jun
10

AHA Conference Day 3 – Critical Thinking in Schools Panel

The final event I attended at the AHA Conference was a panel on the state of critical thinking in American Schools, featuring Brant Abrahamson, Dr. Rodger E. Cryer, Paula Fraser, Hemant Mehta, and Prof. Andy Norman. As I whole I thought the panel did well, presenting some excellent ideas as to how to improve the ability of young children to think critically. One approach which struck me as particularly valuable was asking students to catch the teacher out in argumentative fallacies – this is bound to engage students while teaching them how effective arguments are constructed. Hemant Metha was also a highlight, speaking with passion about his methods of getting students excited about math, and reminding the audience of the power of the new social media to bring teachers into conversation, helping them share resources and improve on each others’ creations.

One standout theme was the importance of encouraging a culture of questioning, both for teachers and for students. If a teacher can present creative questions that require real thought (in contrast with the simplistic questions often found in textbooks), while enabling and encouraging students to ask questions of their own, then it is far more likely that students will develop the skills and dispositions necessary to become critical thinkers.

It was fitting, I think, that the final speaker on the panel should have been Dr. Norman, since his presentation itself applied critical thinking to the topic of the panel, and to the Humanist movement itself. Dr. Norman reminded us that very few people consider themselves deficient when it comes to rationality – it’s always the other person who is irrational – and that Humanists are neither immune to this propensity nor to irrational thinking. This is a particularly important message to a community that frequently considers itself the guardian of rationality, science and critical thinking: we mustn’t develop a blind-spot when it comes to our own thinking.

I think the panel perhaps suffered from three limitations. First, although there was a wealth of practical experience on display, there was little explicit reference to empirical research which supported any of the techniques and suggestions presented. Few areas of human development have received as much attention as the development of critical thinking, so it was a surprise to see little of this research mobilized to support the arguments being made. Second, I didn’t get such a clear sense as to why encouraging critical thinking was particularly urgent now, and why it should be a central plank of the Humanist movement. I believe it is important, and should be a primary goal of our movement, but I felt the argument as to why could have been better made during the panel. Third, one issue which I felt was insufficiently addressed was the question of transfer: lots of educational research demonstrates that people frequently are unable to transfer their ability to solve a problem in one context to solve a similar problem in a different context. Sometimes, even if the fundamental structure of two problems is the same, if the problems are encountered in different contexts, people will find themselves unable to solve the second problem even if they have learnt how to solve the first.

In response to this question, WHO raised the important role of thinking dispositions (as opposed to knowledge or skills) in developing critical thinking. Thinking dispositions, or “habits of mind”, refers to the idea, promoted by some researchers, that to become a critical thinker one must not only know how to think critically, but must care to do so, and be able to identify occasions on which critical thinking is necessary. In other words, we need to develop in young people the ability to find problems, as well as solve them, and help encourage them to get into the habit of thinking critically. Once we recognize that helping students think critically involves more than teaching them a series of skills, but also requires fostering positive motivation to ask questions, and the desire and ability to find problems, we will do a far better job.

08
Jun
10

AHA Conference Day 1 – Secular Student Alliance Session on Growing the Student Movement – August E. Brunsman IV and Jesse Galef

August and Jesse gave a fluent and helpful account of the current state of the Secular Student Alliance (SSA), outlining the success of their experimental program in North California, where a professional organizer was used to massively increase growth of students groups in that area. They also provided sage advice on how to grow student communities, how to deal with difficult transitions of leadership between one year and the next, and how to develop the capacities of young Humanist

The two speakers spoke eloquently about the four prongs of the SSA’s current approach: Activism, Community, Education and Service, but I was left wondering “What about scholarship?” Presumably, this is one of the main reasons young people become students, and yet the potential for the SSA to advance Humanistic scholarship among young thinkers went unmentioned in their presentation. This is particularly important for graduate students, who are often looking for interesting projects to investigate, and reputable journals to submit their work to, and who might be convinced to spend more scholarly effort on Humanism and related topics were they supported in doing so.

To give an example of what I mean, I’m about to head to the Institute for Humane Studies (HIS) for a week-long Seminar called “Scholarship and a Free Society”. The IHS is, essentially, a Libertarian organization which wants smart graduate to become Libertarians too, and then write journal articles, studies and books about Libertarianism. They pay for everything – food, board, the speakers, everything. They will help me with career options, by recommending open faculty positions and keeping me abreast of faculty appointments. In short, they are willing to do a LOT for me, and I am not even a Libertarian!

As far as I know, there are no equivalent organizations that do the same for Humanist scholars. I have not been able to find a single seminar series which invites graduate students to spend a week studying Humanism, even for a modest fee: those organizations which do offer courses in Humanism (some of which were represented at the Conference) tend to charge prices far in excess of what most students can afford, and often do not draw upon well-known and respected academics.

Further, the existing Humanist scholarly publications seem somewhat lackluster and lacking in real intellectual energy and weight. This means that tope young scholars are likely to bypass Humanistic topics for more fertile and exciting intellectual areas. And any movement without a core of top minds leading the charge is unlikely to grow as fast as it otherwise might.

Might the SSA provide something similar, or at least put some resources into furthering Humanist scholarship? In response to my question, August revealed that the SSA has a “secret motto”: “Mobilizing Students for a New Enlightenment”. For some reason, however, this slogan is kept in the background. To my mind, this is an excellent mission, particularly for a certain sector of the graduate community who respect Enlightenment ideas and want to feel part of a movement with real intellectual heft. Imagine the difference in tone that might result among the Humanist Community were this to become the rallying-cry of young Humanists around the USA. It also has the benefit of linking Humanism with a proud tradition of radical thought, allying us with figures like Baron d’Holbach, Hume, Kant, Jefferson, Montesquieu, Locke, Smith and Rousseau.

Further, the concept of “a New Enlightenment” (similar to the Royal Society of Arts’ idea of the “21st Century Enlightenment”) makes clear that the challenge ahead of the Humanist movement is a battle of ideas, as well as a call for political change and a march toward a better, more humane society. Finally, by associating ourselves with one of the great progressive shifts in human history we are reminded that to achieve our goals we need to raise our sights and raise our game. Seems like a win-win to me.

05
Jun
10

Humanist Identity in Action – AHA Conference Day 2

In this panel, moderated by AHA Vice President Becky Hale, we were promised new ideas which would “help propel Humanism to the forefront”, and we got them in spades!

Greg Epstein

The second morning of the conference began with an address from Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard. Epstein spoke about the importance of providing a “positive alternative” to religious communities for those who seek solace, comfort and community without God. He assured us that, in his experience travelling the country, the nonreligious do indeed number 40-50 million Americans, and 1 in 4 young Americans, and he reminded us that Humanists are perhaps the only demographic group which has increased in number in every state of the USA over the past few years.

Epstein further stressed that, as Humanists, our emphasis should be on goodness, not just our lack of religious belief, affirming that we have the basis, in three words, for a movement – we are “Good Without God” – the title of his recent bestselling book.

While travelling the country to promote his book, the most common response Epstein encountered was “how can I get involved in Humanism?” Too often, however, he didn’t know what to say. If there is no real community nearby, nowhere which can provide these budding Humanists’ needs, then it’s hard to know where to suggest these enthusiastic would-be contributors should turn.

Therefore, Epstein reminded us that while we should criticize the theology of religion, we must also remember that religion offers people real benefits, for which we Humanists need to provide positive alternatives.

I know from my experience with the Chaplaincy that Greg Epstein, Sarah Chandonnet and John Figdor are building those alternatives at Harvard. Hundreds of Harvard students have been involved at the HCH as members, and we are lucky to be able to draw thousands of attendees to our events each year.

Even more important, is that Epstein averred, we now have an accredited Humanist training program at Harvard Divinity School, with a course on Humanist Leadership, which will soon be available to any Harvard student, and to students at other nearby universities. This program will provide professionally trained leaders who can spread Humanism around the country.

Finally, Epstein asserted that we can’t accept an attitude which says the world isn’t ready for Humanism – we need to get involved now to make positive change. “This is only the beginning of a movement that will change the world”, he said, “It’s not our responsibility to finish this work, but neither are we free to desist from it”.

Roy Speckhardt

Roy Speckhardt, Executive Director of the American Humanist Association, in a short address outlining the impetus for the Humanist Teacher Corps, urged that Humanists need to be active from the early stages of developing teaching materials, to combat the efforts of religious fundamentalists who wish to influence the school curriculum.

He asserted that there is only one way to bring about lasting change – education – and that the enemy of Humanism is hate, fear and ignorance.

The Humanist Teacher Corps aims to create resources for teachers, parents and students, provide presentations to the public on Humanism and education, and serve as a watchdog, advocating for Humanist curricula and assessing state standards to ensure they meet rigorous secular expectations.

The Corps has already reviewed state standards in four states, and work is continuing apace.

You can get involved here: http://www.americanhumanist.org/What_We_Do/Education_Center/Teacher_Corps.

Todd Stiefel – Visionary Dude

Stiefel, the founder and president of the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, spoke about the “In Their Own Words” Educational Campaign, which he promised was both “interesting and controversial” – a promise amply fulfilled!

He stressed that scripture is the foundation for the moral core of fundamentalists, and that some advocate building the educational curriculum and legal system of the USA on scriptural principles. Therefore, demonstrating the weakness of scripture, and promoting Humanist values instead, was a crucial goal of the Humanist movement.

We need to show, Stiefel argued, how Humanist Values are “mainstream” – “good American Values”, and that, in fact, certain elements of scripture were deeply offensive and immoral.

Therefore, Stiefel has spearheaded and ad-campaign, presenting accurate, in-context quotes from scripture presented with Humanist beliefs to contrast with them, to educate people about the fallibility of scripture and compare it with positive Humanist beliefs. Ads each tackle a particular moral topic, such as “violence”, “hate” etc. Hopefully, these stark contrasts between biblical messages of violence and intolerance, and inclusive, positive messages of Humanism, will encourage people to “Consider Humanism”.

More information is upcoming at the campaign’s website, http://www.considerhumanism.org

David Niose, President of AHA – Humanism and Equal Protection

Dave Niose, President of the AHA, spoke briefly about the importance of strategizing when it comes to filing lawsuits to promote secularism and Humanism, outlining a new strategy which would approach suits, at the state level, on the grounds of Equality and Equal Protection rather than the traditional approach which stressed the Establishment Clause.

Niose argued that, while we have successfully be making our argument using the establishment clause for many years, there are problems with this approach.

First, there is no identity component to such suits – anyone can bring such a suit, even fundamentalist religious individuals, and so it does not distinguish Humanists in any way.

Second, the exact placement of the line between church and state is debatable, and so certain judgments may not go our way.

Third, Equality, and Equal Protection Under the Law are newer, more vital concepts which very few people question today, and therefore might profitably be mobilized in our favor.

Because of this, Niose suggests that it’s time to begin to argue for the rights of nonreligious people on the basis of Equal Protection, rather than the Establishment Clause. Citing the example of the Gay Rights Movement, Niose believes this may be a more effective strategy in the long run.

One example of a case that is being brought as an equal protection issue is how, in Massachusetts, teachers must begin the day by reciting the pledge of allegiance. Almost inevitably, the version of the Pledge recited includes a reference to God, and is therefore alienating for young nonreligious people. Under the new strategy, this discriminatory practice will be challenged on Equal Protection grounds, not Establishment Clause grounds. As Niose stresses, we will be asking saying to the court “we’ve always looked at it this way, but now look at this new way”.

There is no guarantee of success, but Niose is confident that if the case is decided fairly on the basis of the law, we should win, and this discriminatory practice might end.

My Thoughts

Such a packed session raises a slew of thoughts in your correspondent, but I will just put out one idea which I had the chance to raise in the question and answer session:

Do we really want to represent ourselves as an oppressed minority? What does this buy us, and how might it hold us back? If we continue to represent ourselves as a maligned minority, I don’t think we will ever become seen as a powerful force for cultural and civic change in this country. The problem is the passivity of that approach, its reactive nature. I, as a Humanist, want more than equal rights. I want societal change, perhaps on a very large scale. To achieve that we need to move beyond recognizing areas in which we are discriminated against, and get active in our local communities to build Humanist alternatives, as Epstein suggests. And we mustn’t wait until equal rights are achieved to do this – we have to start now.

As Becky Hale inspiringly averred in her final words, as Humanists we are up against religions offering their adherents eternity, and we may sometimes feel we have little of value to offer as a counterpoint. However, Hale says, “we have something better to offer than eternity: We have today.” The fight to make better todays for all Human beings on this planet cannot be simply a fight against fundamentalist principles in schools, against oppressive religious dogma, and against discrimination in law. It must also be a fight for a more just and humane community, society and world.

05
Jun
10

Creationism in Schools – In Support of Questioning

In a packed session at the end of the first day of the AHA Conference, Steve Newton and Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education presented a compelling analysis of the history of Creationism in Schools in the United States, and argued forcefully that Humanists must get involved at all levels to prevent young people falling prey to nonsense taught in the name of science.

As an educator I am fully on board with their project, and think it crucially important. However, I want to stress the value of allowing scientific ideas and theories to be challenged by students and teachers in an appropriate way. Much of the discussion during the session centered around the problematic nature of teaching the “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories. But I suggest that Humanists should support the rigorous examinations of arguments and counter-arguments using scientific evidence, and that support for this idea is central to good science teaching.

There is, perhaps, nothing more scientific than considering the possibility you are wrong, and analyzing the evidence for and against a proposition, and attempting to disprove a theory is the very heart of the scientific method. Young people may well benefit from investigating the weaknesses in current scientific theories, whether evolution or otherwise, and they may entertain some pretty wild ideas when putting those theories to the test.

We mustn’t, in the name of protecting science from religious extremism or pseudoscience, stop students questioning.

04
Jun
10

AHA Conference – LGBT Council Meeting with Jason Frye Kolarik

Jason Frye Kolarik gave an energetic and spirited account of the struggle for LGBT rights and its relationship to Humanism in the morning of the first day of the AHA Annual Conference. Jason reminded us, with countless examples, that the LGBT Movement’s march to equality is not yet over, and that many grotesque inequalities still remain. Humanists, with their positive, naturalistic worldview, have been long-time allies of LGBT Rights, and the LGBT Council of the AHA that Jason is spearheading is hoping to demonstrate this more fully and actively.

Through a focus on building community, activism over specific issues (like the provision of Proms which respect the equal rights of LGBT people), and education, Jason revealed how the LGBT Council hopes to promote LGBT issues within the Humanist Movement, while making the presence of Humanism felt amongst the LGBT movement. Since the AHA has been a staunch support of equality for decades, it seems to me that this is a natural and positive partnership, which Jason made clear today. And my experience of coming out on a Humanist service trip to New Orleans has shown me, in the deepest possible way, how nonjudgmental, open and welcoming communities can make a positive difference in the lives of LGBT Humanists. For these reasons I’m excited by the LGBT Council, and look forward to getting more involved in the future.

09
May
10

What to do with the A-Word?

“No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.” So George Bush Senior is reputed to have said during his electoral campaign in August, 1987. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback megachurch, certainly said the following: “I could not vote for an atheist because an atheist says, ‘I don’t need God,’…They’re saying, ‘I’m totally self-sufficient by [myself].’ And nobody is self-sufficient to be president by themselves. It’s too big a job.”

Comments like these, and the wealth of polls demonstrating that those calling themselves “atheists” are considered undesirable, can lead to some understandable trepidation among Humanists regarding the term. Last Monday (May 3rd), for example, I had the extraordinary pleasure of  speaking with the Concord Area Humanists on the topic of building Humanist communities.

Although I dwelt very little in my presentation on the term “atheist”, many of the questions from the audience which followed probed the extent to which I felt atheism was a necessary requirement for Humanism, and explored whether I felt the use of the term “atheist” might alienate instead of engage people. The argument presented by some attendees was that we might profitably avoid the term “atheist” altogether, speaking instead of “Humanism” without any reference to “atheism”. This might, it was suggested, encourage those scared away by the negative connotations of “atheist” to come forward, and present a less tarnished image of our movement to the public at large.

Respectfully, I must disagree with those who take this position.

First, coming from the UK, where the vast majority of people seem to read absolutely no negative connotations into the word “atheist”, I have seen that it is entirely possible to create a society in which atheism is a respected (rather than reviled) stance.

Second, I think it somewhat naive to assume that if Humanists stop calling themselves “atheists”, those like Warren, who oppose further development of our movement, will refrain from using the term also. Rather, those unsympathetic to our cause will enjoy free-reign when it comes to defining us, and will be able to use the tar-brush of “atheist” against us while we protest lamely.

Third, and most importantly, I consider it unacceptable that there should be such prejudice against a group of people simply due to their lack of believe in a God. The prejudice itself, not the damage that using the term “atheist” might cause to our movement, is the real problem – and this crack in society’s generosity is merely glazed-over if we try to hide from the secular aspects of Humanism.

I am an atheist, and proud to be so. There should be no shame at all in proclaiming this loudly.