At times Humanism can find itself in an odd place. It rarely suffers the vilification that atheism often endures, but it rarely benefits from the ardent devotion that religion can induce. It is most often met with polite puzzlement, with most people being faintly aware of the term or the things that humanists say but not knowing what it is at its core.
Humanism is difficult to define or characterise, with its distrust of overly zealous conscription to dogma. Instead it promotes free thought, individualism and rationality. This does not mean there are no core characteristics of humanist thinking (a number have just been alluded to). Part of the fun in setting up a Humanist society is in finding this out.
I was somewhat hesitant when my friend Hari Parekh, the new societies coordinator for the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (and an inexhaustible source of support for our fledgling society), suggested to me about setting up a society. I had set one up at my previous university and it can be a lot of work. I was also unsure what use such a society would be. Would it really be helping anyone? I decided to put some feelers out to people I had met at Queen’s to see if there would be any interest. The responses I got left me with no doubt that such a society was absolutely needed.
It is clear that there is a desire at Queens University for a society that encourages free thought and discussion, which encourages inter-faith dialogue, and which actively seeks to challenge prejudice and discrimination towards certain groups in society. I received a large amount of responses from a single email and a couple of Facebook posts not only expressing interest in joining such a society, but also of confirmations that such a movement was sorely needed on campus. With Christian thinkers enjoying well-established networks and prestigious buildings, those who aren’t followers of Christ have comparatively little available to them.
It would be arrogant in the extreme to suggest that our fledgling society could make a decisive impact on sectarianism in Belfast, so we do not currently aim to. What I think we can reasonably hope for is, in the very localised and moderate setting of Queens, to play a part in starting a conversation, a conversation that draws people out from the thick walls of the chaplaincy (and the even thicker walls of individual echo chambers – which we all, whatever our beliefs, have) and into a space of inter-faith dialogue. It is the hope of our society that this can begin to lead us towards a place where students feel more comfortable questioning and refining their beliefs, and in being more accepting of those that have differing opinions. Thinkers of all sorts can come together to create an inclusive and vibrant community at Queen’s.
For me, at least, Humanism is a belief, and is all the stronger for it. It is a belief in humanity: not in what we are, but in what we can be. It is a belief in the wonder of the human mind, and the power in collective human effort. It prizes ingenuity, rationality and exploration. At its best it seeks to enhance and encourage all that is best in us. Any religious folk who think this sets us against their faith should probably consider what this says about their faith. For the rest: let’s join together and see what we can achieve with constructive dialogue, free expression, and collective effort.