Disclaimer: all quotes from the AHS Convention are para-phrasings, not direct.
I’ve just been, yesterday, to the National Federation for Atheist, Humanist, and Secular Student Societies‘ conference in Conway Hall, London. The AHS are a group wholly facilitated and supported by the – perhaps more familiar – British Humanist Association, and the day involved many high-profile Humanists giving salient, topical, and often humorous talks to an audience of mainly student society leaders.
The speakers included Jim Al-Khalili, a Physicist, broadcaster, and the new President of the BHA; Robin Ince, a well-known Atheist comedian and co-host of the Infinite Monkey Cage with Brian Cox on Radio 4; Andrew Copson, Chief executive of the BHA; Polly Toynbee, Guardian columnist and former BHA President; and many more notable and inspirational people.
I mention this because, during the Q&A after Polly Toynbee’s talk, a very interesting point was made… A self-identifying ‘Conservative Libertarian’ seemed at pains with the idea that potential Humanists could be put off from identifying with the label because the organisation tends to take left-wing political views on various issues (and it’s leading members are themselves vocally left-wing). According to my memory of it at least, the issue was – in his mind – a misrepresentation of the members of the BHA, as it ‘was not meant to be a political organisation’.
Again, to my memory, Polly made the point in reply that the stance that the BHA takes on certain public ethical issues – such as assisted dying and sexual/reproductive rights – is intrinsically left-wing. Andrew Copson noted too, that (after beginning with ‘Let me say something about the Tories’, which had the hall laughing) while the BHA did have associations with Conservatives, those Tories tended to be the most left-wing of the right – perhaps of the same somewhat paradoxical group of ‘Conservative Libertarians’ as the man who asked the question.
But, what does it mean to be a ‘Conservative Libertarian’? Well, plainly, it tends to mean being conservative politically when it comes to issues of the economy, foreign policy, and homeland security for example, while holding that everyone is entitled to ‘individual liberty’, ‘equal rights’ and ‘equal opportunity’… Which sounds good, in theory. The only problem is that having a very capitalist economic opinion clashes, at least from my perspective, with ideas of ‘equal opportunity’. In a Tory context, I hear ‘individual liberty’ as misleading. It is not necessarily that everyone is entitled to the same basic services (like healthcare or education), it is the idea that people who ‘fail’ (economically) do so of their own accord - not because of outside economic forces beyond their control – and are then ‘free’ to live with the repercussions of their lack of ability/determination to find a job (when there are none), for example.
Or, in other words, hard-line Tories who are somewhat more reasonable when it comes to, say, Gay rights.
Anyway, back to the point. Andrew went on to say that, (again) while there are Conservative Humanists, Conservatives – as ‘a matter of fact’ – tend to be ‘more religious’ than their left-wing colleagues. On top of that, as another ‘matter of fact’, the BHA members’ views (and, I’m assuming, the views of the non-religious as a whole) likely average out to a ‘centre-left’ consensus.
So, ‘perhaps the BHA should have a political view… Including economically’ – said Polly Toynbee. And I agree.
In America, as I have recently discovered, there is a ‘National Atheist Party‘. Being a political party, they have very clear-cut political opinions. On Abortion, they have this to say:
“The NAP… recognizes that pregnancy is a profound physical change and that the ultimate decision to proceed with a pregnancy or to terminate it rests with the individual woman. Government should play no role in deciding such an individual choice. It is our position that legislation inhibiting a woman’s right to choose is based on religious concerns of morality and conception, and does not reflect the scientific community’s consensus of when a fetus can be said to be an independent organism.”
On Gay rights:
“The rights that we extend to our citizens are not dependent upon the majority position of those citizens. In fact, “rights” are designed to protect minority positions from the unfair oppression of their members by the majority. As such, the NAP feels that the time is overdue for the recognition of the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered) community as citizens, with rights protecting them from being targeted by those who disagree with their sexual identity. We call for a Constitutional amendment recognizing the rights of the GLBT, alongside other distinguished characteristics like race, creed, and national origin.
Further, we demand that marriage between consenting adults of any sexual persuasion be legalized and recognized by all fifty states. Civil union should be afforded the same rights and tax advantages as traditional marriage…”
None of this should come as a surprise to readers, as the NAP themselves claim to form these opinions “guided by the values of secular humanism and evidenced-based reasoning”.
So, what do they have to say on the seemingly disconnected issue of economics (the one which I imagine ultimately divides the ‘Conservative Libertarians’ from the rest of the BHA)?
They say this:
“With a cognizance of our national security, an awareness of the scientific community’s research into global climate change, and a desire to create new jobs, we must as a nation bring to a halt our national dependence on fossil fuels and foreign oil. To this end, we call for a “Manhattan Project” or “Apollo program” level of national commitment and research into green energy solutions.
Another drain on our economy, that has so far yielded poor results with no abatement, is the “War on Drugs.” This party recognizes that the criminalization of drug use stems from a position grounded in religion. Free adults should be able to enjoy recreational drugs, provided that they do not abuse them in public or in a destructive manner. Therefore, the NAP advocates decriminalizing the use of drugs and instead find reasonable alternatives of taxation and regulation, creating jobs in the drug sector and eliminating vast drug cartels.
Balancing the budget is important, and finding programs among the Federal departments that can be downsized or eliminated is a difficult task. However, some programs, due to their nature as a lifeline for the disadvantaged, should never be cut. The NAP does not consider programs that contribute to the social welfare of our least wealthy citizens to be eligible programs for elimination...“
So, the position they take is, again, ‘left’. Why is this (if not for ‘evidence-based reasoning’)? Well, accoring to them, the “formal charter and platform” was “determined through a democratic membership vote” – so the opinions the party holds are all determined through the voting of their members.
Overall, it seems, those free from religious ideology – like the members of the BHA – do, ‘as a matter of fact’, tend to lean in a particular political direction: left. That’s not to say that there aren’t right-wing Atheists, it’s just that they’re generally outnumbered.
And that is wholly reasonable, if not expected, to me… So should the BHA, or some other irreligious organisation, form a political party (or outline a clear political position) here in the UK?
I think so.
You can follow the above links to find out, personally, where the NAP stand on other issues such as Gun Control, Tax Reform, and The Environment.
If you were present at the AHS convention, and can provide some corrections to my paraphrasing, please do… (Like Alex Gerald Martin – the inspiration for this very post - has in the comments below. Check it out.)