Do we get offended or join?

As a Humanist, I often get trapped between wanting a more secular world while also wanting to promote my worldview. It’s a dilemma over how best to deal with religious privilege.

While it may be intellectually honest to oppose religious privilege at every instance, in many cases the easier and potentially more successful (in terms of gaining widespread acceptance of Humanist values) route is to co-opt some of the privileges afforded to the religious for our own purposes.

One example of this dilemma comes in the discussions over performing Humanist marriages.

In British Columbia, marriages are either performed by “religious organizations” or by civic marriage commissioners. The commissioners are hired by the province and have a couple contractual lines of text that must be forced into every ceremony. Clergy must register with the province but there are no obvious restrictions on their ceremonies.

We generally scoff at the notion that Humanism is a religion or that the BCHA should be considered a religious organization. On the other hand, we see value in marriages, even secular ones (I myself was married by Lorrie Williams, BCHA member and marriage commissioner), and realized the difficulty and slow timeline in lobbying for a change to the BC Marriage Act.

In the end, we decided to hold our noses while checking the religious organization box on the form, in order to reap some of the privilege that is bestowed upon the religious. This is not unprecedented in Humanism, as Humanist Canada (in Ontario), the Ontario Humanist Society, The Humanist Society of the USA, and various Ethical Culture societies have all pursued similar paths to gain this right.

The same debate comes around when we discuss interfaith events, which bring a number of speakers together representing different religious traditions. Humanists and atheists are sometimes invited (and sometimes we force our way in) but many are still uncomfortable with the idea of considering Humanism (much less atheism) as a faith.

The current dilemma in my mind is the discovery of the Fraser Health Spiritual Care program which “provides spiritual and religious support to patients and families within programs such as End of Life and Residential as well as at our Acute Care sites in the region.” Basically, depending which side of the bed I wake up on, I have two minds about this program and what I would advocate Humanists to do about it.

If I give in to my New Atheist leanings, I would decry this egregious violation of church and state. What business is it of the public health system to be giving space to these peddlers of false hope. This is made worse by the fact that people are at their most vulnerable in these situations. We should clearly rally and protest this entire system.

Alternatively, I have my New Humanism (via Greg Epstein) side, where I recognize the opportunity for Humanists to provide an alternative to these false prophets. I think we need to recognize the psychological and emotional (not spiritual, that word is meaningless) needs of people facing their own mortality and further view this as a chance not to promote our own ideology, but to provide some comfort to those who know that their life may end sooner than they wish and that there will be no afterlife. This is where I see a chance for Humanist Officiants and Chaplains to reach out and to provide a service.

I think this entire debate, for me, comes down to an inconvenient secular puritanism versus chances to reach out to people who just want to live a good life (with or without god). The cultural definition of religion seems to be quite a bit looser than what the New Atheists choose to fight against (which is primarily unfounded supernaturalism)and may properly include Humanism (since it already includes Unitarian Universalism and often Buddhism). In many cases (taxes, charity law, etc.) it seems like it would just be easier to give in and adopt the religious language rather than fighting a system over semantics.

I guess a final way to consider this dilemma is looking at two alternatives to ending religious privilege. The first involves trying to undo it, destroy it, and remove any advantage religion is given. The alternative is to open up the definition so wide as to render it nearly meaningless. Traditional religions would no longer hold their privilege were anyone allowed to join the club. The former option is long, difficult, and potentially unwinnable (especially with an apathetic public) while the latter can be considered intellectual cowardice or selling out.

I am not attempting to advocate for either course of action here. I think good arguments can be made for and against both approaches and I find myself flipping back and forth between the two. Often the solution, like with the confrontation-accommodation debate, lies in rejecting the false dichotomy and seeing the shades of grey.

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