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Human solutions for human problems

Sixth in a series on Vancouverites who are SBNR — spiritual but not religious

Every Sunday morning at 10:30, a cluster of like-spirited people file into the senior centre at Oakridge. To the untrained eye, it might look like the people — older and whiter, on average, than the general population — are gathering for a church service. They are decidedly not.

This is the meeting of the B.C. Humanist Association (BCHA). While not all humanists are atheists, most are, according to Sue Hughson, immediate past-president of the organization. The Sunday morning meetings are a matter of convenience, she says — lots of people are free at that time — and the purpose is obvious.

“That’s about community,” she says. “That’s what religion does really well. That’s something people are looking for.”

For generations, Vancouverites have found community through involvement in a church or other religious organization. Smaller and smaller proportions of us now do. Many people explore alternative ways to find community. These humanists bond over their shared lack of religion and devotion to a few core principles.

Hughson, a veterinarian who lives in East Van, says humanism goes back as far as the Greek thinkers though the modern movement stems from the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. Her philosophy is neatly summed up as “human solutions for human problems” or, as the American Humanist Association puts it, a “rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by art and motivated by compassion.”

It’s a pretty thinky group. Since they don’t tend to sing or pray, they have to do something, so talking about ideas is central. They bring in speakers like Armin Navabi, a former Muslim from Iran and the founder of Atheist Republic, Eugenie Scott, one the foremost voices against the teaching of creationism in U.S. public schools, and Richard Carrier, a proponent of the “Christ myth theory.”

The BCHA dabbles in some areas conventionally left to clergy. They have two chaplains at Kwantlen College, though they lack the resources to expand this program. Hughson herself recently led a God-free funeral service for a centenarian member of the association and they would like to get into humanist marriage ceremonies. To perform marriages in B.C., you need to be either a clergyperson or a marriage commissioner, and the province has yet to recognize humanist officiants under the clergy category.

“We’re still looking at getting government officials to even come to have a dialogue about this,” she says. “No, we’re not a religion, but freedom of religion also means freedom from religion and let’s look at us as secular community leaders.”

But doesn’t abandoning religion equal abandoning ritual along with it? Hughson says emphatically no.

“I would say that the opposite is true. It leaves us room to make new ritual and I also think it gives us room to keep what’s culturally relevant,” says Hughson, who left her role as BCHA president to devote more time to her new position on the board of Dying with Dignity Canada.

For example, maintaining ancient traditions even after abandoning the theology that underpins them is a learning opportunity. Who doesn’t like returning to a celebration like Christmas or Passover, with familiar traditions and songs?

“But also to say,” she adds, “What about these prayers, what do they mean? What’s relevant in the way we live our lives today? What’s good about it? What’s bad about it?”

Raised in a nominally Christian home in the Maritimes, Hughson read the ancient Greek myths alongside Bible stories to her children when they were younger.

“I don’t think anyone in Western culture can consider themselves educated if they don’t know this basis, the basis of all our literature,” she says. “You can look at it and say, these are interesting stories. What do you think of these as stories? But you also need to know that for many, many people in our culture, they will look at these books and say, these are our reason to die or to [base our] life on and we are able to say to our children, we don’t subscribe to that. What do you think?”

While she wishes for a world free of “old supernatural belief systems,” she often finds common cause with people who subscribe to them. In her community involvements, Hughson works closely with people who are devoted believers, she says, and while they sometimes laugh about “this whole Jesus thing” or other differences, she finds commonalities in other places, like the (now court-ordained) right to physician-assisted death.

And, of course, just because they share humanism doesn’t mean the Sunday morning meetings are filled with ideological harmony. Their group is getting more diverse, younger and attracting a wider ethnic mix. And it’s growing — a fact that reflects opinion polls that indicate British Columbians are among the least religiously affiliated people in Canada.

This weekend, Hughson and hundreds of others will participate in a major conference of atheist scholars and thinkers here in Vancouver, called Imagine No Religion. The event features such prominent figures as Richard Dawkins, a deity of the New Atheist movement.

If you thought of skipping church to attend, you’re late for this bandwagon. The conference is sold out and the wait list is closed.