To Be or Not to Be?

When did you first know, or even suspect, that you were a Humanist? With some it starts early. For many, it is a slow and painful adjustment in later life, a gradual recognition that man created his own gods. For me, the seeds of doubt were sown when, growing up in Scotland, I became a nine-year-old altar boy. The summer influx of visitors to our seaside town meant that the milkman needed extra help with deliveries. For the handsome, sorely-needed reward of two shillings and sixpence, I undertook to work seven mornings per week – which meant missing Mass on Sundays.

Summer over, I returned to the fold and humbly revealed my sins. There were times when we had little to confess. My brothers and I sometimes hatched up some beauties on our way to church, but this was serious. I would get, at least, a penance of three Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys. The priest was a good, kind man, no doubt fully aware of the reason for my absence. He spoke in firm tones. This was a Mortal Sin that left an indelible black mark on my soul. I might never be allowed to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The blot on my escutcheon stuck with me. I didn’t brood over it, but it was always there.

I quite enjoyed leading the priest down the aisle, resplendent in his chasuble, while I distributed incense from my freely-swinging thurible. At the back of my mind the thought that persisted was: should I persevere with my rosary beads, plus an occasional Apostles’ Creed, or should I just surrender to the Forces of Darkness? My chances of getting to heaven were a bit slim. I began to give it deeper thought when I was fourteen and living here, in Australia. By that age I was into serious reading. I grew up in a generation of readers. We didn’t have the distractions of radio, television, and computers. A paperback edition of H. G. Wells’s The Short History of the World (non-fiction) started me off on a long pursuit of enlightenment.

Working on Sydney building sites in the 1940s and ’50s, I was always involved in lunch-hour discussions. Perched on carpenters’ stools, timber stacks and wheelbarrows, the languages and topics were a boiling mixture of life experience, coloured with wit and profanity, rather than the philosophies of higher education. Religion was far from being a forbidden subject. It was during one of those noisy, but mainly good-humoured, uproars that I had to admit I had long parted with belief in the supernatural, whether it be fairy stories or folk tales — or religion, which seemed to be a mixture of both.

Among the remarks that I was ‘a bloody heathen’ and an ‘effin’ no-hoper’, it was generously acknowledged that I wasn’t completely devoid of manners and mateship. What was I? Benny, the plumber from Holland, had some answers. He told us of being suddenly recruited to, resist the Second World War invasion of his homeland. He enlisted, went into action, was wounded and was taken prisoner all on the same day. He spent the ensuing years as a prisoner of war. One of his German guards was a studious, friendly soul, too old to be influenced by the Hitler Youth Movement, too tottery to serve in the front line. He willingly helped the prisoner to keep in touch with his family.

Befriended by the enemy and with plenty of time for reading and discussion, Benny followed in the footsteps of his captor: he became a Humanist. That was the word I wanted. I knew it, but without the capital letter. Rather than a divine revelation, it simply established that there were many in the world – and had been for centuries – who thought as I did. I recognised that the myths and legends of the all-powerful God, the miracles, life after death, were fantasy, even though they were cherished, but not shared, by so many creeds, cults, and sects. They were the outcome of the human refusal to accept that, like all other forms of life, we too will die.

Rather than a divine revelation, it simply established that there were many in the world – and had been for centuries – who thought as I did. I recognised that the myths and legends of the all-powerful God, the miracles, life after death, were fantasy.

At the age of ninety-four, my Humanist principles are . more firmly in place than ever. Despite that, looking over my extended family of four generations, I find I am the only atheist. Where did I go wrong? Dally Messenger provided some answers in his article about secular ceremony (AH No. 96). Because of family and social connections, I have now been to Presbyterian services, Catholic Christenings, Anglican and Hebrew weddings. I have still to venture into the wider (narrower?) world of Islam and beyond.

At all of these functions, there was ample evidence of the human need to belong. No doubt there were internal differences. All groups of humanity encounter this problem — even the Humanists. But there was the basic warmth of not being an outsider. Special events are enriched by ceremony. It induces the feeling of having a place in the scheme of things. That is why so many cling to beliefs that defy common sense. As Dally Messenger wrote, ceremony doesn’t have to be confused with religion.

For the Humanist, there is no magical moment of enlightenment, no blessings from above. All that is needed is a firm grip on reality, awareness of what is going on in the world around you, plus understanding and compassion. Apparently, a little ceremony now and then doesn’t hurt.

Charles Murray is a NSW Humanist and Honorary president of the Robert Burns World Federation.