If we humanists cannot congregate around religion, around what can we congregate? This is a question I frequently return to when thinking what it might mean to create a humanist community. For it is clear that, despite the religious paraphernalia, religious institutions offer a means by which people can satisfy fundamental human desires: the desire for community, to address significant issues (birth, death, marriage), to think deep thoughts and generally to attempt to make meaning out of the world in which we live. The ritual of church-going, with its sermons, music, communal speaking and opportunity to sit together with friends and enemies has much value, and there is a danger that a secular worldview might fail to realise the importance of such spaces.
One possible answer to this conundrum struck home forcefully this evening, as I watched Joss Whedon receive the 2009 Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism – we can congregate around art. Art, especially the narrative arts, can provide an arena for the exploration and appreciation of life’s complexities without needing to claim the mantle of “truth”. We can all agree that Whedon’s narratives, in “Buffy” or “Firefly” for instance, are not real. We have no need to believe them. And yet we can learn from them, use them as stimuli for discussion, to get to the heart of the issues we wish to face.
Of course, many people do this already on coaches across the world. Book clubs come together to discuss novels, and film clubs convene over movies. But what would it mean to take these congregations to the next level? Could we have “secular sermons” based around some work of art or performance that is experienced communally, and then open discussion around the themes involved? I think the opportunity for discussion would be essential – the point is not to “receive wisdom” from the artist but to use the work as a starting point for deeper engagement with meaningful questions.
This is precisely what I witnessed this evening as people asked meaningful, penetrating questions in response to Whedon’s TV work. It may seem odd that Buffy the Vampire Slayer should be the catalyst for ruminations on human mortality, but why should it not be? It was effective enough tonight.