Nobody's Word is Final

As a member of the Canberra Humanist society, I felt a spark this year when I heard that some of the members had been investing energy into an activity called Humanist Chaplaincy. This service provides ethical and moral support from a non-religious perspective in institutions such as hospitals and universities, employing the most important tool available-- the art of listening. While the title ‘humanist chaplain’ sounds like a contradiction in terms to some ears, others have not overlooked its potential and significance. There is not only the positive function this role can serve in the community, but the scope for other community work that would only be limited by our imagination. Indeed Council of Australian Humanist Societies President Lyndon Storey has called for Australian humanists to explore as wide a range as possible of volunteer community service roles under the banner of being “humanist community workers”. By this he means for humanists to feel free to be as creative and forward looking as possible in developing new forms of community engagement for the 21st century. While accepting that sometimes these new forms will have to use old terminology, such as humanist “chaplaincy” the key goal is to encourage humanist community workers as much as possible, whether they focus on chaplaincy or something else. As humanists we need to be open to our sense of compassion and our ethical imagination to develop new ways of connecting with people. That is the strength of humanism, and what distinguishes it from mere atheism, its focus on developing positive values for living life.

If Aristotle thought ‘it is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it’, I think it is the mark of an open mind, to entertain a thought without rejecting it. I know from experience how powerful the art of imagination can be. As an incredibly fortunate specimen, I somehow found myself capable of reaching beyond the confines of my narrowly defined identity and noticing a seed of intellectual enlightenment grow after decades of darkness. If that seed can grow at thirty years of age, with literally no prior interest in the Sciences, History, Art, Philosophy, introspection and discourse-- then it can happen to anyone, any time.

As far I can tell, there is no need to set boundaries when exploring meaningful ways to extend the Humanist community outreach. Focussing only on critiquing other’s attempts at social engagement, or criticising such attempts, like humanist chaplaincy, as too similar to religion, misses the real point; what can humanists bring to the social table? What we need is more encouragement for those who seek ways to spark interest and invent spaces for building connection in the world, not fruitless attempts at criticism. These smack of privilege mixed in with a dose of intellectual elephantiasis. There are infinitely more pleasant ways to discharge such energy. For example, a humanist alternative to anonymous addiction groups could be one such way. If the private sphere can be safely navigated through meditation and group discussion- then the chamber of one’s mind can be slowly understood. This understanding can open many doors and bolster confidence for those who wish to go on and explore the public sphere. As Pericles said, ‘Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics will not take an interest in you’.

I am proposing that rather than leave it to religiously inspired values to drive voluntary addiction support and self-help projects, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, we can develop humanist alternatives. This need not mean simply putting the word humanist in front of an existing model. It can also mean drawing upon our own imagination and creativity to create new, and better, approaches.

Furthermore, there are ways to bring together an Eastern and Western approach that can enhance our thinking and experience. A Zen teacher by the name of Lin Chi is said to have once uttered the words, “If you meet the Buddha on the road---kill him”. The Royal Society of Science have used a comparably wise motto ever since their founding in 1660, ‘Nullius in verba’, roughly translated as- ‘take nobody’s word for it. While the latter encourages us to falsify and test the diversity of facts we find ourselves interested in, the former asks us to examine our pre-existing concepts and beliefs, and undertake a clinical observation of our minds sprightly, and frequently neurotic, modes. These attention seeking modes are a constantly active part of the brain known to Neuroscientists as the ‘Default mode network’.

Neither of these two statements suggest that the authority or wisdom of experts and sages should be wholly rejected. For example, when we saw Malcolm Robert’s recent misunderstanding of the empirical method, somehow lead him to reject the evidence of NASA, and most other leading authorities on climate change, we all felt a cold shudder. Instead of this muddled thinking, the statements challenge us to seek evidence, adopt a healthy and rational scepticism and cultivate a curiosity for both the private and public spheres.

By contrast, Eastern meditative traditions that have concepts such as the Japanese ‘mushin no shin’ (Mind without mind) and the Chinese ‘Wu wei’ (Action without action), are often intellectual points of departure that can lead to a process of self-discovery. For the sceptical and hard-nosed types, it can raise a red flag when it becomes apparent that intellectual representatives of various traditional camps start to distinguish themselves based on the grandiose claims and concepts they stand for. The intended point frequently loses its flavour and instead we are served with a bland and rotten excuse for a banquet. The intended recipe, as with most things that are worthwhile, requires discipline -- ‘Kill the Buddha - investigate for yourself’. These ideals, that stimulated the East throughout history, are interpretations of a universal experience that is best understood through determined observation of subjective experience. This can of course render a conversation about these states of consciousness, not only confusing, but very nearly futile.

That said, there are few conversations that are completely pointless and some effect is always made. Popular physicists would understand this well. A verbal explanation of quantum mechanics, for instance, is no doubt lost on most us mere mortals and it is not far- fetched to say that only a small minority of the population possess the mathematical stamina to understand the quantum world in depth. Nevertheless, physicists continue to promote their subject with great zeal, and they know that those who get a small spark of interest in the subject are just as important as those who pursue a deep understanding.

So let’s see where a small spark of interest in humanist volunteering might lead us. Volunteers and peer support groups can play a significant role not just for people struggling with addictions but for others on the mental health spectrum also. This, of course, is not a substitute for the important role of social workers, psychologists and councillors, in fact it would drive in their direction. The ‘accountable’ mental health professionals who play a pivotal role in society are not always as approachable as they like to imagine. Many people who suffer on this planet need time to warm to the idea of professional help. Of course there are also many who simply cannot afford professional help or simply don’t trust the idea that compassion and support really are compassion and support when they are commodified into “professional” services.

People suffering from addiction and other afflictions can draw help in the right circumstances from volunteers who are intellectually honest, empathetic, and share in a similar historical struggle. To be safely exposed to both honest and empathetic support, and if necessary inconvenient truths in this way can prove indispensable on the journey to not just recovery, but self-understanding and realization. The art of listening and providing open spaces to talk aloud creates connections that continue to drive compassion into the future: that is, so long as dogma is not permitted to imprison our minds and superstition is rejected. Evidence, reason and understanding have the strength to open hearts and minds and as Kant petitioned, ‘sapere aude’ – dare us to know.

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash