Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Winter 2000-2001

The Thinkers’ Guide to Life, edited by Marilyn Mason
Seasons of Life, compiled by Nigel Collins and edited by Jim Herrick and John Pearce

reviewed by Andy Armitage

Inveterate browsers will love these two offerings from the Rationalist Press Association.

Seasons of Life, the larger volume, has been compiled by Nigel Collins, who is an experienced officiant at Humanist ceremonies, and co-edited by Jim Herrick (editor of the New Humanist and the author of books on the history of Humanism and freethought, who also writes reviews for this magazine) and John Pearce, an experienced officiant and retired educationist.

With a preface by the atheist poet Tony Harrison, it’s a rich anthology of verse and prose fragments, aimed mainly – but not exclusively – at those who conduct nonreligious ceremonies, usually funerals, weddings (whether for gay or straight couples) and namings. For better or worse, human lives are punctuated by ritual, and the power of the word is invariably invoked to move and inspire those who gather for the occasion, be it sad or happy. While many see those rituals as being the duty of religious leaders to perform, a growing number of people, thankfully, do not. Indeed, Collins opens his introduction with the words, “The rites of passage that form part of our culture existed long before the institutions where most people are used to seeking them today.”

Few could come better equipped to take on the task of producing such a satisfying anthology as Collins, who has conducted hundreds of Humanist ceremonies, mostly funerals but also weddings, for same- and opposite-sex couples, and namings. And he admits that some of his choices came to him as a result of his being asked to include this or that piece in a ceremony.

In browsing the collection for suitable examples, I can do no better than present some of Collins’s own: he cites, for instance, Remember by Christina Rossetti, The Joy of Living by Ewan MacColl, both for their musical qualities. He also picks out poets and writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Winston Churchill, Vera Brittain, Seneca, Montaigne, Bertrand Russell, Herbert Read, Roger McGough, Robert Frost and many more. And those are just for funerals.

Moving on to weddings and naming ceremonies, he picks out the inevitable Shakespeare and his Sonnet 116 (“Let not the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments”), Frank Yerby, Edwin Muir, Robert Creeley, C Day Lewis, Philip Larkin and WB Yeats.

The Thinkers’ Guide to Life is a potpourri of aphorisms and other quotations from Socrates to Sartre, from Seneca to Sagan, from Epicurus to Einstein (not that these ranges have any more significance than some pleasing alliteration!).

All the usual suspects are there: Bertrand Russell (“The happy life is to an extraordinary extent the same as the good life”); John Stuart Mill (“Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness”), and many more, some more familiar than others. And among its small pages (this little volume would sit happily in a pocket or handbag) are to be found gems from the likes of Richard Dawkins, David Hume, Marcus Aurelius, Cicero, Epictetus, TH Huxley, Robert Green Ingersoll, Jeremy Bentham, AJ Ayer and a host more.

It’s the sort of book you like to keep by the bedside and dip into for a useful thought before going byebyes. Its editor, Marilyn Mason, is the education officer for the British Humanist Association, and she has brought together what she hopes is a collection of thinkers who have little truck with religion.

I’ll leave you with a few choice items: “The value of life lies not in its length but in the use we make of it” (Michel de Montaigne); “There is no cure for birth or death save to enjoy the interval” (George Santayana); “[T]he time to be happy is now, and the way to be happy is to make others so” (Robert G Ingersoll); “My own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose” (JBS Haldane).

Isn’t that what we’ve been telling the homophobes for years ...?

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Created : Sunday, 2001-04-15 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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