Time for Reflection

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 2:30 pm on 11th June 2008.

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Juliet Wilson (Humanist Society of Scotland):

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. As a humanist celebrant, I sometimes get the opportunity to speak the words of one of Scotland's great thinkers, who said:

"Avoid people who say they know the answer. Keep the company of people who are trying to understand the question."

That sage piece of advice is from Billy Connolly's version of Max Ehrmann's "Desiderata", and although he goes on to counsel against running with scissors and giving LSD to guide dogs, those two sentences never fail to move me.

When I meet couples who want to get married in a humanist ceremony, they often raise an eyebrow when I say that I have nothing to tell them about the meaning of marriage. I have my own feelings about why marriage is relevant to me, but those would be irrelevant to anyone else. A humanist marriage ceremony is a blank page; the couple give it meaning by giving it meaning. They have to spend a lot of time thinking about why they love each other, what the commitment means to them and what they hope to achieve together. Consequently, their bond is all the stronger because their reasons are clear to them. They have contemplated the important questions, rather than accepting somebody else's answers.

Humanism is all about accepting all people equally and reaching understanding through discussion and debate. We think that there is no eternally right answer, just the one that we consider to be the best that we have at the moment. As with interfaith associations and the festival of spirituality and peace, the talks and debates that the Humanist Society of Scotland holds are intended to bring about mutual understanding through asking questions, rather than by forcing our opinion on others.

As some of you may have noticed, people expect politicians to have all the answers, which is unrealistic. We should acknowledge you for trying to understand the questions, hope that you consider all the possibilities and accept that sometimes the response "I don't know" is the most honest and intelligent of answers. I ask you to think back to the time when you first entered politics. Do you have more answers now than you had then, or do you have more questions?

I leave you with a Chinese proverb: one who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; one who does not ask a question remains a fool for ever.

I thank the Presiding Officer for asking people of all faiths and none to speak to you, and I thank you for listening to me.