Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Dr. Horrible and Dollhouse, tonight, accepted The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University's "Cultural Humanism Award," otherwise known as the Rushdie Award in honor of its first recipient, Sir Salman Rushdie. The event was a mix of rather awkwardly inappropriate fan-gushing and serious Humanist introspection on the nature of morality in a post-religious world. Statistics were touted (1 Billion non-religious people in the world, increasing percentages of non-religious people in every U.S. state over the last 10 years, etc.); clips were shown from Whedon's work; and a rather lovely award satue was given.
Most interestingly, however, was Whedon's acceptance speech. In it, he called for an acceptance of religion by the non-religious. He observed that religious faith required believing in something which cannot be proven to exist. Humanism, on the other hand, relies on an optimism about human nature for which a great deal of evidence to the contrary exists.
Whedon believes that religion is not, in fact, the origin of morality, but rather morality is the origin of religion. Mysticism was a way to explain and enshrine a moral code which is fundamental to humanity, and thus cannot be abandoned simply by stepping outside of the context of organized religion.
Humor abounded as well. "Who Wants To Be Pope," Whedon joked, should be a new reality show on Fox, creating a franchise of Popedom rather than a pseudo-monarchy.
When questions began, the first four were from Harvard students who had been pre-selected, each rolling a clip from Whedon's work to introduce their question. Angel discussing his reasons for continuing to be a champion, regardless of a lack of "higher power" guiding his hand; Wash and Mal discussing faith in human nature from Firefly; and finally a compilation on River Tam and Buffy Summers fight scenes to introduce the evenings first off-context question: "who wins, Buffy or River?" The audience voted for River.
The evening was fascinating, but I wish the fan-boy crowd hadn't dove forward to ask random questions about his shows. I would have enjoyed getting up to ask one of my own: "what is the role of humor in Humanism." I think the answer would have involved more discussion of Buddhism, but I'd have enjoyed hearing a master of comedic writing discuss the topic.