Caspar Melville: Insight talks to the editor of New Humanist

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The Insight Festival welcomes films from people of all faiths – and none. We’re delighted to have the Rationalist  Association as one of our official Friends.

Caspar Melville: interview

Caspar Melville is CEO of the Rational Association and editor of the New Humanist magazine. He holds an MA in media and communications from Goldsmith’s College, London, where he also completed a PhD. In 2011, Insight invited Caspar to answer some question and he kindly obliged …

Insight: What significance does the concept of ‘faith’ have to a humanist?

Caspar: Faith is not an easy concept for the non-religious – religion has so successfully hijacked the whole notion that we are sometimes even driven to define ourselves as ‘faithless’. In fact what we object to is the notion of ‘blind faith’ – the religious injunction to switch off our scepticism and our reason and accept something just because it is the ‘Word of God’, or written in an old book, or said by a religious leader. Of course, this doesn’t mean we don’t have faith; in fact, as humanists, we might be said to be the leaders in faith – we believe in and have faith in humanity. Not, I hope, in a way that ignores or even downplays the ugly side of human nature, but in a way that combines love and care with a determination to speak up for the best human kind is capable of.

Caspar Melville

But still, because the word carries such a taint of religion it’s one that atheists and humanist have very mixed feelings about. Which makes it a great subject for debate, for example as a result of the ‘We should be wary of “faith”‘ article I wrote for the Guardian (8 October 2010).

There is so much talk of faith these days – interfaith, faith communities – that I like to balance things out by speaking up for doubt, and the benefits of scepticism and not being sure about stuff.

Insight: The Insight Festival encourages ‘films exploring faith’. Does that sound like a religious love-in?

Caspar: Yes… But I am heartened by the notion that you want to encourage as wide a range of views as possible – and I will be encouraging atheist filmmakers to be sending in their shorts ‘in praise of doubt’ and ‘anti-faith – the new belief’

Insight: Religion: is it a force for good or harm?

Caspar: Both – like all human creations it takes on the character of human life – mixed blessing, self contradictory, clever and unbelievable stupid, kind but also cruel. The reason I choose to criticise is that religion has historically been accorded far too much protection from criticism – which is seen as blasphemy. As institutions and partners-in-crime with states, religions have been responsible for untold grief, mayhem and stupidity. As systems of thought, all religions are interesting, complex and well worthy of study and debate – even though they may be based on faulty premises or unwarranted leaps of logic. Still, they encompass a lot of human thinking about big issues – life, death, meaning, being good. But as a way to run your country, social affairs, schools or public culture they are – in my opinion – a complete menace.

Insight: What has been the most successful interpretation of humanism on film?

Caspar: Just off the top of my head …

➤ All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone) – anti-war humanism

 Letters from Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood) – Hollywood humanism

Manhattan (Woody Allen) – Jewish humanism

➤ Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman) – political humanism

➤ Aguirre, Wrath of God (Werner Herzog) – tragic humanism

➤ A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood, starring the Marx Brothers) – absurd humanism

➤ The Magdalene Sisters (Peter Mullan) – angry humanism

Insight: Some religious commentators imply that the default position for many modern movies is broadly ‘humanist’. Is there anything helpful or accurate in the description?

Caspar: Yes, it’s accurate, and something to be celebrated. Isn’t it odd that so many great artists, movie makers, intellectuals, thinkers, etc. are ‘broadly humanist’ – I wonder why that could be?

Product links: successful humanist films, tie-ins and inspirations (UK only)

Film: Lewis Milestone, All Quiet on the Western Front DVD (1930), Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres
Book: Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front (1996), Vintage, new edition. paperback

Film: Clint Eastwood, Letters From Iwo Jima DVD (2006), Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya
Books: Tadamichi Kuribayashi and Tsuyuko Yoshida, Picture Letters from the Commander in Chief: Letters from Iwo Jima (2007), Viz Media, paperback; Kumiko Kakehashi, So Sad to Fall in Battle: An Account of War Based on General Tadamichi Kuribayashi’s Letters from Iwo Jima (2007), Presidio Press, paperback

Film: Woody Allen, Manhattan DVD (1979), Woody Allen, Mariel Hemingway, Diane Keaton, Michael Murphy
Music: Ella Fitzgerald, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Rodgers & Hart Songbook: Vol. 1 MP3, and  Vol. 2 MP3 (1956), Verve Records. ‘Manhattan’ is track 8 of Vol. 1

Film: Ari Folman, Waltz with Bashir DVD (2008), Ari Folman, Ori Sivan, Ronny Dayag
Book: Ari Folman and David Polonsky, Waltz with Bashir: A Lebanon War Story (2009), Atlantic Books, graphic novel

Film: Werner Herzog, Aguirre, Wrath Of God DVD (1972), Klaus Kinski, Helena Rojo, Del Negro, Ruy Guerra
Music: Popol Vuh, Aguirre: Original Soundtrack Audio CD (2010), SPV
Book: Pedro Simon, The Expedition of Pedro de Ursua & Lope de Aguirre in Search of El Dorado and Omagua in 1560-1 (2001), Adamant Media Corporation, paperback

Film: Sam Wood, A Night At The Opera DVD (1935), Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx
Music: Verdi, Il Trovatore Audio CD (2006), Deutsche Grammophon, Plácido Domingo; Verdi, Il Trovatore Audio CD (2012), Decca, Luciano Pavarotti

Film: Peter Mullan, The Magdalene Sisters DVD (2002), Anna-Marie Duff, Nora Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy, Eileen Walsh, Geraldine McEwan
Book: Frances Finnegan, Do Penance or Perish: Magdalen Asylums in Ireland (2004), Oxford University Press, new edition, paperback

Note: These links lead to product pages at Six per cent of any sales made via this link is paid to Insight Film Festival.

If you prefer to buy titles from UK independent bookshops, please use the My Local Bookshop search engine hosted online by The Booksellers Association.


Caspar Melville was editor of New Humanist between 2005 and 2013. He is now Lecturer in Global Creative and Cultural Industries at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. His first book, Taking Offence, was published in 2009. You can read Caspar’s writing for the Guardian and follow him on Twitter @CasparMelville

Insight’s guest interview policy

The Insight Film Festival publishes interviews on our blog from guests of interest on an ad hoc basis. The Festival is delighted to publish a range of interview pieces on the themes of film and faith, and other subjects, but the personal views expressed in such articles do not reflect the views and opinions of the Insight Film Festival itself, which is an organisation that comprises individuals of many different faiths and none, all of whom have their own personal views and opinions on films, faith and other subjects.