So… You’re a Humanist! What’s that?

So… You’re a Humanist! What’s that?

from a talk by Barrie Webster, Victoria Secular Humanist Association, Sunday, September 11, 2011 (photo left above)

Humanists take a positive approach to life, one not based on fear or guilt, and they see no need for a supernatural authority figure in their lives… For Humanists the reference point for personal guidance is internal; it is not an external authority to be feared.

A few years ago, when I was team lecturing a 55+ class for Continuing Education at the University of Winnipeg, I took a careful look at Humanism while I was preparing my lecture material. The participants included adults of retirement age who were there to think; people of a variety of religious and philosophical belief systems. Beginning was easy. Humanism is non-theistic: Humanists take a positive approach to life, one not based on fear or guilt, and they see no need for a supernatural authority figure in their lives. Humanism, I pointed out, however, is more than simple atheism, i.e., more than simply not believing in a god.

As a member of the Humanist Association of Manitoba, Pat Morrow, opined:

If you want to talk about what I don’t believe, then I’m an atheist.
If you want to talk about what I do believe in, I’m a Humanist.

That’s a good jumping off spot.

Humanism is not “just science”; if that were true, it would essentially be the same as technocracy. Science helps us to understand and describe the Humanist life-stance. But there’s more. For Humanists the reference point for personal guidance is internal; it is not an external authority to be feared. Further, the concept of original sin is rejected; Humanists believe that children are born without the need to be somehow cleansed or saved. Rather, the natural pro-social tendencies and capabilities we are born with need to be fostered and reinforced as we grow up.

Humanism, then, is a life-stance with no need for a god authority. A god myth is seen to be unnecessary, because it is possible to be good without a god. In fact, we’re not sure that a god makes it easier in any way to be good: recall the biblical readings many of us had at school (I went to school in the 1950s) telling us that the Christian God was vengeful and that he welcomed things such as a willingness to sacrifice human children as an indication of allegiance. This not only doesn’t make sense to Humanists, it’s repugnant. If being willing to sacrifice children rankles you, so much the better. Then there is the cannibalistic symbolism of the most sacred Christian sacrament, holy communion. Eating human flesh and drinking human blood, even symbolically, when you think about it, is at best an uncivilized proposition.

The idea that human nature is founded solely in selfishness is inconsistent with Humanism. I’ll come back to this later, but for the present, let us say simply that it is life before death that matters, that it is ill-advised to focus on a “next life”, that there is one life ̶ “womb-to-tomb” ̶ and that is what we have to work with. And we need to make best use of that life for its own sake.

Now back to selfishness. Individually oriented selfishness is not a human priority in the minds of Humanists. There are many other motives that loom large (not necessarily in this order): honesty, self-respect, altruism, love, sympathy, trust, sense of duty, solidarity, loyalty, public-spiritedness, and patriotism ̶ the list goes on. Selfishness alone does not a Humanist make.

Charles Darwin thought long and hard about these issues and pointed out the important role of competition in natural selection (Origin of Species); however, he was not satisfied to leave it there. In his later book, Descent of Man, he determined that even more important in human evolution were love, development of language and the communication it facilitated, reflection on the consequences of one’s actions and experiences, and repetition of those actions that were beneficial (otherwise known as habit). Social scientists now have more than 150 years of further detailed work to confirming these findings in detail. Darwin was an exemplary scientist in the broadest sense; I am proud to say, he was also a Humanist.

Recent writers and practitioners have declared that the Golden Rule (do to others as you would have them do to you) is a fundamental tenet of Humanism. Glenn Hardie in his book, The Essence of Humanism, makes this point up front. Franz de Waal, a noted etologist, has pointed out that motives other than selfishness are important to humans. Neuroscientist, Vilayanur Ramachandran has demonstrated the role of mirror neurons in the expression of empathy. The educational program, Roots of Empathy, now part of the curriculum in the province of Manitoba for school children, brings out the empathy that is within all of us, but at the early school age where it has been shown to result, among other benefits, in reduced teenage violence and reduced rates of teenage pregnancy. Selfishness clearly is not the only driving force for human endeavour, and Humanists are happy to embrace these findings.

Now comes the question of “holy books” in the Humanist life-stance. Religious texts are, to Humanists, collections of myths and folktales (stories). Being literature, they may in some cases be founded on history, but they are an unreliable source of literal truth. Like other literature, they may be interesting, even inspiring, to study; they may be useful as literary resources to understand cultures, but they are not historically accurate in detail. Some religionists like to suggest that Humanists regard Darwin’s Origin of Species as a holy book or its equivalent. While Darwin was a Humanist and while his books inspire deep respect from Humanists, they are continually subject to updating and the change that further scientific research brings.

Humanism has no dogma; Humanists instead rely on free inquiry and the scientific method to define the world we live in. They reserve the right to disagree on detail and do not feel compelled to accept judgement calls of others, even others who call themselves Humanists. So you will find a variety of Humanistic views on controversial topics such as politics, economics, alternative medicine, and social justice issues. Humanists are therefore a pluralistic lot with a compassionate view of the world. Areas such as human rights (e.g., lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender issues, race, culture, and equality of the sexes), social justice (concern for consequences of economic inequality, appropriate measured remedies for crime, access to medical services, and fair distribution of resources), and environmental integrity (concern for the health of the planet, our one and only life support system) are, unsurprisingly, sources of intense discussion amongst Humanists.

Science is the best tool we have for understanding the world, but scientific knowledge is constantly changing and being updated. Rational thought is part of the interpretation of scientific results, a process that takes time. Meanwhile, emotion plays an important role in making us human. As Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University says, “Science can teach us a great deal, but it won’t come and visit us in the hospital.” As the science of psychology gains strength, we see that the place of emotion in human relationships and society is due a great deal of respect. Rational decisions based on attitudes and values necessarily involve the emotional evaluation of what natural beauty, peaceful living conditions, and harmonious relations with our fellow humans and other living things mean to us.

Everyday minute-to-minute decisions in our lives are based on emotion ̶ rational thought just takes too long! But careful, methodical, rational thought enables us to interpret complex options presented by our scientific research. And social sciences are increasingly important in helping us to understand our psychological makeup.

Humanism involves human action, not prayer. A purely religious approach to life relies on prayer and fate (waiting for prayer to be answered if indeed it is to be answered). Humanists rely on human action and aspire to the greater good of humanity. Remind your (religious) friends and associates that most people are, by this easily grasped definition, humanistic, even if they present themselves as religious. And, while prayer may appear to give positive support for outcomes that we prefer, it is the actual activity of getting there that gets results. Psychological support from sympathetic groups of like-minded individuals is always welcome, but nothing succeeds like well thought out action.

People of religion will claim that religion is necessary to give a profound sense of meaning and purpose to life. In fact, Humanists find that religion is not necessary; a Humanist life-stance itself gives a profound sustaining sense that we can and must live our lives for a purpose beyond ourselves. Charles Darwin in Descent of Man claimed that it was built into us and was part of the reason that the human race had achieved the evolutionary success that it had.

An interesting comeback that Christians sometimes give Humanists is “You know, we believe that God is Love,” and say it as if they have an exclusive; the implication being that Humanists, not believing in the Christian God, must have no value for love. Humanists know that love is important to humanity, and know that love is a primary emotion in their lives. The recognition that love was perhaps the most important driving force in human evolution was stated clearly by Charles Darwin in Descent of Man, and he also presented evidence that animals of various sorts also demonstrate love for each other.

The term “spiritual” means a variety of things, depending on the context and the person using it; however, many of the same things inspire Humanists that people of religions associate with transcendence akin to experience with their god(s). Who has not experienced the thrill of the magnificence of nature – in BC we are faced with vistas virtually everywhere we turn, but there are also panoramas which give similar feelings to people on the prairies and elsewhere in Canada and the world. Music can be something that stimulates the very heart of a person’s being (or generates the opposite feeling), but most of us have favourite music that sends tingles down our spines. This is especially so for those of us who hear (or play) music or passages with which they are familiar. Great art, whether it be a painting, photograph, sculpture, or piece of architecture, can also inspire the viewer. Fine literature is the same. Then there is love for one’s fellow human. And the value for personal liberty, sense of justice, and love of country. In each case, tastes differ, but the feeling of resonance with all of these experiences is what I would argue to be a spiritual event. No deity is needed. Nor need a deity be invoked.

A church congregation gives religious adherents a feeling of community; in fact, that community is probably more important to many than religious faith, even for regular church goers. Humanists are, by nature, used to being non-conformists, but a sense of community is vitally important to them as well. There are, by Epstein’s estimate, about one billion non-religious people on the planet. Rest assured that they could benefit from having a Humanist community to belong to (as, of course, do Humanists themselves).

So how long has Humanism existed? In fact, the essence of Humanism has been in existence for at least 26 centuries and can be traced back to the times of Confucius and Buddha who, themselves reflected earlier secular ideas and principles. It is important to note that they themselves were not religious. Similarly, the Ionian Greeks (e.g., the Milesian School of Atomists) from about the same era also used reason to explain the physical world. In these cases, they were philosophers (remember that ‘science’ used to be called ‘natural philosophy’ – you’ll see it on older university science buildings, for instance) and did not do experimental work; however, they were capable of deducing that the earth was spherical and revolved around the Sun. Also, they developed fundamental mathematics and practical tools to observe nature. Some were able to predict eclipses, to determine the dimensions of the planet, and to propose early explanations for the structure of matter. While humanistic thinking was suppressed by the Romans and the early Christian Church, it was preserved by Arabic peoples who became Muslims and re-entered Europe via Spain. By various means, including the movement of itinerant Jews who made their way into northern Europe, these scientific ideas were ultimately transmitted to areas of Europe not subject to the Inquisition (Hutcheon 1996). Other cultures, including the Chinese and the Mayans, also developed scientific knowledge familiar to Humanists.

Now we come to the cautionary note from Pat Duffy-Hutcheon in her address to the 2000 annual convention of the Humanist Association of Canada. Beware of tribalism – the dangers of an ‘us-and-them’ view of the world. She advocated that we approach the world with the attitude of scientific humanism. I would rephrase that to “Beware of the ‘zero order’ trap,” or the “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists” stance of George W. Bush. The world is at least three-dimensional. Let me explain with a simple geometric mind-picture. The one-side-or-the-other approach is a one point or the other view: a zero-dimensional view. It has no provision for anything other than strict partisanship. For political discussions, we often resort to a left-right scale, or a one-dimensional view: a line. This allows for a gradation of positions along one axis. But that is not enough to accommodate economics (capitalist-communist) and activism (radical vs complacent) and political (liberal vs conservative) and religious (fundamentalist religious vs atheist) differences. We need more dimensions: two dimensions or axes give us a plane or circle to work with to express diverse opinion; three dimensions or axes give us a cube or sphere; and so on. Use your imagination. Quickly, it becomes clear that the world is much too complex to be viewed in zero-, one-, or two dimensions. Tribalism is a trap to be avoided and Humanism is easily subverted by reduction of controversy to a too simple view. Humanism has no dogma; hence, Humanists hold views on complex issues that often don’t exactly match. The real enemy of Humanism is, however, not religion, but hate, fear, and ignorance; in other words, the darker part of humanity that is in every person, including every Humanist.

The Humanist Association of Manitoba recently created a poster to display at their booth at the Red River Exhibition on June 21, 2011. It states that

Humanism is

  • socially responsible,
  • culturally inclusive,
  • personally ethical,
  • informed by science,
  • inspired by art, and
  • moved by compassion.

Further, it states that “We are beyond belief.”

So the question that remains is this: Are you a Humanist? Chances are that you will want to answer, “Yes!”