Humanism talk in Farnham school
Farnham Heath End School
30 Jan 1 February 2006
Quote: which sums up part of the humanist approach:
From, the Indian Language Urdu
Of my life story, I know only the middle, not the beginning or end
And it is quite important to humanists to accept that there is much we do not know – known as the sceptical approach.
Humanism is not a religion or a complete system of philosophy, it is a philosophy of life, an attitude of life – shared by many people around the world, some who become members of humanist organisations, some of whom just carry out their beliefs in their everyday thoughts and actions.
4 essential points which shall consider in some detail.
- We believe there is no God controlling or watching our lives to whom we need to give worship.
- Life is finite – we only have the here and now which we can experience, and there is no afterlife or prelife to hope for or to fear. (I’ll deal with that in more detail at the end of my talk.
- The purpose of life, the meaning of life is what we make it – it is not given to us by a supernatural force or a religious leader.
- Morality is social in origin it comes from the fact that we live together in societies and is based on co-operating and helping other people without any rules laid down.
First, humanists believe in life without any God of any kind. That is the approach of an atheist. Some people believe that they do not know whether there is a god or not and call themselves agnostics. Atheist comes from the Greek meaning without God and agnostic means without knowledge – in other words without enough knowledge to be sure about a divine existence.
In the past there have been many concepts of God – from the sun god ( no one can doubt the sun exists) to the many gods of the Greeks or Hindus, to the all powerful god of the monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam. I think the idea of an omniscient, that is all powerful , God is very difficult to believe in, especially if seen as a benevolent or all-good, God. When I look at the world it does not seem to me to be made by an all powerful all good being. The diseases , the earthquakes, the wars – surely these would be prevented by a loving God. (A nineteenth century American humanist said that he wished God had made good health catching.) Some say that God has set up the world and chooses not to interfere with it but to leave it to mankind to make a good or bad job of it. In that case in what sense is god all powerful. Some liberal Christians speak of god as a metaphor which underpins religious faith. But if it is just a metaphor – or a social construct as some say – then it come nearer to humanism.
Some people argue that the universe must have some beginning and perhaps end. I would question this, apart from the fact that some cosmologists are now wondering if there is more than one universe. Physicists speak of the big bang as the beginning of the universe – well if that means that energy started off the universe, I would accept that, but energy is not the same as god. Science has shown us how the earth has developed and how life has developed – although there is still some doubt exactly how life emerged – maybe that will become clearer later in this century. Evolution seems to have been the way life progressed on earth, in particular by the process of natural selection. This gives the famous idea that we are very close in development to chimpanzees, which seems quite natural to me when I look at films of such animals. Of course, some people query the theory of evolution and prefer the idea of intelligent design. But is the design intelligent – think of the fact that many people have to wear glasses because of the imperfections in their eyes.
- Even if you use the idea of God as the origin of everything, you only put back the question one step, for who or what created God. As I say if god is no more than the energy that started everything off, I have no quarrel with that. You may disagree and we may discuss this.
- The afterlife – I will discuss at the end.
- Is there any purpose to life without religion. I claim that the purpose of life is what human beings choose to make of it. Different people will choose different purposes and provided they do not harm others (I will discuss morality in a minute) they are largely individual choices and will be different for different people. The sorts of purposes we choose are to succeed in our career, to care for our family, to reduce the amount of suffering in the world, to enjoy the pleasures of art and sport and nature, to love our fellow beings. Although humanists believe the best way to solve problems is by the use of reason, they also believe that the emotional life is an important part of our existence.
- Morality. Humanists believe we have a sense of responsibility for others. Our moral sense comes from our development as social animals. It comes from the need for groups of people to survive without mistreatment of others. As we grow up we develop a sense of empathy for others in the world and a wish to improve things. Moral ideas are much older than particular reasons – the idea of “do unto others as you would they would do unto you” goes back before the foundation of religions. Humanists do not believe in particular commandments or sets of rules. We don’t believe that morality comes from one leader or sacred book. Naturally any society will have some people who do not develop a sense of morality – and there needs to be therefore some rules and the treatment in prison or by psychiatrists of such people. We do not believe in absolute rules – for instance killing is wrong and in general we would all agree on that, but it can be right to kill in a situation of war. And if you are starving is it wrong to steal something to eat?
- Science. Science is very important to humanists. It has enabled us to understand the world we live in and has produced much of benefit – mobile phones, antibiotics, aeroplanes. Also scientific discoveries have been used in damaging way – think of the atomic bomb or perhaps genetic manipulation. This does not mean that the continual work of theories and experiments and testing which brings scientific progress should not continue. Of course, scientists and humanists believe some of our current theories may be wrong and there may yet be much to discover.
Humanism is not new – in fact it is older than some religions. There are atheistic ideas in the ancient Hindu Sanskrit writings and the ancient Greek philosophers produced humanistic ideas – such as Protagoras who said that “Man is the measure of his own existence”. Epicurus said, in an epitaph put on many Roman graves “I was – I have been — I am not—I do not mind” I t would take to long to offer a history of humanism through the renaissance and nineteenth century freethought – but this strand of thought is to be found throughout history.
Humanist movement. There are a number of humanist organisations. As I said before it is not necessary to belong to anything to be a humanist – you can just hold these beliefs individually, as many do.
National Secular Society
Rationalist Press Association
British Humanist Association
Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association
Local groups. E.g. Farnham Humanists
There is the IHEU which holds international conferences One in New York this year, specially dealing with bioethics.. In America as you are probably aware religion plays a much greater part in society and humanists are seen as outsiders. No politician would be an atheist.
There are groups in Europe and in Asia. I have visited The Atheists centre in India, which , as well as promoting atheism, does a great deal of social work. They helped with the post-tsunami reconstruction.
Campaigning. Humanists believe in democracy as a way of running and changing the country. They do campaign on some issues Thought for the Day. Rights for humanists in schools – opt in to worship. Faith schools. Church privileges e.g the House of Lords. Free speech – law to prevent incitement to religious hatred.
Life after death
Humanists do not believe in life after death, either as a person, or as a soul, or in a form of reincarnation. Although we do believe that people live on in other people’s memories and that when we die we return to nature, our molecules recompose as a part of the universe. Humanists hold non-religious funeral ceremonies
The desire for an afterlife is understandable. No one likes the thought of coming to an end, though it can be accepted by many. Also the idea of reward or punishment after death is not something which humanists can believe in. Do many people believe in heaven and hell to-day? How kind a concept is eternal damnation? Does the idea of martyrdom and heaven really affect what people do? Is it useful for priests and rulers to try and control people by threats of hell in the afterlife.
There are biological problems with an afterlife. The body decays and it seems to me that the mind and the personality decay as well. We really follow the same process as a compost heap. Some people begin to lose their mind and personality before they die with tragic illnesses such as Alzheimer’s.
When someone you love dies it is very tempting to believe in life after death, because the feeling of loss is so great. But I think the hard fact is that we will not see again those we love who have died.
Some people argue that there is evidence for life after death. Close to death experiences are put forward as evidence. Some people when very close to death experience something they feel is a movement towards an afterlife. But these are not people who have died, and there is increasing evidence that such experiences are created by the fall in level of oxygen in the brain.
Some people claim that they can make contact with the dead through spiritualism.
Seances are held for this purpose and some people claim to have made contact. It seems to me that this offers very poor evidence, because what people hear from the spirit voices is so unconvincing and many spiritualist leaders have been found guilty of hoaxes.
Of course, I may be wrong and will find myself in hell for not believing in God.
I’ll return to the present and quote from the American Ingersoll: “Happiness is the only good, the time to be happy is now, the way to be happy is to make others happy.“