Humanist talk to Bedales School 11th May 2009
Humanism is not a full-blown system of belief – and it is certainly not a religion. It is more a philosophy of life or a perspective on life people and the universe.
Humanists tend to be atheists or agnostics. Atheist means without a belief in God and agnostic means uncertain about whether there is a god — a don’t know position.. There are no laws laid down in humanism about what people believe and I am aware that a few religious people do not believe in God, some Quakers or Buddhists perhaps.
The reasons for being an atheist are many. I will mention a few. If God is supposed to be the origin of everything in the universe – where did God come from. It is just putting the argument one step backwards. Who or what originated the originator?
2) If God is all good, totally benevolent, then why are human beings, who are supposed to be in its image, often so far from good and benevolent? Look at the way human beings often behave and why do they behave like this if they are created by an all-good creature? Some would say there is a force of evil as well as good in the universe. But where did that come from?
3) A similar point if God created the earth and all that is in it, why does it seem to be so badly constructed, with earthquakes, floods, fires etc.
4) Many religious people claim that their belief in God or an offshoot of god, Jesus, comes from personal experience. But how can we know that this is not just a fantasy or a dream. Especially if it is only selected people who seem to have this experience?
It follows that humanists do not believe in the power of prayer or in the afterlife. I have seen people pray vigorously for the recovery of an ill person and the prayers do not succeed. I can see no evidence for an after life or indeed a life before birth. Some people claim to have a memory of a previous life – but the accounts , perhaps at the court of an Egyptian king, are not very convincing. To me when I die, I am like a pile of compost and I decompose and my molecules become a part of the universe. I am not afraid of death, since once I am dead there will be nothing left of me to feel pain or anguish. It follows that I do not believe in heaven or hell.
Humanists are sceptical about the possibility of a supernatural or superstitious element. This includes astrology, telepathy, spiritualism, supernatural bending of spoons. It is clear from what magicians can do that many of these phenomena can be fabricated. However humanists would look at the evidence and if the evidence became convincing they might be prepared to change their minds..
For humanists there is no one book – the bible or the Koran – which is taken as the reliable teaching. Nor is there one teacher or guru that is followed as someone with all the answers. This does not mean that the religious texts are not worth reading, they may have much literary and historical value and also there may be ethical teaching that is valuable here and there. (Some pretty bad teaching in the old Testament in my view.) But I think that some of the ethical teaching – the teaching about right and wrong – of Jesus are worth paying attention to.
Is atheism enough? No. Stalin was an atheist and he was not a humanist. Humanists believe in the importance of human values — of a need for morality.. Humanists do not set out a list of dos and don’ts. They prefer to look at general principles which have to be worked out in particular situations. One of the general principles is known as the Golden Rule and goes back to the ancient Greeks. It is Do unto others as you would they would do unto you. Or put the other way round Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.
We need both general principles and the ability to work them out in our own lives. Two aspects of morality are very important – think of the consequences of what you do. In deciding what to do the outcome is so important. If you are in such a rage that cannot think of the consequences of your actions then you may regret what you do. Important also in this process is the ability to have sympathy and empathy with other people.
We need morality because we live in society. If we lived alone on a desert island there would be no need to follow moral principles. Except some people might say we have responsibility towards the natural and animal life on the island. A simple rule which we all follow is to stop when traffic lights are red. It is convenient for all of us. But is it therefore not wrong to cross at night when no one else is around?
In one situation an action may be wrong while in another the same action may be right. It may be wrong to kill someone in the street, but right to kill someone in a war. You could argue about this.
Humanists place some importance on science as a means of understanding the world. I would prefer a scientifically constructed vaccination against flu to any number of prayers. I would prefer to rely on fuel and aereodynamics to hope when I am flying. What is particularly important to science is the method of research: the results will change in time, but not the methods. This is a process of looking at the evidence, of experimenting, of testing the results and of having your results looked at by peer groups. I am not a scientist – but I do recognise the importance of science.
Humanism is not a very recent outlook. You can find humanist ideas in the writings of the ancient Indian scripture, the Upanisads, where the concept of atheism is found. In the thoughts of the ancients Greek philosophers there are many humanist ideas. In particular I like the question and answer process of Socrates as a way of arriving at the truth of ideas. Further development of humanism took place in the renaissance and the age of enlightenment, where I could mention the writers Voltaire and Diderot. Then humanism becomes part of mainstream thinking in the nineteenth and twentieth century.
There are humanist organisations which undertake campaigning and mutual support for humanists in particular the British Humanist Society and the National Secular Society. There are also local humanist groups – for instance in Guildford, Farnham and Southampton. There is also a federation of student humanist groups. I should emphasis that it is not necessary to belong to a group. Some people like to campaign and to meet like-minded people – but millions of people go about their lives in a humanist way without being attached to a humanist group at all.
What do humanists campaign about?
Recently there was a very successful series of ads displayed on buses. It read: There is probably no God so get on and enjoy life.. This was very successful with its aim of getting people to think about life. But remember humanism is not an evangelical movement – I have no wish to go around trying to convert people to humanism merely to offer ideas which people can think and debate about..
One more political campaign is against faith schools. As you know there are faith schools, mainly Anglican and Catholic, but a few Muslim and Hindu. The reason for criticising this is that we think it is better for children to grow seeing a variety of religions and non-religious attitudes around them. We also dislike the tendency to indoctrinate. A few Christian Academies teach creationism rather than evolution. I am also not happy about the law which says that there should be regular Christian worship in state schools.
We would like to see something about humanism taught in schools. It seem right that there should be this option in schools – especially as maybe half the pupils will hold views of a broadly humanist kind.
We would like chaplains in hospitals and prisons to be paid for by the religion and not by the tax payer. We would also like the possible of a humanist advisor for the sick and the imprisoned.
There is quite a demand for non-religious humanists and weddings – so we conduct these where requested.
Humanists have been involved in particular campaigns during the last 50 years particularly relating to sexual freedom and personal responsibility. These include gay and lesbian rights, the right to choose an abortion and the responsibility of using condoms.
What do humanists think about the environment and climate change? We believe that the whole issue should be looked at scientifically. Many humanists are active in organisations such as Friends of the Earth and Green Peace. Personally I think the human race will suffer for doing too little too late in this field.
I don’t believe humanists are always happy jolly campaigners. In fact life can be hard and we can encounter pain and suffering and depression. We have each other’s support, but no divine comfort. It is up to us to create the meaning we have in life – because ultimately we live in a random universe. We can take inspiration from nature and music, drama and so on.
I will conclude with a quotation which to me sum up humanism. It comes from the famous renaissance essayist, Montaigne. He had a medal which had engraved on one side: What do I know? And on the other side: All that is certain is that nothing is certain.