Exploring some of the ultimate questions that confront humanity, and responding imaginatively to them;
The ups, downs and meaning(s) of life’s journey.
Humanists feel awe and wonder – at the natural world, for example – and concern, joy and sadness just like other human beings. When it comes to praise and thanks, humanists would thank and praise other people for the good things in life, not a deity, and they do not worship. One difficulty for humanists in discussing the “spiritual” is that all so many different feelings and concepts are encompassed in the word “spiritual”, some of which they share, and some of which they do not because they are essentially religious concepts. Humanist reservations reflect the fact that humanists share the normal range of human emotions (despite sometimes being written off as coldly rational), but do not believe in gods or souls/spirits or anything supernatural.
One impact of the above can be unease amongst humanists about the word “spiritual” and discussions about how far humanists can use the word to describe their emotional and aesthetic lives. Many would avoid the word altogether if it were not so prevalent, for example in education.
In practical ways, the assumption that everyone prays or worships can be an irritant to humanists, especially when it is coupled with assertions that those who do not worship a god must therefore worship possessions or football teams. Humanists usually make time for “private reflection” in their ceremonies, and have devised their own “graces”, for use in formal situations, such as:
“… First, let us think of the people we are with today, and make the most of the pleasure of sharing food and drink together. Then, let us think of the people who made the food and drink and brought it to us, who serve us and wait on us, and who clear up and clean up after us. Finally, let us think of all the people all over the world, members with us in the human family, who will not have a meal today.”(Nicolas Walter)
There is a close relationship between what people value and what they feel. Humanists value the natural world, human relationships and culture, and these are the sources of some of their deepest feelings. They may share the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s “awe and wonder” at “the starry skies above and the moral law within”.
Humanists see religious experiences as entirely internal, subjective and personal, and as religious interpretations of ordinary human experiences, such as the feeling one might get watching a beautiful sunset or a baby being born. Humanists do not believe in miracles either, and see all these religious phenomena as explicable in naturalistic ways, by, for example, sciences such as psychology and medicine, wishful thinking or the placebo effect.
In this account of a humanist “spiritual experience”, Fenner Brockway (1888-1988), socialist MP and member of the Advisory Council of the British Humanist Association, described how it influenced his life:
“This spiritual experience came one evening as I stood looking over the green ocean towards the red sunset. A great calm came over me. I became lost in the beauty of the scene. My spirit reached out and became one with the spirit of the sea and sky. I was one with the universe beyond. I seemed to become one with all life … I have said that this experience is my religion, yet it leaves me an agnostic … I have no sense of a personal God. My philosophy is founded on the experience I described. I cannot be other than a world citizen, identifying with all peoples.”
Many humanists see such events more simply, as joyful aesthetic experiences, but this account shows how they can be interpreted, with profound effects on a humanist’s life.
The ‘ultimate questions’ for humanists are probably similar to those for religious believers. They are questions about purpose and existence: Why are we here? What happens to us when we die? Why is there so much suffering? Is there a god? How do we know what is right?
For a humanist, speaking of “the ultimate” can be problematic. Humanists ask this kind of question because they are reflective human beings, and because thinking about these questions is part of determining who they are and how they live. However, many “ultimate questions” do not seem very susceptible to the usual humanist thinking tools of evidence and reason; on the other hand, religious answers are utterly unconvincing to humanists.
Humanists have various options when they consider ultimate questions:
1. They can remain agnostic about them, acknowledging the human need to ask such questions and being prepared to explore them, but believing that we can never be certain of the answers.
2. They can adopt a rather dismissive attitude to them, perhaps best exemplified by A J Ayer in ‘Language Truth and Logic’ (1936) in which he categorises all statements that are not either true by definition or empirically verifiable as “nonsensical”, or by Bertrand Russell’s airy answer when asked how he would explain the existence of the universe, “I should say the universe is just there, and that is all.”
3. They can find their own answers. Some will look to science to provide answers. Richard Dawkins, for example, tends to do this, but he also finds a kind of transcendence in contemplating and exploring the natural world, as do many humanists. Humanists may also share the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s “awe and wonder” at “the starry skies above and the moral law within”, or experience transcendence in creativity or the arts.
Questions of personal identity – “Who am I?” – tend to be answered by humanists in relatively pragmatic, empirical terms. Everyone is a unique blend of genetic influences (some immediate, from parents and family, and some very ancient, part of the shared human heritage) and environment (upbringing, culture, education – all the external influences on us). Humanists also think that we have a great deal in common because we are all human beings, living in human societies, and tend to look to psychology, social psychology, anthropology and evolutionary psychologists for answers to questions about human nature.
Humanists respond to experiences of transcendence by seeking rational explanations. Experiences such as joy, wonder, sudden clarity or understanding, forgetfulness of self, or love, often categorised as “spiritual” can also be seen as normal human emotions, often aesthetic or to do with relationships. To seek naturalistic explanations of these experiences and to deny that they are religious is not to belittle them; they mean a great deal to those that experience them. To explain things, to “unweave the rainbow” (as Keats’ expressed his criticism of “cold philosophy” in his narrative poem ‘Lamia’) is not necessarily or even usually destructive or reductive; it may even be life-enhancing and inspiring:
“… isn’t it sad to go to your grave without wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be part of it?” (Richard Dawkins ‘Unweaving the Rainbow’)
Suffering appears to be an inevitable aspect of the human condition: few of us have lives untouched by pain, loss or failure, and none of us can avoid death. How does a humanist respond to “the problem of evil”, the impossibility of reconciling suffering with an omnipotent, omniscient benevolent god? For humanists, this is not so much a problem as a powerful argument against belief in such a god. Humanists would not blame a deity or any abstract concept of evil for suffering; nor would they look to a deity for solutions or comfort. They find these in human action and solidarity, and in themselves and their relationships.
Humanists do not believe in any kind of supernaturally inspired end to human existence, or in the possibility of surviving death. But many, along with many religious believers, are becoming concerned about the prospects for humanity in a crowded, over-exploited world with dwindling resources and rising temperatures. They see this as a natural problem, to be solved, if it can be, by human effort, which will probably include changes in behaviour and technological developments.
If humanists find any meaning in death, it will be in reflecting on a life well lived and on transience: as Marcus Aurelius put it in his Meditations (121 – 80 CE), “Nature’s law is that everything changes and passes, so that, in due course, other things may come to exist.”
The main difference between the humanist attitude to death and that of most religious believers is in the absence of belief in life after death. The only way we can possibly live on, humanists believe, is in the achievements and memories and children we may leave behind us – an extra incentive to live a good life. Belief in death’s finality is not necessarily gloomy: “Death is nothing to us: for after our bodies have been dissolved by death they are without sensation, and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us,” said Epicurus, in “Principal Doctrines”, c.300 BCE, and most humanists agree.
Humanists adopt a similarly rational attitude to life and death issues such as abortion and voluntary euthanasia. Life may be very precious but it is not “sacred” or “God-given” for a humanist and there can be good reasons to end it. Autonomy, the power to make decisions about one’s own life, is very important to humanists, and they do not, for example, believe in causing or prolonging suffering unnecessarily.
Humanists, in their ceremonies, are usually expressing a commitment to another person, as well as a public commitment to humanist beliefs and values.
Humanists think that the only reliable evidence for truth claims is empirical, and that scientific method is the only way of finding out how the world works. They accept that the findings of science are provisional, and that good theories may be superseded by better ones if new evidence appears, without being relativists. Many theories achieve the status of knowledge or truth because the evidence for them is so strong and no counter-evidence has been found. Humanists also accept that the vast explosion of knowledge in recent centuries means that it is no longer possible to know everything from first-hand experience; we have to take some knowledge on trust.
Many religious believers also trust in scientific method, empirical evidence and the experts for their beliefs about the world.
Humanists not necessarily or usually relativists, people who think that there things can be “true for you, but not for me” or that there are special “religious” kinds of truth. Humanists do not think that simply believing things makes them true, or that metaphors should be treated as if they were literally true, or that individual subjective interpretation of experience is reliable. They would use the word “faith” for ideas which are not backed up by empirical evidence.
Humanists would not believe something to be true simply because an authority, religious or secular, says it is. The experts they trust are those who employ scientific method and are prepared to change their minds when new evidence appears, and who distinguish carefully between matters of personal taste or opinion and matters of fact.
Most humanists do not think that science and religion have much in common, even though they sometimes use similar language. Some agree with the idea, popularised by Stephen Jay Gould, of non-overlapping magisteria, that is, that science and religion deal with completely different areas of experience, science with the empirical realm and religion(though not only religion) deals with ultimate questions. Others, such as Richard Dawkins, take the claims about the world made by some religious believers as evidence that religion and science are in conflict over the same kinds of truth claim, and that science gets them right, because its methodology is good, and religion gets them wrong because its “evidence” comes from sacred texts and traditions.
Humanists would look to sciences such as psychology and anthropology for explanations for the appeal and ubiquity of religious faith. They would not take ubiquity as evidence of the truth of religion, but would see it as an expression of human needs: for explanation – particularly of existence and death – for certainty, for rules and sanctions, for tribal cohesion, for ritual.
The evidence is that it is clearly possible to be both a scientist and a person of faith (as many people are).
Humanists tend to point to the resistance of religious authorities to the many scientific discoveries that they have seen as challenges to faith, as evidence of a clash of worldviews. Examples include the Church’s opposition to Galileo’s observations about the Universe, which were seen as undermining Christian beliefs about the centrality of the Earth and humankind in God’s creation, and religious condemnation of the Darwinian theory of evolution, which contradicts the literal truth of many sacred texts and suggests a godless mechanism for the development of the vast array of life-forms on Earth.
Because empirical and religious language sometimes overlap, for example in the use of words like “reality”, “truth” and “knowledge”, it is easy to imagine they share the same meaning. But they may well not, as religious concepts and expression are often very different from scientific or empirical ones.
Aesop’s Fables, ancient secular stories with strong moral (and practical) messages
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