Feelings & Experiences

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.

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