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Humanism - Study Notes

HUMANISM by Stephen Law

Stephen Law is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London. The Introduction to his book seeks to answer the question ‘what is humanism?’. Basically, ‘humanism’ is a system of thought, or an outlook, in which human values, interests and dignity are particularly important. Such an outlook can of course be shared by religious people as well as by atheists and agnostics. But those who organize under the ‘banner’ of humanism usually have a more focused definition in mind, ‘a worldview that by no means everyone accepts’.

He itemizes seven key characteristics of humanism:-
1. The belief that science and reason should apply to all areas of life, with nothing considered ‘off-limits’.
2. Humanists are either atheist or agnostic, sceptical about the claim that there is a god or any other supernatural beings such as angels or demons.
3. The belief that this life is the only one we have, with no reincarnation or heaven or hell in an afterlife.
4. Humanists are committed to the importance of ethics and human values. They reject the claim that there cannot be moral value without God.
5. Humanists emphasize our individual moral autonomy. We should make our own moral judgments and decisions, without handing over responsibility to an external authority such as religion or political leader or creed. Moral education is particularly important.
6. Humanists believe our lives can have value and meaning whether there is a god or not.
7. Humanists are secularists, favouring an open, democratic society where the state is neutral on what beliefs, religious or otherwise, which individuals choose to hold.

However, Law goes on to itemize a number of views which are sometimes mistakenly associated with humanism.
These include:-
Utopianism. Whilst believing in science and reason, a humanist does not necessarily believe that these will inevitably produce a “Brave New World” of peace and contentment.
Humanists do not believe that only human beings matter; many believe that the happiness and welfare of other species are important too.
Humanists are not necessarily utilitarians who suppose that maximizing happiness and minimizing suffering are all that matter.
Not all humanists are ‘naturalists’ who insist that the physical universe is the only reality there is. The reality of numbers or of ethical values are not inconsistent with humanism.
Not all humanists embrace ‘scientism’, the belief that all questions can be answered by science. Most obviously, insofar as science can only be concerned with questions of fact, it cannot answer moral questions (nor, I would add, aesthetic or artistic ones).
Humanists are not ‘naysayers’ who merely oppose the ideas of others. On the contrary they are for a great deal – justice, freedom, education and ethics, for example.
Some humanists are antipathetic towards religion, but not all are. Many are happy to work with religious people who share the same social and moral goals as they do.

Towards the end of his Introduction, Law says that ‘Humanism’s focus is on the ‘big questions’, for example of what ultimately is real; of what ultimately makes life worth living; of what is morally right or wrong, and why; and of how best to order our society. While religion typically addresses such questions, they are clearly not the unique preserve of religion. Such questions also belong to philosophy, and were being addressed in a non-religious way before the appearance of Christianity.’

He expands upon this theme in Chapter 1, a ‘History of humanism’, noting that a sceptical attitude towards religious teaching is a feature of some early Indian writing.
He mentions the 6th Century BC ‘Carvaka’ school of thought which asserted there was not a deity and that the natural, material world is all that there is – that priests are useless and religion a false human invention. We should live life to the full, seeking out pleasure and happiness. Confucius, in ancient China, took the existence of the gods for granted, but his ethical and political philosophy was independent of any commitment to religion. He is particularly associated with the Golden Rule: ‘Do not do unto another that you would not have him do unto you. Thou needest this law alone. It is the foundation of all the rest.’ The Golden Rule is embraced by many religious people, including Jesus, but also by many humanists.

Western philosophy originated in Ancient Greece, where it took a questioning, critical attitude to things, religion included. It also led to early notions of democracy and justice, and a secular, humanistic outlook. Many thinkers in Ancient Rome were equally secular, especially Cicero and Seneca (who famously remarked that ‘religion is recognized by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful’).

But the Ancient World was superseded by the rise of Christianity and the fall of the Roman Empire. The mediaeval period was dominated by the Church which, on philosophical and theological questions, espoused an ingenious blend of Christian theology plus Aristotle’s philosophy, two thinkers of note being St. Anselm and St. Thomas Aquinas (about whom there is also a book in the Very Short Introduction Series). The Renaissance, which originated in 14th century Italy, represented a change of direction. There was renewed interest in the secular thinking of the ancient world, and Renaissance art and literature became secular rather than religious. I would however mention one discordant note: Niccolo Macchiavelli (1469-1527) was as much a man of the Renaissance as Michaelangelo or da Vinci, but his book The Prince advocated a purely pragmatic and totally amoral approach to government and politics.

The Renaissance included the revolutionary scientific work of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo, and the scientific revolution of the 17th century brought the first formulation of scientific method by Francis Bacon plus the inauguration of modern Physics by Sir Isaac Newton. By the 18th century the modern era had come into existence with the Enlightenment, the so-called Age of Reason. One important thinker was Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), a sceptic and an agnostic. He was also a humanist (with a small ‘h’ at any rate) as is evidenced by his writings on justice and society. The same applies to many other thinkers and writers of that era.

The 19th century was notable for Darwin’s theory of evolution and the utilitarian moral theories of Bentham and Mill that defined moral goodness, basically, in terms of human happiness – that is, in purely secular rather than religious terms. As Law says, this was a good illustration ‘of how an intellectually robust and sophisticated view of morality can be articulated and defended quite independently of any religious belief’. Increasing numbers of thinkers during that century were purely secular, two notable atheists being Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Marx, although they were not ‘humanists’. In the UK increasing numbers of public figures were publicly prepared to doubt the claims of religion.

‘Ethical Societies’ sprang up in Europe and the USA, openly debating religious and ethical matters. In Britain the South Place Ethical Society, originally founded in 1793, rejected belief in God in 1888 and still exists today. In 1896 the Union of Ethical Societies was formed, renamed the British Humanist Association in 1967. In the 20th century humanism became part of the ‘mainstream’ of public opinion, religious belief going into sharp decline throughout Europe. On the other side of the Atlantic however, religious fundamentalism is still widespread in the USA where one third of citizens believe in the literal truth of the Bible. And in many other parts of the world, religious intolerance is rife.

Chapter 2 of Law’s book is ‘Arguments for the existence of God’. He notes that humanists, atheist or agnostic, typically suppose that belief in a god is neither reasonable nor justified. Religious believers on the other hand typically suppose their belief is not unreasonable; even if God’s existence cannot be proved, it is not an unreasonable belief as is, say, believing in fairies. Many theists, therefore, seek to offer rational arguments for the existence of God.
The ‘cosmological argument’ raises the question of ‘why is there anything at all rather than nothing at all?’, and the answer is ‘God’. Scientific evidence suggests that space and time started with a ‘Big Bang’ 13 or 14 billion years ago, but why was there a Big Bang? The theological answer is ‘God’. But this is hardly a proof of God’s existence. It only leads to the question ‘but what caused God?’, so to say that everything was caused by God only pushes the mystery back a step, as Law says, rather than to have solved it.

The theistic response at this stage is often to argue that God is a ‘necessary being’, meaning that it is part of the definition of God that He or She or It should exist. This is known as the ‘ontological argument’ for the existence of God. Unfortunately, as we noted when we looked at Descartes back in December, nothing can exist by definition because ‘existence’ is not a predicate. This means that when you define something, you simply list its attributes – but this is not the same as saying that it exists, which is a separate question. You can have a perfectly accurate description or definition of a fairy or a unicorn for example without saying or implying that it exists in reality. Questions of definition and of existence are entirely different things. That is why existential statements cannot follow from definitions, so the ‘ontological argument’ for the existence of God fails.

Another classical argument for the existence of God is the ‘argument from design’ (which we encountered in Thomas Dixon’s ‘Science and Religion’). Given the complexity of the universe and everything within it, living creatures especially, the universe is so complex it must have had a designer, which we call ‘God’. It could not have come about by chance.

Superficially plausible, the ‘design’ argument suffers from one major defect, amongst others. The problem is that the notion of ‘design’ ordinarily applies to artifacts where a clear distinction can be made between the object designed and its designer. Furniture, clothing, hats, machinery all have designers. But how can this idea apply to the entire universe? We observe the universe, or part of it, but we don’t observe the universe and its designer. ‘Design’ is not the only version of the argument; another is divine purpose. The difficulty here is that it makes sense to talk of purpose or purposeful behaviour in relation to human beings and animals whose behaviour can be understood in terms of objectives or intentions of one sort or another, but how can this apply to an apparently non-sentient entity such as the universe, or to an event such as the so-called ‘big bang’?

Another argument in support of ‘intelligent design’ and ‘divine purpose’ is that the universe is so ‘finely tuned’ for the evolution of intelligent life that this could not have come about by chance. But this can be queried; some physicists have said it is not ‘obvious that there is only a very narrow set of physical parameters within which life might arise’. Also, as Richard Dawkins and others have said, an intelligent cosmic designer must be at least as complex as the universe he is supposed to have designed, so shouldn’t this lead us to suppose that the designer had a designer (and so on ad infinitum)?

In summary although I think Law’s refutations of the traditional arguments for the existence of God are quite correct, I suspect that the vast majority of religious believers do not base their beliefs on for example the cosmological argument or the argument from design. These are arguments devised by theologians. Most ordinary believers base their belief on faith, not on abstract reasoning. But is faith the same thing as verifiable, objective knowledge? Also, there are different religious faiths, many of which are mutually contrary to each other so they cannot all be true. But by what objective criterion can we tell which faith is true and which is false? Unless we have such a criterion, then we only go round in circles. Another argument is to say that millions of people believe in God; millions of people can’t be wrong; therefore there is a God. But millions of people can be wrong; in mediaeval times, most people believed in imps, demons, hobgoblins etc. and that the world was flat.

Chapter 3 is ‘An argument against the existence of God’, and the basic problem is the existence of evil.
According to the three main monotheistic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), God has three important characteristics.
(1) God is omnipotent, or maximally powerful.
(2) God is omniscient, knowing everything.
(3) God is supremely benevolent.

However, evil exists; there is suffering, and there are morally wrong actions carried out by human beings. The problem is that if evil exists, there cannot be an omnipotent, omniscient and supremely benevolent God. That is because an omnipotent God would have the power to prevent evil, an omniscient God would know that evil exists, and a benevolent God would want to prevent it. But evil exists. God can be omnipotent or omniscient or benevolent, but not all three. Otherwise God would have eliminated evil long ago.

Theological explanations for evil are called ‘theodicies’. Some theists argue that evil mostly results from the actions of human beings who exercise their own free will to do evil things. God must have known the consequences of giving human beings free will, but free will is said to be of such value and importance as to outweigh the evils that sometimes result. But this is debatable, and the free will defence does not address the problem of evils such as disease and natural disasters which are not usually caused by human beings. A common theistic response is to say that natural evil is justified in order that human beings can improve their moral character by alleviating suffering and by being charitable. These moral goods outweigh the natural evils. But this is also debatable – and the sufferings of animals must have been going on for millions of years before human beings ever evolved.

As a sort of ‘thought experiment’ Law considers the ‘evil god hypothesis’ as being as consistent with the evidence as the ‘good god hypothesis’ of the traditional monotheistic religions. He briefly mentions miracles and religious experience as evidence for believing in a good God, but the evidence is dubious. On miracles David Hume’s view was that false or mistaken testimony by the credulous was a much likelier explanation than that the laws of nature have actually been overturned. Likewise, on religious experience, whilst we have no good reason to doubt people who report seeing houses, animals, other people etc. in daily life, reports of visions such as the Virgin Mary are more likely explainable in terms of wishful thinking or over-active imagination (ditto for ghostly apparitions late at night).

Another conundrum he mentions is that a religious believer can always say ‘I may not be able to prove that there is a God, but no-one can prove there isn’t’. This suggests that atheism is as much of a ‘faith position’ as theism. In my own opinion the best answer comes from logical positivist philosopher A.J. Ayer in Language, Truth and Logic (1936) where he argued that since both theism and atheism are beyond empirical verification, they are each of them neither true nor false but objectively meaningless.

In Chapter 4 Law moves on to ‘Humanism and morality’.
He notes that three challenges tend to be raised by religious people:

(1) How can there be ‘good’ without God? If there is no God there is no objective ‘yardstick’ against which human values can be determined to be the right ones or not. Without such a yardstick morality reduces to little more than personal preference, becoming arbitrary and relative which it is not.

(2) How can we know what is good without God to guide us?

(3) How can we be good without God who rewards us if we are good and punishes us if we are not? It is said that things are right or wrong, good or bad, because God says so. This is the divine command theory. However, the argument is flawed as explained by ancient Greek philosopher Plato in his Euthyphro dialogue. The critical question is: ‘Is something good because God says it is good, or does God say it is good because it is good?’

Which answer should the theist give to this dilemma? If the theist says something is right (or wrong) because God says so, then there is no right or wrong prior to God issuing any commands. So morality is still arbitrary and relative only now at the level of God. Alternatively if God says something is good (or bad) because it is good (or bad), then this shows that God and morality are distinct. Either way, the divine command theory collapses.

So, what is the basis, or the origin, of morality? Is it just a question of relativistic individual preference, or social convention – which is, in its own way, just as ‘relativistic’? On p82 Law argues there is ‘scientific evidence that our morality is a product of our natural, evolutionary history. Certain moral attitudes are universal. The world over, people have the same basic moral intuitions about stealing, lying and killing, irrespective of whether or not they are religious. Pretty much every society is drawn to something like the Golden Rule: do as you would be done by.’

He asks ‘why?’, and I think the answer is that even allowing for local variations, there are certain modes of behaviour such as respect for other people which are required in any human society for it to be viable as a society, as many other theorists have commented. Religions, Law says, ‘merely codify the kind of basic morality to which humans are naturally disposed anyway.’ Law goes on to ask ‘what is distinctive about humanist morality?’ and he emphasizes there is no ‘set’ humanist viewpoint or ‘party line’ on such issues as same sex marriages, euthanasia, abortion or animal rights. Humanists disagree on these matters as much as religious people do. But to answer his question, he suggests that humanists are more likely to give greater moral weight to the consequences of actions than would a religious person who gives more weight to God’s commandments.

He summarizes four distinctive features of a humanist moral outlook.

(1) Humanists emphasize our moral autonomy, so a humanist will hold a moral position not because they have been instructed to do so but because that is the position they have arrived at after careful, independent consideration.

(2) Humanists reject moral standpoints based on ‘divinely revealed truth’. For example it is possible to oppose abortion if you are so minded not for religious reasons but purely secular ones such as the rights if any of the foetus about which there can be a reasoned debate.

(3) According to the humanist, morality is essentially tied up with human flourishing, but it is recognized that other species matter too.

(4) Humanists emphasize the role of reason in making moral judgments.

Law concludes this chapter by emphasizing that humanism does not mean the same thing as what he calls ‘anything goes relativism’ where the truth about what is right or wrong is whatever we say it is. This would be flatly contrary to the morality of the Golden Rule upon which he places so much emphasis. He observes that if moral relativism were true, there would be no point in seeking to discuss what’s right or wrong. I would add that as others have noted, relativism is only a whisker away from nihilism.

In Chapter 5, ‘Humanism and secularism’, Law moves from theoretical issues more towards practical questions.
By a ‘secular society’ he means not a society in which there is no religion at all but ‘simply one in which the state itself takes a neutral view with respect to religion’. A secular state, in this sense, would however protect certain freedoms – to believe or not to believe, to worship or not to worship, to express religious views – or non-religious views. But no particular viewpoint is given a privileged status by the secular state.

Most Western states are considerably ‘more secular’ than they used to be, but few seem to be perfect. The British state for example gives the Church of England a privileged position, and allocates 26 seats in the House of Lords to bishops – who can use their power to block legislation that might have popular support such as the bill on assisted dying. Irrespective of the pros and cons of assisted dying, the whole arrangement, Law argues, is biased and wrong. Ditto for the use of public money to fund religious schools.

But quite apart from this sort of thing, a notable advantage of having a secular state is to avoid the dangers of allying the state with a particular religion. Law says the secular state offers a way of reducing or avoiding the violence that can arise between competing religious groups, especially if one group has state endorsement.

But there are many other practical difficulties which Law discusses for a few pages. What should the secular state do if airlines, supermarkets etc. require their employees to follow certain dress codes which are inconsistent with the dress codes of a particular religion (such as wearing a crucifix)? Should the state provide ‘protection’ to religious groups – or does this raise other difficulties, for example that TV programmes should not satirize this religion or that one? It is worth noting, I think, that these are issues which can arise whether the state is ‘secular’ or not. Another difficulty he identifies is that ‘religious beliefs often form part of a person’s identity in a way that other beliefs do not’, he says, although I suppose one can think of a few exceptions.
Chapter 6 is ‘Humanism and moral and religious education’. Humanism favours a liberal approach to moral education which is in marked contrast to the authoritarian, disciplinarian approach that was traditionally taken towards religious education. Law notes however that atheistic political regimes, as under Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were just as authoritarian and intolerant of dissent and open-minded criticism (if not more so).

But what is the humanist approach to moral education? Basically it is to emphasize individual moral responsibility. This does not mean ‘abandoning children to invent their own morality from scratch, to tell them that every moral point of view is as valid as every other and to allow them to do whatever they like’. Also, ‘encouraging children to think and question does not require that we abandon rules and discipline’. He emphasizes that ‘a humanist approach does not involve telling children that every moral point of view is as correct as every other’. He noted in Chapter 4 that humanists reject relativism.

Law’s approach, then, is to educate children to think philosophically about moral issues. This means to support opinion with evidence, to identify and avoid inconsistency in reasoning, to think through the consequences of actions, and so on. I would remark that this is a form of critical thinking that is by no means the preserve of philosophers, it is equally important in science, law, politics, business and in life generally. Emphasis is given to respect for others which has to be the cornerstone of moral education.

Chapter 7, ‘The meaning of life’, considers the view that it is only through God and belief in God that life can have meaning. Law argues that life can be perfectly meaningful without God or religious belief. So, what is meant by ‘a meaningful life’? Obviously there is much more to this than simply feeling happy and contented with things – not that there’s anything particularly wrong with that. Summarizing what he says very briefly, he considers various ways in which a life can be meaningful without involving the notion of God.

Examples include doing morally good works for the benefit of others; raising a happy family; achievement in art, science, exploration, music, sport and many other fields of endeavour – he could also have mentioned industry, commerce or politics. He particularly mentions the ability to be self-motivated, to set one’s own objectives and to see them through to completion. Also plenty of lives can be ‘meaningful’ and worthwhile in perfectly humble, modest ways, such as being a good parent – which many would say is probably one of the most important things.

But there is no set definition of the meaning of life; we are all different, after all. It is noteworthy that in the various examples he gives of ‘a meaningful life’, none of them require or depend upon there being a God.

Chapter 8 is ‘Humanist ceremonies’.
Births, marriages and deaths are as important to humanists as to anyone else. Accordingly the British Humanist Association publishes guides for people considering humanist ceremonies and provides trained humanist celebrants. Law notes that in 2009 BHA celebrants conducted over 7000 funerals in the UK, and mentions that in England and Wales over 70% of marriages are non-religious.

He discusses the importance of ritual and ceremony in human lives, whether one is religious or not. Referring to philosopher Wittgenstein’s views, he says the purpose of ritual and ceremony is not necessarily to do anything ‘supernatural’ as in a religious ceremony; it is to focus the attention and focus the emotions at serious times in our lives, as well as at the more joyful. I would add that to voluntarily sign a document in the presence of witnesses can sometimes, in law, be very important.....

RHS, 2014.