June 25, 2007

Understanding Secular Humanists

Happy human Humanist logo, white and ...
Happy human Humanist logo, white and golden version (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It is a mistake to think that people who are not religious lack a functioning moral system. As A.C. Grayling recently noted, secular humanism provides nonbelievers with just such an ethical system, "...all the richer indeed for being the result of reflection as opposed to conditioning..." Simply put, a secular humanist is someone whose ethical system is not rooted in a particular religious tradition.

An excellent example of secular morality is the so-called Golden Rule. This moral precept, that one should treat others as one would like to be treated, predates the Abrahamic religions, effectively shredding the claim made by many Christians that their bible is somehow the source of all morality. When considering whether a particular act would be immoral, one can consider its likely impact on others without needing to attempt to cherry pick from one's "holy" text.

As Grayling points out, humanists are unconcerned with threats of supernatural punishment or reward, focusing instead on the only life any of us will ever have.
And this is for the sake of this life, in this world, where we suffer and find joy, where we can help one another, and where we need one another's help: the help of the living human hand and heart. A great deal of that help has to be targeted at the other side of what the human heart is - the unkind, angry, hostile, selfish, cruel side; the superstitious, tendentious, intellectually captive, ignorant side - to defeat or mitigate it, to ameliorate the consequences of its promptings, to teach it to be different; and never with lies and bribes.
One of the things that matters to most secular humanists is truth. Thus, humanists are likely to reject belief systems based on fanciful desire alone, preferring to consider systems grounded in reality. As Grayling implies, this is one of the factors that may motivate some humanists to reach out to others blinded by religious dogma.
These are fellow human beings, and humanists profoundly wish them well; which means too that they wish them to be free, to think for themselves, to see the world through clear eyes. If only, says the humanist, they would have a better knowledge of history! If only they would see what their own leaders think of the simple version of the faiths they adhere to, substituting such sophistry in its place! For whereas the ordinary believer has a somewhat misty notion of a father-cum-policeman-cum-Father Christmas-cum-magician personal deity, their theologians deploy such a polysyllabic, labyrinthine, intricate, sophisticated, complexified approach, that some go so far as to claim (as one current celebrity cleric does) that God does not have to exist to be believed in. The standard basis of religious belief - subjective certainty - is hard enough to contest, being non-rational at source, but this is beyond orbit. It is hard to know which are worse: the theologians who are serious about what they say in these respects, and those who know it for a game.
Humanism may not be for everyone because it requires a certain tolerance for ambiguity. Unlike religion, humanism is not going to provide one with many unchanging certainties. Humanists are far more likely to recognize and accept uncertainties and unanswered questions that believers who combat uncertainty with faith. For many, this intellectual freedom is part of the appeal of humanism.

Those who insist that humanism is moral relativism, that it is evil, or that it cannot provide an adequate form of morality are mistaken and should be encouraged to learn more about what they are determined to criticize. Those who claim that humanism is arrogant need to look in the mirror and examine the arrogance entailed by belief in a personal god who has any concern for their welfare. Finally, those who see humanism as void of emotion, passion, or awe are going to need the most help in overcoming their religious indoctrination. Only then may they be able to experience the joy of living in accordance with reality.
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