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Why I Am a Humanist

2. The Humanist Approach

People of different colour holding hands around globe

OK. That's a little about my background and what attracted me to humanism. You may be asking yourself: 'but what exactly is a humanist approach to life and living and how does it differ from other approaches?' I think the humanist approach can be summed up in these three themes or principles.

  1. reason and evidence
  2. compassion and equality
  3. autonomy and dignity

Let me expand on each of these three dimensions.

Reason and Evidence

The first thing to note is that humanists respect reason and evidence. But what does that mean? Humanists think that it is through the use of logic and reason that we reliably arrive at truths about ourselves and the universe. Conversely, we don't consider intuition and faith as reliable guides to knowledge. We think that our personal beliefs should align with the evidence put to us. In the social sphere, we think that public policy should be informed by the best scientific evidence we have available. Applying this principle puts into serious question the effectiveness of pseudo-medical treatments such as iridology and homeopathy. It also encourages us to get acting on climate change before it's too late.

Applying the scientific method leads us to a naturalistic view of humans and the universe. Science teaches us that the visible universe is some 14 billion years old, that there are four fundamental forces of nature and that life evolved over some 3.5 billion years of evolution on earth, with Homo sapiens first appearing some 200,000 thousand years ago.

That doesn't mean that we know everything and that there are no deep mysteries yet to be solved. Scientists are working on figuring out what happens inside a black hole, how quantum entanglement is possible and what is the nature of dark matter and dark energy. Perhaps the biggest and most elusive mystery is the nature of consciousness; how do the 80 billion neurons that make up a normal living human brain give rise to the feeling of love and the sensation of a red rose?

Humanists and atheists are sometimes thought of as joyless worshipers of cool, hard reason with no appreciation of love, wonder, music and art. Nothing could be further from the truth. Humanists stand in awe at the magnificent complexity of the universe, the beauty of nature, the all-consuming power of love and the inspiration that drives art and music.

Compassion and Equality

Book cover: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker

The next humanist principle is compassion and equality. Regard for other human beings and all other sentient creatures stands at the centre of the humanist outlook. Our feelings of empathy and our drive to act altruistically are encoded in our genes and reinforced through our upbringing. As Harvard University psychologist, Steven Pinker [The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, 2012], described it, our desire to help those who are suffering reflects the better angels of our nature.

But to whom ought we show our compassion? To our family? To our friends? Of course. But who else? For a humanist, what marks a truly moral act is one in which we treat people as equals; that is, where we treat people impartially. So, for a humanist, you ought not get special treatment just because you are white, wealthy, heterosexual or male. Treating people as equals is fundamental to what it is to act morally.

For humanists, this imperative to treat people with compassion and as equals did not come from above or beyond. It is the result of our long evolutionary history in which we evolved to form co-operative social groups. Let me illustrate this idea.

Imagine for a moment all of you here going on a holiday by sea. Your ship becomes stranded on a desert island with none of the crew surviving. You are left with some food, materials to make some shelter and the natural resources on the island. To survive individually and as a group, what rules would you make to govern your behaviour? Would you decide on the rule, 'Kill your fellow survivors when you can get away with it'? Would you choose, 'Steal from the food store when no one is looking'? Would you decide on, 'Break your promises when you can't be bothered keeping them'?

Of course, the answer is obvious when you think about it. See, for a humanist, there is nothing mysterious or out-of-this-world about the moral rules that we want others to live by. They are simply the rules that we must all conform to if we are to get the mutual benefits of co-operation; for us to survive and thrive.

The Golden Rule Poster, Paul McKenna

As civilizations have progressed, the range of people to which we show compassion and equal regard has expanded. Slaves, women, gays and lesbians and our indigenous peoples are more and more treated as equals. This universalist ethos is best expressed in the Golden Rule, 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you', and in the Utilitarian principle, 'Act so as to bring about the most happiness and the least suffering'. Since the 1970s, this feeling of universal regard is continuing to expand bit by bit as we include non-human animals within our circle of care.

At their noblest, the world's religions actively promote this idea of compassion for all, regardless of a person's religious belief, ancestry, gender and sexual preference. The Golden Rule can be found in the holy texts of all of the major world views. This is wonderfully illustrated in the Golden Rule Poster [McKenna, 2001]. Unfortunately, as history teaches us, many of these world views have also divided us into an in-group and an out-group; the sheep and the goats, the saved and the infidel, the chosen race and the outcast. Humanists actively work to reduce this blind prejudice—this sectarianism that divides us—to build strong bridges between community groups and nations.

Autonomy and Dignity

The third humanist principle that I want to outline here is autonomy and dignity. With this principle, we affirm that everyone should be able to go about their lives without unnecessary restrictions by the government and other people. We ought to be given our autonomy—the freedom to do what we want—to the maximum extent possible. Constraints on our freedom should occur only when our actions restrict the freedom of others or cause them harm. For example, it is this principle that motivated humanists for many decades to campaign against laws that criminalised homosexuality.

Humanists regard human freedom as an ideal because each of us is different. Each of us has our own unique talents and dispositions, drives and values. Global research by Ortiz-Ospina et al [Happiness and Life Satisfaction, Our World in Data, 2017] shows that it is only by exercising our freedom that we can fully put our special capabilities and plans towards creating our own happiness.

Same-sex wedding ceremony of Irina Shumilova and Alyona Fursova

It is this capacity for happiness and suffering that also gives us our inherent dignity. Each of us is a unique sentient being; a universe in our own right. Each of us is a locus of consciousness. One person's pleasure and pain is of no greater or lesser value than any other's. It is this belief in the inherent dignity of each person and of their worth as autonomous agents of their own future that humanists have campaigned hard for various legislative reforms. A recent example here is our fight for a person's legal right to die if they are suffering from intolerable and unavoidable pain. In a similar vein, humanists the world over campaigned for gays and lesbians to have the freedom to marry whomever they chose.

It is in the name of this principle also that humanists historically campaigned against slavery and, much later, for full civil rights for women and blacks. For a humanist, even if there is no higher power looking over us, fighting for freedom and the inherent dignity of all, regardless of race, gender, social position and sexual preference, is worth doing.

Copyright © 2020

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