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Why I Am a Humanist

1. My Early Life

Citation Information

Allan, Leslie 2020. Why I Am a Humanist, URL = <https://www.rationalrealm.com/philosophy/ethics/why-i-am-a-humanist.html>.

This text is an edited transcript of Leslie Allan's address to the Critical Thinkers Forum on Sunday 6th October, 2019 at the Unitarian Church Hall, East Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

Photo of speaker: Leslie Allan

Thank you for inviting me and for your warm welcome. Today, I want to share with you three things. First, I want to say a little about how I became a humanist—about what attracted me to humanism. Next, I will share a little what humanism means to me. I will outline what I think are the three guiding principles of humanism. Finally, I want to explore briefly a humanist view of the good life; what are the things that give our lives meaning and purpose.

So, let me start by saying a little bit about my background and my upbringing. Sharing my story will illuminate how I came to see myself as a humanist and an atheist. I was born in Budapest, the capital of Hungary. My mother fled Hungary with me as a refugee in 1957. I grew up with my parents and my two siblings in a poor northern suburb of Melbourne. Even though life was a struggle, I always found solace in books about the natural world. What first piqued my curiosity were the stars and the planets. What were they made of? How many are there? Even today, I'm still fascinated by this mysterious world of galaxies, neutron stars and supernova.

After a while, I found there were other interesting things to learn about. I got enthralled by the science of chemistry. What are atoms made of? How do these atoms combine into the endless array of molecules that make up our ordinary day-to-day objects? Even though my school was not well resourced, I was fortunate enough to be taught by some wonderful and highly-committed teachers who encouraged me to go on with my studies.

In my teens, I causally picked up a magazine on electronics. I quickly became fascinated with how transistors, diodes, and other components combine to make up a radio or a television. That led me to study electronics at RMIT (now called RMIT University), with electronics becoming my first career. What intrigued me then and still intrigues me today is how only four fundamental physical forces combine with the properties of an unseen but small number of fundamental particle types to create the dazzling complexity of the world we see. In all of my studies, what really stood out for me was one key lesson: that by using the scientific method, we can make sense of the world. We can understand what causes disease, what makes bodies attract and how humans evolved on this planet.

Image of astronomical objects against background with large orange planet

As I found out later, it's this approach to understanding ourselves and our world that characterizes a humanist approach: this idea that the universe in all its majesty and mystery is understandable through rigorous scientific enquiry.

At High School, I was also interested in Politics and Social Studies. This was in the days when our Prime Ministers included John Gorton, Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser. These were times of great political upheaval. Great controversies at that time included our participation in the Springbok tour: whether we should compete with a nation that practices racism in sport. There were also massive demonstrations about our involvement in the Vietnam War. Was this a just war? And should we be spending billions of dollars on the space race to the Moon when children are dying from want of food and medicine? These big moral and political questions of the day occupied my thinking. Here again, I was taught by a couple of great teachers who probed and challenged us to ask and try to answer these hugely thorny questions.

This active interest and participation in the great social issues of the day was another early marker for my latent humanist attitude. Humanists encourage all of us to play a positive part in the social groups to which we belong; our local communities, our state and our nation. But more than that, humanists impress on us that we are global citizens and that what we do at the local level impacts people in faraway lands that we will never see nor meet. For example, how we eject pollutants into the air, manufacture and dispose of plastics and buy more clothes from the fast-fashion industry than we will ever wear impacts the child growing up in Somalia and Bangladesh.

Book cover: Animal Liberation by Peter Singer

I'm so pleased to see how this humanist respect for truth and science on the one hand and our recognition that we are truly living in a global village in which we are all responsible for each other has been picked up by the young people of today. I'm thrilled that millions of people all over the world are taking the lead from 16-year-old Swedish student, Greta Thunberg, and other great young leaders. Through the United Nations and Humanists International, humanists are campaigning for much greater international co-operation and collaboration to meet the very real threats to human existence and human welfare.

But don't think for a moment that humanists are only concerned about human welfare. Don't be fooled by the name, 'Humanism'. From the Enlightenment, leading humanists have been advocating taking into account the welfare of animals in our decision-making. You may have heard of these seminal early humanist thinkers; Henry Sidgwick, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. The person who started off the modern animal rights movement in 1976 with his book, Animal Liberation [1976], is humanist Peter Singer. Peter Singer is an Australian philosopher and ethicist who now teaches at Princeton University in America. When it comes to how we treat animals, what matters for a humanist is not whether they can think, but whether they can suffer. You may recognize that insight as being formulated by that great Enlightenment Utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham.

Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832)

Jeremy Bentham: The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

Here again, the young people of today are taking the lead. I speak with many under-thirties who are taking an active role campaigning against the suffering of livestock that we see happening on an industrial scale. This is the humanist attitude in action. I see these same young people actively working in the Effective Altruism movement. A humanist recognizes that in trying to do the most good that we can do—trying to minimize the suffering of humans and animals as much as possible—our resources are limited. With this humanist approach, we are applying scientific principles and methods in working out where we should spend our altruistic efforts for maximum impact. (See, for example, GiveWell at www.givewell.org.)

I hope you are getting a flavour for why I'm attracted to a humanist approach to life. I want to change gears a bit now and talk a little about my life after school. But to make sense of that I need to say a little about my church life while at school. When I was 12 years old and after an eight-week course of lessons, I received the Eucharist at our local Catholic Church, St Christopher's. Now, I can't remember what led me to do that. Perhaps my devout Catholic Aunt had a hand to play in that. I do remember, though, that after I received my confirmation, I did not return to the Church.

Also, in my late teens, my step-father suddenly decided that our family is going to attend the local Protestant Church, St Philip's. I quiet enjoyed my time there, especially the Sunday School lessons that were run by a delightful young lady. As suddenly as my step-father decided we were starting at the church, he just as abruptly decided we were no longer going. My step-father showed signs of various kinds of mental illness. One mental malady was that he was paranoid, thinking at times that people were after him. I suspect that it was some minor action by a church member that led him to abruptly cut all ties with the church.

In all of this, as much as I liked the people in the church, I never really bought into the key Christian teachings; that the world was created in six days, that Noah saved a select few after a world-wide flood, that Jesus died for our original sin and rose from the dead on the third day. For me, these teachings just plainly contradicted what we knew was possible given our scientific view of the world and also just did not make philosophical sense.

Book cover: A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell

In my late teens, I also started reading some of the seminal atheist and humanist writers, such as Kit Mouat, Hector Hawton, Margaret Knight, Julian Huxley (grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, friend of Charles Darwin) and Bertrand Russell. That reading, along with my interest in science, primed me for what was to happen next. Following High School, I enrolled at RMIT. There I studied electronics for four years. In my class was a very committed Christian, Gary. Gary and I were friends and we got on very well. During lunch times and other breaks, we would get into some very vigorous discussions about religion. So much so that it piqued my interest enough to enrol at La Trobe University for a degree part-time. My main interests were philosophy and the history of religions. I studied there for nine years while I worked full-time and started a family. I became interested in two key areas in philosophy. Firstly, epistemology; that is, the philosophy of knowledge and ethics, or moral philosophy. With the former, we ask questions such as: how do we know what we do know and how does the scientific method work? In moral philosophy, we enquire into the nature and foundation for ethics, and how we decide rationally the key moral questions of our time. These questions still interest me today.

It was when I began my studies that I first joined our local humanist society, Humanists Victoria. It was called the 'Humanist Society of Victoria' back then. We've only recently changed our name. In the last four years or so, I've become active again. And that's because I'm passionate about getting our law makers to use reason and evidence when deciding public policy and framing legislation. I'm also passionate about creating a society where every human being can reach their potential. Humanists act to defend those who do not have a voice, including the poor, our indigenous peoples and factory-farmed animals. As a humanist, this is what gets me out of bed in the morning.

Copyright © 2020

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