“If the people of religion are asked about proof for the soundness of their religion, they flare up, get angry and spill the blood of whoever confronts them with this question. They forbid rational speculation, and strive to kill their adversaries. This is why truth became thoroughly silenced and concealed.”—
Abū Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyya al-Rāzi (854 CE – 925 CE), quoted in Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Doubt: A History (HarperOne, 2006), p. 227
“The liberal and tolerant society that Cameron seems to claim is at one with Christian principles has in fact been shaped by secular reasoning, by a philosophical process unhindered by dogma and guided only by a belief in human decency. If, as Cameron wrote in the Church Times in April, ‘Christian values … are shared by people of every faith and none,’ then how are they Christian values?”—Emma C. Williams, “Cameron’s Christian country and Church history”, Humanist Life, 4 June 2014
“I unambiguously disagree with religious people on matters of fundamental ontology; but I recognize that we’re all just tiny little persons in a very big universe, trying our best to figure things out. And I’m firm in my conviction that we’re making progress.”—
“Skepticism is an anti-virus program for the brain: it simply provides the tools to check ideas, combined with the knowledge that can take the weight out of bad ideas. Knowing that psychics have specific ways of asking questions that make it sound as though they’re offering information means you’re alive to the trick when you hear it. Awareness of regression to the mean and confirmation bias might stop you attributing your recovery to the copper band on your wrist or the sugar pill on your tongue.”—Michael Marshall (project director for the Good Thinking Society and vice president of the Merseyside Skeptics Society), “Skeptics will always face an uphill struggle against pseudoscience”, The Guardian
We find ourselves, not as a central player in the life of the cosmos, but as a tiny epiphenomenon, flourishing for a brief moment as we ride a wave of increasing entropy… Purpose and meaning are not to be found in the laws of nature, or in the plans of any external agent… it is our job to create them. One of those purposes – among many – stems from our urge to explain the world around us the best we can.
If our lives are brief and undirected, at least we can take pride in our mutual courage as we struggle to understand things much greater than ourselves
Religions, despite what people think of as their personal consolations, have not served the world well. They create division and conflict, they impose unlivable moralities of denial and limitation, and they demand that we think of the world as our remotest ancestors did, thousands of years ago. The cry raised by defenders of religion is: but what would you put in its place as a view of the world by which we can live? The answer is: something far better, deeper, kinder and warmer – and far more rational – namely: humanism.
Humanism is a non-religious ethical outlook based on an interest in human affairs at the human scale. It is not a doctrine or a set of rules; it is a starting point, its founding idea being that ethics must be based on the facts of human experience. For some, the result of thinking for themselves about ethics might be close to a conventional moral outlook; for others, the result might be less conventional. Either way, there are just two constraints: that one’s choices must not be aimed at harming others, and that one must be able to make a solid case for one’s outlook if challenged by others.
One great flaw in religion-based moralities is that they are not thought through and chosen on the basis of individual responsibility, but are imposed from outside in a one-size-fits-all way. As a result, religious morality too often cuts across the grain of human nature, distorting it and crushing its natural impulses, not least as regards sex – always an inflated subject of interest for religious moralists, who throughout history have been frightened of it and bent on limiting it as strictly as possible.
As this shows, humanism is a response to Socrates’s invitation to live the chosen life, rather than a life prescribed by doctrines inherited from the traditions, especially the religious traditions, of whatever community one happens to be born into. Religious moralities assume that there is one great truth and one right way to live for everyone. Another great flaw with religious morality is that it says if you do not obey, you will be punished. The threat of punishment is not a logically adequate ground for moral behaviour, even if it is prudent to avoid punishment by behaving as ordered. Unless one’s moral outlook comes from being thought-out and chosen for oneself, it is at best an imitation of morality, at worst a subversion of it.
The foundation of a humanist ethic is that it has to start from our best understanding of human nature and the human condition. The “human condition” is somewhat easier to describe than “human nature”, that complex thing which literature, psychology, philosophy and individual experience all struggle to understand. Whereas a study of history and a thoughtful reading of literature together offer abundant insights into the human condition, the sheer diversity in human nature makes the task of understanding it a work that could demand whole lifetimes as we seek to make sense of ourselves and others, especially the others we care about.
But the effort to understand human nature is itself constitutive of what makes a good and worthwhile life. It is easy to prove this: consider the opposite, namely, a life lived in carelessness and indifference towards the question of who we are and how we can best relate to others. What a waste that would be. In attempting to understand humanity we can expect to find that what motivates people is, too often, not very admirable and sometimes downright appalling. But this is not the majority story. In every village, town and city in the world, every minute of each day, there are millions of acts of ordinary co-operation, courtesy and kindness, and they constitute the majority of human interactions.
An important assumption that humanism makes is that people are, or at least can be, self-creating and self-determining. But, in many cases, the burden of history and society makes self-creation impossible. This certainly happens when people are trapped in a religious tradition which tells them what to think and how to behave, and refuses to allow them freedom.
But the effort to be a free-minded individual in pursuit of worthwhile goals suited to one’s individuality is surely central to the very idea of the good: it is what gives us our best chance to be fully human, and at the same time – in the spirit of shared humanity – to develop our affections in our communities, to promote the values of kindness and tolerance, and to celebrate the enjoyment of all the things that make life beautiful and satisfying.
Because humanism draws on 2,500 years of non-religious ethical thinking since Socrates, it is a deep, rich tradition of insight, wisdom and inspiration, and it is this without any supernaturalistic beliefs involved. That means that it offers the possibility of truly global ethics that everyone could live by. Consider a utopia in which people, having been liberated from religion at last, can agree to base their ethics on a generous view of human nature and needs.
A. C. Grayling, “Humanism’s faith in reason represents our best hope”, The Guardian
“If we are honest — and scientists have to be — we must admit that religion is a jumble of false assertions, with no basis in reality. The very idea of God is a product of the human imagination. It is quite understandable why primitive people, who were so much more exposed to the overpowering forces of nature than we are today, should have personified these forces in fear and trembling. But nowadays, when we understand so many natural processes, we have no need for such solutions. I can’t for the life of me see how the postulate of an Almighty God helps us in any way. What I do see is that this assumption leads to such unproductive questions as why God allows so much misery and injustice, the exploitation of the poor by the rich and all the other horrors He might have prevented. If religion is still being taught, it is by no means because its ideas still convince us, but simply because some of us want to keep the lower classes quiet. Quiet people are much easier to govern than clamorous and dissatisfied ones. They are also much easier to exploit. Religion is a kind of opium that allows a nation to lull itself into wishful dreams and so forget the injustices that are being perpetrated against the people. Hence the close alliance between those two great political forces, the State and the Church. Both need the illusion that a kindly God rewards — in heaven if not on earth — all those who have not risen up against injustice, who have done their duty quietly and uncomplainingly. That is precisely why the honest assertion that God is a mere product of the human imagination is branded as the worst of all mortal sins.”—
Paul Dirac, remarks made during the Fifth Solvay International Conference (October 1927), as quoted in Physics and Beyond : Encounters and Conversations (1971) by Werner Heisenberg, pp. 85-86
When the Islamists in Iraq took over the government through the elections in 2005, it was a wakeup call to me and all those who believe in human rights, freedom and humanism. In addition to the Islamist control of the government as well as the destruction of the civil society by radical Islamic militias, some […]
“I give theists a hard time for not accepting the implications of modern science, but I am also happy to give naturalists a hard time when they don’t appreciate the enormous task we face in answering all of the questions that we used to think were answered by God. We don’t have final answers to the deep questions of meaning and fulfillment and what it means to lead a good life. Religion doesn’t have the final answers, either; but maybe it has learned something interesting over the course of thousands of years of thinking about these issues. Maybe there is some wisdom to be mined from religious traditions, even for naturalists (which everyone should be).”—
“As a political process, however, multiculturalism means something very different. It describes a set of policies, the aim of which is to manage and institutionalize diversity by putting people into ethnic and cultural boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. It is a case, not for open borders and minds, but for the policing of borders, whether physical, cultural or imaginative.”—
“It doesn’t seem to me that this fantastically marvellous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different planets, and all these atoms with all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil—which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama.”—
Richard Feynman, interview for Viewpoint, conducted by Bill Stout for KNXT Television, c. 1959; collected in Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track (2005)
“Too often I find that faith is mysterious only selectively. Believers constantly attribute all sorts of qualities to their gods and have a list of doctrines as long as your arm. It is only when the questions get tough that, suddenly, their God disappears in a puff of mystery. Ineffability becomes a kind of invisibility cloak, only worn when there is a need to get out of a bit of philosophical bother.”—
“During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”—
James Madison, later 4th President of the United States (1809 – 1817), “A Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments”, addressed to the Virginia General Assembly, 20 June 1785