Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Why I Am Not A Humanist

The talk at Skeptics in the Pub last night was Objections to Humanism. Here are some of mine:

Andrew Copson of the BHA spoke at length about evolution, science, morality without religion and the value of optimism. While there was nothing much to disagree with, nor was there anything specific or unique to humanism. I asked in the Q&A what is added by claiming as humanist the acceptance of evolution, the value of scientific enquiry and so on. The reply (eventually) was that 'It's just a word thing' and that humanism is a useful label. But labels are useful only if they make it clear what something is.

There are plenty of people who accept evolution and subscribe to a non-religious moral code but who do not call themselves humanist. It is however a useful bit of soft soap if you're a politician who can't bring themselves to admit publicly that you're an atheist.

According to the BHA website: 'Humanism is the view that we can make sense of the world using reason, experience and shared human values and that we can live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs'.

Although they make no claim to be the sole purveyors of this view, they also make no claim to say anything original or to add anything to these views. In other words, humanism has no USP.

The website continues: 'Humanists seek to make the best of the one life we have by creating meaning and purpose for ourselves. We choose to take responsibility for our actions and work with others for the common good'.

Again, nothing unique there, no added value.

One argument against humanism by some believers is that it denies the 'specialness' of humanity. This is an argument levelled against evolutionists and atheists too - even its accusers can't find anything original about it to attack.

Copson countered this by quoting (and agreeing with) another humanist (whose name I didn't catch) who said: 'It is love that makes sex human'.

Does this mean that sex without love is not human or is less than fully human? Billions of people throughout history might disagree with him. Condemning or at least dismissing sex without love is sailing close to certain religious points of view. Moreover, it is rather prudish and twee. Or maybe whoever said it just wasn't having the right kind of sex.

It was said that it is the bond between us that makes us special. There was no real explanation of what 'special' means. He did allow that we are possibly special only to each other but this still supports an anthropocentric view. Why do we need to see ourselves as special? Certainly we are different from other animals but they are also very different from each other.

There was also a retrospective look at various philosophers and others throughout history whose ideas were described as humanist in some form. This is like firing shots at a wall and then drawing a target round them. The people mentioned were not humanists, most of them existed before the term was coined. Democritus and Epicurus, for example, were cited as forefathers of humanism but they are just as much the precursors of scientific rationalism. Nothing is gained by tagging them as proto-humanists except to try and give humanism some sort of historical weight and worth.

The BHA have claimed that there are 17 million humanists in the UK after a poll found that 36% of people have a naturalistic world view. This will be news to 16.999 million of them. Nothing is gained for the cause if people are humanist without knowing it and trying to claim 17 million kind of looks a bit needy.

Humanism as a world view is sometimes accused of being 'just' an alternative to religion. Although Copson denied this, many humanists say that humanism gives them an identity, a worldview and set of moral values/rules similar to those provided by religion but without any supernatural element. In this case, humanism appears to be the methadone to the opiate of religion.

The BHA provide non-religious celebrants for funerals and other ceremonies. This is a much-needed service but could quite easily exist independently of humanism. They just happen to be the organisation behind this service, but they need not be.

There were possibly stronger reasons for joining a humanist group in the past when religious people and values dominated and non-believers of any kind were often isolated. But with current technology, wherever you live and whatever you believe, you can find like-minded people. There is of course still a value for some people in meeting up with others who share their worldview - we are social animals after all - but humanism is no more significant a definition than being a member of any other special interest club that contributes to or informs your identity and relationship with others.

The non-religious are still under-represented in some areas of public life while religious groups are accorded privileges so it can be useful to have a term to set yourself apart and distance yourself from claims made by religious leaders to represent the whole of society. But humanist does this no better than atheist, agnostic, non-believer, rationalist, freethinker, secularist and others.

To identify as humanist is to identify as either atheist or agnostic along with some or all of a rather vague set of ethical and pro-science statements. But for me, it's such an inchoate, nebulous concept that I can't engage with it at all.


  1. Interesting post. I think Humanism works as a label for people who have actually 'thought about it', in the sense that if we assume the vast majority of people in the country today are non-believers, most are going to be of "never really thought about it" variety - whereas if you opt-in to the 'humanist' label as well, it implies that you've participated in a certain intellectual journey to arrive at your conclusions.

  2. I can think of one very useful reason for the label--my non-theist Boy Scout just smiles and tells folks he's a Humanistic Jew.

    By the time they unpack that, he'll have his Eagle and we'll be done.

  3. @James - But I've thought about it.

  4. @TK Sorry, but it doesn't seem as if you have. It seems more like you went in prejudiced and came out prejudiced.

  5. No, I have carefully thought about humanism, decided it's not for me and the talk didn't change my mind. Which it could have done as I know plenty of nice humanists.

  6. On further reflection, you're confusing a considered choice with prejudice. Every informed choice entails a value judgement of some sort. For example, I have chosen not to be a Christian because I find the basic tenets of Christianity flawed. The same goes for the Tories, alternative medicine, fox hunting, pro-lifers and many other things. Would you call me prejudiced against every concept, practice or group I have chosen an alternative to?

  7. TK: You have presented a flawless argument but I feel there is another dimension to this. Humanism, as a quasi-religious organisation (sort of), has outgrown its original purpose and is an anachronism not unlike Esperanto, artificial and plagiaristic of the belief systems and moral codes it bravely attempts to replace. It does provide a forum for like-minded people to engage in debate and does have a moral undertone or purpose that some free-thinking groups may lack. On balance I feel that it is mostly harmless but I do wonder at the possible loss of moral certainty that is traditionally underpinned by religious belief and what will happen as our society becomes increasingly divorced from its cultural roots. Maybe it is a good thing and ultimately not nebulous to replace our present 'Morals Come From God' with a rational code of living that is necessary to acheive a more perfect society? We have laws but, outside of traditional religion, no other forms of over-arching social code other than the residual cultural expectations that are mostly outmoded, archaic and often nonsensical. Maybe somebody should be giving this some attention and thought for our future society that may be virtually without religion and where people have no incentive to follow any moral code other than 'Looking After Number One'? TK: Forgive the presumption but you have the benefit of having been brought up in a vaguely christian way (in the nicest sense of the word :-))and would appear to be a 'moral and good person'. This colours your character in a subtle way, rather like a background radiation and I wonder how our society would be without this background 'glow' of being 'Good and moral' - 'moral' in the broadest sense of the word, as a rational person would understand that to mean? D

  8. I doubt whether religion will ever go away completely. Given the nature of the human mind, we will always come up with some non-rational concept or other. It would be interesting to see what religion looks like in a thousand years time.

    It is hard to separate the religiously inspired moral underpinnings of upbringing from self-determined moral codes but it may help to remember that we are social animals. Like others who live in groups, we have evolved to follow a certain level of moral codes in exchange for the benefits of group living. So I don't think the majority of people would turn to 'looking after number one'.

    I think that teaching 'be good or society will fall apart and your life will be awful' is just as useful 'be good or you'll go to hell'.

  9. [there was an 'as' missing after 'useful']

  10. TK: It is certainly true that societies that thrive have a developed moral structure, usually as a counter to the more selfish activities that are its reason for success (ie good at trading, unequal exchange of goods and money, military power etc)

    It might be said that there can be 'No Good without Evil to provoke its happening' This doesn't go against either side of this debate, but it is something that should be kept in mind. We don't need a religion to tell us how to live but, most people need a short-hand reference point to refer back to; a moral back stop. If so many millions of people 'need' someone in a tall hat and a satin frock to tell them how to live, then that is something to consider because we are not all blessed with the ability to formulate our own set of values. D

  11. Mrs Do As You Would Be Done By in The Water Babies is as good a moral guide as any. An early embodiment of Rawls' veil of ignorance, perhaps?

  12. What you say makes no sense. How can you have carefully thought about humanism if you said the word has no meaning? What were you thinking about then?

    1. I didn't say the word has no meaning, I said that humanism is an inchoate, nebulous concept. Besides, you can coin a word to describe a set of real characteristics or behaviours that has no meaning in itself other than being a tag. Many products have names that mean nothing in themselves but that doesn't stop you thinking about the product and its attributes.

  13. Humanism have NOTHING to do with religion. It is possible to be a humanist and still believe in some god, as the humanist is someone who values reason, evidence and human agency (like Scully from the X-Files).

    Also a humanist isn't something you are in the same sense someone is a fireman or a republican, it's an ethical viewpoint.

  14. Sorry but I found this a weird essay and discussion, but then I am coming at this from the outside looking in.

    I do participate at the CFI forum because I can relate to the folks and enjoy the dialogue, I occasionally read The Humanist magazine since their perspective makes sense to me - but I know nothing more about the organization(s) bearing that name or the various dramas that seem to be going on.

    I myself have always thought of "Humanism" not as a "movement" - which it seems to me is what Tessa has does. For me "Humanism" is a definition for a certain weltanschauung (way of looking at the world.)

    As for me, I am my own cognizant being who's been blessed with a moment in time for personal discovery on this incredible wonderful Earth of ours. I trust my witnessing and judgment over and above any of the dogmatic tenets that make up religions.

    My journey is one of witnessing, experiencing, learning, living every day I've been blessed with - I AM A HUMANIST ! Not because of anything I belong to or because of any organizations that may have taken on that label, but because I am a human who believes in his humanity above that childish (and destructive) faith that we're all the sheep of some needy drama queen of a God in Heaven.

    {OK MrDevi says it better: humanist is someone who values reason, evidence and human agency}

    "Nothing is gained for the cause if people are humanist without knowing it and trying to claim 17 million kind of looks a bit needy." Comes across as a bit churlish - but yes of course there are millions of people who have never thought of themselves as humanist but who still believe in those basic notions of our personal humanity and awareness above any religion notions of a jealous lord, or such, that others want to cram into our minds.

  15. I know I am late to this post, but so have others been, judging by the dates of their comments.

    I find it rather remarkable if Andrew Copson thinks of humanism as "just a word thing" and a "useful label". Really, the executive of a national humanist association doesn't have a higher view of its philosophy than that?

    I'm somewhat curious as to how many skeptics who consider themselves humanists. Many (most?) seem to do so when asked, but not really bothering with it otherwise. How come?

  16. To be a humanist is really little more than stating the obvious: A lion may be considered a 'Lionist' because it behaves as any lion would do. Only a sociopath/psychopath might be exempt, but even so, such people are aware of there own shortcomings as empathic humans and often try to disguise their own behaviour, mostly to avoid the pain and inconvenience of being found out.

    To self identify as a humanist is to take it a step further, and to give some lip-service to the genuinely moral structure that Humanism espouses. That is not to say one is being cynical or disingenuous, but it is a good thing to practise.

    I may or may not be a 'Humanist' per se, but I do try to be a reasonably good person even if I often 'revert to type' and display the more negative side of my humanity. I was brought up as being vaguely christian/CofE, drifted into agnosticism (or, more honestly, grappled with conflicting belief/non-belief) and have been a proud atheist for many years.

    I am probably a humanist without really bothering to check, and hold on to my 'good samaritan'/Robin Hood/Sir Galahad/Biggles examples from my childhood (I do still struggle with my inner Fascist Dictator, but he is mostly confined by the other chaps!)

    Joking aside, I do think that the continuing existence of the Humanist Society is a good and positive thing in society, and it helps to focus the notion that morality and moral codes are essentially human and not proscribed by some non-existent god