What is Humanism?
“Humanism” is a word that has had and continues to have a number of meanings. The focus here is on kind of atheistic world-view espoused by those who organize and campaign under that banner in the UK and abroad.
We should acknowledge that there remain other uses of term. In one of the loosest senses of the expression, a “Humanist” is someone whose world-view gives special importance to human concerns, values and dignity. If that is what a Humanist is, then of course most of us qualify as Humanists, including many religious theists. But the fact remains that, around the world, those who organize under the label “Humanism” tend to sign up to a narrower, atheistic view.
What does Humanism, understood in this narrower way, involve? The boundaries of the concept remain somewhat vague and ambiguous. However, most of those who organize under the banner of Humanism would accept the following minimal seven-point characterization of their world-view.
1. Humanists place particular emphasise on the role of science and reason. They believe that, if we want to know what is true, reason and science are invaluable tools – tools we should apply without limit. No beliefs should be placed beyond rational, critical scrutiny.
2. Humanists are atheists. That is not to say that they must be atheists in the positive sense, however. Humanists need not deny there is a god or gods. But they do not sign up to belief in a god or gods. Humanists tend to be similarly sceptical about the existence of other supernatural agents of the sort that many religions suppose exist, such as angels and demons.
3. Humanists suppose that this is very probably the only life we have. There is no heaven or hell awaiting us. Nor are we reincarnated.
4. Humanists usually believe in the existence and importance of moral value. Humanists tend to have a particular interest and concern with moral and ethical issues. Most Humanists believe that actions can be objectively morally right or wrong. They therefore deny that the existence of objective moral values entails the existence of God. So far as knowledge of right and wrong is concerned, Humanists place strong emphasis on the role of science and/or reason. In particular, they usually suppose that our ethical framework should be strongly informed and shaped by an empirically grounded understanding of what human beings are actually like, and of what enables them to flourish. Obviously, when a Humanist offers moral justifications, they will justifications rooted in something other than religious authority and scripture.
5. Humanists emphasize our individual moral autonomy and responsibility. They insist each individual must ultimately take responsibility for making moral judgements, even if that judgement is that that individual ought to stick with the moral framework handed to them by a tradition or community. They suppose that, convenient though it might be if we could each could hand over responsibility for making tough moral decisions to some external religious, political or other leader or authority, that cannot be done (except perhaps in some very special cases). A good moral education will be one that avoids encouraging passive, uncritical acceptance of a particular moral and religious or other world view (including Humanism itself), and will instead focuses on developing the intellectual, emotional and other skills individuals will need to discharge that responsibility properly.
6. Humanists are secularists in the sense that they favour an open, democratic society and believe the State should take neutral stance on religion. The State should not privilege religious over atheist views, but neither should it privilege atheist views of those of the religious. Humanists believe the State should protect equally the freedom of individuals to hold and promote both religious and atheist points of view. A Humanist would obviously profoundly opposed to the kind of theocracies that coerce people into accepting a particular religious belief, but they are no less opposed to totalitarian states in which citizens are obliged to accept atheism. Humanists want a level playing field so far as religion and non-religion are concerned. This is not the case in, for example, the United Kingdom, where for example twenty-six Bishops are automatically allocated seats in the House of Lords and where the State funds increasing numbers of various religious, but not Humanist, schools. These are two important campaign issues for the British Humanist Association.
7. Humanists believe that we can enjoy significant, meaningful lives even if there is no God, and whether or not we happen to be religious. Many Humanists would go further and insist that, in some respects, our lives may become rather more meaningful in the absence of gods and/or religion. Some argue that religions can sometimes act as an impediment to our leading meaningful lives by, for example, leading us not to think hard about the Big Questions; forcing us to live a certain way out of fear cosmic punishment; and/or wasting our lives promoting false beliefs because of a mistaken expectation of a life to come.
What Humanism is not
The above sketch of Humanism does not include certain features that are nevertheless often associated with it. These include:
Speciesism. Humanists, as defined above, are not obliged to believe that only human beings matter, morally speaking. Nor should Humanism be taken to require the view that it that it is by virtue of being a member of a particular species – the human species – that subjects are deserving of special moral consideration (which is not to say that humans are not, as a rule, deserving of special consideration). Many Humanists would condemn such an attitude as a form of “speciesism” – a form of prejudice against other species. This is not to say that Humanists are necessarily immune to speciesism, as the philosopher Peter Singer notes: “… despite many individual exceptions, Humanists have on the whole been unable to free themselves from one of the most central of these Christian dogmas: the prejudice of speciesism.” (Singer, 2004, p19)
Utilitarianism. Many Humanists are drawn to some form of consequentialism, and some would probably describe themselves as utiiitarians. True, almost all Humanists believe that happiness and suffering matter, morally speaking, and should certainly be taken into account when weighing up ethical questions. However, utilitarianism is not obligatory for Humanists. There is a wide variety of ethical theories open to Humanists, including for example, virtue ethicism and non-theistic versions of Kantianism.
Utopianism. Some Humanists are highly optimistic. Often they are supposed to be naively so, believing that science and reason must ultimately triumph over the forces of superstition and unreason, ushering in a Brave New Word of peace and prosperity. However, there is no requirement that Humanists be utopian, and in fact many are rather pessimistic.
Scientism. Some Humanists embrace scientism – the view that every meaningful question can in principle be answered by application of the scientific method. However, Humanists are not obliged to accept scientism and many reject it. Certainly, the view that moral questions are ultimately answerable by scientific means is not accepted by all Humanists, many of whom are persuaded that the problem of the is/ought gap raised by Hume (the problem that empirical observation reveals only what is the case, not what ought to be, and one cannot one legitimately infer an “ought” from an “is”) means that while our moral judgements should be scientifically informed, and while science certainly has a very important role to play in establishing what is morally right or wrong, moral judgement cannot be justified in wholly scientific terms (though note that the Humanist Sam Harris, in his book The Moral Landscape (Harris, 2011) argues that science can, in fact, answer moral questions, once morality is understood as those values that lead to human flourishing). Humanists can, and often do, also take the view that metaphysical questions such as why the universe exists, or why there is anything at all, are questions that science cannot answer. Some Humanists reject these particular questions as meaningless (asking “Why is there anything at all?”, they may suggest, is akin to asking “What’s North of the North Pole?”), while others, while not denying the question is legitimate, take the view that, while they may not know what the answer is, they can nevertheless justifiably rule certain answers out, and indeed, can even rule some out on the basis of observation of the world around us (for example, they may suppose that the suggestion that universe is the creation of an all-powerful, all-evil deity can be ruled out on the basis of observation, for doesn’t the universe contains far too much good for it plausibly to be the creation of such an evil god?). Those Humanists who are positive atheists may suppose that “Why is there anything at all?” is a bona fide question to which they do not, and perhaps cannot, know the answer, yet may also quite consistently suppose they can reasonably rule certain answers out – such as that the universe was created by the Judeo-Christian God.
Naturalism. Humanists are not obliged to embrace naturalism, the view that the natural/physical reality is the only reality there is, and/or that the natural/physical facts are the only facts that there are. Many Humanists do accept naturalism. Some Humanists even define Humanism so that, by definition, Humanists sign up to naturalism. However, plenty of those who describe themselves as Humanists would certainly question, and many would reject, naturalism. Some may reject naturalism on the grounds that it is vacuous or confused concept. What is contrast with? The supernatural? But if the supernatural is then defined as the non-natural, both concepts remain empty. Other Humanists may reject naturalism because, for example, they are mathematical Platonists. Many mathematicians suppose mathematics describes a transcendent, non-natural reality. Such a mathematician could still be an atheist, of course – even a positive atheist. They may reject belief in god, gods and/or supernatural agents. They can also be a Humanist, for they are still free to subscribe to the seven views outlined above. Humanists may also reject naturalism because they suppose there exist moral facts and that moral facts are non-natural facts, or because they suppose there are facts about minds that are non-natural facts. Again, such views do not, or do not obviously, require that one sign up to any sort of theism. A global survey of professional philosophers and graduate students carried out in by philpapers.org in 2009, found that just under half of them are wedded to naturalism, yet only 14.6% accept some form of theism. So a significant proportion fail to accept either theism or naturalism. Yet they may still be Humanists, as characterized here.
Materialism and physicalism. Materialism is the view that the only reality is material and physicalism the view that the only reality is physical. Neither is a philosophy that Humanists are obliged to accept, for much the same reasons that they are not obliged to accept naturalism. That charge that Humanists are “materialists” is often doubly misleading because “materialist” is also used to denote a shallow person preoccupied with acquiring material possessions. An ambiguous charge of “materialism” against Humanists therefore does them a double disservice.
Given that neither Humanism, nor positive atheism, as I have characterised these terms, requires that adherents accept scientism, naturalism, utilitarianism, utopianism, materialism or physicalism, it in sufficient to refute Humanism or positive atheism that one succeed in refuting one, or even all, of these views. While some Humanists may sign up to some, even all, of these various positions, they are free to abandon all of them without abandoning their Humanism.
Critics of Humanism often assume Humanists are wedded to at least some of the above views. Popular attempted refutations of Humanism – and also attempted refutations of positive atheism – often involve no more than attempts to refute, say materialism or naturalism. Such arguments leave Humanism unscathed.
Is Humanism wholly negative?
It is sometimes said that Humanists are not “for” anything. Humanism is defined entirely in terms of what it rejects. It should be clear why this particular charge does not stick, given how Humanism is characterized above.
It is true that atheism is defined in a negative fashion – in terms of a non-acceptance or denial of a belief. However, Humanism involves more than just atheism. All Humanists are atheists, but not all atheists are Humanists. Stalin and Mao were atheists, but were not Humanists. That is because Stalin and Mao failed to sign up to certain key Humanist views on secularism, freedom and moral autonomy Indeed, atheists like Stalin and Mao would persecute those who qualify as Humanists in the above sense. They were very much opposed to free thought on moral, religious and other important questions. Humanists, by contrast, are for freedom of thought and expression. They are for an open, democratic society. They are also for encouraging and helping children to think critically and independently on moral, religious, political and other big questions. Humanists do not just reject approaches to answering such questions based on religious scripture and dogma, they are also for positive alternatives to such approaches, including (as far as is possible) the application of science and reason.
What of another charge also sometimes levelled at Humanism – that is merely an arbitrary collection of disparate ideas rather than a coherent world-view? Humanism, like religion, focuses on certain “big questions” of the sort that have been of concern to humanity since before the dawn of civilization – questions about how we should live, how society should be organized, about what is right and wrong, about what is of ultimate importance, and so on. Religions too have focused on such questions, but they are not the exclusive preserve of religion. There is a long tradition of non-religious philosophical thought on such questions running back to Antiquity. It is on this non-religious intellectual tradition that Humanism draws. What pulls together the seven threads outlined above into something like a system of thought is their shared focus on “big questions”, a degree of interconnection (for example, scepticism about gods will lead to scepticism about the suggestion that our moral sense derives from a god), and the pivotal role played by the first thread – Humanists try to answer these questions through the application of science and reason, rather than relying on revelation, scripture, etc. Rightly or wrongly, Humanists believe Humanism is the most reasonable world-view to adopt. They would (or should) discourage acceptance of Humanism as some sort of dogma.
The Enlightenment roots of modern Humanism, and the role of tradition
Clearly, Humanist thinking draws heavily on, and has much in common with, the Enlightenment thought. During the Enlightenment, individuals were encouraged to throw off reliance on tradition – particularly religious tradition – and think for themselves. Denis Diderot’s Eighteenth Century Encyclopedia defines the Enlightened thinker as one who
trampling on prejudice, tradition, universal consent, authority, in a word, all that enslaves most minds, dares to think for himself.
Probably the most familiar definition of Enlightenment comes from the philosopher Immanuel Kant. In a magazine article, Kant characterized Enlightenment as the
[e]mergence of man from his self-imposed infancy. Infancy is the inability to use one’s reason without the guidance of another. It is self-imposed, when it depends on a deficiency, not of reason, but of the resolve and courage to use it without external guidance. Thus the watchword of the Enlightenment is Sapere Aude! Have the courage to use one’s own reason! (quoted in entry on “Enlightenment”, Honderich, 1995).
Sapare Aude could easily be a slogan of the modern Humanist movement.
However, some critics of the Enlightenment suggest that what Kant encouraged individuals to do, to apply their own powers of reason independently of any tradition, cannot be done. Whatever forms of reasoning we employ are born of and dependent on some tradition or other, as the contemporary philosopher Alistair MacIntyre notes:
all reasoning takes place within the context of some traditional mode of thought. (MacIntyre, 1985, p.222)
We can never achieve a tradition-free perspective. Hence what Diderot suggests we do – cast aside all tradition and think for ourselves – cannot be done.
Given modern Humanism’s Enlightenment roots, has MacIntyre also raised a significant problem for Humanism? I cannot see that he has. Humanists are not obliged to accept that the application of reason should be tradition-free. Indeed, Humanists themselves typically point out that they are drawing on a long intellectual tradition that runs back to Antiquity. True Humanists say is that nothing should be deemed off-limits so far as critical scrutiny is concerned. Certain beliefs should not be considered immune, certainly not because they happen to be traditional religious beliefs, for example. However, that is a point with which MacIntyre himself concurs. He insists:
[n]othing can claim exemption from reflective critique. (MacIntyre 1994, p.289)
It is one thing to say that, in applying reason, we can’t help but draw on a tradition. It is quite another to say that we shouldn’t subject traditional beliefs to critical scrutiny.
MacIntyre also suggests that the Enlightenment thinkers made a mistake in supposing that morality can be given a wholly rational foundation. That was certainly Kant’s view – he supposed that the rabbit of morality could be conjured out of the hat of reason without appeal to tradition. However, it is now widely supposed that Kant was mistaken about that. But then, because the Enlightenment thinkers had kicked away the old moral foundations of (largely religious) tradition, they left morality without any foundation at all. As a consequence, across the post-Enlightenment West, morality is in a state of collapse. The only cure, it is sometimes suggested, is a return to the kind of religious tradition that previously underpinned Western morality.
Notice however, Kant’s characterization of Enlightenment does not entail that followers of Enlightenment thought sign up to the view that morality can be given a wholly rational foundation. That morality can be given such a foundation may have been Kant’s view, but it was not a view universally shared by Enlightenment thinkers (it was not David Hume’s view, for example), and it is, more relevantly, not generally the view of Humanists. Humanists believe we should apply reason as far as we are able. In particular, they believe we should apply reason in attempting to answering moral questions. And there’s no doubt that the application of reason within the moral sphere can be a valuable exercise – in, for example, revealing unacknowledged consequences of our most basic moral convictions, revealing internal tensions or inconsistencies in our moral positions, exposing how our moral reasoning is based on faulty logic or false empirical assumptions, and so on. But that is not necessarily to suppose that morality can be founded on reason alone.
Humanism and moral relativism
Humanists are sometimes accused of taking a relativist position, particularly with regard to moral value. While a few Humanists may knowingly embrace relativism, many quite explicitly reject the relativist view. Still, it is often suggested by critics of Humanism that moral relativism is an unavoidable consequence of Humanism. The kind of moral relativism to which Humanists are typically accused of having committed themselves (even if unwittingly) is that the truth about what is morally right or wrong is relative to individuals or communities. There no truth with a capital “T” so far the wrongness of female circumcision, polygamy, or even murder, is concerned. What is true for one individual or community may be false for another. This is because moral value is a subjectively-rooted property, like deliciousness.
Why suppose Humanism entail relativism? Some theists maintain that God is the only possible source and foundation of objective moral value. So, they argue, if there is no God, then judgements about moral value can boil down to nothing more expression of subjective taste or preference. Those Humanists who are positive atheists, then, cannot avoid the slide into moral relativism.
However, the principle that God is the only possible foundation of objective moral value is, to say the least, contentious. The principle is not widely accepted among professional philosophers. Arguments for the principle often turn on dubious assumptions, such the assumption that positive atheism entails naturalism, which is untrue.
Even if the principle that God is the only possible foundation of objective moral value could be established, and that some such foundation is required if there are to be such values at all, a positive atheist Humanist might maintain that such is the strength of the case against the existence of a God capable of grounding such values that belief in objective moral values must, then also be abandoned. However, instead of embracing moral relativism, such a positive atheist might instead adopt moral nihilism, insisting not that moral value is relative, but that it is non-existent. If a Humanist is, by definition, someone who accepts the reality of moral value, then someone who came to adopt a nihilist position would no longer be a Humanist. However, some of those who maintain that moral value is an illusion, but nevertheless want to organize to help other human beings flourish, etc. do indeed describe themselves as “Humanists”. Whether such individuals should be classed as a Humanist is debatable. Perhaps the requirement that Humanists accept the existence of moral value is too strong (which is why it is not built into my seven point characterization above)
Whether or not such a moral nihilist can rightly be called a Humanist, moral relativism is certainly a difficult position to square with Humanism, for a number reasons. Note, for example, that the Humanist view that we ought to apply reason in trying to figure out what is morally right or wrong sits uncomfortably with moral relativism. If relativism is true, the moral position you arrive at after careful, rational reflection will be no more or less true than the one you start with. In which case there is no point in engaging in such reflection – at least not so far as discovering what is true is concerned. Those Humanists who are committed to the view that the application of reason can help reveal what is true, morally speaking, in effect reject moral relativism. And in fact many do so quite explicitly (see for example Simon Blackburn’s British Humanism Association Voltaire Lecture “Does Relativism Matter?” (Blackburn 2001)
What kind of justification do Humanists give for their most basic moral principles? There is no single, official Humanist justification that Humanists are obliged to endorse. However, many Humanists are drawn to something like the following pragmatic justification. Moral norms serve certain purposes, such as allowing us to live together in relative harmony and facilitating cooperation. If we want to pursue these goals, certain core norms must be adhered to – which helps to explain why certain basic norms are found in almost almost every culture, such as prohibitions on stealing, lying, and breaking promises.
A Humanist justification along such lines is offered by the writer and broadcaster Margaret Knight:
Why should I consider others? These ultimate moral questions, like all ultimate questions, can be desperately difficult to answer, as every philosophy student knows. Myself, I think the only possible answer to this question is the Humanist one – because we are naturally social beings; we live in communities; and life in any community, from the family outwards, is much happier, and fuller, and richer if the members are friendly and co-operative than if they are hostile and resentful. (Knight, 1955)
Such a pragmatic answer sidesteps the thorny philosophical question of ultimate moral foundations (a question to which, according to Humanists, even theism does not offer a satisfactory answer) by beginning with the assumption that we do at least share certain goals. Once it is acknowledged that morality is essentially tied up with the promotion of human flourishing, the relativistic view that what is morally right or wrong is nothing more than a matter of personal subjective taste or preference is no longer tenable (what I might subjectively prefer need not be what will allow myself and others to flourish).
Will we be good without religion?
It’s often suggested that if religion is undermined, morality will collapse and the fabric of society will unravel. In so far as Humanism stands in opposition to, and tends to undermine, religious belief, then, it is a threat to civilization.
But what is the evidence for the view that moral behaviour requires a religious underpinning?
One popular line of argument is to point to, say, declining levels of religiosity and (it is alleged) declining levels of moral behaviour and over the last half-century or so, and to conclude that the former is the primary cause of the latter. However, such an argument would as it stands, commit the post hoc fallacy. The observation that two events happen one after the other or simultaneously does not, in isolation, provide much support to the claim that the events are causally related.
But in any case, while religiosity does indeed appear to be declining across much of the West, is moral behaviour also in decline? Invited to attend a conference at which various people – mostly religious leaders – were invited to consider Britain’s “post-Christian” future, I was not much surprised to find the conference beginning with much collective hand-wringing about the morally awful state of the nation. However, after two days of reflection, a majority of attendees came to the conclusion that Britain was actually morally better than it was a half century ago, not least because it is no longer as racist, sexist and homophobic as it once was. It is true that some indicators of morality, such as criminality, do reveal a decline in moral behaviour, but that does not establish that the country is, on balance, less moral than it used to be.
Even supposing that Britain is less moral than it used to be, it does not follow that decline in religious belief is the primary cause. There may be more vandalism and petty street crime and burglary. But there are other explanations for an increase in crimes of that sort, such as: people no longer know their neighbours well, homes stand empty for much of each day. Tightly knit communities are effective at controlling local crime. Communities are certainly less tightly knit than they used to be, and that has at least as much to do with changing economic and other circumstances as it has to do with decline in religious belief.
Assuming a rise in levels of crime, delinquency, sexually transmitted disease, etc. over the last half-century or so, does the evidence support the view that the primary cause is decline in religious belief? If a decline in religiosity were the primary cause, then we would expect those countries that have seen the greatest decline to have the most serious problems. But that is not the case. Countries in which levels of religious belief are comparatively low, such as Canada, Japan, and the Scandanavian nations, do not have-greater-than average levels of crime, delinquency and sexually transmitted disease.
Also note that while levels of violent crime may be up in many countries since the 1950s, they are dramatically lower than they were two centuries ago, when those same countries were very religious indeed. High levels of criminality can and clearly do have causes other than loss of religious belief.
The thought that religion is a necessary underpinning for morality is also contradicted by history. Chinese history provides a straightforward counter-example to the thesis that, without a religiously-grounded morality, civilizations cannot survive. Francis Fukuyama points out that
the dominant cultural force in traditional Chinese society was, of course, Confucianism, which is not a religion at all but rather a rational, secular ethical doctrine. The history of China is replete with instances of moral decline and moral renewal, but none of these is linked particularly to anything a Westerner would call religion. And it is hard to make the case that levels of ordinary morality are lower in Asia than in parts of the world dominated by transcendental religion. (Fukuyama, 1992, p.108)
We find much the same levels of moral behaviour, and also much the same kind of basic moral code, in China as we do in Europe over the same period – despite a lack of religious foundation for moral behaviour in China. Indeed, The Golden Rule was formulated by Confucius before it was embraced by Christianity. From the perspective of other cultures, the assumption that people won’t be good without belief in God is baffling, as the Chinese writer Lin Yu Tang points out:
To the West, it seems hardly imaginable that the relationship between man and man (morality) could be maintained without reference to a Supreme Being, while to the Chinese it is equally amazing that men should not, or could not, behave toward one another as decent beings without thinking of their indirect relationship through a third party. (Lin, Yu Tang, 1938)
In short, the thought that a non-religious, Humanist society cannot be a stable, moral society is not well-supported by the available evidence, and in fact appears to be undermined by much of that evidence.
Given that many atheists continue to behave at least as morally as their religious counterparts, and that the least religious developed democracies countries appear to be as morally healthy as the most religious, some religious critics of Humanism maintain that while Humanism/atheism may not have brought about the moral collapse of these societies yet, the collapse is nevertheless coming. Such irreligious individuals and societies are living off the accumulated “moral capital” previously built up by religion, capital that will eventually run out. The US neoconservative thinker Irving Kristol warns:
For well over 150 years now, social critics have been warning us that bourgeois society was living off the accumulated moral capital of traditional religion and traditional moral philosophy. (Kristol 1999, p.101)
This warning continues to be echoed by, for example, Bishop Michael Nazir Alli. Interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on 6th November 2006, Ali said
British society is based on a Christian vision and Christian values…. Unless people know what the springs are that feed our values, the whole thing will dry up… We may already be living on past capital…
Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford, has also used the phrase:
…many people who have strong moral commitments without any religious foundation were shaped by parents or grandparents for whom morality and religion were fundamentally bound up…. How far are we living on moral capital? (Harries, 2007)
The appeal to moral capital provides an explanation for why there has been no moral collapse yet. But the prediction, or at least the concern, is that such a collapse is nevertheless coming.
But what evidence is there to support this view that moral collapse is in the pipeline? There appears to be little. Indeed, the fact that, for two millennia, Chinese society exhibited much the same levels and kind of moral behaviour as Christian Europe, despite Chinese morality lacking roots in anything a Westerner would recognize as a religion, suggests that such predictions of delayed doom are mistaken.
Religion as a “necessary social adhesive”
It is true that religion can function as a powerful social adhesive, binding individuals together into communities. As the Humanist philosopher Simon Blackburn acknowledges,
[o]ne of the more depressing findings of social anthropology is that societies professing a religion are more stable, and last longer, than those that do not. It is estimated that breakaway groups like communes or new age communities last some four times longer if they profess a common religion than if they do not (Blackburn, 2004, p.18)
Should we then reject Humanism on the grounds that it is likely to unravel the social bonds – in particular, the religious bonds – that hold us together? The suggestion that applying reason without limits is likely to have such catastrophic consequences has a long pedigree. John Gray says about Count Joseph de Maistre, a staunch defender of the Church and Pope and one of the Enlightenments’ most vigorous critics, that
[w]hen he represents reason and analysis as corrosive and destructive, solvents of custom and allegiance that cannot replace the bonds of sentiment and tradition which they weaken and demolish, he illuminates, better perhaps than any subsequent writer, the absurdity of the Enlightenment faith [for such it undoubtedly was] that human society can have a rational foundation. If to reason is to question, then questioning will have no end, until it has wrought the dissolution of the civilization that gave it birth (Gray, 1995, pp.125-6]
But of course it does not follow that beliefs subjected to critical scrutiny will be abandoned. Often we find ourselves all the more passionately committed to principles that have successfully withstood such scrutiny. Even if reason cannot underpin our most basic moral convictions, it does not follow that the application of reason must, then, lead us to abandon them, or show them to be false.
Moreover, while religious belief may be a powerful social adhesive, it comes with risks attached. Michael Ignatieff suggests that:
[t] he more strongly you feel the bonds of belonging to your own group, the more violent will be your feelings towards outsiders. (Ignatieff, 1993, p.88)
As we bind the members of religious communities together more tightly, we may well end up deepening the rifts between such communities.
But perhaps there is another way of building a sense of community that does not have such a toxic potential side-effect? As I explain below, many Humanists insist that there is.
Example of a Humanist approach to raising good citizens
While there can be benefits to religious belief, and there are plenty of anecdotes about people whose lives have been dramatically “turned around” by religion, there would also appear to be benefits to a more Humanist approach to moral education and raising moral citizens.
While there is no official Humanist approach per se to moral education, most Humanists would endorse the use of, for example, communities of inquiry and “Philosophy for Children” programmes in the classroom, in which children collective discuss, in a broadly philosophical way, moral, religious and other “Big Questions”. Such programmes have been trialled with success in a number of countries, where they have produced not only measurable increases in IQ, but also improved behaviour and ethos within the schools. There’s growing evidence that such an approach helps build self-esteem and confidence, engenders respect for others, improve behaviour, reduce bullying, and so on (see for example Trickey and Topping, 2004). An Ofsted report into one school running such a programme said:
The thought provoking and exciting curriculum the school has developed over the last two years is an outstanding component of the school’s success …(this includes) the development of ‘Philosophy for Children’, a powerful tool which both excites the pupils and gives them the confidence to explore stimulating and challenging ideas and concepts. It not only strengthens their academic learning, but also encourages their empathy for others and gives them insights into the adult world. (Ofsted Curriculum Grade 1 Ropsley Primary School Ofsted Report, Feb 2007)
Perhaps such an approach cannot produce the kind of tightly bound community that religion often produces, but it does engender a sense of empathy, connection and respect for, and encourages respectful dialogue with, others, and, so many Humanists would argue, creates a sense of community that is healthier and less divisive than the kind that tends to be produced by religion.
Interestingly, there is some evidence that this kind of approach to moral education might also provide us with an effective defence against kind of moral catastrophes than blighted the Twentieth Century.
In his book Humanity, A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, Professor Jonathan Glover, Director of the Centre for Medical Law and Ethics at King’s College, London, reports his research into the backgrounds of both those who engaged in mass killings in places like Nazi Germany, Rwanda and Bosnia, and also those who were rescuers. Glover said in a related newspaper interview,
If you look at the people who shelter Jews under the Nazis, you find a number of things about them. One is that they tended to have a different kind of upbringing from the average person, they tended to be brought up in a non-authoritarian way, bought up to have sympathy with other people and to discuss things rather than just do what they were told. (Glover, 1999)
In their book The Altruistic Personality, Pearl and Samuel concur that the “parents of rescuers depended significantly less on physical punishment and significantly more on reasoning.” (Oliner, 1992, p.179). The Oliners add that “reasoning communicates a message of respect for and trust in children that allows them to feel a sense of personal efficacy and warmth toward others.” Non-rescuers, by contrast, tended to feel “mere pawns, subject to the power of external authorities”(1992, p.177). The Oliners also found that, by contrast, “religiosity was only weakly related to rescue”.
If we want to avoid the kind of moral catastrophes that blighted the Twentieth Century, there is evidence to support the view that our best protection is provided, not by religion, but by the kind of approach to moral education advocated by Humanists (an approach which can also be applied within religious schools).
Humanist ideas have been around for millennia. Indeed, some philosophers of Antiquity, such as Epicurus, probably qualify as Humanists. However, it is only comparatively recently that the term “Humanism” has been used in the way described here, and only recently that people have organized themselves as Humanists in this sense. Humanist organizations can now be found around the world. Most Humanist organizations are affiliated to the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). They engage in a variety of activities. They campaigns for secular societies and for equal rights for the non-religious. They also engage in educational and awareness-raising work to counter common and sometimes pernicious misunderstandings of what atheism and humanism involve (in the United States, for example, atheists are widely assumed to be amoral, and are one of the least trusted minorities). Humanist organizations often also provide alternative marriage, funeral and other ceremonies for those who want to mark important events in a non-religious way.