Humanists claim to have a non-religious alternative to religious belief. While it is easy to understand such a claim as regards atheism – no God therefore no religion – I find it difficult to see how humanism adds to this basic idea.
Let me first of all clarify that I am discussing modern secular humanism, which is the most frequent meaning of the word. There are some religious humanists, but they seem to have little voice in our culture. They do remind us, though, that contemporary western humanism is a development from religion, notable antecedents being Petrarch in the fourteenth century and Erasmus in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Interestingly, I put ‘humanism’ into Google the other day and it gave me a great ‘People Related to…’ sidebar featuring Petrarch, Erasmus and Richard Dawkins.
The common feature of medieval humanists (including a few popes) is the recognition of the place of reason and the importance of classical learning. The same can be found in Islam. After the Reformation most western humanism flourished within deism, a broad movement that denied specific revelation but still believed firmly in an intelligent creator God.
The secular humanist of today prefers to leap back before all this inconvenient religious stuff to the ancient Greeks. The pre-socratic philosophers moved towards observation and reason instead of blind belief in the gods. Some, however, would be more like deists than humanists; and once the brief Greek golden age finished, things went back to normal, hemlock and all. The claim that secular humanism preserves some continuous non-religious historical tradition is simply not true.
A simple, short definition of modern secular humanism can be found on the British Humanist Association web site. A humanist is someone who:
- trusts to the scientific method when it comes to understanding how the universe works and rejects the idea of the supernatural (and is therefore an atheist or agnostic)
- makes their ethical decisions based on reason, empathy, and a concern for human beings and other sentient animals
- believes that, in the absence of an afterlife and any discernible purpose to the universe, human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same.
Regarding the first point of this ‘creed’, there are countless scientists who follow a religion, or at least accept the existence of God. It is quite possible to believe that we understand the universe through the scientific method, but that there are other areas of human experience that also deserve our attention.
As far as ethical decisions are concerned, most of the religious people I know do make decisions on the basis of reason, empathy and so on. Differences of world view create disagreements, of course, but the fault lines are not simply between the religious and non-religious.
On the third point, most religious believers, in my experience, do seek happiness in this life and try to help others to do the same as far as possible. Belief in an afterlife and a purpose for the universe does not devalue this life and the various purposes that we might have within it.
In short, humanists put forward a plea for science, humanitarianism and mutuality. It is hard to disagree with that. But why do they assume that belief in the supernatural, an afterlife or a supreme purpose for the universe negates such things?
The problem for humanists, I think, is that their core belief is basically a belief in self-fulfilment. But this can be interpreted in many different ways, ranging from Abraham Maslow to Ayn Rand. Rather than try to resolve such a basic issue, it is easier to blame religion for lack of self fulfilment.
Scapegoating religion while ignoring such a fundamental problem hardly seems consistent with the rationality that humanists proclaim so loudly.