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Introduction to Humanism

From a talk given by Tim Stephenson to the North Yorkshire Humanist Group, November 2011


Good evening. I'd like to begin by reflecting on my own association with the North Yorkshire Humanist Group. As I recall it was around this time in 2004 that many of us met for the first time in the Masons Arms in Fishergate and I have enjoyed coming to the meetings these seven years and am looking forward to continuing to support the group in the years to come.

I have previously given talks in November 2008 on The New Atheists and in November 2009 on Bad Science, so I am continuing the November tradition this evening. For me these seven years have been a journey into a deeper understanding of what humanism is, the historical context of the development of humanist ideas and why humanism is important in helping to shape our society for the better. The friends I have made here throughout the years have enriched and widened my outlook immeasurably and I thank all of you who have helped to make our group a success.

This talk is titled An Introduction to Humanism, but I have to say at the outset, my vision of what humanism is about could be seen as somewhat idiosyncratic and the emphasis I choose to put on some ideas associated with humanism whilst neglecting others is almost certainly different to what other humanists here tonight would choose. Having said that, I'm sure that many of you have met people whose version of humanism is so idiosyncratic that frankly, it doesn't deserve to go by the name.

I think that some of the differences encountered between humanists revolve around the sometimes conflicting goods of freedom, liberty and the open society on the one hand and the striving for a more egalitarian and socially just society on the other and so I am keen to discuss humanism as it relates to practical politics as well as humanism as a more abstract idea.

Those of us who attended the last meeting of the North Yorkshire Humanist Group were treated to an excellent talk by Professor Kate Pickett which drew on her statistical analysis of the correlation between income inequality and levels of societal dysfunction. I think the talk was one of the best examples I have seen of how science and reason can come to bear on moral and political questions and how increasing our knowledge of what is can help shape our ideas of what ought to be.

The website of the British Humanist Association has a quote from the current president of the BHA, the Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee, which I like: The humanist view of life is progressive and optimistic, in awe of human potential.

I think that given the doom and gloom hanging over most of the Western world at the current time, whether it is the global economy appearing to be in meltdown or the fear of environmental catastrophe brought about by global warming, or a dozen other concerns, there is a pressing need to reflect on how humanist ideas have helped shape modern western democracies, through the struggle for liberty and human rights and the development of modern science and how humanist ideas can help us to stoically face the future with the hope and optimism that a better world is still possible. What we, in this generation, choose to believe about the nature of ethics and morality, about the importance of science and rationality and what it means to live the good life is going to profoundly affect the sort of society we are going to bequeath to the generations that follow us.

One of the first meetings we had in 2005 was entitled What is Humanism? Well here we are again trying to formulate an answer to that question. If anyone would like a quick overview of what humanism is about, presented in video clips by well-known humanists, I would recommend the new website that the BHA has produced at I have brought a sizable collection of humanist books with me to give an indication of how many authors have written on the subject.

The history of humanism is a long one going back as far as the ancient Indian philosophers of the 6th century BCE, who asserted that there were no deities and who had a fairly naturalistic worldview, teaching that the priests were useless and that religion was a false human invention. Now I have read dozens of books on humanism and invariably they have an introduction followed by a long second chapter on the history of the atheistic, naturalistic world view going back to the ancient Greeks or even earlier. As far I can see, humanism in the sense that I mean it didn't really start to appear until what Thomas Payne called the Age of Reason in the 17th century followed by the enlightenment period at the end of the eighteenth century. Indeed, the Harvard academic Steven Pinker suggests in his latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature that humanism is a word for the humanitarian revolution that took place at the end of the eighteenth century.

I would argue that the time since this period has been by far the best period in all of recorded history in terms of progress and the development of humanity, which increasingly placed life and happiness at the centre of values with an emphasis on the shaping of society, it's institutions, its traditions , its laws, using science and reason. This indeed was the beginning of the most humane society than has ever existed which put sympathy and concern for the rights and needs of individual human beings at the centre of the vision of what constitutes the good society.

Our book club is currently reading A Very Short Introduction to Humanism by the philosopher Stephen Law and he begins the book by saying that in the broadest sense of the word, humanism is a system of thought which considers human values, interests and dignity to be very important -- which would make just about everyone a Humanist.

Some people have told me that Pope John Paul II was a Humanist, but he certainly wasn't the kind of Humanist we are discussing tonight. The word humanism was coined to describe writers in the renaissance period such as Erasmus and Thomas More who were greatly interested in ancient Greek philosophy and teaching.

These people were all religious, does what they were doing have anything to do with what we are about? I would say yes because they were involved with the re-introduction of pre-Christian thinking and a re-focusing of study away from theological concerns and on to human life as it is lived.

Another great thinker who was a religious believer himself but who has greatly influenced humanist thought is the German enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. When asked what enlightenment was, Kant said:

Enlightenment is the emergence 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.

I'm not appropriately qualified to talk authoritatively on the subjects that touch humanism such as philosophy, evolutionary biology and history. Nevertheless, I am emboldened to use what reason I have to present my own conception of what constitutes the good life, albeit with a lot of help from the books I read and in many ways my humanism simply amounts to spending considerable amount of time considering the ideas of other humanists. I think this striving of ordinary humanists to become renaissance men and women in the sense of being open and curious to a wide range of intellectual insights without waiting to be told what to think is characteristic of our outlook.

So what ideas are necessary to call yourself a humanist in the modern usage of the word? I think as a minimum, to be called a Humanist you must be someone who has decided that there is no good reason to think that Gods or spirits exist and that this short life, on average less than a thousand months long, is the only one we have.

In addition to this I think all humanists value science, reason and rational enquiry and a commitment to the existence and importance of moral values. In particular, Humanists emphasize individual moral autonomy and believe that life can have meaning without meaning coming from a God.

Humanists are committed to freedom of thought, freedom of speech and the idea of an open and inclusive society. Finally, Humanists are secularists, which means that we don't think either believers or non-believers should have a privileged position in our society and especially in government.

I come across a lot of people who broadly agree with Humanist ideas once they are aware of what humanism is about but then don't want to attach a label to themselves. Does anyone here sympathise with that view?

I have found that making a public declaration of my atheism and humanism has to some extent had a cathartic effect in allowing me to move away from the beliefs I grew up with and opened up opportunities to develop and talk about Humanist ideas in a way I couldn't have done by remaining on the fence. I recently received an email from a Humanist who felt the same way.

Over time, what began as a hodgepodge of disparate and unconnected ideas has gradually coalesced into a coherent system of belief which provides a framework for my values and a positive identity -- essentially I know what I believe in, it's not set in stone, but it is there. The system of beliefs I am talking about is not dogmatic, it focuses on the process of arriving at sound judgements based on reason and evidence.

Any one person's views about what humanism is about is likely to have idiosyncrasies because to a large extent humanist beliefs are individualistic, a work in progress, a bit like a work of art, to be refined and expanded upon throughout the course of a lifetime as new knowledge is added to existing knowledge.

This puts me in mind of the analogy that philosopher Jean Paul Sartre made between human beings and naturally occurring objects such as a sharp piece of stone you might find on a beach. The piece of stone could be used as a knife, in the manner of a deliberately manufactured knife, but the reason for the stones existence was not so that it could be used as a knife. He would say the essence of human life is preceded by its existence. Evolutionary forces acting over the four and a half billion years of life on earth have shaped modern human existence without foreknowledge of how we would turn out and part of what makes human life worth living is that the future remains an unopened book.

Sartre influenced my own humanist thinking and books such as, Existentialism is a Humanism relate the two ideas. Sartre said "man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world -- and defines himself afterwards." These ideas are expressed in popular culture. I'm sure many of you with children have seen the 1995 Disney movie Toy Story which is sometimes seen as a humanist allegory. The award winning screen play was written by the existentialist and humanist Joss Whedon.

There is a particular scene in the movie involving Buzz Lightyear who has spent the entire movie up to that point believing that he is an officer of Star Command on a mission to save humanity from the Evil Emperor Zurg, despite the protestations of his companion Woody that he is merely a children's toy. Buzz enters a room with a TV set on and sees an exact replica of himself on an advertisement for the Buzz Lightyear action figure with whooshing space helmet, micro-chip voice, aluminium carbide wings, laser light, communicator, and karate-chop action.

Lucia Hall, the editor of the San Diego Humanist writes in her article Toy Stories for Humanists:

Buzz leaves the room in despair, all the meaning in his universe turned upside down. "Years of academy training wasted!" he laments. Now that he realizes he is a toy, he feels valueless, worthless, unable to save Woody, unable even to save himself. Woody has to explain to him that he has value exactly because he is a toy and not a real space ranger. "Look at you," Woody tells him, "You are a really cool toy."

The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University presented Whedon with the 2009 Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism. I think the success of humanism in the future will depend to a great degree not so much on the ability of science to undercut the religious world view, indeed science may undercut some cherished humanist shibboleths such as the idea that we are rational, autonomous individuals with free will, but rather on the ability of cultural humanists to continue to tell stories and invent new narratives which show how the human story makes sense without God.

Whilst on the subject of existentialism, does anyone else here regularly have the experience of existentialist angst?

It is generally held to be a negative feeling arising from the experience of human freedom and responsibility. I have always been afraid of heights and hate being stood on the top of a tall building even when there is a barrier. I remember going on a trip to Bruges once with my wife Elaine. I had to stop half way up the Belfry of Bruges whilst Elaine continued to the top alone.

Elaine pointed out that my fear is completely irrational as there is no danger of falling, but I have come to realise that what I dread is not falling but the possibility of throwing myself over the barrier. I have never been suicidal but sometimes the realisation that we are free to do just about anything and that there is nothing preventing us from jumping off a cliff is itself the source of fear. My fear goes completely if I am in an enclosed area high up such as in an aeroplane. I don't like driving at high speed but feel more comfortable as a passenger.

Another writer who has influenced humanist thinking is Albert Camus who claimed that the question Should I commit suicide is the only serious philosophical question. If the answer is no, then you should think about all of the reasons why you want to go on living and this can form the basis of a meaningful life.

The flexibility and adaptability of Humanist beliefs is one of the greatest strengths of the Humanist way because it means we will never be bound to a dogmatic position set in stone in a creed or holy book. Having said that, my version of humanism is not relativist.

The truth is not whatever we decide it to be and our humanist ideas can be judged by the extent that they reflect objective reality. It is all too common to hear people say that whatever someone thinks, it is just their opinion.

More specifically, I don't think humanists should be moral relativists. Our understanding of what is good and bad does change over time but that does not mean we are making it up as we go along, any more than a scientist in a laboratory is making it up as she goes along when new understanding is reached.

There are objective moral truths to be discerned in the world which form the bedrock of Humanist values. If this wasn't the case, then any talk about ethics and the right way to live would be a waste of time. There are Humanist statements of belief, such as the Humanist manifesto and the Amsterdam declaration but these are subject to revision by future generations.

I am going to read the beginning of the Amsterdam Declaration which was updated in 2002 and is the nearest thing we have to a universally agreed statement of what humanists believe.

Humanism is ethical. It affirms the worth, dignity and autonomy of the individual and the right of every human being to the greatest possible freedom compatible with the rights of others. Humanists have a duty of care to all of humanity including future generations. Humanists believe that morality is an intrinsic part of human nature based on understanding and a concern for others, needing no external sanction.

Is humanism the same as atheism? The simple answer is no. Humanism in the sense that I use the word always entails some sort of atheism or at least agnosticism, but not vice versa. I take atheism to mean living life without a belief in Gods rather than a dogmatic assertion that there is no god.

Some people prefer to call themselves agnostic but I find this word to be a bit spurious. I think that all informed atheist belief necessarily includes the assumption of agnosticism to some degree, but I think it is a word that muddies the waters. The truth is that there are some very good reasons for thinking that traditional ideas about Gods and demons and the supernatural realm are false.

Are Humanists anti-religious? Some people think we should avoid talking about religion completely but in truth the whole of humanism is a reaction to the ways of thinking about the world that come from religion.

I think it has to be said that humanists do tend to be anti-religious with regard to the more muscular forms of religion which might indulge in harmful superstitions or exert a totalitarian hold over their members.

Religion comes in a variety of forms and the milder forms such as Quakerism, Buddhism or liberal Christianity probably have a beneficial effect on society in helping to resist the more harmful varieties. The desire to seek value and meaning in ancient traditions is understandable and it is anti-human to despise people for falling in to all too human patterns of belief. Our concern should be to take a critical view of traditional beliefs and to resist being restricted by traditional ways of thinking about the world.

Are humanists left-wing? Before I start talking about humanism and politics I will let you know my own political viewpoint. I am a paid up member of the Liberal Democrats and have been actively involved in delivering campaign literature and attending local meetings in recent years.

The novelist E.M.Forster was one of the founders of the British Humanist Association and he once said: Two cheers for democracy: one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism.

I tend to equate humanism with liberalism but by far the majority of prominent humanists associated with the BHA, such as Polly Toynbee and Andrew Copson are unambiguously old Labour left-wing or even further to the left. The first time I saw Andrew Copson he was in a picture on the front of BHA News holding a Socialist Worker coffee mug.

In fact the two of them had an onstage discussion at the BHA conference this year where someone in the audience asked Polly if she thought the BHA should become more political. This talk is available on YouTube and I would recommend that you all watch it. Polly's response was to ask the audience, Are there any Conservatives here? Nobody put their hand up and this question was once asked here with the same outcome.

Andrew Copson responded by saying that there was in fact a large and thriving Conservative humanist association but he can hardly resist a sneer whenever he mentions this. Of course there were Conservatives in the audience just as there are probably Conservatives in the audience here tonight. Don't get me wrong, I think Polly is a very good humanist and Andrew is a personal friend who has grown the BHA from an organisation of three or four thousand people when he arrived to around 30,000 members today.

The founder of the BHA, Harold Blackham, discussed the fact that there was nothing contradictory in being a good Tory and a humanist in his 1968 book entitled Humanism.

The best example of an unambiguously Conservative humanist is the science writer Matt Ridley who is a distinguished supporter of the BHA -- there is a whole page about him on the BHA website. I had been a fan of his books on genetics and evolutionary biology for many years before finding out other details of his life that I am going to tell you about.

His books include Genome, The Origins of Virtue in which he explores how morality evolved naturally, Nature Via Nurture: Genes, Experience and what makes us Human, the Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature and most recently The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves where he most explicitly lays out his conservative version of the humanist world view.

Those of you who may have read Matt's science books may not be aware that on the death of his father he will become the 5th Viscount Ridley and heir to Blagdon Hall, the family estate in Northumberland.

He is descended from Nicholas Ridley who was burnt at the stake for heresy in the sixteenth century, one of the Oxford martyrs, along with Cranmer and Latimer and comes from a long line of British aristocrats associated with the Conservative Party, his uncle being Baron Nicholas Ridley, the Tory minister in Margaret Thatcher's government, his grandfather being a conservative MP at the turn of the twentieth century and his great grandfather being a Conservative Home Secretary in the nineteenth century.

All 5 generations have been called Matthew White Ridley, old Etonians the lot of them. His other grandfather was a famous architect who designed the cenotaph in London. Have I convinced you that this guy is a Conservative yet?

Well how about this. Matt Ridley, the well-known humanist, was also the non-executive chairman of Northern Rock between 2004 and 2007 earning £300,000 a year according to Wikipedia. He was a major player in the events that lead to the near collapse of the bank which I believe cost British Tax payers around 27 billion pounds.

We are surely talking about one of the famed 1% as characterised by the Occupy protest movement in London at the moment. So in saying that Matt Ridley is one of the greatest living humanists in the UK at present, am I trying to square the circle? Can it be so?

Probably the most high profile conservative humanist on the international stage is the editor of Sceptic Magazine and the author of such books as Why People Believe Weird Things, Why Darwin Matters and The Science of Good and Evil, that's Michael Shermer. Shermer describes himself as a Libertarian Conservative and that distinction is rarely made in UK politics.

Going back to the BHA conference, a brave member of the audience stood up and said:

I may make myself a bit unpopular here but I was a bit concerned about the way the discussion was going earlier on about the assumption that there is an identity between humanism and socialism, or certainly a flavour of socialism.

He went on to say he would find it difficult to continue as a member of the BHA if there was an explicit link with the Labour party. Indeed many of us find support for the trade union movement increasingly difficult given the constant partisan attacks on the Liberal Democrat and Conservative parties. Is it only socialists who deserve representation in the workplace? I think a union should be there to provide legal advice and support in disciplinary matters, not to tell people which political parties to support. It always annoys me when I come across humanists who simply assume that any humanist must be a socialist.

To her credit, Polly gave a really interesting answer to the effect that she wouldn't want that at all and that she thought that every one of us has one part of our personality a small L liberal and another part a small C conservative and that what makes us lean one way or another probably has more to do with our individual psychology rather than deliberate choice. What matters is how you go about explaining how your political views would lead to a better society. She said that this right-left dichotomy is part of the human condition.

I found this particular conference discussion all the more disturbing because it should have been A.C. Grayling, the greatest living advocate of humanism in my view, in Polly's place but A.C. Grayling, himself a left-winger of sorts, felt he had to give up being the new President of the BHA due to pressure from those on the far left who objected to his New College of the Humanities, a fee-paying private university, but one staffed by many of the best known humanists such as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Pinker. It turns out he was not left wing enough to be the President of the BHA.

I have only recently become aware of the origins of the terms left-wing and right-wing to describe political standpoints. The terms Left and Right were coined during the French Revolution, referring to the seating arrangement in the Estates General. Those who sat on the left generally supported the radical changes of the revolution, including the creation of a republic and secularization. Those who sat on the right supported preserving the institutions of the monarchy, the aristocracy and the established church.

Does this settle the matter? Is humanism left-wing after all? I don't know really. The Facebook page of the Conservative Humanist Association, which was launched with the help of Richard Dawkins, though Richard Dawkins is a supporter of the Liberal Democrats, says that they want to strengthen our monarchy by making it secular and more inclusive.

In many ways the established church and monarchy are merely the upholders of tradition and the facilitators of ceremony such as the recent royal wedding. Are these things really about political power or controlling what people think anymore and would the continuation of these two stripped of all power and political influence continue to be a threat to secularism?

The CHA website points out that many leading Conservative thinkers have not required religious belief or superstition to define their lives or their political views and sight Hayek, Popper, Friedman, Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson, though I think Karl Popper is the most influential conservative thinker as far as humanism is concerned, with his major work being The Open Society and It's Enemies. Karl Popper was a great advocate for slow piecemeal social change in contrast to revolution and was against all forms of utopian thinking. I agree with Popper on this, I believe in meliorism, not perfectiblism. Think of dentistry.

They also say that most politicians enter politics because they wish to improve our society but they differ on the means to achieve a better society. They point out that conservative Prime Ministers in New Zealand (John Key) and Sweden (Fredrik Reinfeldt) are atheists.

I think in my case my desire to defend conservative humanism stems to some extent from my contrarian nature. I don't like being told what to think, even if I do think it. I like to try on different ideas to see if I can make them fly. It's not that I deliberately play devil's advocate; it's just that I don't really know what I think until I try to express both points of view.