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The Humanist View

An article by Prof. John Adams published in RE Today


Human beings are different from animals (or so we think) ... we are cleverer.

Our cleverness has given us the capacity for abstract reasoning, creativity, imagination, and constant innovation. In the last 40,000 years or so homo sapiens has moved from cave art to quantum physics. Chimpanzees, with whom we share an evolutionary line, do not appear to have done this. As Kenan Malik puts it: "All animals have a past. Only humans make history".1

Cleverness is, of course, morally neutral. It can be used for good or ill. Humankind can apply its intellect to curing polio or finding reasons for burning people at the stake.

One somewhat strange manifestation of this cleverness has been the propensity of humans to be religious. Many explanations have been given for the apparent need for social groups to invent deities. They run from the need to "explain" natural phenomena - for so-called primitive religions - to a comfort in contemplating death. If we did not die, would there be any gods? There are, of course, and there have been, thousands of gods. They are, self-evidently, products of the (clever) human imagination and their influence on the human condition has been iniquitous.

This is not to deny that many religiously motivated people have done good things - nor almost unimaginably wicked things - the iniquity stems not from those actions but from the nature of religious belief and especially the injunction to have "faith". Faith is de-humanising. Faith requires belief in the absence of evidence...indeed often in the face of evidence. It is, to slightly misquote Martin Luther, the enemy of reason. Faith requires believers to put aside an essential part of their humanness - their ability to reason. Their ability to think. Indeed worshipers who just believe and don't question often attract the greatest praise. Deities love slavish obedience.

Of course religion is in retreat. Religious belief is in decline, not just in Western Europe but in almost all parts of the world (with the possible exception of Africa).2 Our cleverness is catching it up...and catching it out. We know that the enemy of reason is also the enemy of innovation and creativity. Indeed, we have witnessed religious "explanations" in retreat since the Enlightenment. (Just try the Hitchens' Test: name one phenomenon for which there was once a religious explanation which now has a scientific one - there are thousands. Now name one phenomenon for which there was once a scientific explanation and now a religious one - there are none.)

Religious people, at least in the developed world, know (by and large) that their beliefs are incoherent. That is why they are so often reluctant to debate (rather than just state) their beliefs. How can you have a reasoned debate about, for example, the Trinity? So belief becomes a mantra, indeed a catechism. Don't think, just keep saying it.

Does this matter? Many people have strange ideas about very many things. Should we care?

Sadly, we should.

In accepting the supernatural the religious undermine the human; indeed they demean the human condition. Even the "moderate" believers underwrite the position of the literalists who declare their beliefs to be absolute and whose barbarous acts are validated by some ancient text.

The human condition is not, of course, absolute; it is uncertain. It needs constant and unstinting enquiry and endeavour. It needs the application of our cleverness. It needs human beings to employ their distinctive ability.

It needs us, in short, to think for ourselves.

JCA 15.4.2014

1Malik K, What is it to be Human, Institute of Ideas, 2001
2See for example: Smith TW, Beliefs about God Across Time and Countries, University of Chicago, 18.4.2012