Humanism – What’s It All About?

By | 11 Feb 2010

Worm's eye view of five people in a circleby David Tribe


The Basics of Humanism

Humanism is both a belief system and a stance for living. It’s been described (by H. J. Blackham) as proceeding “from an assumption that man is on his own and this life is all and an assumption of responsibility for one’s own life and for the life of mankind”.

Several outsiders – and some insiders – wrongly maintain that, because this definition has both ideological and ethical implications, humanism is really a form of religion, and some supporters put ‘humanist’ in the other-religion box on census forms. It’s true that in the 19th century there were a number of ‘religions of humanity’, associated particularly with Robert Owen in Britain and Auguste Comte in France.

The latter movement was called Positivism to indicate that its world-view was ‘positive’ rather than ‘negative’, and that it was based on scientific naturalism and not speculative supernaturalism. But Comte’s proclamation of a creed and catechism, saints and sacraments, led Thomas Huxley to describe Positivism as “Catholicism minus Christianity” and made it uncongenial to the modern freethinking mind. Few humanists would now call themselves Positivists.

Humanism and the Law

Some liberal-minded religionists, communists, anarchists and even fascists have, like liberal-arts exponents in the Renaissance, described themselves as ‘humanists’ to indicate that they adhere to their beliefs more, or at least as much, because they’re thought to benefit humanity rather than because they are ends in themselves. This confusion over what humanism really is, less apparent today. The debate now is what ‘religion’ really is, as strange new cults claim to be religious so as to benefit from taxation and rating exemptions as ‘religious charities’.

The law and the modern humanist movement agree that religion is properly a belief in a Supreme Being or Force controlling the universe and in a posthumous system of regards and punishments. By these criteria, humanism is not a religion, and census officials transfer ‘humanist’ from the other-religion to the no-religion box on census forms.

Humanism and Religion

Most humanists believe it’s important to understand fully what they reject, and therefore tend to show more interest in religion than “nothingarians”, and even nominal religionists. Some humanists, especially those who’ve escaped from the mental prison of childhood indoctrination, have been described as obsessive “god botherers”. The truth is that they appreciate how most religions, particularly those of “the Book” (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), make important claims for themselves, which deserve to be taken seriously.

After examining these claims, humanists have come to reject them. They may then describe themselves, in addition to humanists, as atheists, agnostics, sceptics, rationalists, secularists or less familiar names. What they all have in common is a humanistic life stance.

Life Stance

What Is a Life Stance?

Humanists have no dogmas, sacred texts or ordained leaders, and have different personalities through both nature and nurture. And they have different jobs. Thus they have different attitudes to life and ways of life, and might be expected to respond differently to specific issues. What is surprising is not occasional disagreements but so much unanimity in their ranks. This arises from a common life stance.

This term has been defined by its humanist originator, or at least its populariser (Harry Stopes-Roe), as “an individual’s or a community’s relationship with what he, she or it finds to be of ultimate importance; the commitments and presuppositions of this; and the theory and practice of working this out in living. The term refers both to the style and to the content of that undertaking.”

Self Knowledge

Socrates’ disciples were urged to “know thyself” for “the unexamined life is not worth living”. We all need to undertake self-analysis to determine what sort of person one is, what hopes and ideals are cherished, how we set about achieving them in the past, how we could improve upon our techniques for realization in the future, and how we cope stoically with adversity and modestly with success.

As an ideology taken seriously can play an important role in determining our world-view, our perceived relationships with other people and the natural world, our moral judgments and our goals in life, it’s important to discover an ideology that ‘works’ for us. Humanists respect those who have chosen -or had thrust upon them from an early age – ideologies different from their own. They hope these bring satisfaction while not impacting adversely on other people, and they expect the same respect for themselves.

It’s often said that living in a godless world without cosmic purpose or prospects of an afterlife must make a humanist’s life seem pointless. The reality is that humanists escape unrealisable religious demands for purity and anxieties about the dire consequences after death of failure to live up to expectations. Humanists have more achievable goals. They maintain that the only purpose in life is what we give it, and our aim is to use whatever talents we have to make the world a better place for everyone. This endeavour can be deeply rewarding.

Free Thought/Free Will

What Is “Freethought”?

Technically, humanism is an ideology. But unlike most other ideologies it has no dogma and no party line. It does however have a number of general principles that members of humanist bodies sign up to. To this extent these bodies aren’t ‘open’ societies, as communities with oaths of allegiance aren’t. But humanist societies and democratic communities are always open to new ideas and new members, and can change their constitutions where circumstances warrant. Besides ‘humanist’, non-religionists may choose to adopt one or more other labels; for example, ‘secularist’, ‘atheist’, ‘agnostic’, ‘rationalist’ or ‘scientific’. One label that defines them all is ‘freethinker’.

Up till the 1820s in the Anglo-Saxon world ‘freethinker’ and ‘deist’ were synonyms. Though both theism and deism literally mean a belief in God, by convention theism has come to mean belief in a God who directly controls the universe and monitors human lives on a day-to-day basis, and deism belief in a God who created and/or set in motion the universe in the distant past and then left it to its own devices. In effect, such a belief amounts to a-theism (without God), though until the 1840s this “shocking” term was generally avoided for sentimental or prudential reasons; and it’s still not popular today.

Freethinkers aren’t, however, obsessed with criticizing religion, and seek to bring a critical mind to bear on all controversial and politically correct issues. For all assertions they demand evidence. They don’t, of course, come to – and shouldn’t in a highly complex world be expected to come to – identical conclusions in the assessment of evidence, rejection of old opinions and formulation of new ones. But within the humanist movement there usually emerges a broad consensus on important matters.

How Free are Freethinkers?

While freethinkers recognize no absolute authorities or sacred texts, they don’t have time to constantly reinvent the wheel, and they recognize that there’s a limit to which people, conditioned from birth, wish to be free. So humanists admit at least a provisional dependence on the intellectual authority of textbooks and acknowledged experts and, save for the tiny minority of anarchists, the moral authority of law and custom.

One question directed to humanists as freethinkers, and not often addressed by them, is how can they reject free will, as most of them do, in favour of determinism. In Nucleoethics one contemporary freethinker (David Tribe) pointed out that in a deterministic universe, despite the mistaken belief of quantum physicists in particulate free will, it’s vain in the extreme to believe that human thought alone is absolutely free. He postulated that the demands of living evoke memories and trigger actions of which we become conscious milliseconds later, not in the opposite order popularly assumed. Recent brain imaging has demonstrated this scientifically. So, while we have the illusion of being free to make independent decisions, our thought processes are in fact determined by our past experiences.

What Is the Role of Freethought?

Over time, habitual thoughts and activities are seen by perceptive individuals not to accord with current realities. Out of this mental conflict, which must be resolved to avoid neurosis or psychosis, new thoughts are formed. By a system of peer review by tribal elders or the academic community, those insights are validated or rejected. If validated, they ultimately gain community acceptance.

The conflict between free will and determinism has important consequences for religion and penology and poses awkward questions for both. While traditional Islam and Calvinistic Christianity accept determinism, usually given the religious name of ‘predestination’, most religions opt for free will. Potentially this position gives humanity the gratifying sense of being unique in the universe, with a strong personal responsibility for each individual’s actions. In reality, religionists have found such freedom too big a load to bear, and have devised systems of shamanism or priestcraft, prayers, rituals and sacraments to remove guilt for wrongdoing and grant absolution. Apart from a latent fear that this escape hatch may not open in time, exponents of free will are also burdened by an apprehension that they are morally responsible for their thoughts and must submit to clerical thought police. The truth is that all sorts of vicious thoughts arise in our primitive brain and may appear in our dreams, but are suppressed by our frontal cortex before they can be translated into actions -the real yardsticks of moral or immoral behaviour.

Should Criminals Be Punished?

Determinists must face up to the issue of crime and punishment. On the face of it, if our actions are really beyond our conscious control, and are instead the product of conditioning and impulse, how can criminals be held responsible for their crimes and why then should they be punished? There’s no easy response to this dilemma; but recognition of it leads to a number of practical outcomes. The first is acknowledgement that there’s no proper place for payback in society or retribution in penology, however the Old Testament may thunder ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ and victims. may feel that this is their right. Instead, in the nurture of young children attention should be given to boosting empathy with other people and suppression of primitive impulses, with the aim of avoiding delinquency.

With adult criminals the prime concern should be reformation. Counselling, psychological assessment, psychiatric treatment where necessary (while most vicious criminals aren’t ‘mad’, some are), occupational therapy and education to assist in finding jobs on release from prison should get more attention than they usually do. But humanists recognize that reformation may be difficult, and in the present state of knowledge of recidivism impossible. Society must be protected; hence the importance of deterrence through better policing and exemplary punishment as a last resort.


Is Supernaturalism Really Super?

When the media aren’t promoting religion they’re all too often promoting the occult. While some religionists and parapsychologists protest that the phenomena they experience are just a poorly understood part of the natural world, it’s generally understood by both advocates and opponents that a posited supernatural world is the source. Indeed, most world religions claim to know a lot about its history, geography and population, and how to reach it.

To a humanist, investigating the supernatural or the paranormal is logically an oxymoron (self-contradictory statement), since if this realm is really ‘super’, invisible and unnatural, it’s impossible for natural beings to investigate it or know anything about it. Equally, it’s impossible for it to know or care anything about us. Surely there are enough wonders and mysteries in this world to occupy our attention.

Making the Supernatural Natural

In the past there were many wonders and mysteries attributed to supernatural forces: firstly to disembodied nature spirits or the spirits of dead ancestors, then to a gaggle of gods and finally to one supreme God.

In 1779 (in Olney Hymns) the poet William Cowper sang “God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.” By this time, past mysteries and wonders like thunder and lightning had been shown to have purely natural causes, and many others have similarly been explained away since. They remain wonders, but in an aesthetic, not a supernatural sense. Mysteries like the nature of gravity and light remain, and humankind may never devise the much-touted theory of everything. There’s no good reason to expect one part of the universe, however intelligent, to understand all of it. That said, there’s less reason to see anything supernatural in the mysteries that remain.


Is Morality Confined to Humanity?

Like religionists, humanists give a lot of attention to morality. People of faith postulate a moral law formulated by God and knowable through intuition, conscience, sacred texts and a teaching church. Some humanists, called ‘ethicists’, believe in a universal moral law not decreed by God but existing in the abstract and accessible through intuition. Most humanists believe morality springs from the nature of human beings as social animals with a capacity to be aware of what they’re doing, to learn from experience and to show concern for others.

Homo sapiens isn’t the only species with this capacity, so it’s reasonable to assume other animals understand morality even if they lack the ability to formulate ethics – the study or theory of the origin and nature of feeling for them and right and wrong. Thus we should have a fellow-feeling for them and not maltreat or unnecessarily exploit them as in cruel sports and pointless experiments. Yet humanists are unlikely, as Jains do, to venerate the lowest forms of life or object to the painless eradication of disease vectors and other pests, and they acknowledge that the theory of evolution, in the last analysis, presupposes species solidarity as well as competition. Because our teeth and digestive system are those of omnivores, evolved to feed on plants and other animals, and even cannibalism occurs for survival or ritual purposes, most humanists aren’t vegetarians, much less vegans (who also won’t eat eggs and dairy produce). Nevertheless, on moral or supposed health grounds, a growing number of humanists are becoming vegetarians. Most humanists also support animal circuses and zoos on the grounds that animals appear to enjoy performing so long as they’re treated well, and the breeding programs of zoos are saving many endangered species from extinction in the wild.

Moral Education

The main justification given for brainwashing (for that’s what it is) children with religion, not only in Sunday schools at their parents’ or priest’s behest but also in day schools against the wishes of many parents and older pupils, is that this is the foundation of morality. Philosophers and. theologians have debated this proposition at great length and often with great passion down the ages, but humanists advance a simple commonsense argument against it.

Is doing right what God says, or does God say it because it’s right? In the first case this is blind obedience without moral insight; in the second God is subject to independent moral laws like everybody else and is therefore redundant.

Many teachers, parents and godparents who spout religion to children don’t believe it themselves, yet with one exception manage to lead moral lives. That exception is hypocrisy. As they grow older children twig. They also notice discrepancies between strictures on the evils of tobacco and drinking alcohol to excess, and the adults’ own habits. Humanists assert that the best form of moral education is a good example. A proportion of adolescents react more to hypocrisy than to the good intentions of moral preaching and, when they lose their religious faith or confidence in parents, priests and teachers, throw out the moral baby with the religious bathwater. Far from promoting morality, religious indoctrination, especially when accompanied by harsh discipline and hypocritical moralizing, subverts it.

Does Genuine Religious Belief Promote Morality?

In the adult population it hasn’t been found that religious people are more virtuous than their irreligious neighbours. On the contrary, whenever religious affiliation is recorded in delinquency and crime statistics, it’s been shown that adherents of the most authoritarian religions show the greatest tendency to criminal behaviour. When such sects are in the minority and have been marginalised and disadvantaged socially, statistics should be adjusted. As minorities become more affluent and socially secure, their behaviour overall moves towards that of the general population. Within the ‘criminal class’, however, the prospect of absolution puts little curb on viciousness, and criminal gangs frequently flourish within bigoted conservative sects.

Wherever piety prevails, freethinkers within society are persecuted more than heathens without, since apostasy – repudiation, not ignorance, of the faith – is regarded as the worst of crimes deserving the death penalty. In most Western countries this outcome is happily a distant memory – or not remembered at all. Humanists living there are now generally accepted as good people despite their lack of faith. But in Christian countries it’s often said that’s because they’re living off “Christian moral capital”.

There are many responses to this argument. The first is historical. A survey of the religious wars, crusades, inquisitions, witch-burnings and pogroms of the past hardly suggests there’s much moral capital to live off. But, Christians assert, these unfortunate episodes were in the past, have been repudiated and anyhow resulted from misinterpretation of certain biblical texts, outnumbered by the “good bits” in the Bible. Until recent times, without too close a study humanists themselves were inclined to say that of course they upheld the Ten Commandments and, while they disputed his Christology, they recognized Jesus as a “great moral teacher”.

How Humanists View the Old Testament

Echoing the title of a recent work by a contemporary humanist (David Tribe), humanists are today inclined to declare themselves “GODLESS and GLAD of it”, and to revive criticism of the Judaeo-Christian Bible first expressed publicly by militant atheists in the 19th century. Their criticisms of the Old Testament would be muted or even absent if this book – or collection of books – were merely one of devotions, rites and rituals for the faithful. Instead, it’s treated by Jews and Christians as a textbook of ethics and manual of morality for everyone in society, however multicultural it may be.

The chilling accounts of familial treachery, tribal aggression and genocide approved by Jahweh (Jehovah) in the Old Testament are omitted from most homilies and sermons today, yet remain in this divinely inspired text. Of the Ten Commandments, one each concerns divine megalomania, iconoclasm, blasphemy, sabbatarianism, parental honour, undefined killing, adultery, stealing, false witness and covetousness. This catalogue of negative pronouncements is a curate’s egg of dictates, some totally unacceptable to humanists and many non-humanists, most undefined, unhelpful in application and at best acceptable only in principle. There are better things in the Old Testament wisdom books and prophets, but these get little airing in Christian or Muslim circles. Most attention is now being paid to the creation myths, which are interesting as fiction but preposterous as supposed fact.

How Humanists View the New Testament

When we come to the New Testament we find improvement in divinely sanctioned activities, but not in language and attitudes overall. The airbrushed portrait of a charismatic Jesus beloved of every Sunday school class masks the manic-depressive Jesus, at times making blood-curdling threats against scribes, pharisees and other unbelievers in him or overturning money-changers’ tables in the Jerusalem temple, and at other times urging oppressed and smitten people to “turn the other cheek”. But perhaps most serious of all complaints today against the Judaeo-Christian Bible is the barbarous notion of original sin condemning humankind to hell unless redeemed by a divine-human sacrifice, and the corollary that creed is more important than deed. Rejection of this notion is no longer physically dangerous but in many circles is socially and professionally disadvantageous. More pervasive in its moral implications is the general tone of the Bible, echoed in the Qur’an (Koran) and implemented in shariah law in many Muslim countries. This tone is one of suspicion or hatred of secular learning, acceptance of slavery and bonded labour, belief in the inferior status of women, disregard of the rights of children and animals, conviction that sins of the mind are as important as sins of the body, promotion of censorship, disdain for prudent worldly planning and foresight, sexual neuroses and homophobia. Are these attitudes acceptable today in civilized society?

Humanist Ethics

Humanists reject the superstition and negativity that underpin many ‘traditional moral values’. By negating the negativity they seek the positive of a morality, which is not just a list of prohibitions, good or bad, but an affirmation of life. So humanist ethics looks to a world where justice combines with compassion, self-awareness with empathy for others, reason with emotion, stoic acceptance of the inevitable with reformist rebellion, duty with spontaneity, and responsibility with free expression. While recognizing that many religionists have the same aspirations, humanists aren’t held back by conventional chains in working towards them. They also recognize that perfection is unattainable.

To do their best, humanists draw on all the resources of humanity: the lessons of the past, the realities of the present, and the blueprints for the future. Their approach is scientific, but they know that science is not enough. Unless tempered by humanity, science can lead to inhumanity.


The Role of Reason

Reason is the faculty that most distinguishes the human species. Homo sapiens can’t run as fast, jump as high, swim as deep unaided or work as hard physically as many other species. By the exercise of reason many of the ‘secrets’ of the universe have been discovered, artefacts of growing complexity invented to improve standards of living, and an understanding of nature, its value and its vagaries, achieved. Such observations are all platitudes that few would dispute. Yet it was the 18th, not the 20th or 21st, century that is known as the Age of Reason. During the 1789 French Revolution Notre-Dame Cathedral for a time housed a statue to the Goddess of Reason, and during the first half of the 19th century a couple of freethought bookshops (owned by Richard Carlile and George Jacob Holyoake) were called “temples of reason”. Such a description would be rejected today as much because of the word “reason” as of “temple”. How has this development come about?

Despite the fate of “reason”, “rationalist” was the label adopted with pride by the great bulk of humanists worldwide in the first half of the 20th century. It persists in the names of some humanist bodies and would probably be accepted, if not preferred, by most humanists today. The minority who might avoid the term would not, of course, wish to be classified as “irrationalists”, but would be bowing to the bad press that rationalism, like atheism (but not to the same extent), has received in the community at large. While the media rarely notice it now, the term has come to suggest to non-humanists and even to some humanists intellectual aridity, emotional insensitivity and artistic sterility, as well as the acknowledged charge of impiety. ‘Rationalism’ has, therefore, largely been replaced by ‘humanism’ within the broad freethought movement because of humanism’s positive connotations.

To some extent rationalism has discredited itself through its inflated claims in the past. Alarmed by the growing bellicosity of European nations, in 1910 some members of the (British) Rationalist Press Association issued a circular to ‘recognize that War and Peace are questions to be dealt with by a consideration of social facts and psychology’; that is, rationally. So they formed a Rationalist Peace Society, which issued Essays Towards Peace in 1913. One essay (by Norman Angell) declared that international relationships couldn’t be improved by a “better moral tone”, since virtuous patriotism could overwhelm virtuous pacificism, and saw “War as the Failure of Reason”. Unfortunately, not only did the society fail to prevent World War I but in 1916 its committee decided to support it. As individual rationalists remained pacifists and conscientious objectors, not surprisingly the society was wound up in 1921.

Is Reason Supreme?

Virtually all rationalist associations round the world adopted the definition of rationalism devised (in 1899) by the (British) Rationalist Press Association: “the mental attitude which unreservedly accepts the supremacy of reason”. This belief inspired the Campaign for Moral Education and the Farmington Trust Research Unit in the 1960s. The trust’s director (John Wilson) said actions must not only be right in their effect, but result from the “right reasons” and “autonomous” opinions. Examples of “moral inadequacy” are really “failures in rationality”. At the same time, behavourists were attributing conduct to unconscious conditioning and psychoanalysts to unconscious memories.

Without accepting the dogmatic theories and questionable practices espoused by these two schools of thought, Nucleoethics (by David Tribe) acknowledged that all our actions are impulsive in that we don’t usually hold internal – or external – debates before we do anything, though we can later provide reasons. If these are specious it’s called “rationalization”. Antisocial or criminal activities we describe as “irrational” are usually those we disapprove of. They may be perfectly rational to the perpetrators. What they lack is emotional empathy with and sympathy for their victims. These feelings are fostered in young children long before the ‘age of reason and criminal responsibility’, and incorporated in their brains’ hierarchy of ‘programs’ for action.

What then Is the Role of Rationalism?

Its place is really at the communal rather than the individual level: ideally in free discussions and debates in free assemblies and media in a free society. Out of these emerge tentative norms for conduct that are then written into laws or left unwritten in mores. They are informed by ‘science’ (the knowledge each society has at the time) but not blindly regulated by it. While our actions are powered by impulses, rational understanding should be their engine.


Are Humanists Materialists?

When humanists say they’re materialists and not idealists, the first reaction of religionists is either shock or quiet satisfaction at seeing their worst opinions justified. Though most humanists aren’t professional philosophers, they’re here using philosophical terms.

In the popular imagination ‘materialism’ may suggest dialectical materialism (Marxism), but more usually today suggests rampant consumerism of the ‘greed is good’ kind. ‘Idealism’, on the other hand, suggests benevolent optimism of the ‘all you need is love’ kind. In other words, one expression has been demonised, the other sanctified.

To a humanist, ‘materialism’ echoes the ancient belief that the natural material world is self-sufficient and not a reflection of otherworldly concepts and blueprints or divine creativity. Since Einstein, ‘matter’ has been universally replaced by matter-energy, but this recognition doesn’t undermine the original theory. Simply, no new word for materialism has emerged. Energy is as much a part of natural world as matter. In fact, the two are related through the Einstein equation: e=mc2; that is, energy equals mass multiplied by the velocity of light squared.

Humanists aren’t, of course, rampant consumerists. Indeed, they were advocating conservation of the earth’s resources long before this idea became trendy.

Are Humanists Idealists?

Philosophical idealists believe that ideas exist independently of the brain. Some think the world of ideas is the only reality and the material world is an illusion. Most of them believe in a dualistic set-up where the two worlds live in parallel. This is the view of the ‘religions of the book’ (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) and many minor religions. Usually it presupposes interest in the material world by the world of ideas – represented by spirits or gods – access to the latter by the former through intuition, rituals or revelations, and a human soul or spirit which survives death of the body. Humanists reject all of these propositions.

Humanist attitudes to popular idealism are less clear-cut. Of course they cherish ideals: of hope and ‘charity’ (love), not faith (described by the impious as “believing in something you know isn’t true”); of humanitarianism, justice, liberty, equality of opportunity, fraternity and other aspirations shared with sincere religionists. But they tend to be realists and pragmatists. They recall Mrs Jellaby of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House who nobly agonized over a distant African community while she grossly neglected her own children. And they know that ‘idealism’ can be mere posturing and a substitute for action.


How Modern Humanism Began

By the late 1840s in Britain both Chartism and Owenism were dying. Chartism was the movement behind the People’s Charter for political reform and Owenism embraced Robert Owen’s rational religion and utopian socialism. In 1851 an Owenite lecturer, George Jacob Holyoake, proposed a new reformist movement, which he called “secularism”, for “the study of promoting human welfare by material
Means”. The few Owenite societies that had survived changed their names to ‘secular’, and new secular societies were formed. All but four of them merged to create the National Secular Society (NSS) in 1866.

Influenced by its radical president, Charles Bradlaugh, the movement spread throughout the British Empire.

Bradlaugh was editor and proprietor of the National Reformer, a journal dedicated to republicanism, atheism and (neo)Malthusianism (family planning). Repudiating his early radical life, Holyoake now saw secularism purely as a system of ethics, and opposed the public advocacy of both atheism and family planning, claiming they would tarnish the image of secularism at a time when the international freethought movement was campaigning for state education along secular lines.

Supporting Bradlaugh, secularist bodies round the world promoted family planning but, like the NSS, fell short of becoming officially atheistic. Instead, they defined secularism as “a belief that this life is the only one of which we have any knowledge and human effort should be devoted entirely to its improvement”. So today ‘secularism’ is regarded as synonymous with ‘secular humanism’.

Separation of Church and State

Today all humanists are secularists, though not all secularists are humanists. Confusingly, three nouns have been formed from ‘secular’, though encyclopaedias and the media usually make no distinction among them. A modern humanist (David Tribe) has therefore proposed that ‘secularism’ be confined to secular humanism and ‘secularity’ to the separation of Church and State.

Australia has a secular Constitution, modelled on that of the United States, but unlike America doesn’t take it seriously. Following the British pattern, Christian prayers are said before every sitting of Australian parliaments and Christian ceremonial attends the opening of law courts and other official occasions. Religious chaplains, supported by the State, officiate in hospitals, prisons, state schools and the armed forces, religious instruction has entered state schools and ever-growing financial support is lavished upon religious schools.

Humanists have many objections to this situation. Section 116 of our Constitution is virtually identical with the First Amendment of the American Constitution. Yet, despite much personal piety, Americans interpret “an establishment of religion” to mean recognition of religion in state institutions and ceremonial, and state financial support of religious institutions. By contrast, the High Court of Australia interprets “establishing any religion” to mean special legal status for a particular religious denomination, as with the Established Church of England.

Secular Education

Secular education is a strong plank of humanism. Humanists don’t think vulnerable children should be indoctrinated with any ideology, much less one that lacks scientific and philosophical credentials; and in a multicultural society they don’t think children should be segregated on the basis of their parents’ creed, genuine or nominal. While unwilling to oblige all children to go to state schools, they argue that parents (or their clergy) who opt for special treatment should pay for it. A related matter is the funded outsourcing of many social and welfare services, once provided by the State, to religious bodies.

Within state schools, teaching about religions is justified in classes dealing with history, geography, social studies and philosophy, but not teaching of religion as if it were universally accepted. Usually children may be withdrawn from religious instruction at their parents’, not their own, request, but may then be embarrassed or even victimized. Similarly, teachers may decline to give religious instruction, but their chances of promotion in state schools is jeopardized and they’re unlikely to be appointed to religious schools.

The above sentence needs revision because regular teachers are not permitted to give religious instruction in Victoria.

Secular arguments aren’t without religious support. Some religionists agree with humanists that the Church shouldn’t invade the State and segregation of children along credal lines is wrong from a community standpoint. Others invoke biblical texts for the separation of Church and State; notably, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” Yet others see themselves as “in the world but not of it”, and believe any invasion of the Church by the State, as always happens to some extent with state funding, will debase the Christian message.

Are You Secularised?

Whatever the fate of secularism and secularity, secularization is seen everywhere. This term refers to a process encouraged by humanists but not achieved by them. The spread of scientific knowledge and the range of professional, commercial and social services throughout society have moved religion to the periphery of the lives even of most religionists. They may claim to believe in divine providence, but they erect lightning conductors on their church steeple and take out insurance policies for it and themselves. Instead of taking every personal problem to their priest or parson, rabbi or imam, they’re more likely to go to a physician, psychiatrist, lawyer, accountant or other secular specialist. They may worship and pray as well, but tend to do so less frequently and with less conviction as time goes by.

Aware of this drifting away or ‘lapsing’ by the faithful, religions around the world are trying to revitalize the faith. This may take the form of jazzing up devotions for young people with pop music and dancing, but more often involves a repudiation of modernist theology that, by making religion more congenial to the modern world, is seen to be undermining its essential message. So we see a revival of fundamentalism everywhere. Where this is confined to theology, humanists welcome the honesty of returning to principles that are clear-cut and can be debated. Unfortunately, it usually leads to imposition on the faithful of ancient and sometimes barbarous practices, and an intolerance of other faiths that all too often incites violence against them, ranging from local riots to global terrorism.


Are Atheists Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know?

Most religionists regard the existence of God as self-evident because of the mysteries and wonders of creation. This perception produces a yearning in them to discover its creator, who’s also seen as a force for good and a tower of strength for themselves. It follows, they say, that those who dispute his existence must be either crazy or criminal, and it’s spiritually and politically dangerous to associate with them. In theist opinion it’s impossible to question the reality of God, so atheists must be not only denying but defying him.

There are many simple counters to these contentions:

  1. not everything which is ‘obvious’ – such as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west, or the tricks of a good magician – is true;
  2. not every human desire is or can be satisfied;
  3. there’s no agreement round the world concerning the nature, wishes or power of God;
  4. if God is all-powerful and all-loving, how can people suffer through no fault of their own?
  5. if God is good and humankind is made in his image, how did evil arise?
  6. if everything must have a creator, who created God?

Humanists have an answer to the last question: “people did”.

Atheists Versus Theists

Forgetting Adam and Eve, Abraham and Moses – whom humanists dismiss as mythical or legendary characters – in the New Testament, St John (1:18) declares, “No man has seen God at any time.” It’s generally agreed today, by both religionists and non-religionists, that this statement is true, and those who claim to have seen him are victims of either hallucinations or delusions. All children are born atheists, and it’s only with considerable effort that religionists manage to inject their brand of theism.

God is therefore not directly perceived but inferred or deduced, depending on inductive or deductive logic operating on, respectively, observations of nature or theological assumptions.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with inferences, deductions and assumptions, and certainly not with observations of nature. Indeed, mathematics and science – especially in the past hundred years – depend on them. Everything depends on the plausibility of the underlying data. As is said of computers: Rubbish in, rubbish out.’ That’s what proofs of God’s existence amount to.

God Proved and Disproved

Not speaking up for himself, God is in the unfortunate position of having his existence constantly discussed in university philosophy, and even theology, departments, denied or upheld (usually upheld through successful mobilization by Roman Catholic and Evangelical societies) at student union debates, and ignored or questioned by the general public depending on the bestseller status of theist or atheist publications.

In the 13th century St Thomas Aquinas (in Summa theologiae gave five ‘proofs’ of God’s existence. He was described as

  1. unmoved mover;
  2. uncaused cause (First Cause);
  3. prime necessary being on which creation is contingent;
  4. absolute perfection and
  5. origin of universal purpose or Final Cause (Argument from Design).

Slightly modified down the centuries, known as Thomism, this teaching is still official in Catholic circles and unofficial in Protestant ones. The second proof is most popular among the Catholic laity and the third among Catholic theologians. Protestants prefer the fifth. The largely neglected fourth proof sees God as embodying all the perfections that exist, including existence itself.

It was left to the philosopher Immanuel Kant (in Critique of Pure Reason in the 18th-century Enlightenment to systematically demolish Aquinas’s five proofs. Briefly, phrases like ‘unmoved mover’ and ‘uncaused cause’ are really oxymorons (self-contradictory), for action and reaction are equal and opposite and if everything must have a cause there can’t be a first one. God as ‘prime necessary being’ or the subject of all predicates is an illusion, as existence isn’t a descriptive predicate and we can imagine things which don’t exist.

Purpose is an idea that results from our own experience, and there’s no evidence for cosmic purpose.

Creationism and Intelligent Design

The 20th century saw the birth of ‘creation science’ or creationism. Citing a 17th-century chronology based on the number of biblical generations after Adam and Eve, fundamentalists fixed – and still fix – the date for creation of the universe at 4004 BCE. Not only has science shown the earth to be billions of years old, but the order of events described in Genesis is wrong in many particulars and negates any symbolic ‘truth’ to the six “days” of creation. Besides, the definition of each day as “the evening and the morning” and the institution of the 7th-day Sabbath show that ordinary days were meant. Strictly speaking, there can’t be any scientific explanation of the origin of the universe, since such an event isn’t capable of observation, comparison or experimentation.

Most religionists outside America have now abandoned creation science (creationism) to proclaim Intelligent Design, which on the face of it is more intellectually respectable. The theory of evolution, however, and simple observation show there’s no overall design, much less an intelligent one, in the universe.


Do You Really Know What You Know?

Most active humanists today probably admit to atheism, either saying we cannot prove there is a God and being called “negative atheists”, or saying we can prove there is no God and being called “positive atheists”. Some atheists still call themselves “agnostics”: a term invented by “Darwin’s bulldog”, Thomas Huxley, in 1869 and dominant in humanist circles for the next hundred years.

Huxley had been studying an ancient sect called Gnostics, which claimed to have secret knowledge of the universe (like many modern cults); that is, a spiritual theory of everything. They had forerunners in Pythagoras and a few other ancient Greek philosophers. Huxley was also struck by St Paul’s discovery of an altar “TO THE UNKNOWN GOD” (Acts 17:23), and he rebelled against the certainty with which many of his academic friends, scientists as well as theologians, espoused their contrary views. As a humanist, he disliked the ‘aggreiveness’ of secularism under Charles Bradlaugh and even for a time protested against the ‘narrow-mindedness’ of secularity (separation of Church and State). Objections to Agnosticism Towards the end of the 19th century, the dogmatism of both scientists and theologians tended to decline as scientific uncertainty and biblical criticism multiplied. At the same time, agnosticism itself became more dogmatic and ‘aggressive’. Originally it was ‘a-gnosticism’ (without gnosticism) and applied to all knowledge. Then it was confined to religion and signified theta’s no evidence for or against the existence of God. As such, it’s really the same as negative atheism. Gradually it advanced beyond saying we do not know of any God to asserting that we cannot know of any God. This is probably true, but was a far from modest proposition and more than Bradlaugh maintained.

The theory of knowledge (epistemology) is the most important, hotly debated issue in modern philosophy, for it underlies all belief systems, morality and science. Agnosticism seems to undermine everything we know, or think we know. But how do we know that it’s true? In fact, there were both supporters of what would now be called agnosticism and objectors to it in the ancient world.

Anaxarchus said, “I know nothing and I am not even certain that I know nothing.” Lucretius put the same point more forcefully: “If nothing can be known then we cannot know that we know nothing.” Huxley himself wrote little about his own agnosticism and was thought to be agnostic about it. Certainly he didn’t believe in a theistic God who oversees human affairs. After some decades of always calling himself an agnostic, Berrand Russell announced that he was an atheist with respect to religion and agnostic about ultimate reality, or first and final causes; that is, postulated beginning and end of the universe. Probably most humanists today would agree.

Are Agnostics Sceptics?

In theory, agnostics and sceptics are identical in that both leg in with an ‘inquiry into’ the sources of knowledge and end with a view that there’s no absolute knowledge. Scepticism was elaborated by ancient Greek philosophers. It originally maintained that, as there are two sides to every question, we should permanently suspend judgement, or sit on the fence. Eventually Sceptics acknowledged there are day-to-day matters on which we do have to form an opinion, and the doctrine of probable or reasonable conclusion emerged. Agnostics came to a similar position.

The main difference between agnosticism and scepticism is the range of issues covered. Agnosticism virtually confines itself to abstract ideas like the nature of ultimate reality and especially to the existence of God. Scepticism covers the entire range of human experience and for every assertion it demands evidence. From examination of this comes acceptance (provisional belief), rejection or doubt (provisional disbelief).

Where the evidence is complex, different conclusions may be reached by investigators, and sceptics may be divided. Such an issue is postulated anthropogenic (human-generated) global warming and climate change. Humanists tend to be sceptics overall; but probably most accep the orthodox scientific view that AGWCC is a reality. Nevertheless, some well-informed humanists are ‘climate-change sceptics’.


For most of human history, oaths have been required of all citizens in a variety of circumstances: chiefly, pledging allegiance to a personal sovereign or sovereign state to gain nationality or assume public office, and giving evidence or acting as jurors in law courts.

These oaths (or sacred rituals) were supposedly made in the sight of spirits, gods or God, who would exact dire penalties if they were broken. In the Middle Ages, the political power of the Pope was mainly exercised by excommunicating or threatening to excommunicate a recalcitrant ruler and by releasing subjects from their oath of allegiance. Secular authorities acted by criminalizing false evidence in law courts as perjury, punishable by death or (usually) lesser penalties.

The 19th-century British secular humanist, Charles Bradlaugh, first secured by agitation an alternative for everyone of a non-religious affirmation in law courts, and then by legislation in all circumstances where an oath might be required. Not only humanists benefit from this reform. So too do those religionists who rely on the injunction attributed to Jesus by St Matthew (5:34 and 37): “Swear not at all… but let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay.”

To be allowed to affirm, citizens must declare they have no religious belief, or that taking an oath is contrary to their religious belief. They’re still subject to perjury laws. To avoid the discrimination or victimization that might result from this public admission, humanists, some religionists and many lawyers are advocating affirmation for everyone, perhaps with an oath as an optional extra.


Conscience has often been described as ‘the voice of God’ talking to individual human beings to uphold morality in civil society. It’s said by most religionists to be one of the ways in which God reveals himself to humanity and thus the best evidence for his existence. As with intuition, which is more likely to tell us what to think in what not to do, its mechanism has never been satisfactorily explained by theologians or philosophers.

With good evidence from neurophysiology, humanists believe conscience is a purely natural thought process like any other, created by an individual’s nature, nurture and current circumstances and mediated by chemical reactions and electrical impulses in the brain. It’s simply consciousness of the activity of the brain’s frontal cortex in curbing criminal and other antisocial desires. If conscience were the voice of God, why would he simultaneously inspire one person to go abroad and kill people in the name of sovereign and country, and a neighbour to stay at home as a conscientious objector?


One of the three virtues commended by St Paul (I Corinthians 13:13) is faith. Recently the Christian churches have taken to speaking of ‘faith’ instead of ‘religious’ schools and other institutions. It would appear that in a scientific age, which depends on facts, religious people are increasingly relying on faith.

This attitude has been cynically described as “believing in something you know isn’t true”. Of course, this doesn’t apply to most parishioners, but one wonders about some modernist clergy. What the revitalized term does, however, convey is a tacit admission that the tenets of religion can’t be proved and must be accepted by faith, or suspension of disbelief.

In common parlance ‘faith’ is often used i.e., “faith in antibiotics to kill bacteria”. As positive thinking, which has other benefits, this sort of faith is only provisional. Drugs with side effects frequently become shown to mean confidence, and in confidence bring therapeutic benefits; faith in them may perhaps be commended.

Copyright © 2010 David Tribe, Unit 12, 2B Wallaringa Avenue, Neutral Bay, NSW 2089