By | 10 Dec 2009

Photo of Bertrand Russell by Bassano (1936) Source: National Portrait Gallery | NPG x84663According to popular legend, if I were to lose consciousness for some reason—say, a knock on the head—then on waking I would be likely to ask: ‘Where am I?’ and, perhaps, ‘Why am I here?’ Or even, if it was a hard knock, ‘Who am I?’ These questions are fundamental. Without answers to them it would be impossible to take any action with meaning and purpose.

In real life, most people develop what is called their ‘philosophy of life’ by asking themselves, and answering, questions of this kind. To give our lives meaning and purpose we need to get our bearings, to acquire some frame of reference for our knowledge of ourselves and of the universe around us. This is our ‘world view’, which includes not only our understanding of ourselves and of the world, but also our system of values: those moral principles by which we decide what we should do.

Modern Humanism is a world view, a way of thinking, in which the supernatural is replaced by contemporary insights into the nature of man and the universe. It is an attempt to meet the needs of those many people who find that religion has become meaningless in the twentieth century and that creeds and dogmas based on ancient ‘revelations’ are out of step with modern ways of thought.

In the past, and in most of the world today, people have constructed their world view from a small part of fact and a large part of fiction. When so little was known of the world and of human nature, it was reasonable to add enough supernatural elements to complete the picture. Today, however, our knowledge has reached the stage where we no longer need to assume the existence of supernatural forces.

In this way, Humanism is materialistic; not in the derogatory sense of a preoccupation with goods or wealth rather than with cultural pursuits. It is materialistic in regarding life and mind as having arisen by evolutionary processes out of inorganic matter—without the intervention of either a supernatural power or a ‘life force’.

Whereas also in the past it has been widely held that knowledge might be obtained by revelation, or by intuition, or by the exercise of reason and logical thought, in this century we have become accustomed to looking for facts, for evidence. There is no longer any need for revelation as a source of knowledge. We have become accustomed to explaining events on the basis of cause and effect: indeed, the idea that events are caused, and that the causes are discoverable, is basic to the scientific attitude. Such a view has long been accepted in the physical sciences. The idea of ‘social sciences’ is more recent, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that we can solve human problems only by studying their causes.

It is in this sense that Humanism is scientific. It is not trying to make a ‘god’ of science, or underestimating the value of the arts, or suggesting that the world should be ruled by scientists. But with the knowledge of the great advances that have been made in those areas where the scientific method of thought has been applied, Humanism seeks to extend this approach to the understanding of human society.

There has been no founder of Humanism in the way that Jesus was the founder of Christianity, or Marx of communism. It has developed on the basis of unbelief in the supernatural and has been modified by an understanding of some of the characteristics of the modern era, and by some modern insights into the nature of man; insights which have become possible only since the time of Darwin and Freud.

For while throughout history there has been a small number of independent thinkers who were sceptical of the supernatural filling in the gaps of knowledge, only recently has our knowledge of man reached the stage where it could become the basis for an integrated and rational world view.

Modern Humanism is a world view, a way of thinking, in which the supernatural is replaced by contemporary insights into the nature of man and the universe. It is not, however, a final view. Humanists realize that they must be prepared to modify their ideas in the light of new or altered knowledge. For this reason, Humanism can never develop a dogma or an orthodoxy but, at most, a consensus based on evidence, presented with tolerance and constantly being modified.

The scientific attitude has been mentioned as one of the characteristics of the modern era, replacing old notions of revealed or intuitive knowledge. In a similar way, the mediaeval concern for God and the next world has gradually given way to a concern for man in this world. Out of this concern for man, at least in the countries of the West, there have developed during the last five hundred years two important human ideals. The first is individualism, implying that the individual is prized for himself; its ideal is the full development of each human personality, the fulfilment of his potentialities. The second of these important ideals is that of freedom, without which there can be no development of the individual, no fulfilment of those genetic characteristics by which one man differs from another. In any society there is need for some restriction of individual freedom. The history of progressive societies, however, shows clearly that one freedom should be unassailable. This is freedom of thought and speech—the right to dissent.

Where there has been a spread of the twin ideals of individualism and freedom there has at the same time been a decline in their antithesis, authoritarianism—the acceptance without question of the edicts of authority. Those who have an authoritarian attitude are disposed to accept not only the supernatural authority of religion but the hereditary authority of a monarchy or an aristocracy; or the naked power of a military regime; or the more subtle power of wealth; or the wisdom of the Government in office; or the propriety of the traditional morality of the society in which they live. The Humanist attitude is not to deny the need for authority, but to insist that authority have a rational and democratic basis, and to deny the right of any authority to exist without question.

A unique characteristic of our century, and one which bears on the practicability of Humanist ideals, is the affluence of Western society. From the earliest recorded times, say 2,000 BC until the eighteenth century, there was no real change in the standards of living of the great majority of mankind, even in the wealthiest countries. The lot of most members of the human race has been to live in poverty, with no hope of anything better either for themselves or for their children—what J. K. Galbraith calls the ‘tradition of despair’. No wonder that most men have been ready to believe that there must be some other purpose for them than their miserable lives in this world.

Today, most members of the human race still live in poverty. But in the economically advanced countries there are millions of people living in what is, comparatively, affluent comfort; and it is not difficult to see that such could be the lot of all mankind if existing human knowledge could be properly applied. No longer can poverty be regarded as the inevitable lot of the majority. Once progress has been shown to be possible, further progress also becomes credible.

Affluence and comfort need not of course be considered as ends in themselves, or as essential prerequisites to the leading of full and worthwhile lives. But the contributions of science and technology have meant that to more and more people have become available the health and ease, and the leisure to find the best in themselves, which were once the privilege of a minority. Once freed from the exhausting drudgeries of mere subsistence, men have at last the opportunity to live.

When it is said by Christians that Humanism is as old as Christianity but has failed to make any impact on the world, this is merely equating humanism with unbelief. Certainly, there have always been those who found religion unbelievable: the difficulty has been to offer an alternative. Today, while Christians are finding it increasingly difficult to believe their own doctrines, the Humanist alternative has become more and more credible. Although many of the ideas now included in the Humanist view have their origins in the past, particularly in the traditions of the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and of the Rationalism of the nineteenth century, Humanism incorporates insights which were not available until this century, insights into the nature of man and of human society.

Since Darwin put forward his theory of the evolution of life, it has been realized that human societies have also evolved. More recently, it has also been realized that man as a species is now in a position to direct the further course of his own evolution, both biological and social; and indeed that of all life on this planet. This concept of man’s place in the evolutionary process enables us as humans to orientate ourselves in space and time, to locate our position in the universe, to extend our history back to the origins of life, and perhaps to give us a vision of the future.

Although there are certain parallels between the processes of biological evolution and those of social and cultural evolution, a major difference lies in the rate of evolutionary change. For the changes of cultural evolution accelerate in ways that are becoming uncomfortably apparent in our time. Human population is expanding at an accelerating rate—the ‘population explosion’. Knowledge is exploding too: it has been calculated that the quantity of sheer information is doubling every ten years. Change is, indeed, avalanching down on our heads. Our own society is changing so rapidly that we can all expect that moving into the future will be like moving into a completely new environment.

Now, it has been shown that when an individual is taken out of his own culture and set down suddenly in an environment that is sharply different from his own, with a different set of cues to react to, different conceptions of time, space, work, religion, love, sex, and everything else, then he is likely to become disorientated and bewildered. This has been called ‘cultural shock’. Among those whose world view is derived from the old ethical and religious systems (which are based on the assumption that human needs and human nature do not change), it is precisely the kind of reaction likely to result from the rapid social change of the near future. On the other hand, the Humanist world view recognizes not only that change is inevitable, but that it is possible for it to be made beneficial; and that it is not only possible but necessary for man to construct a code of ethics appropriate to a changing world.

In accepting the role of man as director of the evolutionary process, Humanists will be particularly aware of the problems and responsibilities involved. Responsibility not only for the survival of the human species, but for all the other species of animal and plant, and for their natural environment – in other words, for conservation. And responsibility for the deliberate improvement of the structure of human society, and of our physical, intellectual and aesthetic environment.

Although Humanism is still based on rationalism, on the recognition that man has yet to make full use of his intelligence, human motivation is a much more complex matter than was suspected before Freud and his followers drew attention to the part played by the unconscious mind. Modern research has shown that human behaviour is largely determined by the structure of the individual personality. This personality is built up from a collection of traits which are to some extent inherited, while the non-inherited part results from the individual’s reaction to his environment, especially his family environment. The personality structure in its most permanent part, its nucleus, is formed in early childhood, and only minor changes become possible in later years.

There is much yet to be discovered about the formation and structure of the personality, but enough is known for it to be quite clear that the old rationalists were overoptimistic in hoping that by attacking superstition and encouraging the spread of education, human beings could be persuaded to act in a wholly rational manner. It is just not possible to persuade even an educated man to ‘see reason’ when to do so would conflict with attitudes which are an integral part of his personality structure.

This does not mean that education is useless; if carried to the point where a person has insight into his own motivation, he can perhaps make allowances for irrational factors, even if he is unable by thinking to alter the way he feels about things. However, it does mean that modern Humanism has been moving from the field of philosophical dispute into the field of social action. For it is readily seen that the attitudes of a society can be changed—they do change. Such changes, however, are not so much changes of conviction resulting from intellectual argument as unconscious adjustments to technical and social advances. So, Humanists do more towards achieving their aims by taking part in work for social change rather than by trying to persuade others to be more reasonable.

A Humanist is more than just an unbeliever. The consequences of his unbelief are that man is alone in the universe, without a God and without an after-life; that if man is to survive he not only can but must accept responsibility for his own destiny; and that only by making full use of the arts and sciences, of the genius of individuals, and of the vast resources of social co-operation, can man hope to overcome the evils of ignorance, poverty and disease, and the hazards of war and the population explosion. If a Humanist is prepared to shoulder the consequences of his unbelief, he becomes personally committed to the solution of the problems of mankind.

A concept of the relationship of the individual with society is the basis of the Humanist view of morality, of how the individual should behave towards his fellows, and of how society should behave towards the individual. Humanists discard the idea of morality as simply doing what God would wish, and base it instead on a regard for human welfare in this world.

Earlier rationalists, from the Greeks to the seventeenth-century political philosophers, thought of human society as an artificial creation, and imagined man in his ‘natural state’ to have existed without society. They hoped that men would one day become reasonable enough to see the benefits of social co-operation.

A more modern view is that man has evolved as a social animal; that man and society have grown up together. During this stage of evolution, society has made available to the individual a store of knowledge and skill, while the ability to communicate has allowed individuals to add to the common store of knowledge. From this viewpoint, the individual and society are so interdependent that each is part of the other, and whether or not he is a member of society is not a matter of choice for the individual. Whether he likes it or not, he is part of society and society is part of him. If he fails to develop as a social human being, he is failing himself.

Understanding the nature of man as a social animal means that we do not expect a future Utopia in which society is made up of separate ‘rational’ men acting towards each other in a civilized manner because of their rationality alone. Rather, we look to the further development of that human trait of emotional affinity for human society; to the evolution of a society based not only on reason but on love.

At the same time, the evolution of society is towards increasing complexity of organization, and it is here that education plays a vital part. In its broadest sense, education is a mechanism used to fit the individual to take his place in society. As society becomes more complex, education consisting of merely instilling rules becomes inadequate; it becomes necessary for the individual to understand the principles of the organizations of society and of the relationship between individual and society.

One of the advantages of man’s being a social animal is that the group is able to insure its individual members against misfortune. To those who accept misfortune as just that, and not as a sign of divine displeasure, it is natural also to accept such things as insurance of the individual against illness, or economic misfortune, as one of the functions of government.

The Humanist view of society recognizes and respects the value of the individual and of his personal liberty; for while it expects from him a full contribution to society, it recognizes that society benefits from encouraging individual variety —from developing and taking advantage of the uniqueness of each of its members. A diversity of abilities and interests, both genetic and acquired, ensures the provision of a wide range of knowledge, experience and skill. To quote Julian Huxley, in The Humanist Frame:

In a strictly scientific sense, the well-developed, well-patterned individual human being is . . . the highest phenomenon of which we have knowledge; and the variety of individual personalities is the world’s highest richness.

This recognition of the value of human diversity implies tolerance. Not tolerance in the sense of ‘anything goes’, an indifference to right and wrong, but tolerance that allows and even encourages as wide as possible an expression in thought, word and deed, of the diversity between individuals.

If we are to base our morality on human needs, and if we seek no guidance from the supernatural, how are we to arrive at the details of a moral code? By what criteria are we able to judge whether particular moral rules are suitable guides for conducting our behaviour? The only test can be our experience of how they have served in the past, with a willingness to make experimental changes in the future. In the words of Jacob Bronowski (in Science and Human Values):

Ethical concepts should be subject to the same scrutiny as are the concepts of science. Which means that ethical concepts are not absolute or everlasting, that they are not beyond challenge because they are held by faith, or by authority, or by the conviction that they are self-evident. It means that they must be tested by their consequences, by how they work out in practice, and if necessary modified, or reformulated or discarded.

In practice, this is what most people do already, often unconsciously or unadmittedly. For example, those clergymen who are outspoken about the evils of gambling support their argument by references to the social or economic consequences of, say, poker machines. It is rare nowadays to hear gambling attacked solely because it is ‘sinful’ (that is, against the wishes of God, as revealed long ago and recorded in holy writ). In those rare cases where a stand is made on dogma and in disregard of social consequences, the results are usually embarrassing to the dogmatists. An obvious example is the opposition to the use of contraceptives. If in this respect many people are in their thinking unconsciously humanists some of the time, more problems might be solved if we all tried to be Humanists all of the time.

A society like our own is pluralist: individually we have a variety of religions, ideologies and interests. In such a society, whatever way an individual arrives at his own moral standards, the only way in which useful discussion can take place between those of differing beliefs is on the basis of our common experience. In other words, any useful discussion must be on the basis of what actually happens when our beliefs are put into action.

Even though argument is now less commonly based on faith and dogma, it is still common for moral judgements to be founded on unproved assumptions; on knowledge that is supposed to be self-evident. For example, many of those who advocate the flogging or hanging of criminals do so because they ‘know’ that such punishment will reduce crime. Similarly, censorship of certain books is often supported by a self-evident ‘knowledge’ that they are harmful. Other people, of course, ‘know’ precisely the opposite. Such questions can be resolved only by a scientific approach to the problem, by studying cause and effect.

Humanists will share with most people a belief that some, perhaps most, of the values of our society have stood the test of time—values such as love, honesty, and justice. But they will notice that other values like thrift, perhaps patriotism, and certainly those concerned with sexual morality, seem much less certain of permanence; and they will insist that, at least in principle, no values are beyond criticism.

This has been an outline of the Humanist world view, which attempts to meet the needs of twentieth-century man; attempts, however incompletely, to integrate the knowledge and insights which man has gained concerning himself and the universe. Is it enough? Can Humanism take the place of the old supernatural religions? To do so it must meet a situation, a dilemma common to all men throughout history: that each individual must die. Men have always been unwilling to accept their mortality and to face the fact of death, and their religions have allowed them to evade this fact by the promise of an after-life.

The Humanist view is that we can no longer afford such an evasion; that the problems of mankind cannot be solved by taking refuge in comfortable illusions. What is more, those men who have been able to face the truth and cast off the illusions of wishful thinking have found that they were, after all, unnecessary. As Bertrand Russell has said, ‘Happiness is none the less true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and truth lose their value because they are not everlasting.’

In place of an after-life, Humanism offers the ideal of fullness in this life and of a unique individual contribution to the total of human experience. And in place of God’s purpose, Humanism offers the purpose that man makes for himself.

Further reading:

Ayer, A. J. (ed.), The Humanist Outlook, Pemberton, London, 1968.

Blackham, H. J. (ed.), Objections to Humanism, Penguin Books Ltd, Harmondsworth. 1963.

Bronowski, Jacob, Science and Human Values, Penguin Books Ltd, Harmondsworth, 1958.

Hawton, Hector, The Humanist Revolution, Barrie and Rockliff (Barrie Books Ltd), London, 1963.

Huxley, Julian (ed.), The Humanist Frame, George Allen and Unwin Ltd, London, 1961.

Knight, Margaret, Humanist Anthology, Barrie and Rockliff (Barrie Books Ltd), London.

Mouat, Kit. What Humanism Is About, Barrie and Rockliff (Barrie Books Ltd), London, 1963.

Ian Edwards is a medical general practitioner. He was born in 1929, educated at the University of Sydney. He is a former chairman of the Humanist Society of NSW and the Council of Australian Humanist Societies.

Copyright © 2009 Ian Edwards