We humans need stories to help us answer life’s ‘big questions’ – ‘Who are we?’, ‘Where did we come from?’ ‘Where are we going?’ and, importantly, ‘How should we live?’ Such stories enshrine how to behave, and often past events and notable people. If the stories give a central role to spirits or gods, they can be called a religion.
Once religious stories are established, they often control people’s lives; so anyone who questions them will be punished, even killed. In Western societies, Christian stories have formed the dominant religion since about 400 CE. Without alternative answers few dared question the truth of religious stories. But with the invention of science that changed.
Today, in Western democracies like Australia, many are rejecting religious stories in favour of science stories. In the 2016 Census over 30 percent of people identified as having ‘no religion’. And, contrary to claims by the religious, the fall in their influence has not led to a breakdown of society nor to a rise in crime. This is because, whether non-religious or religious, people generally aim to lead useful, fulfilling and ethical lives.
The explanation for this is that humans are social animals. We live in social groups and have innate behaviours that usually enable us to get along with others. We also show innate caring and nurturing behaviour, which enables us to rear children to adulthood. Successful human thriving requires us to care for the well-being of others and to share goods and tasks, whether motivated by innate behaviour or religious stories.
While both good and bad behaviour occurs in all societies, religion claiming to be necessary for ‘the good’ was severely challenged by the unchristian behaviour exhibited so widely during the two World Wars. Immediately after WWII, with the moral credibility of Christianity so diminished, a group of concerned, non-religious people began calling for an alternative. Some identified as freethinkers, others as atheists, humanists, rationalists and secularists. Yet, after days of deliberation at a Congress held in 1952, they chose to call themselves humanists; and from this gathering was born the international humanist movement [International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), now Humanists International (HI)].
In choosing ‘humanist’, they agreed that it was the best word to describe a person who aims to lead an ethical and worthwhile life based on natural values. That is, a person who is open-minded and a strong supporter of democracy, reason-based evidence, and science for human benefit. Humanists also advocate for freedoms that do no harm to others, including animals; and, knowing we only live once, are eager to make each day worthwhile. Thoughtful humanists, while critical of many claims made by religions, have no difficulty getting along with religious people as family members, neighbours and work colleagues.