News – 4 September 2014

Enlightenment: the roots of Humanism

On 20th June 2014, I took part in the World Humanist Day Symposium, held in Sydney. I attended on behalf of the HSV, along with representatives from other States and the ACT. The Symposium revolved around a resolution from the Council of Australian Humanist Societies (CAHS) Convention AGM of 2013: “That the Australian Humanist movement adopt the defence and promotion of the values of the Enlightenment as an overarching concept for organising our aims, objectives and programmes.” Dr Victor Bien of the Humanist Society of NSW led the day’s proceedings and introduced the speakers.

David Tribe spoke about ‘The Enlightenment – Who Is Criticising It and Why’. The talk explored a brief history of the philosophical schools of thought that emerged from the Enlightenment beginning with empiricism and rationalism, as well as various sources of counter-Enlightenment ideas. Originally, and most notably, Enlightenment values came under attack from organised religion – particularly its traditional, hierarchical forms – which saw its authority being undermined by the ‘secularisation’ of society as ideas of individual freedom and equality came to the fore. Further criticism is attributed to modern post-Enlightenment movements, such as romanticism and postmodernism. David’s talk served to give historical context to Humanism and its connection with the Age of Enlightenment.

Chrys Stevenson gave a talk entitled ‘Christian Nation? Nonsense on Stilts! How Jeremy Bentham’s Humanism Shaped Australia’. She talked about how English moral philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s views on government, individual rights and human welfare influenced the laws, institutions and national identity of Australia. The extent of Bentham’s intellectual legacy in Australia is evident in our legislation, our democratic system, our educational system and our modern welfare state. Chrys explained how this history contradicts the emphasis placed on our supposed Christian heritage by the likes of Fred Nile, Tony Abbott and others on the religious right-wing of Australian politics, and encouraged us to reclaim the Benthamite narrative of our history.

Dr Meredith Doig gave a presentation on ‘Reason vs. Emotion: Key Drivers in the History of Moral Progress’. Through the study of human psychology, Meredith explained, we have learnt that our reason is indeed a ‘slave of the passions’, as Hume would put it, and that emotion prevails over reason in human decision-making. As there is much less energy involved in automatic, impulsive and emotion-driven (Type I) thinking than in deliberate, calculating and reason-driven thinking (Type II) thinking, people tend to favour the former. She spoke of the value of Type II thinking and the continuing need to promote reason – not as something separate from and opposed to emotion, but as something that can be used to achieve progress and to further the causes of which our higher emotions approve.

Professor Frank Stilwell discussed the topic ‘The Enlightenment, Political Economy and Modern Society’. He explored how the various principles identified with Humanism and the Enlightenment have been called upon to support a number of economic and political positions, often in strong and intractable opposition to one another. Beginning with Scottish political economist, Adam Smith, of ‘Invisible Hand’ fame, political economists and philosophers over the last 250 years or so have been engaged in a contest of ideas about how to address the problems faced by society as a whole. This legacy is threatened to this day by economic insecurity, social inequality and ecologically unsustainable development – issues which Frank said may need to be addressed by a ‘new Enlightenment’.

Dr Ian Ellis-Jones spoke last, giving a talk entitled ‘A Rational Faith: Humanism, Enlightenment Ideals, and Unitarianism’. He spoke from his perspective as a Unitarian minister and former president of the Humanist Society of NSW. Ian spoke of the history of Unitarianism, which has progressed over two centuries from a denomination of Christianity to a progressive, post-Christian ‘meta-religion’, influenced by and influencing Humanism in the process (many of the signatories of the Humanist Manifesto were Unitarian ministers). He spoke of Unitarians’ embrace of Enlightenment values and ideas from traditions outside of Christianity, including Buddhism. In the words of the Buddha, ‘Believe only what you yourself judge to be true’.

To conclude the symposium, all of the speakers and State representatives gathered for a panel discussion of current issues, including the recent Federal Budget and the National School Chaplaincy Program. Returning to the theme of the symposium, we discussed the contribution of the Age of Enlightenment to Humanism, but also how Humanism goes beyond the values of that era by drawing on earlier and more recent schools of thought. Our discussion benefited greatly from the philosophical, political, economic and scientific perspectives presented by the various speakers. Although we did not reach a strong conclusion regarding the 2013 CAHS resolution, hopefully all those in attendance went away, as I did, with a much deeper understanding of the Age of Enlightenment and its connection with Humanism.

Several of the talks mentioned above have been posted on the Humanist Society of South Australia’s HSA YouTube channel.

Report by Sam Mason-Smith

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