Humanism and the future: a personal perspective

HSV Public Lecture by Geoff Allshorn, PhD student (La Trobe University) and HSV committee member, at Balwyn Library on 28 November 2013

Born in 1961 – the same year that HSV was founded, Amnesty International launched and the first man went into space – Geoff sees himself as shaped by the times. He is a science enthusiast, a keen human rights activist and an avowed Humanist. But possibly his most enduring early influence was the original Star Trek series, which he jests turned him into a Trexistentialist and guided him ultimately towards Humanism.

Reflecting on his family tree he mapped some of the social changes which have transfigured our view of humanity. In 1948 the UN Declaration of Human Rights promoted equality of worth, opportunity and dignity for every human being and did so from the default position of secular humanism. In the 1960s inter-racial marriage was accepted and today the debate favours same-sex marriage. Will the next generation live to see interplanetary colonization or other wondrous advances?

Internet technology already provides an opportunity for the younger generation to explosively enlarge their social framework and identity. However, do individ-uals have the capacity to critically analyse the vast reservoir of information in which they are immersed? Humanism aims to respond to the world’s problems ethically, and while societal evolution can be triggered by technological change, human agency can guide individuals to an ethical overview.

The potential for technology to promote human rights is also now undeniable. Contrast the Beijing massacre in 1989, and its official censorship of news, with the successful attempt to overthrow the Egyptian government during the Arab Spring of 2010, where mobile phones played such a significant role. Organ-isations such as Avaaz and Getup also exemplify the power to mobilise social change in our own society, using social media.

In the future we will almost certainly see changes which will transform our traditional binary gender classification, as well as our patriarchal, sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic and ageist perspectives. The current limitations on our personal identities will be affected by bio-technical advances and a radically extended life expectancy. So what will it mean to be a Humanist in a world which is heading towards trans-Humanity? Will future generations deem us to be primitive, in much the same way as we now view Neanderthal man? It is impossible for us to anticipate the impact of future technology, given that we are hemmed in by old paradigms. Will our future see a shift from human rights to an expanded version of life rights, embracing other species, even cyberlife? That is, will we assign the same rights to our back-up cybernetic brain storage units as we do to our primary consciousness?

Geoff posits that Humanism has the potential to provide an ethical and viable philosophy in a future society where our very humanity may be redefined. But to do so it must be prepared to evolve. A perusal of the issues favoured by Australian Humanists in the last fifty years shows that science and technology have had minimal emphasis compared with social issues. For example, in the journals and newsletters of that period there was no reference to the space program. And consider the current focus on fighting religious education in schools and the promotion of ethics teaching, which reflects the endorsement of change through education and legislative reform, above a recognition of the role of science and technology in societal evolution. As a consequence of this ‘qwerty’ mindset we may be left behind by accelerating social and technological change.

Consider, in particular, the challenge for HSV in a world where many Humanists under the age of 40 would prefer to stay at home and interact socially, intellectually, and even sexually, with others on line. How do we attract them to attend meetings and participate in activities face-to-face? Should we even try? How do we involve young people whose Humanism is already so entrenched within their values that Humanist meetings to discuss theism and other similar matters are unnecessary and irrelevant. The challenge is both terrifying and breathtakingly exciting.

One colleague recently enquired whether Humanists are dreamers or activists. For Geoff we are both. It is part of our philosophy, indeed our mandate, he believes, to translate dreams into reality. As George Bernard Shaw said, ‘Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.’ Do we dare to look beyond the familiar and the present, and anticipate the unfamiliar and the unknown which lie ahead? Do we have the wisdom to discern what is both possible and desirable in the future of our species and help prepare our planet for it? He offers no answers but suggests that the future of our Society will be shaped and transformed by whatever we decide collectively.

Full talk published in Australian Humanist, No. 113, Autumn 2014

Report by Jennie Stuart

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