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Is the Cup of Humanism Half Full or Half Empty?

March 27, 2010

Having written a fair few “negative” posts questioning religion, the bible and the existence of god, I thought it was about time I changed to a slightly more positive note. So I think a few posts about humanism and what it has to tell us are in order.

What is humanism? It is the idea that ethics, morality and social policy, the things governing our lives, should be based upon an understanding of human nature, that we should make the most of life in this lifetime and in the real world that we find ourselves in. Whilst not necessarily rejecting the concept of a god, it does reject the claim that our morality is based upon a higher source than mere human nature, a common claim of religions.

Having accepted humanism, an interesting problem arises. What are the implications of placing the burden of morality on human shoulders?

One answer, an answer that was central to a lot of Enlightenment philosophy, is naively optimistic. Having shaken off the yoke of religion as a moral force, humanity is free to use its reason and rationality to further itself, and wondrous things are sure to follow! This doesn’t hold much water; we know that in this ‘enlightened’ age terrible things do still happen. The last century saw two world wars culminating in the calculated use of atomic weapons to kill hundreds of thousands of people. This certainly isn’t humanity at its best.

At the other end of the spectrum is fully fledged pessimism. Without the moral force of religion to govern its behaviour, humanity will degenerate into baseless immorality, in a world where anything goes. This is the view that many religious people seem to have; that it is only religious morality that allows us to behave as moral beings. Again, this is taking it too far. I’m an atheist, and I like to think of myself as a good, moral person. I know lots of atheists who are good people. Atheists and theists are both capable of moral and immoral behaviour, which would surely suggest that it’s more than religious belief that holds our morality together.

The solution lies somewhere in the middle. The important thing is to face life for what it is: a limited number of decades with access to the real world only. Accept that humanity is capable of achieving great things and of stooping to the lowest acts imaginable, but that at all times we are just being human, and that somewhere in the mess of humanity is something capable of giving us a sense of right and wrong. It might not be easy to achieve great things as a species, but it is possible, even with a few hiccups on the way.

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