EXPLAINING THE HUMANIST POSITION
What is Humanism? What do you Humanists do?
These are the troublesome questions because we need a short simple answer and it is counter productive to frame it in negative terms.
It is terribly unsatisfactory to say what we are not yet this is the temptation.
We say that we live without recourse to supernatural beings and we find this necessary in a world in which so many define themselves in terms of religious belief: they are Christian, Islamic, Hindu etc.
Since we hold none of these beliefs should we define ourselves as not doing so?
The question is rhetorical. Clearly we shouldn't define ourselves as what we are not.
All right then; what are we? What do we do?
Firstly let us give that short simple answer everyone requires.
Humanism is a way of life.
Now let us expand that statement.
We emphasise the practical and philosophical things people can do to enhance life for ourselves and others.
We try to improve our own skills and personal attributes to become better, happier and more capable human beings.
We endeavour to look after our families and to bring up our children so that they will be happy, capable, unselfish adults.
We work to improve the physical and social infrastructure of our nation to allow a productive and sustainable future for all who live in this country.
We take part in efforts to assist people in less fortunate nations suffering from war and poverty to overcome immediate problems and to create a sustainable future for themselves.
Within the context of these ideals we seek to overcome the notion that humans owe their existence and allegiance to any supernatural beings.
Also the notion that this supernatural being or god has chosen distinct groups to own and occupy certain territories or to have other special privileges to the detriment of all those excluded from these groups.
The historical record shows the problems and human misery that arises from these ideas and this has been especially notable in recent times.
Nevertheless if there was genuine evidence to support the notion of one or more supernatural beings who determined the fate of all on this planet and if any one of the various groups who claim authority from the bible, the koran, the talmud or other ancient scripts could demonstrate that they have the authority to speak for this being, that they claim to have, we would have to accept the facts.
We have never seen any credible evidence of any such thing.
Accordingly we do not accept their claims and note that since they are in conflict with each other they couldn't all be right.
However they can all be wrong and their total inability to produce any credible evidence for their claims leads us to believe that they are.
As well as claiming divine authority religious people often claim that they have superior moral standards to those who do not share their beliefs.
A quick glance at the historical record contradicts this. Oppression, greed, murder and torture have been common accompaniments to regimes claiming the moral high ground based on religious dogma.
When the Catholic Church controlled all religious belief in Europe the common people lived in continual fear of the clergy and of each other.
Iran is now a theocracy. Public executions are a common event and people struggle to free themselves from the clergy and their thugs.
Francisco Franco of Spain was a darling of the Catholic Church both before and especially after he came to power.
He conquered his enemies with the aid of Germany's Nazis and was responsible for oppression, torture and murder on a major scale. More recently Augusto Pinochet, the murderous dictator of Chile was a favorite of the Catholic Church.
Both these men were attended on their deathbeds and received holy oils and a church funeral from Catholic Priests.
The Koran has so many harsh words for unbelievers that it is not hard to understand how an extremist Mullah can go that one step further and urge his followers to carry out acts of murder as indeed several have done.
Still they and other religionists claim the high moral ground.
They will even say “What will stop people doing terrible things if they have no fear of going to Hell and no hope of the rewards of Heaven”.
Surely this exposes their moral bankruptcy. They evidently believe there is no better reason for goodness and kindness than fear.
A Humanist will look to the natural world and to anthropology to find explanations for human behaviour and it is not so hard to see there a more sensible and more edifying reason why humans develop a moral code.
We are social animals and gain a great deal of benefit from forming family and tribal groupings.
Rules of conduct probably evolved out of the necessity to maintain cohesion within groups. Even such a small group as a family cannot stick together if one or more individuals injure, rob and exploit the others.
Such behaviour will lead to conflict and destroy the group.
If a group disintegrates each member loses the benefits of mutual co-operation, labour sharing and protection.
They are then at the mercy of predators and the elements and have little chance of survival. Those which have emphasised co-operation and concern for the welfare of others, even the stranger, have made the world safer for themselves than it would otherwise be.
It has taken thousands of years and the work of many scholars and leaders for basic rules to be codified into systems of law.
Religious leaders have developed their own codes.
These have influenced secular law in many respects, sometimes for the better but more often for the worse.
It is true that religion often does inspire individuals to self sacrificing, altruistic behaviour and where this is the case
Humanists should acknowledge this and join forces with those who do behave in this way regardless of what motivates them.
Unfortunately it is also true that religion has had a pernicious influence on legal and moral codes.
Let us look at some examples of this.
In Iran, Saudi Arabia and many other Moslem countries women can be executed for adultery and homosexuals can be executed for having a sexual preference which we in this country now regard as acceptable and normal.
Even in Australia it is not so long ago that homosexuals were gaoled for what was described in court as “an act against the law of nature”.
Nearly all our churches spoke against the repeal of such laws and many clergy still fulminate against both sex outside marriage and homosexuality which is ironical when we consider the number of clergy who engage in both, especially when some have had to be prosecuted under secular law for acts of paedophilia.
All good law is based on the need for societal cohesion.
If we look at legal statutes against acts of violence, fraud, theft, sexual predation etc it is clear that tolerating these without sanction soon leads to social breakdown.
However this is not the case for laws against divorce, pre-marital sex, early abortion and homosexuality.
Many churchmen will tell you that they undermine society.
To illustrate that they are wrong please take a look at Japan, a country which has a relaxed attitude to all of these.
It is also notable as a highly co-operative, peaceful, successful society.
Most European countries and Australia have gradually relaxed attitudes and laws in these matters.
Has it caused social disintegration? No, it hasn't!
How about countries which have stern laws against all of the above?
The most outstanding examples can be found in the Middle East, Sudan, Somalia and other North African countries in the present day and in the Latin American countries when they were under the dictators and Spain under Franco.
What have they been like?
Our newspapers and history books tell the story and the more we discover the worse it gets. We don't have refugees fleeing the government or society of Japan or the Western European countries, but the others mentioned above have all been major sources of refugees.
It is hard to think of any country governed or dominated by religion that produces a satisfactory life for its citizens.
Even though I believe we should stand ready to rebut false claims made by religionists especially when they use these to inflict their ideology on the community by threatening politicians in order to influence the lawmaking process I also believe that Atheists should defend freedom to practice religion so long as those practices do not do harm to people.
We need to remember that when we defend the freedom of others to think and speak their thoughts we also defend our own.
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