What is Humanism?
Review of public meeting at Goldsmiths, University of London on 22 February 2017 organised by Goldsmiths Atheist, Secular & Humanist (ASH) Society and South East London Humanist Group (SELHuG).
Talk by Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA) followed by Q&A discussion with panel: Andrew was joined by Asher Fainman, Chair of ASH; Daniel Wardle of BHA Young Humanists, Sarah Peace of Conservative Humanists and Hester Brown from SELHuG.
Andrew outlined two broad schools of thought to reality, morality and meaning. If the first question is how do I make sense of the world around me, then the religious approach is to answer that there is another, true reality behind our world. Our world is a shadow of that and our lives are connected to the other reality; there is more to us than just our bodies. The other school is to say, let’s engage with the world we have. Let’s experience, observe and test nature, the universe and ourselves. This second approach is the humanist one.
On the question of where morality comes from, the first school says it comes from outside. Humans are awful/sinful and left to their own devices, make a terrible mess of things. “And then, the course of events was interrupted by a voice from on high.” Rules were introduced and sanctioned by an external authority. The second school says morality has its foundation in biology and evolution. Over recent centuries we have had the opportunity to study the psychology of humans and other animals and see that our morality is not that special. Orangutans show ethical behaviour but we don’t think they have a god. Humanists build their position on something that is real and observable. The success of the humanist position means that today, most people think that deciding on what is right and wrong is ‘common sense’ rather than divine intervention.
On the source of meaning, the first school holds that meaning is real, clear and singular. You can go on a quest to find it, and after tests and challenges, it will be found in the furthest place. The humanist view is that we create meaning ourselves. Humans can’t help it, we are surrounded by things which stimulate us to create meaning. It is less about the meaning of life, more about meaning in life.
Our job as humanists is to tell people to be confident about holding a humanist position. It is not ‘second best’ to a religious position but as old as records of human thought. Although only 5% of the UK population call themselves Humanists, they are still the second biggest group; a much bigger percentage hold the same views, they just don’t label themselves.
Andrew went on to list the many ways in which the British Humanist Association contributes to public and community life from providing celebrants to take funerals, weddings and namings, to campaigning for human rights in the UK and internationally. The evening concluded with a wide-ranging discussion between panel and audience.