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Reasons to be cheerful
on 11 March 2011
Stephen Law hits the ground running with this excellent introduction to humanism, exactly what is needed when space is limited and life is short. Within a religious context, the "big questions" - Does God exist? What makes for a meaningful life? What makes things morally right or wrong? Is there an afterlife? - often invite interminable and confused responses that can make you wish you hadn't bothered asking. No wonder many people are indifferent to organized religion, as falling church attendance shows. While the pressures to conform to a particular religious tradition may have largely gone away (at least in modern Europe), the questions haven't. For those with a taste for this kind of inquiry and who don't want to be fobbed off with supernatural explanations, humanism provides a satisfying framework, and this book a rigorous and readable guide.
There is no single snappy definition to which all humanists sign up. Indeed, a lack of doctrine is part of its appeal, but this does not mean that anything goes, or that humanists turn to intellectual mush when faced with questions about ethics or the existence of gods or angels. It's the approach to these questions that matters. Humanists "believe science, and reason more generally, are invaluable tools we can and should apply to all areas of life". Reason is the bedrock of humanism as it can never be for religion, which ultimately appeals to faith, and often takes pride in faith trumping reason. An emphasis on reason does not have to diminish human emotional experience or eliminate love, hope, purpose and everything else that goes to make life worth living: humanists value these aspects as well.
Law continues his "seven-point characterization of humanism": "humanists are either atheists or at least agnostic... believe that this life is the only life we have... [are committed] to the existence and importance of moral value... offer moral justifications and arguments rooted other than in religious authority and dogma... emphasize our individual moral autonomy... believe our lives can have meaning without it being bestowed from above by God".
The absence of God is perhaps the most salient feature of this characterization, and anyone who wants to be a humanist must deal with this. How is the average person, with no training in theology or philosophy, going to face down a couple of thousand years of tradition and a few billion believers who all attest, sometimes vehemently, to the existence of a higher power?
Part of the answer lies in precisely that plurality. As Law puts it, people "have experienced literally thousands of gods and other supernatural beings" and have never been able to agree on just what it is that is supposed to exist, let alone demonstrate this existence to a non-believer. They can't all be right, but they can all be wrong. Religious experience simply isn't a reliable indicator of truth. For another part of the answer, Law simply points out that "religion has an extraordinary track record of getting even intelligent, well-educated people to believe things that are obviously false".
Could it be fairly obvious that there is no God? Law's "personal view is that, yes, it could". In addition to the embarrassing absence of evidence, the "evil god hypothesis" presents a powerful challenge to anyone who imagines that the only possibility under discussion is the existence of a good god. Why not an evil one? Of course, those "who believe in an evil god face the evidential problem of good": why is there so much good in the world if there is an evil god who can prevent it? One theodicy is that our experience of the good makes suffering all the more terrible: to experience the joy of bringing a new life into the world only to have it destroyed is far more satisfying to an evil god than our being uniformly miserable.
One of the most refreshing things about humanism is that it does not treat the big questions as merely rhetorical devices to intimidate the curious into intellectual deference, or as an excuse to trot out tired old stories (as the evil god hypothesis shows, there are always new ways to think about these issues). Humanism provides clear answers where these are available; otherwise, humanists are perfectly comfortable owning up to not knowing. And only occasionally will "mystery" (a favourite of obfuscators the world over) be invoked. As Law puts it, "atheists can admit that there is a mystery about why the universe exists, and that they are utterly baffled by it, while nevertheless insisting that there's overwhelming evidence that, however it came to be, it certainly wasn't created by the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God of Christian theology".
Ah, the religious apologist retorts, how can we be certain of anything? Again, this is a rhetorical move, intended to close down discussion rather than open it up. When a humanist asks for proof, or claims certainty, this is not proof beyond all possible doubt. Understanding this standard of reasonable proof is essential to not mistaking an atheist's confidence about the non-existence of angels, deities, fairies, etc., for unthinking arrogance. The beauty of reading a philosopher like Stephen Law is that he relies on the power of reasoned argument rather than the polemic of position-taking.
Law acknowledges that "the rabbit of morality cannot be conjured entirely out of the hat of reason" and yet, when it comes to "making moral progress, reason is an indispensable tool". He deals very effectively with the widespread slander that humanists are moral relativists, since if the moral truth is just what people say it is, then why bother "bringing our critical faculties to bear in figuring our what's right or wrong"? And in the classroom, humanists advocate freedom of thought, not freedom of action. Indeed, thinking before acting is useful humanist advice for adults, and thinking is made all the more pleasurable with philosophers like Stephen Law around.