on 18 July 2010
Humanism "is an attempt to think about how we should live without religion". With this simple phrase, Richard Norman captures something of the tentative and rational nature of humanism as well as the central fact of its opposition to religion, all of which he explores in greater detail in this splendid book. The clarity of style and straightforward language are in themselves exemplary of an ideal humanism, which avoids fudging an answer out of platitudes or forcing one from a set of inflexible absolutes. Anyone looking for a "definitive set of beliefs" or moral rules will be disappointed: there is no such thing as a humanist doctrine and no equivalent of a divine commander telling us right from wrong.
Does that mean humanism is spineless and without substance? Of course not. As Norman shows again and again, humanism requires both intellectual and moral courage to stand up to the worst aspects of our species. To become a humanist in the first place involves a fundamental rejection of religion, hardly an easy step in most times and places. Norman's "objection to religious belief is not that it is universally harmful but, simply, that it is false." He takes the truth claims of religion seriously (in contrast to Alain de Botton, who recently wrote that the "most boring question to ask about religion" is whether or not it's "true"). In the second chapter he argues that, while science undermines religion, no single bit of science proves that there is no god. For example, Darwinian theory does not refute religious belief: what it does refute is the argument from design. Is that such a victory? Yes it is, and a huge one for science, since we no longer need a divine creator "to explain the intricacies of living things and their apparent design". And since Norman believes that "the argument from design is the only plausible argument for the existence of a god, then religious belief no longer has a rational basis". If schools and parliament and council chambers are places where reason holds sway, why is prayer given the time of day?
The beautiful thing about scientific explanations - as well as their track record of supplanting theistic explanations - is that anyone can have a go at trying to understand them, and will be encouraged to do so. Of course, in practice the authority of scientists is important, but not in principle. And that's the crucial difference. Religious beliefs, unlike scientific beliefs, are ultimately only an appeal to religious authority, such as scripture. The fact that this authority is found wanting on even the merest of examinations makes that appeal all the more egregious and irrational. "Our trust in the methods of science, unlike trust in religious authority and revelation, is a rational trust".
Most apologists at this point change the subject rather than address the issue of the lack of a rational basis for their beliefs, muttering something about the elusive nature of truth, and move onto what they consider firmer ground, values and morality. The trouble is, as Norman points out, most moral philosophers "agree that morality is logically independent of religion". So, why do priests think they have a god-given right to muscle in on every ethical debate as though they are the experts, and why do the rest of us let them? Why do we have a tendency to reduce complex moral questions, such as voluntary euthanasia, to black and white, even if we are not religious? In part, this is "a legacy of the idea of moral action as obedience to divine commands, and thus of moral judgement as a matter of second-guessing the mind of the divine commander". Thinking for ourselves is as difficult in ethics as it is in most areas.
Although Norman gives a brief historical sketch of how various terms like "humanist", "rationalist" and "freethinker" have been used, he doesn't address a contemporary confusion surrounding the word "secular". Secular humanism is the version of humanism he defends in this book: "humanism as an alternative to religious belief". Secularism, however, is the political ideal that seeks neutrality with respect to all religions, and although many secularists are atheists, "Christian secularist" is not a contradiction in terms (as "Christian secular humanist" would be). The term "secular humanist secularist" would appear to be a logically distinct category as well as a mouthful, but it also seems to smack of divided loyalties.
The final chapter looks at the meaning of life and the value of stories. "The arts are not just a substitute for traditional religion, a second-rate or scaled-down version of religion... On the contrary, religious belief is itself just a special case of the way in which narratives, stories, shape our lives and give them meaning." Ah, but doesn't a humanist view of the world leave no room for depth or mystery? Of course not. Science promotes our sense of wonder at the universe, but also encourages humility when faced with its immensity. Religion has "no monopoly on the emotional dimension of the sense of mystery". As for the intellectual dimension of mystery and the recognition of the limitations of human understanding, these are "more readily reconcilable with humanist than with religious beliefs".
There are millions of books on religion clogging up our culture and wasting forests, too few putting the case for those of us without religion or providing guidance. "On Humanism" is to be welcomed, not just for filling a gap or combining the virtues of brevity and clarity, but because of its balance and intelligence. It deserves to be read for many years to come.