Humanism: What both atheism and science are not.


“Can science provide a morality to change the world?


This is from a recent blog post by biologist and outspoken atheist, PZ Myers in the posting: A priest, a scientist, and a Communist discuss morality. It’s a really interesting post about a talk he spoke at (with the aforementioned priest and Communist) on the topic of morality, at the University of Chicago. This position that Myers has, that science is not the provider of a system of morality, is actually a very common approach by most scientists and is probably a surprise to many religious people.

“As I’ve said repeatedly, science doesn’t provide a morality. What it does provide, and what I optimistically and subjectively think will motivate people, is that it provides rigor and a path to the truth of the world.”

I’ve encountered many people (often religious, but not always! Many are people who believe strongly in the supernatural like ghosts and ESP, and/or pseudoscience like homeopathy and vaccine denialism) who are of the opinion that science is just another religion, or at least a philosophy. This utter misunderstanding of what science is is quite frustrating — mainly because they will pound the table with absolute certainty decrying science as being something it’s absolutely not, due to their own complete misunderstanding of science.

Science is not a philosophy, it’s a tool. Like a hammer, one uses the processes and the methods of science to try to discover answers about the natural world. A Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist, an atheist, a Wiccan, anyone can learn to use the method of science without giving up their own personal belief systems exactly as a person can use a hammer (properly) and still go to church/mosque/synagogue/coven/”skeptically drinking”, whatever.

Of course, the reason why the fundamentalist religious and the woo believers despise the big bad evil science, is because this tool is used to test claims of reality without prejudice, without emotion, without compassion, and render verdict on whether a claim of a miracle, a psychic ability, an alien visitation, are rational and reasonable and, where possible, fact or fiction. People with pet beliefs that run counter to known reality tend to find this appropriate use of science as insulting and threatening, and so will attack it however possible — and try to use it (often horrifically flawed) to prove their own belief instead of accepting whatever evidence the science delivers.

Back to the subject of morality, or ethics: Science doesn’t provide these things, nor is it meant to, any more than a hammer is meant to or looked to to provide a reason for the use of the nail. The hammer hammers, science investigates. A hammer can be used to build a home for the homeless when used properly, it can crush a hand when used improperly. Science has cured polio, extended life expectancy by more than double, fed billions; but it’s also delivered us atomic weapons and bio-weapons.

That said, is it possible to use science, the revealer of is, to help us reach oughts? Some people, like Sam Harris as explained in this TED speech he gave, believe that yes, a naturalist approach, a scientific method, can help reveal ways we ought to behave — which is morality.

I’m not sure I can go that far. He makes some very interesting points; but, in the time he has in that video at least, he doesn’t go in much detail to prove his point. Regardless, even if we accept what he has to say, science is still a tool he claims can be used to reveal morality, it itself is not the morality or system of thought.

PZ Myers goes the direction of Harris to similarly suggest that science can point us to a system of moral philosophy that is appropriately beneficial to the individual, humanity in general, and sufficiently “natural” enough as to not require the external participation from a supernatural source.

“However, I would suggest that science would also concede that we as a species ought to support a particular moral philosophy, not because it is objectively superior, but because it is subjectively the proper emphasis of humanity…and that philosophy is humanism. In the same way, of course, we’d also suggest that cephalopods would ideally follow the precepts of cephalopodism.”

So, what is humanism? According to Random House, it’s “a variety of ethical theory and practice that emphasizes reason, scientific inquiry, and human fulfillment in the natural world.” Actually, it continues. That definition includes the final bit: “and often rejects the importance of belief in god.” That first part of the definition is such a compelling concept, and potentially beneficial in the minds of many, that such a thing as “religious humanism” has come from it. But what Myers and probably Harris and many other non-theists embrace, is some form of “secular humanism.” According to many, myself included, secular humanism is the only rational philosophy, system of ethics and morality, which supports a naturalist approach to reality and benefits the species as a whole — as well as the individual.

Secular humanism is not interchangeable with “atheism.” Atheism is simply a label for the absence of a belief in gods. There is nothing, no system of thought, no behavior, no code, no philosophy which can be derived from atheism. A person can be an atheist and a Buddhist, or a Scientologist, a believer in woo, a nihilist, whatever. The only thing that can be said about atheists as a group, is that they share a lack of belief in something — exactly the same way as all the people in the world who don’t collect stamps share the same ethics and philosophy and moral behavior, right?

Also, secular humanism has no strict, dogmatic belief. Unlike most religions which requires one to adhere to and profess a belief in a particular set of faith-based beliefs if you are to call yourself one of them, secular humanism requires only two things: a focus on the integrity and dignity of humanity, and a rejection of a supernatural source as the provider of positive ethics. That’s pretty much it in a nutshell if you want to be called a “secular humanist.” No rituals, no call to convert people.

But OK, it doesn’t end there. Because we humans like to investigate, catalog, label, and organize things, some people have gotten together under the banner of The Council for Secular Humanism, and have come up with an extensive and detailed list of general principles which secular humanism could very easily be said to promote. No one is required to follow these principles, no one suggests this list is all-inclusive of what people could identify with secular humanism. As Captain Barbossa said when dismissing the binding rigidity of the Pirate Code, it’s “more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”

Here’re “The Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles” as suggested by the The Council for Secular Humanism:

  • We are committed to the application of reason and science to the understanding of the universe and to the solving of human problems.
  • We deplore efforts to denigrate human intelligence, to seek to explain the world in supernatural terms, and to look outside nature for salvation.
  • We believe that scientific discovery and technology can contribute to the betterment of human life.
  • We believe in an open and pluralistic society and that democracy is the best guarantee of protecting human rights from authoritarian elites and repressive majorities.
  • We are committed to the principle of the separation of church and state.
  • We cultivate the arts of negotiation and compromise as a means of resolving differences and achieving mutual understanding.
  • We are concerned with securing justice and fairness in society and with eliminating discrimination and intolerance.
  • We believe in supporting the disadvantaged and the handicapped so that they will be able to help themselves.
  • We attempt to transcend divisive parochial loyalties based on race, religion, gender, nationality, creed, class, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, and strive to work together for the common good of humanity.
  • We want to protect and enhance the earth, to preserve it for future generations, and to avoid inflicting needless suffering on other species.
  • We believe in enjoying life here and now and in developing our creative talents to their fullest.
  • We believe in the cultivation of moral excellence.
  • We respect the right to privacy. Mature adults should be allowed to fulfill their aspirations, to express their sexual preferences, to exercise reproductive freedom, to have access to comprehensive and informed health-care, and to die with dignity.
  • We believe in the common moral decencies: altruism, integrity, honesty, truthfulness, responsibility. Humanist ethics is amenable to critical, rational guidance. There are normative standards that we discover together. Moral principles are tested by their consequences.
  • We are deeply concerned with the moral education of our children. We want to nourish reason and compassion.
  • We are engaged by the arts no less than by the sciences.
  • We are citizens of the universe and are excited by discoveries still to be made in the cosmos.
  • We are skeptical of untested claims to knowledge, and we are open to novel ideas and seek new departures in our thinking.
  • We affirm humanism as a realistic alternative to theologies of despair and ideologies of violence and as a source of rich personal significance and genuine satisfaction in the service to others.
  • We believe in optimism rather than pessimism, hope rather than despair, learning in the place of dogma, truth instead of ignorance, joy rather than guilt or sin, tolerance in the place of fear, love instead of hatred, compassion over selfishness, beauty instead of ugliness, and reason rather than blind faith or irrationality.
  • We believe in the fullest realization of the best and noblest that we are capable of as human beings.

You know, I pretty much agree with all of it. And, most important to me, these are principles which I had come to on my own, (during my years of self-reflection and deconversion from Christianity), which I felt were right and appropriate ethics for living on this planet with other humans.

So, what do these principles mean to me? Hey, it’s my blog, after all! You wouldn’t be reading it if you didn’t want to know all about me, right? *eg* In the coming days, maybe weeks, I will be going through each principle and discussing what it means in my life, how I try to apply it to my life, how I’d like to see it applied in the future or on a wider scale and scope. Hope it may be interesting. I’m curious to see.

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