The Humanist: I don't need God to be good

Atheists looking for a moral framework are turning to humanism. Justin Brierley meets humanist philosopher Stephen Law to find out what’s involved.

Atheism has always had a bit of a PR problem when it comes to its own branding. The word ‘atheist’ is by definition a negative term – describing what the individual does not believe in...namely, God. Christians, in this respect at least, have an advantage over their godless counterparts. Nobody wants to be forever defined by what they don’t believe in, whereas the term ‘Christian’ positively invokes Jesus and what he stood for.

In response, various groups of atheists have adopted alternative, more positive terms to describe themselves. Some have been ill-judged: Richard Dawkins once coined the term ‘Brights’, apparently in order to distinguish atheists as intellectually superior. Even he probably now agrees that the term was patronising at best. Others have split opinion: ‘Atheism Plus’ was an online attempt to agree on a set of rules about the sort of values atheists should be committed to.

But the movement attracted vociferous opposition from other well-known atheist voices and seems to have largely been abandoned.

HELLO, I’M A HUMANIST

One more positive-sounding label for atheists that has come into common parlance (and stuck) is ‘humanist’. As a Christian believes true meaning is found in Christ, so a humanist believes that humans makes their own meaning, and don’t need to look for answers beyond themselves. As the strapline of the British Humanist Association (BHA) puts it, humanism is ‘for the one life we have’. As well as campaigning for a more secular society, the BHA offers trained celebrants for weddings, births and funerals; for people who want meaningful but religion-less rites of passage.

CELEBRITY HUMANISTS

Some well-known personalities have officially embraced humanism. Here’s what they say:

‘Having a non-superstitious worldview allows you to make more ethical choices based on a general desire to do the most possible good’
Tim Minchin, comedian and composer

‘The human is the best we have…and all we have’
Sir Patrick Stewart, actor

‘There is a meaning and it is to make things better and to work for greater good and greater wisdom, that’s my meaning’
Philip Pullman, author

‘Humanism is an acceptance of the awesome responsibility we each have for our own destinies, ethics and morals’ 
Stephen Fry, TV presenter and author

Helping to give shape to this movement for ethically minded atheists is Stephen Law. He wrote a book on humanism and is a member of the BHA Humanist Philosophers group. As a philosophy lecturer, he is aware of the limitations that labels can create, and freely admits that humanism has not always been the preserve of atheists. ‘The word has a long history,’ says Law, ‘and continues to be used in other ways too.’

In the past, it was a term adopted by Christians and other groups who recognised the inherent value of human beings. But today the term ‘humanist’ is primarily adopted by atheists, says Law: ‘Atheists who organise under that banner are adding a number of different conditions. They are requiring atheism or agnosticism, for example. That’s the meaning that it has come to possess for those within that particular community.’

GOOD WITHOUT GOD

The development of universal human rights would generally be acknowledged as a prerequisite of modern civilisation. But ever since moral philosophy was invented, God has been invoked (and argued about) as the source of our human moral intuitions and the special regard we tend to imbue our own species with.

However, Law contends that our common human experience of a moral framework is not one that requires God as its author. Nor is the special status that most people ascribe to humanity explained by the Judeo-Christian belief in humans as image-bearers of God. 

‘The argument you tend to find repeated is: “Here’s something deeply mysterious, and we don’t see how we can answer this question, unless we posit a hidden being with magical powers.” But of course if you posit a hidden being with magical powers you can explain anything you want to.’

This ‘super-convenient form of explanation’ has been used to explain everything from the movement of the planets to the reason for the weather, says Law. As scientific explanations have displaced these, so the need for God has diminished. The same applies to our beliefs about the moral values of humans.

WHY SHOULD HUMANISTS VALUE HUMANS SO HIGHLY?

But a tricky question remains. In 2002, at the 50th anniversary of the World Humanist Congress in Amsterdam, the gathered participants signed a declaration affirming ‘the worth, dignity and autonomy of the individual and the right of every human being to the greatest possible freedom compatible with the rights of others’. But why should humanists value humans so highly, and on what grounds should they treat themselves differently to any other part of the naturally evolved world?

ARE HUMANS SPECIAL?

Surprisingly, Law says that humanists shouldn’t actually be interested in singling out humans for special treatment.

‘What matters about human beings is not the fact that they happen to belong to a particular species. If you asked most humanists what the relevant moral boundaries are, they’ll say things like “the capacity to suffer is a very important factor”. So we shouldn’t be causing unnecessary suffering. That is morally wrong.’

This means that humanists should incorporate all kinds of species into their ‘moral sphere’, says Law, and in fact most humanists are more than prepared to do that. But then, what about the Amsterdam Declaration, which seems to single out humans for special treatment? 

‘I’m not comfortable about the Amsterdam Declaration,’ says Law (he wasn’t present at the event). ‘If aliens turn up and show the relevant capacities and abilities to suffer, and all the other things we hold dear, then I would extend them the same moral consideration that I extend to humans.’

In reality, the average Christian and the average atheist humanist will probably agree on a great deal of the values they hold in common; such as equality, justice, compassion, generosity, and so on. Hence, not everyone is happy about the appropriation of the term ‘humanist’ as the label for ethically minded atheists. We’re all humanists in the end.

The key question that remains is whether atheists, in a world without God, are entitled to special moral claims about humans? Some of their most high-profile statements seem at odds with the logically necessary view of philosophers like Law. Just as atheism rules out theism, so it must also rule out ‘speciesism’. But that could prove a mouthful when it comes to branding. 

Dr Stephen Law is lecturer in philosophy at Heythrop College, London and director of the Centre for Inquiry. He is the author of Humanism: A Very Short Introduction (OUP)



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