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Chapter 4: Answers To Some Common Questions

CHAPTER FOUR
Answers to Some Common Questions


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Are Humanists Agnostics?

Some humanists would call themselves agnostics whereas others prefer the term atheist. But not all such nontheistic individuals qualify as humanists.

Humanists do not have what James H. Leuba called “a God to whom one may pray in the expectation of receiving an answer.” Professor Leuba added, “By 'answer' I mean more than the subjective, psychological effect of prayer.” They find no evidence in the universe of any non-human personality which is concerned for the welfare of the human race.

However, they recognize that God is thought of in a wide variety of ways. The term God is applied by some people to nature, by others to love, by others to goodness in humans, and by still others to the grand design—the way things work in the universe. A humanist does not necessarily reject a very impersonal idea of God, but feels that there are more fitting ways of expressing these aspects of nature.

Although humanists have a nontheistic point of view, it does not follow that all atheists and agnostics could be described as humanists. Agnosticism or atheism is a relatively unimportant part of humanist philosophy. One can be an agnostic or atheist and hold to good ethical values, but atheists and agnostics can also show cruelty in life, or indifference toward other humans. Many humanists dislike the labels of atheism and agnosticism because they know that humanism involves much more. What they do not believe counts relatively little; what they do believe and how they act on their beliefs make them humanists.

But humanists don’t replace worship of a god with worship of humanity, because humanists do not worship in the traditional sense. To be sure, the fulfillment of human life is their highest value and their goal. But they realize that this fulfillment is dependent upon human inter-relationship with other varieties of living things and nature as a whole. They know that nature and its laws largely set the course and determine the goals humans must seek to be fully human. Their needs, their hopes are developed in interaction with each other and nature.

How Do Humanists Use Sacred Scriptures?

Some humanists find inspiration in the scriptures of Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam, Christianity, and other religions. These humanists are students of the Bible or other religious texts and may hold them in high regard. For some, the story of the historical progression of the people in the Middle East from belief in tribal gods to belief in a world god can be inspirational. The Christian Bible, Quran, and other sacred texts, however, are not regarded as authorities in matters of belief and morals. But many stories attributed to the Buddha, Lao-Tzu, Mohammed, Confucius, and Jesus are humanistic in spirit and purpose. Whether or not all religious stories and myths are true does not necessarily matter so long as they serve as useful guideposts for some people.

For example, Jesus can be viewed as a great ethical leader. To the work of the previous Jewish prophets he added a special insistence on the place of love, kindness, and forgiveness in human life. Humanists do not attribute divinity to great religious leaders but often find inspiration in their lives and teachings. They believe that the ways of life they taught, or which are attributed to them, have often been obscured by creeds and rituals, and that fundamentally their teachings were concerned with human relations and with the daily practice of social virtues.

What Is the Humanist Basis for Morality?

The humanist basis for morality is found in the study of human beings. Actions are evaluated in terms of their consequences.

The humanist usually looks with favor on the ethical codes of the traditional religions, but points out that in different cultures there are wide differences of opinion as to what is moral.

For centuries the roles of men and women in most New Guinea tribes were well defined and observed. Women planted the food crops, looked after pigs, and took care of the children. Men took care of guard duty, participated in tribal clashes and maintained the cultural practices, which called for much philosophizing.

During the Second World War, there was an influx of Australians and American military troops. Tribal warfare was pretty much ended, and the cultural “heavy thinking” which was the men's province was generally discredited. As could be predicted, philosophy lost out along with warfare. Today the women are still rearing the children and working to raise and provide food. Men seem to have less to do and in their lowered status can be observed looking for tourists or making things to sell to them. Fishing, however, is still done by both sexes.

Some traditional religions are chiefly interested in establishing right relations with God or in fulfilling mystical plans. Humanism is concerned that through intelligent cooperation we live a good humane life; that we maintain positive relations with friends and family; that we lessen poverty, war, disease, male domination, and prejudice; and that we provide opportunities for and sustain young people.

The welfare of each of us is dependent, to some extent, on the welfare of all. We do not have to believe the same things but we need to recognize our common humanity and the need to keep in balance with nature’s resources.

What Do Humanists Think about the Soul and Immortality?

We are constantly learning more about the interrelationships of mind and body, intellect and senses, genes and DNA, and the effect of inheritance and early living environment. We realize more fully how wonderfully sensitive and intricate is the human nervous system. No longer is it necessary to explain our best thought and feeling as the result of an inner light. There just does not seem to be any evidence of, or any need for, an immaterial soul or spirit. Some humanists do, however, use the term “soul” as a poetic metaphor. Deep and important life-giving feelings are often spoken of as spiritual.

Immortality implies the existence of a soul, a soul which can be separated from the body. We know of no humanists who believe in a dualism of soul and body.

Humanists do believe most thoroughly, however, in the kind of immortality which flows from the effects on others in the way one lives, effects which often continue long after we have perished.

In giving up the idea of life after death, we give up the all too often comforting belief that suffering and deprived fellow humans will have their miseries taken care of and made up for in another life. Humanists recognize the necessity of keeping life livable for self and others in this life.

Was Our Country Founded on the Belief in God?

No. Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin were all deists or freethinkers. At the time they lived, deists were considered little different from those without any belief. We do know that these founding fathers were not interested in identifying the government of the new country with a religious concept of any specific kind.

At the Constitutional Convention it was voted after some discussion that the word God would not have a place in the Constitution. Later on, John Adams, while president, signed a treaty with North African Muslims, saying in the name of the United States: “The Government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” Our country has become strong partly through the foresight of our founding fathers. There is no historical evidence that only a believer in a theological religion can have faith in freedom, in self-government, in democracy, or in family values. It was only in 1954 that Congress inserted the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Do Humanists Go to Church?

Some humanists go to church and some do not. In the United States, wherever there is a liberal church congregation or new thought group, they are likely to include one or more professed humanists. Among organized religious groups one is most likely to find humanists in Ethical Culture societies; in Unitarian Universalist, Congregational, and United Methodist churches; in liberal Jewish, Quaker, and Baha’i Faith congregations; and in human potential and Zen Buddhist groups. Today the members of these groups are often humanist.
Meetings of primarily humanist groups are not considered church functions. Some of these groups are, however, very little different from those within liberal religious organizations.

Families with growing children are often eager to find humanist-oriented Sunday schools which are free of dogma and help children understand ethical values, learn social responsibility, find their own answers, and make intelligent choices. Unitarian Universalist and other liberal churches as well as Ethical Culture societies offer such Sunday school and youth programs welcoming participation of humanists. The distinguished historian Priscilla Robertson gave helpful suggestions on bringing up children in a nontheistic home. More recently, Lloyd Kumley and Devin Carroll vigorously pioneered the development of nontheistic publications and activities for young people. And today the field is rapidly expanding.

Do Humanist Leaders Receive Training?

Some do. A scholarly program for training leaders for humanist groups, the Humanist Institute, has been in existence more than a quarter century. Other programs have been developed by the Center for Inquiry and the Institute for Humanist Studies. The Humanist Society offers occasional training sessions for humanist celebrants.

How Are Humanist Groups Financed?

Although in Europe some humanist organizations receive government support, in North America each group is on its own. They prosper financially through membership dues, donations, grants, earnings from investments, and the sale of products and services. Lyle Simpson, while president of the American Humanist Association in the 1980s, established the Humanist Endowment Fund to help guarantee the survival of humanism and humanist organizations into the future. It now continues as the Humanist Foundation. Meanwhile, other humanist organizations have set up their own endowments.

Do Humanists Oppose Ceremonies and Rituals?

No. Ritual and symbolism help some people to feel more deeply. For them these things make philosophy and belief more vivid and provide emotional and aesthetic satisfactions.

Humanists appreciate emotional experiences. However, they tend to shy away from rituals and symbols when they notice how often in the past these have become fixed forms, taking on more importance than the things they originally represented. They feel that symbols should not be mistaken for that which they symbolize. They are saddened to watch symbols acquire a meaning of their own and lose their significance as human expressions of work, growth, love, abundance, family, death, life, fertility, and reverence for the unity of nature. Military conflicts all too often have had close affiliation with religious symbols.

Is Humanism Less Complete than Religions?

No. Although lacking the rigid, fixed scriptures of an alleged revelation, the sources of inspiration, written or otherwise, which humanists use are very wide. Naturalism draws on all the living poetry and literature that expresses joy and hope. It cultivates the awareness of beauty, love, truth, and life. These are dynamic, ever-growing sources of feeling. Infused with these sources of inspiration, humanism offers a complete and satisfying philosophy and way of life. It not only frees one from guilt but gives comfort and provides inspiration. It helps individuals develop self-esteem, maintain personal well-being, and face the concerns and problems of daily living.

Do Humanists Claim Absolute Certainty?

No. Dogmas are avoided. As Malcolm H. Bissell, educator and a past vice-president of the American Humanist Association, said:

For the tragedy of mankind has not been written by the searchers for the final answer, but by those who have found it. No man ever hated his brother for doubting what he himself could still question. No Columbus who knows what lies beyond the horizon ventures forth to find a new world. The fruitless battle of the sects has long since told its bitter and bloody tale. A thousand centuries of fears and forebodings, of priests and prayers and persecutions, have brought us only to the inscrutable stars and the silent mountains. The gods have not spoken; we ourselves must design the good society of which we dream.

Is the Humanist Way of Life a Satisfying One?

Growing numbers of people are finding it so. There is comfort in discovering oneself to be in a vital relationship with nature and with one’s fellows. There is a sense of well-being which comes from cooperating with others for the common good, in recognizing universal kinship—whether or not we differ in our philosophies. This alternative to historic faith is in harmony with the growing knowledge of the universe and its inhabitants. As a dynamic, developing point of view it sustains as well as stimulates. It challenges us to free ourselves from outworn stereotypes and to live according to the highest ideals of the human race. It enables us to feel self-reliant and at home with ourselves and nature.

Has Humanism Sacrificed All Sense of Assurance?

For some people the revealed certainty and mysticism of the traditional religions has no counterpart in the humanist alternative. Others feel differently.

If humanists are without a belief in a dependable fatherly being who will protect them against nature, they realize that in another sense nature itself is dependable. As we study our environment, it becomes less frightening and more predictable. As we understand and cooperate with nature, we flourish. Ours is the assurance that no event, no experience, is necessarily beyond reason. There is a basic sort of order and explanation, if we could but find it, for whatever happens to us and around us. Investigation may well lead to discovery of activity which in turn will lead to improvement of an unwanted situation.

Humanism is built on the accumulated knowledge of humanity so the humanist does not have to fear for a faith or be forever on the defensive against advancing truth. It gives therefore an assurance and security not available to those whose philosophy or religion is ever in retreat before the growth of knowledge. Furthermore, one is no longer burdened by trying to believe in something which one feels is not true.

Do Humanists Believe the Naturalistic Alternative Can Unite People?

Yes. The ethical codes of the great religions are very much alike, although there the similarities often end. Humanism is free from divisive doctrines about the unknown, free from rituals and ceremonies and liturgical regulations that so often separate people and set them apart from each other. There is no damnation, no purgatory, no heaven, no hell, no mystical realms or planes. But humanists can receive a deep satisfaction from being part of a total natural world. Humanism is concerned with the harmony of life on this earth we share. Historical theologies vary, as do the ways in which people aspire and worship, but the essence of these religions and philosophies—the teaching as to the way humans should behave—is often similar. In humanism this good moral life is justified in terms of our having proper relationships with nature and with each other. Humanists are united by their devotion to the scientific spirit and acceptance of differences among individuals.

Albert Einstein, in his Living Philosophies, published in 1933, said:

Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that man is here for the sake of other men—above all for those upon whose smile and well-being our own happiness depends, and also for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day I realize how much my own outer and inner life is built upon the labors of my fellow men, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received.

Do Humanists Have God-free Ethics?

Yes. Humanists do not expect that dishonesty, bad treatment, or cruelty to others will be forgiven in a future afterlife or heavenly existence. What we do now is what matters. Concern for others becomes our salvation.

Paul Kurtz, a leading force in humanist outreach, in his book Forbidden Fruit: the Ethics of Humanism, notes:

The ethical conceptions of tomorrow must be truly planetary in perspective. We must transcend the limits of the narrow loyalties and parochial chauvinisms of the past, and recognize that basic human rights are universal in scope, for all persons are part of a community of humankind.

Caring about the welfare of others helps provide inner strength and doesn't depend upon guidance from a God. Feeling at home in the universe and the joy that comes from thinking positively does not depend upon any theistic belief.

Are There Many Nonreligious People?

Comparing figures from such resources as Adherents.com, the Encyclopedia Britannica, the New York Public Library Student’s Desk Reference, and the World Christian Encyclopedia, one can arrive at useful estimates of the current adherents of world religions. The chart below summarizes this data with figures that add up to a world population of 6.6 billion.

Religion Adherents Percent
Christianity 2.1 billion 32
Islam 1.3 billion 20
Hinduism  0.9 billion 14
Buddhism 0.4 billion 6
All others*  0.8 billion 12
Nonreligious 1.1 billion 16

*This category includes Sikhism (23 million), Judaism (14 million), and other minority faiths as well as a wide range of folk religions.

From the above we can see that nonreligious people of various types (including agnostics, atheists, freethinkers, humanists, and secularists as well as nonreligious deists or theists) represent one out of every six of the world’s people and comprise the third largest of the above groups. This reveals the global significance of non-identification with religion.


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