Ascension : On Humanism by Lorna Cook
Submitted by The Islander (Islander Editors) 23.02.2012 (Article Archived on 08.03.2012)
Historically there have always been people who have believed that this life is the only life we have, that the universe is a natural phenomenon with no supernatural side, and that we can live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity.
They have trusted to the scientific method, evidence and reason to discover truths about the universe and placed human welfare and happiness at the centre of their ethical decision making. They make their ethical decisions based on reason, empathy, and a concern for human beings and other sentient animals. They believe that in the absence of an afterlife and any discernible purpose to the universe, human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same.
Many millions of people in Britain and the world share this way of living and of looking at the world, but many of them have not heard the word 'humanist' and do not realise that it describes what they believe.
Humanism has strong roots in the nineteenth century, which was a period of doubt and loss of faith for many thoughtful people. The intellectual and religious climate was already changing by the beginning of the nineteenth century and there were in America and England some very liberal churches and congregations, which, for example rejected the doctrine of Hell. There was widespread non-attendance at church, particularly amongst the urban working class and a survey carried out in England and Wales in March 1851 revealed that, out of a total population of 17,927609, only 7,261,032 had attended church that Sunday.
Humanist thinking developed rapidly in the nineteenth century because it was also closely associated with new scientific thinking and discoveries. Darwin's ideas provoked a crisis of faith amongst many Victorian intellectuals, movingly evoked in Matthew Arnold's famous poem Dover Beach.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Darwin's defender T H Huxley coined the word "agnostic" to describe his belief that there were things that we could not possibly know.
Though still unusual and generally disapproved of, religious scepticism became more common in Europe, partly as a consequence of the development of a more scientific view of the universe.
In France the "philosophes", a group of radical and free-thinking philosophers were highly influential. They expressed their liberal, materialist, empiricist and naturalist ideas, and their sceptical attitude to religion, in the Encyclopedie (compiled between 1751 and 1765). Their ideas influenced the course of the French Revolution, especially its anti-clericalism and attempts at secularisation, but they would have detested the intolerance and excesses of La Terruer.
The Positivist movement of the French Philosopher Auguste Comte (1798-1857) put forward a personal and humanistic religion, and was fashionable and profoundly influential for several decades.
The German philosopher Feuerbach (1804-1872) attacked conventional Christianity in a book translated by Mary Ann Evans/George Eliot as The Essence of Christianity (1854), and suggested that religion was "the dream of the human mind" projecting onto an illusory god our own ideals and nature. German research also suggested that the books of the Bible were fallible human constructions, not divine revelation.
The first Ethical Society in Britain was established in 1888 when the congregation of a dissenting Unitarian chapel in South Place, London, led by its American minister Moncure Conway. Other Ethical Societies followed, coming together to discuss ethical issues, to do good works, and to provide alternatives to church on Sundays in the form of concerts, lectures and dances. In 1896, led by another American, Stanton Coit, it united to form the Union of Ethical Societies, which became the Ethical Union, and was eventually renamed the British Humanist Association in the 1960s.
Today the ideals of Humanism are actively promoted by both the distinguished and celebrities alike such as Professor Richard Dawkins, Salman Rushdie, Professor Richard Norman, Stephen Fry and Dan Snow.