It’s a good question, not least because most people only know what humanists don’t believe – in an afterlife, the existence of gods or devils and the possibility of divine intervention in human affairs. But leaving that to one side, humanists have much in common with people of faith, even if our reasons for doing so sometimes differ.
Humanism isn’t a faith. There are no high priests, no sacred texts, and no revealed truths. Instead, it’s a philosophy or life stance: a recognition that although we are fallible and the universe in which we live is mysterious, we are able to take responsibility for our lives, and create meaning in them.
Humanists believe that this life is the only life we have, and precisely because we won’t be reincarnated, or go to heaven or hell after we die, we should celebrate the miraculous fact that we in our ordinariness are here at all. As the humanist philosopher Stephen Law has said, “humanists deny that that if our lives are to have meaning, it must be bestowed from above by God. The lives of Pablo Picasso, Florence Nightingale, Mother Theresa and Einstein were all rich, significant and meaningful, whether there is a God or not”.
Humanists are secular. We believe that everyone should have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and the right to practice those beliefs, subject only to the laws necessary to protect the rights and freedoms of others. The state should be neutral in matters of belief, and children should be educated about all beliefs, rather than indoctrinated in any. While humanists oppose attempts to coerce people into religion, we are equally opposed to coercing people into atheism, as happened under the communist regimes of the 20th Century.
Like all the major faiths, humanists believe that we should behave towards other people as we would like them to behave towards us, but for us, the Golden Rule isn’t something revealed by god, but evolution. We believe that our moral sense has developed from that of our closest relatives, the great apes, and it is rooted in a concern for others – male and female, black and white, able and disabled, gay, straight and transgender. As we say in Scotland, ‘we’re a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns’, which means that we’re all the same under the skin.
We believe that we can lead good and worthwhile lives guided only by compassion and reason, and in this, we have good company. Both the former Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, and the Dalai Lama have rejected the notion that morality is divinely inspired, and instead they have persuasively argued the case for a secular system of morality and ethics.
Humanists are sceptical, in the best sense, and we don’t merely accept what we are told to believe. Humanists believe nothing is above question, and that all ideas should be subject to rational scrutiny. Humanist scepticism about beliefs in afterlives or homeopathy for example, is not a ‘faith position’ but the reasonable consequence of our sceptical enquiries.
That scepticism can be confronting. Richard Dawkins is famous for his forthright condemnation of the excesses committed in the name of religion, but neither he nor anyone else tagged with that misleading and inflammatory label, ‘militant secularist’ wants to murder priests, or bomb synagogues and mosques. Yes, we will argue our case, but we won’t burn you out of your house, or hijack planes and fly them into high-rise buildings in order to do so.
While humanists tend towards a scientific and rational explanation of life, we have to remember that all scientific knowledge is tentative, and that there is no ‘last word’ or absolute truth. Indeed, many humanists can identify with the poet Keats’s idea of ‘negative capability’, and are happy to live ‘in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’.
Humanists may be sceptical, but we are also optimistic. Since the Enlightenment, we have seen the gradual triumph of compassionate reason as human beings in most parts of the world have rejected slavery, torture, despotism, and cruelty to animals. Indeed it can be argued, as Stephen Pinker does in his most recent book, ‘The Angels of Our Better Nature’, that our era is less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence.
Above all, humanists celebrate life. Only in Scotland has the fifty-year decline in the rate of marriage been reversed. Why? Because more and more people are embracing humanist weddings, which became legal in 2005. Within ten years, they had become the second most popular form of marriage in the country and in 2019 there were more humanist weddings than Christian ones; one day, I hope they will be legally recognised in England and Wales too.
We celebrate life even in death. Yes, we grieve for those we love, but we choose to focus on the miraculous reality of the life that has been lived, rather than an afterlife that we cannot imagine.
Having read this, you might want to ask yourself if you’re a humanist too. A couple of years ago, I created a little quiz for The Humanist Society of Scotland that will let you find out. Whatever the result, I hope you can agree, ‘We’re a’ Jock Tamson’s Bairns’ – we’re all the same under the skin!