Monday, June 02, 2008

Re-Launching Humanism by Humanist Academy

What is Humanism for?
Humanism purports to be a comprehensive life stance for human beings. It focuses on the rational analysis of evidence as the means of solving all problems. For a considerable period now, it has stood for the proposition that humanity is an evolved, not a created, species, and that there is no evidence for any kind of supernatural agency controlling the Universe.
It is necessarily directed to the survival of humanity as a species. Its principles must therefore be defined in light of the need to determine the forms of conduct, individual and collective, which will enable individuals and societies to maintain the species successfully into the indefinite future.
It accepts that all human knowledge is provisional at any given point in time and that human conduct must be based on what appear to be the strongest probabilities at any given time.

What has Humanism achieved thus far?
Very little.

Humanism has had great difficulty in getting the general population to understand what it is or why they should adopt it.
Partly this comes from a name which has been used in different contexts and with different meanings over a period of centuries.
Partly it comes from a failure to make it clear that Secularism and Humanism are two different things though you cannot have the second without the first.
Partly it springs from the essentially defensive nature of the Secular/Humanist movement as a struggle for tolerance against the legal, social and institutional oppressions of religion.
Most important, perhaps, Humanism has never presented itself as something humanity needs, as distinct from merely being an option for those who reject religion.

This last deficiency is not easy to cure. Although religion, from its earliest days, has been manipulated to suit the needs of the predominating groups in societies, the task of those manipulating groups has been made easy by the fact that, at least
until recently, most of humanity has felt a need for belief in a supernatural power who could lay down rules, protect from the chances of life, and be placated when those chances seemed to suggest that a supernatural agency had been displeased.
The massive loss of religious belief because of the spread of knowledge and consequent scepticism has not meant a transfer from one form of felt need to another, but from a felt need to a cessation of the feeling of need; from a sense of being watched and judged to a sense of being free to do whatever one likes.
Humanism as presented to date can be expected to have an enduring appeal to a limited proportion of the population, but a completely new kind of case for it will have to be made if humanity in general is to be convinced that Humanism is something humanity needs.

The Modern Humanism which has evolved over the last couple of centuries or so has always tended to be inward looking, its development conditioned by the sense of obligation to demonstrate that religious sceptics were at least as moral as religious adherents.
The intellectual quality of Humanists and of the philosophical content of Humanism has been high, but
little thought and effort has been devoted to the problem of getting the message across to the mass of philosophically disinclined citizens
, accustomed to deriving their moral and social compass from a simple and vivid historical narrative.
These pressures have had an effect on the predominant character of those attracted to Humanism, who have been mostly highly independent in their personal attitudes, and allergic to mass movements and the intellectual compromises they entailed. This has led to ill-coordinated organisation and diffuse, usually abstract, public utterances unlikely to interest a wide public. Such public campaigns as were undertaken, e.g., by and on behalf of Bradlaugh, attracted wide attention at the time, but in the context of constitutional freedoms rather than Humanist belief systems. Few opportunities for such campaigns occur. Meanwhile, the constitutional position of religion is untouched, its assumption of superior moral status unchanged, and both are still substantially supported by Government, sometimes covertly, and directly or indirectly propagated by the education system.

Making Humanism Happen
The above ambition was stated many years ago by Prof. H.J.Blackham and for a period the BHA adopted it. But nothing done by Humanist organisations since has looked remotely like realising the ambition and most current Humanists seem to have quietly forgotten it.
Only a complete relaunch of Humanism will provide any basis for reviving it. The relaunch must start from the objectives of Humanism as set out in the second paragraph of this paper.
Given that Humanism accepts that humanity is a species evolved by Darwinian processes to its present state, the questions arising are; is humanity’s evolution complete, is it wholly adapted to its present circumstances, if not, what needs to be done and how can it be done? No less important is the question, what are the consequences likely to be if it is not done?
Humanity regards itself as a huge success. It dominates all other species, it has hugely altered its own environment and its technology has revolutionised its patterns of life. In the process, however, humanity has altered its conditions of living far more than it has altered itself.
Prima facie, according to Darwin, there should be signs of stress. There are. Humanity is subject to general stress because, over the last two hundred years, and at an ever accelerating rate, it has been subject to change in patterns of life, family and sexual relations, economic relations and types of employment far exceeding any genetic and cultural change it has achieved in that time. This has been made worse by the fact that, although cultural change is potentially much faster than genetic change, human culture has always incorporated a substantial element of resistance to change. The changes described above have brought about globalisation, which makes economic activities footloose in a way they never were previously. It makes societies geographically far apart interdependent as they never were in the past. It causes events in one place to have effects over far wider areas than such events would have had formerly. It makes the deprived more aware of their deprivation and more impatient to relieve it, partly because of which it greatly accelerates the planet-wide human demand for resources and the planet-wide indulgence in activities causing the global warming which is now such a justifiable cause of alarm. It puts human survival far more at risk and makes it an issue for the whole species, not merely for individual societies pursuing their own interests regardless of consequences elsewhere.
Technological change and economic growth have bred expectations of lifestyle which cannot be realised given present human population levels. But the political systems of the advanced societies have encouraged a view that electorates can, by their votes, ensure that Governments deliver the vision. Traditional cultures are breaking down under the pressure of changing economic and social structures and of the scepticism arising from increased knowledge. No cohesive new cultures are emerging. Hence, in spite of increased overall resources and improved administrative techniques, societies are becoming less manageable. In spite of increased overall material prosperity, they are not becoming more contented. Hedonism is promoted because commercial interest demands it and technology and finance permits at least a much publicised minority to indulge it. Cynicism is promoted because of a split running through the heart of culture. Official culture is religion bound. Actual culture is secular and hedonist. Because official culture is institutionally supported with ample resources, it is hard to dislodge. Because hedonist culture has the vast resources of commerce behind it, it too is hard to dislodge. While both are unmoved, a culture calculated to support constructive human adaptation cannot be established. It is the responsibility of Humanism to try to break this logjam. What is Wrong with Humanity? Humanists almost invariably applaud Darwin but have mostly accepted him without digesting the implications of his work for the human species, which they tend to regard as of purely historic relevance. This is mistaken. There is no reason to believe that humanity cannot adapt further and much to suggest that it needs to do so in the interests of survival. The extent and nature of human adaptation to date is cardinal to understanding humanity’s present position on the Planet and the risks it currently runs. Humanity has achieved the significant control and alteration of its world and is still doing so. But it has altered that world further and faster than it seems capable of altering itself. And if it cannot adapt its behaviour to the demands of the changes it is itself causing, it threatens its own survival. Humanity’s adaptation thus far has been exceptional but unbalanced. Overall, we continue to regard violence, often in horrific forms, as a natural and effective way of achieving ends. We are selfish not only to the extent necessary for self preservation but to a degree encouraging the ruthless exploitation of other human beings as well as animals, and the reckless destruction of natural resources. No less dangerously, we have a powerful capacity and inclination for the acquisition and retention of prejudice in defiance of evidence. Further, collective behaviour tends frequently to be worse than individual. These defects are now a threat to human survival because of the changes which humanity has brought about with great rapidity in recent times. They have survived genetically thus far because thus far they have almost always proved a route to success in human societies. Since human social cultures have been largely defined by humanity’s successful groups, those cultures have always accommodated the defects, even if they were not openly admired. Culture is potentially a faster route to human adaptation than biology, but because of its domination by the most successful groups in societies has done little to effect change except when leadership was changing, and leadership has usually been changed by traditional methods.
In the situation faced by humanity now, all these characteristics need to be modified to render human patterns of behaviour compatible with the needs of long term survival. Humanity’s behaviour has not been consistent. Its best has been magnificent, its worst appalling. Its experience and evolution to date have never served to make the best more than marginal or to prevent the worst being widespread. The need now is to reverse these proportions. It is a huge task and the odds are probably against its achievement. But the interests of humanity demand that we make the attempt. How do we go about it?

The Problem of Improving Humanity

Social and political studies have hitherto treated human nature as an axiom, something which could not be changed, but the manifestations of parts of which could be affected by a combination of teaching, discipline, incentives and deterrents. This attitude has been taken both by those believing humanity to have been created by God and those viewing it as evolved through Darwinian processes. The latter have assumed evolution in humanity to be too slow a process to be a relevant planning consideration for any given generation. This assumption needs re-examination. A completely new field is opening up in the form of the life sciences, based on the assumption that human nature can be changed by the manipulation of the chemistry of the human body. These activities are still at an early stage and their ultimate potential is unknown, but it is already obvious that that potential is a hostage to the existing inadequacies of human nature and culture. The objectives currently pursued in these investigations do not include any intention, or expectation, of improving the social and moral behaviour of human beings. Primarily the results sought are improvements in the health of individuals and the targeted diseases are primarily encountered in the advanced countries. If successful, these researches are likely to increase the health gap between the advanced and developing countries. The incentives of the researchers and the preoccupations of the citizens interested in their work alike suggest that improvement of social performance anywhere, even if practicable, will not be pursued in the foreseeable future. Whatever their ultimate fruits, the life sciences are and are likely to remain controversial. The Humanist attitude towards them must be open minded, but with the objective that improvement of the social performance of humanity should be the primary and constant objective. For the indefinite future however, culture seems the only vehicle available for the improvement of the social performance of humanity.
Essentially our problem is that the unbalanced evolution of humanity, together with the rapid advance of globalisation in the broadest sense of that word, has produced a failure in the workings of natural selection. The demands of human survival should have produced modifications in humanity to restrict violence, selfishness and exploitation, to strengthen regard for evidence and reasoning and to reinforce the human psyche to face the absence of supernatural guardianship. But because we are evolutionarily developed only for the human societies of long ago, and because our living conditions have changed so quickly, these now essential changes have not even been begun and there is as yet no sign of acquiring
a short and secure route to achieving them through the life sciences. This problem defines the task for Humanism. Religion: Ignore it or Attack it? There is some debate among Humanists as to whether presentation of, and campaigning for, Humanism should concentrate entirely on its merits, leaving the defects of religion to emerge by implication, or whether our campaigning should devote heavy emphasis to the flaws of religion. I am in no doubt that the latter is the course to be followed. Religion reflects, reinforces and perpetuates one of the major adaptational inadequacies of humanity. It rests on a failure or refusal to face up to humanity’s responsibilities for its own survival. In that respect the religious are inadequates. It is founded on and cannot be maintained without intellectual dishonesty. No scientific or philosophical enquiry can be honestly pursued by the religious because the religious cannot accept that any such enquiry can lead to conclusions incompatible with their assumptions about god. History has proven religion to be unreliable as a yardstick and control of moral behaviour and demonstrated that it offers no effective means of resolving disputes as to the priorities of moral behaviour. By supporting faith as a priority over reason and evidence, it gives sustenance to the maintenance of prejudice. In short, religion is a bulwark of a series of flaws which Humanism declares it essential to breed out of human nature so far as practicable. Can religion simply be left to linger? Apart from the desirability of discrediting religion as far as possible and as soon as possible, religion is unlikely to go away. Too many inadequates who cannot face the need for human self reliance are likely to be with us indefinitely. The religious are also dangerous, potentially far more formidable than Humanists. Their psychological need makes them more motivated than Humanists, who do not have the same inner compulsions, and certainly more motivated than mere secularists who may think that their own abandonment of religion is sufficient. For this reason graphs purporting to show that within a specified period of time religion will disappear are sure to prove a delusion. There are already signs of a regrouping of the forces of faith and unreason. Further, circumstances may change in such a way as to assist a religious revival. If global warming and competition for diminishing natural resources intensify human conflict, this is likely to promote irrational prejudice and with it religion in its more unattractive forms. The sooner we can detach humanity from its religion related defects the better our prospects of averting conflict or surviving it if it comes. Humanism does not accept or practice censorship or the suppression of thought. And there would be no question of outlawing religion. But the removal of all and every form of public institutional support of it should be the top priority of Humanism. The Humanist Academy expects to be a charity and cannot therefore campaign for the discrediting of religion and its deprivation of public support. But it can and should analyse and articulate the arguments on which that campaign can most effectively be based. Undermining religion will not deal with all the adaptational inadequacies of humanity, but establishing the point that there are human adaptational inadequacies to be dealt with will itself be an advance.
Rational Humanism for a new Situation

In light of all the above, I suggest that Rational Humanism needs to be redefined on the following lines:-
1. Rational Humanism challenges individuals to have the psychological strength to recognise that humanity is alone in its Universe and solely responsible for its interaction with that Universe. There is no evidence for the existence of any supernatural agency;
2. Rational Humanists recognise that all human knowledge is provisional at any given point in time, and are prepared to change their views in the light of new evidence. There are no truths known to be eternal;
3. Rational Humanists regard religion as a mistaken creation of human beings, devoid of evidence, designed to minister to certain social and psychological fallibilities of human beings and calculated to perpetuate these flaws;

4. The history of evolution shows that humanity has changed substantially over time, though slowly. It can change further and it must, in order to adapt to the alarming rate at which it is changing planet Earth. It is unlikely to be perfectible but it should be capable of improvement.
The Humanist objective is to find a way promoting this improvement. It aims to promote the construction of a framework of political, social and moral values calculated to encourage the adaptation of humanity in a direction diminishing the present socially and environmentally destructive characteristics of the species;

5. The overall objective of the framework of values will be to secure the survival of humanity, which is at present under threat from certain of its own human characteristics;

6. Survival has to be seen in the context of the whole species of humanity and will have to take account of its total environmental circumstances. Self preservation has to be viewed against that background;
7. The rest of Rational Humanism is a matter of rational analysis and sound judgment applied to all the evidence available

No comments:

Post a Comment