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An introduction to humanism – transcript and comment

Here's a video released today by the British Humanist Association:


Below is the transcript with some comments from me:


An Introduction to Humanism

Rumy Hasan: It’s important to realise that one can live a fulfilling life without religion – where the focus is on human beings.

Many religions do in fact put the focus very firmly on human beings.  So how is "religion" being used by you and in this video?


AC Grayling: Humanism of course is not a religion.  It’s something which bases itself on a common-sensical view of the world. It’s an open-eyed view.  It takes seriously the facts about human beings and their experiences and tries to do the best on that basis.

From the descriptions following, humanism sounds very much like a religion.  It doesn't sound like Christianity, but, sheesh, get a load of the moralising below.

It's a good and right concern to want to be open-eyed, truth-seekers.  But there are some underlying assumptions here.  There's an assumption that we can un-blind ourselves from our ignorance (through clear thinking?), that we know where our blind spots lie and can get perspective (notice how Grayling claims the commonsensical high-ground - he and the humanist fraternity are the ones who see).  There's also an assumption about what kind of truth lies out there.  If the truth consists purely in facts to be discovered within the world by empirical studies then go for your life.  But you've pre-judged what kind of truth you can discover by pre-judging what kind of truth you believe already exists.


Polly Toynbee: A humanist sees the world as infinitely precious and quite extraordinary and almost miraculous.

Of course you do.  We are all worshippers who are awed by something.  If you aren't awed by God, of course you're awed by the world.


Tim Minchin: I think humanism is important because having a non-superstitious world-view allows you to go about your own business, making ethical choices based on a general desire to do the most possible good.

Having gotten rid of God, the humanist can now get on with the important business of doing good.  Again, this is not Christianity (which rather swaps "our goodness" for God), but it is distinctly religious in flavour.

There's an excellent comment on the video from a free-thinker, Ontologistics: "As Nietzsche showed, Humanism is part of the Christian legacy. The word "good" is bandied about in this video without explanation or sanction, because it cannot be sanctioned. A freethinker will in fact adopt a Nihilist view, as this does not require belief in some supernatural, metaphysical "good".  I.e. Humanism exchanges "God" for "good", both of which are delusions. In this sense, it comes close to being a religion."


Philip Pullman: I view the world as a place where I am extremely lucky to have been born and to have a consciousness because there are so many wonderful things to be conscious of.

Well you're either absurdly lucky or there's consciousness behind the cosmos.  A consciousness that arises from a mindless cosmos is quite a turn of luck indeed.


Zoe Margolis: We can be decent human beings and love and care and support each other and not expect a fantasy to fulfil our hopes and our dreams when we can actually live them in this lifetime.

Well I suppose rich westerners, if they're talented and lucky enough, can live a few, very limited dreams.  But this comment seems to be a plea for dreaming smaller.


Isn’t it sad to think there is no after-life?

Andrew Copson:   Some people worry that a view of death as being the total and final end of life can be depressing.  They think it would be a more comforting thought that life went on.  But I think, and many other humanists think, that, rather than robbing life of its meaning, giving a finality to the story of your life actually imbues it with greater meaning.

Or, put it this way: Either we are taken seriously as a creature of eternal significance in the eyes of One who gives everything meaning, or we are a rational animal soon to expire and become compost.


Richard Dawkins:  If there’s something frightening about death, it’s the idea of eternity. Something about everything just going on forever and ever and ever. That’s a frightening thought.  And it’s just as frightening if you’re there as if you’re not.

"If there's something frightening about death."?  If?  There's a disturbing lack of reality to this approach to death.


Rumy Hasan: It just means that we have this life and we make the most of it.  If anything that’s a positive.  So we don’t say “Ah well, you know if we muck it up in this life, we have an afterlife.”  The onus is on us to lead better lives in this life.

Spoken like a true religionist.


How can humanists live ethical lives without religion?

Philip Pullman: The morality question is another one where people think, “Well we’ve got to have religion or we’ll all be immoral.”  That’s a very shallow and hasty way of thinking it seems to me.  There are all sorts of guides to morality.

No doubt!  Some good and some bad wouldn't you say?  And who's to arbitrate?  Really, who?


A.C. Grayling: People often think that you can't have morals unless there is a god to enforce them somehow.  Look at classical antiquity, nearly 1000 years before Christianity became the official outlook of Europe, you have people who base their morality on reason.

Sure.  They base morality on an approach to reason.  But I doubt that Grayling adopts, wholesale, their morality or their account of reason.


Philip Pullman: There are enormous tracts, ranges, mountain ranges of meaning that our available to us without our needing to go to the Bible for them.

...and the Bible encourages us to explore them


Tim Minchin: I guess humanism is the beginning of a life of trying to live well and be good. And the thought that, you know, some mistranslated off-translated doctrine to tell you that that's a good way to live is not just surprising but slightly abhorrent to me.  If you can have something that’s slightly abhorrent...

Again, Minchin reveals his deeply religious outlook - "trying to live well and be good."  If any Christians are flirting with atheism because you can't stand the moralism of your church - take a long hard look at humanism.  The only escape from moralism is the gospel!

And it's not so much that Christians need a divine command to know what's good.  That's not our position.  Far more we say, "'good' depends on an understanding of reality shot through with the glory of Christ."  "Good" corresponds to "God" in a profoundly personal way.  The good life is love of God and love of neighbour and it goes with the grain of a whole universe charged with His beauty.  Nothing abhorrent here.


Rumy Hasan: The humanist views the world in a rational manner.  It's wondrous, it's astonishing, awe inspiring, yes at times fearsome.  But a humanist says “well let's try and understand the world”

Yes, let's try and understand the world.  And in a rational manner.  But rationalism will shrink your view, not expand it.


Why might a humanist hold science in particularly high regard?

Andrew Copson: If you believe that we live in a universe which is a natural phenomenon which behaves according to certain discoverable natural laws and norms then of course the only way of finding out true facts about reality is through the scientific endeavour.


First notice the premise: "If you believe..."  This is an inescapable fact of all enquiries - we're all involved in faith seeking understanding.  But it's nice to see Copson admitting it.

Second, these "discoverable natural laws and norms" - do they ever make you think?  Especially since they correspond to that consciousness we all love?  You seem to take these as a given.  Shouldn't you be more curious about the ways of this world, wondering at "laws and norms" as part of this "natural phenomenon"?

Thirdly - and most outrageously - "the only way of finding out true facts"?  The only way??  For a start, this sentence has not been the outcome of the scientific method - it's the result of certain beliefs.  So what the heck??  This amounts to something like: True facts are entirely the domain of the scientific endeavour (except for these self-justifying assertions that prop it up, in which case bad philosophy will do the trick nicely).

Fourthly, we see here a humanist side-lining the humanities.  Humanism de-humanizes.


A.C. Grayling: Humanists hold science in very high regard because science is the careful open-minded approach to trying to understand the world and human beings in it.  It's a method of critical enquiry which is always ready to change its mind when better facts come along.

Good.  And in its own limited way it works well.  But science is set up as a naturalistic endeavour to study naturalistic phenomena.  Let's discover all the facts we can in this way.  But let's never think we've discovered the totality of reality via these methods (there's also things like goodness, truth, beauty, love).  And if you want to pronounce on God, you'll have to study Him via a method suited to His own self-revelation - i.e. you'll have to listen to His Word.  If you won't do that, I question how ready to change your mind you really are.


Polly Toynbee: It is a method of communication from one generation to another building on layers of knowledge and layers of knowledge on a really solid foundation.

What solid foundation is that?  Or should I say Whose solid foundation is that?  The firm ground on which the scientific endeavour stands relies on the intelligibility of nature.  The self-consistency of these laws and norms.  Their consistency throughout creation.  Their correspondence with our own minds.  Humanists are glad for these  foundations, but humanism doesn't give them to us.


Richard Dawkins: Science is not only the way to go if you want to discover the truth about something, science is also wonderful, science actually exposes how wonderful the universe is and what a wonderful privilege it is that every one of us has the opportunity to understand the universe in which we live: where we came from, why we exist and where we're going.  It's just a wonderful, thrilling experience to immerse yourself in modern science. It’s a poetic experience.  Science is the poetry of reality

We begin with self-refuting nonsense about science being the way to discover truth (science didn't tell him this!).  We end with the flourish: "science is the poetry of reality."  Garbage.  Science is the appreciation of a poetry that's already there.  That's a hugely important distinction.  Because in the space of one sentence Dawkins has claimed science as the arbiter of truth and beauty.  Stunning!

But let's get some perspective.  There's truth that's out there to be discovered.  There's beauty that's out there to be appreciated.  And science has role in uncovering it.  But the biggest question remains - and it remains beyond the scope of scientific endeavour - what on earth is truth and beauty doing out there?


What is the humanist view on human nature?

Andrew Copson: One of the natural consequences of humanism, of the idea that the human race is one species, of the idea that every individual member of that species is a bearer of the dignity that humanity gives us, is a general spirit of inclusiveness and that’s always characterised humanist thinking.

So the human race is one species (among 15 000 other species of mammals).  And apparently this confers a certain unspecified dignity on us.  In fact, humanity itself confers on each one of us this undefined dignity....  How does that work then?  This seems to amount to the claim that we are humans and not puffins.  And every human is a human and not a puffin.  And this is our basis for equality and inclusivism.  To be honest, I can think of firmer foundations.


Zoe Margolis: Unlike many religions which are unfortunately about repressing sexuality and having very anti-female and homophobic perspectives, humanism offers an alternative which is actually inclusive.

Without the gospel, all inclusivism works according to a certain ethic.  Some are in, some are out.  You're not preaching a new inclusivism, you're just preaching a new ethic.  Jesus came to bring true inclusivism - we're invited to His table as sinners (outsiders!) and, through an acknowledgement that we're all law-breakers, we're brought into true community.


A.C. Grayling: Humanists begin to think about the good and flourishing life on the basis of their best understanding of how things are for human beings. But that does not mean that it's got a particular line, a particular doctrine, that everyone has to fall in with.  In fact it demands of people that they think for themselves.

I dunno A.C., some of your friends here seem to be pushing some quite particular lines.  And let's face it, you all have a very firm line on the nature of humanity, the kind of truth you are seeking and the way you discover and verify it.


Polly Toynbee: We have power in our hands to make our life and our society and our world better. We don't stand to ask, there’s nobody else, no good getting on knees begging for someone else to do something, it's just up to us.

 Yep.  Sounds like religion to me.  And a religion for the strong, the rich and the brave.

But if you're not up to the BHA's religious regime, I've got good news for you.  There's a way to be a true humanist.  At Christmas we sing the line "Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Immanuel."  Eternally our God has pledged Himself to man.  Forevermore our Lord has become Man - the truly inclusive Man - the man for all humanity.   And He's for you.

Some just focus on humanity, some just focus on God-myths and after-lifes - in both cases you'll lose a true vision for humanity.  But in the God-Man you'll find true humanity.  He will liberate you from the self-justifying burden of being good and He'll send you out into the world to rejoice in the truth and beauty that reflects His character.  There is a poetry to this world, and He's the Poet.


11 thoughts on “An introduction to humanism – transcript and comment

  1. Cal

    Very good and well done analysis!

    I'm surprised you didn't nail Dawkins for this:

    " what a wonderful privilege it is that every one of us has the opportunity to understand the universe in which we live: where we came from, why we exist and where we’re going. It’s just a wonderful, thrilling experience to immerse yourself in modern science."

    What about the billions who don't get to have the "wonderful privilege" of studying modern science? They're too busy being oppressed by regimes that built the wealth so that Dawkins could make the fortune he has. Not just in the past, but now presently, yet his high-British sensibilities keep him doing what exactly?

    You're right, Humanism is the religion of the rich, strong and brave. It is the soft, dough faced version of Nitzchean will-to-power. Moments like these I'm set ablaze in anger against Western arrogance. Thanks be for our Lord Christ Jesus who brings justice and mercy, and on that cross, poured out His life against to redeem the broken and lost from their sin and the slavery of death, even Dawkins in his pride.

  2. Si Hollett

    Glen said in response to something Dawkins said: "“If there’s something frightening about death.”? If?."

    Surely it ties in with the comments made just moments before by Andrew Copson: "Some people worry that a view of death as being the total and final end of life can be depressing. They think it would be a more comforting thought that life went on."

    Dawkins doesn't want to look as if he's chuffing terrified of eternity, so uses the weasel word 'if' while then making the point that the idea of eternity is very very scary. For Dawkins and Copson, a lack of finality - an end to the story - is depressing (Copson saying how it gives meaning to life) and frightening. That they find it comforting that death destroys everything is a perfectly valid answer to "isn't it sad?" - it's a rational view, though I don't share their worries about eternal life as the eternal life I know is true is different to the one that they hope is not.

    However, due to the way that they define rationality, I'm sure that if someone who believed in an afterlife said a similar appeal (ie the argument that Copson refers to and responds by saying 'we see it differently') then they would attack them as deluded faith heads believing in the afterlife as wish-fulfilment.

  3. Glen

    Thanks Cal. Yes, unfortunately the poor laity have no access to the scientific priesthood. But never mind, the truly enlightened (the Brights) can live the higher life on their behalf - perhaps mediating grace to the commoners via the sacraments of television and the internet.

    Si, it's interesting that the Christian story does have a finality as well as an eternity. There is a day of days - of justice and reckoning - which puts all that we do into a definite context. *And* there's an everlasting rest. But both the Christian finality and eternity frighten these humanists.

  4. Si Hollett

    Rumy Hasan: "So we don’t say “Ah well, you know if we muck it up in this life, we have an afterlife.” The onus is on us to lead better lives in this life."

    I've never met anyone who says that. It's a total straw man. I often hear the opposite - hellfire (or missing the rapture, or whatever) as a motivation for moralism from many quarters - and it works, not that I endorse moralism at all.

    The humanist response to hellfire moralism is something like "you need some motive to scare into being good - we're better than that", yet here's a humanist saying that our lack of second chances puts a burden on us to be good. Polly Toynbee adds that there's no one to help - it's down to us and us alone...

    What a huge yoke to throw on my back - can't see why I'd go for this religion.

  5. Mike Walker

    Not just religious, but zealously evangelistic too! It's clear those featured in the video are not only keen to explain what humanism is but they construct their answers in such a way as to make the tenets of humanism attractive.

    That is fair game of course, although not an emotionless and clinical presentation of the facts.

    Your video clip forbids you to deny it - emotional, personal and relational judgements are always going to be involved!

  6. Glen

    Yes it's a fascinating juxtaposition of phrases like "commonsensical", "clear thinking" and "open minded" when Copson, Toynbee and Dawkins (to name just 3) are infamous for some of the most scathing, emotive and unbalanced broadsides in the public square.

  7. Geoff Youngs

    I'd also take issue with the "superstitious" slur. It seems to me that Christianity is probably the most profoundly anti-superstitious belief system ever. Superstition, by most definitions, is what you get when you let fear make out with ignorance behind the bike shed.

    But if the supreme being has ripped back the curtain and burst into history in the person of his Son to reveal that he is love, then fear, ignorance and superstition are left naked, impotent and ashamed...

  8. Glen

    Yes indeed. To use Douglas Adams' analogy quoted at the outset of The God Delusion - Christians don't believe in fairies at the bottom of the garden, but in a gardener. If you believe in neither fairies *nor* a gardner, watch how quickly the fears creep back in, and the woods become "haunted"!

  9. Pingback: Top Ten Posts This Year « Christ the Truth

  10. Nik

    There is no real analysis on this page, and certainly no sound reasoning to support any of your arguments. What is purportedly written as "analysis" is antagonistic criticism for the sake of it. Let me ground this reasoning with an example, common throughout:

    "If any Christians are flirting with atheism because you can’t stand the moralism of your church – take a long hard look at humanism. The only escape from moralism is the gospel! ...‘good’ depends on an understanding of reality shot through with the glory of Christ.” ”Good” corresponds to “God” in a profoundly personal way. The good life is love of God and love of neighbour and it goes with the grain of a whole universe charged with His beauty."

    The first part of that statement does nothing but try to insult humanism without reason except for arguing that the gospel is the only answer - but no reason to support why the gospel is even true. One of many simple arguments questioning the credibility and content of the bible was that at a time where no printing presses existed (allowing for consistent copying and widespread publishing), the bible was hand written, hence it is very reasonable to believe, mistranslations occurred (as have already been discussed in many cases; Red Sea/Sea of Reeds being one of the more common) everywhere. Moreover, when one genuinely understands the task of translation, it's clear how simple idioms can be mistranslated causing incredible misunderstandings and inaccuracies. Imagine that happening at a time where education was not as widespread as it is now.

    The second part of that statement sheds a little truth, that one should love one's neighbour - obviously the word love is taken with a realistic pinch of salt to understand the metaphor of at least having a healthy respect for, and helping within reason, those we co-exist with. Love is a word to be used carefully. However, if good corresponds to god, why not just call it good. Labelling good as god intentionally brings in a deity and tries to mix the definitions. God may display characteristics of good, but it is the characteristics that are important, for which the existence of a deity is not necessary to demonstrate it. Before the commandments came about, do you think our brothers and sisters ran around without a clue of basic rules of co-existence. Classical antiquity even teaches us not.

    Looking at the comments, what's most saddening is that some of you so vehemently twist the words of that video to mean something quite different; you apply the words in the most unreasonable of senses... if someone doesn't have the money to have access to science in the way of a school education or lab equipment, that doesn't mean they don't have a mind of their own to be able to use to reason. An ability to reason (itself a science) does not require access to money, it requires that those around you teach it to you. It just happens that many people in poverty are living in a state of stress and desperation, where certain religious beliefs, sadly, offer those people a sense of hope and comfort (albeit, some would argue, for the wrong reasons), therefore also a way of managing there state of thoughts (Note: don't take the lazy argument of thinking this sentence labels all religious people as stressed and desperate, that would be another deceitful manipulation of words).

    Unfortunately, good reasoning does require time and crucially, clear, critical reflection and most importantly, honesty - all things which require concentration to be fully realised. When surrounded by conflict or any restless environment, it is difficult to devote enough time to such thoughts as people are quite correctly prioritising their thoughts to the more immediate problem of surviving.

    Where is your sense of self-honesty and constructive thought. If you truly believe in your statements and want some form of good to come out of it, please, use sound reasoning and have a healthy respect for a difference of opinion. Being one of the privileged with internet access, you might start by reading the introduction to Thomas Paine's, The Age of Reason.

  11. Glen

    Hi Nik,

    Welcome to the blog. You say I show "no real analysis" and "no sound reasoning" here. That would be a real shame if it were true because I'm definitely aiming for a sound and reasonable critique here. From the only quote you mane of my writing you then digress to some real tangents - discussion of bible translations and an argument about goodness existing without God which entirely misses the point of the very quotation you've used. Of course people can act morally without belief in God, my point is that goodness for the Christian is not about cowering beneath divine commands but about a world shot through with divine glory - and therefore a world which has a certain moral "weave" to it.

    Thanks for suggesting Thomas Paine - a Sussex man. I read the Rights of Man for my first degree many years ago. I've just read part one of the Age of Reason and found it to be erudite but not at all engaging Christianity at its heart. What have you read Christian wise? Can I suggest the Gospel of John? And, if you have time, I've produced a little animated video summarizing its content here:

    I'd be interested to know what you think.

    All the best,

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