For as long as I can remember I have enjoyed thinking and in particular asking questions both of myself and of other people. I find questions can open up new possibilities, reveal solutions to difficult problems but above all, provide a way of discussing contentious issues without descending into conflict. It therefore seems right to start by asking myself the question 'Why am I writing this?'
I have three answers to this question. First I am writing this for my just born granddaughter, Jasmine. I have been able to read, as an adult, what my father wrote when I was young and I would at least like to give my granddaughter that same opportunity. I am also writing to clarify the conclusions from many years of thinking as I am someone who finds writing things down a good way to process and examine my own thoughts.
Lastly this will be published as part of my website and make some of my more personal information and thoughts available to the increasing number of people who read my writing. I have written many pages of my varied and sometimes conflicting thoughts and ideas, some borrowed, some my own work. It's a site where I have tried to make important ideas as simple as possible and I am grateful for the emails I have received indicating I have achieved some success in this. To date I have backed off from recording my personal views or much detail of my own life.
This is one of my favourite quotations; 'We do not see the world as it is, we see the world as we are'. I need to give brief details of my background because it is my view that ideas are better understood, and perhaps can only be properly understood, when you know something about the person who holds them. It's important to know both the singer and the song. Our genetic inheritance, our cultural exposure and our early experiences all contribute to what we believe to be true and for that reason I want to share something of my own history.
A few years ago a young Jehovah's Witness came to my front door and opened a conversation by enquiring whether I was concerned about the state of the world. I replied, genuinely, that I thought the world was in a very good state and she went on to ask me about recent outbreaks of ethnic violence. I replied that as I had been born in the middle of the world war I felt the world had become a lot better since then to which she smiled sweetly and asked, quite innocently, 'Which world war was that?'
I was born in 1942, the only child of strongly Christian parents, my Father, in his late 50's, was a well known Baptist Minister and my mother the daughter of a Baptist minister. My childhood was dominated by religion; we had family prayers every morning, compulsory attendance at Church services and in addition, Sunday school. From quite early on I felt alienated by the message my father taught from his pulpit. I recognised him to be a thoroughly decent man who loved me, as did my mother, but that conflicted, in my mind, with the message he preached.
There was one defining moment; I was probably aged 7 or 8 when my father spoke to the children in the church before we went to our separate service. He showed us a china cup and asked if we would like a drink out of it. We all said 'yes' but then he turned the mug so we could see the dirt caked inside and of course we all changed our mind. What he said next changed me. 'That's what your life is like if you haven't accepted Jesus into your heart.' Everything in me screamed this was wrong, and I feel that just as strongly now, almost 60 years later as I write these words.
There was another event a few years later when a couple of visiting American Evangelists on hearing I had not decided to be a Christian took it upon themselves to hold me up against a wall in the church until I changed my mind. My mother looked on approvingly. Needless to say, they got tired before I did. Now in a world where violence is committed on an almost daily basis in the name of religion and in support of secular beliefs my experience is very mild but it has informed my thinking ever since about what can happen when people become convinced that what they believe is right for other people.
I also want to make clear my gratitude to my kind and loving parents for a wonderful upbringing. They always loved me and I knew that and while I have some sadness that their beliefs seemed to me to be stronger than their natural humanity, the challenge of holding my own views gave me the strength and courage that has served me well in my careers as a businessman, as a counsellor and more recently in writing for my website. I truly believe that what happens to us is much less important than what we do with what happens to us.
It's always interesting to speculate how we become who we are at any point in our lives, why we hold particular views, how our opinions change over time. There does seem to be a natural progression associated with age. For many the material world gets less important and, perhaps because more time is available, we start to think about the meaning we attach to our lives. That has certainly been the process for me. I remain a humanist/agnostic/atheist, but I am increasingly interested in development of my spiritual life and don't see this as in any way contradicted by my not being a person of faith.
I've always been drawn to the rational and backed away from the mystical, probably as a reaction to my childhood. I like evidence based approaches to issues around meaning and have an instinctive distrust of belief systems based on faith alone. I'm a fan of Socratic dialogue, the constant asking of questions to challenge others, and myself, so that the deepest personal truth is revealed. I believe in debate and discussion far more than intuition and emotion. Not that these aspects of life are unimportant to me, I find both music and art emotional areas and here my rational approach is counterproductive so little used.
But when it comes to conclusions about moral issues, the way we live our lives, I follow an empirical and logical approach. Have I come to these views because of my study of politics, philosophy and psychology or are they a more direct result of my childhood experiences? I don't know the answer except to say that learning and upbringing both play a part. As I said at the start of this introduction, I don't think you can fully understand what a person believes, including what you yourself believe, without also understanding who that person is.
I can remember the first time I heard Elvis Presley sing 'Heartbreak Hotel', I really do think it changed my life. Later I discovered classical music and loved large orchestral performances. Now in my 60's I listen mostly to chamber music while still enjoying early rock. My journey is very typical of my age and generation. When I was young I had very little interest in art but recently I went to Paris just to see a Kandinsky exhibition.
You will have your own versions of this history but, and this is the important bit, it will be very different from mine. My pleasure in modern jazz may be a mystery to you just as your enjoyment of traditional jazz is something I struggle to understand. As a counsellor I have studied and trained in many ways of dealing with the human condition, Gestalt, NLP, TA, psychodynamic, systems theory etc. I remain most influenced by the words of the therapist Irvin Yalom, 'you need to create a new therapy for each client.' Everyone is an individual.
The understanding from this is very clear, at least to me. People are very different and so nothing works for everyone. But my preferences don't make yours wrong, I can see what I prefer is just my choice and that because you are not me your choices will be different. When you consider the elements that go into making up each human being, our genetics, our cultural exposure, our early experiences, there are a vast number of permutations that make up an individual and while you and your neighbour may share some areas there will be others where you are very different. Indeed that's the basis of relationships, it's the differences that make life interesting.
For this reason I think it is clear that nothing works for everyone and so a 'one size fits all' approach just doesn't hold water. But when it comes to issues of belief, of faith, about what makes us human beings, the very people who would understand my taste in clothes/music/relationships can be very different from theirs, these same people with their firm religious or non religious beliefs apply what they see as true to the whole of humanity and sometimes try to make that true by persuasion and occasionally by force.
Later I want to deal with why I think this is so, but for now I just want to show the inconsistency between the variety of human nature and the suggestion there is one approach which can deal with all human issues. Of course, in a sense it's true that if we all adopted the same approach, Christian, Muslim, Atheist, etc, then a lot of human conflict would fall by the wayside. In the same way if we all had the same favourite colour our choice of clothes would be so much simpler. But in either case, clothes or beliefs, that's just not going to happen, which does raise some questions about those who seek to bring about a universal solution. It also seems true, again at least to me, that the more detailed a belief and the greater the certainty with which it is held then the more damage it can do and I will suggest reasons for that later on.
There is a lovely quote, from the Dalai Lama 'My religion is simple, my religion is kindness.' I'm not sure even that applies to everybody but let me contrast it with a great joke from Emo Phillips which shows the dangers of certainty.
Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump.
I said, "Don't do it!"
He said, "Nobody loves me."
I said, "God loves you. Do you believe in God?"
He said, "Yes."
I said, "Are you a Christian or a Jew?"
He said, "A Christian."
I said, "Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?"
He said, "Protestant."
I said, "Me, too! What denomination?"
He said, "Baptist."
I said, "Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?"
He said, "Northern Baptist."
I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?"
He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist."
I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?"
He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region."
I said, "Me, too!" Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?"
He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912."
I said, "Die, heretic!"
And I pushed him over.
A great deal of disagreement between people arises because of differences in how we understand words. The American President Richard Nixon said in a speech in China, 'The minds of the American people and the Chinese people run in parallel' meaning they were similar.
The Chinese interpreter took it to mean their minds would never meet! So I want to start by defining what I mean by truth. There is a debate, much loved by those in the early stages of studying philosophy about the nature of reality. How can we know we really exist?
Because I'm not a theoretical philosopher I'm going to bypass that by making the assumption that things are as the mass of humanity sees them. A table is a table and any arguments about that that don't particularly interest me.
What is of interest is what we mean by truth and the difference between truth and fact. Let me offer a definition that will form the basis of my argument.
Facts, as I am using the word here, are usually based on physical measurements, or at least based on things capable of being measured in some way. They also have the distinction of being agreed, if not by everyone, then by such a vast majority that those who see things differently are operating on a personal agenda.
To repeat my example for above, a table is a fact although I readily accept what is a good, attractive or even practical table is an opinion. There can of course be disputes as to facts but such disputes can usually be resolved by exploration.
I arrived at 11.00 for our meeting might be disputed by someone whose watch was running late but that can be resolved when watches are compared. Our appointment was at 12.00 may be capable of being resolved by checking our diaries but what was said in the conversation when we made the arrangement may still be subject to disagreement. 'You are always late' is more likely to be an opinion than a fact.
Truth, or perhaps 'The Truth' at least how I am defining it here for the purpose of my argument is something which is not factually based and is something that involves a more general view of life, often taking in other people. Here are some examples of so called statements of truth to give a flavour of my point.
Everyone is always bringing me down.
Western culture is superior.
Eating animals is immoral.
It's always wrong to kill.
You can see from these examples that truth, as I am using the word, is often something about which there are different opinions. Those close to the first person might respond: 'no, you bring yourself down' Other responses might include, 'all cultures are equally valid', 'eating meat is a necessity for a good and balanced diet' and 'killing in self defence is quite justified'.
So two characteristics of truth, as I am defining it, are an inability to conclude one way or another by reference to facts and the existence of divergent but sincerely held opinions. Truth may seem to be based on facts but is usually an interpretation of those facts and the interpretation is rarely agreed.
The conclusion, obvious to me, is that the truth depends on the person holding it and that, as I have argued before, is dependent on their own genetics/personality/culture/experiences. This leads to the conclusion that you cannot completely understand a point of view about truth unless you also understand the person holding it and you cannot be confident about your own beliefs unless you are willing to examine the reasons why you might hold them. In other words philosophy cannot fully be considered separately from psychology.
There is another favourite quote of mine which puts this rather well, 'A fanatic is not someone who would die for a cause, a fanatic is someone who is looking for a cause they can die for' It starts with our personality and, in the main, we then try to find a truth, a philosophy, a world view, which fits who we are.
Currently there is a tendency to refer to this as 'moral relativism' and that's a phrase used often in a derogatory tone by many religious and spiritual leaders. But of course religions are notorious for not agreeing amongst themselves or even within their own groupings.
In short there is no truth on which everyone agrees. You might think all killing is wrong, a suicide bomber or an opposing army clearly does not. Everything is relative, everything depends on a mixture of genetics/culture/experiences/personality and 'the truth' in the sense of general agreement on moral issues does not exist and....this is the important bit, never will.
Now of course those who hold strong beliefs, those who are certain of their position, their moral standpoint, their God, will take a very different view on this and while they may well be right for themselves they cannot be right for everyone because nothing works for everyone.
It therefore seems essential that the more strongly you hold a belief, including this one, the more strongly you should be asking the question 'What is it about me that leads me to believe things are this way?' Truth does have a personal element and we, to a degree, chose what beliefs suit us and so each make different choices. Truth lies in our processing rather than in events, fact and truth are not the same thing.
I want to write briefly on two related matters. Those who believe in the idea of universal truth often try to convince others of their beliefs. They usually do so by reference to experience, an experience of God for example. Here I think there is a lot of misunderstanding. I don't doubt the validity of experience but it's so frequently confused with the interpretation of experience and that's a very different thing.
So I can experience great wonder at the mysteries of nature, just the vastness of space coupled with the intricacies at the basis of all life at the sub atomic level. That wonder is a true experience but the statement 'there must be an organising force behind all this' is not an experience, it's an interpretation and one which I don't share.
So I don't discount the experience of anyone of a religious nature but sometimes what is claimed as experience is in fact an interpretation of experience and as such open to comment and challenge. Disagreeing with the interpretation is not the same as denying the experience.
The second item relates to the error of logic called false equivalence which is a device much used, sometimes unconsciously, by those who seek to persuade others of their point of view. It's when the same word has two different meanings but is used as if it didn't. The differences can be subtle but here is a simple and humorous example.
All feathers are light.
Light cannot be dark.
Therefore no feather can be dark.
Here the difference in the two meanings of the word light is obvious but now consider these examples:
You need faith to catch a bus just as you need faith to believe in God.
Its true there is a God just as it's true I am standing here.
There cannot be a God just as there cannot be a pink unicorn.
Using false equivalence is a device, the premise is wrong, and the conclusion just personal.
'Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and common sense.' This quote from The Buddha won't seem right for a lot of people. For some totally decent and honourable individuals it's important to have something external to which they give ultimate authority over their lives.
It could be a book, an organisation or a charismatic leader. They are happy to be led by a set of guidelines which are not of their own making and where this conflicts with their own instincts they are willing to take the teaching on trust because, to them, the protection of the external source of truth is the most important thing in their life.
For others, and I'm one of them, this approach just doesn't work; it's all a bit of a mystery. For people like me the sacrifice of autonomy to an external authority, however well intentioned, is too great and goes against their deepest instincts. This second group might be quite happy to accept the general thrust of a teaching but if the detail conflicts with their experience they will follow their view rather than something outside themselves.
People, as said before, are very different and always will be, that's one of the great facts that gets forgotten by those who feel they have 'the truth' and want to give it to others. But what is important is that we find the path that works for us, that we are at peace with what we believe and, while willing to explain our position to those who enquire, don't try to convince other people.
It's a beautiful thing to meet someone who is secure with their own belief and who has no need to bolster their own insecurities by trying to convince the world to follow the path they have chosen for themselves. It's a sad fact that most people don't spend much time really thinking, it's hard work. They therefore adopt the beliefs of others, either individuals or organisations, and, in my view, since there is no truth as I have defined the word, that makes them vulnerable to exploitation.
We can, of course, choose what we believe but should understand all our beliefs limit us. That's quite a big statement and it's certainly not meant to be critical of beliefs in general, quite often we need to come down on one side of an issue or another but whatever our belief, it is a limitation and the more defined and the more certain our beliefs the greater the limitation.
Sometimes cutting off an alternative way of looking at the world may be unwise, both for the individual and for society in general. So why, given different people will have different beliefs in the same way they will have different tastes in music, do some people try to convince others that what they hold is true should be true for humanity in general? There is no one answer and it's probably more complicated than I am about to suggest but let me identify three factors which seem to be important.
First some sets of belief, particularly some religious ones actually instruct their holders to go and convince others and since people tend to follow teachings as a whole they feel obliged to follow that one, sometimes with disastrous effects. The history of Christian Missionaries in Africa had very mixed results. The teachings from some fundamentalist Islamic schools have been the cause of great harm in the world. The attitudes of some fundamentalist secular believers have created an atmosphere of persecution towards those with religious beliefs.
Secondly, some people are just of the nature that they want to be part of a process that convinces others. It makes them feel good and understandably if they have what they see as a solution they want to share it. There is a real ego boost in convincing other people and it's easy to hide behind the idea of 'sharing good news' and denying the exercise of power and manipulation involved in this process.
In the third category, often unrecognised and little unexplored, are those who seek to bolster their own belief, their own faith and to dampen their own doubts by convincing other people that what they believe is true. It's a way of creating a social proof that justifies their own position, a way in which the activity involved in convincing others leaves less time to deal with their own uncertainties. And of course some people have a combination of all three of these, just watch television evangelists for an example.
I want to end this section with a brief comment on an additional and important idea that doesn't usually get much attention. It's the power that organisations which claim to have 'the truth' be they religious or secular, have above and beyond the energy and activity of their individual members. Organisations can usefully be looked at as if they were people, they seek to protect and replicate their existence in the same way that human beings do.
They try to achieve that by creating and applying authority and since authority often has a tendency to abuse and most power tends to corrupt there is some inherent danger in this process. People can easily surrender their independent thought to the beliefs of the wider community to which they belong. Organisations can become something of a monster, controlling and directing the very people who formed them.
I have met very few people who would describe themselves as fundamentalists and I suspect the same is true for you but such people do exist. You probably know the old phrase 'your freedom fighter is my terrorist' and I suspect the same applies to fundamentalists; they are usually seen as someone else. To my mind fundamentalists have one clear characteristic and it's not about what they believe. It's the fact that they are all unwilling to consider the possibility they may be wrong.
They see those with a different viewpoint as being in error and whether their beliefs are hard line or more gentle it's the certainty they attach to it which makes for their fundamentalism. So there are fundamentalist atheists just as there are fundamentalist Christians/Muslims and animal rights activists. There are New Age fundamentalists with a variety of beliefs, many of them kind and loving but they are fundamentalists just the same.
They would almost certainly disagree with my view that the truth is very much a personal perspective. They may well want to make the world a better place by having others adopt what they preach but that very approach negates their intention. They are all modelling a process which has a negative impact on the world.
Again very few people are willing to see themselves as not being rational, it seems like a pejorative description, but so many beliefs are not based on rational considerations. I'm not suggesting that makes the beliefs wrong but I am suggesting it's important to know the difference between something based on facts and a belief based on faith or intuition.
Definition is therefore important when it comes to rationality and while I see that as less harmful than fundamentalism, not being rational can still cause damage to others and to the world at large. When combined with fundamentalism it is truly dangerous. We are looking at the world of belief here and there are some characteristics which define an approach not based on the rational.
First their views have not been subjected to any testing and in some cases they deny the validity of tests for what they believe.
Secondly, there is usually no empirical evidence and evidence is used here in the scientific sense, anecdote is not evidence and the plural of anecdote is not data.
Thirdly the belief often lacks a theoretical explanation; things are stated rather than justified.
I'm not against irrational beliefs as such but I do think it's important they are recognised for what they are. It seems to me that significant claims must be subject to significant testing. I'm not just a believer in Socratic dialogue, the asking of questions not to direct someone but to make them think and find their own path, I'm also a believer in scientific method as a means of examining theories and ideas and justifying them by reference to experiment, measurement and theory.
Not everyone is of that persuasion, some people hold their beliefs are not amenable to measurement and I can see the validity in that. You can't measure a reaction to a work of art, a piece of music but then usually no claims are made for these things to be effective in specific situations. If someone said 'look at the work by Monet and you will feel better' they would be right sometimes and wrong other times but their statement would be worthy of analysis and they could reasonably be asked to justify their belief.
Now I see the same thing as applying to religious and non religious beliefs, to humanist doctrine, to alternative medicine and new age philosophy. Where a line must be drawn is when such approaches claim the certainty associated with experiment, testing and theory without submitting themselves to those processes. Let me give some examples of what I see as an irrational belief, again it doesn't mean it's wrong, just it's not evidence based.
The law of.....This is a phrase much favoured by spiritual writers, particularly in the so called 'New Age' movement, but there are no such laws because nothing works for everyone.
Based on early wisdom.....The conclusion may well be right but early 'wisdom' includes slavery, exploitation of women etc and is no guide to the modern day, it's not right just because it's old.
The secret of....This is an advertising trick, there are very few secrets, no hidden understandings and reference to secrets tends to avoid a belief being subject to scrutiny.
Universal truth....There are none, just as there is no universal taste in music but that doesn't stop people bolstering up their own uncertainty and intellectual laziness by believing the opposite.
Let me close this section by commenting that while there are people of real wisdom who have a calling to guide others there are probably more who are manipulative charlatans who prey on the weak and vulnerable for their own ends. They often call themselves teachers, gurus or spiritual leaders, but beware, their aim is to convince you of their agenda not to lead you to realise yours and that's exploitative. They need to feel special themselves and do so at the expense of others.
Some of the most egotistical people I have ever met are self proclaimed leaders who claim they are beyond personal ego. They fool themselves and they want to fool you as well. Here are some simple questions to ask to guard you from such exploitation.
What are their own challenges?.....If they feel they have none or are unwilling to talk about this then avoid them.
Does their belief make others wrong?...steer clear of such beliefs and those who preach them, often their own ego is involved..
Do they think they could be wrong?...if not they are contributing to a dangerous world.
And a question to ask yourself, what does your belief protect you from?
I want first to suggest an unusual definition of wisdom. Wisdom is often seen as getting things right and certainly that’s an expression of it, but there is more to wisdom than good decision making and it has to do with having a wider understanding of the human condition. In my mind wisdom is being clear about your own views while also seeing the view of another person. So my offered definition of wisdom is this ‘Holding an opinion while at the same time seeing the validity of the opposite opinion and yet still being able to act decisively.’ It sounds a bit complicated but what it involves is being able to fully understand the views of those who feel differently from you, even think you might embrace their views if things were different, but at the same time being clear about what you believe and be able to take action on it. It’s a very far step from the fundamentalism I talked about in the last section.
This leads me to the main thrust of this section which is about the cause of most conflict and that is, in my opinion, is not the views that people hold, although some views can certainly contribute to conflict. The main cause is the certainty with which those views are held. I don’t say all conflict because I don’t think any rule applies to every situation but in almost every type of conflict, inner conflict, relationship conflict, conflict between vested interests and of course conflict between nation states, there is certainty involved and indeed I contend there is a correlation between the degree of certainty and the degree of conflict. In the main I am referring here to the certainty people have about others and in particular about the world, certainty of something that just applies to you is not usually a problem. I am certain spring is the best season is not an issue, I think spring should be celebrated by everyone as the best season is.
There are of course a variety of things about which people are certain, I am certain this land is mine, you are certain it’s yours, I am certain you cheated me, you don’t think you did, but behind any conflict, personal, relationship, social, national is a feeling of certainty. If no one was certain about anything then no one would be in conflict with anyone. Now that’s not to say certainty is a bad thing, sometimes it’s necessary to stand your ground, but it’s also important to recognise the more you stay firm to what you hold true then the more likely you are to contribute to conflict. Conflict itself is inevitable in a complex and varied world, we can’t all get what we want and while conflict is not something to be sought out it isn’t something to be avoided at all costs. So what is the point being made here?
It’s to be clear that the more certain you become the more you are contributing to conflict and that’s a factor to take into account in deciding on your level of personal flexibility. It’s usually better to be in love than to be right, it might be better not to stand firm if that risks losing an important friendship, it’s usually better to show flexibility than to cause physical harm. Not every problem can be solved by this approach but most problems have a far greater chance of solution if this principle is born in mind.
There are people who praise certainty, conviction politicians are often held in high regard by the media but my contention is that such people, even if I agree with their views are contributing to conflict rather than resolution. Remember being able to articulate the opposite opinion does not leave you unable to act but it does reduce the conflict your action causes. Because I see what people believe being tied up with who they are I think to reduce the conflict caused everyone could ask themselves this question ‘What does my certainty protect me from?’
Now of course the obvious question to ask me is ‘Are you certain about that?’ and actually I think that’s a good example of the phrase ‘the exception that proves the rule’. It’s an often used but not always understood phrase and a very interesting concept. At first sight it doesn’t make sense, how can an exception to the rule also prove it? But sometimes a situation can come up where there is something so out of the ordinary, so unusual, that it seems to confirm what is normal rather than contradict it. A simple example is the idea of tolerance, you may believe it is right to be tolerant, that a live and let live approach is usually best and the logic of that might be you would never stop another person doing something. But of course, however tolerant you are, if those you love are directly attacked you will probably defend them. Rather than breaking the tolerance rule it confirms it for all normal situations. In summary, you can be tolerant about anything except the extreme intolerance of others, then you have to take a stand but your stand does not conflict with your principle, it actually confirms it. Having said all that if I don’t also accept that what I write could be in error, may not apply to others and may not even apply to me at another point in my life, then I am in danger of not meeting my own definition of wisdom.
In this section I want to separate the idea of the spiritual from the ideas of faith and religion. To be spiritual you do not need to believe in anything outside of yourself but you do need a commitment to be the very best human being possible and that to me is what spiritual humanism is about. Let me start with a summary of what humanists like me believe. Often people of a religious persuasion see humanists/ agnostics/atheists as having no beliefs and just making up their moral position as they go along. While it is true humanists don’t accept the authority that derives from faith when it comes to personal decisions it is also true that the common response, ‘Well if you don’t believe in God why don’t you steal and commit murder?’ shows a great misunderstanding of a humanist position. So here is a broad summary of what many humanists hold to be true, the details will vary for each individual but they would, I think, agree that with reason, an open marketplace of ideas, good will, and tolerance, progress can be made in building a better world for ourselves and our children.
A conviction that dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted on faith.
A commitment to the use of critical reason, factual evidence, and scientific methods of inquiry, rather than faith and mysticism, in seeking solutions to human problems.
A primary concern with fulfilment, growth, and creativity for both the individual and humankind in general.
A constant search for objective truth, with the understanding that new knowledge and experience constantly alter our imperfect perception of it.
A concern for this life and a commitment to making it meaningful through understanding ourselves, our history, our intellectual and artistic achievements, and the outlooks of those who differ from us.
A search for viable individual, social and political principles of ethical conduct, judging them on their ability to enhance human well-being and individual responsibility.
I doubt that many people would actually disagree with these ideas although those of a religious persuasion might feel there is much that is missing. But what concerns me more nowadays is the growth of what I call ‘Evangelical Humanism’ and the danger that humanism can start to sound and act like a fundamentalist religion. There are some broad principles that most humanists would agree with but there is also the wide range of individual experience and it’s that variety which makes being human such a wonderful thing. Attempts to fit humans into set boxes, whether those attempts are made by religious fundamentalists or humanist fundamentalists result in a lessening of our experience of being alive. People are different, and also in some ways people are the similar and it’s in that interplay between similarities and differences that human transactions with all their complexity and variety take place. I can see there are some people with a natural tendency towards a religious outlook and it’s only right to accept that. Some people like the idea of an outside authority and some people, like me, rebel against that and see it as a form of intellectual laziness. The fact is, humans are never going to agree on a shared outlook. The world will not accept Jesus/Mohammed/Dawkins en masse so it’s a waste of time working towards that. What we need more of is not convictions but understanding and tolerance. We need more personal exploration so we understand why we hold the positions we do and so spend less time bolstering up our own positions by trying to convince others we are right and they are wrong.
How then do we practice humanist spirituality and how is it different from religious spirituality? Being a humanist doesn’t mean not having a spiritual life and being religious necessarily doesn’t mean having one either. There is a lot in common between the humanist and religious spiritual life but there are differences and they need to be recognised. A humanist needs no ‘other’ to make their life meaningful and so there is no one to pray to. But then how far is prayer different from meditation? I would argue in essence it isn’t but can see that prayer as described by evangelical Christians or by new age believers in ideas such as cosmic ordering, is different. Here are some of the essential characteristics of humanist spirituality, as I see it.
We all have our issues in life, no one gets through childhood never mind the rest of our life stages without feelings that need resolution. For some it’s a turning to faith, for some psychotherapy but I suggest for many people an alternative or additional path is the practice of a quiet mind. My own view is that silence is an essential element in a well adjusted life and I would be happy to suggest the practice of meditation as an important step on that path. That being said, like everything else it’s not for everyone and above all be wary of those who hold their particular practice to be better than another one, it might be for them, it can’t be for everyone. Like everything it’s a matter of choice and we will all, here as in other areas, make different choices.
While we all have different things to be grateful for and I do believe a life of gratitude works better for us individually than a life of bitterness and regret. Indeed a moment of gratitude is better than a moment of resentment and that’s something we can work on every day. I have some difficulty in understanding the idea of forgiveness but I do see the importance of letting go and moving on if only from the point of view of self interest. To add to that relinquishing of the past a real acknowledgement of the many gifts of the present seems an important part of a spiritual life whatever your beliefs may be.
Science doesn’t explain everything but that doesn’t mean we have to accept a mass of ill thought out wishful thinking as an alternative. But also any explanation doesn’t need to detract from our sense of wonder. Because we understand how a piece of music, art or literature is created we are no less enthralled by it. Because we have accepted the scientific description of how the world came about, because we understand how evolution works, we are not prevented from being in awe at the complexity and majesty of nature and indeed of human creation. A sense of wonder is something to nurture and treasure.
‘My religion is simple, my religion is kindness’ is a favourite quote used earlier and there is important truth here. To me the word love is quite complicated, there are too many different meanings and associations but that’s far less true of the idea of kindness. I personally have trouble with the so called golden rule, ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’ because too often I have seen that taken literally and actions being taken on the basis that others want what you want, which is rarely true. Kindness on the other hand suggests, at least to me, being able to stand in the position of the other person and act or react accordingly.
I have some doubts about the concept of altruism, it seems to me we are motivated by avoiding pain and seeking pleasure but it also seems to me that as we evolve spiritually our sense of what gives us pleasure can encompass dreams and ideas far wider than our own personal existence and this can lead to our contribution to a world of which we can all be more proud, and, yes, sometimes this will involve personal sacrifice. Many a humanist and many a person of faith will give support to others at their own expense and sometimes even devote their lives to creating a better world without looking for direct personal reward. That’s just how it should be.
We are all, believers and non believers, those of faith and those who do not operate from faith, those who are self sufficient and those who need an external guide, we are all creating the future and it is perhaps our shared calling to make that future better than it might have been if we had not turned up in the world.
© 2014 David Mills