Humanism is a philosophical and ethical position that concentrates on the value and power of human beings. Humanists do not believe in God but rather in the glory of human nature.
They prefer to concentrate on critical thinking and evidence over any established faith doctrine or belief in the supernatural, but still believe in abiding by good moral behaviour, and striving to make the world a better place for all, protecting human rights and believing in the human capacity to thrive and rectify wrongs.
Broadly speaking, humanists want to build a better society through the application of reason, justice and ethical living; but whereas Christians place God at the centre of this struggle, humanists see no evidence for the existence of God and therefore fall back on the primacy of human nature and human will power as their source of faith and optimism.
Human beings should be masters of their own lives and are free to give their lives the meaning and purpose they choose to give it.
The Humanist Association of Northern Ireland
Brian McClinton is a director of the Humanist Association of Northern Ireland. He describes growing up in a non-religious household in Belfast and how even as a pupil at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, he retained a deep scepticism about the validity of Christianity; he saw no evidence to believe in God and felt that he had to be true to this inclination.
“My mother only went to church when she had a new hat and my father never went to church at all, he was what you would call a ‘Protestant atheist’.
“I was always sceptical about faith in God.
“I remember once at Sunday School one of the teachers telling me what is known as Pascal’s Wager. If you believe in a God you can’t lose because if he does exist and you believe in him you will go to heaven and if he doesn’t exist and you have believed you won’t have lost anything by believing.
“But I didn’t like this teacher’s argument. I didn’t feel that this was a good enough reason for me to believe.
“I think you should believe something because you believe it to be true rather than believing it because you feel it is useful.
“I decided to subscribe to a humanist belief system when I was in my 30s and I have been involved with the humanist society here for over 30 years now.”
Distinguishing humanism from atheism - what is the difference?
How then do we distinguish humanism from the atheism espoused by those such as Richard Dawkins – perhaps one of atheism’s most vocal contemporary proponents and author of such secularist tomes as The God Delusion?
“Atheism simply means you don’t believe in God. A humanist, as I see it, is someone who may not believe in God, be sceptical or agnostic but also believes that we nevertheless need to find a positive philosophy to live by and one that focuses on human collaboration and endeavour,” explains McClinton.
“Humanists believe that if this life we know is all that we have then we have a responsibility to make it as good as we can and to help remove the injustice and suffering experienced by others through reason, knowledge and empathy.
“What we believe is that you should have faith in humanity rather than in an abstract deity we cannot prove the existence of.
“Despite the fact that there are a lot of horrible things that humans do, of course, we nevertheless see faith in human beings as the goal and the impetus for making the world a better place.”
Keeping faith in the goodness of human beings
I ask Brian, a teacher of philosophy, economics and politics at Friends School in Lisburn for 36 years, and now retired, whether his faith in humanity ever lapses when confronted by the many terrible things that human beings do to each other right across the world?
Does he find it difficult to have unflagging faith in human nature even when we see so much evidence of its weakness and selfishness?
“Obviously we know that there is this double edge to humanity,” says Brian.
“We know that human beings have done terrible things.
“But we know that they are also capable of doing amazing things too.
“We would say how can you believe in a God that would create a mosquito that gives malaria to and kills so many people?
“You can see that when bad things happen to people they will often turn to religion as an escape route.
“We would ask: ‘What needs to happen for people to stop believing in God?’”
Maintaining morality in the absence of God
The Russian novelist Dostoyevsky once wrote that if God does not exist then everything is permitted. I wonder how humanists respond to this idea and how they construct a valid code of moral behaviour without the commandments as a guiding structure?
“Humanists don’t believe that the existence of morality is dependent upon the existence of a God,” explains McClinton.
“We believe that it is, of course, entirely possible to be good and moral and ethical without believing in a God.
“We are social animals whose most natural instinct is to co-operate with one another.
“But we need rules to regulate human behaviour. We can’t live according to the law of the jungle.
“Morality is a series of rules that humans agree to like the highway code.”
But isn’t it, surely, a matter of something deeper than this, I ask? Really, in the heart of man and woman, isn’t it that we know instinctively what is right and wrong because we are gifted with conscience? Brian says: “In some sense there is a crossover with humanist and with Christian morality because it would be hard to disagree with the sentiments expressed by Jesus about trying to love others – although we would say that he was not always consistent in his message, that he was not the first person to propagate these views or ideas, and that even if much of what he preaches is positive and helpful in leading a moral life, humanists would not regard Jesus as the Son of God.
“Humanists feel that if we choose moral behaviour we aren’t doing so out of fear of hell or retribution from God. “We would say that we want morality that increases human happiness and that we want people to behave in such a way that the happiness of the greatest number is protected - which is what philosophers might call a utilitarian idea.
“Humanists believe in, for example, respecting women’s reproductive rights, in gay marriage, in numerous things that Christianity has found it impossible to get on board with.
“Human rights are important and so is the human right to make autonomous choices.”
The humanist view on organised religion
Do you feel that organised religion is a force for good in the world or something that is deeply problematic, I ask Brian?
“I think it can be a force for good but like all human institutions they can also be deeply problematic. Just look, for example, at how the Catholic Church in Ireland has protected itself through child abuse scandals.”
But, I put to McClinton, even if you believe religion is nothing but a fiction, if it brings people consolation, isn’t that enough of a justification for its existence?
“That is absolutely fair enough, provided people do not start to impose their beliefs on other people.
“I don’t mind what people believe – people should be left to believe whatever they like .
“But what I object to is when those beliefs are imposed on others and often imposed through law.
“For example, is it not quite obscene that the reproductive rights of women are arguably denied respect by the dictates of the Catholic Church?
“Which is not to say that all strands of Christianity are illiberal.
“The Quakers, for example, are a very liberal denomination. There are plenty of liberal Christians but the unfortunate thing in Ireland is that it is the conservative, reactionary Christians who get all the publicity and attention.
“Lots of Christians are not like that and unfortunately you don’t hear enough about them beneath all these voices of extremism.
“Individual Christians can do a lot of good but it is when institutions become too powerful and flawed that organised religion can be detrimental to the good of society.”
‘More people would be humanists here if they understood it better’
“I think that many of the values humanists prioritise would be shared by the majority of the population here, which makes it unfortunate that people can be dismissive of us through ignorance,” explains McClinton.
As well as working as a director of the Humanist Association for Northern Ireland, Brian also edits a magazine called Humanism Ireland and believes that more would join humanist groups if they had a better understanding of what they stand for.
Interestingly, Brian finds the ideas espoused by Jesus worth following and preserving even if he does not agree that he was the Son of God.
“If you ask me which of the thinkers or figures throughout history who most shape my own views I would include the sceptic philosopher David Hume, the moral teachings of Jesus, and the writing of Bertrand Russell and Richard Dawkins,” he concludes:
“Humanists don’t see any credible evidence for the existence of God but we still believe in human goodness and in striving together to build a better world.”
To find out more about humanism in Northern Ireland visit humanistni.org/.