Monday, February 04, 2008

Humanism: Deriving wisdom and enlightenment from our makeup as humans

Theists do not have a monopoly on morality or the meaning of life. Contrary to the conclusions one may be led to by the constant vilification of atheists in this country, there is a very long and noble legacy of reason and ethics not bound to the orthodoxies of supernaturalism.

Here is Jesse Rabinowitz in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch explaining the non-theistic search for truth:

For as long as we can remember, humans have felt awe, wonder, and a yearning for meaningful connection to one another and to the world. For some, this takes the form of worship of a creator deity, a god who is the source of the universe, who teaches us how to live fairly and lovingly, and who promises a healing and improving of the world.

Side-by-side with these theistic traditions, there are traditions that see truth, meaning, connection, and ethics as coming from the natural world, and from our own human faculties of intuition, reflection, reason, imagination, and determination. These traditions are loosely called atheism, agnosticism, and humanism. Although the difficulty in defining these traditions makes counting their numbers challenging, most studies indicate that atheists, agnostics, and humanists make up about 10 percent of the American population.

Who are these non-theists, what do they believe, and how do their beliefs teach them how to live fairly, lovingly, and with a sense of purpose, awe, and wonder? Atheists and agnostics differ from theists in their approach to the question of the existence of God. Atheists don't believe in the existence of God or gods, whereas agnostics claim not to know whether God or gods exist. "Humanism" refers to the belief that our actions, beliefs, values, and worldview come from our human ability to reason, to question, to care for one another and for the world of which we are but a part, and to create from our imaginative, intuitive, artistic, and poetic powers.

ATHEISM, agnosticism, and humanism have long legacies, dating as far back as the 6th century BCE. These traditions appear in some forms of Hinduism and Buddhism, and in classical Greek, Enlightenment, Modernist, and Post-Modernist philosophies. Each appearance of these traditions is marked by a preference for reason, critical thinking, scientific and naturalistic observation and study, and the questioning of established beliefs.

Atheists, agnostics, and humanists, like traditional believers, seek to live fair, loving, and meaningful lives. They are guided toward the good life by the world's philosophies, cultural beliefs, scientific and naturalistic facts, religious and ethical teachings, and the fables, parables, and allegories provided by myth, art, and literature.

Non-theists sometimes draw from the value and meaning systems of traditional religion, but they don't believe the ultimate source was a supernatural deity, but rather human invention and inspiration. They assume that values and meaning evolve throughout each person's lifetime and throughout the whole span of human history, and that humans actively engage in this evolution through reason, debate, observation, science, and contemplation.

Beyond belief, ethics, and values, non-theists, like their theistic siblings, seek comfort, hope, and strength from their belief systems. Non-theists draw comfort and hope from the idea that human progress emerges from an innate human need to love, to make the world a more harmonious place, and to find purpose and meaning in the face of a vast, daunting universe.

Wisdom and enlightenment are seen as deriving from deep in our makeup as humans, and the drive to attain and develop these qualities are felt by non-theists as a compelling force. Strength in the face of adversity and pain is found by non-theists in the knowledge that humans have made great strides through reason, creative thinking, artistic expression, and hard work, and that each of us possesses these abilities and potentials.

LIKE THEISTS, non-theists find comfort, hope, and strength in their experience of giving and receiving simple human kindness, and in the common human support that we all experience.

Non-theists contribute to the good of the world through all of the same avenues as theists. They do charity, try to work at their jobs honestly and in good community, and care for family and neighbors. While theists believe they are called to these good works by God, non-theists believe that they are called to good works by something deep inside our makeups. They point to the genetic, neurologic, and psychological structures and functions that underlie love, empathy, social cooperation, and fairness as evidence that we are "built" to care for one another, even if they don't believe in a master builder.

Finally, non-theists seek to feel a compelling sense of awe, wonder, and connection to the universe, to feel a part of something large, vast, mysterious, and beautiful. Non-theists find delight, inspiration, humility, and peace in the contemplation of the starry night and infinity of space, in the complex beauty of the genetic code, in the powerful tenderness of love, in the amazing order and power of our sciences, and in the fascinating history of the evolution of our universe and our world.

1 comment:

Comrade Kevin said...

I respect the rights, moral code, and contributions of non-theists. Though I am a theist, I have taken much insight from the lives and deeds of those who are not.