A HUMANIST UNIT FOR STUDENTS
Notes for Teachers
Humanists maintain that:
- All religions were created by human beings alone; the books called ‘holy’ and the texts held sacred by the various religions were not revealed to humans by a god or delivered by an angel; although religious writings store a deal of wisdom, some of the notions handed down reflect the limitations of the people who wrote them and the times at which they were written; furthermore, their differing stories of the origin of the world and of human beings show scant knowledge of what did happen or of how nature actually works
- A reliable way to approach the truth about how nature works is called ‘the scientific method’. This starts with (1) careful observation of the subject being studied, (2) formulation of an idea or theory to account for the observations, (3) doing experiments to test the predictions of the theory. This method began to be used about 400 years ago; we have since found many of the laws or rules that apply to events in the world, enabling us to travel to the moon, use radio waves to communicate with each other and cure diseases that formerly were fatal, so increasing our life-span
- We have found that humans and other animals and plants on earth today have a common ancestry, having all descended from the earliest life forms which arose almost four thousand million years ago; all life, including animal and human minds, has evolved by natural selection without guidance or intervention at any time from a supernatural, intelligent ‘designer’
- Today’s many unanswered questions about the universe and life (eg how did life begin, how did DNA originate? how does the brain work? how can we control disease?) pose an exciting challenge to young people, who have the opportunity to contribute to their solution
- Moral questions, (ie how should we behave towards one another?) are to be answered by humans alone; there is no transcendental, god-given source of instruction, so humanists do not pray to a deity for advice; nor do they expect to be rewarded or punished after their death for their good or bad deeds - good is done to benefit others – see next point
- The possible consequences to sentient creatures of our action should always be considered: will it cause happiness? – then it’s OK; cause pain or suffering? – then it’s not OK; cause pleasure to some but also pain to others? –again not OK. If faced with the difficult choice between two inevitably unpleasant, painful outcomes, the action that is likely to cause less pain should be chosen
- Even if there had been revelations (eg in the Bible), we all would still need to evaluate the ‘divine’ precepts to see whether they were up to our ideal standard because only very young children are expected to do what they’re told without question - older children and adults should know and be satisfied with the reasons for their actions; there’s no moral merit in unquestioning obedience
- Each human being is necessarily the outcome of their personal history. This starts at conception with their genes and is then constructed throughout life by continuous interaction with one’s human and and natural environment. This results in how we each think and behave at this moment but character is not fixed. We know that the brain is plastic, ie it can be modified by education and experience
- this understanding precludes vindictive punishment: retribution cannot be supported; reasonable sanctions to deter harmful behaviour may be necessary; attempts to reform and rehabilitate should always be made
- we should apply the same moral principles to sexual relationships as apply in all other matters - being responsible and sincere; every child should be a wanted child
- all members of society should have the opportunity for education, work and the provision of health care
- injustice and unfairness should be investigated and rectified wherever possible
- everyone should have concern for the present and future state of the world, including all its peoples, as well as its animals and plants. Humanists feel specially responsible for the future of Planet Earth, their only home
- sadly, death is the end of life; there is no consciousness after death; we can remember the good qualities and achievements of people who have lived; we can profit from the example of people who advanced human welfare
- conscious experience and therefore act to increase the amount of happiness experienced by sentient beings and reduce the amount of pain suffered by humans and animals
- the creative use of imagination and intelligence for artistic, literary, physical and scientific pursuits
- the golden rule, expounded for thousands of years, the principle of treating others as one would wish to be treated in the same situation
- truth, essential for authentic social interaction and understanding the world
- free expression of ideas and theories because they know that that is how errors and unfounded beliefs are corrected and progress made, but criticising ideas should not extend to insulting living people
- tolerance, because they accept that people may hold and express differing views and opinions, so long as they do not interfere with other people’s freedom, happiness and security. In this diverse world, everyone has to tolerate criticism of their ideas and beliefs – ideas have no feelings and cannot suffer – only people can
- those ideas they consider to have merit, whatever their source, but take a sceptical, critical attitude towards religions, ideologies and dogmas because humanists recognise no infallible authority
Glossary of useful terms
A theist believes that a god or gods exist.
A deist believes that a god created the universe but does not intervene in its working.
An atheist sees no reason to believe that any god exists. Most humanists live as atheists (ie without religion) but not all atheists are humanists.
An agnostic says one cannot know for certain that supernatural beings do or do not exist.
A materialist believes that life and consciousness are the natural products of the material universe, evolving in accordance with its laws; that no supernatural agent intervened. The word ‘materialist’ is sometimes inaccurately used to describe someone who overvalues commodities.
A secular society would be one where there is no state religion (as the Church of England is the state religion of England at present), receiving special privileges (eg bishops in the House of Lords) over the other religions and beliefs. In a secular state, individuals and groups with different religious or non-religious beliefs would be treated impartially in public life and have equal rights to maintain their beliefs and (within the law) their practices. Humanists look forward to a secular society.
Humanism is not a religion but is an alternative, naturalistic philosophy of life.