I’ve called myself a humanist for the last time. Another short and snappy answer will have to be found for that odious question, “Are you religious?” or, worse, “So how do you tell right from wrong without the word of God?”
Dictionaries define humanism along these lines: thought that rejects religious belief, centering on human values, capacity, and worth. The American Humanist Society defines it thus: “Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.” On the right side of their page you can enjoy The Humanist Hour or Shop Humanism.
Humanist is a badge of pride, often pinned to the foreheads of humans who shrink from the touch of organized religion but still wish to be considered Good People. The term humanism is a statement that morality doesn’t need religion to exist. Morality is a force unto itself.
Proving morality a force unto itself is Dr. Frans de Waal, achieving fame right now with experiments with mammals and birds that demonstrate conclusively that other species besides ourselves—and often more than we do, let it be said—give a shit about individuals beyond themselves. It turns out that many species practise compassion, solace, generosity, co-operation, sacrifice, love, mediation, altruism and mourning—and this is not an exhaustive list of the ways in which they show fellow-feeling.
This shouldn’t surprise anyone interested in ethology. Any animals that need extended upbringing need patient, compassionate parents. As some philosopher suggested, compassionate love is the bedrock virtue of humanity when bringing up our helpless young—otherwise we’d drown the little devils before age three.
When I was a kid, too many trees were sacrificed to the promotion, through hardcover books, of the idea that humanity is unique. Animals can’t tell jokes because no animal has a sense of humor, proclaimed several of these tomes. Hah! Tell that to a husky dog or a raven! Animals, being soul-less, do not show altruism but are focused solely on the survival of the fittest. Obviously, those writers, although perhaps not soul-less, must have been pet-less, or they would have known better.
Nature red in tooth and claw blah blah blah. From 2013, it looks more like Humanity red in guns and bombs. Not to mention the poisons with which we deliberately lace the earth’s long-suffering crust in the name of Progress.
No, we are not a unique species when it comes to morality, brains or even stand-up comics. There are plenty of animals smarter than we are, funnier than we are, and certainly nicer than we are. We may well be unique in our apposite thumbs, our monumental mathematical stupidity (to judge from our population problems) and the breadth of our technology but where has that uniqueness brought us? Even the duplicitous TV screen reveals a certain truth: our world is now a culture of mass murder, fighting out a struggle for survival of the un-fittest in the cesspool we have made of our garden planet.
There’s still plenty of religion rattling around the world but somehow it hasn’t resulted in much compassion, solace, generosity, co-operation, sacrifice, love, mediation, altruism and kindness, whether towards our companion species or other humans. Not that stellar humans don’t exist, but surely they are becoming uncomfortable with humanism as a synonym for goodness.
I’ll resist that proud term humanism from now on. Where do we get off, thinking ourselves the summit of creation?
What’s a better answer to questions about one’s spiritual and moral life? Maybe I’ll just say, “I believe in endless love.”
Or point to my bumper sticker: “The more humans I meet, the more I like my dog.”