Wednesday, June 13, 2012

What it means to be a humanist

Humanism means a lot of different things to different people, it isn't one of those tightly defined terms.  Not yet, anyway! But to me, it means basing my ethical and moral belief systems on being human, on how my actions affect me, my family, my community, nation and the rest of humanity.  One assumes, as someone who was raised in a christian based belief system, that morality and ethics come from some objective, unchanging source.  Many christians find it hard to believe that a person with no religious belief can even be moral, that such a person would tend towards selfishness and greed to the detriment of those around them. Why?  Why is it that christians have this picture of the godless? 

Perhaps it has to do with what they are taught as christians.  The bible teaches that humans are sinful.  Not just some, but all of us.  This sin requires us to be "saved", in the parlance of theology.  Although some christian sects have some version of predestination in mind, saying that you are saved through god's grace and not good works, most christians insist that your status in the afterlife they call heaven requires some form of being good and obeying god's will and commandments as a prerequisite, or that you've begged his forgiveness, which is always granted.  That's what I am addressing here.

 Do you see the problem yet? 

The afterlife is all about YOU.  The way to get there is all about how YOU act and surrender yourself to him in order to win entry to heaven for YOU.  Nothing is said about your family, children, uncles, aunts, grandparents or neighbors.  Your country is ignored, as is the entire human race.  Yes, the method of winning entry requires some measure of being good to your fellow man, but since there is a big fat get-out-of-jail-free card in the fact of christ's forgiveness, where is the incentive?  There is none.  The entire thing is set up to appeal to people's selfish nature.  Robert Heinlein has a cynical quote:

 "Never appeal to a man's better nature - he may not have one, better appeal to his self interest, it is more reliable." 

How does this differ from the Humanist viewpoint?  How does one move from this self-centric model our society encourages to a more broad based model which gives much more weight to the interests of one's family, community and the wider society?

 Doing it better.

 First, one needs to simply drop the need for selfishness in favor of a more socially centric ideal, where your well being is better served by a better connection with that wider circle and a closer connection to the wider world.

 How does that work?  Well, look for a moment at the environment.  Christian teachings often lead them into a state of not worrying about the environment, either because they think god will take care of it or since he's coming back soon, he'll just fix what's wrong as part of building us a new world.  There is a part of christianity which takes seriously the biblical admonition to be a good steward, but it is a minority.  Most christians either think god will take care of it somehow or just don't let themselves worry about it. But, as a humanist, you realize that there isn't a god to "take care of it", or fix it at some nebulous point in the future.  If anybody will, it has to be us.  You know and see how pollution poisons not just the wild environment, but how it sickens humans and costs us uncountable resources in lost productivity and lost lives.  The fact that there isn't another life after this one brings home the realization that those who are sickened have their lives here and now, the only life they will ever have, made worse and often ruined, by this pollution.  You realize that unless we, as a society, do something, it won't stop, and lives will continue to be ruined, if not lost, as a result. You realize that, in a larger picture, the fact that we all have only that one life, changes the entire way we look at how we approach virtually everything we do. 

Christianity is selfish, and teaches us that we must act in certain ways to protect our life which will last for eternity.  Humanism realizes that the only life we will ever have is short, limited in scope and when it is gone, it is gone.   We know, from recent research and past clinical medical experience, that the brain is the seat of our personality. 

The brain is a physical construct, made of specialized cells which hold memory, process information, control our bodies and hold the basic building blocks of who we are.  As that brain is deprived of oxygen, it experiences damage, until at three minutes, it begins to have sustained enough damage to limit its ability to operate normally after resuscitation.  Give it enough time beyond that, and consciousness may not be possible, until it reaches the point where it just dies.  At some point in this process, that part of the brain which houses you, as an entity, sustains enough damage that your essence is just gone, even if the larger organism survives with technical assistance.  We know this, it is no longer a mystery.  We know the process, we know how it happens, why it happens and can sometimes treat people with brain damage to help them relearn things like walking, talking and such.

 But we can't bring back memory, and once your essential personality is gone, you are dead.  So, where's the soul?  If one had a soul, the personality would not sustain damage which could destroy it.  The brain would, logically, be able to simply "relearn" that personality and relocate its memories to another, undamaged location.  We know the brain can do this for bodily functions, so why couldn't it do this for the soul, which one would assume is a much more basic part of what makes us what we are? 

But it can't, so we must assume there is no soul, since there isn't any evidence of one. So, when the brain dies, you die.  End of story.  This life is the only one you get, one to a customer.

 Dang, that's heavy!  The implications are huge!  There's no afterlife, no heaven, no hell.  So, why bother to worry about what happens when you are gone?  Try thinking about family.  …about your community or your country.  Those are things we should be working to make better while we are here, for our and our family's benefit, right?  Doesn't it feel good to ensure continuity?  To ensure that those who come after will have the same or better benefits you did?  Working with others is a rewarding experience, and can make you feel better about yourself and can raise your status within that community, so we can see a little bit of that self interest at work here, too, but it isn't so selfish.  It is community based, and changes the focus.

We aren't doing it because it'll get us into heaven, but because it is the right thing to do. Suddenly, the environment is important!  Global warming becomes a threat to the future of our children and grandchildren, in this life, and with no magic savior to make it right, it is up to us to fix it.  Us, not the kids. Suddenly, we realize that when someone dies, they are gone.  Finis.  Forever.  That's a long time. 

It changes how we look at death and how we look at such things as violence and sickness and making products better so they don't sicken and kill or maim, since when you ruin someone's life, it is irreparable!  They don't get another chance in heaven, cause you just ruined the only one they've got.  It changes how we look at crime, and punishment.  We can see how it would be better to deal with the causes of crime, so we don't have to ruin people's lives locking them up behind bars. The list goes on and on, and I'll leave the exercise to you from here.

The point is that as a humanist, you care about humanity, not yourself so much.  The focus of the ethics is on the community, not the person.

 And that changes everything.

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