By Andrew Copson and Alice Roberts, London: PIATKUS, 2020, 254 pages.
As an intellectual movement humanism is a generic term used for describing the processes and transformations which occurred as a result of the cumulative impacts of the re-birth of knowledge or Renaissance which intellectually relegated medieval scholasticism premised on Christian theology and dogma to the margins and instead revived interest in ancient Greek and Roman thought; followed by the scientific revolutions, the Enlightenment and subsequently the emergence of liberalism, socialism and democracy. Such processes intellectually undermined the creationist theory as well the eschatological underpinnings of such theory, which informed medieval Christian society.
The authors define humanism succinctly in simple, unequivocal words:
‘Throughout history there have been non-religious people who have believed that this life is the only life we have, the universe is a natural phenomenon with no supernatural side, and that we can live ethical and fulfilling lives – using reason and humanity to guide us. These people have looked to scientific evidence and reason to understand the world. And they have placed human welfare and happiness – as well as the welfare of other sentient animals – at the heart of how they choose to live their lives’.
It must be underlined, however that such ideas remained peripheral to the harsh fact of tribalism underpinning the history of the world and of civilizations and the contemporary era suggests that race, ethnicity, religion, sect, language, sexual orientation and a host of other factors continue to be used to justify and legitimize the objectification of groups and subgroups as the natural order of society. We find nationalism, neoliberal capitalism and religious revivals continuing to divide humans into We – They dichotomies. In such circumstances, it is even more important to underscore the humanist alterative.
The central argument advanced by the authors is that the question why we are on earth or is there any purpose designed for us to fulfil or complete is for all practical purposes the wrong question to pose because all answers given to it would be cases of speculation. In other words – a waste of time. On the other hand, all observable evidence shows that we human beings as a species have evolved over millennia from elementary to more complex forms largely as part of other forms of life but without any teleological purpose or direction.
Thus, the humanist ideal stands for individuals and groups to flourish, so that they can realize their freedom, prosperity and creativity. Such a standard should apply to all without any reference to their class, race, colour, sex, gender or any other distinguishing feature.
Naturally, instead of worrying about what will happen after death (which will always be a conjecture at best) our effort and genius must be directed towards giving everyone a fair chance to live a healthy and free life. Abundance is better than paucity or scarcity of things important to live a proper life happiness is better than suffering and knowledge is better than superstition.
Some humanist standpoints made in the book are:
1. We all have human rights. It means we also have responsibilities.
2. The right to a private life should mean the obligation to respect the privacy of others.
3. The right to the freedom of expression and thought stipulates that we should be generous to make space for others to be heard.
4. The right to dignity means we are obliged to respect the right to dignity of others.
The authors note that humanism is logically the only genuine worldview which harmonizes the uniqueness of everyone while simultaneously acknowledging the diversity of languages, ethnicities and cultures. Charles Darwin’s in his seminal work, The Origin of the Species, vividly argued that biological evolution and civilization both indicated a development from clans and tribes towards nations which would eventually expand the instinct of sympathy to the whole humankind. He did not, as many have alleged, predict permanent conflict between human groups to destroy one another. On the contrary, the species are instinctively prone to work towards their survival as a species.
They give the example of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) embodying the humanist idea in the following words:
‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood’.
To any socially conscious and politically informed person in the twenty-first century, this idea should be a self-evident truth. The emphasis in the book is naturally on the discussions in the modern and contemporary West because the freedom of speech and of the public sphere for a free discussion of contentious issues has been the most robust, but now the electronic social media has made it possible for other parts of the world also to take part in free discussions.
Would now humanism become a worldwide movement instead of a peripheral tendency that is has been down the ages remains to be seen, but Andrew Copson and Alice Roberts have most certainly made a valuable contribution to advancing the humanist worldview.