The following article has been written by Tony Akkermans.
Leeds and District Humanist Group meet at the Swarthmore Centre, 2-7 Woodhouse Square, Leeds at 7:30 pm on the second Tuesday of each month.
They have no responsibility for the contents of any of the pages on this web site.
Religion v. Humanism
Which system do you prefer? Care to join the debate?
First let us take a brief look at what religion is all about. How did it come to gain such a strong position in human affairs. The answer must be: fear and ignorance. When hum ans first took to their feet some 1.5 million years ago they had little understanding of the natural world around them. Full of fear of the unknown their fragile situation left them wide open to all forms of superstition. Over time this was taken advanta ge of by self-appointed priests, the second oldest profession and the first deluders of mankind. Rather than pursue explanations by investigation, trial and error these leaders invented answers and then presented them as god given fact. Many belief syste ms were thus created all over the world and because most of them offered considerable advantages to the inventors non-conformity was suppressed by dire threats of hell fire and if that didn't work there was always the rack and the stake. This primitive h eritage has proved extremely difficult to shake off. It seems superstition springs eternal in the human breast. It could be argued that superstition has infiltrated the genes and mankind is stuck with it. Richard Dawkins calls it a virus of the mind. It is as if the species Man has a schizoid nature - his feet implanted on the earth but his imaginitive head soaring toward a heaven of magical unreality. Although it is often said that modern man is civilised the facts show otherwise. It is not long since there were witch hunts and people were hanged for blasphemy. More recently there was the genocide of the Jews in WWII and in our own time the religious wars in Bosnia, Africa and Northern Ireland. And whilst brutality of action is still commonplace it is no surprise that primitive thought is not far behind.
Religion's most powerful tool is the promise of eternal life. Homo religiosus invents religious symbols, which he worships to save him from facing the finality of his death. He de vises paradise fictions to provide comfort and support. Man deceives himself about his ultimate destiny so as not to be tormented by the contemplation of it. But because of its improbability this belief can only be skin deep. When ill, people pray but so on run to the best doctors that money can buy; mere humans but more effective, it appears, than the god of their dreams. In their despair they cling to notions that no rational person would entertain for a second. That in a universe made up of billions o f galaxies and trillions of planets and infinite space there is a god who has sent his son to be crucified on this tiny speck earth in order to safe the human race. That he has chosen this moment conveniently at the fringes of documented history so that the facts are incapable of verification. That this god controls every little drama that befalls mankind but in such a way that it is impossible to tell it apart from complete randomness. He is all good but allows thousands to be killed in earthquakes; he is all powerful but allows Hitlers and Sadams to kill millions of innocent people in the most barbaric fashion. This the religious call free will but as usual they haven't thought things through. Either God was in agreement with Hitler and he acted at G od's behest, in which case God is wicked or God disapproved but could not stop him, in which case Hitler was mightier than God. When humans die they are somehow able to carry on just as they were, even though all their atoms have been shattered to the wi nds. It is all in the soul we are told. This mysterious entity that manages to keep us going just as well without a body; all functions and faculties in tact. One might ask why bother with a body in the first place? Much simpler to be born, live and die as souls. Easier for women to give birth and easier to explain what is to become of missionaries that have been eaten by the natives. As Albert Einstein said: "An individual who should survive his physical death is beyond my comprehension; such notions a re for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble minds".
The question must be asked: is this contorted scenario a credible, scientific proposition or does it sound like the ultimate exercise in wishful thinking? What is the alternative? Let's take a look at HUMANISM.
What is Humanism?
Humanism is not a doctrine but an attitude to life. Because Humanists believe that this is the only life we can expect to have we had better make the best of it, both individually and collectively. Humanists are rationalists because they regard human reason as the best guide we have in facing life's problems. In their social outlook Humanists are secularist because they want to free society from the stranglehold that religious be liefs still have on it, whether it be collective worship in British state schools or depriving women of education in Afghanistan. Humanists are freethinkers because they refuse to hand over their minds to any church or cult but remain free to think thing s through for themselves. Humanists hold that every responsible human being should be free to make his or her own choices and live their own life style as long as they do not violate the freedom of others. This is the Humanist Golden Rule 'do as you woul d be done by'. Unlike believers Humanists see no virtue in faith, blind obedience, unworldliness, chastity or pointless self denial. Humanism stands for the open mind in an open society. A believer is a bird in a cage; a Humanist is an eagle, parting the clouds with tireless wing.
One of the most persistent accusations levied against Humanism is its supposed lack of moral guidance. It is overlooked that it is human society that has created systems of morality and it is religious man, who with uncalled for humility, has attributed their authorship to God. The Humanist Golden Rule as described above is as good as anything religion has to offer and the proof of it can be found in the virtual absence of Humanists from prison whilst most of the country's notorious villains, including Myra Hindley and Peter Sutcliffe were and still are committed Christians. Believers can ask God's forgiveness and wipe the slate clean so that they can start sinning all ove r again. Humanists do not stand before God but before man and must account for their actions in this world.
However before concluding it should be emphasised that Humanists have few reservations about people practising religion as individuals. If their faith offers them personal comfort then all well and good. But organised religion is a different matter. Religion becomes a menace when religious leaders such as Popes and Ayatollahs, given credence by shear numbers, are able to restrict personal freedoms far beyond the spheres of their own religions such as women's right to determine what happens to their own bodies and to dictate to authors under pain of death what they can or cannot write. The Taliban religious dictatorship in Afghanistan is the latest example of the unacceptable fac e of religion. Closer to home we have the established position of the Church of England and compulsory worship in state schools.
As we are approaching the end of the 20th century we still seem to to be facing the same old conflict within the human psyche: science versus doctrinaire religion; the imperical world of intersubjective verification versus the world of fantasy; knowledge of fact versus romantic superstition. Which do you think is the right attitude for modern man:
an honest admission that many things are as yet unclear but that the human race should be chipping away steadily and enthusiastically at the boundaries of knowledge, u sing science as the only tool;
or should we continue to accept the writings of ancient tribes as the basis on which to build our modern society simplynchangeable.
Have your say: drop an email to Tony Akkermans at Humanists@Kingwood.globalnet.co.uk