Thursday, May 17, 2007

What is means to be a Humanist

I’ve been reading Humanism by H.J. Blackham. It is a “Pelican Original” published in 1968. I suppose it is the equivalent to the X for Dummies genre today – a short, casual read to give you a basic understanding of a subject.

The basic precepts of humanism, according to this book, are that “man is on his own and this life is all” and that “there is an assumption of responsibility for one’s own life and for the life of all mankind.” I strongly advise that anyone reading this acquire the book (unfortunately published in the era before ISBNs) and read it. The ideas the whole concept of humanism raises are fascinating, even if you have no interest in coming to consider yourself a humanist.

As I drop in and out of the book, reading a few pages here, then coming back to reread them, it occurs to me how profoundly our society would change if the fundamental precepts of humanism were more generally accepted.

Every so often the implications of humanism hit me. Iain M. Banks refers to this experience as “swim”, in his book The Algebraist. Ken MacLeod mentions the experience on a number of occasions, most notably in Learning the World and his most recent work Execution Channel. For me the feeling often, but not always, begins with a sudden rush of blood to the head, usually after standing up too suddenly after having been sat down for some time.

The experience lacks any of the notable features of a divine experience. There is sometimes a feeling of intoxication, even of euphoria. The key insight that is granted by this experience, this “swim”, is not new knowledge, but rather a casting aside of the assumptions we make so much a part of our lives that we would find it very difficult to live without them.

As far as I know, it is impossible to induce this state. It will generally only arise when you do not suspect that it will. I don’t know if expectation precludes it, because I’ve never been expecting it when it happens.

The insight? You realise that you are who you are. I realise (like Popeye) I am what I am. The little homunculus I carry in my mind, my self-image, is an utter fiction. I am Tom James, I live in a small town, and I go to school. I’ve never been to any of the places I see on the news regularly. I have never met the vast majority of people in the world. I exist.

It sounds profound, but it isn’t. It is the opposite of profound. It isn’t about being at one with the Universe. It is the brief, momentary understanding that, despite all your fantasies and abstract, unsubstantial problems you exist within the Universe. And you are alone.

The Christian dictum: “do unto others as you would have done unto yourself” is a fair basis for morality. But when you truly reject the existence of God, gods, a supreme, all-powerful force controlling everything a lot of rather unpleasant thoughts emerge.

The moral of the nice story about the poor woman who anonymously gives a small but, to her, significant amount of money to the charity and the rich man who boastfully gives a much larger but, to him, less significant quantity of money falls flat. As boorish as the man is, once you reject the idea of heavenly pixie-points, he becomes the person who has accomplished more, has alleviated more suffering in his act of charity.

“Do unto others…” becomes the basis of all morality, once you reject the whole idea of there being some kind of “natural morality” that emerges from the way things are.

Indulging in a humanist mindset has made me more apolitical. I know that people should be afforded life, liberty, and the happiness of pursuit. I know that equality, freedom and society are important. I know that the strong should help the weak. But I’ve also come to realise that all these ideologies, important though they are, are very much secondary to the basic rule of ensuring everyone is as happy as they can be.

From this angle the daily grind of politics in Westminster becomes more a point of picking a team for tribalistic reasons. I vote Labour or Liberal Democrat mostly because their basic ideologies reflect, in some way, the way I think the whole world should be run: economic growth and wealth-generation without exploiting the poorest. Freedom balanced against justice and self-fulfilment balanced against responsibility.

Being humanist, for me, means removing all the words and ideologies and concentrating on action and what people are actually doing. It means actually trying to imagine how the people who suffer so that I don’t have to actually feel. It means very little as far as politics is concerned, but it means a lot to how I see the world. We’re all alone, and we’re all aware, on some level (even that of flat denial), that this is it. We’ll maintain state-integrity for a couple of gigaseconds if we’re lucky and then whatever construct believes itself to be Tom James will have gone.

Still, this is the only life I'll ever have. So now, after dispensing this vague but heartfelt essay to the howling wastes of the consumer-content revolution, I will take my leave and go and find some other worthwhile activity with which to fill my day.


Ken said...


I just re-read Blackham's book recently. Others I'd recommend are Julain Baggini's Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, Richard Norman's On Humanism.

Re the experiences you refer to, Llewellyn Powy's little book Glory of Life is a gospel of godlessness.

Pleased that someone spotted these in my books!

TJ said...

Wow, thanks for commenting! I'll try to get hold of those books.