Humanist Society

of New South Wales Inc.

Some answers to Questions by HSC Religious Studies Students

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19 May 2008 (previous version - 15 May 2005)

Answers by: Victor Bien and others as noted

From Rachel,  May 2000

1.  Were you born into this non-religion?

2.  If not how did you choose and why did you choose to join this non-religion?
By general intellectual maturation through a considerable amount of enquiry, discussion etc. decades ago.

3.  If you were born into this non-religion have you ever questioned it?
N.A. However, Humanism is internally self critical.

4.  What are some of your beliefs?
Democracy, liberty, personal autonomy, science broadly understood is the only certain means of solving problems.

5.  How do you put your beliefs into practice?
By running public meetings, writing & publishing and lobbying governments and people generally.

6.  Do you rely on facts, materialism and evidence for your beliefs?
Yes. The scientific method as you know is an interplay between theory (thinking) and observation (looking at the facts for evidence to support a theory or point of view).

7.  How do you think Humanism differs from other non-religions?
There are a range of non-religious positions. I think atheists, rationalists and free thinkers are as a group, older representatives of non-religion. I think they are stuck in the anti-clericalism that was a more acute or relevant problem earlier this century. The Skeptics concentrate on publicly falsifying false beliefs including religions but also all kinds of wishful thinking such as quack "health" products financial scams and other things. Humanists main thrust today is positive expressions of a humanist non-religious world view, that ethics & values do not derive from religion and seek for non-religious people the same rights and privileges granted to the religious.

8.  What is your personal view of religions?
My personal views have been shaped by long association with fellow Humanists and other non-religious folk.
It appears that humans are evolutionarily predisposed to religion or religious like behviour. It probably had survival value and/or an evolutionary role to play. With the growing impact of science and the impossible challenges to old beliefs it poses, we think that human predisposition and adherence to religions creates serious problems. Amongst other things, people of different religious beliefs when forced together by circumstances tend to clash with each other and kill!

We need to be educated about religion as distinct from being inculcated by them. For example, because the West has been so deeply influenced by Christianity it won't do for comprehensive education not to learn something about Christianity and other religions. Many English figures of speech cannot be understood properly without some understanding and appreciation of the language of the Bible. Likewise we need to understand why we get such a range of Islamic expressions including the extremists.

We have been lobbying the Government that scripture classes be abolished and comparative religion studies in schools be made stronger but church influences make it difficult for us to make headway.

From Therese, 16.11.02

a.  Reasons that certain people may choose to follow the Humanist beliefs.
Skepticism of religious belief; religious belief seen to be pernicious; religious belief too prone to adverse interpretation like how the jihadists use Islam to rationalise terrorism; religious arrangements used as a cover for child abuse; religious belief a key motivator for crusades, wars, fatwas and jihads.

b.  Practices of Humanism: i.e. gatherings, meetings and traditions
Regular or periodic members meetings, public meetings. Try not to be tradition bound but adopt rational keeping of interpersonal relations that are helpful.

c.  The influence of Humanism on organised religions
Nothing significant in any short term perspective. Over historical time secularism rather than Humanism as such has pushed back religiously motivated personal, social & political conventions and ideas. For example, it is said that the Spanish Inquisition gradually faded away because of the relentless secularisation of the world. Humanism seeks to give a philsophical defence for or account of secularism.

d.  Reasons for Humanists' support of the division between the church and the state? Has this division been obtained? If so, how? What effect would this separation have on Humanist followers and their lifestyle?
The separation of church and state (and the mosque and state these days as well) is closely related to secularism. Public arrangements and conventions should not depend on religious belief for the simple reason that different people believe in different beliefs. If a state adopts a particular religion this would have the effect of making people not of that belief second class citizens. This will not do. In the past and present this has been a major source of lack of peace.
Religious people find it hard to accept the separation of church and state depending on the content of their belief. If the content of their belief requires that the state conform with their belief they basically have to bite their tongue in order to keep their belief a private matter as is required in a democracy. Islam is more troublesome than Christianity in this regard. A literal interpretation of Islam requires a theocratic state - quite opposed to the separation of mosque and state. Christianity also has a tendency towards a theocratic state but it also has "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and to God that which is God's"; thus allowing the separation of church and state is integral to the content of Christianity. With respect to the Jewish faith, the extreme form Zionism also does not separate religion and faith. While Zionist faith is this worldly (they do not have a life after death concept like the other two arms of "Abrahamic religions") they have or pursue what they believe is a God inspired "project" to develop the "promised land" (by God) for his people (the Jews to the exclusion of the "gentiles"). This is the root of their exclusion of Palestinians from equal standing in Israel. So this is the root of the on-going conflict in that part of the world.

In the West the separation of church and state has been attained to varying extents but the separation requires continuing vigilance to maintain. Australia has slipped badly in this regard in recent times. The concept is under serious pressure in Europe and America. Humanists and Humanist ideas would have a much better general position in the overall scheme of things as the separation became more complete. There are many issues that can't get an uncontroversial hearing because of the dominance of religious mind-sets. These typically relate to "life" issues: abortion, bio-technology, euthanasia, marriage and divorce, sexual relations, stem cell research but also the pervasiveness of religious people in positions of power makes it difficult for secular people to gain equal status to religions such as applying for "chaplaincy" rights to visit prisoners (Dept of Corrective Services), provide secular counselling in a university (University of Queensland). The influence of religion in the development of laws preclude Humanists from obtaining various taxation concessions available to religions.

It seems to us that while the drift away from belief in the general population continues apace as shown by the rising percentage who declare they have no religion in the Australian Census, religiously minded persons like our current and previous Prime Ministers are motivated to a great extent to use political office to foist religious values on us all or at least restrain their secular evolution through the power of the state.

e.  Positive effects of following the Humanistic beliefs- what do humanists do to proclaim their belief i.e. work in refugee camps
Humanism fortifies the concept of the secular state, open society, equality or equity and democracy. Various Humanists have contributed to working for those in need. Our late patron Dr J Hirshman contributed significantly to the WHO in Third World Countries. One of our Humanist of the Year, now deceased, Fred Hollows was renowned for his work saving eye-sight of people in Eritrea.

f.  Ethics: how does the Humanist ethical system influence the attitudes, behaviours and lifestyles of its followers?
Humanist ethics uphold democracy, equality of all sorts - before the law, economic and political, human rights, evidence based public policies. Humanist are often dissenters and iconoclasts - not bound by tradition and often enough actively resist it. Humanists are not particularly conscious "followers". Many who are basically Humanist in their behaviour and attitudes may not know they are "Humanist" and may not particularly care.

g.  Humanist ways of dealing with life's harsh realities? Alternatives to "prayer"?
Mutual support and advocate equitable scientific and technological developments to alleviate suffering that is within human powers to overcome. Policies to the third world are clearly inequitable, and have been since colonial times and before that. Prayer won't help suffering peoples in third world; not by us or by them. The solution is to stop inequitable policies! The really sad and distressing part is that often it is religious beliefs which are used to rationalise inequitable and exploitative policies.

h.  What are the Humanist forms of communication? How are the morals, stories, values and practices passed along? i.e. the equivalent to the Christian bible?
There is actually quite a massive literature that Humanists could get stuck into to use to "pass along" stories values and practices analogous to the Bible. So far Humanists have been rather weak in this direction.

i.  What influence and impacts has Humanism had on the world and its people?
This has been answered in the above.

j.  What is the significance of the Humanist Manifesto on the believers? Do all people have to sign?
There have been now three or four over the decades. They have served as attempts to capture just what Humanists uphold. They have not all been free of problems. People do not have to sign these. What people have to sign to join any particularly society are very minimal statements of objectives. The key characteristic is no belief in a (G)god who authorises things; that policies are to be based on ordinary human processes of considerations, debate etc. i.e. secular.

k.  Alternative views on Divorce, Abortion, War, Peace, Politics and Euthanasia? How do these beliefs impact on Humanists?
These has been answered in the above. It is odd to ask, "How do these beliefs impact on Humanists?" These are not beliefs. They are situations or issues. Humanists have the above to say about these just as other positions like Christianity have something to say.

l.  What has been the Humanist response to the current status of war in the world today?
Generally Humanists are appalled and deeply worried by the religious motive driving GW Bush on the one side and how Islam is so open to adverse interpretation justifying violence against other people on the other. Christianity has been mitigated by secularisation stemming from the enlightenment but this has largely passed by many in the Islamic world. This is why we have the apparently incredulous situation where even well educated Muslims hark back to some idealistic theocratic state and commit terror attacks trying to promote that view.

From Steven 22.11.02

1.  What do Atheists believe about
* the origin of the universe;

Basically don't know. Like everyone, we watch with interest the findings of scientists.

* life after physical death;
As far as we know, none; our personal identity is extinguished on death.

* the view of the human person; and
All humans should be extended human rights which were outlined above.

* material accumulation and possessions?
People have the right to accumulate material goods and possessions. There should be equity between different people as to how much they accumulate. "Different" means between people at the personal level, at the local community level, between communities and between countries.

2.   What views do Atheists hold about
* environmental concerns and sustainability;

Humanists do not believe that god gave us dominion over the environment or that god will forgive us our sins and rescue us. Humanists believe that we and our grandchildren will inherit the results of our actions such as causing pollution or depleting resources and that if we are ever going to reach heaven we must create it ourselves here on Earth.

Since equity includes "intergenerational" equity clearly the environment needs to be protected and sustainable policies adopted so later generations have decent physical conditions to live in.

* social responsibility;
Since Humanists are concerned about human rights that implies social responsibility or taking an active interest in public policies that don't impinge on rights in some way.

* community involvement and outreach;
This has been answered above.

* daily/weekly/monthly/yearly rythms of life; and
Humanists don't have any beliefs that are "supernatural" so would never come up with ideas like fasting, not eating pork on Fridays and the like.

* rites of passage?
Humanists recognise rites of passage to mark the development of lives. See our celebrants links.

From Daniel 02.12.02

1.  What are your thoughts on the idea that there is a supernatural being, namely a God overlooking humankind and consequently human kindness.
There is no evidence, at least none that is not full of equivocations, to prove there is a supernatural being or even a supernatural realm. Human kindness does not depend on a "God overlooking humankind".

2.  In a society influenced by the likes of modernity what elements would influence a persons approach to life?
"Elements" have always obtained, namely the influence of family, friends, the general social environment (this might include things like churches or mosques) and the media.

3.  How do you think these elements formulate a direction in people's lives, a purpose or a means to base their lives?
Elements don't formulate anything, people do! People adapt to the elements and perhaps work to change and improve them. Each person has to decide the direction of their lives, create purposes that are satisfactory to themselves and to those around them. Humanists don't think people should need religion as a crutch. Sartre wrote something like that "man is thrown into freedom"; not that I like such existentialist language, but you can get the sense of what he was getting at.

4.  Do science and the notion of proof effect your beliefs as an individual expressing the right to experience a fulfilled life? If so how?
"Affect" not "effect". It is a human right to expect a fulfilling life. This doesn't require any "proof" or justification. Science may be used as a tool to help achieve this.

5.  What do you think has shaped the way you live your life? Any particular beliefs, findings or experiences?
Broadly outlined above.

From Joshua 11.04.05

    A key aspect of any religion is that it provides a moral law or way of life for its followers. Can Humanism provide a moral framework to live ones life by?
I would challenge your assertion that "religion provides a moral law..." Religions rationalise moral notions that arise from human social life. All too often these rationalisations have given rise to confusion, distortions and given priests authority that is not really legitimate.

"Rationalise" may be too pejorative. It would be fair to say that religions recognise moral notions and "confer" their recognition on them rather similar to the way universities confer degrees on people who have undergone a course of study. The degree per se does not give a person the ability to practice medicine say but rather is an indicator to society generally that such a person has obtained the necessary knowledge, skills and ability to make appropriate judgements. Society needs this indicator because the issues are complex and it would be open to all sorts of charlatans to make plausible claims which the ordinary individual does not have the means to evaluate. Similarly religious authorities. However, behind all that the reality is independent of all that conferring. This aspect comes to the foreground when such conferring becomes corrupt and is exposed. We all know another well known form of corruption when people can buy degrees!

Humanism does not provide any moral framework either. Moral notions, rules, protocols etc. arise from human social life and grow with human understanding. Because Humanism does not claim any special understanding it does not rationalise, or even confer, but rather simply describes and comments on the morality of the day and may argue for improvements of moral issues.

    I am wondering if you can assist me with my research and answer the following questions:

1. In your view, can Humanism provide a moral framework to live ones life by?
See answer above.

2. What are the strengths of a Humanist moral framework?
Not applicable.

3. Can you perceive any barriers that prevents Humanist's from developing a moral framework
Not applicable.

4. The Australian Author, John Carroll, in his recent publication The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism revisited has openly criticised Humanism for its inability to answer the 'big questions' such as the meaning of life and what happens when we die. Carroll argues that 'humans need death to be more than just dying in a Darwinian sense' and that if it is viewed this way (the view of many humanists) then life loses meaning. Carroll also believes that humans 'require a framing engagement of the human individuals with a sense of being part of a grander scheme of things' which humanism does not provide. What do you say to this criticism of Humanism, and do you believe that humans require answers to these 'big questions' in order to have meaning to life?
We are aware of John Carroll and find him irritating, find the biassed support the publishers and the media give him appalling and objectionable.

In the sense that Carroll wants there is "no meaning to life". The objection we have to his push is that he (implicitly) asserts that there is a supernatural being who has created "meaning". The trouble with this assertion is that he begs the question whether there is a supernatural being. We don't think there is such a being. What is objectionable about his position, and others like him, is that it also implicitly and automatically asserts if one is not a believer one is denying the meaning that has been laid down by the God he believes in. This position is the central presumptiousness of what we call the Abrahamic religions. It has motivated countless atrocities and today we have the spectre of Islamist's "infidel" disapprobation. Who do they think they are?

Unfortunately with the rise of the large human brain which is self aware and thereby aware of its own mortality the realisation that we are as subject to Darwinian death as any other living creature is an awful awful realisation.

Of course we appreciate as everyone does that humans want to escape from this reality and it is natural to seek a supernatural answer. But that's just wishful thinking... Wishing for a supernatural answer and establishing that there is one are entirely separate matters. As far as we know there is no evidence of life after death. Our self consciousness extinguishes when our brains die.

Not all cultures seek supernatural answers. The (traditional) Chinese culture sought to answer this unsuperable limitation of human life by aiming for "longevity". Well modern science also aims for longevity. The underlying aim is to make our brain based conscious life as good as possible for as long as possible.

Most of our "meanings" have a definite time horizon. For example the meaning of getting up in the morning, having breakfast and heading down the street is because we need to work to make a living. At the national level we might build our commodities industries to win a larger place for ourselves in the global market. So the "meaning" of all that mining is for the winning of a larger global market and so on. In all these secular meanings a concept of "meaning" relating to some supernatural realm is irrelevant. We don't need it.

You should get hold of Terry Lane's book God the Interview which goes into this question in his 1st chapter, In the beginning. (Write to him to get a copy at PO Box 93 Forest Hill VIC 3131 - it is self published). The meaning of life is life, i.e. in computer jargon the meaning is "recursive". Also try to view "the Minds big bang" episode in WGBH video tape series Evolution where the commentator concludes the episode with the comment, "human life is just what we make of it". That was in the context of how the human mind has evolved to overcome biologically determined evolution to having become an active agent for future evolution, rather than a denial of a supernaturally imposed meaning, but meaning is defined by the human mind in each case. So far humankind has not made a good job of it. We may yet wipe ourselves out. For example people like us struggle to get our government and the US government to accept the Kyoto protocol because they won't accept that the meaning of massive glacial melts is excessive human fossil fuel burning. They try to shift the meaning to for example China, who aping the West, want to burn their chop of the fossil fuels...

Prometheus books is a publisher that covers atheist, humanist, secular points of view. I understand that you can browse and buy Prometheus books at Abbeys Bookshop York St.

The Abrahamic notion that a one true God has definitively made his word clear is the root cause of serious conflict down through the ages to the present. It gives spokesmen (generally men priests) unwarranted authority to speak "on behalf of God". Everything that we know as the "word of God" has always come through some human intermediary including the Bible itself. What ancient books should be included or excluded was decided by people. So what is regarded as the "word of God" is itself a belief. Humanists do not share that belief.

5. From my research, an essential belief of humanism is that moral law comes from experience, and that humans do not require a divinely ordained text to provide these moral laws. In other words, if we have knowledge, we won't disobey the moral law, we will keep the moral law. John Carroll strongly argues against this, saying 'Well, this is all very well, but the truth is, human beings, knowing the moral law, often won't obey it'. Do you believe that humans will uphold a moral law created by humans? And if so, is your belief reflected in society.
Well there is no guarantee that any individual will obey moral rules. It would be true to say that most people obey the rules they, as part of society, create to facilitate social life. This is an evolutionary stable state of affairs. When significant numbers don't the society gets into serious trouble and will die or suffer revolution to correct itself. In a society which is predominantly Humanist there would still be gaols! However, there may be (and it could be argued - would be) fewer of them. America which has a high feverishly religious population has more people in gaol per capita than say European countries which are much more secular (and Humanist, notably Holland).

There is no guarantee that religious belief will mitigate immoral behaviour. You only have to look at your own church to see not only paedophilia but that it was more important to the church to hide it (and let the victims suffer and get no justice) than to willingly come clean that it has trouble in its ranks.

Unfortunately there will inevitably arise persons who won't obey in all sorts of ways. Historical forces shape society. People's inclinations don't just happen overnight (of course there may be exceptions but generally...). I agree with the case put that the high place of public education since the mid 19th century has produced an Australian society that is largely public spirited and all sorts of arrangements can happen because you can take trust for granted. Recent attacks on public education by John Howard representing conservative forces do not bode well for the future and people have documented the erosion of social capital.

You can see how quickly degradation will occur. If persons who gain positions of responsibility abuse it and are not properly checked and or punished, perhaps because of old school tie reasons say, and commit acts such as corporate scandals, serious consequences flow due to the withdrawal of trust by people generally. This becomes too tedious to write out in detail but you get the sense of what I am talking about...

A reply from Ann Young a past president of the Society.
Religions may claim to provide a moral law but they don't. Suppose I ask you "Is Christianity (or Islam or whatever) a good religion? How would you answer that? You would (I'm guessing) go back to moral first principles. I could ask you "How do you know that God is good?" Again you would answer from first principles. What goodness is has nothing to do with religion. Humanism opperates with these first principles. We judge good behaviour on the same basis that religions or gods are judged. We work it out.

All living things attempt to maximise their own benefits. Some living things have found that co-operative behaviour is more beneficial in the long term. Humans are co-operative animals. Being good usually refers to co-operative behaviour. However, goodness can be definied so as to exploit the victim. For instance being loyal to your country is a "goodness" that can provide a benefit to some people at the expense of others. Morality is a big and debatable issue. Humanists debate it. We do not agree that there are absolute rules or dogma that are eternally valid.

Being good is not the central issue. This is the wrong question. The important things is to be wise. We need to decide the best way to behave not the good way.

John Carroll cannot face his own demise. He would like to be immortal. He would like life to have meaning.

Humans are animals. They live and then they die. Humans do not have any more meaning than any other animal.

Why don't you ask you pet dog what meaning it finds in life? Ask it whether it expects to live after it dies. Ask it about goodness while you are there. Then you might find that goodness has to do firstly with keeping this planet a fit place for life and that the main threat or evil is the plague of humans fouling it.

You will see from the above why I, personally, argue that the Pope [Pius X] who has just died [May 2005] was evil. He was particularly evil in my opinion because he encouraged others to be evil. He didn't have any children himself but he persuaded others to have children. Women who were pregnant against their will were prevented from remedying their situation.

Not encouraging the use of condoms will result in more babies being born and more parents dying of AIDS. To me this is a cruel agenda.

You ask whether humans will abide by moral criteria. I hope the new Pope [Benedict XVI] will not be as immoral as the last one but I hoped that last time.

The new book by Prof. Richard Layard "Happiness: Lessons from a new Science" may have some clues. He has researched what makes people happy. Belonging to a community is one criterion in happiness. There may be indications in this. It seems to me that there are too many humans: that people would behave better if they lived amongst people who knew them and they would be happier.

From Sabine 4.05.05

  Adobe acrobat iconReply by David Blair  Adobe acrobat iconReply by Fred Flatow

We get busy so answers may be a bit slow.

Further reading:


articles from the IHEU, CODESH and our own web sites; other state societies and the links off all these sites.


The American Humanist, British Humanist Association Journal, Canadian Humanist, The Freethinker, IHEU journal, New Zealand Humanist and many other secular publications. You can arrange to read a fairly comprehensive bibliography at our premises.

Booklets and books

The Happy Human: An introduction to Humanism

Lane, Terry.- God: The Interview, ABC., Sydney, 1993. Terry Lane has God explain many of the most sophisticated philosophical questions about the Christian God and her existence in the most charming and simple to understand way. Through the subjects of the meaning of life, god's will, miracles, omnipotence verses virtue, the effectiveness of prayers, definitions of good and evil , Terry Lane disabuses us for the arrogance which invented a god who was interested in us. God is quoted as saying "Have you ever actually observed what four billion years of evolution has produced? Rock 'n' roll! Computer games! Smart bombs! Wood chipping! Sale of the Century! TV commercials! The necktie! Need I go on?"

Six Secular Philosophers - religious themes in the thoughts of Spinoza, Hume, Kant, Nietsche, William James and Santayana by Lewis White Beck, Macmillan.

Hume on religion which has digests of and discussions about his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, Selected and Introduced by Richard Wollheim, Fontana Library.

An easy way to get to grips with secular philosophy is by looking up "philosophy" in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
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