What is a humanist?

Meaning and purpose in a godless universe

For as long as there have been humans, there have probably been ideas that we would today call humanist.

These ideas have become so widely held, in the UK and the rest of Western Europe at least, that the Oxford Companion to the Mind even goes so far as to say that it is a predominant, though unacknowledged, world view in the Western World today: "a morally concerned style of intellectual atheism openly avowed by only a small minority of individuals (for example, those who are members of the British Humanist Association) but tacitly accepted by a wide spectrum of educated people in all parts of the Western World."

People who are humanists certainly do have a view of the world that is completely naturalistic, and so they are atheists or agnostics. This is important for some humanists, for whom the non-existence of supernatural forces makes the value placed on human responsibility all the greater. For other humanists, the non-existence of gods is not so important and we may never think about it, once we’ve satisfied ourselves that it is the case. Either way, far more important to humanists than what they don’t believe in is what they do.

A humanist is someone who believes that morality does not have some supernatural origin but that it derives from our need to live together in communities. This conviction leads naturally to a concern that our actions should contribute to the happiness and welfare of both ourselves and others. When someone who is a humanist comes to consider what is right and what is wrong (not just on a grand scale but in our everyday choices), the benefit or harm that it will bring to those around us, to wider humanity - including future generations - and the world are the only factors which matter. Individual rights and freedoms are important to humanists, but individual responsibility, social cooperation and mutual respect are just as important.

A humanist is also someone who believes that the best way to understand the reality around us is through knowledge gained by experience and reason. For some humanists this is just a truth that we have to acknowledge in order to gain any meaningful understanding of how the world around us works, (though the discoveries we make by employing this method – in medicine, for example – can certainly lead to improvements in the lives of many people). For other humanists, the wonder of discovery and the excitement of invention are ends in themselves for the enjoyment and fulfilment that they bring which give meaning and purpose to life.

Meaning and purpose does seem to be what all human beings desire for their lives, but in a universe which we now know to be devoid of ultimate meaning or purpose (or where, even if there is a purpose, it certainly has little to do with humanity), the question of what meaning there can really be in our lives may seem a difficult one. A humanist, however, responds to this question positively. By adopting our own worthwhile goals, by seeking to be happy and to make it easier for others to be happy, by taking enjoyment in the wonders of nature and of human art, by valuing that inner life that makes us more than other animals, and by working together to overcome our problems and make the bad times better, human beings can give the human world a meaning and purpose of its own. In fact, the conviction that this present life is the only one we have acts as a powerful spur for humanists towards these goals.

In a godless universe, the job of advancing an increase in what makes our life worthwhile falls squarely to humanity, and humanists are generally optimistic that it is a challenge we can rise to meet.

Andrew works for the British Humanist Association on education and public affairs. As well as campaigning for the inclusion of non-religious philosophies such as humanism in the school curriculum, he has published articles criticising worship in schools.
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Let's face it: supporting Spurs is basically a form of charity

Now, for my biggest donation yet . . .

I gazed in awe at the new stadium, the future home of Spurs, wondering where my treasures will go. It is going to be one of the architectural wonders of the modern world (football stadia division), yet at the same time it seems ancient, archaic, a Roman ruin, very much like an amphitheatre I once saw in Croatia. It’s at the stage in a new construction when you can see all the bones and none of the flesh, with huge tiers soaring up into the sky. You can’t tell if it’s going or coming, a past perfect ruin or a perfect future model.

It has been so annoying at White Hart Lane this past year or so, having to walk round walkways and under awnings and dodge fences and hoardings, losing all sense of direction. Millions of pounds were being poured into what appeared to be a hole in the ground. The new stadium will replace part of one end of the present one, which was built in 1898. It has been hard not to be unaware of what’s going on, continually asking ourselves, as we take our seats: did the earth move for you?

Now, at long last, you can see what will be there, when it emerges from the scaffolding in another year. Awesome, of course. And, har, har, it will hold more people than Arsenal’s new home by 1,000 (61,000, as opposed to the puny Emirates, with only 60,000). At each home game, I am thinking about the future, wondering how my treasures will fare: will they be happy there?

No, I don’t mean Harry Kane, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker – local as well as national treasures. Not many Prem teams these days can boast quite as many English persons in their ranks. I mean my treasures, stuff wot I have been collecting these past 50 years.

About ten years ago, I went to a shareholders’ meeting at White Hart Lane when the embryonic plans for the new stadium were being announced. I stood up when questions were called for and asked the chairman, Daniel Levy, about having a museum in the new stadium. I told him that Man United had made £1m the previous year from their museum. Surely Spurs should make room for one in the brave new mega-stadium – to show off our long and proud history, delight the fans and all those interested in football history and make a few bob.

He mumbled something – fluent enough, as he did go to Cambridge – but gave nothing away, like the PM caught at Prime Minister’s Questions with an unexpected question.

But now it is going to happen. The people who are designing the museum are coming from Manchester to look at my treasures. They asked for a list but I said, “No chance.” I must have 2,000 items of Spurs memorabilia. I could be dead by the time I finish listing them. They’ll have to see them, in the flesh, and then they’ll be free to take away whatever they might consider worth having in the new museum.

I’m awfully kind that way, partly because I have always looked on supporting Spurs as a form of charity. You don’t expect any reward. Nor could you expect a great deal of pleasure, these past few decades, and certainly not the other day at Liverpool when they were shite. But you do want to help them, poor things.

I have been downsizing since my wife died, and since we sold our Loweswater house, and I’m now clearing out some of my treasures. I’ve donated a very rare Wordsworth book to Dove Cottage, five letters from Beatrix Potter to the Armitt Library in Ambleside, and handwritten Beatles lyrics to the British Library. If Beckham and I don’t get a knighthood in the next honours list, I will be spitting.

My Spurs stuff includes programmes going back to 1910, plus recent stuff like the Opus book, that monster publication, about the size of a black cab. Limited editions cost £8,000 a copy in 2007. I got mine free, as I did the introduction and loaned them photographs. I will be glad to get rid of it. It’s blocking the light in my room.

Perhaps, depending on what they want, and they might take nothing, I will ask for a small pourboire in return. Two free tickets in the new stadium. For life. Or longer . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times