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.
Getty
Show Hide image

The dog at the end of the lead may be small, but in fact what I’m walking is a hound of love

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel.

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel. I seem to have become a temporary co-owner of an enthusiastic Chorkie. A Chorkie, in case you’re not quite up to speed with your canine crossbreeds, is a mixture of a chihuahua and a Yorkshire Terrier, and while my friend K— busies herself elsewhere I am looking after this hound.

This falls squarely into the category of Things I Never Thought I’d Do. I’m a cat person, taking my cue from their idleness, cruelty and beauty. Dogs, with their loyalty, their enthusiasm and their barking, are all a little too much for me, even after the first drink of the day. But the dog is here, and I am in loco parentis, and it is up to me to make sure that she is looked after and entertained, and that there is no repetition of the unfortunate accident that occurred outside my housemate’s room, and which needed several tissues and a little poo baggie to make good.

As it is, the dog thinks I am the bee’s knees. To give you an idea of how beeskneesian it finds me, it is licking my feet as I write. “All right,” I feel like saying to her, “you don’t have to go that far.”

But it’s quite nice to be worshipped like this, I have decided. She has also fallen in love with the Hovel, and literally writhes with delight at the stinky cushions on the sofa. Named after Trude Fleischmann, the lesbian erotic photographer of the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, she has decided, with admirable open-mindedness, that I am the Leader of the Pack. When I take the lead, K— gets a little vexed.

“She’s walking on a loose lead, with you,” K— says. “She never does that when I’m walking her.” I don’t even know what that means, until I have a think and work it out.

“She’s also walking to heel with you,” K— adds, and once again I have to join a couple of mental dots before the mists part. It would appear that when it comes to dogs, I have a natural competence and authority, qualities I had never, not even in my most deranged flights of self-love, considered myself to possess in any measurable quantity at all.

And golly, does having a dog change the relationship the British urban flâneur has with the rest of society. The British, especially those living south of Watford, and above all those in London, do not recognise other people’s existence unless they want to buy something off them or stop them standing on the left of the sodding escalator, you idiot. This all changes when you have a dog with you. You are now fair game for any dog-fancier to come up to you and ask the most personal questions about the dog’s history and genealogy. They don’t even have to have a dog of their own; but if you do, you are obliged by law to stop and exchange dog facts.

My knowledge of dog facts is scant, extending not much further beyond them having a leg at each corner and chasing squirrels, so I leave the talking to K—, who, being a friendly sort who could probably talk dog all day long if pressed, is quite happy to do that. I look meanwhile in a kind of blank wonder at whichever brand of dog we’ve just encountered, and marvel not only at the incredible diversity of dog that abounds in the world, but at a realisation that had hitherto escaped me: almost half of London seems to have one.

And here’s the really interesting thing. When I have the leash, the city looks at me another way. And, specifically, the young women of the city. Having reached the age when one ceases to be visible to any member of the opposite sex under 30, I find, all of a sudden, that I exist again. Women of improbable beauty look at Trude, who looks far more Yorkie than chihuahua, apart from when she does that thing with the ears, and then look at me, and smile unguardedly and unironically, signalling to me that they have decided I am a Good Thing and would, were their schedules not preventing them, like to chat and get to know me and the dog a bit better.

I wonder at first if I am imagining this. I mention it to K—.

“Oh yes,” she says, “it’s a thing. My friend P-J regularly borrows her when he wants to get laid. He reckons he’s had about 12 shags thanks to her in the last six months. The problems only arise when they come back again and notice the dog isn’t there.”

I do the maths. Twelve in six months! That’s one a fortnight. An idea begins to form in my mind. I suppose you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out what it is. But no. I couldn’t. Could I?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism