A life based on reason and compassion

One of my favourite ways to define Humanism is to say that it’s the belief that we can live good lives based on reason and compassion. The British Humanist Association also refers to ‘shared human values’ which adds another dimension to the discussion. While that’s a nice succinct description of the philosophy I use to live my life, it begs the question of how one lives a life based on reason and compassion. We’d all like to think that we’re perfectly rational and reasonable individuals with a clear idea of where to draw the lines but how should I hone my reasoning skills and open my mind to the perspectives and experiences of others?

Where can one learn about reason?

Philosophy – One of the realisations I have had since finding myself part of the current blossoming Humanist movement is that I really need to start reading philosophy. I need to know what the arguments are for my ethical positions and what the implications are for the different possible stances.

Science – I’d like to think that I have a good basic grounding in this one, but it is essential to learn how to explore and examine the world around us. Learning how to look at evidence and isolate problems helps us tease apart causation, coincidence and correlation. That, and advances in science and technology have benefited us greatly and it’s worth having at least a basic understanding.

Where can one learn about compassion?

Literature – Stories, poems and plays open our minds to new situations and perspectives. They fill us with descriptions of places unknown and sights unseen or provide new perspectives for things we thought we already knew. Readers and audiences identify with characters and experience the complexities and nuances which reason struggles to communicate.

Art & Music – Art can seek to be an  accurate representation or it can focus on expressing pure emotion. Likewise, music. If literature changes perspectives, art and music seek to communicate every shade and tone of emotion and experience. They are a feast for the senses, stretching human perception to its capacities and asking us to experience the world anew.

What about those ‘shared human values’?

Law & Politics – One direct method of investigating the values of a community is to look at their laws. Which are the values they hold in common and share as a community? Throughout the world, societies consider it wrong to lie, steal, cheat and kill. Politics shows us how societies choose to organise themselves and distribute power. How do they decide who has representation and why? These areas do not offer a complete moral guide but they do give us a starting point to look at these issues.

Religious Education – For many societies, much of the education and debate about moral issues takes place in the realm of religious groups and discussions. In order to understand other people, it makes sense to learn about the different world views and beliefs that people hold. There is a strong tradition of moral and cultural values being passed through religious teachings and stories. Religious beliefs and instruction provide the moral framework for how many people live their lives and as such, it greatly benefits the humanist to learn about and discuss these ideas.

There are many other areas of knowledge and study that also contribute to our understanding of the world and ourselves which I could also mention but I feel these are good places to start.

What subjects or ideas are you thinking about or studying in order to develop your thinking about the world and your beliefs? Feel free to post links that you’ve found interesting or helpful.

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5 Responses to “A life based on reason and compassion”


  1. 1 Tim October 20, 2009 at 6:48 pm

    I like the way you segment these sources of learning, it feels like the intuitive underlying architecture to what had previously been a vary vague image in my mind.

    I’ve been following my own path in a somewhat haphazard fashion, filling in (I thought) on the ‘literature’ element lately with Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”. It gives a very compelling framework for much of the myths, fairytales, legends and religious teachings, and has in fact turned out to be a useful tool under your ‘shared human values’ category.

    Considering the above as a mental checklist, I’d say I’ve been most remiss in the areas of philosophy and law. Thanks for helping me to see this!

  2. 2 cath October 20, 2009 at 10:04 pm

    This might only be slightly related, but you say this:
    “Religious beliefs and instruction provide the moral framework for how many people live their lives and as such, it greatly benefits the humanist to learn about and discuss these ideas.”

    — can I ask whether it’s possible in principle that one could learn about reason (and also compassion i suppose) from religion? Or is it part of your underlying philosophy that religion is inherently unreasonable?

  3. 3 Clare October 21, 2009 at 10:55 am

    I do believe it is possible to learn about reason and compassion from religion and I do not assume that religion is inherently unreasonable, although I choose to reject the beliefs for which I see no evidence (e.g. existence of gods). The suggestions and categories listed above are very much a rough guide. As I was writing it I was painfully aware that there is a lot of overlap between the different subjects and categories.

    Focusing on the example of Religious Education, one may point out that religious teachings and discussion include philosophical arguments and approaches to exploring ethical issues or interpreting texts. Religious texts often include stories of individual figures and morality tales which illustrate perspectives and encourage empathy and compassion. Some critics of religion would argue that religious texts belong entirely to the realm of literature. I included religious education in my ‘shared human values’ category because I felt that as well as the texts, there is the whole element of how people put their beliefs into practice and live their lives. I figure it helps to take a step back from theoretical based studies and take a look at what people are actually doing as well.

  4. 4 cath October 28, 2009 at 11:51 am

    Would it be a fair paraphrase to say then that for you, the reasonable parts of religion are those which don’t depend on beliefs for which there is no visible evidence?

    And is there any virtue in distinguishing between different kinds of religion, so that you could, say, evaluate those which believe in the existence of gods separately from any which belives in the existence of one unique and necessarily existent God?

    Asking for interest, not annoyance : )

    And will be away from computer now till Monday night, so no urgent reply necessary!

  5. 5 Clare November 2, 2009 at 11:31 am

    I should clarify that when I’m talking about reason, really I’m talking about reasoning skills and learning about different kinds of arguments and rhetoric. I want to learn the tools to understand the implications of various types of arguments and learn how to assess claims. There are parts of various religious texts and teachings which present useful or interesting arguments, and a lot more parts which could present good examples for study and discussion. I wouldn’t really like to make a judgment on which parts of a religion are ‘reasonable’ or ‘unreasonable'; I’m much more amenable to the idea of people finding value for themselves in these texts and ideas. For some people that may be religious value, and for others it may be as a way to think about the world.

    I’m sure there is much to be learned from looking at the different types of religions. I’ve always been fascinated by the way that having multiple gods can be used to represent and explore different personality types and aspects of the same personality, and I suspect that nature religions contain a lot of information about cycles of nature and local knowledge of flora and fauna. I imagine that monotheistic religions work in a slightly different way again. Speculating a little from what I know about Christianity in particular, I can see that a monotheistic religion can have emphasis on one particular narrative and encourage a focus on the idea of building a one-on-one relationship. Maybe that encourages people to think more in terms of individual responsibility and less in terms of group behaviour and identity. I’m not a theologian so I could be wildly wrong here though!


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