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.