Just a Little Common Sense

For a life based on reason, ethics, literature and art.

A Humanist Manifesto

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I just browsed through Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great, intending to look something up for a discussion I’ve recently had with a friend. A paragraph from the first chapter cought my eye, and once again I wasn’t able to put the book down until over an hour later. I really admire Hitchens’ command of the english language; there are few writers so effortlessly eloquent.
There is only one thing to criticize: His misleading use of the word ‘atheist’. Theism is usually defined as the belief in a single God as personal, present and active in the governance and organization of the world and the universe. All that is necessary in order to qualify as an atheist, is not to believe in that. Even if one defines atheism as the positive doctrine that there is no god (there is some controversy about wether atheism describes a lack of belief in existence, or the assertion of the nonexistence of god), the values that Hitchens names are absolutely optional. Atheism is one belief, not a belief system. That is also why ‘atheism’ is written with a lower-case ‘a’, while ‘Theism’ is written with a capital ‘T’. What Hitchens laudates here are essentially the values of Secular Humanism, and are far beyond simple non-belief. Anyhow, it is a beautiful and moving piece of writing, so enjoy:

And here is the point, about myself and my co-thinkers. Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely on science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake. We do not hold our convictions dogmatically: the disagreement between Professor Stephen Jay Gould and Professor Richard Dawkins, concerning „punctuated evolution“ and the gaps in post-darwinian theory, is quite wide as well as quite deep, but we shall resolve it by evidence and reasoning and not by mutual excommunication. […]
We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and we find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyewski and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books. Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and – since there is no other metaphor – also the soul. We do not believe in heaven or hell, yet no statistic will ever find that without these blandishments and threats we commit more crimes of greed or violence than the faithful. […]
We are reconciled to living only once, except through our children, for whom we are perfectly happy to notice that we must make way, and room. We speculate that it is at least possible that, once people accepted the fact of their short and struggeling lives, they might behave better towards each other, not worse. We believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion. And we know for a fact the corollary holds true – that religion has caused innumerable people not just to conduct themselves no better than others, but to award themselves permission to behave in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or an ethnic cleanser rise and eyebrow.
Most important of all, perhaps, we infidels do not need any machinery of reinforcement. […] There is no need for us to gather every day, or every seven days, or every high and auspicious day, to proclaim our rectitude or to ground and wallow in our unworthiness. We atheists do not require any priests, or any hierarchy above them, to police our doctrine. Sacrifices and ceremonies are abhorrent to us, as are relics and the worship of any images or objects (even including objects in the form of one of man’s most useful innovations: the bound book). To us no spot on earth is or could be ‘holier’ than another: to the ostentatious absurdity of the pilgrimage, or the plain horror of killing civillians in the name of some sacred wall or cave or shrine or rock, we can counterpose a leisurly or urgent walk from one side of the libraby to the gallery to another, or to lunch with an agreeable friend, in pursuit of truth or beauty.

This is, as I said, from chapter one, Putting it Mildly.

Hitchens just beautifully describes the emptiness of religious ritual in contrast to the virtues of a truly fulfilled intellectual life, the death-denying struggle of the faithful in contrast to the deeply felt appreciation for the one life we have.

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Written by Phil

May 18, 2010 at 21:15

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