One of Humanism’s key tenets, as set forth in the American Humanist Association’s manifesto Humanism and Its Aspirations, is the belief that humans are an “integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change.” Some denigrate this view, in part, because they believe that it portrays us as “just another animal” and does not adequately account for human spirituality.
Humanists, however, recognize human spirituality in the sense that people generally seek happiness and fulfilment in our lives. The manifesto includes our belief that these needs can be met by working to benefit society and by serving humane ideals. Humanists “seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability, and we support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.” In other words, Humanists seek to be happy by being good.
Humanists recognize that people are social beings and that we find meaning in relationships. So, it is natural for Humanists to come together to advance our values as a community. Consequently, we put great attention on charitable works and matters of social action. Humanist organizations in Connecticut organize blood drives, staff soup kitchens, distribute food for the hungry, organize recovery meetings, and build houses for Habitat for Humanity. We also raise money to help heal the sick and to feed the hungry.
Our emphasis on these altruistic endeavors is, of course, a value that we share with many religious communities. Western religions all emphasize the importance of charitable acts. Indeed, many refer to this activity as doing “God’s work,” and, like the Humanists, they find happiness and fulfillment in helping others.
Some prominent theists have noted the prevalence of such altruistic behavior and observe that it is just one manifestation of the tendency of human societies to develop codes of moral behavior. The scientist Francis Collins, drawing heavily on the writings of C.S. Lewis, points to the universality of the “Moral Code” as the main reason why he abandoned his atheism and became a devout Christian. In his book, “The Language of God,” Collins reasons that the ubiquity of moral laws is evidence that a sense of right and wrong was instilled in humans by a personal God. Although Collins unequivocally accepts the truth of evolution, he rejects the notion that a moral code is a product of our evolutionary past. Central to his thinking is his observation that the concept of a moral code “appears to apply peculiarly to human beings.”
The viewpoint that morality is unique to humans is challenged by the work of primatologist and ethologist Frans de Waal. In his latest book, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, De Waal presents the evidence that primates and other animals engage in ethical and altruistic behavior that is grounded in empathy and an innate sense of justice and fairness. This moral behavior is particularly evident in our closest relatives, the bonobos and chimpanzees. From this, De Waal concludes that we inherited the beginnings of our moral sense from our common ancestor. Human morality is therefore derived from the “bottom up”, i.e. it comes from within, and it is part of our nature as social animals. De Waal also concludes that religions are not the source of our moral sense, but they instead arose as a means of expressing and reinforcing these innate values.
Although he rejects the view that morality comes from the “top down”, De Waal nevertheless recognizes the value and place of traditional religions in society. He maintains that religions and secular humanism are both legitimate platforms for promoting moral behavior that benefits humanity, and he calls upon believers and non-believers to recognize their common humanity and find common ground.
(DeWaal will present these views when he speaks to the Yale Humanist Community on Wednesday March 5 at 7 pm. He will be available to sign copies of his book from 6 to7 pm. The event is free and open to the public.)
The many values shared by Humanists and theists provide ample common ground for joint action. Regardless of whether one believes that our desire to be good comes from God or from our evolutionary past, Humanists and theists can work together to build a more just society. They can work together to help alleviate poverty, hunger, and suffering. They can work together to protect and sustain our planet. And, together, they can find happiness and fulfillment in the effort.