Finding common ground in our common humanity

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.”

BonoboThe 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.


4 Responses to “Finding common ground in our common humanity”

  1. Jason

    The idea that people are descended from bacteria via fish through an unguided evolutionary process is a fairy tale for adults. It is pure belief, there is nothing scientific about it.

  2. Dan Blinn

    Dan Blinn

    Jason – a member of one of the Humanist groups in Connecticut recently prepared the following explanation for evolution. He did a better job summarizing the evidence than I ever could, so I’ll copy it here as my response:

    Evolution Explained

    Evolution makes common sense, and its description is not hard to understand. First, offspring of a species are not identical to their parents; they differ. This is readily understood by parents and children. Second, not all offspring live to full adulthood and have the same number of offspring. This is for several reasons: there are scarce resources needed for life; there is disease and malformation; there is the need of many species to avoid succumbing to prey; etc. The consequences are that individuals with certain traits live to have more offspring than individuals with other traits. This is called natural selection. Third, is that the next generation has a different mix of traits, however major or minor. Consequently, over generations, the average characteristics of a population can change. With sufficient time, with sufficient change, the differences may be so great that the population has become a different species, which is how species originate.

    Indeed, mankind has used these principles to create new plants and animals, for the common good. The carrot, and the corn, that we grow and eat today are very far removed from those small spindly, meager plants that humans originally found. By keeping and growing the fatter, more edible, individual plants at every generation, and discarding the rest, new crops were developed.

    Evolution explains why and how new species of flu virus appear every year. Most of the harmful viruses are blocked from spreading by vaccinations. But, with the variation in each new generation of viruses, there are some which are impervious to the existing vaccines, and they are able to multiply and fill the ecological niche that the old viruses used to fill. Thanks to our understanding of this evolution, dedicated people look for, and develop vaccines against, the new types of viruses that appear.

    There are many types of evidence for evolution. For example, at museums you can see the skeletons of very different animals, and marvel at their similarity. Why is it that the bones inside the flippers of seals and whales have five fingers? We can understand that these beings evolved from land animal ancestors, but had no advantage or time to lose their bony heritage.

    Another puzzle is answered by evolution: strange aspects of the human body which do not serve us well, and are studied by doctors. We have vestigial organs, such as appendices which get inflamed and rupture, and wisdom teeth which don’t fully fit our mouths and grow in sideways. These derive from the fact that they existed in other species which are our ancestors. As marvelous as our bodies are, an enormous number of adults have back pain and shoulder problems. As physicians learn, many of these problems result from the fact that our spine and shoulders do not have the best design for beings who stand upright on two legs, but have similarities to spines and shoulders to beings who walk on all fours.

    Evolution predicts that we might find evidence of beings in who lived in the past, and who appear to be a bridge between earlier life forms and those which live today. This prediction has come true in what is called the fossil record.

    Over 11,000 American Christian clergy have signed “the Clergy Letter” stating “We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests.” (Documentation: ) To deny the evidence of evolution is to dismiss the hard work and creative energy of people who have successfully used its principles to provide us better knowledge, food, and health.

  3. Dan Blinn on Humanism - Hot Dogma!

    […] I know Dan. He’s a good guy, and he does just about the best job I’ve seen explaining Humanism. […]

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