Friday, February 04, 2005

The Zen of humanism

I am not good because a god tells me to be.

Sometimes a Christian might say, yes, but why be good if you do not fear punishment for doing bad? Ah, I say, good point. I must truly deserve merit because I am good for its own sake and not because I fear chastisement. I'd have thought your God will reward me double for not needing to be forced into it.

This of course ignores that goodness might be an end in itself, that I might choose to be good not because it is the opposite of “sin” but because it is something that feels right to me.

Why be good? Because bad feels bad. I know this feeling is a product of my socialisation and I am content with that. I believe socialisation is a good thing. We live in societies after all, and much of the material comfort of our lives springs from that. Besides, I don’t want the people I care for to have bad done to them, nor do I want to suffer from others' doing bad. I suppose I feel that if I add to the bad I cannot expect to reap the good for myself or those I care for. I know it’s not coldly logical or reasonable (because karma is, in truth, about how you feel not a law of the universe, or if it is, it doesn’t seem to be working in Washington) but I believe that the world – the human world, I mean – is more or less the sum of its parts and I am part of it.

This belief is the core of humanism as I see it. (And that is the only “ism” I’m even partly comfortable subscribing to.) Increasing the store of goodness increases my share. Because goodness is something I want for myself, I have an incentive for being good.

Christians are, generally, worshippers of the objective with a capital o (and despise the truly objective, the world of science, which insists on valuing only what all can value together). I suppose it comes of believing in the Absolute. Once you have an Absolute, the absolute is a small step. Life becomes circumscribed with inarguable prescriptions. It’s easy to understand life that way but I’m smart enough, I think, to take on a bit more.

I can bear a world where relativity rules. I am happy for an action to be “rightish” or “mostly good” and for that to be good enough. I can stand difficult moral calculus (mostly, I suspect, because like many middle-class, well-fed Westerners, I don’t have to face too many difficult moral choices of my own but think about others’ too much).

Too many questions do not have answers, although you wouldn’t believe it, given how much we posture and pretend they do (for instance, “is a foetus alive?”, “is it ever right to lie?”, “what is a good life?”). And many have different answers at different times, or even different answers for us and for others (Kant be damned!).

A belief in God provides answers for those questions, either directly through the Bible or indirectly through its interpreters. But, luckily, they do not need to be answered for me to be able to live this life.


I love science because ultimately it does not say what is. It says what might be. When observations show a hypothesis to be wrong, they are not saying it is not, they are saying it cannot be.

My philosophy is just the same. It is not about what is. It is about what is possible, which ideas can exist together. It does not promise me unchallengeable answers but it allows a route to understanding because it does not close doors or disallow any particular path. It is never fixed, although some of its axioms have not changed and I daresay will not (will not is often taken to mean cannot but of course they are not the same thing at all).

Do I think it would be correct for all? Would it make good dogma? Well no. I am not seeking converts. I won’t proselytise. Let all believe what they will. No harm comes of beliefs. It’s the good and bad you do that counts after all.


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