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Secular humanism is fast becoming one of the most popular idealogical fads of this age. An increasing unrest is brewing within the world’s intellectual elite as religion and atheism go head to head. As we stand at this crossroads, it is important to take a moment and reflect upon what this trend means to a modern society. In this article I aim to examine the current conflict between atheism and theism, and how this is dividing the opposing parties towards an increasing fundamentalism. Secondly, I also wish to introduce the life philosophy of Secular Humanism, an alternative value system that allows for spirituality and intellectual skepticism to co-exist.

Teleological thought processes seem to dominate human thought, as we attempt to look beyond what is in front of us and seek some deeper meaning or absolute truth about the world. ‘Stronger’ religions gain footholds among the populace which then snowball and spread like contagion throughout the minds of the world. In this context, a strong religion is one that 1) seems plausible to the agent, 2) appeals to human nature and 3) easily passed between people. Weak religions, by way of contrast, could be likened to cults; ideas that appeal to a small group of deluded individuals and involve overly complex ritualistic ceremonies (reducing its appeal through a lack of understanding). Thus religion as we know it is a natural emergent outcome of this process; easily communicable between individuals and groups alike, regardless of nationality or ethnicity and fiercely infectious and appealing to the inner human need for explaining the unknown.

Spirituality is undoubtedly an intrinsically human characteristic, dating back to the birth of civilisation. Therefore, it seems illogical to try and deny that which comes as second nature. It can be argued, however, that religion in its most pure and authentic form is becoming increasingly scarce. The core principles of religion are not to blame. Rather, spirituality is a human trait that should be protected at all costs. It is the distortion of religion by those in power that creates problems. The Dark Ages in medieval Europe is a prime example of such corruption. During this period of cultural and intellectual stagnation, religion came to be recognised as a source of power and control over a populace. Tapping into and exploiting the human ‘soft-spot’ for spirituality not only changed the way in which religion was taught, but created a fusion of church and state. Fortunately this has been revised in most (I use this word with emphasis due to the presence of Middle Eastern governments based on a interpretation of religion) modern constitutions and a separation of church and state is recognised as not only fair/just, but also the ethical and morally correct thing to do.

In more recent times, the rising rate of education and promotion of scientific principles has culminated in an emerging trend towards strong atheism; that is, explicitly declared, proud atheism with individuals actively asserting their disbelief in god(s) and general rejection of traditional religious ritual. Strong atheism has been spearheaded (most prominently) by the biologist Richard Dawkins and philosopher Daniel Dennet, two very vocal advocates of disbelief. While their methods and tone could be construed as (ironically) verging on the fundamentalist, it has been argued that such a strong stance is necessary in order to counter the matching (and disturbing) rise in fundamentalist religiosity. I propose that it is no coincidence that this increase (particularly radical Islamic groups) is occurring in third world countries that lag behind the Western world. Original religious teachings are becoming distorted as the evil power of theism is once again realised and abused by those in authority.

Aethism is finally becoming ‘fashionable’ (for lack of a better word). While the concept has existed since ancient Greece (indeed, Aristotle was executed for his disbelief in the Greek gods), those who spoke out against it were met with unflinching retribution. This is where we really get to the crux of the issue with religion; the way in which it can be corrupted to play out the delusions of a powerful few, and the way in which its teachings are often taken literally. Adding to the problem is religion’s unwavering stance against criticism and introspection. This is where modern society comes in, with its rising distaste for those which do not have the courage to look inward and accept the possibility of error. The education system (to a degree) promotes a healthy skepticism and questioning attitude which is finally causing a critical mass of doubters to turn around and challenge the monopoly that religion has held over our minds for so long.

There are those of us who seem to have been born with a natural deference to atheism, while others sit in the middle content to hold some belief but doubting the minor details, and finally the fundamentalists who are indoctrinated at an early age. It is to this middle group that this article appeals. Secular Humanism is not only a collection of ideas and philosophical stances, but rather matches the ability of religion to provide a framework upon which to guide conduct. Some of us seem to require such structure within our belief systems, as it seems to be human nature to hold a cynical attitude towards the behaviour of others and our own capacities for self control.

Secular Humanism was founded in 1980 by Paul Kurtz, with the original declaration undergoing several revisions and now supported by a plethora of leading intellectuals and scientists. It is an amalgamation of all things ‘science’ and intellectual; a guide to living created by smart people, for smart people who want the structure and organisation of a religion, but also desire the freedom to criticise, revise and generally act in an inquisitive manner.

Ten main principles form the basis of the Humanist declaration. None are unexpected, having been selected for their universality and applicability with a scientific ethos in mind. Secular Humanism promotes ideals of;

  • Free inquiry
  • Separation of church and state
  • The ideal of freedom
  • Ethics based on critical intelligence
  • Moral education
  • Religious skepticism
  • Reason
  • Science and technology
  • Evolution
  • Education

All are self explanatory, therefore I will not go into the finer details. Suffice to say, the nub of the proposition is that humans should have the fundamental right to choose the course of their lives. Children should not be ‘born’ into a religion; essentially, every person is born an implicit atheist (they have no knowledge of religion therefore cannot make an informed choice regarding their affiliation). Equally important principles of Humanism are the freedom to critically evaluate and also empowering the individual to make their own moral decisions.

Predictably, the first counter-blow from religion comes in the form of a cynical attack; “People are incapable of making their own moral choices, religion is needed in order for people to behave morally”. This argument equates religion itself with morality, which is simply not true. Religious advocates should be gracious enough to exert the same level of faith to their fellow humans that they do to a faceless, silent god.

Certainly, there are those in society who do lack the level of freedom required of adopting the Secular Humanist position. This lack of freedom predisposes them to commit crimes, ruminate over inappropriate thoughts and otherwise act in malicious ways towards society. Whether due to biological malformations or environmental upbringing (or a combination of both) such individuals simply cannot be held responsible (in the sense that they are free to chose the course of their actions) for the crimes they commit, therefore they should not be granted such freedom in the first place.

I am not advocating a policy of preemptive incarceration, but rather a change in mindset from lumping such people together in institutions (and arguably increasing the problem through intense exposure to other like-minded individuals for long periods of time) to re-educating them and assisting them to live a harmonious life.

But is this so called ‘rise of the atheists’ without its share of doom and gloom? We must tread carefully, or risk an increasing divide of the intellectually ‘rich and poor’. Those that can adopt the Humanist position freely and without reservation must ensure and respect the freedom of those who do not wish to participate. Human diversity, even when it results in the negative, is worth preserving at all costs. Without it, there would be no critical opinion, no discussion and a stagnation of society. Opposition breeds improvement, and Secular Humanism is only too willing to hear and learn from the criticisms that the disgruntled have to offer. The days of fundamentalist religions are numbered. Secular Humanism is at the forefront of this war, empowering society to question and challenging it to grow into maturity.