Answers to three questions for humanists

On the online Straits Times Forum, two letters were posted in response to the news article on (Secular) Humanist Society. The following is a response to one of them, titled: "Three questions for humanists" The online story can be found here.

Three questions for humanists

MR PAUL Tobin rightly observes that one does not need to believe in God in order to be good ("'I've no God - and am proud of it'"; last Saturday).

We know this from our interactions with friends and relatives, and from news of prominent people in public life. And we need only look at history, past and contemporary, to observe how much harm religion can do.

Nevertheless, I do have a few issues with humanists.

And I'll try to address them.

First, Ms Catherine Lim says she prefers to have faith rather than a faith. But the two are not mutually exclusive. "A faith" refers to an organised religion. One can believe in God (or gods) without belonging to an organised religion. Until not so long ago, the secretary of the British Humanist Association was an Anglican priest.......

Yes, it is correct to point out that (blind) faith is not exclusively in the domain of organized religion. One can have faith in the existence of god(s) without subscribing to any particular religion.

But I believe that wasn't her point -- she was merely stating she has a preference for having trust in the potential of humanity to guide the world than any particular religion which would claim to be able to do so. She was probably being inaccurate with her language when making that point -- I will concede that.

......In the West, Christian humanism has been around for many years. So, more precisely, humanism as described in the article refers to secular humanism. Even so, it is difficult not to ascribe the values of humanism to its religious roots.

Many of the values of Western humanism can trace their roots to Christianity.......

Honestly, I don't care if humanism's roots can be traced back to Christianity. I am not clear what relevance that would have.

I doubt that the proposition is meaningful. The most important aspect of Secular Humanism is its rejection of dogmas and propositions without evidence. In this respect, it stands completely at odds with organized religion where the very existence of a god is asserted without evidence.

In view of this, the values that Secular Humanists stand for are not grounded in the existence of any god but in human empathy, reason and evidence. So, in a sense, to say that Humanism has its roots in Christianity is to have it ass-backwards. Christianity has values which roots are in humanity -- Humanism merely holds onto those values and hack away the supernatural weeds that have grown around them (strangling them).

......Secular humanists may say these values would have been dominant anyway, since they have proven to be the most adaptive for human survival and religion has only been the vehicle through which such values have been transmitted. This may be true, but in itself is not an argument against the existence of God.

No one is arguing that Secular humanism itself constitutes evidence against god. That would be ludicrous. Strawman?

Another member says he will let science rather than religion lead his thinking. This is fine so long as we do not go into the science versus religion debate. This is a false dichotomy. As astrophysicist Paul Davies reminds us, science describes the "how" while religion answers the "why".

Well, Paul Davies is wrong . Well, on the face of it, he may appear to be correct.

Religious people have no problem rationalizing scientific data and theories into their respective belief systems. Religious doctrines and scriptures have been interpreted to death by their adherents to conform (or at least, not contradict) other beliefs (scientific or otherwise) that they have.

However, that is also where science definitely clashes with faith and religion. Science requires that conclusions be drawn from observations and biases should be eradicated to avoid distorting data. Faith contravenes that important principle by requiring that a priori religious beliefs be brought to bear on the evidence and, in some cases, reject the evidence if it contradicts those religious beliefs. In this sense, science and faith are fundamentally at odds -- the same reason why fundamentalists versions of religions go after science with such fervor.

The history of science is peopled by God-believing scientists. Indeed, the first person to postulate the Big Bang was a Catholic priest, Georges Lemaitre. Another Catholic priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, took the evolutionary theory on a radical path. Not so many years ago, Pope John Paul II pronounced the theory of evolution to be more than a theory. And we know that the person who headed the genome project, Dr Francis Collins, is a staunch Christian.

These people also did not believe that science contradicted their religion and that their religion offers an interpretation of scientific data that they are comfortable with. The "false dichotomy" still stands.

How do secular humanists respond to the following questions:

- Why is there something rather than nothing?

Don't know. (More honest than religions, eh?)

I actually think it's a trivial question  even though it sounds like a deep philosophical question at face value. If there must be something to cause anything to happen, then the very existence of anything indicates that there was never nothing to begin with. That is, the question makes no sense. This is not a formal philosophical argument, just my opinion if you want it.

For the people who ask that question thinking that it somehow justifies belief in god, you're arguing for the god of the gaps. The honest answer is still "I don't know" not "therefore, god must exist!"

- If matter is all there is, how can specks of dust (matter) combine to produce a human being with consciousness (non-matter)? Astronomer Carl Sagan's standard response ("billions of years") is unhelpful.

But Carl Sagan's response is probably accurate. Nature is not required to provide feel-good answers.

Secondly, the mind is an emergent phenomenon. It IS matter.

For example, wetness is an emergent property when water molecules get together in a sufficient quantity. Water molecules themselves are not wet. So, is wetness non-matter?

- If matter is all there is and thoughts are a product of a chemical reaction in the brain in response to stimuli, then there is no free will, including the freedom of thought. Every thought we have is an inevitable response in accordance with set natural laws. In other words, we cannot help thinking what we think. In that case, how can we believe anything, since the thinking is "done" for us? How then can we trust what we believe, including the belief in no God?

I'll just point out that you are assuming we hold to the determinist position on free will.

We believe propositions on the basis of reason and evidence. Are you proposing that reason and evidence is somehow not real if we are following natural laws?

Here's a thought. What are "You" if not your thoughts, feelings and experience?


Incredulity Services said...

"Until not so long ago, the secretary of the British Humanist Association was an Anglican priest......"



Atheozoa said...

I have no idea who's he referring to either.