Wednesday, 10 November 2010

A challenge to Humanism

Humanists, says the BHA, "are atheists and agnostics who ... base our ethics on the goals of human welfare, happiness and fulfillment". I'll drink to that.

But if humanists are really keen on human welfare, happiness and fulfillment why is so much humanist discussion about religion?

Religion is, of course, inimical to human welfare in many ways. But it's not the biggest obstacle. I think humanists should spend more time on the other obstacles. Science, both physical and social, can help us recognise and address them. Here are my top three threats to human welfare - chosen partly for the roles that science and engineering play in understanding and addressing them.

First, climate change. The world is already 0.6 degrees warmer than before the industrial revolution and a rise to two degrees above is as near certain as any forecast can be. The change has already thinned the polar ice, increased the melting of glaciers and brought drought to east Africa and floods to Bangladesh. Without science we would not understand the causes nor the urgency of the need.

As humanists we should, and mostly do I think, accept the science and the moral case for action. For humanists in developed countries - most of us - that means accepting that its our emissions that have caused the problem and who therefore have the greatest need to change.

But though science gives us understanding it is only politics that can deliver the changes - in behaviour and technology - that we need. Humanists should be actively engaged in both the debates and the political campaigns. Are we?

Second, drug prohibition. Illegal drugs such as cannabis, cocaine and heroin are certainly harmful to at least some of their users. For 90 years our response to this has been prohibition. We made possession and trade illegal and launched a war on drugs. It is a war that we are losing - possibly have lost.

In the developed world the range of street drugs has been increasing for decades whilst the drugs themselves are very affordable. In Mexico the war between drug cartels has taken 2,000 lives this year alone. In Afghanistan poppy cultivation funds the Taliban and makes the conflict even more intractable. In the UK drug addiction is a major cause of petty crime whilst in US cities it's a major cause of the horrendous murder rate.

And most of this is not due to drugs but to drug prohibition. The prohibition of street drugs makes no more sense than the prohibition of alcohol - which the USA tried with such ignominious results. Short of a police state, and perhaps even with one, we cannot stop drug use. We can, however, reduce the harm done by adulterated drugs, gang violence and drug-related crime and prostitution. These benefits are so great that this ought to be a moral imperative for humanists.

This is a case where humanist libertarian and humanitarian principles point in the same direction as the economics. (The UK Thinktank Transform has estimated the economic benefit for the UK at £4-14B where the uncertainty reflects the weakness of current evidence.)

Here, I repeat, is an issue on which principle, reason, economics and compassion together point to a radical conclusion that was first discussed in Humanist circles at least 40 years ago. (We can even expect that the religious will oppose us!) So why has the movement not made this issue its own?

Thirdly, economic inequality. Research over several decades has shown that economic inequality creates a wide variety of social ills including mental and physical illness, drug abuse, obesity, premature death, teenage births, violence, prison population and a lack of social mobility. It even, I've argued previously, drives people to religion.

The research, popularised last year by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better, shows that it is inequality, not just poverty, that has this effect. The bad effects are felt at all levels of society - though they are worst for the poor.

Since humanists have generally favoured equality over hierarchy this issue ought to appeal to them. Where, then, is the humanist campaign for greater equality? Where, even, are humanists discussing it?

Humanism, especially when informed by science, has the potential to generate genuinely radical initiatives for major social improvement. Perhaps we no longer believe in major social improvement.

Whatever the reason we are certainly not advancing such views. Indeed, mostly we aren't even discussing the issues.


PENNISI said...

David, I subscribe entirely to your argument. Some European (mostly Atheist movements) are obsessed with counteracting religions, they are members of IHEU, and we all suffer of such extremism that will not help our cause.
Another weak aspect of our Humanist organizations is the feeble cultivation of "a sense of belonging" irrespective of geography.

Charles said...

I agree with your Big Three, David, and our local Humanist group has devoted meetings to all of them, but I would add a fourth horseman - population.
And I would further argue that all four have a significant religious dimension, and that's why religion matters, and why it's important to continue to draw the distinction between our approach and others. The arguments are much too extensive to detail, but, for example, the nexus between the religious right and climate change denial is manifest, particularly in the US; drugs prohibition is, like many sexual taboos, closely tied in with a notion of 'sin', which leads to drug abusers being treated as malefactors rather than patients; and inequality is perpetuated in Latin America by the traditional alignment of the church with the authorities, in the US by the notion of rewards for the righteous, in India by the caste system which is validated by a belief in reincarnation, in the Muslim world by the resigned acceptance of the Will of Allah - it's no coincidence that the most equal societies also tend to be the most secular. And on population, need I say more?

Julian Bennett said...

Really nice post David!