Tag Archives: Humanism

A song for Christmas

Here’s Tim Minchin’s newest version of his utterly lovely humanist carol “White Wine in the Sun.” I seem to be making a tradition out of posting this song at Christmastime; so be it. Enjoy:

I’ve wanted, but failed, to write about so much over the past few weeks — including about the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, where so many of the family gatherings that Minchin celebrates will be terribly incomplete this year. And there has been a death in my own extended family as well. But we keep gathering, and consoling, and loving, because we are human, and that’s what humans do.

Merry Christmas. See you in the new year.

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Humanism and secularism, defined

So what’s humanism? I had a go at this question way back when I started this blog, but this video by the British Humanist Association offers a much clearer introduction:

And from the always-lucid British YouTube user QualiaSoup, here’s a very clear presentation on secularism and its views on church/state separation, gay marriage, and education — as relevant (or perhaps even more so) in the US as it is in the UK:

(via Tim Minchin)

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“Here we go and on we go”: Maira Kalman’s loopy optimism

Maira Kalman makes the case for optimism and expresses what I love most about her work:

The sense that people get from reading my work is that I don’t have antipathy to people. I really care about the people that I’m writing about. And I have a humanistic attitude and a kind of loopy optimism — because I’m acknowledging all the sadness and all the heartache and all the trouble, but I usually come out on the side of: Well, despite that, here we go and on we go, and things can also be fantastic at the same time as they are horrible.

Yes. We can’t choose the facts of the world, but we can choose how to respond to them.

Maria Popova at Brain Pickings teases out more of the themes from the video, including the nature of identity and the meaning of life. My previous thoughts on Kalman here.

(via Brain Pickings; image via Kalman’s blog at The NY Times)

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“We are a thinking species”: Carl Sagan on creationism, skepticism, and why science is the birthright of everyone

In 1981, Carl Sagan — astronomer and science educator par excellence — was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association, and delivered his acceptance speech at the association’s annual conference in San Diego. The AHA has now made the audio of the entire speech available online, and if you have 45 minutes, it’s absolutely worth your time. (If not, I’ve transcribed some excerpts below.)

The speech is wonderful for the same reasons that Sagan’s remarks and writings are always wonderful: his gift for eloquent, inspiring — and often humorous — prose; his powerful argument for the fundamental importance of science in our lives; his ability to communicate a clear-eyed and rational view of the cosmos that is yet open to poetry, astonishment, and wonder. But this particular speech is also notable for a couple of specific things. First, Sagan refers early and often to the accomplishments of the woman who introduced him to the audience: the astrophysicist Margaret Burbidge, who, like many female scientists, deserves much more public recognition for her scientific contributions. And second, Sagan takes particular aim at the threat of creationism — 1981 being the year of McLean v. Arkansas and the movement to have “creation science” taught in American public schools, a movement that sadly still has traction today.

I find it fascinating that Sagan’s decades-old speech still feels fresh and relevant today: not just his argument against the creationists, but also his stirringly democratic notion of science as every person’s birthright, and his description of “cosmic evolution” and the deeply intimate connection between humans and the universe — concepts that Neil deGrasse Tyson, considered by many to be Sagan’s heir, has been communicating to great effect.

Some lengthy excerpts below.

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Why stereotypes need to die, cont’d: The hipster is the most authentic of all

Sophy Bot, author of The Hipster Effect, has kindly sent me the video of her TED talk on busting the “hipster” stereotype:

On her website she further writes about the way that the dismissive “hipster” image actually obscures a fascinating reality — the fact that being a so-called hipster is actually an indication that people are taking charge of their identities, and choosing how to define and express themselves, beyond the shackles of cultural expectations:

Whereas previously prevalent subcultures focused on group differentiation, hipsters focus on the individual. The hipster isn’t necessarily about finding other likeminded souls out there. It’s more about expressing yourself and doing your own thing, no matter how wild that may appear to others. As more and more modes of self-expression have made their way into popular culture, fueled largely by the wide-open nature of the internet and the vast amounts of content we now consume on a daily basis, we’ve come to adopt more and more iterations of style at a breakneck pace. And because we’re adopting so many different styles so rapidly, we don’t have time to create a shared set of meanings about trends. Instead, what’s going on now is that we’re creating our own meanings for each particular style or object. Classical meanings have been lost somewhere along the way; though half of the people in a room may be wearing thick-rimmed glasses, odds are good that each of them has a different reason for doing so. We, as a society, assume this to mean lack of authenticity, but in many ways it is at the very heart of authenticity — it is choosing for yourself exactly how you want to outwardly express yourself, imbuing each object with your own personally created meaning rather than using off-the-shelf cultural symbols.

The rest is here, and worth reading. I’d never considered the “hipster” phenomenon in that way before, but I think Bot absolutely makes sense. Who better than the much-derided hipster to serve as an example of humanist self-creation — of the idea that we create our own meanings, that we are who we choose to be?

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Savage humanism, cont’d

Adam Savage’s outstanding speech at last weekend’s Reason Rally in Washington DC:

Transcript here. My previous post on Savage and the skeptical spirit of Mythbusters here.

(via Twitter)

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God, atheism, and what it is to be human

Kenan Malik expands on his previous talk on religion and atheism:

There are three kinds of arguments that an atheist can make in defence of the insistence that no God exists. First, he or she can argue against the necessity for God. That is, an argument against the claim that God is necessary to explain both the material reality of the world and the values by which we live. Second, he or she can argue against the possibility of God, against the idea that a being such as God is either logically or materially possible. And third, an atheist can argue against the consequences of belief in God. This is the claim that religious belief has pernicious social, political or moral consequences and that the world would be better off without such belief.

Historically, much of the discussion of God has been about the possibility of God. Christian apologetics grew out of the attempt rationally to defend the possibility of God’s existence, while atheists wanted to show that the idea of God made no rational sense. Much of the contemporary debate is about the consequences of religious belief. The so-called New Atheists, in particular, have been scathing in their attack on what they see as the wicked and malevolent social consequences of faith — from the harassment of gays to mass suicide bombings. I, too, am sceptical of the possibilities of God. And, while I do not think, as many do, that faith is, in and of itself, pernicious, I do believe that there are often social and moral problems that arise from religious belief. What I want to concentrate on today, however, is on the first type of argument. And that is because for me, as it is for many other atheists, this is the primary motivation for my atheism — I simply do not see the necessity for God.

There are three kinds of reasons often given for the necessity of God. First, there is the claim that God is necessary to explain Creation and the maintenance of the cosmos. Second, that God is a necessary source of moral values; that without God we would fall into the abyss of moral nihilism. And third, that without belief in God, there can be no purpose or meaning to life.  Let us look at each of these claims in turn.

The rest here, and well worth reading. His bravely humanist conclusion:

[T]here is a broader issue here. In part, the argument that without God there is no meaning derives from the idea that, as William Craig has put it, ‘on the atheist view humans are just animals’. In fact I would argue the very opposite. Only an atheist view allows us to be truly human.

Religion played a vital part in the development of civilised life because it made possible the belief that there was more to life than mere animal existence.  But the price of transcendence has been enslavement to the [sacred]. Religion attempts to give meaning and a dignity to our mundane existence through creating a relationship between the profane and the sacred. But in doing so, the sacred becomes a means of diminishing the sense of what it is to be human. ‘The sacred order’, as Leszek Kolokowski the Polish Marxist-turned-Christian philosopher, observes, ‘has never ceased, implicitly or explicitly, to proclaim “this is how things are, they cannot be otherwise”.’

For me to be human is precisely to reject the idea that ‘this is how things are, they cannot be otherwise’.  It is about wanting to seize responsibility for human fate away from God’s hands so that humans can help shape their own future. Meaning and dignity derives not from the acceptance of fate, as in religion, but from our capacity to defy it.

I wholeheartedly concur. And here’s something else I find interesting: both this kind of humanistic atheism and the notion of “the American spirit” are rooted in this notion of rejecting authority, of defying fate and shaping one’s destiny in one’s own hands. This nation was founded on the principle that we are not merely bound to meekly accept authority, that we have the power to throw off rulers whom we deem unjust, that we have the right and the responsibility to govern ourselves and determine the course of our future. We get to decide what to value, and what to be. What could be more humanist and more fundamentally American than that? In a way, atheism could be seen as a logical extension of that attitude; it’s a shame — and one of life’s many ironies — that it isn’t more accepted in a nation so temperamentally suited for it.

More of Malik’s thoughts on the subject here and here.

(Photo by Erik Johannson. “Traveller, there is no road; the road is made by walking.” — Antonio Machado)

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