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Posted by on Mar 11, 2009 in scruton | 41 comments

Philosopher Roger Scruton lambasts the new humanists

Here. From American Spectator. Scruton laments the passing of his parents’ style of humanism, and attacks the “new humanism” of Dawkins and the BHA.

“Like so many modern ideologies, the new humanism seeks to define itself through what it is against rather than what it is for. It is for nothing, or at any rate for nothing in particular.”

The new humanism “seems to have no consciousness of what is clearly announced between the lines of the text [ON THE ATHEIST BUSES], namely that there are no ideals higher than pleasure.”

The BHA’s “publications imply that there is only one thing that stands between man and his happiness, and that is the belief in God. “

Bit of “straw man” going on here? I know many humanists but I am not sure I know of any that believe (i) “there are no ideals higher than pleasure” and (ii) “only one thing stands between man and his happiness, and that is the belief in God”. I don’t believe either.

Surely the message “clearly announced” by the bus posters is not that there is “no higher ideal than pleasure”, but rather: “Don’t allow, as so many do, belief in God and his divine plan to blight your life (through endless recriminations about your sexuality, about a “woman’s role”, etc.). Contrary to what most religions tell you, this is the only life you have – so make the most of it!”

Scruton is, of course, a gifted philosopher well-versed in the careful reading of texts and weighing of evidence. It’s odd he should be so sloppy here. I’d ask him: (a) where is his evidence that BHA texts commonly “imply” (ii), and (b) does he really believe the atheist bus posters “clearly announce” that there is “no ideal higher than pleasure”?

I guess one moral we should extract from this piece is – we humanists need to to be extremely careful how we phrase things. If there’s the even slightest chance a comment could be interpreted as promoting unbridled hedonism, etc., you can be sure that’s exactly how it will be interpreted!

But is there some truth to the suggestion that new humanists are not “for” anything in particular?


  1. Scruton has a right to his opinions and I, of course, have a right to disagree with him.I think he rather overstates his case and misses a few nuances. Perhaps the lesson to be drawn is that “Even philosophers can turn into tetchy old men.”

  2. Boy, Roger Scruton really demolished that slogan on the side of a bus.What next? Wittgenstein on why Carlsberg is not probably the best beer in the world? Quine on why the future is neither bright nor orange, but actually open in a non-deterministic universe?

  3. Maybe I’m oversimplifying, but it would be simplest from my perspective for there to be a new humanist declaration of a few things you all are “for”.Otherwise, new humanism equals hedonism from what I have seen.

  4. Hamtastic, I encourage you to check out Peter Singer’s new book The Life You Can Save. It’s similar to NYU philosopher Peter Unger’s Living High, Letting Die but I think it will appeal to a broader audience.Efforts like these are exactly what we need to promote secular humanism to a wider audience.Stephen, please let me know if you have a copy yet. If not, one will be ordered for you today. It is a quick read and I am hopeful that you might be kind enough to mention it on your blog.

  5. Atheist Missionary – no have not seen it yet. But don’t pay for one out of your own pocket – I can order it (unless you get freebies?)Mr Hamtastic – What are humanists for? Well what are the religious for? Remove the supernatural crap, and it’ll turn out to be much the same thing.There is a range of humanist views re morality, just as there is a range of religious – even Christian – views on morality. Cut out the differences between humanists, and humanist morality comes down to “apple pie”.But as I say, that’s true of both view points – religious AND humanist!If there are differences in moral outlooks between the religious and humanists, they tend to be explained by differing beliefs in an after-life, souls, and an authority-to-which-we-must-defer.Thus it is over abortion, stem cell research and scripturally justified claims about role of women, etc that the two groups tend to fall out.

  6. I think the reason Scruton reaches such a peculiar conclusion is that he starts from a peculiar premise – that the loss of religious belief is something to be mourned, something that leaves behind a dangerous moral vacuum. On that basis he clearly reads the bus ad as calling, hedonistically, for that vacuum to be filled with pleasure. If one takes the contrary view that the loss of religious belief is a liberation from distorted moral values and groundless fears, it’s perfectly appropriate to urge people to stop allowing religion to stand in the way of their happiness. That’s not to say they don’t also have to take moral responsibility for their actions; but the suggestion that once we throw out the often repugnant values our distant ancestors falsely believed to have been handed down by a supernatural authority, we’re left scrabbling around for something half as good to replace them… well, it’s just baloney, isn’t it?

  7. “Thus it is over abortion, stem cell research and scripturally justified claims about role of women, etc that the two groups tend to fall out.”Aren’t you forgetting education, the right to be excused work duties, wear funny jewelry etc in defiance of company or even legal regulations, having an extra special platform in the political arena (bishops in the Lords, “community leaders” etc) , special tax treatment (charitable status, law of chancel in UK, Sec 107 of tax code in US)

  8. Perhaps therein lies the rub. What is morality? Is there, in truth, an objective morality of any kind? I’m not trying to promote relativism or anything. I just have not seen any evidence that morality has been laid down in the absence of man, God, or any of their machinations.Murder would seem to be “morally wrong” for example. Why? Did society decide this? If it gave me pleasure to murder the occasional vicar, why should I be punished for it? God said it? You said it?I will look for those books next time I am at the library.

  9. Hamtastic, there is no “rub”. Nobody can tell me with a straight face that the Bible represents a complete code for morality. It expressly condones all kinds of nasty behavior and is silent with respect to many others. The suggestion that religious adherents somehow have a monopoly on morality is ridiculous.I think we can all agree that murder (absent a compelling utilitarian justification) is wrong. Society tells us that and, even if it didn’t, most of us seem to have an inbred aversion to killing (look no further than the fascinating “problem” of deliberate misfiring between opposing trenches during WW1). It is not hard to understand why evolution favors those who avoid killing their neighbours. Unless you are a sociopath, something in the human condition tells us that it is wrong to kill the occasional vicar. I don’t propose to understand exactly why but I can tell you that belief in a supernatural fairy is not going to make you more or less likely to want to kill the vicar. I think that is Stephen’s point: religion does not advance moral superiority one iota. In my view, applied ethics does a far better job.

  10. Stephen, one easy way to demonstrate that new humanists _are_ “for” something is to write a blogpost outlining what it is that you are “for”. This has come up before, and I recall you writing something about compassion, but it would be good to have a substantive exposition about the things that you are for, rather than what you are against.

  11. Roger “Gingernut” Scruton was always a tetchy young man; aqe hasn’t altered him.And what’s wrong with pleasure as a preferable life goal to discomfort and misery? I’ve no time for the morality of masochism.

  12. Re: For and against.Is there really any point in making a distinction? After all, a position for something can usually be framed as being against the opposite. If humanists (or anyone else) are described as being against slavery, prejudice, suffering and injustice is this such a bad position?

  13. Sam says: “One easy way to demonstrate that new humanists _are_ “for” something is to write a blogpost outlining what it is that you are “for”.”Er, OK.I am for honesty, integrity, freedom of thought and expression, equality of opportunity, blah blah.I am against lying, corruption, bullying, theft, murder, genocide, blah blah.See – what was the point of that?Do you mean – what distinguishes the humanist moral perspective? Nothing, necessarily.Or do you mean – how do I ultimately justify my moral beliefs?Or do you mean something else?Tell me exactly what you are after and I will see what I can do!

  14. Atheist Missionary- perhaps I am a sociopath, then. Morality is subjective at best in my mind, and should someone be religious their morality would of necessity come from their deity.Then there is the case of ancient Greece. Perhaps by communal agreement or dictation by strongman in whatever form is where “morality” comes from. They didn’t ascribe much to Zeus and Co. Yet they were “moral”, right?Or were they? They were all for slavery. They were for warring on each other for material matters. Hell, I bet they ate meat without regard to speciesism.Let’s face it. Every person, in truth, decides their own morality, whether through childhood environment or otherwise.So, could you pass the human liver topped with a veal puree? I have to go in for a bit of necrophilia and hate to do it on an empty stomach.

  15. Mr. Hamtastic wrote: “Every person, in truth, decides their own morality, whether through childhood environment or otherwise.I can’t argue with that …. and that is precisely why all civilized societies have legal systems. In any event, my point is simply that religion is certainly no panacea for moral shortcomings.Enjoy your snack ….

  16. The only issue we have then is the idea of a moral shortcoming existing. Legal systems are there to maintain society, but morality? Morality is a way to sidestep logic and reasoning to achieve whatever you want.

  17. When I first read the advert on the side of the Bus I burst out laughing. Scruton may be wrong about the BHA (I have no opinion about the BHA myself, I haven’t done enough research) but the advertisement can be judged on its own merits. As such it is a remarkably weak minded little sign, and I think Scruton is right to be derisive in his treatment of it. The sign says: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” What does “probably” mean? 50.0000001%? 99.99999%? Should people be concerned about the remaining percentage whatever that might be? What kind of council is it to “stop worrying and enjoy your life?” This seems rather open to any number of interpretations. It’s a rorschach blot of a phrase and is open to virtually any value one might like to put to “enjoy.” What if I, for example, rather enjoy convincing people to believe in God?Stephen suggests that the sign “surely” means “Don’t allow, as so many do, belief in God and his divine plan to blight your life (through endless recriminations about your sexuality, about a “woman’s role”, etc.). Contrary to what most religions tell you, this is the only life you have – so make the most of it!”I say it “surely” means “It is unlikely that there is a deity that will seek to punish you for whatever you might do, please have fun drinking tonight and don’t forget to set up your DVR to record dancing with the stars.” The sign could have said any number of things that were far more interesting. Scruton’s suggestion isn’t bad. How about “Do we really need God to be good? Come to to find out more!” Or: “An unexamined life is not worth living. Double check your deeply held presuppositions.” The latter might be too serious though (and might not get traction in the evening news), we wouldn’t want people to stop enjoying themselves.More than anything I think this kind of thing is just disappointingly banal and unchallenging. How about a campaign that suggests the God of Eth is just a probable as the God of Christianity? That would generate some sparks!

  18. Religious responses to the bus advert showed little imagination or humour. Why not an updated version of Pascal’s wager? “There is possibly a God. So why not prepare for Judgment Day, just in case?”Mark you, God (If He exists) would surely see through that one in… well, no time at all, as he is outside time.

  19. I can’t join the BHA unless they disown the statement that:“Humanism is the belief that we can live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs.”Two of my problems centre around the word “good” and one is about the word “belief”.1. To pre-describe a particular club to be “good” is a form of complacency. Being good is something I have to work at, it is not just a matter of filling in a form and paying a subscription.2. The phrase “live good lives” is meaningless unless you actually believe there is a supreme arbiter to do the job of evaluating lives as good or bad.3. I chucked away airy-fairy “beliefs” the day I declared myself an atheist – why on earth should I want to associate myself with the BHA’s complacent and meaningless “belief”?You might claim I am being too pedantic about a single line, but it is the only one I have found on the BHA’s website which attempts to define what humanism is. Otherwise I have no idea what a humanist is meant to be, except to say it sounds suspiciously like a Liberal, and I don’t see myself as one of those. I have no problems at all with the Atheist Bus ad because it is just a piece of marketing. In fact it worked well because it didn’t take itself too seriously.

  20. From the above.. the difference is meta-ethics, isn’t it? If there’s to be a post about what humanism is ‘for’, it will (a) reject the divine command theory, and (b) show that there can be a naturalistic foundation for ethics.”Like so many modern ideologies, the new humanism seeks to define itself through what it is against rather than what it is for. It is for nothing, or at any rate for nothing in particular.”Well, this is a contradiction – if humanism is defined by what it is against, such as basing ethical decisions on scriptual authority, then it is ‘for’ the negation of what it is against, e.g. not basing ethical decisions on scriptual authority. You can frame it either way, but it is certainly not vacuous as implied (and if it were, how would it deserve to be called an ‘ideology’?).

  21. I guess it all comes back to the question: Is morality of any importance at all?I can see the need for a legal system, even agreed upon standards of conduct with which we prop up society. Objective morality, as an over arching code of behaviour, does not seem to exist for either the theist or atheist.The atheist, it seems, declares that the majority “feel” this way or that way and that decides right or wrong. Yay subjectivity.The theist says their deity declares what is right or wrong, which makes morality subjective to a “higher power”. This is no different than any other authority declaring things right or wrong. More subjectivity.Can someone show me something that is objectively true?Round squares can’t exist: they can if circles had been named squares. This is linguistics alone.2+2=4 every time. Except when it’s 2 flames plus 2 ice cubes. What are numbers but just symbols for things in our world?God may not exist. Good point. I may not exist either. I guess I had better act like I do before this hallucination of an insane god ceases.If you want to attack religion, why not seperate from it’s root? Religion without a “faith” is just a bunch of rituals. Consider this: If christianity was practised in people’s homes as a way of living would you still find it offensive?Myself? I’m all for the downfall of religion and it’s pomposity. But for exactly different reasons. From my reading of the bible Christ came to tear away ritualism and allow man to “commune” with God. That being the case, all of these pretty buildings would make excellent homeless shelters and the vicars good teachers or counselors. Man comes to God in his own heart and mind quite irrationally and without justification, much less rote and ritual.

  22. Aww geeze, so humanism = atheism now?

  23. Sorry Martin, but I’m really struggling to make sense of your comments.You claim the BHA defines itself as being ‘good’. It doesn’t – it claims that people can, not that BHA members necessarily do, lead good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs.You claim that, in the absence of a ‘supreme arbiter’, it’s meaningless to say that one can lead a good life. But you also say you work at being good, even though you apparently don’t believe in a supreme arbiter. I don’t see how you can have it both ways – either we can meaningfully assert than one can (try to) be good in the absence of a supreme arbiter, or we can’t.Having asserted that you try to be good, you assert that have thrown out supernatural beliefs. Yet you feel unable to subscribe to the belief that having thrown out supernatural beliefs, one can be good. Huh?I find all this absolutely mystifying – surely you can see that you accept the truth of the BHA’s assertion in the way you live your own life?

  24. Hamtastic wrote: “Can someone show me something that is objectively true?”This question reminded me of an exchange I had recently with a Canadian newspaper editor who posed a similar question:Can theist sentiment be both subjectively true and objectively false at the same time?I compare this to the notion of free will… say you have a spider on a log, and the log is floating down a river towards a waterfall. The spider knows no world but the log, and on that log he can move as he pleases. He has free will, as far as he knows or cares. That’s his subjective truth. However, objectively, his fate is predetermined – he’s moving down the river in a straight line and going over those falls. His individual psychological perception of free will (assuming he’s an extremely clever spider) is fundamentally at odds with objective reality. Now.. if the spider is the only sentient being in the picture… if no one observes the log floating down the river – which is the more true, subjective or objective?My response was as follows:As for your spider, there are some compelling philosophical arguments (that I personally find quite persuasive) that free will is a mirage. In other words, the spider’s supposedly free meandering on the log is just as predetermined as the log going over the falls. That being said, I will take objective truth over subjective truth any day of the week – the problem is that objective truth may be beyond our comprehension. Kind of like trying to explain NFL rules to an ant.

  25. Thanks Greg O, 1 should have read:1. To pre-describe the membership of a particular club to be “good” is a form of complacency. Let’s say I’ve done one good act today. Does that mean I am leading a good life? I forgot to mention the ten bad things I’ve done today. Am I still leading a good life, or is it a bad one? How can you possibly evaluate a whole lifetime.None the less on a case by case basis I do strive at doing good things, and I believe almost all others do, almost all the time. I tend to upset fewer people around me (a pragmatic reason) and I feel it’s the right thing to do (an altruistic reason).I didn’t specify whether the supreme arbiter was super-natural or not. You seem to have assumed he is. I haven’t assumed the BHA assertion, because I don’t make the presumption that I am leading a good life. I think I used to, but it occurred to me once that to assume that your own life is good is a pretty arbitrary judgement, and you are trying to answer the question from a highly biased perspective. I don’t know if I lead a good life, you will have to ask someone else about this.

  26. I just re-read a BHA flyer that I happen to have on my desk to see if I could recognise any of Scruton’s accusations in the official literature. The flyer contains a list of what the BHA are for, which includes: individual rights and freedoms, individual responsibility, social cooperation, mutual respect etc, but no mention of negative beliefsTo my mind the “old” humanism of Scruton parents, as he describes it, seems to be purely the distillation of a liberal C of E culture to evaporate away the now unnecessary deity. I see modern humanism as building on this premise with positive beliefs on morality and human happiness rooted in contemporary philosophical thinking and current scientific understanding rather than a fixed ancient mythology.Perhaps Scruton is being mislead by the more confrontational, attention grabbing public face of the bus campaign and the recent popular writings of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennet et al, than the heart of the new humanism.

  27. Hi Stephen – yes, I was after something specific that distinguishes humanism from any other philosophy or perspective (eg what makes it different from Christianity, or even Christian humanism?).But “how do I ultimately justify my moral beliefs?” Now that’s a very interesting question and I’d love to read your answer to it.

  28. Martin,I don’t understand how you get from:Humanism is the belief that we can live good lives without religious or superstitious pre-describe the membership of a particular club to be “good” is a form of complacency. The second statement is a complete non-sequiter, surely. Who’s saying membership of a club is “good”?

  29. It’s difficult to get any group of freethinkers to agree on a statement of principles, but the third Humanist Manifesto, “Humanism and Its Aspirations,” contains the following six principles:”Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis.Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change. Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals. Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships. Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness.”Those–and others like them–aren’t the purely negative description that Scruton lambastes, and neither are they hedonistic. (But I suppose that bus slogans are an easier target…)

  30. The BHA is the club in question, and they said it in 2003 (link).A simple deconstruction thus illustrates my point.”Humanism is the belief that we can live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs.” is the equivalent of saying “Humanism is the belief that we can live good lives.” for someone who is neither religious or superstitious. But what does the token “Humanism” indicate here, because don’t almost all belief systems believe that “we can lead good lives”? Either the token “Humanism” is empty in that it means nothing more than “almost all humans”, or the phrase “lead good lives” is empty in that lives are never actually evaluated as good (it is just something you say), or the BHA is promising you “goodness” by following their way.What does being a humanist offer, above and beyond just being a human? No one in this thread seems to be able to identify that special thing. I can’t see what the BHA offers, except a lifeline for non-believers who want to believe that they are good.

  31. Martin – consider the following application of the argument you’ve just made:'”Christianity is the belief that we can live good lives if we have faith in Jesus.” is the equivalent of saying “Christianity is the belief that we can live good lives.” for someone who has faith in Jesus. But what does the token “Christianity” indicate here, because don’t almost all belief systems believe that “we can lead good lives”?’Well, of course if you’re just going to edit out the part of the definition of Christianity that makes it distinctive – the part about faith in Jesus – you’re going to end up with a pretty bland characterization of that belief, one that makes it look much the same as a hundred others. But what grounds would you have for editing the definition like that? It’s just not true to say that the edited version is ‘equivalent to’ the unedited version in any sense, for someone who has faith in Jesus or for anyone else. I won’t labour the point with reference to humanism – I think it’s pretty clear how the above comments would apply.

  32. Greg O, your example doesn’t hold water as you changed a statement containing a “without” clause to one containing an “if” clause. I wouldn’t expect these to be equivalent. “Humanism, it’s not religious or superstitious. But what is it?” There we are, we’ve coined the next bus ad.

  33. Martin -Hmm. I’m not sure the distinction between the ‘if’ clause and the ‘without’ clause is relevant here. It seems pretty clear to me that both the definition of humanism offered, and the definition of Christianity offered, are equivalent in the important respect that they each assert something distinctive about the conditions under which it is possible for people to lead good lives.I suppose I could come up with some ‘without’-style arguments that strike me as obviously silly, but the trouble is I fear they’d be so close to your original argument about humanism that you wouldn’t see anything wrong with them.What I feel like I should be doing is trying to show that “we can live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs” is not equivalent to “we can live good lives”, which seems easy enough. But I suppose you’d just say something like ‘well, maybe they’re not equivalent for everyone, but they’re equivalent for people without religious or superstitious beliefs’. And I don’t really know how to answer that, because I can’t make any sense of the idea that two propositions could be equivalent for one person but not for another. Let me try to put it this way. Let’s say Bob believes people can lead good lives only if they have religious beliefs. So Bob believes people can lead good lives. I also believe that people can lead good lives. According to you, that belief is equivalent (for me) to the belief that people can lead good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs. But I share with Bob the belief that people can live good lives, and not the belief that people can live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs. So how can those beliefs be equivalent in any sense?

  34. Greg O, I like chips, and furthermore I like chips without custard or jam. In fact there’s an endless list of things I like my chips without. These propositions are not the same, but their truth value is the same, for those of us who like our chips without whatever combination.As an atheist, if I say I believe such and such, then the truth value of what I say is unaltered if I add a clause “without religious or superstitious beliefs”, as long as the belief I expressed was consistent with my atheist stance. I’m not sure I can put it any clearer than this. Does anyone else have a view?

  35. Martin – sorry, you’ve got me again!A couple of points about what you’ve just said, then I want to try a slightly new tack.Firstly: if the ‘we’ in ‘we can lead good lives’ is being used in the same way as the ‘I’ in ‘I like chips’ – so that when the BHA says it, it means something like ‘we, the members of the BHA’, and when I say it, it means something like ‘we, people without religious or superstitious beliefs’ – of course you’re right to say that the BHA is asserting something about the ‘goodness’ of its members in particular, and that there’s no difference between the truth value (on my lips) of ‘we can lead good lives’ and that of ‘we can lead good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs’. But I don’t think it is being used in the same way; I think it’s being used to refer to people in general, not to the particular group of people to which the person making the assertion belongs. The humanist, surely, means to assert something about the conditions under which people in general – not just humanists – can lead good lives.Secondly, let me tweak your ‘chips’ example so that its structure is closer to that of ‘we can lead good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs’. Let’s change it to ‘I can eat chips without adding custard and jam’. Now it’s perfectly true that I could come up with an endless list of similarly pointless ‘without’ clauses, clauses that wouldn’t really be telling you anything about my ability to eat chips: I could say ‘I can eat chips without standing on one leg’, ‘I can eat chips without believing in fairies’, and so on. Still, there are some ‘without’ clauses I could tack on that would seem to tell you something interesting about me; I could say ‘I can eat chips without opening my mouth’, for instance, and you might be curious to know how that was possible. Even if the truth value of ‘I can eat chips’ is the same (on my lips) as that of ‘I can eat chips without opening my mouth’ – because I’ve worked out a way to swallow them after snorting them up my nose, say – so what? ‘I can eat chips without opening my mouth’ is still a meaningful, informative thing for me to say.OK, now for the new tack (which actually follows on quite nicely from the above). A lot of religious people still think people need to to have religious beliefs to be good; they often say, for instance, that people need the fear of divine judgment to keep them on the straight and narrow. I disagree with that, and I suspect you do too. We both probably think it’s pretty obvious that people who don’t believe there’s a God who is one day going to judge them can act just as morally in their day-to-day lives as people who do. Now, it seems to me that if someone says ‘We [= people in general] cannot lead good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs’, I can meaningfully contradict him by asserting that, on the contrary, ‘We can lead good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs’. (Actually, I don’t just think we CAN meaningfully contradict him; I think it’s important that we DO. The view he’s peddling, after all, is dangerous rubbish; it legitimizes the religious indoctrination of children, for instance.) You seem to take the view that my making that assertion wouldn’t actually be meaningful at all. So what I’d like to ask you is: is there something I should say instead that would better express my disagreement? Or is that disagreement something that just can’t be expressed?

  36. If humanism is the belief that people can lead good lives without religious our superstitious beliefs, a) what is the understanding of ‘good’ being offered, and b) how is that understanding of the good transmitted, especially to children?On a), the use of the chip analogy would suggest that ‘good’ is ‘what I like’ – is that what the BHA are wanting to defend?I happen to agree that it is perfectly possible to be “good” without religious or superstitious beliefs (whatever the latter in particular might mean). What I don’t know is what content ‘good’ has from a humanist perspective. The difference with the Christian point of view is that ultimately (to be Christian) reference has to be made to Jesus as the criteria for what good is. It doesn’t stop all arguments but it does give a framework, and a tradition, within which to discuss the good. I don’t know what corresponds to Jesus in the humanist frame of reference (or whether the argument is that there need be nothing that corresponds to Jesus).

  37. Sam, I understand a humanist to be someone who says ‘we don’t need religion to tell us what’s good; we can figure it out for ourselves’, not someone who says ‘we don’t need religion to tell us what’s good; we’ve figured it out for ourselves and HERE IT IS!’. There’s always room for reasoned debate on morality; I suppose the ‘frame of reference’ within which that debate takes place is just one based on certain principles of reasoning and certain shared intuitions.If that sounds too wishy-washy because it means humanism doesn’t really stand for anything in particular, well… that’s true in the sense that humanism doesn’t stand for a whole range of moral principles that go above and beyond the familiar, boring, common-sense principles most people share. But those are important principles, and if it’s going to be legitimate for humanists to talk about being able to be ‘good’, their idea of ‘good’ can’t be too far removed from common sense.In practice, humanists typically stand for the same sort of things everyone else stands for, except in the case of moral principles that have a distinctively religious basis, i.e. principles you’d be hard-pressed to come up with on the basis of anything other than religious beliefs – for instance, moral principles based on the beliefs that embryos have souls, that God should decide when we die, that certain sexual behaviour offends God etc.

  38. We all – religious or otherwise – have a conception of an ideal life (although we disagree on the details). I’ve always taken humanism (in its broadest sense) to be a system of values and ethics based on these conceptions, rather than exclusively on external factors (such as the gods).Although a proper definition would probably take up more than one paragraph and require far more brain-power than I currently have.

  39. The Golden Rule [do to others only what you would wish done to you] was around hundreds of years before the hypothetical Jesus is alleged to have lived.I myself prefer Bernard Shaw’s version: “DON’T do to others what you would like done to you – they may not like it!”

  40. The error is on the first line; ‘modern ideology’. Humanism and secular ideas are older than religion. Tell Scruton to go back to the library and do some reading. Basic level history and philosophy.

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