Humanist Hero: Joss Whedon

Here Liam Whitton writes about his admiration for writer-director Joss Whedon

There are few bigger names in entertainment today than Joss Whedon, who steered Marvel’s The Avengers to box office record-breaking success in 2012.

For his fans, this day was inevitable. Many of us had watched — or in my case, grown up on — Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and knew as early as then what a remarkable talent Joss Whedon was.

Buffy's enduring popularity hasn't just changed televisions, but several other mediums as well. Art by Jo Chen.

Buffy‘s enduring popularity hasn’t just changed television, but several other mediums as well. Art by Jo Chen.

What was also apparent to many, although perhaps many wouldn’t know it by name, was the extraordinary humanist quality to Buffy, and which can be found throughout Whedon’s work.

An obvious theme in Whedon’s work is the empowerment of women. But Whedon’s feminism is only a constituent piece of his larger, more encompassing humanist philosophy. Buffy, crudely summarised, is about a young woman with supernatural strength and physical attributes who fights the forces of evil. What elevated the show above its television forebears and contemporaries, and which continues to make it a seminal work of TV-as-art, is the programme’s relentless focus on the inner lives of its characters. The writers on the show were told to write with one question in mind: how does Buffy feel? From this spawned a rich show of complex characters encountering philosophical problems as often as social ones, making some of the most fully realised drama in all of fiction, and spawning an entire academic sub-field known as ‘Buffy studies’.

Whedon’s other themes are capitalism and greed, as explored largely in Angel, Dollhouse, and the comic book Fray; the fundamental dignity that comes with personhood, explored through Dawn and Connor in Buffy and Angel and as the central premise of the show Dollhouse; and secular explorations of redemption, as seen in all of his shows, where characters who have done terrible things attempt to make amends for their actions, and all learn in various ways that redemption is never finished, and that simple human compassion motivates the most profound and honest sacrifices.

Andrew West has written for HumansitLife about his love of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry before, and BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson has written admiringly of Roddenberry as well. Star Trek‘s popularity with humanists is partially rooted in its optimism for the human race, and its almost Utopian depiction of a universe where the Humanism Roddenberry so passionately felt has motivated humankind to explore, develop rational scepticism, and foster cooperation, all to great success. And I myself have written on Doctor Who‘s humanist themes, particularly in the form of it non-human main character the Doctor, a firebrand humanist with one advantage the rest of us don’t have — he knows much more than we do about the world (which is often used to justify the show’s forays into fairly fantastical heights of speculative fiction). But neither of these programmes achieve what Joss Whedon has consistently done throughout his work, which is presenting Humanism and exploring its implications in a world where essential human problems share the scale of epics.

Whedon’s worlds are alive with Humansim despite these worlds often not being humanistic or physical materialist in conception. In Buffy and Angel, the characters confront monsters, demons, witches, and deities, and accept that these things exist. They have a good reason to believe these things exist which we do not: in Buffy and Angel they really do. The ‘soul’ is a major plot device in both those shows as well, as it accounts in a nebulous and nonspecific for the presence of morality. An early Angel episode, ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin,’ even suggests that the absence of a ‘soul’ explains true human psychopathy. Yet as both those shows go on, Whedon becomes increasingly interested in using the supernatural framework of the show for exploring the human problems we all really face, and to advocate the evidence-based and compassion-led approach to ethics we should be using to make decisions our daily lives.

From the beginning, Buffy used the supernatural to generously provide metaphors for all manner of social issues. Often the personal struggles of a character would be reflected in those of the monster of the week, or some atrocity in a character’s past would contain meaningful wisdom the audience could apply to another person’s present-day dilemma. Good fiction has long done this: the most successful novels take a chosen theme and stretch it into every line of dialogue, every visual motif, make their pages blossom with insight into the world. With cinema and theatre, the visual and textual have long been aligned in this effort, but until Buffy, television was a odd-man-out, a place for episodic dramas about buddy cops and the like. Buffy itself quickly moved from ‘high school’ themes to more mature ones. Season one’s ‘Invisible Girl’ provides a fairly mundane example of this: high school social alienation (and the fact that Sunnydale High sits above a Hellmouth) literally makes a shy girl turn invisible. By its later seasons, Buffy was deftly commenting on the same theme with all the deftness of a poet.

Buffy’s most fantastical and high-concept episodes are probably season four’s ‘Hush’ and season six’s ‘Once More, With Feeling’ a silent episode and a musical respectively. The musical television episode had been pioneered for the modern age with Xena: Warrior Princess (several times in fact) before then, but it was ‘Once More, With Feeling’ which set the bar for TV concept episodes to come. In both ‘Hush’ and ‘Once More, With Feeling,’ the characters are struggling to express themselves. In ‘Hush,’ they fail to articulate and say what they truly mean, and gradually find through the silence that has enveloped Sunnydale that in fact, language can be a barrier to honest communication; a hindrance rather than a tool. When the silence ends, Buffy and her boyfriend Riley sit in awkward silence, failing to at all express what they truly feel.  In ‘Once More, With Feeling,’ subtle characterisation and running plot threads in the character’s emotional lives come to the surface when the people of Sunnydale find themselves living in a musical. For all their exposed personal dilemmas, Buffy’s is the greatest, and it is the tortured character of Spike who must remind Buffy (through song) of her reason for living, despite her life-as-hell experience with severe depression:

Life’s not a song
Life isn’t bliss
Life is just this
It’s living
You’ll get along
The pain that you feel
You only can heal
By living
You have to go one living

…echoing Buffy’s own advice to her sister Dawn, in the previous season. You see, Buffy’s depressed in season six because she died, went to Heaven, and came back against her will. But her realisation in the season five finale ‘The Gift’ was that her love of her sister was a gift, and to sacrifice herself to save her sister’s life was her personal privilege. ‘Death is your gift,’ Buffy was told prophetically earlier in the season. She struggled to understand what that meant, if anything, before later arriving at a subtler understanding of life and death, and how one cannot have true meaning without the other. A humanist message in itself. ‘The hardest thing in this world is to live in it,’ Buffy counsels Dawn. Even in the supernatural world of Buffy, Whedon systematically undermines the supernatural to force the characters to explore the world as we ourselves face it.

The best example of this is in Buffy’s sister show Angel, when the beloved character Winifred ‘Fred’ Burkle dies in ‘A Hole in the World.’ The literal hole of that episode aside, which was a actual cavity running end to end through the Earth, the central ‘hole’ encountered was an emotional one for the characters as Fred died, possessed and eaten out from the inside by the ancient demon Illyria. In the ensuing episode ‘Shells,’ remembering Buffy’s aforementioned resurrection, Angel travels the world looking for a quick fix to the problem, before learning that Fred’s ‘soul’ was ‘consumed in the fires of Illyria’s resurrection.’ The hole in their world then becomes that much deeper, and I remember being 14 at the time it aired and really being hit powerfully for the first time by the reality and permanence of death. It made Buffy’s sacrifice (which for her, was to an unknown end) carry the same weight in subsequent rewatchings, and deepened my admiration for non-religious people who risk their lives for the good of others. It also reminds me of the Greek proverb: ‘A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.’

Another example of the undermining of religious supernaturalism in Buffy is that ‘Heaven’ is probably just another alternate dimension (called ‘hell dimensions’) of the infinite number which exist in the the show’s multiverse: merely an especially benign type of the world, among many more of infinite horror, and several others such as the World Without Shrimp and the World With Nothing But Shrimp. When the character Cordelia goes to one such heavenly dimension in Angel, she finds it is simply inconsolably boring, and later the characters learn that the heavenly beings behind Cordelia’s ascension are really just as nasty as the demons they typically encounter down on Earth — except relentlessly mean-spirited in their pursuit of a bigger-picture, consequentialist ‘good’, providing a healthy rejoinder to that Christian maxim that ‘God works in mysterious ways.’ In Angel, gods work in mysterious ways because they’re dicks. Or rather, because sometimes people are. Angel‘s deities are just another set or kind of fallible people, and in Whedon’s world, the bigger and tougher of us always face greater propensity to be bullies.

For all she’s seen, Buffy remains an agnostic atheist: unconvinced that the supernaturalism of her world means anything. Not that it’s mentioned much; it’s sort of inconsequential to her life of kicking butt and stopping evil. ‘The jury’s out,’ she says, when asked if there’s a (Judeo-Christian conception of) ‘God’ early on in season two.

Dollhouse was perhaps Whedon's darkest television show, set in a science fiction universe full of bad people abusing one another. But it also explores hope.

Dollhouse was perhaps Whedon’s darkest television show, set in a science fiction universe full of flawed and sometimes extremely devious people abusing one another. But it also explores hope.

Whedon’s later series Dollhouse is very much rooted within a materialist universe like the one we really live in, and is as much as anything else about human corruptibility, and mankind’s negative traits, including (through a science fiction lens) the world or prostitution, sex trafficking, organised crime, and how badly we treat the mentally ill, the disabled, and the less fortunate. Unlike Buffy and Angel, there is no ‘soul,’ no secret sauce to the human experience outside of our material bodies. We can be uploaded, downloaded, altered all through changes to the electrochemical states of our brains, as new hardware allows brains to be treated like hard drives for minds. And yet even so, as main character Echo goes on, she cobbles together a personhood formed from fragmentary fictional and borrowed identities which is just as valuable and ‘real’ as any of the ‘real’ people with real personalities she encounters. When humankind is given greater power and propensity to abuse, humankind abuses it (which is perhaps the show’s sole environmentalist message), but even so, it is only people — in all their diversities — who can champion and stand up for all that is good in the world, too.

They do so in spite of impossible odds. In Angel season four, the character of Gunn is told that by a shady character that higher powers manipulate their lives to such a degree that their active choices carry little weight; he presents a free will problem we’ve probably all thought of before. We’re all shaped by forces outside of ourselves. Some big, some small. Can free will exist in a deterministic universe? Gunn makes, as best he can, a passionate plea that our choices still matter. Like Sam Harris would say, even in a world without free will, we can still find meaning in our lives, and make our decisions count.

Similarly, in season two’s ‘Epiphany,’ Angel, who spends much of his long life on one crusade or another, always reaching for the grand gesture which will redeem him in his own eyes and in the eyes of others, reflects on finding meaning in a universe with no ‘cosmic plan’, and no certainty. He concludes, in his titular epiphany, which is presented as a milestone for the character’s development:

If there’s no great glorious end to all this, [and] if nothing we do matters… then all that matters is what we do.

It’s really no surprise that Angel’s ‘mission statement’, and the character’s last words (which closed out Angel‘s five-year run) are ‘Let’s go to work.’ Whedon symbolically had Buffy repeat the line in the concluding issue of Buffy‘s first canonical comic book season five years later, reflecting the fact that these two heroes are united by the same basic mission. They separately arrive at the conclusion that your good work is never finished. Good work is their shared duty simply because it needs doing; no more, no less. Whedon’s characters are unlikely ever to arrive at the paradisiacal future of Star Trek, or the easy happy endings which characterise Doctor Who, but still they continue, hoping to plant oak trees for future generations.

Unlike Roddenberry’s vision, in which humankind has on the whole shown its best possible face, the characters in Dollhouse face the fullest extremes of human deplorability and summon up the strength to fight it with the only weapon they have: their humanity. (That and advanced fighting skills.) In Whedon’s shows, religion is not the enemy of Humanism, but nor is it really on the agenda (or of any interest) to any of its crypto-humanists. Instead, they are tackling the world in all its complexity and all its difficulties, across dimensions of class, creed, (species,) gender, and health. Whedon depicts the world at its worst and people at their best. And when they’re at the best, they’re grappling with the world as it really is, in all its difficulty and strangeness, and still finding the strength and motivation to go on in their Humanism.

Spread festive joy this holiday season with special, quirky humanist cards

The latest in the popular series of BHA ‘Christmas’ cards was announced last week, and I for one think they’re a great way for humanists to take part in all the festive celebrations going on this winter… with a bit of a wink and a nod.

When we announced it on Facebook, there was a little consternation over the word Christmas, but I tend to feel — personally, anyway — that Christmas is a perfectly good word for referring to this time of year. I certainly don’t treat Christmas as an especially Christian holiday any more than I treat Thursday as an especially Thorian one. Maybe you’ll disagree — feel free to tell me I’m wrong in the comments.

The BHA’s latest Christmas card depicts Charles Darwin’s ‘Tree of Life’ as a coniferous, snow-capped Christmas tree, with little references to his life and work on the card as well. It’s a beautiful design which we’re very pleased to be able to add to our growing collection of alternative seasonal cards.


However you, or your family, or your friends and loved ones, celebrate this time of year, for many it will probably involve writing to those you can’t be with and getting together with those you can for a meal or maybe an exchange of presents, as people have done in this part of the world going back thousands of years. A humanist ‘Christmas’ card lets you take part in the merriment, and cheekily put your own personal stamp on a staple tradition.

And feel good about yourself, too, as sales of cards are a source of funding for the BHA’s charitable activities. Ahead of 2015, and with all the ambitious projects we have ahead of us, your support of our work continues to be invaluable.

In addition to the tree card (pictured above), we’re also still selling our popular ‘There’s definitely a Santa,’ Fibonacci spiral, Christmas/Saturnalia ambigram, and ‘Santa Darwin’ cards at the BHA store, and you can get yours today in time for Christmas if you buy yours now.

A6_Greetings_CardCharity FibonacciA6_Greetings_Carddefinitely a santa

‘There are no atheists in foxholes': How this humanist approaches Remembrance Day

How do remember the dead?

How do we remember the dead? Matthew Hicks argues for an inclusive approach to remembrance.

Death is something I think about a lot. For any serviceperson or family member of a serviceperson, it is impossible not to. We are currently leaving a decade long period where friends, colleagues, brothers, sisters, mums, and dads have been repatriated injured or in boxes on a weekly basis. My job as a nurse within my current specialism requires exposure to a lot of people who are face terminal illness or are so ill that they might not respond to active treatment. That doesn’t make me an expert on dealing with death as a person. Indeed a friend recently suggested rightly or wrongly that I might have seen too much.  I honestly couldn’t tell you what the best way to deal with death is apart from talking about it as much as possible and prior planning if at all possible. What I do know however is there are ways not to deal with death and there is a phrase which comes back to haunt me numerous times which provides the perfect example

‘There are no atheists in foxholes.’

The following response to this statement is not a flag flying-exercise for atheism or indeed for Humanism as such. There are enough flaws in this statement to make it unsuitable for those even of faith as much as those who have none.

I don’t actively tell people that I subscribe to a humanist way of thinking. In my work, to do so would be inappropriate. I’ve sat and held the hands of a lady who was days away from dying who felt the compelling need to tell someone about her faith in God.  I’ve had to inform a wife that her husband didn’t make it and then listen and comfort her when she said God didn’t listen to her prayers. I have met Wiccans, Pagans, Hindus, and non-religious patients who have all faced their own journey. My overwhelming feeling as someone who has regularly nursed at the bedside of the dying is that, most of the time, people experts in their own passing. That is, with the right support, most people meet their end with dignity and wisdom in a similar way that many mothers meet childbirth: with a kind of default, inbuilt instinct. That is, of course my opinion and not something that I can verify by statistics or evidence. My viewpoint is that all people are naturally spiritual (for want of a better word).  That is: we all have a developed tendency on a lesser or greater level to consider and respond to the universe around us creatively and meaningfully. To encourage someone to be more spiritual is like trying to persuade a squirrel to be more squirrel-like. Often when people approach death, the barriers, inhibitions, and social expectations that get in the way of addressing that issue are no longer present. To that end, many of these people gain an approach to their situation that those of us who are left behind cannot even begin to comprehend or touch. Sometimes we are left behind before the loved one has even passed away.

It is for this reason alone that I have an issue with the title statement. I have heard it many times. I have heard it from (thankfully only) one hospital chaplain. I have heard it from many people who have asked me outside of work, how I think about death as someone who doesn’t believe in an afterlife. I have heard it from members of various faiths who seem to think it is evidence for the existence of ‘God’.

The issue here isn’t whether or not there’s a god. The issue here isn’t who does or doesn’t think about a god when they are faced with the end, either suddenly or protractedly. There may well be research that shows that many people do turn to God. I deliberately haven’t studied these things because for every person who finds a way to express themselves by turning to God there will be someone somewhere who expresses themselves without doing so. Everyone has the right to approach their end in whatever way they wish without those around them making assumptions about the need for faith that serve no other purpose than to ease the nerves of the person making them.

Arguably religion or ‘faith’ is a matter of language more than belief. In the UK, the stock, standard way (over the last millennia at least) has been to ponder one’s existential circumstances through prayer to a personal god. Until very recently it has been the standard for teaching children to understand their place in the universe. Many young people growing up will adopt a faith, but, increasingly these days, many will not. Some people may only adopt the language of faith, without the belief bit, out of a fondness for its narratives and conventions. Either way, it is quite understandable then that some people, when faced with a sudden realisation of likelihood of death or danger, might try to make sense, or find easy comfort, through the impossible. Fearing the inevitable, they might even pray. And yet, many atheists in foxholes will experience no such ‘reversion to type’. They are settled and comfortable in their understanding of what death really means. For many humanists, it is this same knowledge which has given meaning to their lives. The language of religion isn’t just unappealing to them; it is empty, devoid of explanatory or consolatory power.

These days, more and more people grow up without exposure to religious traditions. More and more people are making sense of their place in the world without religious faith or language. Many people even find faith in beliefs, religions or traditions that sit outside of traditional theistic belief structures. For all intents and purposes these people too can be considered atheists. To assume that everyone, in the face of danger, will turn to a god is almost like assuming people will begin speaking in French. It is an unrealistic and very unhelpful assumption.

For many people therefore, confronting death isn’t a trigger for turning to religion. God is no longer the ‘default’ cultural setting, after all. That goes not only for those who are dying but for those who are left behind. Many people will bow their heads quietly on 11 November against the white noise of a prayer from a representative of a faith they do not belong to or affiliate with in any way. During Remembrance, or an occasion which reminds us of loved ones who are dead, we sit in our own personal or collective foxholes. Each one of us whether religious or non-religious has the right to negotiate with the cultural and philosophical resources we have grown up with, or have adopted, without being made to feel that our approach somehow falls short of a gold standard.

Wouldn’t it be something if we could find a common language through which we could collectively remember the fallen, one which fulfils and refuses to compromise with our need to honour loved ones in a personal way?

Matt Hicks is a nurse in the Royal Navy as well as being one of the RN Service Representatives for the Defence Humanists. In his spare time, Matt can be found touring Devon with a bag full of songs and his ukulele. He blogs at The Wooden Duck.


Peter Tatchell: My journey to Humanism – how I made the transition from dogma and superstition to rationalism

Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell writes about the story of his journey to Humanism. This article was originally published in Humanism Ireland under the title ‘My Journey from superstition to rationalism.’

Peter Tatchell: Why I'm...

Peter Tatchell: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is proof that humans don’t need a god to tell right from wrong, and something we as humans can be proud of.

Organised religion is the world’s greatest fount of obscurantism, prejudice, superstition and oppression. It has caused misery to billions of people for millennia, and continues to do so in many countries. So how come I was once in thrall to it?

Nowadays, I am a human rights activist motivated by love and compassion for other people. I do evidence-based campaigning, based on humanitarian and rational values.

But I once had a very different perspective. Indeed, I grew up in a devout evangelical Christian family in Melbourne, Australia, in the 1950s and ’60s. My mother and stepfather (with whom I spent most of my childhood) were prim and proper working class parents, with very conservative views on everything. The Bible, every word of it, was deemed to be the actual and definitive word of God. Their Christianity was largely devoid of social conscience, more Old Testament than New. It was all about personal salvation.

According to our church, some of the worst sins were swearing, drinking alcohol, smoking, dancing, sex outside of marriage, communism, belief in evolution, not praying and failing to go to church every Sunday. All my extended family was of the same persuasion. Naturally, I also embraced God.

But in secondary school, aged 13, I began to think for myself. I remember a rather smug religious education teacher who one day gave us a lesson in faith. He argued that when we switch on a light we don’t think about it; we have faith that the room will light up. He suggested that faith in the power of God was the same as faith in the power of electricity to turn on a light.

Bad analogy, I thought. What causes a light to go on when one flicks the switch is not faith; it is man-made electricity and wiring – and this can be demonstrated by empirical evidence. The existence of God cannot. This set my mind thinking sceptical thoughts.

This nascent doubt was not, however, strong enough to stop me, at the age of 16,from becoming a Sunday school teacher to six year olds. Being of an artistic persuasion, I made colourful cardboard tableaux of Biblical stories. The children loved it. My classes were popular and well attended.

The first serious cracks in my faith had begun to appear the previous year, 1967, when an escaped convict, Ronald Ryan, was hanged for a murder he almost certainly did not commit. At age 15, I worked out that the trajectory of the bullet through the dead man’s body meant that it would be virtually impossible for Ryan to have fired the fatal shot. Despite this contrary evidence, he was executed anyway. This not only shattered my confidence in the police, courts and government, it also got me thinking about my faith.

According to St Paul (The Bible, Romans 13:1-2), all governments and authorities are ordained by God. To oppose them is to oppose God. But why would God, I asked myself, ordain a government that allowed an apparent injustice, such as Ryan’s execution? If he did ordain it, did God deserve respect? And what about other excesses by tyrannical governments? Did God really ordain the Nazi regime? Stalin’s Soviet Union? Apartheid? And closer to home, the 19th century British colonial administration which decimated, by intent or neglect, the Aboriginal peoples of Australia?

I began to develop my own version of liberation theology, long before I had ever heard the phrase. During the 1960s, the nightly TV news was dominated by footage of the black civil rights struggle, led by the Baptist pastor, Martin Luther King Jr. His faith was not mere pious words; he put Christian values into action.

This is what Christianity should be about, I concluded. Accordingly, at 14, I left my parents’ Pentecostal church and started going to the local Baptist church instead. Alas, it was not what I expected – not even a quarter as radical as Martin Luther King’s Baptist social conscience. A huge disappointment.

Undeterred, I began to articulate my own revolutionary Christian gospel of ‘Jesus Christ the Liberator’, based on ideas in the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the Good Samaritan.

This soon led me into Christian-inspired activism for Aboriginal rights, as well as against the death penalty, apartheid, the draft and the Vietnam War. I linked up with members of the radical Student Christian Movement. In 1970, aged 18, I initiated Christians for Peace, an inter-denominational anti-war organisation which organised a spectacular candlelit march through Melbourne, calling for the withdrawal of Australian and US troops from Vietnam.

At the age of 17, I had realised I was gay. From the first time I had sex with a man I felt emotionally and sexually fulfilled, without any shame at all. This positive experience overwhelmed all the years of anti-gay religious dogma that had been pummelled into me.

Amazingly, I never experienced a moment’s doubt or guilt. I reasoned: how could something so wonderful and mutually fulfilling be wrong? Instantly, I accepted my sexuality and was determined to do my bit to help end the persecution of lesbian and gay people.

By the time I turned 20, rationality finally triumphed over superstition and dogma. I didn’t need God anymore. I was intelligent, confident and mature enough to live without the security blanket of religion and its theological account of human life and the universe.

Accordingly, I renounced religion and embraced reason, science and an ethics based on love and compassion. I concluded: we don’t need God to tell us what is right and wrong. We humans are quite capable of figuring it out for ourselves. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is proof of this. It’s not God-given dogma and intolerance, but a fine example of high moral values, without religion. Bravo!

The art of ‘losing faith’

Where does one find meaning when they have lost their faith? That is a question that has been posed to me on numerous times as someone who was once a fully signed up member of an evangelical church who now lives within a non-religious, humanist spiritual setting.

It is only as I approach my fourth decade of life, 20 years after leaving the church that actually I realise this question has a lot wrong with it. So much so that it has possibly contributed to my taking so long to get comfortable within my own skin as a human being without a god.

The problem with the term ‘losing faith’ is that it originates from where you have come and from those whom you have left.  It is all too easy to make the assumption that this is an adequate description of someone whose previously deep belief system has been rocked and shattered to the point of non-existence. It is a term which potentially prolongs the bereavement process that a person goes through when they leave the structure of their religious community; their friends, and sometimes family, along with an underlying belief structure. A term that focusses on loss and distracts from the fruits gained.

The big misunderstanding here is that both parties i.e. those leaving and those who are being left behind, put faith in the notion that he or she who leaves religion is abandoning a bedrock of holistic security to jump into a chasm of chaos on every level. The ‘stray sheep’, ‘prodigal son’, or ‘fallen’ has left behind meaning, a moral compass, cosmic stability. Often the feeling that is ingrained in someone leaving a religion is that they are disobeying the laws of the universe itself and are therefore no longer allowed to play a part in it.

This however is just not the case on many levels. Doubt in a belief or a theory or anything you rely on is not unhealthy. It is not a sign of lack of faith but of intelligence and spiritual maturity. When someone who has come from years of adopting their parents’ faith suddenly wake up one day to find they do not believe it, it doesn’t mean they have been cosmically neglected. It means they are entering into a realisation that to continue in life with someone else’s projection of the universe is unwise, unreal, and dishonest.

My point is that faith actually is not ever lost in this process. Faith is a tool we use to gauge personal surety of the things we trust. When we redefine the parameters of what deserves our faith, when we scrutinise what we know and how it can be applied to the universe around us, we are actually tending to ‘faith’ in a diligent and mature way. We are certainly not losing it.

The other assumption is that when you leave a religion, you have to leave everything behind. A bit like leaving your company and all the bonuses and perks right down to your beloved stapler.  Leaving religion doesn’t work like that because no religion, regardless of what it professes, holds the monopoly on morality, ethics, kindness, or truth. Indeed it is only on leaving some of these groups that it becomes clear that they have little grip on any of these things.  Often people leave the faith of their birth because they realise that they cannot fulfil the full extent of their sense of compassion towards their fellow humans or indeed animals. Religion doesn’t give you your license to be kind or be compassionate. In fact should there be a god, then surely your existence at his/her hand is authority enough for you to promote kindness without needing to use their name to do so. Surely you are already an expert in compassion if you have been made, as some beliefs profess, in the image of an all compassionate being.

Often one leaves their religion because it’s a coat that just doesn’t fit any more. That may be because of what you do or don’t believe, but often it is simply because you are no longer able to respond to the language of that faith.

Sat here now, I honestly cannot recall the time I stopped believing in God. I suspect I never believed in one. Rather, I realised gradually that the language used to portray god and respond to the universe was a human construct and not a cosmic or divine one. Man makes his god in his image. It is never the other way around. Islam in part recognises this by not allowing images of Allah; Judaism recognises this by restricted the names given God. I didn’t stop believing in God so much as the language and the concept surrounding God merely became impotent. It lost its relevance to the point that to even question whether or not such a being existed was irrelevant. God, if you like, imploded as much linguistically as philosophically.

The trick then of moving up and outwards in your faith is not to find another set of beliefs but merely to find a language which you find you can respond to fully. That may involve another set of beliefs, it may not. Belief or lack thereof is so much less important than the community in which you embed. Often a person moves from their religion because, for them that community is no longer fit for purpose. It no longer bears the fruit of compassion and love that it professes to deliver. That has nothing to do with belief but everything to do with the human qualities of compassion. If a community lives with a language of love and compassion but then uses it as a set of euphemisms for oppression, staleness both in its human interaction and its language sets in. ‘Falling away’ then becomes a noble act rather than a sinful one.

A few of us have found some sort of home within Humanism. I like not knowing. I like testing everything I think I know is true. I like my world being rocked if at the end of it it makes me a better person. My embedding within Humanism is not to embrace the certainty of science but certainty of its processes. The aspiration to be humble enough not to assume knowledge but wrestle with it until it’s the closest thing that resembles the truth for that brief moment in time. It is the excitement that comes with being proved wrong only to find something more true. It is the fruits of doubt. Humanism doesn’t fulfil that in itself. It’s not a package you sign up to and find sudden fulfilment. It’s a process and an attitude one can adopt. It is a tool to help you aspire to being the best person you can be. Humanism isn’t the answer, it just demands you ask the right questions whilst showing compassion and respect to those around you. That approach leaves me free to respond to the world around me with a language and creativity which is true to itself whether its in the way I act or whether I’m blurting out beatles songs on my ukulele. These are my voice, my actions, my accountability my blank canvas. At this stage then it is difficult to recall what it was I ever thought I’d lost.


Matt Hicks is a nurse in the Royal Navy as well as being one of the RN Service Representatives for the Defence Humanists. In his spare time, Matt can be found touring Devon with a bag full of songs and his ukulele. He blogs at The Wooden Duck.

Happily Godless

Tony Akkermans shares a short excerpt from his book, Happily Godless.

Happily Godless: Tony Akkermans shares his thoughts on Humanism, and much else, in this book, released 29 August 2014.

Happily Godless: Tony Akkermans shares his thoughts on Humanism, and much else, in this book, released 29 August 2014.

Once upon a time there was, in the Western world at least, but a single god. Closely defined with clear-cut attributes. Omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, omnibenevolent. In fact so many omnies that from here on in I shall refer to him as Omnigod. I am talking, of course, about the god of the Bible and the Koran, the creator of heaven and earth. A hands on god who controls every happening here on earth, who is compulsorily worshipped in school assembles, who is at the heart of church services, who hears prayers and who, if they cross themselves in good time, makes footballers score goals.

For some two thousand years this father figure god has had a very good run for his money. He has been feared and worshipped unfailingly and his every capricious move has been meekly documented and accepted. But things are changing. All is not well with Omnigod. Wicked, troublesome rationalists have started ganging up on him. They have been pointing out major weaknesses in his lifestyle, such as the total lack of evidence for his existence. This is greatly worrying his self-appointed representatives on earth. All the great minds in the churches have got together in a telephone box and have racked their brains over a proper line of defence. After Herculean metaphysical labours, laced with much prayer, they have come up with the solution: Omnigod must be given a makeover.

A collection of brand new words and phrases have been brought to bear. Out goes the Omni and in comes the obfuscation. God is now the ‘Ground of all Being’ he is the ‘Ultimate Reality’. He is unfathomable, ineffable and unknowable. He is woollier than a champion sheep. Let Dawkins try and shear him now. The trouble is that if rationalists can’t get to grips with such an elusive customer, then his befuddled apologists can’t either. As Freddy Ayer has said in Language Truth and Logic: if things are unknowable there is no point in entering into further discussion. After all, unknowability and nothingness have much in common. So ‘Blurry God’ as I shall dub this ineffable creature won’t let the religious off the hook. Nice try Don Cupitt, Paul Tillich and the rest, but it must be Omnigod or nothing.

But boy, oh boy is Omnigod on thin ice these days! When he was the idol of the desert tribes his fiefdom was restricted to the sun, the moon and pancake earth. The size of real estate a god worth his salt could manage. But, it turns out, the acreage has grown. Let me give you two remarkable statistics: there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on all the beaches of the earth. And more staggering still: light from the exploding star GRB 090423 has taken 13 billion years travelling at the speed of light to reach us. (To give you an idea of the magnitude of 13 billion you would not reach that number if you counted uninterruptedly for more than 400 years). Bearing in mind that a single light-year represents a distance of 6000 billion miles this would tend to hint at the insignificance of our otherwise so self-important little planet earth.

Within this mind-numbingly huge universe there must be many other civilisations that would demand God’s undivided attention. Think of the trillions of prayers that must be answered or arbitrarily ignored; and if you are a football fan think of the all the wonderful goals scored with God’s help on all the pitches in the galaxies. The theologians have the answer (if they don’t they always make one up): God is Omnipotent and moves in mysterious ways. But so does Santa Claus in his annual toy deliveries. For centuries men of God have been explaining the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing. There is a choice here: resort to increasingly contorted explanations or simply conclude that God is imaginary.

Omnigod’s biggest bugbear of course is the problem of evil. For human induced catastrophes such as murder, mayhem and war, Omnigod’s apologists think they have found a clever get out clause: free will, it’s the people’s fault, God is off the hook. This expedient may be sufficient to mollify the unthinking flock but cuts no ice with rationalists, who are in the habit of thinking things through. The free will idea goes as follows: God is in charge of the boardroom decisions while we, the minions on the shop floor, may decide the petty detail. If we get it wrong we must carry the can because God is too busy with the bigger picture. But this convenient division of responsibility must have its limits. There must be a point where certain misdemeanours by the workers are of such a magnitude that they endanger the corporation’s survival and can no longer be ignored by the MD. Free will and Omnigod’s overall control are mutually exclusive. If Omnigod allows the Germans the free will to vote for Hitler and he also allows Hitler the free will to murder six million Jews, then Hitler is running the show and Omnigod is a cowardly bystander pretending not to notice. Would it not have been the decent thing to zap Adolf with a heart attack?

To crank this up a little further I have devised the ultimate freewill test. Suppose a deluded Ayatollah, wishing to meet his 72 virgins in paradise or an Armageddon-crazed redneck fundamentalist, hoping to be raptured soon, managed to get hold of an arsenal of nuclear weapons and employed his acolytes to plant devices in all population centres of the world and that all the bombs were connected by mobile phone signals to his hideout, where he is sitting with his finger poised over the button. Ready to blow God’s beautiful creation to smithereens. (a fanciful scenario I admit, but you get my drift). The ultimate moment of truth. Would God strike him dead or would he have to shrug his shoulders and say: “well, I have granted this person free will – do your worst; no exceptions to my scheme, nothing I can do about it”? At that point theologians must stop waffling and make up their mind. Either they must say that God would act to stop the earth’s destruction or they must allow that a mere human being has become more powerful than God. If, as I suspect, they would argue that God would act, they would have to face the follow-up question: if he can act now, why not in Auschwitz, why not in Dunblane? Why not in thousands of other dreadful scenes of human suffering? And if God cannot or will not act, where is the justification for all the centuries of worship and prayer?

Tony Akkersmans is the author of Happily Godless: Humanism for a Better World, which is available to buy on Amazon.

The Epicurean revival

Hiram Crespo writes for HumanistLife about the philosophy of Epicureanism, and argues that is has made a resurgence in modern works of positive psychology. 

Stumbling upon happiness in the garden of Epicurus? Flowers: Tim Daniels.

Stumbling upon happiness in the garden of Epicurus? Flowers: Tim Daniels.

As the annals of history have it, in the sixth century Emperor Justinian had all the schools of philosophy that competed with Christianity finally closed. This was the last we heard of the Epicurean School, whose tradition had remained culturally vibrant for seven centuries. Epicurus had been among the first to propose the atom—2,300 years ago—the social contract as a foundation for the rule of law, and the possibility of an empirical process of pursuit of happiness: a science of happiness. These progressive schools were oases of tranquility, reason and pleasure known as Gardens, where the ideals of civilized friendship flourished and men, women and even slaves engaged in philosophical discourse as equals.

If any set of doctrines can be considered the foundation of the Epicurean philosophy, it would be the Tetrapharmakon: the Four Remedies. For didactic purposes, the teachings were imparted in the form of short, easy to memorize adages. There are, to be fair, many more than four remedies in Epicureanism. However, these are known to be the core of the teaching out of which the rest of the philosophy flows:

Do not fear the gods
Do not fear death
What is pleasant is easy to attain
What is painful is easy to endure

In his Principal Doctrines 11-12, Epicurus argued for the study of science as a way to emancipate ourselves from irrational fears. For naturalists who don’t believe in gods or spirits, the first two negative statements may be translated as ‘Do not fear chance or blind luck, for it is pointless to battle that which we have no control over. It generates unnecessary suffering’.

Roman Epicurean poet Lucretius, in his De Rerum Natura, dedicates long portions of the philosophical poem to explaining how natural phenomena such as lightning and the movements of heavenly bodies are not the work of the Gods and that fear of the Gods is inconsistent with civilized life. Since he was unable in those days to produce a fully scientific theory to explain all these phenomena, he provided several possible theories for many of them without officially endorsing one, and humbly acknowledged that future thinkers would prove the main points of his naturalist and scientific cosmology, which they eventually did. And so we can say that his basic attitude was a sound one, and also that he respected our intelligence enough to not exhibit arrogance and certainty where he did not have conclusive theories. He allowed time to prove him right … and sincere.

That the prohibition against fearing the Gods, and against fear-based religion in general, is the first and main taboo in Epicurean philosophy, remains refreshing to this day.

The second remedy is elaborated in a series of teachings and aphorisms which serve as a form of cognitive therapy to deal with the trauma of death. Among them, the most memorable is the purely hedonistic one. It is summed up thusly:

Death is nothing to us, since when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not

There is also the symmetry argument, which compares the time after our death to the time before our birth of which we have no memory. Since there is nothing there, why fear it? It is as unintelligent to be needlessly tormented about the afterlife as it is to be tormented about the state prior to birth. I frequently argue that it wasn’t just the teachings, but the manner in which they were imparted –within the context of a loving community of philosopher friends– that served as a consolation and that it is impossible to replicate the peace and conviction that Epicurus gave humanity without this sense of community.

The latter two positive statements in the Tetrapharmakon lead to Epicurean teachings on how we should evaluate our desires and discern which ones are unnecessary versus which ones are necessary, which ones carry pain when satisfied or ignored versus which ones don’t. By this analytic process, one learns to be content with the simple pleasures in life, those easiest to attain and which carry little to no pain. It is here that the real fruits of Epicurean insight begin to be reaped. The best things in life are free.

One of the first psychological tasks of every Epicurean is to become mindful of his/her desires and whatever pain or anxiety they may be generating. Another task is to learn to relish and appreciate the simple things when they’re in front of us. The good friends, the good foods and the refreshing beverages, the family, the good music, our proximity to nature, even our view of the sky which (as Carl Sagan advised us) should always humble us.

The good news, according to Epicurus, is that happiness is easily attained if we cultivate philosophy. He cites the need for thankfulness and for robust friendships as fundamental ingredients for the good life, and not only categorizes desires but also discerns between kinetic (active) pleasures that happen when we satisfy a desire, and katastemic (inert) pleasures that happen when we have no desires to satisfy, which he labeled as superior.

Harvard psychologist and happiness researcher Dan Gilbert confirms Epicurus’ insights, including how meaningful relations significantly increase the amount of pleasure and of memorable experiences that we gather throughout our lifetime. He uses different verbiage: natural happiness is that attained when we satisfy a desire (kinetic pleasure, in Epicurean parlance) whereas synthetic happiness is that which we enjoy regardless of attaining desires (katastemic pleasure).

Because synthetic happiness requires no externals, it is therefore superior, it is a sign of a liberated being. He argues the case for synthetic happiness by citing the example of the lottery winner and the paraplegic who exhibit similar levels of happiness one year after winning the lottery and losing the lower limbs, respectively. These cases had been studied by happiness researchers Brickman et al.

This, in positive psychology, is being called the hedonic treadmill or hedonic adaptation: the habitual happy state that we always return to. Methods are being researched to increase the heights that are normal for each individual.

Gilbert’s theories, as far as I’m concerned, are Epicureanism by another name. One of the elements of Epicurean teaching that philosophers have struggled with the most throughout history is the idea of katastemic pleasure. It is often argued that lack of pain is not a definition of pleasure, but this is the art of happiness that Epicurus taught: that we must learn to be happy regardless of external factors and that it’s possible and desirable to cultivate katastemic pleasures via the philosophical disciplines. In fact, Epicurus argues that the very purpose of philosophy is to ensure an end to suffering and to create a beautiful, happy, pleasant life.

Gilbert’s research upholds katastemic pleasure as a necessary ingredient in human happiness and is beginning to reinvigorate the discourse on the philosophy of happiness that Epicurus had begun, and which was interrupted by Justinian 1,500 years ago. He also adds new concepts to our science of happiness and even proposes that we have a psychological immune system that fights unhappy moods.

Gilbert’s findings, along with research dealing with wellbeing in fields such as neuroscience and diet, point modern Epicureans in the direction of an interdisciplinary, practical reinvention of philosophy, which is just what we need if philosophy is to become once again the revolutionary, emancipatory cultural engine that it once was.

As to the Fourth Remedy, Epicurus reminded us of the temporal nature of bodily pain. We may get a fever, or a stomach ache, but within days our immune system fights it. In the case of more chronic pains, one gets used to them after some time. In nature, no condition lasts forever. The impermanence of all conditions is a consolation when we consider whatever pain they generate. A dismissive attitude towards pain takes discipline but it can be cultivated if we are mindful, disciplined, and develop a resolve to protect our minds.

Then there are mental pains and anxiety. These are systematically worked through via cognitive therapy. The resolution to follow Epicurus is a resolution to protect one’s mind. It’s impossible to be happy if we can’t control our anger and other strong emotions: we will go from one perturbed state to the next and never taste the stability of ataraxia, which translates as imperturbability and is the ultimate maturity that a philosopher can reach.

We live in a dysfunctional consumerist society filled with anxiety and neuroses, where few people analyse their life, most have a short attention span and are usually uninterested in disciplining their minds and curbing mindless desires. If philosophy is understood as the Epicureans understand it, then it becomes evident that people desperately need philosophy today.

Many more things could be said about the consolations of Epicurean philosophy. I leave my readers with an invitation to study Epicurus and engage themselves and others in philosophical discourse. I promise that your life will be enriched.

Hiram Crespo is the founder of and the author of Tending the Epicurean Garden (Humanist Press, 2014).

Defending morality undermines your values

Sean Spain responds to a recent article on HumanistLife with a novel solution to the ‘is-ought’ problem.

'We will act compassionately towards one another. We will act fairly towards one another. We will be kind to one another.' Photo: Jesslee Culzon.

‘We will act compassionately towards one another. We will act fairly towards one another. We will be kind to one another.’ Photo: Jesslee Culzon.

I recently read an article by George Keeling, mounting a defence for humanist morality. The crux of the argument is that morality is the natural expression of advantageous evolutionary activities – ‘[That] moral passions exist to ensure co-operation and ultimately the perpetuation of our genes’.  Social co-operation is the grounding of this morality, and can be seen to be advantageous to species across the animal kingdom. Man, it is argued, is a naturally social animal whose co-operative instinct has flourished into empathy which is unique to higher-functioning cognitive abilities. Thus the humanist morality stems from an inherent drive to treat others as they would be treated, and the humanist acknowledges this drive as his moral compass. Of course we can’t just rely on this drive to steer us all on the course to ethical action; instead we simply acknowledge the roots of our ‘disposition towards compassion, fairness and kindness’ and in doing so affirm the grounds upon which our value judgements stand.

I admire this value-compass for human action. In the reality around here, the humanist finds truth. In the world around her, she finds wonder; in the society around her, she is optimistic; in her intuition, and the knowledge of its emergence, she finds an ethical grounding.

But Ethics demands more from us than this. Co-operation may be advantageous to my survival, but that doesn’t necessarily make it ethically good. I may feel compassion towards the members of my group, but that won’t suffice to justify my command for others to not harm them.  It can’t be good because it is: a statement which outlines what is can’t be used to logically deduce what ought to be. The two are different statements in kind and as such need a mediating principal as justification. Once this mediating principal is introduced (e.g. a utilitarian framework) then the ethical discourse becomes one of choosing X over why; and the mediating principal props up the ought – the is becomes redundant.

Hume realized this:

‘I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.’[1]

Translated, Hume observed that there is a jump in reason when one presents phenomena which is the case (i.e. co-operation, and empathy, are evolutionarily advantageous- and may even perhaps be argued to be the etymological roots of our notions of morality) and then deduces from it that what is the case ought to be. The justification of a moral proscription must be grounded in reasoning beyond just the description of events.

The burden of an ethical framework demands an external justification for the Ought. Plato grounded his idea of the ‘Good’ in a plane of the forms; religion finds good in ‘God’. Even philosophers like Kant, who have attempted to reposition the notion of what is good, systematically ground its value beyond themselves- in something absolute, and metaphysical.  What is often forgotten in these ethical systems is the appeal to a position of value as something which is beyond the world as it is. They do this because they have to. Ethics demands a firm ground for value which must be more than a description of events, or relative in a mechanistic world-view.

But there is an alternative approach.

Wittgenstein realised this problem of value, and the implications which the value problem had for ethics and more fundamentally aesthetics.

In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein notes:

6.4 ‘All Propositions are of equal value.’[2] ( clarification: Truth propositions)

6.41 ‘…In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value – and if there were, it would be of no value.’[3]

6.42 ‘Hence there can be no ethical propositions.’[4]

A fact, what is, can’t have a value in itself. The values around us are valuable to us, not outside of us. The value of co-operation might be found in the benefits of an improved feeling of safety among each other; a personal satisfaction may be felt when an empathetic urge is fulfilled; we feel relief when our compassion for an individual in danger is rewarded with their safety. The value is a feeling. But ethics demands an external ground for this value to meet the requirements of absolutism. Thus throughout history we have tried to establish this value and in doing so have had to ground it in metaphysical postulations, or religious gods.

The problem is the ethical discourse itself.

The solution? Don’t try to defend morality. It’ll undermine your value system, and the values of your actions. Reject the discussion of ethics because it is misleading. We don’t need to rationally defend what is good. We feel it is good. It shows itself to be good. But the good we make use of isn’t some ethereal absolute – it is a dependent evaluation which is justified by our empathetic intuition and intellectual reasoning.

And the same purposes can be fulfilled. We will act compassionately towards one another. We will act fairly towards one another. We will be kind to one another.

And if you are asked to defend what someone else deems your morality, you can respond in the infamous words of Wittgenstein:

  1. ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’.[5]

Sean Spain is an undergraduate student of Easter & Western Philosophy. He is primarily interested in the Philosophy of Language & Value- particularly in their application to ‘real-world’ events



[1] Hume, David ‘Treatise of Human Understanding’, end of section 3.1.1.

[2] Wittgenstein, Ludwig ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosohicus’, pp. 29-31.

[3] Ibid Wittgenstein, Ludwig

[4] Ibid Wittgenstein, Ludwig

[5] Ibid Wittgenstein, Ludwig

Freedom of expression under threat: freedom of expression and preventing attacks on journalists

When journalists can't speak freely.

When journalists can’t speak freely. Freedom of expression: ‘one of our most abused civil liberties’.

“Freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly are rights that enable people to share ideas, form new thinking, and join together with others to claim their rights. It is through the exercise of these public freedoms that we make informed, considered and intelligent decisions about our development. To restrict them undermines progress…I take this opportunity to echo the Secretary-General’s condemnation of acts of reprisal against individuals by reason of their engagement with the United Nations.”

Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, High Commissioner for Human Rights

Freedom of expression is the indispensable condition for the full realization of the spectrum of human rights covered by UN covenants and resolutions. However, it is also one of our most abused civil liberties.

During this session, the need to prevent impunity for attacks against journalists has been raised a number of times, in conjunction with the tabling and passage of two resolutions: the first specifically targeting the issue (and builds on UNGA’s 2013 landmark resolution), while the second seeks to protect civil society space.

Such attention is well warranted. Not only does an attack on a journalist represent an attack on the whole of society’s right to freely seek and impart information, but the level of impunity enjoyed by perpetrators – 9 out of 10 attacks on journalists goes unpunished – sets a precedent for censorship and recurrence. In a side event hosted by Article 19, Guy Berger, Head of Freedom of Expression and Media Development at UNESCO, noted that due to the societal role of journalists as representatives of free expression, ending impunity for attacks against them demonstrates that impunity in any form is simply unacceptable.

While intimidation and violence against journalists is not always carried out by state actors, institutionalized censorship and attempts to limit freedom of expression for journalists and whistleblowers remains a modern day scourge, both outside and within the Council. Externally, blasphemy, offence and defamation laws, typically used to protect religious sensitivities and consistently denounced as inconsistent with international human rights law, are increasingly being used as a sweeping term to silence debate or dissent on politics. Inside the Human Rights Council, states are interrupting statements made by NGOs with alarming frequency, calling for the speaker to be silenced, often citing spurious procedural grounds.

The case of Raif Badawi serves to illustrate both the external and internal challenges to freedom of expression. His case has been well publicized, no doubt due to the shocking sentence of 10 years, 1000 lashes and a fine of 1 million riyals that he received for establishing a liberal website, and has been duly raised numerous times at the Human Rights Council. The repeated references to his case and the international pressure to #FreeRaif has been much to the distaste of the Saudi Arabian delegation, who last week made the audacious claim that the right to freedom of opinion and expression is guaranteed in the Kingdom’, and that there are no political prisoners in the country. Showing their respect for freedom of expression, the delegation proceeded to interrupt Badawi’s sister, Samar, who had flown to Geneva to raise the case of her brother and his lawyer – her husband, Waleed Abu Al-khair, who has also been arbitrarily detained – throughout the course of her speech, in a scene reminiscent of their attempt to silence Center for Inquiry representative Josephine Macintosh in June.

However, as Badawi’s case as a victim of blasphemy or defamation laws is by no means unique, Saudi Arabia is not the only delegation to interrupt NGOs. The number of points of order has been steadily creeping upwards, yet skyrocketed this session with almost 100 made this Session by a range of states (for further information, see here). Verbal attempts to silence NGOs within the UN, frustrating though they may be, are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of reprisals faced by activists who appear before the Council. In a side event, the International Service for Human Rights emphasized the extent of reprisals faced by human rights defenders who engage with UN mechanisms, citing, among others, the case of Cao Shunli. Shunli took part in the Universal Periodic Review of China, was imprisoned on her return, and subsequently died in prison following the authorities’ denial of her access to medical care, paying the ultimate price for engaging in human rights advocacy.

Just yesterday, Nabeel Rajab, Head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and Deputy Secretary General of FIDH, was arrested following his European advocacy trip, during which he attended the Human Rights Council and met with various representatives of state missions and NGOs. Rajab was in prison from 2012 until May this year, on protest-related charges and for ‘insulting Bahrainis’; his current interrogation is based on ‘insulting a public institution’ on Twitter. Today, he will be transferred to the Public Prosecution Office. I had the pleasure of meeting Nabeel in September, and encourage anyone reading this to join the call for his immediate release.

In the words of Phil Lynch, Director of ISHR, ‘the Human Rights Council should be a place where NGOs are safe and free to advocate, agitate and, at times, irritate. That is our role, our responsibility, and our right.’

Ensuring this right necessitates the practical implementation of the existing resolutions on the protection of journalists and on Civil Society Space: theoretical adoption does not suffice.

While adopting a resolution by no means ensures protection in practice for the work of civil society organisations and human rights defenders, it contributes to the establishment of a legal framework that can be used in their defence, and will ensure that the issue is raised in a formal discussion before the Council in an upcoming session. However, it is important to emphasise that protecting journalists, human rights defenders and civil society space is not a matter of creating new rights: it is ensuring that the democratic and participatory space for the full realization of human rights is secured for all.

In defence of humanist morality

Geoff Keeling contemplates the biological origins of morality and ethics in humans.

Something about Hobbes

Thinkers like Thomas Hobbes believed that, short of the social contract, human nature only afforded humans a life that is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. 

I recently watched a conversation between WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek and the American conservative David Horowitz. In the heat of the argument Horowitz made the following claim:

‘War is the natural condition of mankind. There’s always been wars – right? From the beginning – and many of them. Peace occurs when there’s a concert of powers or a single power that could intimidate would-be aggressors.’

I couldn’t help biting my tongue here. As a humanist I believe in the inherent goodness of human beings. That we can be good – and that we are good – for the sake of goodness itself. Religious people sometimes ask sceptical questions about my ‘humanistic morality’. The idea is foreign to them because their thinking is grounded in the idea that ‘War is the natural condition of mankind’. In this article I want to defend the humanistic idea of natural morality. I hope it will be useful for other humanists facing the same questions.

Horowtiz’s thinking is based on the work of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes’ basic idea can be summarised as follows:

‘There must be some coercive power to compel men equally to the performance of their covenants by the terror of some punishment greater than the benefit they expect by the breach of their covenant’[1].

Thinkers like Hobbes and Horowitz believe that humans existed in a state of nature before political society. It’s only through a social contract that we liberate ourselves from barbarism. In the Hobbesian state of nature life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Modern human morality is a veneer: the Freudian superego that struggles to restrain our savagery. But as any social anthropologist will explain: there has been no period where humans lived outside of political society. This is also true of bonobos and chimps – our nearest evolutionary cousins – who have complex matriarchal and patriarchal societies respectively. The first step to refuting the idea of a ‘moral veneer’ is to show that humans never existed in the warlike state of nature.

The next step is to refute a common misunderstanding about evolution. The phrase survival of the fittest doesn’t lend itself to images of altruism and fairness. But in many cases organisms with genetic pre-dispositions towards co-operation have the upper hand when it comes to natural selection. A popular example is the ‘insurance policy’ that vampire bats have developed over food-allocation. It doesn’t take long for a bat to starve to death. But on any given night, it’s likely that a non-trivial percentage of the colony will come back on empty stomachs. In this instance the unsuccessful bats beg their peers to regurgitate some blood and feed them. And their peers usually do.

This may seem counter-intuitive. Surely, natural selection ought to preserve the best hunters? But think about it this way. Two randomly selected bats in the colony have a reasonable chance of sharing some DNA. Siblings share 1/2 of their genes and cousins 1/8. The bats need not know which of their fellow-bats is related to them. Do not let fellow bats die will increase the probability that their genes stored in other bats (including genes that code for co-operation) will be passed on to the next generation. This is because the set of related bats is a large subset of the colony, so there is no hard selection pressure for a more specific rule. There is also a second benefit. In the near future the regurgitator herself might be close to starvation. In sharing now she is more likely to receive blood when she needs it most[2].

Robert Trivers outlines the extent of natural co-operation in his paper The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism[3]. Co-operation ranges from the symbiotic relationships of cleaner fish and their hosts, to birds warning their flocks when predators are near. But morality is more complex than simple co-operation. The distinction is that the co-operative instinct in higher primates is grounded in empathy: the ability to stand in another’s shoes. And our empathy is not just towards each other. Frans de Waal recalls a bonobo who nursed an injured bird back to health[4]. Humans often put themselves at substantial risk to save animals and other humans.

The brilliant thing about evolution is its use of general rules. Be nice to those you meet is much easier to code for than Be nice to close relatives – the latter of which is largely unnecessary as primates tend to grow up in the company of relatives. It’s these general rules that enable us to develop elaborate social constructs that underpin human morality. Evolution has programmed us to see empathy as a reward in itself. Evolution is indifferent to whether the biochemical reward comes via a religious framework or secular principles. What remains universal is the human propensity towards goodness. The Scottish philosopher David Hume observed:

‘How great soever the variety of municipal laws, it must be confessed, that their chief out-lines pretty regularly concur; because the purposes, to which they tend, are everywhere exactly similar.’ [5]

Though social anthropologists have observed huge variation in cultural traditions, the human moral passions exist to ensure co-operation and ultimately the perpetuation of our genes. But it’s so important to appreciate that this series of mutations – which has led to genuine compassion for others, is a real force that exists in each and every one of us. The fact that evolution has preserved this disposition doesn’t mean that kindness is just an evolutionary mechanism. With the constant barrage of ISIS atrocities and stories of lavish-bonuses in the finance sector, it’s easy to forget that although humans are capable of great wrongdoing, our natural stat is not one of war but of understanding. At the core of human nature – whether religious, secular or spiritual, is a profound evolutionary disposition towards compassion, fairness and kindness.

Geoff Keeling studies in the Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method at the London School of Economics. He is a humanist interested in philosophy of biology and cognitive science. He can be reached at



[1] Thomas Hobbes (1651) Leviathan

[2] See O Curry (2005) Morality as Natural History or R Dawkins (1976) The Selfish Gene for a good explanation of this. For the original paper see GS Wilkinson (1988) Reciprocal Altruism in Bats and Other Mammals Ethology and Sociobiology pp85 – 100

[3] R Trivers (1972) The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism Quarterly Review of Biology pp35-57

[4] F de Waal (2005) Our Inner Ape Granta Books p2

[5] David Hume (1989/ 1777) Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals Oxford University Press p202