Discussion groups on “Humanism – back to basics”
Over 30 people joined in Farnham Humanist’s April lively evening of discussions about “What is Modern Humanism?” led by Chair and Humanist Celebrant Ailsa Davies. After watching Stephen Fry’s four short entertaining “That’s Humanism” videos, everyone divided into four groups each debating one of the video questions: “How do we know what is true?”, “What makes something right or wrong?”, “How can I be happy?” and “What should we think about death?”. Each group summarised their findings to the meeting before opening it up for further discussion.
“How can I be happy?” elicited thoughts such as what does happiness mean?, we cannot be happy all the time, happiness can be found in unexpected situations, happiness has a lot to do with relationships and helping others, people can work out their own purpose and fulfilment in life, for some people happiness comes from a loving god but explaining suffering is problematic for many. There was mention of the happiness index and how it is higher in more godless societies e.g. Northern European countries.
Ideas such as having donor cards, ceremonies, woodland burials, donating bodies, voluntary assisted suicide, power of attorney and life after death were prompted by the question “What should we think about death”. Everyone agreed on the importance of having a ceremony for those left behind for non-religious people as well as religious. For some people it is comforting to think that life goes on in some form after death, for others it can be a relief not having to worry about what it would be like. The focus should be on making the best of the one life we know we have. There was also agreement of the many problems that would arise if people lived for ever.
“What makes something right or wrong?” The Ten Commandments can be too rigid as there are circumstances when stealing or killing can be the right action. Telling right from wrong is better achieved by “Thinking for myself about the probable consequences of my actions and their effects on others”. The Golden Rule to “Treat others as you would like to be treated” is a good guiding principle as long as it is used as a guide and not a definite rule and as long as “in their situation” is added to take into account cultural and personal differences. There was a discussion about the importance of empathy for morality and how this is lacking in psychopaths. A contrast was made between how non-religious people are able to focus solely on what is best for humanity whereas religious people also have to take into account what is written in their religious books and that this can lead to moral contradictions e.g. equality for women and homosexuals.
The question “How do we know what is true” it is much simpler to answer if we are dealing with a physical universe only. Social truths are more difficult to establish than physical ones. It was agreed the scientific approach based on reason and evidence is best although there was some mention of drawbacks when applying methods based on falsification. It was questioned whether there is such a thing as an absolute truth.