The first tenet of secular humanism is the need to test beliefs. To quote from the council of secular humanism “A conviction that dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted by faith.”
I want to point out that this isn’t a rejection of faith but it is a willingness to examine our beliefs. Secular says nothing about God, god(s) or the beliefs or lack thereof that people hold about them. Atheistic denotes an actual position being taken (no positive belief in god). A secular humanist with a religious belief can focus on the human aspects of living without rejecting their god. Faith and secular humanism are not mutually exclusive but I think it is still rare to find a religious secular humanist or at least a person who takes on both labels for themself.
Buddha wrote: Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who has said it, not even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.
The need to test beliefs is not the need to reject everything that is held on faith. It is a requirement to ensure that those beliefs are meaningful. They should have some basis in reason, logic, fact or function that make them worthwhile retaining.
Let’s take the life of Jesus Christ as an example, not to be contentious but to illustrate the point. Assume that you hold that Jesus lived a life as a teacher and example to man on how to live a good life. You decide to emulate the man and his actions in your own life. The actual events are not provable in the independent historical record. The miracles performed are not repeatable in the modern age. Are the lessons still valuable though? Does this way of living work? Does the philosophy of helping others and personal sacrifice that Jesus personified make for a happier and more fulfilling life? I think that even the non-religious could agree with these points in a general way.
On the subject of religions though lets take a specific Christian ritual and test it in accordance with the first tenet of secular humanism. Something that has frequently been mentioned in atheist blogs is the issue of the communion wafer representing the flesh of Christ in Roman Catholic ritual. What purpose does this serve? A Roman Catholic might tell you that it is a literal transubstantiation and that by taking bread and wine as the flesh and blood of Christ they are bringing themselves closer to the divine. For me the issue of transubstantiation is purely one of faith. The bread is not literally divine flesh, I could test it to determine this if I wished. Is it spiritually divine flesh? I see nothing to indicate that it is or that it isn’t so I must reserve judgment until evidence is provided or reject the idea based on what I do know.
What benefit does the transubstantiation ritual provide? For the faithful it is a way of drawing the group together in something that is shared only between them. It fosters ties within the religious community. It also marks them as separate from other factions of Christianity and other faiths. This could well lead to divisions within disparate communities. Indeed it has. The same could well be said of any other ritual from Sunday service to morning prayer, from the Bah-Mitzvah to the ritual ablutions of the Bahá’í Faith.
As human beings we learn things as we grow. We take what works and pass it on. Sometimes a lesson that is passed on does not keep the reason with it. An example might be the avoidance of pork in Jewish and Islamic religions. Pork spoils easily and contains a number of parasites that can be passed to humans. Avoiding this meat may make a lot of sense to a people who live in a hot country with poor sanitation and methods of long term food storage. Does it make sense today with modern refrigerators, relatively clean meat processing plants and more hygienic storage of food? The religious restriction remains, independent of the food hygiene issue. Perhaps it didn’t arise from that or perhaps society moved on and the lesson remained behind.
It is important to take stock and reassess the things that we have learnt or discovered in order to ensure that we haven’t got them wrong. I should point out that this obviously includes the assumption of atheism as well as religion. Are my views on religion appropriate given what I know about the world, history, philosophy and science? Have I been introduced to new information or a new way of looking at current information since taking on the label of atheist? Do my views still remain valid given this new information? In all honesty I can say that they do, although my views on religion have changed considerably in the last few years. There are some interpretations and rituals that I view as horribly destructive or socially repressive but there are equally some that I see as positive and worth retaining in a secular life.
I walk away believing I am right, but open to the idea that I am not.
Finally the tenet states that it is the individual who must test and assess a conviction. We all have our own criteria for belief. Some of us require hard evidence, some accept witness testimony, others believe second hand evidence or viable theories, others still place value on workable ideas and axioms even when they can never be proven. I think most of us take a mixed approach to ideas and the burden of proof. That’s why we must all make up our own minds about what is true and what is false.
That’s my take on the first tenet. Hopefully I’ll write about the second tenet next week.
I originally wrote this for the Off the Map – Atheist web site. Feel free to share and comments are welcome.