Geoffrey Frankson • 13 November 2006 • 660 words
Published in Newsday
I am a Humanist, the bane of religious fundamentalists everywhere, whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu or whatever. How so? Because I do not accept that religious dogma and religious indoctrination are necessary for human progress. Indeed, it seems to me that, in developing countries especially, there is a negative correlation between the former two and the latter.
Do I “believe in God?” Maybe I do, maybe I don’t. What is the reason for such a question? Are my human rights, my access to society’s resources, my personal freedoms, equality under the law or any other aspect of my full and equal participation in human society contingent on the answer? Not in any modern, civilised society that I would care to live in.
No one can “explain” the universe. In fact, the very idea of doing so is probably nonsensical. What you or I believe about the universe can make for an interesting dialogue on meaning and purpose, but whether you or I believe in a supernatural origin is irrelevant. The fact is, we are here and it is in our interest to build a better world in which to live. Where human society is concerned, that means devising social systems based on universal ethical principles, the two most fundamental of which are: treat others as you would wish to be treated, and, act in a way that will do the least harm, or, equivalently, bring the most benefit to the greatest number. We do not need religion in order to devise such systems, but it does afford the philosophically unsophisticated a practical way to teach ethics and morality. And so it is that I fully support “freedom of religion,: but equally, I will vigorously defend “freedom from religion” for those who are so inclined.
As a Humanist, I believe that a healthy society is predicated on compassion, kindness, generosity, interdependence, fairness, mutual respect, trust, and freedom of expression (insofar as it does not contradict any of these). These virtues will be inculcated through effective socialisation of children, which means that children are given opportunities to experience such virtues, stories that illustrate them, social environments that reflect them, and role models that exemplify them; in other words, a healthy culture in which to grow up and find their identity (which identify, incidentally, may well have a religious dimension.)
Children do not have to be instructed in order to be educated; they will learn in a learning environment, and they will make the right choices if given genuinely open alternatives between right and wrong. Still, children do have to be “schooled” to some extent; that is, taught how to read, write and count. They must also be taught logic and how to experiment, observe and draw inferences. The result will be adults who value knowledge, who rely on evidence in the search for solutions, and who will not readily succumb to superstition and fear of the unknown. Proper education results in adults who do not need religion in order to make sense of the world and find a healthy way to live in it. This is not to say that well educated adults will dispense with religion, and there is no reason why they should.
I accept that, for the majority of citizens, believing in God gives meaning and purpose to their lives, and brings strength and succour in times of adversity. But I do not accept that such belief is a prerequisite for participation in society or directly improves, in any way, the quality of such participation. I challenge any researcher, religious or otherwise, to show that religious citizens are better citizens, that the clergy exhibits higher standards of morality than the laity, or that religious societies are by any measure - security, justice, personal freedom, physical comfort, economic development, good governance - better societies in which to live than those in which church and state are strictly separated. These are the assertions of religious fundamentalists, and as a Humanist, I utterly reject them.
Dr Geoffrey Frankson, Member Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association