I had a great discussion of Humanism tonight with the Pomona Student Union, in an event the Pomona students decided to call “Virtues in the Void“. I was so impressed with the depth of the questions the students asked.
Here are several– the last few in particular will be provocative for anyone who is trying to explore what it means to be good without god:
- The title of “Chaplain” is traditionally associated with a religious identity, yet as a Humanist chaplain you work with nonreligious students. How is your role similar and different to those of religiously-affiliated chaplains? What is Humanism?
- What is the definition of morality? What connects the Humanist view of morality to religious and other spiritual philosophies, and what sets it apart?
- Is morality innate, or is it a social construct determined by the institutions and norms surrounding us? Are morals universal or are they simply created as a way of maintaining social order? Can multiple codes of morality exist in a society, even when certain aspects seem mutually exclusive?
- Some religious and political leaders, as well as media figures, have raised concerns that today’s youth are losing their morals. The alleged causes of this are varied, from the increasing social acceptability of atheism and agnosticism to urbanization to a more materialistic culture made possible by globalization. Yet similar claims have been made in the past, be it during the summer of ’69 or the arrival of rock ‘n roll in mainstream culture. Is today’s change real? If so, is this cultural transformation positive or negative? Is it simply different? Is humanism playing a role in shaping this change, if it exists, and how do you see humanism influencing cultural conversation in the future?
- A major component of religions across the world is the communal feeling brought about by being a member of a particular faith. For Humanists and other nontheists, does this sense of community differ? How do you see the identity of the Humanist community evolving in the future?
- When I decided on the name for this event, “Virtues in the Void,” I felt a twinge of discomfort. That word, ‘void’, is a rather lonely one. Certainly, there are some aspects to religious faith which are absent in Humanism. But is it possible to be both Humanist and spiritual? Can a Humanist be thankful without giving thanks to someone or something? How does Humanism frame feelings of wonder and awe – universal human experiences – without religious context?
For the last question, I quoted Sagan of course (from A Demon Haunted World):
“Spirit comes from the latin word, to breathe. What we breathe is air, which is certainly matter, however thin. Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word spiritual that we are talking of anything other than matter, including the matter of which the brain is made, or anything outside the realm of science. Science is not only compatible with spirituality, it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years, and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy beauty and subtly of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is certainly spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art, or music or literature. Or of acts of exemplary acts of selfless courage… The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive, does a disservice to both.”
But then I admitted I can be lousy at channeling Sagan. For me, the most “spiritual” part of Humanism– the part that most moves me– is less about our place in the universe and more about our place among one another. It’s about connection, relationship, love. Isn’t Humanism just as much about how we can connect to one another– despite our being “only human” — than it is about what does and doesn’t exist? I’d say it is the fact that we care about one another, that we matter to each other– that ends up being the basis for all ethics. More on that some other time. But meanwhile, how would you have answered the Pomona students? What other questions come to your mind about virtues in the void?