Humanism and Supernaturalism
Humanism is a natural philosophy meaning it rejects supernaturalism. Here’s why.
Every once in a while I get a student who contacts me to interview me for a paper they are doing. The latest was a student who wanted to know what role, if any, supernaturalism plays in the Humanist philosophy. Because I thought these were excellent questions, I’ve decided to post her questions and my answers here.
1. What role does the supernatural play in Humanism, if it plays any at all?
Humanism is without supernaturalism and actually rejects supernaturalism. It is a natural and secular philosophy. Which basically means we are focused on the here and now and don’t consider things sacred or supernatural to be worthy of our time and contemplation. This isn’t a statement that there isn’t. It is more that supernaturalism is irrelevant. This is a very practical philosophy that is concerned with effective problem solving. If something solves our problems well, we go with that. Supernaturalism is rejected because it has yet to be proven to be better than chance and we prefer better odds. Another way to think about this is that people only label things supernatural when they can’t prove it exists or occurs but they want to believe in it anyway. The naturalist supposition is that if something exists, it is by definition natural and is therefore observable and replicable there is no need to appeal to supernatural at all. It either exists and occurs or it doesn’t. If it does, it matters, if it doesn’t or you can’t prove it does, it doesn’t.
2. Are there aspects of the traditional supernatural – such as ghosts, monsters, or gods – that are present in Humanism?
Yes and No. This is really an individual’s preference. Most Humanists reject all forms of supernaturalism which means they doubt the existence of ghosts and other supernatural monsters or gods and spend very little time and energy contemplating them. However, most American Humanists seem to love sci fi and fantasy. Humanists in other countries often look down on these things as fantasy and therefore not worthy of our time and contemplation. American Humanists view it as fun and a way to engage in futurist thinking ala Star Trek. Anyway – I do know Humanists who believe in ghosts – but they view them as natural phenomenon and not supernatural. But they are rare.
3. Are there special rites against the contact of such creatures in your religion?
No. It would be rather silly to develop rites and ceremonies to ward off things you don’t think exist. We spend no time thinking about these sorts of things. We focus instead on the very real problems we have here and now. We consider time spent warding off demons and other supernatural creatures to be pointless and harmful. This is because people who believe in things like demons and witchcraft do horrid things in the name of their beliefs. Children are killed in the name of witchcraft. People die during exorcisms. And people die because they consult supernatural “medicine/witch” doctors when they have natural medical problems that could be cured by natural medicine. For instance, epilepsy isn’t caused by demons and is not a form of demonic possession. It is a natural brain disorder that has a natural solution. People who seek out supernatural solutions to their problems because they think their problems have supernatural origins often die as a result of those beliefs or suffer needless with a treatable condition. What’s the harm in these sorts of beliefs? Premature and preventable death and a tremendous amount of unnecessary suffering! It is much better to stick to natural issues, concerns and solutions.
4. Do Humanists believe in the Rapture?
5. Does your religion believe that the way you act while living determine where your spirit goes when you pass on?
No. Mostly because we are almost all existentialists – meaning, our focus is on this existence, not on another existence that may or may not occur. Our philosophy is all about ethics and personal responsibility to behave morally for our sake and the sake of the communities in which we live. As Kurt Vonnegut once said, (To paraphrase him) we don’t do this to get a reward or avoid punishment after we die. We do it because being a good person benefits us in the here and now. We have no need to wait for an afterlife. We can and should be good now. Plus – most Humanists think that belief in an afterlife makes people morally lazy and hinders moral development. By focusing on the effects of your behavior in the afterlife, you remove the benefit or consequence so far away that it is essentially meaningless. When you focus, as a Humanist does, on the consequences of your behavior to your life right now, it provides a stronger motivation to behave morally.
6. Does your religion recognize any form of reincarnation?
No – first, we reject supernaturalism. Second we have no dogma, so there is no formal teaching or beliefs that you have to hold or reject to be a Humanist.
7. Do Humanists believe in an afterlife of any kind?
The overwhelming majority don’t. Though most of us would also admit to a sort of agnosticism about this. I don’t know if there is another life. I suspect not. What I do know is I am alive now and I’m not going to waste this opportunity. As Camus said, “If there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.” As far as I am concerned, if I don’t life this life fully and to the best of my ability – I don’t deserve another life anyway. If I get another life bonus, but I’m not betting on it. Most Humanists believe that focusing on another life harms not only moral development but enjoyment of this life and it is used by those who would oppress us to stay oppressed. After all, if we accept suffering in this life, we may be rewarded in another. This single doctrine is responsible for maintaining the status quo of suffering all over the world! To a Humanist, suffering isn’t noble. There is nothing gained from it. If this is the only life we have, than it is up to us to make it better, not just for ourselves, but for everyone else. Struggling against suffering and oppression IS our only hope. Praying and hoping for another life diverts our energy and attention away from improving this life and it divests us of our responsibility to act on our behalf and on the behalf of others. In other words, we think belief in an afterlife leads to and encourages moral apathy.
8. What sort of rituals does your religion have surrounding the death of someone?
Because we favor the belief that death is final, we have no rituals to help the deceased’s soul go anywhere. There is no place for it to go and the person is dead, so we don’t need to worry about them anymore. Instead, our funeral and memorial services are focused on helping the living come to terms with the death of a loved one and to help people with their grieving process. A Humanist funeral or memorial service is quite moving. People of all faiths seem to prefer them to religious funerals because they are so helpful to the survivors in terms of helping them with their grief and memories. We have celebrants who provide these services to families who request these sorts of services, but because of the young age of our philosophic movement, celebrants are not available in all communities.
So now comes the big question: if you are a Humanist, do you agree with my answers? If not, why not? Is there anything else you would like to add?