Is there anything to celebrate about human beings?
We have already learned that a humanist understanding of human beings sees us as material and mortal creatures, evolved through natural processes, rather than designed or created, not here for some special purpose nor holding some special place in the universe.
However, the fact that we are made of atoms alone does not mean that human beings are not extraordinary creatures. Despite the fact that we do not hold some privileged position on the tree of life, we do still appear to be different from other animals in ways that make us stand out.
One can highlight many remarkable features of human beings including our brains, our communication, our imagination, our creativity, and our capacity to solve problems. Some other living creatures possess some of these features, but none that we know of has all in a comparable capacity. Our ability to empathise with and take care of each other can also be considered something to be celebrated. We are capable of kindness, friendship, and love. Furthermore, as conscious creatures, we have purpose, agency, and the capability to both understand the world around us and to question that understanding. Our curiosity inspires our quest to know more, and our capacity to reason helps us to uncover truths about the world. As far as we know, we may be the only things in this universe capable of understanding it. We should not be arrogant enough to assume that we ever will, but we can rejoice in the fact that we at least have the opportunity to try. The universe may not be made for us, but that should not prevent us from recognising how fortunate we are that we have the opportunity to explore its wonders.
We also have the incredible ability to transmit ideas between minds. It often takes place without us paying any attention to it, but when we consider what happens, it is hard not to wonder at the fact that I can transmit an idea to your mind by simply arranging particular marks on the screen. Like this:
This capacity is important for a humanist way of life as it emphasises the collaborative nature of humanity. It allows us to have developed culture, to pass on our knowledge and skills, and even (as we will explore more in Week 3) gives us a way for something of us to survive our deaths, a way for us to contribute to humanity after we are gone. Through our collaborative efforts, we have accomplished many admirable artistic, scientific, and societal achievements and created things which enrich our lives such as music and comedy, medicine and spacecraft, democracy and human rights.
How humanism differs from religious worldviews is in the belief that all of these gifts are natural. Our attributes have evolved biologically and culturally, rather than having been bestowed upon us from an external, divine source.
We are animals. We evolved through the same process as every other living thing, with biological urges, hungers, and desires. However, we have also evolved capacities that, on occasion, enable us to rise above our instincts. We are beings that reason. This capability allows us to, in some sense, escape from nature. It gives us a sense of freedom that is a central aspect of being human.
‘We possess forethought and will … Uniquely among organisms, human beings are both objects of nature and subjects that can shape our own fate. We are biological beings, and under the purview of biological and physical laws. But we are also conscious beings with purpose and agency, traits the possession of which allow us to design ways of breaking the constraints of biological and physical laws. We are, in other words, both inside nature and outside of it.’
Kenan Malik, Handbook of Humanism
This is not an attempt to attribute us with supernatural qualities, but is rather to claim that our capacity to reason enables us sometimes to overcome our evolved instincts and that this gives us the potential to consider how we should live.
Here it is perhaps worth addressing a popular misconception about humanism: that it is a worship of human beings. Humanism does not seek to glorify humanity. It makes no claims about our essential goodness, or about the inevitability of progress and the triumph of reason. Human beings are capable of great ignorance and cruelty, and one does not have to look hard to find examples of humanity at its worst. Humanism involves a realistic recognition of both our flaws and limitations, and our capacities, and asks us then to consider how we can make the best of our potential. When we do there is much we can celebrate and value about being human.