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This content is taken from the Humanists UK's online course, Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life, with Sandi Toksvig. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds Congratulations! You’ve completed Week Two. Let’s take a look at what we’ve learned. It is clear we know more today about ourselves and the world in which we live than we did at any other point in human history. No more can one attribute one’s runny nose to witchcraft, or use winged horses to explain the apparent movement of the sun, or blame goblins for our missing socks. Through the process of questioning and experiment, science has transformed our understanding of reality.

Skip to 0 minutes and 39 seconds Humanists will accept that there are still a great many questions we don’t know the answer to- where do all the odd socks go?- but that if the history of science has taught us anything, it is that we should be wary of falling back on supernatural explanations. For humanists, there is no persuasive evidence for the existence of any supernatural element to the universe, nor any reason we need to presuppose one. Could the humanist understanding of reality be wrong? Of course. But, the more important question is not ‘Is this definitely true?’ but ‘Is this probably true?’ A sceptical approach to knowledge, which puts nothing beyond question, does not provide certainty.

Skip to 1 minute and 30 seconds What it provides is a way to ensure the beliefs we do hold are more likely to be true. We have learned that humanists believe that all claims should be open to questioning, and that sometimes we need to be prepared to change our minds. These are valuable features of the scientific endeavour. We have also learned that a humanist will typically recognise that we sometimes need to be patient. And sometimes we need to accept we may never know all the answers. But, being a humanist, that won’t stop me looking. See you next week.

Summary of Week 2

Well done! You’ve completed Week 2.

Let’s summarise what we have learned this week:

  1. Our beliefs can be mistaken; we should therefore be prepared to adopt a sceptical approach to knowledge and subject our beliefs to rational, critical scrutiny in order to give them the best chance of being true
  2. Humanists will typically trust the evidence of their senses; they will be wary of claims made on the basis of faith or revelation
  3. Different beliefs can fit the same evidence; when presented with more than one hypothesis that fits the evidence, it is often safest to go with the simplest; we should always consider whether our beliefs might be motivated by something other than the evidence
  4. Reasonableness can come in degrees; beliefs that are neither proved nor disproved can still be more or less reasonable than others
  5. There is no non-circular justification for trusting reason; however, nor is there a good reason for assuming that reason is unreliable
  6. Humanists will reject a relativist approach to truth; facts about the world are independent of our beliefs about them
  7. Humanists believe that science provides the best and most reliable method of answering questions about the world
  8. Science has enabled us to make great progress in our understanding about the world; we should be wary of jumping to supernatural explanations for questions we can’t yet answer
  9. There might be questions that science cannot answer but that does not mean we need to accept religious answers to such questions
  10. A humanist will believe they have good reason to doubt the existence of any deity; humanists will be atheists or agnostics
  11. Humanists believe we can be comfortable living with uncertainty; curiosity can provide many pleasures

Reflect on what you have learned this week and share some of your conclusions in the comments box

Remember this summary step is a good space to ask any questions you still have in the comments area and to take the opportunity to help out your fellow learners with their queries.

Next week

Like nearly all people, humanists will have other priorities in their lives as well as the quest for knowledge. Humanism involves more than just the rational pursuit of truth. As we have already learned, it is also an approach to the question of how we should live our lives. Yes, we always have to live with uncertainty, but that need not stop us from getting on with living in a way that we feel best fits our needs, our goals, and our passions.

Some critics might claim that a humanist understanding of reality leaves no room for value or meaning. Typically, humanists will disagree. Next week we will begin to explore these other equally important aspects of the humanist approach to life by asking: ‘How can we make our lives meaningful?’.

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This video is from the free online course:

Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life, with Sandi Toksvig

Humanists UK