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Depth and richness in life

Humanist philosopher Richard Norman describes the sources of depth and wonder in a humanist approach to life

Humanists are sometimes accused of being dry-as-dust rationalists who value only science and logical reasoning. That is an impoverished understanding of humanism, because it reflects a diminished view of what it is to be human. Of course there is more to life than that, and humanists believe in making the most of all our human capacities.

The criticism sometimes takes the form of saying that because we are ‘materialists’ we leave no room for the ‘spiritual’ side of life. But what is that? The trouble with talk of ‘spirituality’ is that it suggests something set apart from the rest of human life. It carries connotations of special ‘spiritual practices’ such as prayer and worship, or ‘spiritual experiences’ such as revelatory visions of the divine. And it implies that you need to believe in a ‘spirit’ separate from our bodily existence.

Such language is unhelpful, but we need not reject it altogether. We talk naturally, for example, of being ‘in high spirits’ and of things that ‘lift the spirits’. So what are they – those dimensions of our humanity which make life worth living and which involve more than just our intellectual understanding of the world?

First, there is the exercise of creativity and imagination. This is actually essential to scientific enquiry, which is more than just the collecting of facts, but it is also exemplified in artistic activity: the expressing of our experiences and emotions in creative writing, painting, music, and dance. It’s not confined to the ‘high arts’. We can express our creativity in a whole range of activities, from building a shed to scoring a goal, from planting a garden to raising a family. In all these ways we get a sense of achievement by using our skill and inspiration.

Secondly, there are our relations to one another, and the emotions and loyalties which are invested in them and can enrich our lives. Again there is a wide range, from the intimate emotions of love, friendship, and family, to our membership of wider communities, and our involvements in groups and organisations working together for common goals. In all these ways, we meet the deep human need to feel that we are not alone, that we can find fulfilment in what we share with others.

Thirdly, there is the importance of our relationship to the non-human world. We are enabled to put our limited human concerns into perspective by taking delight in other living things. We are revitalised by our enjoyment of the countryside, in activities from walking the dog to climbing mountains, and the value of such enjoyment is equally apparent in the popularity of television programmes about the natural world. We are moved not just by the life around us but by the glory of a sunset, the pristine whiteness of a landscape covered in snow, or the awe-inspiring immensity of a sky full of stars. Our concern about environmental destruction is not just a worry about the practical consequences but a testimony to the importance of our sense of kinship with other life-forms and our place within a larger world.

Our sense of awe is not diminished but enhanced by a scientific understanding of how that world, with its immense variety of plant and animal species, has evolved. Nowhere is this better expressed than in the concluding words of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species:

‘There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.’

Is this a ‘spiritual’ experience? You could call it that if you so wished, but it is not something set apart from our lives in the world. Humanists are not ‘materialists’ in the crude popular sense. We know full well that there is so much more to life than the pursuit of economic gain and material possessions. But the things that give depth and meaning to our existence are all aspects of our experience as physical beings in a physical world. We express our creativity by making things with our hands and our brains. We relate to others as embodied human beings, whether sharing a meal, making love, nursing a child, or working and playing together. We are part of the natural world. That is all the ‘spirituality’ we need.

© Humanists UK
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Humanist Lives, with Alice Roberts

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