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Humanism: Love, Purpose and Responsibility in a finite universe

“Forget them, Wendy. Forget them all. Come with me where you’ll never, never have to worry about grown up things again.
Never is an awfully long time.”

P.J. Hogan, Peter Pan, 2003, (Film).

One of the most underrated characters in children’s fiction is J.M. Barrie’s Wendy Darling. Those who know me will roll their eyes at reading this, ‘not Peter Pan again’, they’ll sigh. There is, however, a good reason for my affection of Barrie’s work. Hidden beneath a narrative that seems to be a tale of escapism and childishness, is a celebration of maturity, acceptance of responsibility, and a urgent call to choose to face life as it is, no matter how difficult it may be. Wendy is the victor of this story, not Peter Pan. She realises the beauty in accepting the finality of real life, over escapism that infantilizes us and leads us to live in an endless cycle of fear of the unknown. It is only when we choose to do the same that we can grow to love deeply, and take true responsibility for the things that go on in our world. This acceptance, responsibility and rationalism is what I call Humanism.

I have identified as a Humanist for about three years now, although I would say I lacked belief in a god, and certainly the human institutions that purport a belief in one, since I was about eighteen – all-in-all about six years. The word ‘atheist’ was a taboo in my religious community, and the ‘secular world’ was something to set yourself apart from. Therefore, with a misinformed fear of those words, I found myself very lost with no idea how to identify myself. I settled for the under-descriptive ‘agnostic’. That word seemed less frightening, a more flexible position – not as hardline as the harsh-sounding ‘atheist’. It wasn’t until I came to a Humanist Society in Exeter that I found the word I was looking for.

The biggest, and perhaps most appealing aspect of a Humanist worldview, is that it actively pushes you to embrace and celebrate those who are ‘other’ to yourself, not simply to tolerate them. You see, to me, my Christian beliefs restricted my ability, not just to think as I pleased, but also to love as I pleased. Growing up, I was taught that old saying ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’; but I found that if I ‘hated the sin’, something that was innate to that person’s character, then my ability to ‘love the sinner’ was vastly restricted. It seemed to me, by the age of eighteen, that the church, whose teachings and up-beat music rested on the belief in a loving God, also perpetuated a toxic paradox: the more I believed in Gods love, the more I came to despise human nature. I saw humanity as innately broken and retched, but most of all, I believed humanity was unable to save itself, living only at the mercy of God’s Grace. My destiny was not my own, any purpose was not my purpose, and all judgments of ‘the other’, even where their actions did not harm me, were seen as loving and righteous. Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, contempt for true human liberty sat wrapped up in poetic language. Liberalism, and my faith in an invisible authority, sat at odds with one another; only one could triumph. The straw that broke the camel’s back came when I realised the implications of the writings of St. Paul on my feminism, my theological understanding having firmly rested on the gospels, before the teachings of St. Paul. In Ephesians 5 lay the path to the demise of my faith. I realised that a vast majority of religious teachings perpetuate anti-female, antiquitous ideals. At this stage either I picked and chose my beliefs to match my own human relative morality (in which case, why not pick and choose from any collection of books and morals), or I rejected the lot. Ultimately I chose the latter approach.

It is often believed that without some entity greater than ourselves we lack purpose. So when, as a Humanist, a religious person asks me how I can have any purpose in a finite universe, or seems surprised to find that an atheist has ‘a heart’ to serve others, I am not shocked. I argue, however, that the fact that humanity can only be certain of having one life, and that the responsibility falls solely to us to ensure the planet flourishes means that life is so much more meaningful. If you cannot rely on some kind of supernatural justice, you must settle to have to work for that justice in the here and now. If you cannot expect to see family or friends in another life, you must make the most of the relationships you have in the immediate. To live without belief in a god and to rely solely on the goodwill of humanity is to accept that you must take responsibility for your actions and the actions of society at large. Everyone, no matter how small, has an impact.

For me, Humanism is a call to make the world the kind of place we all want to inhabit. It is a call from one person to another, not to deny our human nature, but to embrace and celebrate it. In this regard, I aim to be more like Wendy. I am not afraid to enquire and battle with the things I do not understand, but ultimately chose to live with my feet firmly in reality. Here I can hope to make the most difference, and reap the benefits of an inclusive society, within the timeframe that I have.

Hannah Timson, President, Humanist Students

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