For humanists, the meaning of life is simple and natural – Professor Alice Roberts

Professor Alice Roberts explains why she co-wrote a new book about humanism, a philosophy that views the world as natural, not supernatural
Fenner Brockway told of feeling at one with the ‘spirit of the sea and sky’ while viewing a beautiful sunset (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)Fenner Brockway told of feeling at one with the ‘spirit of the sea and sky’ while viewing a beautiful sunset (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Fenner Brockway told of feeling at one with the ‘spirit of the sea and sky’ while viewing a beautiful sunset (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

I think many people are humanists without realising it. Humanism feels to me like a very natural and simple philosophy. At the heart of it is an approach to the world and the self that is rational. There’s no cooked-up mystery, no smoke and mirrors. Humanists look to natural causes and explanations, rather than invoking supernatural explanations – including deities.

Most humanists are either atheist, as there’s no evidence for a divine presence in the world, or agnostic, as there’s no way of absolutely disproving the existence of any gods. (To be fair, you could also argue there’s no way of disproving the existence of fairies or unicorns either – but most people don’t see that as a reason for going the other way and deciding to believe in them; that seems deliberately contrary).

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The other important aspect of a humanist philosophy on life is the belief that we, as humans, have the power to make good choices, to lead a good life, to create a better society – and look after our planet, too. Humanists think that hope for a better future lies with the choices we make, and that our own human capacities for reason, love and empathy and moral sense can make us better people. Discussing humanism with a vicar once, I mused that I thought the fundamental difference in our beliefs may have been that she believed in an external source of goodness, whereas I believed that the source of goodness was within us.

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These kinds of ideas – that the world is natural, not infused with supernatural forces or divinity, and that humans have it within themselves to be better people and make the world a better place, with morals guided by reason and empathy – have been around a long time.

When you start reading around, you realise that many people, through history, have had a rational approach like this to the world – and to their own morals. I suspect that this way of thinking was even more widespread in the past than we can detect – as religions have often had control over history, and over what ends up being written down and passed on. Even so, there’s a rich seam of humanist thinking and writing going way back.

A collection of ancient and modern ideas

More and more people are discovering humanism or, perhaps a better way of putting it, discovering that humanism describes how they already think. Sometimes that discovery or realisation comes along at a time when people might want to mark an event – a birth, a marriage, a death – and find that the religious options just don’t represent what they really believe. For a lot of people, humanism really does encapsulate what they already think about the world, and how to live a good life.

But I’ve found that a lot of books about humanism are large and academic. They’re good, but not perhaps the sort of book you might just dip into for a bit of inspiration or wisdom. I wanted such a book to exist. So that’s what this little book is – a collection of ancient and modern humanist ideas and perspectives. I’ve loved collecting together these quotes, with fellow humanist Andrew Copson, as well as writing short passages, and distilling the selection down into what I hope you’ll find is a perfectly formed, small book.

Friends have contributed beautiful drawings and photographs to brighten the pages. I hope you find joy and inspiration, thoughtful reassurance, insightful reflection and hope within its pages – as I have done.

‘You’ve got to be kind’

Here is very small selection of some of my favourite quotes from our brand new Little Book of Humanism. We decided to open the book with this wonderful quote from American writer Kurt Vonnegut: “Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’”

And here’s a brilliant quote from British politician Fenner Brockway, about feeling a strong spiritual connection with the rest of the natural world – something that really resonates with me: “... one evening as I stood looking over the green ocean towards the red sunset... A great calm came over me. I became lost in the beauty of the scene. My spirit reached out and became one with the spirit of the sea and sky. I was one with the universe beyond. I seemed to become one with all life. This experience had a profound effect on me. It came to me often when I was alone with Nature. It swept over me as I looked out to the stars at night. It was a continuous inspiration.”

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Sometimes, religious people say “but what is the meaning of life without god?” Well, I believe we make our own meaning. Here’s the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir on the subject: “One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation, and compassion.”

And finally – for now – the wonderful Douglas Adams: “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

I think it is!

Alice Roberts is professor of public engagement in science at the University of Birmingham, a biological anthropologist, author, broadcaster and president of Humanists UK

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