The leading humanist philosopher Richard Norman, author of On Humanism and a founder member of the Humanist Philosophers Group, kindly agreed to be interviewed for Virtual Philosopher. I’ve included some extracts from the interview below. You can download the complete interview Download richard_norman.rtf [16 KB rtf file].
Nigel: What does Humanism mean?
Richard: I take it to be a view of the world which rejects religious beliefs - belief in a god or gods and belief in an after-life. It asserts that this is the only life we have and that we are responsible for making the most of it. And it maintains that we can find from our own resources, in human nature and human relationships, the means to live good lives – both in the sense of lives which are morally good and in the sense of lives which are fulfilling and meaningful.
Nigel: Why do you reject the idea that God exists?
Richard: I believe that the onus is on those who believe in the existence of a god to provide reasons for that belief. (This is a point which the philosopher Antony Flew has well made.) I can’t prove that there is no god, but in the absence of good reasons for believing that a god exists, I live my life without belief in a god. In particular, the success of scientific explanations of the natural world makes religious explanations redundant. It’s in that sense that there is a tension between science and religion. The two are not logically incompatible, but the more we succeed in discovering well-founded scientific explanations of the origins of the cosmos, the origins of living species, and so on, the more the explanations in terms of a divine creator become redundant. They add nothing.
Nigel: Why is there such an emphasis on being positive in humanism? It seems to me that much of the wishful thinking in religion is focussed on things turning out well and people being basically nice. Shouldn't those who recognise that there is no God also recognise humanity's darker side and the possibility that things may turn out very badly for us?
Richard: It’s important for humanists to acknowledge humanity’s darker side, and they have not always done so. There was a tendency especially on the part of some earlier generations of secularists to suppose that it only needed the rejection of superstition and the triumph of reason to usher in the new millennium. The horrors of twentieth-century history have made any such naïve optimism impossible to sustain. But that’s not a reason for despair. It makes no sense to maintain either that human beings are inherently corrupted, or that everything is guaranteed to turn out well (and Christianity seems to me to be an uneasy attempt to combine both those theses). We can find innumerable examples in human experience of the terrible things that human beings are capable of, but also of the inspiring achievements of which they are capable – cultural and artistic achievements, struggles for social justice, and so on. Humanism needs to be positive only in the sense of having a positive vision of what is possible.
Nigel: Do philosophers in particular have anything important to offer Humanism?
Richard: Humanism is philosophy. I don’t like the view of academic philosophy as a self-contained technical discipline. The central problems of philosophy, as discussed in the literature, all derive ultimately (though not always obviously) from ordinary people’s attempts to understand what the world is like, what kinds of things exist, what kinds of explanations count as good explanations of why things are as they are, and how we can decide how we ought to live. It’s important for academic philosophy to be reminded of its roots. So humanism actually has something important to offer philosophy.
© Richard Norman 2006