We Are The Makers Of Our World ; Let Us Remake It !

Notes on Certain Aspects of the Structure of Modern Humanist Thought

1.Naturalism, Scientific Temper and Humanism

When we talk of Humanism, the term today carries with it certain implications- philosophical, scientific, sociological and ethical. Life demands from us some sort of a world view whether we are aware of it or not. Those with scientific outlook insist that we rid ourselves of all sorts of mysticism. The world view of a truly scientific person will be Naturalism.
Naturalism seeks to explain everything related to the universe – events, phenomena, our life, thoughts and emotions – in terms of natural causes and effects. It rejects belief in mystical and supernatural entities, beings, or forces. By nature is meant the sum total of everything in the universe. The universe exists without a beginning, purpose or final cause; i.e. it is self-existent.Naturalism asserts that the external world we live in objectively exists. The thinking person is a part of this world. Neither the person nor the world is an illusion. Since man is part of nature, his ideas, dreams, emotions etc also belong to nature.
Knowledge is gained by the aid of sense perception. We formulate laws of nature by studying the order and regularity manifested in nature. Prayers or sacrifices cannot break or transform the laws of nature. This naturalist position enables the scientist and the philosopher to establish cause-effect relationship and enhances the possibility for further enquiry at every step in the scientific investigation. Since there is no place for mysticism, all experiences which are extra-ordinary and attributed to supernaturalism must be put to scientific investigation. It is only by such endeavour that our knowledge of the physical world increases. In this pursuit, curiosity acts as a motivating factor. Doubt and scepticism prevent us from falling into blind faith and supernaturalism. Knowledge gained in this way enables us to better utilize the resources in nature and make our life happier. Supernaturalism, by proposing false hypotheses and explanations, puts stumbling blocks in the path of progress. The humanist admonition to escape from superstitions has a strong ethical foundation. We propagate Naturalism and the Scientific Outlook so as to make this world a better place to live in.
The Naturalist strain in human thought goes far back in history. Some sort of proto-naturalism existed in the Indian sub continent during the Vedic Period (1400-1000 B.C.). (1). It is known as ‘Swabhava Vada’. Compared to the level of knowledge we have acquired since then, these heretics were quite poor in every respect. Yet they were skeptical about the reality of a God. In the period of the Upanishads (800 – 600 B.C.), thinkers proposed various views. The method of scientific experimentation as we know today was non- existent. Even with such shortcomings, they speculated a world that evolved out of primeval matter. M.N.Roy (a staunch Atheist, he is one of the founders of International Humanist and Ethical Union: http://www.iheu.org ) was quite eloquent about the positive heritage:
“ The students of ancient history and thought, Indian as well as European, know that, barring the period of ancient Greek learning, India developed a greater volume of materialist, rationalist, scientific thought than was done by the pioneers of European civilization. When we come out of the Vedic era and read the Upanishads, which contain the foundation of Indian philosophy, we find not only rationalism, naturalism and agnosticism, but also out and out atheism and materialism. One of the eighteen main Upanishads is entirely devoted to a very brilliant exposition of rationalist and naturalist thinking and most outspoken heretical views. It denies the existence of God and soul; it holds that nothing but matter exists, and that there is no other world beyond this world. Its theses can be summarised as follows:
There is no reincarnation, no God, no Heaven, no hell; all traditional religious literature is the work of conceited fools; nature, the Originator, and time, the Destroyer are the rulers of things, and take no account of virtue or vice, in awarding happiness or misery to men; people deluded by flowery speeches, cling to God’s temples and priests when in reality, there is no difference between Vishnu and a dog. ( Swasanvedyopanishad, Eliot II, p. 322.)
In the same Upanishad, one reads the story of Virochana, who for years studied at the feet of Prajapati himself, and learned Brahmavidya. Thereafter, on returning to earth, he preached:
One’s self is to be made happy here on earth. One’s self is to be waited upon. He, who makes himself happy here on earth, obtains both worlds, this and the next.
In Chhandogya Upanishad, orthodox Brahmans are compared with “a procession of dogs, each holding the tail of his predecessor and chanting piously ‘ Om, let us eat; Om let us drink.’ ” ( I, p. 12 )
The origin of the naturalist and sceptic thought developed in some of the major Upanishads, indeed can be traced even in the Rig veda, for instance, in the Creation Hymn which concludes the dialogue between the parents of mankind- the twin brother and sister, Yama and yami.
The Ramayana records the story of Jabali- the sceptic and sophist who questioned faith and scriptural laws. The Mahabharata also denounces “doubters and atheists who deny the reality of souls.” They” wander over the whole earth”; they were “rationalists, critics of the Vedas, revilers of Brahmans.” The Gita also refers to heretics “who deny the existence of God.”
Finally, of the six systems of Indian philosophy, at least three are out and out rationalist, and those three have the greater significance. While the Sankhyas expounded atheistic naturalism, the Vaisheshik and Nyaya system tended clearly towards materialism. That very significant evolution of thought, out of the background of the Vedic religion and Upanishadic metaphysical speculation, in the fullness of time, ushered in the Golden Age of India, if there ever was one, that is the Buddhist period. The later Upanishads and earlier Buddhist literature are full of references to “heretics, atheists and materialists.”
It is recorded that, when Buddha was a young man, the great halls and vast forests of Northern India were echoing the powerful voice denying the divine origin of the Vedas and the authority of the Brahmans, and preaching agnosticism, atheism and materialism. And it was during the several centuries of the Buddhist era that India really attained a very high level of material and moral culture.
But the long process of the development of naturalist, rationalist, sceptic, agnostic and materialist thought in ancient India found culmination in the Charvaka system of philosophy, which can be compared with Greek Epicureanism, and as such, is to be appreciated as the positive outcome of the intellectual culture of ancient India. That precious heritage, unfortunately, has come down to us only in small fragments, which, pieced together painstakingly, give a general idea of the system. But there is a hope of rescuing the whole of it thanks to the recorded vehemence and thoroughness of its orthodox opponents who almost succeeded in destroying all traces of it. On the basis of logical inferences from the arguments, used to combat the Charvakas, the entire system can be reconstructed. That is perhaps the basic task of Indian Renaissance.
The greatest of the “Paribrajakas” mentioned in the earliest Buddhist literature, those Sophists and Stoics of ancient India, was one Brihaspathi. He was the founder of Indian Epicureanism- The Charvaka System. The Brihaspathi Sutras are referred to frequently in contemporary Buddhist and Brahmanical texts. But only some remnants of the Sutras themselves survived the downfall of Buddhism. From them we learn that Brihaspathi condemned Brahmans as “men devoid of intellect and manliness, who uphold the authority of the Vedas because they yield them the means of a comfortable livelihood.”
The Charvakas laughed at the notion that the Vedas were divinely revealed truth; they held that truth can never be known except through the senses. Therefore, the idea of soul is a delusion. The Charvakas thus anticipated the modern philosophical thought of ultra-empiricism. They held that even reason was not to be trusted, because every inference depended for its validity not only upon accurate observation and correct reasoning, but also upon the assumption that the future would behave like the past, and of this there was no certainty.
That was anticipating modern agnosticism more than two thousand years before Hume. But the Charvakas were not mere nihilists, agnostics and sceptics. They developed an elaborate system of positive philosophical thought:
All phenomena are natural. Neither in experience nor in history do we find any interposition of supernatural forces. Matter is the only reality; the mind is matter thinking. The hypothesis of a Creator is useless for explaining or understanding the world. Men think religion necessary only because, being accustomed to it, they feel a sense of loss and an uncomfortable void when the growth of knowledge destroys faith. Morality is natural; it is a social convention and convenience, not a divine command. There is no need to control instincts and emotions; they are commands of nature. The purpose of life is to live; and the only wisdom is happiness. (Humanism, Revivalism and The Indian Heritage, Pp.15 to 18, Published: 1999)
Uddalaka Aruni – The First Materialist And Nature Scientist
The general understanding seems to be that Thales of Miletus (sixth century BC- Greece) ‘took the first prodigious step to global science’. On the basis of a part of the Chandogya Upanishad, Dr. Debi Prasad Chattopadhyaya shows that Uddalaka Aruni of the clan of Gautama has ‘the honor of first opening the gates of natural science’. He was a learned Brahmin of Kuru- Panchala, the heart land of Aryavarta culture. He considered questions raised by direct observations more important than the mythical pronouncements about pitryana and devayana- paths along which the departed soul moved. Asked about atman, his answer was peculiar and remarkable:
The king said to Uddalaka Aruni: “Gautama, whom do you revere as the atman?”
“The earth, indeed, sir, Oh king,” said he.
The words Brahma or moksha does not occur in his teachings. Sat (being) was the ultimate reality- a new terminology coined by him.
‘In the beginning this world was just Being, one only, without a second’

Early philosophy was speculative in nature, though perhaps based on observations. As we know, Modern Science is characterized by its efficiency to prove or disprove hypotheses making use of experimental methods. By science we mean organized form of acquired knowledge. Philosophy co-ordinates theoretical laws of different branches of science into a general frame- work providing us with the advantage of a world view. In the light of ever expanding knowledge, we are bound to update on our previously adopted positions. In this sense, propagating Charvaka’s views is not enough as far as modern day humanists are concerned. We have to remember that all the heterodox views prevalent in ancient India were stifled by the forces of Brahmanism for a very long period in India. Then we witnessed an attempt at renaissance (Period of Buddhism) and then a stronger counter tendency for revival of the Brahminic forces. Now we are passing through a peculiar cultural climate in the subcontinent. To combat the forces of darkness, we need to acquire the latest level of scientific knowledge. In Hinduism, we are confronting not a religion dismissing science, but one claiming to have within its store- house all the scientific knowledge from the days of yore. Other religions have taken note of the propaganda value of this sort of argument and lately are trying to follow suit. We are familiar with the Modernist Muslim arguments. They would like to tell us that Qur’an is the most advanced scientific document. Without tackling each religious force in the most appropriate way for it, we will not be able to enlighten the masses. Whether we like it or not, religious criticism comes up as something unavoidable when we take the ideas of rationalism or scientific temper to the people. It goes without saying that without educating the masses free thinkers, rationalists and atheists will not be able to lead the life of freedom they would very much like to .And what are we supposed to propagate? Telling them that there is no Devil or God? That it is better for them to eschew superstitions? Certainly we have to do these. To make them understand that their present life on this earth is unique and they have to make the most of it is, no doubt, of paramount importance. In certain instances, such an approach as the preliminary step may not be suitable. Since we have to succeed in our endeavor we must be pragmatic. Without properly communicating with our immediate surroundings, how can we let others know that they too can acquire treasures of knowledge? Unless we succeed in opening their eyes, how can we make them understand that they too can travel on the roads to freedom? It has nothing to do with proselytizing as practiced by the fanatic religionists. To cheerfully live in a healthy society, we need a philosophy for the times. Equipped with the most advanced philosophy based on scientific outlook, we have to train the masses in Scientific Temper so as to awaken in them the potentiality for rational thinking. That is how they will realize their own creativity. That is the only way to make them eligible to take part in developmental activities. Rational thinking alone will make them moral and ethical. Certain Ideas which are familiar to some are liable to be misconceived and fought against. Some people may consider our attempts as prompted by evil designs. It is quite natural that our ideas are strange to many others. Great ideas may be easily conceivable as far as the educated people are concerned. There is need to exert great effort when we consider the plight of the common man. Communication and education might bridge most of the gaps in the realm of ideas. There has been a continuous evolution and development in our ideas and concepts parallel to the material development. Therefore, to approach the masses in a big way for the successful execution of a project of Enlightenment, the educators will have to understand the important turning points in the history of ideas.
One of the most important tasks is spreading Scientific Outlook. For a humanist culture to develop, the vast majority of the people must lead a life informed of Scientific Temper.
Nature is vast and infinite. This means that our knowledge about this universe has necessarily to grow further and further. There is no end to such an expansion of the frontiers of knowledge. Naturalists are not shy to admit that there may be questions to which ready- made answers cannot be given at a particular point of time. However, they do not stop enquiry with an unsatisfactory explanation. In fact, Naturalism prompts continuous search for answers.
As probable explanations we may formulate hypotheses. But these will have to be tested repeatedly under different conditions. Untenable hypotheses are rejected. Results of experiments which bestow strong evidences we agree upon are confirmed as theories. The scientific method is based on the law of cause and effect. Every event in the universe is the result of some preceding causes and the same phenomena will result under similar conditions. This is the simple description of the scientific method which the Naturalists adopt to unfold the secrets of nature. Scientific method is not confined to the laboratory alone. One of the dark areas where this method is objected or suppressed is that of religion. The religious establishment is known to oppose enquiries of this kind. Religion may provide you with a certain number of dogmas. But their nature defies validity since scientific experimentation is either forbidden or out of the question. Believers rely on blind faith. No believer ascertains the truth value of his dogmas. Hence this area remains the darkest.
Humanists promote scepticism and scientific temper in place of blind faith and religiosity. In their endeavour to dispel darkness, Rationalists and Humanists engage themselves in educating the individual. They do not act as saviours. Instead, they shed light in to the recesses of creativity thus bringing out the potential of the individual, instilling confidence and optimism in life.
If there is anything self- existent and self – explanatory, it is nature itself.

2. Naturalism, Scientific Temper and Humanitarianism

There is a wide spread misconception regarding Humanism. This relates to the difference between Humanism and Humanitarianism.
Humanism as a world view enjoys wide support among thinking people globally. At the same time, the term is either misunderstood or at the worst misrepresented by certain forces at play even in the Rationalist fold. Some people would like to see the idea added to their decadent ideology so as to make their organization look relevant and contemporary without undergoing any meaningful change as a result of their accepting Humanist Philosophy. They use the word Humanism in place of humanitarianism as if they would very much like to pluck out the secular and atheistic core from it. Humanism is the philosophic child of the Renaissance movement. The Amsterdam Declaration of 2002 clearly stated what Humanists mean by ‘Humanism’ basing upon which the International Humanist and Ethical Union works. The IHEU Minimum Statement on Humanism says:
“Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.”(2)
From the above it is quite clear that humanists reject all super natural concepts as non-existent and invalid. Since Humanists do not consider supernatural ideas or collectivities founded on unquestionable dogmas to be the source of their ethics, their humanitarianism is founded on secular ethics. Root of such an ethics is to be sought in the rationality of the individual.
There may be religious people who wrongly qualify certain actions which are humanitarian in nature as humanism. A contributing factor that helps to sustain the confusion is the fact that humanitarianism is contained in the Ethics of Humanism. The Amsterdam declaration has amply made it clear that Humanism imposes no creed upon its adherents. It further clarifies that Humanism is committed to education that is devoid of indoctrination.
It has been noticed that certain rationalists have been using these terms in a manner that creates confusion. Hence, this attempt to point out the clear difference that can be discerned when knowledgeable persons use these words. Dr. D.D. Bandiste, in his book, ‘New Humanism – A revolutionary Philosophy’ has discussed this aspect. Since his treatment of the difference will be useful for our readers I propose to heavily depend on him in this article. I strongly recommend the book (3) for students of Humanism.
Humanists are secular and rational. They are scientific in outlook. In their Ontology (= the part of philosophy which deals with the science of BEING), they are Naturalists.
What about the broad class of humanitarians?
Humanitarians may include religious people. It is possible that some humanitarians are believers in some sort of God, Soul, life in the Here-after etc. There are humanitarians who strongly believe that the basis of their humanitarianism is belief in religion or some such thing as ‘Spirituality’. In fact, some people seem to argue that the religious people are the best examples of Humanitarians.
Humanists believe that ideas are formed in the human brain through sense perception. Knowledge, according to them, is not derived from superstitious scriptures or infallible prophets. Hence their good works are conscious efforts based on rational thought. Take the case of humanitarians who are not secular humanists. Their values are sought to be explained using concepts which they claim to be outside or beyond human understanding! Even service for the welfare of fellow human beings will be described as service or duty to some supernatural entity! All the greatness of their altruism fades when we hear from them that they do good to please some non-existent entity. One may not respect a person when he affirms that he is moral because he fears God. The ethics of religionists sound horrible to humanists when destitution and poverty are justified by some humanitarians on the ground that it is due to the existence of these inequalities that they ‘fortunately’ engage themselves in the service of their God.
Humanists consider themselves to be the makers of their own destiny. This sense of freedom makes them self confident. They cheerfully embark on various activities useful to the mankind. Their altruism gives them great pleasure. They hate to become servants of any unjust force or collectivism. Humanists endeavour to make people self-reliant.
Many people have wrong notions about the humility shown by religious humanitarians. Isn’t it just the expression of mental slavery? They are virtuous only because they are cowed down by some weird beliefs. To use the term HUMANISM wherever humanitarianism is intended results in devaluing the iconoclastic and secular connotation originally and essentially contained in Renaissance Humanism. No humanist can afford to be ignorant of the fine distinctions. To the unaware, my clarification, following Dr.Bandiste, is as below:
The word ‘humanitarianism’ without any qualifier like secular may be taken to mean non-humanist enterprises. Secular Humanitarianism is an integral part of Humanism. Hence, HUMANISM need not be mixed up with religious humanitarianism. Humanism and Humanitarianism are not words equivalent in meaning or in use. Where acts of kindness are in mind, the words altruism, philanthropy, humanitarianism etc. are available for use.
Modern Humanism can be considered to have started with the appearance of the first Humanist Manifesto of 1933. It was the result of the works of a liberal Protestant group known as Unitarians. They rejected the idea of Holy Trinity. They thought Jesus Christ was a human being. Believing in one God, they supported social reforms and advocated individual freedom in matters of religion. Their liberal interpretations of matters of Church and theology resulted in the movement known as religious Humanism. Their emphasis on the human individual enabled them to include skeptics and agnostics in their movement. They published a more secular version of their Manifesto in 1973 (the second Humanist Manifesto). Many considered the movement as a reasonable alternative to religion. That their trajectory was progressive and secular is evidenced by the publication in 1980 of the Secular Humanist Declaration. The ideas of Renaissance encouraging exploration and enquiry were instrumental in the splitting away of Roman Catholic Church. To deny the anti-clerical spirit contained in Humanism is nothing but falsification of history.

Abdul Majeed.

Notes and references:

(1)[In Chandogya Upanishad, an entire chapter (ch.vi) is devoted to his teachings. For a detailed discussion of the importance of Uddalaka as also his method of observation and experimental proof (as early as the 8th or 7th century B.C.!) that differentiates Uddalaka from speculative thinkers like Yajnavalkya: ‘The Beginnings’, (Series: Global Philosophy for Every man),Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya,Navakarnataka Publications Pvt. Ltd.,Bangalore, Karnataka.]

(2)’The Naturalist Tradition in Indian Thought’ by Dale Riepe, Motilal Banarsidas, Delhi.


(4) ‘New Humanism – A Revolutionary Philosophy’(1996),Dr. D.D. Bandiste,
New Age International Limited,4835/24, Ansari Road,Darya ganj, New Delhi.

(5) ‘The Missionary Position – Mother Teresa In Theory And Practice’, (2012), by Christopher Hitchens, Atlanda Books, London.

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