Why do Humanists Value Reason?

Humanists put great value on how we treat others, our ability to care for others, make ethical judgements (decisions which assess the consequences of our actions), and the freedom to decide our own purpose and meaning in life. All these rely on our ability to reason.

Reason is the ability to think clearly and logically, to verify facts, and then to change or modify ourselves, our attitudes, traditions or institutions, based on that information. Reason is a form of freedom that prevents us being chained to beliefs or habits by prompting us to continually ask questions and examine our lives.

Feelings and intuitions are sometimes helpful when dealing with other people, guiding us as to how someone is feeling and how to respond to them. But looking at the results when we interact with others can ascertain how accurate our initial assessments, and responses to them, were.

If we rely only on our own senses and feelings we can be misled. We have a tendency to select information that supports our beliefs (confirmation bias) and to justify our actions (“well they deserved it”), as we wish to maintain self-images of ourselves as good people. When it comes to understanding and explaining the world around us, beliefs and feelings are not reliable guides.

Our reason prompts us to be careful about what we think and feel and to look towards evidence.

Religion is the opposite of reason. We are asked to accept things that we cannot verify and that seem absurd. It relies on believing what we’re told, tradition and (usually) only one holy book containing claims that have no independent means of verification. It is based on personal feelings and experiences that can be faulty. These feelings and experiences are encouraged within us, particularly when we are young, so that they seem real to us, and are then offered as proof of religion’s claims. In order to free itself from scrutiny and to create the illusion these inner experiences are shared, it uses vague and unclear words to talk about itself, allowing for multiple interpretations. It allows us to believe we’re all talking about the same thing when quite often we’re not. It tells us what to think but does not encourage us how to think.

“Our minds are prone to illusions, fallacies, and superstitions. Most of the traditional causes of belief – faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, the invigorating glow of subjective certainty – are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge.” Science, by contrast, teaches “skepticism, open debate, formal precision, and empirical tests.”

Steven Pinker

Religion is therefore not a good guide to understanding the world because it is inaccurate and vague and has no reliable techniques for investigation. It has no greater claim to helping us behave better than humanism does, although it can share similar values. The difference is that humanism does not rely on old traditions, is flexible, looks at context, and can respond to new situations, necessitating that we use reason as our guide.

Humanists believe that reason, and its upshot the scientific method, is the most accurate, and possibly only way, of investigating and understanding the world. But more than this, it is the only tool we have for examining and modifying our own personal behaviour and for changing institutions and societies.

Reason was seen by Aristotle as our defining feature and is the very thing that defines us as human beings. To argue against reason is to argue against that which makes us human.

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About Graham Knight

I was a music teacher in a college in London. I became allergic to my culture and disillusioned with the decline of the education system. I came to Ghana and thought I had arrived in paradise. Then I noticed the cracks, learnt to value things about my own culture again and also form a more balanced view of my life here. I can't imagine living anywhere else.

3 responses to “Why do Humanists Value Reason?”

  1. atbodoh says :

    Mr. Knight,

    I stumbled across your post, and I am disappointed. Religion is not the opposite of reason. Reason is one faculty we have to arrive at understanding, but faith is another aspect. Intuition is a third. These work together. For instance, I do not really know how a car works, and I cannot know if it is in working order, but I have faith in my mechanic that it is in working order and will not kill me and intuition tells me that it seems safe. These support the reasons I have to believe it is safe.

    Reason simply cannot arrive at certainty in certain subjects, like what specifically motivated someone’s conduct. It is a limited power. Reason also depends on first principles which are taken as true. No one can deny the value of Euclidean geometry, but that was based on a first principle that was subsequently proven to be one of three options, giving birth to non-euclidean geometry. Our first principles are things we take on faith and intuition, often based in part on induction, but reason is not self-sufficient.

    The conclusions of faith, reasoning, and intuition may become organized into a system of beliefs that can properly be called a religion, but there is no reason to assume that religion is inherently contrary to (much less contradictory to) reason. It may go beyond reason, but that does not make it the opposite of reason.

    Now, I can concede that many religions, and many tenants of many religions, seem contrary to well-founded reasoning. But that does not prove your point. Using those particular instances to condemn religion itself takes the evidence beyond what well-founded reasoning would permit. To uphold reason, you would have to prove by reason that religion on on its own terms is self-contradictory. You have not done so. You have merely created a strawman that you call religion and say that it is unreasonable, so it should not guide our understanding.

    Your criticism of religion seems to be based on unfounded premises, which you are accepting upon intuition – or dare I say it, faith.

    • Graham Knight says :

      Thanks for reading and commentating in a reasoned way!

      My post was to highlight the value of reason to humanists and less to discuss the problem of reason within religious belief systems. Like many of us I doubt you really have a faith in your car mechanic but have investigated whether they really know something about repairing cars and also found out whether they are any good at it. We may start with intuition, as I mention, but we shouldn’t always end there. We use reason in our everyday lives, however we seem to suspend it when accepting the unreasonable beliefs concerning the goddesses and gods.

      In Ghana we are surrounded by believers who appear not use reason when it comes to their religious beliefs. This can result in serious consequences, sometimes life-threatening, often damaging for others. Their conclusions do indeed “go beyond reason” and become unreasonable.

      If the organisation of supernatural beliefs we call religion now wishes to employ the principles of reason then I say that can only be a good thing. Let’s all reason on!

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