One of the central concerns of religion and much that goes on in theology is that of evil and human suffering. Why do they exist and what can be done about them? A variety of different explanations and coping strategies have been devised in the various religions of the world, but most of them have been rejected by humanism.
Is evil the consequence of some supernatural force? Humanists are not very inclined to believe in supernatural beings or supernatural forces, and that includes supernatural causes of evil like the Christian Satan or the Zoroastrian Angra Mainu. For humanists, any evil in the world is the consequence of human action or inaction: we are responsible for what happens to us, for good or for ill.
Does this mean, then, that humans are fundamentally evil or sinful creatures? Not for humanists, no. Humanists don’t accept the traditional Christian doctrine of sin, so aren’t likely to refer to humans as sinful, except perhaps in a metaphorical manner. Humanists also don’t normally adopt a pessimistic view of human nature which treats humans as if they were inherently bad, always striving to do the worst to themselves and others.
The Second Humanist Manifesto states:
We believe in optimism rather than pessimism, hope rather than despair, learning in the place of dogma, truth instead of ignorance, joy rather than guilt or sin, tolerance in the place of fear, love instead of hatred, compassion over selfishness, beauty instead of ugliness, and reason rather than blind faith or irrationality.
Now, humanists aren’t naive optimists in the sense that they believe that all humans are inherently good and perfectible. Humanism is, instead, more of a pragmatic philosophy — humans are not necessarily good or evil but they do have the capacity to do both. It is important then that our social, political, and philosophic institutions be set up in such a way that we can encourage the good while discouraging the evil.
And how are we supposed to overcome evil and human suffering? Many traditional religions teach that these will only be overcome in an afterlife where a benevolent God rules over all or when the self is finally overcome in Nirvana. Humanism, however, rejects the idea that we must wait for others or for some immaterial future.
Instead, the fight against human suffering and evil must occur here and now. If we are responsible for that which goes wrong, then we are also responsible for making it right. Humanism teaches that we are capable of making things right, but only if we rely upon ourselves instead of putting off the responsibility to others. According to the Affirmations of Humanism:
We believe in the fullest realization of the best and noblest that we are capable of as human beings.
It is the realization of the best and noblest that we are capable of that humanism as a philosophy seeks to encourage. For humanists, it is through freedom, science, reason, love, and art that we achieve much of what it means to be human, and this, in turn, is what might allow us to overcome evil and suffering.
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