The Malta Independent 24 February 2020, Monday

Believing in God is a romantic idea which some people cling to - humanist

Rebekah Cilia Monday, 11 March 2019, 11:41 Last update: about 13 months ago

Roger Tirazona, chairperson of the Malta Humanist Association, having over 1800 members, speaks with Rebekah Cilia about what humanism is and the correlation between the rise in quality of life and the reduction of religiosity.

What is Humanism?

Humanism is an ethical world view, which says it is important that you live a good and happy life. The question of what is the good life is the most important question and the root of all ethics. It is the idea of living a good life without the need of a supernatural belief. The best ways of finding out what is the good life are through reason, logic, the scientific method and through figuring it out together.

Ethics and the good life are very much subjective. Do all humanists conform to the same ideologies?

Ethics which are based on reason have a lot of common grounds across cultures. If you study ethics and the philosophy of ethics, yes there are disagreements, but when you speak the language of reason and the scientific method it is very easy to find common grounds. Humanism, however, is not dogmatic and it is a worldview that is comfortable with disagreements.

You mention the word “together.” Do you have a group which meets regularly, just like Catholics go to mass?

When I said figuring it out together I meant as human beings, not just as humanists. The question of what is the good life is best answered in conversations with other people. No one has the claim on moral infallibility. No one can say I am right and everyone else is wrong, in the idea of humanism. Some people do that, unfortunately, but the idea behind humanism is not that there is an authority on morality.

What is meant by the scientific method?

The scientific method offers a rational way of perceiving reality. Humanists usually tend to be rationalists and empiricists, meaning we value the idea that everything should be tested. Everything should have evidence that can be measured, observed and peer-reviewed. The question of how do we know what we know is crucial if you want to be an empowered human being. Rather than accepting knowledge from authority, we have to discover and explore for ourselves.

Do you think the Catholic religion should be imposed on younger children?

People will say they have the right to raise their children as they want. For example, I am raising my child in a non-religious way because it is my choice. A few years ago the British humanists had a campaign saying that children should choose their religious world views when they grow up. They said that children should figure it out on their own and that adults should not impose their values. Some reacted saying that they should not interfere and that they can raise their children as they want. The irony of it, however, is that people who are believers let religious people interfere in their children's upbringing as well. Personally, I think we should raise children as free-thinkers without religion, and give them a comprehensive cultural education that exposes them to various religions. Very young children do not understand what is happening, so probably that is why a lot of Catholics do not understand what their religion is about. They then grow up and abandon it.

How many humanists are there in Malta? And what is the actual number of people who do not use the term humanism, but adhere to the same concepts?

We have roughly over 1800 members that form part of the association, with a committee of five people. Sometimes people are humanist and they do not know it. They do not have a word to describe who, or what they are. Some people will keep saying they are Catholic but their beliefs are completely different. Recently the Church census has shown that 92 per cent of the population is Catholic but not all believe in the same things like for example, they do not believe in an afterlife, they do not go to church. People go through a journey of discovery. The world of humanism is sometimes inaccessible, or they do not know about it. Students who study ethics in school are being introduced to what humanism is, so this might change. It is part of the religious world views they are introduced to.

So is humanism a religion?

It is not a religion at all. It is more of a life stance than a religion. It is a way of seeing things as well.

Does that mean you have ceremonies or fixed ideas?

We do not have rituals, we do not have authority figures, we do not have a doctrine. In fact, there are a lot of disagreements amongst humanists but we understand that there is more that brings us together than divides us. With complex ethical issues, you will find different humanists have different ideas. We see that as a strength, not as a weakness. There are only very few things that are the lowest common denominator of what a humanist is.

So what are these things that fundamentally make you a humanist?

Reason, rationalism, the requirement of evidence, respect and compassion, respect for human dignity and human rights. A humanist would usually be atheist but we do not focus on that. The question of whether God exists is not as important as what is a good life.

Wouldn't believe in God need evidence, which as you said is fundamental to being a humanist?

Yes, which is why most humanists are atheists. But if someone is going through a personal journey and he says that he is humanist but that he still believes that there is something out there, then so be it. Believing in God tends to be a romantic idea which a lot of people cling to.

Do you think believing in a god is a form of comfort?

It certainly is comforting and it is given to us in our upbringing. I was a very fervent Catholic when I was young and my journey towards atheism was over time. The results of the Church census were very interesting for me because it reflects the journey that I went through. I started off as a firm believer but then as I grew older and I started focusing on building my life, learning, reading, meeting different people, you start realising that religion is a cultural thing, rather than something that I really need to live a good life. I can live a good life without religion. I can create the comforts that I need. I can still transcend the suffering and the problems of my life without the need for religion. It was like a bulb on a dimmer switch. First, you start shedding off the rituals and stop going to church. And then you start not believing in the idea that you need an after-life. The humanist will say this is all we have, so make it count. Once you accept that this is all we have, you try harder. For me, the last thing that went is the belief in God. There is no evidence that this universe is designed by someone in particular.

So do you believe people use God to fill in the gaps where humans cannot explain yet?

With respect to science, saying we do not have all the answers is fine, as long as we keep searching. To say all the things we do not know are because of the supernatural, the idea of the god of the gaps, is not rational. Most believers invoke their gods in such instances of scientific gaps of knowledge, that are always being filled as time goes by.

Do you humanists encourage people or push their views on those that are Catholic, just like Catholics are duty bound to spread the word of God?

Humanism is based on respect and care, which means letting people figure it out on their own, to go through their own journey. If a person in hospital asks me to pray with him, because that it was he needs, I would still pray with him. If you pray with the person you understand and empathise with him. Humanism is more about compassion than the idea that you should be like me. Otherwise, you will fall in the trap of other religions which are more authoritative. Religions thrive in closed communities. As soon as communities become more pluralistic, people do not conform to the teachings of the religion. There is in fact a correlation between the rise of the quality of life and the reduction of religiosity.

Taking the controversial topic of abortion, do humanist have a particular stand on this?

There is a difference between humanism and humanism as a local organisation, which is also affiliated to foreign organisations. The European Humanist Federation (EHF) which is a worldwide organisation, campaigned in Ireland with the pro-choice lobby to legalise abortion last year. The right to life, according to the United Nations Human Rights Council, has been recently updated to include that women should have access to safe abortions. Malta right now is actually in breach of these general interpretations. You have to draw a line where the organisation stands, however, and we do work hand-in-hand with our partners internationally. As an association we are pro-choice and part of the Voice for Choice Coalition.

What about immigration and racism? What is your stand as an association?

We feel very strongly about this. We defend the idea of human rights and equality. The idea that there should be borders between people because of which continent they are from, or the colour of their skin, is something that completely contradicts our view of humanity and the scientific view of humanity.


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