Humanism versus Religiosity – Varghese Pamplanil

Note: CCV readers by now must have got a good taste of the out-of-box articles of Mr Varghese Pamplanil. Here is one more incisive article which challenges our conventional thought process when he writes morality/ethical behaviour, empathy and altruism are not hung on the pegs of religion.  Isaac Gomes, Associate Editor, Church Citizens' Voice.  

Humanism versus Religiosity.

How non-religious world views provide solace in times of crisis? ( By Valerie van Mulukom, Coventry University, U. K.) — ( Edited, amended and added version.)

The saying: there are no atheists in foxholes, suggests that in stressful times people inevitably turn to God (for indeed gods). But there is an alternative paradigm: non-believers have evolved their own set of secular world views that provide them  solace in difficult times, just as religious beliefs do for the spiritually-minded. While non-believers may not subscribe to religious beliefs, they hold distinct ontological epistermo-logical and ethical beliefs about reality. These secular beliefs and world- views provide the non-religious, equivalent sources of meaning or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs do for religious individuals

The number of non-believers is growing —there are, at least 450-500 million declared atheists world wide —about 7% of the global adult population. But since non-believers  include not just atheists but also agnostics and so-called ‘nones' —the religiously unaffiliated, who might tick ‘no-religion' in surveys — this number is likely to be much bigger. Here, non-believers refer to individuals who do not believe in  God, and who do not consider themselves religious.

Rationalising the fear of death. 

The idea that beliefs or world views support us in difficult times is the foundation of Terror Management Theory. This holds the proposition that we fear death because we are consciously aware of the future and our  own inevitable demise. This fear can be so great that it can paralyse us when we try to live our everyday lives.

But we can manage this fear through the knowledge that death is natural and inevitable. Knowing that one day we all will die — the  world view — reinforce our thinking and our identities,  we build around us. This approach  can provide comfort by the so called symbolic immortality or the feeling of connectedness to something bigger than ourselves. It is the meaningfulness of the belief rather than its (religious)  content that is important among non-believers; reinforced  by their belief in science. 

Secular beliefs worldwide. 

From  1,000 responses gathered from people of ten countries:  U.K., US, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Turkey, Brazil, Canada and Australia, the  six most common beliefs and world views that emerged were: thinking based on science, belief in humanity and human ability, critical faculty and scepticism, rationalism and the mindset of being kind and caring for one another, beliefs in equality and natural laws, including evolution.

This overlap was striking. Despite huge geographical and cultural differences, the statements given  over and over again  were: “ I believe in the scientific method and ethical values of humanism. I reject all beliefs that are not evidence based “ ; “ we have one life and  this one opportunity to enjoy our brief moment in the sun, and at the same time, doing possible  good to help our fellow creatures and protect our natural environment for future generations."

While responses from countries such as the Netherlands and Finland focused particularly on caring for the Earth; the responses from countries such as the US and Australia focused on the general improvement of human well-being. 

Supportive world views.

When non-believers were asked about the challenging times in their lives: such as the passing away of  someone close to them; when they or someone close to them had a serious injury ( an accident );  or discovered they had a physical illness; when they felt particularly alone or disconnected from others; and when they felt particularly down or depressed. Their acceptance of realty and the implicit faith in science and rational views enabled them to deal with the crisis.

Asked to recall whether any of their world views were helpful at the time of  trouble, they responded that what helped them most often were world views based on science, detachment and acceptance. These included the acceptance of the naturalness of death, the randomness of life, humanism, free will and taking responsibility. People suggested knowing “that family members live through  their descendants; through personality traits and memories, helps while dealing with bereavement, or when  enduring an illness. The randomness of happenings and the view:   stuff  like that are coincidental gives comfort in such situations.

Beliefs about the nature of life and death helped those who hold the view  that “ suffering and isolation are universal experiences  and that these states will pass: things change and situation isn’t  always going to be like this. "Many indicated that humanistic world views were highly important to them, valuing" my relationship with those close to me, and understanding that life can be too short, so I must value the one life that I know and I have."

Nothing is static in the world we inhabit and the universe we are part of. Everything is in perpetual motion including ideas and views. 

Stagnant water breeds dangerous organisms and becomes cess pool of accumulated filth; so it is change that puts things in balance. 

Science says that the genetic profile — the DNA — of  humans are similar up to 99.9% to that of animals, especially the apes. Homo sapiens has a  larger brain  which enable,  this up right walking ape,  to survive in a hostile environment, despite being physically disadvantaged.

Ideas have always  propelled humans in the stairway of progress. It is desire that compels humans to create new things. Ever occurring new ideas enabled humanity to turn into cultivators  from being  hunter-gatherer mode — the nostalgic paradisal  Garden of Eden state of existence— to the present level of progress. But humans are likely to be replaced by robots with cognitive abilities in the “Brave New World”. People like Elon Musk are putting in place technologies which will enable humans to colonise planets and their moons in our solar system, and may be even beyond, in a not so distant future.

How atheists cope. 

But how do atheistic world views help in times of crisis? Most frequently the respondents said that their world views helped them to cope with the situation, reduced anxiety, created an increased feeling of control and sense of order, and gave meaning to the situation. 

Many participants indicated that understanding a difficult situation proved paramount to accepting it and coping with it. One said that “realisation of the process of loss and moving on, viz., understanding psychology helps." Others stated that the belief in science explained what was happening and they trusted in modern medicine for overcoming it. They also realised that depression is a condition that responds to time and care. 

Over view

One way of assessing the number of believers is to count the number church goers. Even in predominantly Catholic countries such as Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain, church attendance is reported to be as low as 5% among those considered Catholics. The Church seems to come put out with exaggerated figures of its followers by  showing  every one,  who had undergone infant baptism as Catholics, who in real life may no more be affiliated to the Church. 

The people in the socially and economically developed world seem not bothered about religion in their everyday lives; they apparently unconcerned about getting their names erased from Church records.

It is considered bad manners to discus religion in public. People would rather discuss football matches instead. Religion and philosophy are subject matters to study in depth at prestigious universities abroad. These studies critically evaluate the changing perceptions; they are combed fine systematically. There are large endowments and chairs at many universities for research on religion and its track record.

Public  exhibition of religiosity by way of celebration of the feasts in honor of saints,  processions creating traffic snarls and general rukus, as happen in India, especially in Kerala, are conspicuously absent in the countries abroad I happened to visit. Religion is practiced at a low key over there. The public space is for the general public. 

The number of people undertaking  person to person auricular confessions, at least once a year, as mandated by the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, appear to be minuscule in European and North American countries. The people over there  when they encounter psychological issues, prefer to consult experts in the relevant disciplines. 

Religion and science are apparently strange bed fellows; totally different  like chalk from cheese, they are as water to oil never melding. Their tangents are different — the former relies on metaphysical speculation — the latter on empirical evidence. The latter admits mistakes and are willing to change their opinion. The former believes in absolutes and tenaciously  hold on to its set beliefs. In olden times, to make people believe, without questioning, the Church could have taken the stand that its dogmas are divine revealed and even God dictated. Since God is beyond error, once given, is absolute and immutable. The Catholic religion unfortunately seem to be waylaid in an  intricate Greek Labyrinth with no escape route. The theological cul-de-sacs set up by the Church, it seems, has placed the ecclesiastical in a difficult predicament. That is the Catch 22 position, the Church seems to be  in. Religion, apparently is hard put to keep pace with the frenetic strides of science 

The likely future of Christianity.

“Looking to the future, we are likely to see a continuing decline in the  support for Christianity in the West, so long as the majority continue to embrace subjective-life style. For those who do not, particularly those value “traditional" forms of community and family life, Christianity may continue to serve as a cultural alternative. In the less affluent parts of the world, by contrast, Christianity is likely to enjoy continuing success — unless such countries begin to develop their own versions of subjective-life”. (Linda Woodhead, Senior Lecturer in Christian Studies, Lancaster University, in her book —Christianity A Very Short Introduction —published in 2004).


The sum and substance of the above discussion may be capsuled as: one can be a  moral person without being affiliated to any particular religion or following its dogmas. A person holding religious beliefs need not be, and in fact, are not better human being, empirical studies have revealed. Morality/ethical behaviour,  empathy and altruism are not hung on the pegs of religion. 

Varghese Pamplanil

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1 Response

  1. George Nedumparambil says:

    Two aethists have not taken up the sword so far in the recorded history of world to prove that one man's athiesm is better than other man's. On the contrary there has occurred countless religious wars resulting in mindless deaths of millions of lives and destruction. Religion is a byproduct of belief in God. Pure and simple commercial venture.  As someone said that religion began when world's first con man met a fool. 

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