Morals, meaning – and mass murderers: grappling with humanist ideas

A leading humanist campaigner spoke to QE’s younger boys in the latest in a series of lectures delivered by experts from a range of fields.

Andrew Copson, the youngest-ever Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA) when he was appointed in 2010 at the age of 29, addressed boys from Years 7–10 gathered in the Shearly Hall.

His lecture gave an introduction to humanism by covering fundamental areas such as the nature of reality, morality and the meaning of life. It was followed by a question-and-answer session with the boys.

""School Librarian Ciara Murray, who co-ordinates the lecture programme, said: “We are extremely grateful to Andrew for giving up his time to come and explain these complex and challenging ideas about human existence that are so relevant to all of us, in such an accessible way.”

Founded in 1896, the BHA promotes a secular state, works on behalf of non-religious people and opposes faith schools. In 2015, it launched a youth arm, Young Humanists.

The lecture complemented the study of all major world religions undertaken by boys as part of their Religion & Society course. All boys then work towards a Short Course Religious Studies GCSE at the end of Year 10. QE also has a number of very active religious societies, which often have visiting speakers – the Christian and Jewish societies have an external speaker every week, for example.

""Mr Copson, who read Classics and Ancient and Modern History at Oxford, began with a humanist understanding of reality – that the world is a purely natural phenomenon which can be studied in a scientific manner, and that there is no supernatural layer of reality that exists beyond what we can directly experience. Humanists do not, therefore, believe in an afterlife, he explained.

Morality, humanists believe, is derived from human collective experience, cultural and societal norms that have developed over the thousands of years that human society has been in existence. Mr Copson said there is “no need to rely on an authority figure laying out rules”, whether these rules are on the basis of “tablets of stone, a sacred book, or dreams and visions sent from this ‘other’ layer of reality”.

""Humanists believe that the question about whether or not it is right to do something should be answered by considering whether or not people will be harmed by the action, and what is best for human society as a whole.

Meaning in life is something that humans themselves create, rather than a tangible thing that has always existed and can be discovered in the manner of an “Indiana Jones-style quest”, Mr Copson added. The meaning of life is, therefore, not handed to humans by some external agency or divine force, but is created by humans from all the things they experience as an organism, “whether that is deriving meaning from a beautiful piece of art, or a piece of music – or from this talk!”

Mr Copson has acted as a representative of humanist organisations to the United Nations; he contributes regular articles to magazines and newspapers, and he considers the teaching of religion in schools “one of the biggest debates of our time”.

""In the question-and-answer session, Vhalan Anandarajah, of Year 10, asked: “If there is no reward or punishment in the afterlife, and a mass murderer is judged no differently to a moral person, why should we behave in a moral way?”

Mr Copson’s answer was that the notion of what makes a good life is an intensely personal question, and that his personal view is that the universe is indifferent to our behaviour – so that we must make our own decisions about how best to act. Humanism’s moral code is based on considering the impact that our actions will have on other people – a kind of social obligation to one another as human beings.

""If it was true that more people were turning towards humanism, why was this so? another boy asked. It is partly, said Mr Copson, because people are drawing the conclusion that many of the things their ancestors deduced about the universe and how things operated were wrong. Huge advances in science over the last 150 years and the fact that in recent decades, society has become so much more interconnected mean that it is now much easier to communicate with like-minded individuals and to have one’s own worldview supported and justified. By contrast, people living on an isolated island would have little reason – or ability – to look outside their community’s culture to define their identity and belief system, he pointed out.

Ms Murray concluded: “The questions that the boys asked showed that they had really engaged with the talk. I hope that this experience will encourage them to take the time to reflect on and explore their own outlook on the world.”