Being Human, Humane, Humanist—the Whole Shebang

This is a speech given by Catherine Lim upon receiving the Humanist of the Year Award 2011. Catherine is a well-known Singapore author who has published several books and political commentaries. The transcript is also published on her website and it describes her journey to become a humanist.

By Catherine Lim

I had the pleasure and honour of being presented the inaugural ‘Humanist of the Year’ award by the Humanist Society (Singapore) on 23 July 2011. Below is the transcript of my speech at the presentation:

I must begin by warmly thanking the Humanist Society for the inaugural award of Humanist of the Year. What an honour! Now somebody once described the ideal audience as intelligent, highly educated and a little drunk. Well, you qualify except on the last point. But not to worry. I am so intoxicated with the sheer pleasure of the award that I have enough giddy-headedness and light-heartedness to share all round!

But there’s a group of people who, alas, can’t share in my joy today. They’re my deeply religious friends, who are genuinely concerned about my spiritual welfare and who will view this award from a society of atheists, agnostics and free-thinkers as yet one more proof of the woeful state of my soul. I think they’ve given up on me! If I dare tell them that it has taken me thirty years of hard work to reach this status of the sinner, they will surely shake their heads in disbelief and say sadly: ‘Well, a fraction of that effort would have earned you sainthood!’

Let me now tell you about my strange but wonderful 30-year journey during which instead of losing my soul, as my kind friends feared, I reclaimed it. It began with saying goodbye to the Christian god whom I had worshipped since converting to the religion at age 15. Now it is said that the reprobate will be punished with a huge, God-shaped hole in his inner being, rather like a massive crater blown out of the ground in a catastrophic volcanic eruption. This is of course just a fanciful way of saying that religion is so crucial to a person’s well-being, that its abandonment will leave an unfillable void, a dark, screaming abyss of despair.

When, at age 40, I left the Roman Catholic religion, I was most relieved to be spared this horrifying punishment of the God-shaped hole. Indeed, instead of the fearsome, gaping abyss, I saw a bright open expanse of ground waiting to be built upon anew. Instead of despair, I felt only excitement at the thought of constructing my own paradigm of belief, conviction, hope and guidance, to replace the old one imposed by the teachings of the Church.

Now if is true that learning begins with unlearning, and creation begins with destruction, there was a lot of demolition work for me to do first. Out came the wrecking ball, which I used with great zest to swing against and get rid of, once and for all, the contradictions of my old religion. They all had to do with a perfect God who, alas, created imperfect men whose imperfections could condemn them to eternal punishment, a loving, all powerful god who, alas, was either not loving enough to save his children from unspeakable suffering, or not powerful enough to do so.

For years, taking on the role of God’s defender and apologist, I was troubled by these contradictions which led to all kinds of paradoxes. So I cunningly adopted what must be the theist’s ingenious strategy to get around the problem, namely, by describing God apophatically, that is, in the language of negatives only. Thus God is incomprehensible, inconceivable, unknowable, unfathomable, ineffable, all these negatives in effect making him one huge mystery, like a black hole, into which all the troublesome, unanswerable questions about him could be simply swallowed up, and all rational thinking stopped instantly by the stern injunction of faith. I was determined that such a deity, causing confusion and distress all round, would have no place in my new paradigm.

Indeed, it would be a human-centred paradigm, that is, it would adopt the humanistic approach of rational thinking based on the use of reason rather than a dependence on divine or supernatural agencies, with a focus on the here and now, rather than the hereafter. For a start, it would use this approach to answer some of those large existential questions which human beings have been asking from time immemorial, in their desire to understand themselves and the world around them: Who are we? Where did we come from? What is our place in the universe? Where did it come from?

The avid seeking of factual knowledge is innate in human beings; hence it would be an essential part of my paradigm. The humanist approach, based on empirical evidence, would ensure that knowledge about our universe comes not from a literal interpretation of the story of creation in the Bible, but from the hard-earned discoveries of cosmologists, planetary scientists and geologists. It would also ensure that what we know about our human nature, our instincts, drives and passions, what we share with the animal world, comes not from theological teachings about man’s fall from grace and subsequent punishment by God, but from the meticulous work of biologists, evolutionary scientists, anthropologists and paleontologists.

Science, as we know, is not infallible, but scientific knowledge is reliable precisely because it is open, transparent and best of all, subject to independent verification and correction. Today, it is even more dependable because it can be validated by the most advanced instruments, such as the Hubble Telescope used in the exploration of the vast cosmos of distant stars and planets, and the electron microscope used in the exploration of the tiniest cells and molecules inside our bodies. Hence the knowledge forming a crucial part of my paradigm would be the science-based, empirically and instrumentally validated kind.

But knowledge is not enough; it needs wisdom to be useful. Indeed, even the most extensive and advanced knowledge would be quite useless on its own, a string of zeroes only, without the integer of wisdom to give it value. My paradigm therefore would have to comprise both knowledge and wisdom, in equal parts. You can see how ambitious it was becoming! So the next set of crucial questions to ask, to build this second stage of the model, would be: how should we behave towards each other? What ought we to do, to lead good, useful lives? How do we give meaning to our existence?

For the answers, I had to leave the domain of scientific fact and turn to that equally vast domain concerned with values—religious, moral and philosophical systems, folkloric traditions of myth and ritual, even primal, aboriginal belief systems. Here is a vast repository of human wisdom that has accumulated through the ages, which uniquely defines our human species. Here is a veritable Ali Baba’s cave of treasures for the truth-seeker to pick and choose!

Yes, I wanted to pick and choose. For surely, I thought, it is not given to any one religion to claim monopoly of truth, nor to any one philosophical system to claim totality of wisdom. Each is a manifestation of but one aspect of that vast, collective storehouse of human insights, which belongs to everyone. Moreover, it is a continually growing storehouse, since the human spirit never ceases its quest. Wisdom-seeking is thus always a work-in-progress, never a completed process.

Living in the new millennium, I considered myself extremely lucky to have a huge legacy of hundreds, indeed thousands of years’ worth of wisdom at my disposal. I remember the sheer joy of making this or that selection, from this or that religion, to take home for the construction of my personal paradigm. I eagerly co-opted the warmth of Christian love and agape, the hospitality of Islam, the compassion of Buddhism, the sensuous exuberance of Hinduism, the close affinity with nature of the primal, aboriginal religions. I helped myself with equal excitement to the treasure trove of the thoughts of philosophers, from both East and West, down the ages, from the ancients, right down to modern thinkers grappling with the special quandaries of our times. My paradigm would be unabashedly eclectic and hybrid, endlessly fluid, open to revision and change. Above all, it would be deeply spiritual, without being religious.

Knowledge and wisdom—they ultimately constitute the essence of any worthwhile guide for human behaviour. For knowledge needs wisdom to give it purpose, and wisdom needs knowledge to give it relevance. Their interdependence is reflected in the title of my talk: ‘Being Human, Humane, Humanist—the whole Shebang’, the three words linked together in an affirmation of human identity and dignity, ‘human’ connoting the knowledge we need to understand ourselves and others, ‘humane’ the qualities to bring to this relationship, and ‘humanist’ the use of reason to apply to both.

The value of the humanist approach is best seen in the need to take an informed and principled stand on the most controversial moral issues in our times, namely, abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality and human cloning. With specific reference to abortion: what would be an unacceptable stand according to the imperatives derived from my paradigm would be the outright condemnation of abortion as sinful under any circumstances, in the belief that God has already implanted an immortal soul made to his image at the moment of conception. One immediately thinks of extreme circumstances, such as when a young girl gets pregnant after a brutal rape, or when a woman is in danger of losing her life unless she terminates the pregnancy. How can abstract doctrine trump real crying human need?

The issue of abortion, like many issues related to life and death, will continue to be an emotionally-charged one. But whatever controversy it generates should have nothing to do with religious zeal, only with informed standpoints based on scientific findings. For instance, scientists may agree on a certain criterion by which abortion is inhumane and therefore unethical, such as the criterion of sentience, that is, the foetus becomes a sentient being when it is capable of feeling pain, and hence is entitled to protection under human rights, just as even lower forms of sentient life such as chickens are protected by animal rights. It does not matter if scientists do not agree on exactly when sentience takes place in foetal development. For the openness of scientific debate and the rigorousness of scientific method will ensure that reason, rather than religious emotionalism will prevail in the end.

Again in the equally contentious issue of homosexuality, the humanist cannot condone the religious fundamentalist’s prejudice against homosexuals based on Biblical evidence that they are an abomination in the eyes of God. The humanist would want to know if there is a genetic basis for gay behaviour, just as he would want to know if there is a genetic basis for criminal behaviour, since this will have an important bearing on questions of responsibility and justice. In general, the humanist will shy away from any extreme, absolutist stand on any human issue, simply because that will not square with the complex realities of the human condition.

Why the need for a paradigm? Why not simply go by the workings of the conscience which after all has served us well in our day to day lives?

My reason is a very personal one. I have to confess that my conscience can be a very unreliable guide in an increasingly complex world where forces such as globalization, the Internet, social media and most all, the mind-boggling advancement of scientific technology, especially biotechnology, have multiplied our choices, extended our moral dilemmas or even created new ones. The voice of my conscience is easily shouted down by the noise of competing influences, its sight easily dimmed by the swirling fogs of flux and change. Therefore for my own peace of mind I needed to work out for myself a clear system of rules and guidelines, my personal equivalent of the Ten Commandments, to provide a bright beacon where my conscience had only been a faint lamp.

A summary of my completed paradigm might go something like this: its goal, truth; its method, reason; its highest values, tolerance and compassion. It has given me a belief system which though avowedly secularist and atheistic, has all the hallmarks of a religion: there is a godhead, not out there, but right here, within each one of us, a sense of mystery and awe, not at miracles, but something even better, the marvels of nature everywhere around us, and best of all, there is a heaven right here on earth itself, a heaven of peace and harmony, attainable by all of us.

It has been an exhilarating 30 year journey—with no desire whatsoever, on my part, for arrival! For both knowledge and wisdom are inexhaustible and as goals, will always be beyond our reach: just when we think they are within our grasp, they slip away, but beckon and entice us on, making the journey more pleasurable than the destination, the road more enjoyable than the inn.

My quest for meaning—for ultimately that is what it is—has brought me so much satisfaction—emotional, intellectual, spiritual—that, at the risk of scandalizing my religious friends, I’m going to borrow the breathless language of religious ecstasy to describe it. Thus can I truly say that my atheistic journey has been no less than an epiphany, a rebirth, a moksha, a nirvana.