The British Humanist Association this week launched four short videos on the internet to help better explain what Humanism is and what Humanists stand for. Each of them is narrated very professionally by the actor Stephen Fry. Since they touch on discussions common to philosophy, theology and ethics I would like to suggest some responses one could make to them from a theistic perspective.
Take a good look at the final portrait:
I’m reminded of a scene in the film, Donnie Darko, where Donnie’s teacher insists he pick a view from the two available options. Donnie tries to explain to the teacher that life is not as straightforward as she is suggesting and that he cannot accept the dichotomy she is attempting to force on him. This picture ends up looking something like that. Over on the right we have superstition and religion (bad – “Boooo!”) and on the left we have science and medicine for the win (good – “Horaaah!”).
But, life is just not as easy to place into compartments as the BHA is suggesting. In fact, this little video is a complete and utter mess.
Let’s start with the obvious:
Where do Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Boyle, Pascal, Mersenne, Gassendi, Beeckman, Faraday, Joule, Maxwell, and Lord Kelvin (not to mention numerous others) go on this chart? Scientists like Galileo held the view that God has revealed himself through ‘two books’; the book of nature and the book of revelation (the Bible). Galileo saw no problem in holding both at the same time (despite pressure from some segments of the church to force him to choose). Galileo thought the book of nature tells us how the heavens work and the book of revelation told us how to get to heaven. This is why you should almost choke on the irony when Fry’s monologue skips from holy books to a drawing of a telescope with the word “others.” Sorry to break it to you Stephen but some of the first people to develop telescopes were the same people reading, and taking very seriously, certain holy books.
Michael Faraday was a staunch Christian while being one of the most incredible scientists who ever lived. He would be entirely happy with everything on the left but there are three things on the right he also held to (God, the supernatural, and the Bible).
For all of the scientists mentioned above, they viewed their science to be the outworking of their theological views. They did not see the two as separate fields of knowledge which had nothing to do with each other. Take Robert Boyle as another example. The philosopher of science Margaret J. Osler explains:
“Boyle was a deeply religious man and discussed the theological implications of his corpuscularism at great length. He believed that God had created matter and had endowed it with motion. God had created laws of nature but could violate those laws at will; biblical miracles provided evidence for that claim… For Boyle – and many other natural philosophers of his day – the practice of natural philosophy was an act of worship, since it led to greater knowledge of the Creator by directly acquainting the careful observer with God’s wisdom and benevolence in designing the world.”
Margaret J. Osler ‘Mechanical Philosophy’ in Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction ed. Gary B. Ferngren p.149
So this modern-day popular notion of science and religion in conflict, which is clearly being suggested in this video, simply does not hold up to rational scrutiny when one considers the history of science seriously.
Another point to make is that a lot of non-religious people who accept science still accept superstitious ideas; they refuse to walk under ladders (not for any rational reason but because it causes ‘bad luck’), they read their horoscopes, they ignore medical advice in favour of ‘alternative medicine’, and they consult mediums.  Even though they think religion is irrational they also hold to many things which are generally regarded as superstition.
Another problem with this presentation is that a supernatural realm is described as a reality which lies beyond our senses (and therefore gets placed on the right hand side) as if that makes it unreasonable to believe. But theoretical physicists regularly posit realms of existence which are far beyond our sense experience! Physicists regularly speak of other universes and other dimensions of existence which are well beyond our ability to sense or experience. Somehow they are considered scientific but belief in one other dimension is regarded as ‘superstition’ when it is designated the label ‘heaven’. Okay, but why?
Then, of course, there’s the question itself: “How do we know what is true?” If you constrict that question to how the world ‘works’ (as the beginning of the video made it sound) then science is obviously the finest way to find answers to such questions but that question should have been ‘How does the world work?’ However the question actually posed here is “How do we know what is true?” and that question is much broader. How does the BHA even know there is such a thing as objective truth? How does the BHA know that human beings are constructed well enough to find such objective truth (even if it really exists)? What theory of knowledge are they proposing? Well it appears to be (yawn) scientism.
The video ends with some popular level scientism. In fact, Fry’s last sentence is a pretty good definition of what scientism is:
“When we want to know what’s true and what is false there is no better method.”
[I will refer to this statement as x.]
Now we should notice that ‘reason’ and ‘logic’ are both very strangely absent from the presentation completely. It really does seem that the idea of science here is not some older definition of science which included the ‘soft-sciences’ but ‘hard’, natural, empirical science. But this leaves us with a very obvious and rather annoying question. Is the final statement of the presentation a scientific statement in that narrow sense? I think it’s obviously not. The reason it’s not is because there is no empirical evidence (at least none I’m aware of) to suggest that x is true. Once again, some philosophy is being smuggled in and not being admitted to. The video certainly appears to be suggesting the BHA adhere to some form of scientism.
Statement x is, of course, more to do with the classic questions found more traditionally in philosophy departments in academia rather than in the science departments. What we know, what we can possibly know, and how we come to know it is to be doing epistemology and it is crucial this discipline is not hijacked by those who have already assumed that some extremely crude form of empiricism has won the debate. Of course, to anyone who has read even a college introduction to epistemology, this video completely ignores epistemological discussion as if it does not need mentioning but this is precisely what makes it so horribly naïve.
You can have a lovely video, with a superb actor to read it, but if a video is lacking in substance it’s not worth much.
Here are a couple of better summaries:
PS. Since writing this it appears the author of one of the phrases behind this video comes from Alice Roberts:
And Andrew Copson appears to be claiming to be the primary writer of the material.
 For some evidence of these claims see:
Required reading for Stephen Fry and his fellow Humanists: