Stephen Fry Explains Humanism in 4 Animated Videos: Happiness, Truth and the Meaning of Life & Death

Answers to life’s big ques­tions don’t come cheap, but they very often come free, or at least we feel they should. Which answers you find com­pelling among your avail­able options is up to you. In the wide­ly plu­ral­ist parts of the world—or at least in their urban centers—the answers come as often in the form of sec­u­lar human­ism as they do in any oth­er vari­ety, and they gen­er­al­ly come with a cer­tain amount of sat­is­fac­tion that it is human­ism, in part, that makes such vari­ety pos­si­ble. So what is human­ism and why is it some­times so proud of itself? You could do much worse than ask Stephen Fry, the genial Eng­lish actor, come­di­an, writer, and pas­sion­ate activist and advo­cate.

Fry nar­rates the video series here, “That’s Human­ism,” for the British Human­ism Asso­ci­a­tion. He begins in “How do we know what is true?” at the top of the post by telling us what human­ism is not. It is not a belief that knowl­edge comes from a super­nat­ur­al source, from rev­e­la­tions, prophet­ic visions, or divine­ly inspired books. While many a human­ist has found poet­ic inspi­ra­tion in such things, as Fry explains, it’s only the sci­en­tif­ic method that pro­vides us with reli­able infor­ma­tion about the nat­ur­al world.

In the video just above, Fry takes an evi­dence-based approach to the ques­tion of ques­tions: what hap­pens when we die. The human­ist answer, as he plain­ly states, seems per­fect­ly obvi­ous to anyone—everyone dies, and every­one can live on in the lives of the peo­ple who’ve loved them. We leave the work we’ve done behind, and our bod­ies return to the ele­ments from which they came. Any­thing else, he sug­gests, is wish­ful think­ing.

The third video con­fronts the ques­tion that runs neck and neck with fear of death as a rea­son peo­ple seem to believe in the super­nat­ur­al. “What makes some­thing right or wrong?” Fry asks, then goes on to con­trast in layman’s terms two moral the­o­ries: divine com­mand and a gen­er­al­ly altru­ist, proso­cial eth­i­cal stance. Not all human­ists sub­scribe to his ethics and not all, as Fry does above, would describe empa­thy as the prime motive of moral choice. He also cites “Rea­son,” “Expe­ri­ence,” and “Respect for Oth­ers” as meth­ods by which human­ists deter­mine right from wrong, and he touch­es super­fi­cial­ly on the role of cul­ture as a con­tain­er of moral­i­ty, though he avoids the many thorny issues implied in that asser­tion.

The fourth video of the series, below, takes on the much more clas­si­cal­ly philo­soph­i­cal ques­tion, “How can I be hap­py?” For Fry, who has can­did­ly dis­cussed his strug­gles with bipo­lar dis­or­der and sui­ci­dal depres­sion, the ques­tion is not a pure­ly abstract one. His answers eschew grand cos­mic nar­ra­tives for the val­ue of the nat­ur­al, the famil­ial, and the observ­able. Through­out the series, Fry remains upbeat and con­fi­dent, but if you think him inno­cent of life’s cru­el­ties, I invite you to read the brief biog­ra­phy in this Guardian arti­cle.

If this seems like evan­ge­lism, per­haps it is. The British Human­ist Asso­ci­a­tion is, after all, the orga­ni­za­tion behind Richard Dawkins’ athe­ist bus cam­paign in Eng­land, which plas­tered signs on “bendy bus­es” around Lon­don say­ing “There’s prob­a­bly no God. Now stop wor­ry­ing and enjoy your life.” But Fry is a much more approach­able, avun­cu­lar face of human­ism than the can­tan­ker­ous, some­times cal­lous, Dawkins (or the con­fronta­tion­al Sam Har­ris). What these videos don’t address are the spe­cif­ic advo­ca­cy goals and pro­grams of the British Human­ist Asso­ci­a­tion, which include such peren­ni­al­ly con­tro­ver­sial sub­jects as assist­ed dying and abor­tion rights. Learn more about the association’s cam­paigns, goals, and out­reach attempts at their web­site.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stephen Fry: What I Wish I Knew When I Was 18

A Guide to Hap­pi­ness: Alain de Bot­ton Shows How Six Great Philoso­phers Can Change Your Life

Shakespeare’s Satir­i­cal Son­net 130, As Read By Stephen Fry

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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Comments (7)
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  • knotcricket says:

    Pop­py­cock Stephen. A nev­er-end­ing cake would be fab­u­lous.

  • LlewellynKriel says:

    Pop­py­cock 2.0 Stephen. When the sin­gu­lar­i­ty hap­pens, we’ll all live for­ev­er as human­ist gods.

  • foolhard says:

    Assist­ed dying is by no means con­tro­ver­sial — it con­sis­tent­ly com­mands 80% of the pub­lic’s sup­port, mak­ing it with­out doubt the least con­tro­ver­sial pub­lic eth­i­cal debate, and one in which the BHA and Dig­ni­ty in Dying basi­cal­ly rep­re­sent the voice oft he British peo­ple.

    ‘Abor­tion rights’ (or as you should call them, wom­en’s sex­u­al and repro­duc­tive health rights) aren’t con­tro­ver­sial either, and are mere­ly opposed by a minor­i­ty of reli­gious extrem­ists and igno­rant peo­ple.

    And ‘evan­ge­lism’ seems like a strange word to use. The BHA pro­motes its cause, and one of its aims is to increase pub­lic under­stand­ing of Human­ism. That’s hard­ly the same as pros­e­lytism.

  • foolhard says:

    Strange also that you link to Ben Affleck being hot-head­ed, wil­ful­ly mis­tak­en, and con­fronta­tion­al towards Sam Har­ris in order to make a point about Sam Har­ris being con­fronta­tion­al, when in that video he is calm, lucid, clear, and utter­ly rea­son­able!

    • The Gorn says:

      Yes, it ruined this post. Appar­ent­ly the author did­n’t even watch the video. Not to men­tion call­ing these videos evan­ge­lism. Mr. Jones seems to have a major prob­lem with his sub­ject.

  • Matt says:

    Seems as if this first video is pit­ting Sci­ence vs. Reli­gion. I don’t think Sci­ence proves that the Super­nat­ur­al does­n’t exist but they can co-exist.

  • Ilya says:

    These video series are very nar­row. They don’t answer on a very impor­tant and per­ti­nent ques­tion: What do human­ists think about tran­shu­man­ists? Is tran­shu­man­ism “wish­ful think­ing”?

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