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.