To be a Humanist: questions from a Christian

The following contribution by Peter Bellingham, a committed Christian, was made at our Hot Potatoes open mike night on 18 January. Several listeners asked for it to be made available, and Peter said he was happy for it to be posted here. He poses some fundamental and difficult questions about the nature of man, consciousness, causation, determinism, free will and the meaning of life. Humanists may attempt to answer these questions differently from a Christian, such as Peter, but they are questions we all find a challenge.


Do I have to be human to be a humanist?


What is a human?

Is a human a certain arrangement of atoms?

Is your chair a certain arrangement of atoms?

Is a leaf a certain arrangement of atoms?

Is your dog a certain arrangement of atoms?


Are you more valuable than your dog?

Are you more valuable than a leaf?

Are you more valuable than your chair?



Is your conscious experience just the product of atoms?

Are your thoughts and choices just the product of atoms?

What turns a human into a humanist?

Is it a choice, or can cosmic radiation cause the change?

How do we know which atoms are in control?

How do you know which atoms are right?


Are you disappointed by anything in life?

Are you upset by any injustice in life?

Why be disappointed?  Why be upset?

Some end up happy, some sad; why expect anything different?


Isn’t everything just the purposeless product of atoms in motion?


Is a human more than atoms in motion?

Is a humanist more than atoms in motion?


Is that why you’re here tonight, thinking?

7 Responses to “To be a Humanist: questions from a Christian”

  1. Graham Raven Says:

    Thank you for your feedback, Simon. I will watch for details of the Neuroscience Special Interest Group.


  2. Simon Nightingale Says:

    I enjoyed Peter Bellingham’s contribution to the “Hot Potato” evening – others did too. It’s a poem and, as such, doesn’t bear too much literal analysis.

    I thought that he leads us nicely via animalism, trans-humanism and post-humanism (which interestingly all came up as objections to humanism in our recent Platonic Dialogue on Humanism) and then on to determinism and the idea that we don’t have free will in the common-or-garden sense (which I and many other neuroscientists believe) and lastly that there is no meaning to life or rather than the question “what is the meaning of life?” may be a category error; there are things that can have meaning, but life is not one. I have discussed these issues with Peter in the past and he is familiar with the philosophical concepts.

    I was interested in reading your lengthy responses and clearly you are interested and knowledgeable in neuroscience and neuro-philosophy. We are planning a SHG special interest group in Neuroscience and maybe you might be interested in coming along – more about this in due course.

    Simon Nightingale


    • Mike Radford Says:

      Sounds like a great discussion – wish I had been there. To say that life has a meaning (or purpose) implies that there is something outside or beyond life that life itself serves. From a Humanist perspective we should say that there is nothing outside or beyond life that gives it a purpose or meaning. All purposes exist within life.

      However I do not live simply in terms of my own purposes. My life serves purposes in the lives of others, my family and my friends and others with whom I have contact. Some saintly people devote their whole lives to the service and purposes of others. So if we ask what was the purpose of a person’s life we may say that it was to serve others, to achieve something of universal benefit, or whatever.

      The Christian goes a stage further as says that the purpose of our lives is to serve God but when one asks what does serving God mean the answer is often couched in terms of the ways in which we serve others.


  3. Graham Raven Says:

    Correction: In my previous post, where I said “imaginably high”, in relation to numbers of cells and atoms, I meant to say “UNimaginably high”.


  4. Graham Raven Says:

    As the previous respondent has implied, it’s difficult to take some of these questions seriously, but I have done so, as the results might be more interesting (?)

    Do I have to be human to be a Humanist?

    Yes, in the same way that you have to be human to be a Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist or an adherent of any other belief system, or that you have to be equine to be a horse, canine to be a dog, bovine to be a cow, feline to be a cat, or a protozoan to be an amoeba etc., etc. I think I can safely say that Humanists UK has, as yet, not received any applications for membership from any individual who is not human. Humanism, in case it has escaped your notice, is a belief system for living one’s life, just as much as a religion, but is based on putting one’s confidence in that which is provable, rational and demonstrably truthful (in a scientific sense), as opposed to that which is not. To hold a belief of any description you have to be in possession of a mind capable of conceptual thought, which in turn pre-supposes possession of a highly-developed brain, such as humans have. Some species, other than humans, have highly developed brains, but we don’t know whether they are capable of holding beliefs like humans do, as we have, as yet, no effective means of communicating with them to find out. (Ever had a conversation with a dolphin or an elephant? No?… Me neither)

    What is a human?

    For a basic answer to this question, you could refer to any reputable dictionary. As I presume you are human yourself, I would expect you to be able to recognise your own kind, so you should have a pretty good idea already. However, in the biological sense (in which, incidentally, I include the psychological and emotional sense) :-

    A human is generally regarded as belonging to the species Homo sapiens, a high-order primate characterised by a virtually exclusive upright posture, bi-pedal gait, emancipated forelimb, a thumb opposable to all the other digits, highly advanced in tool use and technological progress, and in possession of a large brain (three-in-one, actually – one reptilian, one emotional and one rational – the neocortex) and the highest level of intelligence known to us, both rational and emotional, making conceptual thought possible. (Though some specimens make the latter difficult to believe). (If you want to know more about this, I suggest David Eagleman’s book “The Brain – The Story of You”, published by Castleton, ISBN 978 1 78211 658 5, and the companion to his TV series televised a year or so ago)

    Is a human an arrangement of atoms? Yes
    Is your chair an arrangement of atoms? Yes
    Is a leaf an arrangement of atoms? Yes
    Is your dog an arrangement of atoms? You are making an assumption here .. I don’t have a dog, but if I did, the
    answer would be (guess what?) Yes

    Are you more valuable than your dog?
    Are you more valuable than a leaf?
    Are you more valuable than your chair?

    These three questions are meaningless and can’t be answered “yes” or “no” because you have not put them into any sort of context. Valuable to whom? .. in what way? ….and under what circumstances? That could make all the difference . For example:- If I wanted my chair to stand on to hammer nail into the wall, but someone who, at the same time, was feeling ill and wanted my chair to sit on to help them recover, then my chair would be more valuable to that person than I would .. “I” in this case, referring to my wish to have the chair for a different use, and for the small sense of achievement that use would be expected to follow. In that situation, I would forego the use of my chair for the higher purpose of helping that person to recover.

    Is your conscious experience just the product of atoms?

    As far as I am aware, “the jury is still out” on the nature of consciousness, but it is clear that it is dependent on some product of brain function, mine and that of other people and the environment with which I (and all of us ) interact. Brain function is mediated by the action of electrical impulses passing through, along and between nerve cells ( which are made of atoms) and the action of chemical compounds called neurotransmitters (which are also made of atoms). The human brain is the most astonishingly complex and wonderful structure we know of, composed of imaginably high numbers of cells, each, in turn, composed of imaginably large numbers of atoms and molecules (atoms in combination with one another).So to say that conscious experience is JUST a product of atoms that build it seems hardly to do justice to the remarkable organ the human brain is. It may be just a product , but it is a remarkable product. However, I think the answer to your question must be “yes”, as we can only contemplate consciousness as being dependent on having a fully-functioning brain, at least, that part of it which GIVES us consciousness. Part of our brain is “reptilian” i.e. primitive – it deals with the automatic regulation of basic body functions like blood pressure, bowel activity etc., which means that we don’t need to use brain power to consciously think about and direct those functions. The majority of brain activity is, in fact, SUB- conscious, but even then, it is still the product of the interaction of atoms (molecules), one way or another.

    Are your thoughts and choices just the product of atoms?

    Again, yes …following on from the previous answer. They depend on having a fully-functioning conscious, thinking brain (the neocortex). You can’t make conscious decisions and choices whilst under a general anaesthetic, for example. In this situation the atoms and molecules of the anaesthetic agents are interfering with the normal interaction of the atoms and molecules in the nerve cells and neurotransmitters and preventing them working as required for normal consciousness. A similar thing occurs with alcohol and other mind-altering drugs. We know that decision making can go haywire when we’re drunk!

    What turns a human into a humanist?

    A conscious, considered decision to live one’s life guided by an affinity for, love of, and search for, demonstrable truth, a love of justice, a love and respect for fellow humans and the whole natural World (and Universe), combined with a rejection of untruth, half-truth, myth and nonsense. As it is now known that the majority of the UK population do not align themselves with any religious belief at all (and it is a greater majority still, in some other countries such as Sweden), I think it likely that many ordinary, decent, moral people are essentially humanists without themselves realising it or declaring it. Humanists by default, if you like.

    Is it a choice or can cosmic radiation cause the change?

    As I said at the beginning of my previous answer, it’s a choice, brought about through the exercise of the thinking part of that wonderful organ I mentioned earlier, the human brain. If it were caused by cosmic radiation, then as the whole planet is exposed to cosmic radiation, I would expect EVERYONE to be a humanist, including you, and therefore I doubt whether you would find it necessary to ask the question.
    (Do you think cosmic radiation causes humanism in the same way that ultraviolet radiation causes malignant melanoma????)

    How do we know which atoms are in control?

    Who says ANY atoms are “in control”? In control of WHAT? This is a non-question unless you qualify it.

    How do you know which atoms are right?

    This is another non-question which assumes that atoms have qualities they don’t possess. but I will attempt an answer.

    Do you mean “right” as opposed to “wrong” or “right” as opposed to “left”?

    If the former, your question implies that atoms, in their own right, are capable of making decisions, based on some sort of consciousness or concept of ethical or moral principles. What basis do you have for making this implied assertion? As far as I am aware, nobody has yet proposed, or proved by means of a scientifically-conducted and peer-reviewed piece of research work, that atoms have any such capability. If I am wrong, I would very much like to hear of it so I can access if for myself. Certainly, atoms will exhibit a preference for combining in certain ways with other atoms due to their valency, which is an effect of the number of electrons in their outer “shell” (or sometimes as a result of the physical conditions prevailing at the time of combination), but this is not the result of a conscious decision. Some molecules (for example, nine of the amino acids from which proteins are built) exist in both spatially right-handed (dextro-rotatory) or left-handed (laevo-rotatory) forms – mirror images of one another, depending on the way they deflect polarised light – clockwise or anti-clockwise. They are called stereo-isomers. Over time, they can convert from one to the other. Right-to-left or vice versa. So you could say that the dextro-rotatory ones are “right” and the laevo-rotatory ones .. …aren’t. In any case, as far as ethics and morals are concerned, “right” and “wrong” are not “black” and “white” issues in many cases. There are many “grey” areas. Again, it often depends on context. To repeat, I have never heard of any suggestion, let alone proof, that atoms, by themselves, are capable of making moral or ethical judgements, with or without reference to context.

    Are you disappointed by anything in life?

    Of course! It’s everybody’s experience. I can’t see the point of this question. I can only imagine it coming form someone who has no life experience of their own, and no interaction with anybody else who has.

    Are you upset by injustices in life?

    Same answer

    Why be disappointed? Why be upset?

    Because it’s human nature, that’s why. We all have hopes, expectations, ambitions, dreams, goals, “dreams”, etc., which never come to fruition, and it’s normal to feel disappointed, or sometimes upset or even angry, when they don’t. But well-adjusted people cope with this, are philosophical about it, adjust to it and move on, assuming it’s not too devastating and life-changing. Injustice is offensive to those with a good sense of justice, and upsetting sometimes, whether it happens to us or to someone else that we might feel empathy with and sympathy for.

    Some end up happy; some sad. Why expect anything different?

    Neither happiness nor sadness are, for the most part, permanent states, nor are they states that we necessarily “end up” in. They are both usually temporary states. Life involves a mixture of the two, and we all experience both from time to time. It’s always been this way and it always will be . So, indeed, why expect anything different?. That’s being realistic. There is some truth in the principle that we are, to some degree at least, responsible for our own happiness or sadness, although we don’t have complete control over it. Would it be great if we did? Or would we cease to appreciate happiness if we didn’t have some sadness to compare it with and act as a foil?

    Isn’t everything just a purposeless product of atoms in motion?

    This question seems to me to be indicative of an extremely depressing, defeatist and negative outlook on life.

    No!… certainly not. I don’t see the day I spent woodworking last week, resulting in a useful piece of furniture, as being purposeless …. I don’t see a doctor making effort to improve the health of a patient as being purposeless (do you???) … I don’t see an hour spent listening to a friend share a problem with me and helping them to find a solution as being purposeless….. I don’t see listening to an orchestral concert for pleasure as being purposeless….. to give you just four examples. I…. and the rest of mankind… could quote you thousands more, but I would think I have said enough for you to be able to “get my drift”. But if, as I suspect, you are looking for a greater purpose, in a cosmic, universe-orientated sense, who says there IS any purpose in it? That is an assumption that you could spend a great deal of time wondering about and pondering (and many people have, and some still do)…. but it can only be speculative,, and no-one has any answers. THAT, to my mind, would be pretty purposeless. Woudn’t it be better to spend one’s time and brain power (all those little atoms rushing about in motion) on something that has a discernable purpose, and does some discernable good, whether for oneself or some fellow human or the World that we inhabit in general …… somehow? The fact that we, as humans, like to….. want to…. need to ……have a sense of purpose, doesn’t automatically mean that the universe has to have one too. And even if it does, do we need to know what it is? Could we do anything to influence it? How about if we just left it to get on with its business while we get on with ours? After all, it was doing that long before we humans arrived on the scene, and will do so after we’re gone.

    It’s taken me quite a while to compose answers to your questions, with the busy little atoms and molecules coursing about in my brain, and I hope that’s not been purposeless. In fact, I know it hasn’t, because I have found purpose in it even if nobody else does!

    And finally your last question….. Is a human more than atoms in motion? Is a humanist more than atoms in motion?

    I have lumped these two questions together because they comprise just another way of asking your first question again, but with the “atoms in motion” bit added in. I’ll repeat:- You can’t be a humanist without being human, although you can be human without being a humanist. Looked at purely as a physical entity, a human, whether humanist or not, whether plumber, doctor, bricklayer, taxi-driver, actor, nuclear physicist or anything else….. is no more than atoms in motion, just as any other thing composed of MATTER is no more than atoms in motion, and there is no getting away from that. But consider what that physical entity, in all its marvellous complexity, is capable of. That collection of atoms possesses remarkable abilities, many of which are unique in the living world. I can say that because this is the only living world we know. Those abilities make a human far more than a physical entity. Human-ness includes everything that physical entity does, has done, or is capable of doing in the future, every influence, perceived as good or bad, on other people or things interacted with, everything achieved during a lifetime, relationships entered into, offspring produced, experiences and memories created for themselves and others, ideas and principles brought forth, developed, promoted and accepted (or maybe not) etc. Legacies, in other words, of one sort or another. Experiences and memories induced in other people also involve “atoms in motion” in those other people, which enable them to create and store experiences and memories in their brains. These include emotional effects, which are also due to brain activity. So you could say that all of that…… all that humans are…. and all that humans do….. all the evidence of humans being present on the planet….. boils down to the effects of “atoms in motion”, in one form or another.

    Astronomers now tell us (as a result of knowledge acquired and amassed as a result of peer-reviewed scientific research) that we are all, basically, made of “star dust” ….. because all of the chemical elements, some of which make up our bodies, originated in stars.

    Breathtaking, isn’t it.


    • Mike Radford Says:

      Hi Graham. I have read your comments with much interest.

      In response to the question, ‘Is your conscious experience just the product of atoms?’ What evidence might the jury need to make a definitive response to this question? Is there an extra neuron that we have not yet discovered?

      I think that we can be stronger than saying that the jury is still out. The answer is no – the fact that consciousness is a product of material phenomena does not mean that it can adequately explained in terms of that phenomena. A Picasso painting is not just a matter of coloured paints daubed onto a canvas (even though some people think it is).

      Re. the question,. ‘Are your thoughts and choices just the product of atoms?’ I would argue that you are right in saying that they are the product of atoms but not just that. My choice to put on the kettle may be a product of my wife’s request for a cup of tea. Thoughts and choices are a product of social interchanges that cannot be simply or just explained in terms of material events in people’s heads.

      Thanks again for your comments. Mike


  5. Kay Meddings Says:

    Well, perhaps you had to be there.This seems to me to be just a wooly mess. It reminds me of a scetch in Beyond the Fringe by Alan Bennet. I intended to be, but didn’t come, I regret it now.


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