|Oisin Carey will be hosting a workshop session titled “Should Humanists be Pacifists?”
at 2015 All- Ireland Humanist Summer School
It often seems to humanists and other sceptics of religion that religious people have had it easy.
Thanks to their sacred books filled with the presumed words of the Creator of the Universe (at least for Christians, Jews, and Muslims), for a long time it looked like there was no need to think too deeply about questions of morality.
- Should I hit my children when they misbehave? Check the book.
- Should I keep slaves? Check the book.
- Should I use violence in any situation? Check the book.
The truth is that it has never been that easy, since these holy books tend to say pretty much whatever the reader wants them to say. Thus these books actually provided the scaffolding on which people could have moral debates in religious communities, where rival interpretations of holy books were argued out to improve people’s moral intuitions.
When humans move past relying on divine revelation to decide questions of morality, it can sometimes seem as though we are moving out into an empty space without this scaffolding to hold onto. To be frank, it often seems to the religious people around us that there is nothing to guide our moral thinking whatsoever.
The thing is that, for humanists, the only way to arrive at moral truths is through human conversation, where we consider each other’s needs and try to figure out what is the best way to suit everyone. This is especially true when it comes to the question of violence, and this is the theme that we will be exploring at the All Ireland Humanist Summer School in Carlingford this August: Should Humanists Be Pacifists?
The humanist movement in the USA arose primarily from a Christian movement known as the Quakers, or the Religious Society of Friends. Opposed to all uses of violence from war to self-defence based on Jesus’s teaching, “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also”, the Quakers protested against the World Wars of the 20th Century, denouncing warfare against the Nazis, but instead joining the ambulance units and transferring Jewish people out of Nazi-controlled areas. This is an example of pacifism, and it is through movements like these that humanism arose in modern times. The question of whether humanists should be pacifists is especially important when we consider the violent history of Ireland in the past century. Were we right to go to war with the British Empire to gain independence? Were the Irish Republican Army justified in their use of terrorist tactics to attempt to make Northern Ireland a part of the Republic of Ireland once more?
Pacifism can take many forms. While the Quakers were conscientious objectors, meaning they refused to take part in wars, the Indian Independence movement led by Mahatma Gandhi used non-violent resistance to oppose their British rulers. While his prolonged fasting in protest against oppression was unique to the culture of India at the time, the examples of marching and disruption were successfully used by Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement of the USA to repeal laws that discriminated against black people. These are examples of how pacifism can successfully resist oppressors, and actually make changes for the better without the need for using violence to get one’s way.
As humanists, we consider the lives and experiences of all humans to be equally valid and equally important to us. Through the UN charter on human rights, these concerns were given legal protection in all the countries that signed up to them. When we see that non-violent methods can be used to change bad behaviours and make the world a better place, how can we justify infringing on other people’s rights?
Pacifists also highlight the option of using alternatives to violence to change the world. In his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Stephen Pinker shows the immense power of international organisations like the United Nations in preventing wars from happening. There have been drastic decreases in the number of wars taking place in the present day when compared to the regularity of warfare throughout human history, and Pinker says that this is because, for the first time in history, rival governments will actually communicate with one another instead of resorting to immediate paranoia.
This even works at the individual level. Dr. Gary Slutkin’s organisation, Cure Violence, has pioneered a completely new way of looking at crime and the use of violence. It looks at violence as if it was a disease epidemic, just like AIDS or malaria. By implementing quarantines, and training civilians to recognise when violence is about to occur and to step in to prevent escalation (or transmission), Cure Violence have been able to create massive reductions in violence in individual communities such as a 67% reduction in homicides in West Garfield, the most violent community in Chicago. There is an innate moral sense in humans, and it is clear that if we can change the situation people are living in, to change the culture and the environment in which people live and thrive, this moral sense can grow and take over our more animal impulses.
Unfortunately for extreme pacifists, it seems that we do need some kind of a criminal punishment system to keep violent impulses in check. Pinker uses the striking example of the police strike in Montreal in 1969, where By the end of the day, six banks had been robbed, a hundred shops had been looted, twelve fires had been set, forty carloads of storefront glass had been broken, and three million dollars in property damage had been inflicted, before city authorities had to call in the army and, of course, the Mounties to restore order.
We all intuitively know that we must set limits and boundaries between one another about what behaviour is acceptable and what is unacceptable. As humanists, while we may view human nature as essentially good, evolutionary views of humans allow us to see people as imperfect, so we can easily recognise the dark sides of human behaviour. While pacifism is easy to advocate from a position of safety, it is very different when we are experiencing violence first hand, and there are many situations in which it is very difficult to argue that someone should avoid using violence.
When our children are threatened by home invaders, when our neighbours are being oppressed and victimised, and when our lives are in danger, our first impulse is to react with violence in response to violence. In the heat of the moment it often makes no sense to stop and think about the moral implications of violence. Sometimes, there simply is no time. While we acknowledge that World War II resulted in horrendous crimes such as the firebombing of Dresden in Nazi Germany, or the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Imperial Japan, there are few today who would argue that the Allied forces should not have stood up and violently opposed the actions of Nazi Germany, or Imperial Japan, or fascist Italy. In certain situations, violence arises in self-defence, where we know that our self or our loved one is in danger. In other situations, we may consider pre-emptive strikes to get our perceived enemy before they get us. So it seems that violence remains a problem for pacifists to solve, too.
As humanists, it is our responsibility to have the difficult debates about these moral problems. While we fervently hope that we will never make such terrible and difficult decisions in our own lives, it is important that we flex our moral intellect from time to time, and try to push ourselves to be more reasonable, to be more moral, and to hear from as many perspectives as possible.
At the Summer School workshop, we will discuss pacifism and how we can avoid using violence and use alternatives to promote peace and harmony among people. We will also discuss some of the more difficult situations, where it often seems unavoidable to resort to violence.
In religious traditions, these kind of discussions tend to lead to schisms, with rival interpretations of scripture ending up as completely different religions, with communities split right down the middle and suddenly finding that their old friends and neighbours are now enemies of the one true faith.
As humanists, we have the option to discuss these issues without fear of being thrown out just for disagreeing, and without fear of being attacked when we find someone has different thinking to ourselves.
If you are interested in pacifism and why people use violence, if you have experience of violence in any form yourself and feel like sharing, or if you just want to see how it all turns out at the end, come along to the workshop. We’ll see if we can work on finding an answer to this one together.
– Oisin Carey