Humanism and Utopian Thinking

By Nigel Warburton, originally published in the 2013 Spring edition of Humanitie Magazine.

What would a humanist Utopia look like? It’s easy to dismiss utopianism as unrealistic. That’s because it is of course; by its nature. But part of the point of Utopian thinking is to have something to aspire to. To understand
better what direction you’d like the world to move in. and perhaps even to crystallise what’s wrong with the status quo. Those who imagine Utopias rarely believe they are achievable; but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t valuable as tools for thought and criticism.

An easy response is that humanists want lots of things, some of them incompatible. So the idea of’ a humanist Utopia is a non-starter. There would have to be many. There is not a ‘one-size-fits all’ way of being a humanist, but rather a pattern of overlapping continuities and resemblances between the people who call themselves humanists, or are deemed humanists by others; humanism’ is what Ludwig Wittgenstein labelled a family resemblance term. Just as the best way to understand the meaning of ‘game’ is not to try and find some single common denominator shared by all the things we call games, but rather to ‘look and see.’ So perhaps ‘humanism’ doesn’t have an essence, it is best thought of as a range of related views.

One core belief shared by many humanists, though, is that society and morality are human creations, not something created by and run along lines dictated by a god or gods. So would religion be outlawed in a humanist Utopia? Not in mine.
Many humanists value toleration, freedom of belief and freedom of expression very highly. You might imagine that in Utopia nobody would be inclined to believe in God as they’d weigh the evidence for and against better than most do today. But that might be bad for the Utopia. In a non-religious world those with religious beliefs could have special value as gadflies: they would force the rest of us to sharpen our understanding of secularism by asking pointed and possibly irritating questions from an unorthodox perspective and thereby acting as a safeguard against what John Stuart Mill disparaged as the ‘dead dogma of a decided opinion.’

Another aspect of a humanist Utopia would surely be the human’ element: so many moral and political decisions focus on in-and out-groups, but surely in Utopia we would all be cosmopolitans, taking seriously Diogenes’ claim to be a citizen of the world rather than of a particular place. Compassion, love, caring – these would all be the norm. Torture would be a non-starter. There would be room for creativity and a sense of community. There would be no wars because, as Arthur Schopenhauer noted long ago, human on human violence is the equivalent at some level of a snake biting its own tail. That much we can agree upon: John Lennon spelt out most of the general features of this Utopia in 1971. But beyond the generalisations, what is it that you as a humanist really wants?
Each of us should know. In my humanist Utopia extremes of poverty and wraith would be eliminated and vegetarianism would be the norm. What would yours be like?


Suggest an Article

Writers / Publishers: Submitting your own work is encouraged.

Know an article we should include on Humanitie? Make a suggestion.

The opinions expressed on the Humanitie platform do not necessarily reflect the policies of Humanist Society Scotland.

Take action now

Sign our petition

Sign our petition to end unelected religious representatives on education committees.

Sign today.

Learn more

Join us today

Why become a member of Scotland's Humanist charity?

We are a democratic membership charity. Join us today to get involved in our campaigns to make Scotland a more secular, rational and socially just country.

Learn more

New Pod- cast

Available now!

Have you heard we’ve started podcasting?!

You can listen to the first episode, plus two special editions now.

Learn more