Secular humanists are often accused of not espousing a “positive” philosophy, of simply denying the existence of the supernatural while resigning themselves to a meaningless and joyless life. Indeed, I was once a guest on a radio talk show together with Skeptic publisher Michael Shermer, when the host incredulously observed that we seemed to be pretty happy people “for being skeptics.” I don’t know where this stereotype comes from, other than the deeply entrenched prejudices of people who think that there is meaning in life only if somebody up there shows a keen interest in the details of their sexual practices.
But I know how to once and for all debunk the myth: let us briefly examine the obviously humanistic philosophy embodied in the work of one of the most happy-going groups of people I’ve ever come across, the British comedians collectively known as “Monty Python” (Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin). My analysis will be confined for the moment to the Monty Python (henceforth, MP) songs, leaving a detailed study of their movies and TV productions to a more appropriately academic venue.
Every philsophical analysis needs to start with good questions, and MP does just that in the appropriately titled The Meaning of Life (from the homonymous movie):
Why are we here? What’s life all about?And as any good philosopher would do, MP does not provide us with simplistic, canned, answers, but rather with alternatives to seriously ponder:
Is God really real, or is there some doubt?
Is life just a game where we make up the rules…Which shows an understanding of both the problem of relativism in morality and of Richard Dawkins’ concept of the selfish gene.
Or are we just spiraling coils,
of self-replicating DNA?
Monty Python does appreciate alternative, even religious, viewpoints, as we can evince from several passages of “Every Sperm is Sacred” (again from The Meaning of Life):
I’m a Roman Catholic,Which implies a view of sex that one can find developed at length in several Encyclicals by various Popes, or can be clearly summarized in MP’s system as:
and have been since before I was born
And the one thing they say about Catholics,
is they’ll take you as soon as you’re warm…
You don’t have to have a great brain…
You’re a Catholic the moment Dad came.
Every sperm is sacredHowever, one could argue, make fun of God all you like, but in the end isn’t it rather obvious that He is responsible for the beauty of creation, arguably one of the most important things that gives meaning to our life? This is, of course, the well known argument from design, presented at length, for example, by William Paley in his 1831 book, Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature. Naturally, David Hume had already debunked the argument in his 1779 volume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Hume pointed out that one needs to consider not just the good stuff that God allegedly made, but also the rest. Which MP summarizes very eloquently (and in a lot fewer words than Hume) in “All Things Dull & Ugly”:
every sperm is great
If a sperm is wasted
God gets quite irate.
All things sick and cancerous,Never was the argument from evil against the existence of God more aptly presented. But MP does not limit itself to what Francis Bacon called the pars destruens of their philosophy. They go on with a pars construens by elaborating an alternative viewpoint based on what one could think of as the cosmic perspective. Consider, for example, “The Galaxy Song” (from The Meaning of Life):
all evil great and small,
alla things foul and dangerous,
the Lord God made them all.
Whenever life gets you down, Mrs. Brown…But why — you may ask — would astronomy matter to our sense of everyday life? Obviously, because it helps to:
Just remember that you’re standing on a planet that’s evolving
and revolving at 900 miles an hour…
In an outer spiral arm, at 40,000 miles an hour
of the galaxy we call the Milky Way.
…remember when you’re feeling very small and insecureWhich doesn’t mean the cosmic perspective avoids scathing social criticism:
how amazingly unlikely is your birth.
And pray that there’s intelligentDespite such apparently negative view of humanity, the optimistic character of Monty Python’s brand of secular humanism emerges most clearly in “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” (from the movie Life of Brian). Consider, for example, the following exortation:
life somewhere up in space
Because there’s bugger all down
here on Earth.
If life seems jolly rottenSo much for humanists being a joyless bunch! And the song doesn’t lack deep philosophical forays, as in:
there’s something you’ve forgotten
and that’s to laugh and smile
and dance and sing.
For life is quite absurdNot to mention this quintessential, and rather mathematically accurate, summary of human life:
and death’s the final word…
Enjoy it — it’s your last chance anyhow.
I mean — what have you got to lose?Something to ponder, the next time that road rage is about to overcome you because yet another jerk in an SUV cut you off without using a turning signal.
You know, you come from nothing
you’re going back to nothing.
What have you lost? Nothing!
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Massimo’s other ramblings can be found at his Skeptic Web.
Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science
Tales of the Rational: Skeptical Essays About Nature and Science