Atheist Centre 50+ Golden Jubilee (1940-1990)
International Conference on
"Future of Atheism -- Humanism"
Vijayawada, December 29-31, 1990
[OCR, HTML, editing, Cliff Walker]
Man and Future
Prof. Paul Kurtz
from "The Fullness of Life"
The crucial question for mankind in the future is whether we will be willing and able to take the new departures available. Can we use our Promethean talents to the fullest? Can we employ humanely the new powers we will possess to restructure radically the nature of human beings? The egalitarian-environmentalists have recognized the role of society in determining what man can be; and they have pointed to the need for fundamental changes in social structures if we are to achieve our ideals. But they have been mistaken in stressing one-factor theories and in sanctifying them as the means of human salvation. Granted that to achieve further progress mankind needs to create one world and to plan rationally for its social and economic development; we must also encourage the imminent possibilities bestowed upon us by technology. The sciences now indicate that if man is to ennoble his future, he must recognize the opportunities available not only in social or psychological change but in biological and chemical change as well. We must learn how to restructure our genetic natures, which heretofore have limited us.
The moral center of the question is in our choices of how we wish to change and what we want to become. Sex, individuality, love, hate and death are all inherent in the human condition. The elements of unpredictability of the bizarre and the unique, of success and tragedy, all play shifting roles in the human drama. Man now possesses the gifts and powers to overcome some of the natural forces that have limited him, but only if he can exercise the moral discipline to take his own destiny as far as he can into his hands.
Small but wonderful beings
I do not mean to exaggerate our capabilities. We should not be carried away wishfully by the lure of the possible, nor believe that it can easily become the actual. In the nature of things, we are still frail animals, and though capable of creating wonders, we are still prone to error, limited in power, finite in an infinite universe. Although we may tap new sources of energy, there are doubtless powers which we must recognize and appreciate as beyond our control. There is a serene unfathomableness in the universe, far greater than man. We are insignificant by the measure of eternity.
Man can be overpowered by his sense of the boundless universe. He can be crushed by a final realization of the tragic aspects of human existence. In the contest between man and the universe, in the last analysis, it is man whose will must yield; and it is he, who will finally cave in, not the universe. Out, alone, in breathtaking space, his impotence and insignificance may be too much for him to bear. A new religious awakening and a new sense of awe and piety may again descend upon him. The stress of the tempo of change in the post-modern technological world may be too much for the human system. Man may again retreat in a massive expression of failure of nerve. This has happened before in human history, and may repeat itself.
Lesson of History
People have heard and read of all sorts of grim futures that doomsayers have imagined for the human species: nuclear disaster, totalitarian thought control, the emergence of a new dark age. Because they exploit man's fears, such apocalyptic visions have always threatened to come true, and fanaticisms of one kind or another have therefore offered illusory refuge. We have seen how in abandoning theism, men have been all too prone to seize upon other religious ideologies, Marxism among them. When that has finally been dismantled by bitter experience, men may seek to cling to new faiths, or old faiths by new names, that they imagine will sustain them.
A great lesson of history is that mankind needs to reject facile solutions, easy promises of salvation, whether religious or ideological. The present-day controversies among the isms, capitalism, liberalism, communism, seem -- in the light of our desires and capacities -- irrelevant. They deflect us from the ultimate problems we must consider now, when our means of survival and our means of destruction have become equally powerful. The only option for man is to think about his future not in traditional ideological terms but radically and rationally in terms of his creative potentialities.
The Challenge of Life
The challenge in every age is the existential dilemma: Is life worth living? man still cries out. What does it mean? How do we fit into the universe? Do we have a place in it?
Man can learn to recognize the universe for what it is. He can live without illusion. He can discard the myths imposed upon him in his infancy, and realize that utopia is always a matter of increasing degree, that by discovering the sources of enrichment and joy, he will find that the good life is truly possible -- an interesting, exciting, inspiring adventure. If he is realistic he will know that he sometimes will fail, but that he will often succeed. Learning that he cannot suppress change, he may learn to manage, indeed to encourage it when he sees how to use it for human betterment. A continuing moral revolution accompanying technological change will no doubt accelerate the stresses involved in discovering new values and meanings in our existence. It will have continuing repercussions -- in our social life, in our educational system, the nature of marriage and the family, Political and economic institutions.
Our basic problem is moral: to survive and to live well, and to be a conscious member of the family of man, aware that we are all linked in humanity, and thus able to utilize the instruments of science, technology, and the arts of society for universally worthwhile purposes.
In this approach to the future, the qualities that man needs to foster if he is to survive are critical intelligence, compassion, and courage qualities he should never be willing to barter for vain promises. Man, the primate with the enlarged cerebral cortex and the ability to respond to symbols and use language, needs critical intelligence for his survival, his needs and functions, and his exploration of new forms of his life -- adventure. But, living in community, he needs to develop compassion for his fellow beings. He needs to be constantly aware that all humans live and suffer together, and that by sharing our experiences of joy, of sorrow, and hope, we give new meaning to life. The moral point of view is a prerequisite for human survival.
Courage and Intelligence Needed
And man needs to cultivate his courage and persistence to explore the universe and mold the world to his desire, or that small portion of it that he occupies, to withstand inevitable, difficult events, and by recognizing the tragic elements, not to be unwittingly defeated by them.
These are high marks of human greatness, the excellencies that a humanism of freedom appropriate to the present human condition needs to nourish. That reason, empathy, and independence should be assiduously cultivated as cherished virtues, if the destiny of man is not to be terminated abruptly, has become increasingly clear. It is now entirely possible for human life to enter a new age of promise and splendor. Whether it will do so will depend not upon conflicting faiths in God or utopias or ideologies in strife of opposition, but upon the resources of the human animal and whether or not he is realistic, creative and daring enough to stand up to new challenges and demands. The fullness of being is still within man's reach, with evidence on every hand that it can be fuller and more intense than any that has gone before. Whether we will be able to realize these potentialities cannot be determined beforehand. Our future is contingent and precarious, open and uncharted; and what it will be depends upon the decisions and actions that we will undertake. 'Whether our choices will spell wisdom or folly can only be told after the fact. If our choices are to be wise, then a precondition for human achievement is that we must not delude ourselves or be weighed down by a false religiosity of the spirit. If we will but give full vent to the highest within us -- our intelligence, our capacity for compassion, our audacious spirit that take the fulfillment of man's hopes by man himself as the center of his universe and his primary project.