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 dont 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 Ive 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
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
Why are we here? Whats life all
Is God really real, or is there some doubt?
And as any good philosopher would do, MP does
not provide us with simplistic, canned, answers,
but rather with alternatives to seriously ponder:
Is life just a game where we make up the
Or are we just spiraling coils,
of self-replicating DNA?
Which shows an understanding of both the problem
of relativism in morality and of Richard Dawkins
concept of the selfish gene.
Monty Python does appreciate alternative, even
religious, viewpoints, as we can evince from several
passages of Every Sperm is Sacred (from the movie
The Meaning of Life):
Im a Roman Catholic,
and have been since before I was born
And the one thing they say about Catholics,
is theyll take you as soon as youre
You dont have to have a great brain ...
Youre a Catholic the moment Dad came.
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
MPs system as:
Every sperm is sacred
every sperm is great
If a sperm is wasted
God gets quite irate.
However, one could argue, make fun of God all
you like, but in the end isnt it rather
obvious that He is responsible for the beauty
of creation, arguably one of the most important
things that give 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:
All things sick and cancerous,
all evil great and small,
alla things foul and dangerous,
the Lord God made them all.
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):
Whenever life gets you down, Mrs. Brown
Just remember that youre standing on a planet
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.
But why -- you may ask -- would astronomy matter
to our sense of everyday life? Obviously, because
it helps to:
... remember when youre feeling
very small and insecure
how amazingly unlikely is your birth.
Which doesnt mean the cosmic perspective
avoids scathing social criticism:
And pray that theres intelligent
life somewhere up in space
Because theres bugger all down
here on Earth.
Despite such apparently negative view of humanity,
the optimistic character of Monty Pythons
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:
If life seems jolly rotten
theres something youve forgotten
and thats to laugh and smile
and dance and sing.
So much for humanists being a joyless bunch!
And the song doesnt lack deep philosophical
forais, as in:
For life is quite absurd
and deaths the final word ...
Enjoy it -- its your last chance anyhow.
Not to mention this quintessential, and rather
mathematically accurate, summary of human life:
I mean -- what have you got to lose?
You know, you come from nothing
youre going back to nothing.
What have you lost? Nothing!
Something to ponder, the next time that road
rage is about to overcome you because yet another
jerk on an SUV cut you off without using a turning
to Article Index | Home