Secular (in)Humanism

From Wikipedia: “Secular Humanism is a humanist philosophy that espouses reason, ethics, and justice…”

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Here’s the problem:

Secular humanism is an example of what has been called “cut-flower” morality. That is to say that it has grown out of a Western culture rooted in Christian principles and ethics, and it assumes that it can cut off and keep those attractive aspects while discarding all that bothersome baggage of Christianity itself.

If we look a little further into – oh, let’s call them the “articles of faith”, for convenience – of the Council for Secular Humanism, we see that:

“… religious experience … redirects and gives meaning to the lives of human beings. We deny, however, that such experiences have anything to do with the supernatural … We consider the universe to be … most effectively understood by scientific inquiry. We are always open to the discovery of new possibilities and phenomena in nature. However, we find that traditional views of the existence of God … are meaningless”

“Secular humanists may be agnostics, atheists, rationalists, or skeptics, but they find insufficient evidence for the claim that some divine purpose exists for the universe.”

So let’s break that down for what it’s really saying:

  • Religious experience gives meaning to our lives, but is not related to any spiritual reality and is in fact a meaningless illusion.
  • Furthermore, we accept any evidence and are open to any new possibility as long as it has no theological implications, because those are a priori defined as rubbish.

We’ll leave this hit-and-miss adherence to scientific rigour for another discussion. But it’s the morality that I really want to examine in this essay:

“… secularists deny that morality needs to be deduced from religious belief … we believe in the central importance of the value of human happiness here and now. We are opposed to absolutist morality, yet we maintain that objective standards emerge, and ethical values and principles may be discovered, in the course of ethical deliberation”

So, maximising human happiness is the ultimate goal, and while there is no “absolutist morality”, there are “objective standards”. It has been an ongoing (and notably unsuccessful) pet project of atheist philosophers for centuries to deduce a basis for objective morality apart from a theistic worldview, but let’s look at some specific examples. (Lest I be accused of cherry-picking particularly offensive statements made on an off day, I have included references to the relevant works if you would like to research them further).

Julian Huxley was the founding president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union in 1952, a broad umbrella organisation covering secular humanism, atheism, rationalism and the like. As well as being an extremely prominent secular humanist (and the first president of the British Humanist Association), he was a ground-breaking biologist in the field of evolutionary synthesis and the grandson of T. H. Huxley.

He was also a prominent member of the British Eugenics Society – indeed, was President of that institution from 1959-62. His view was that:

“The lowest strata are reproducing too fast. Therefore … they must not have too easy access to relief or hospital treatment lest the removal of the last check on natural selection should make it too easy for children to be produced or to survive; long unemployment should be a ground for sterilisation.” (Man in the modern world, 1947)

Another prominent voice among the secular humanists is Peter Singer, who is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and has held positions at the University of Melbourne, Monash University and the University of Oxford. In 2004 he was recognised as the Australian Humanist of the Year by the Council of Australian Humanist Societies. As well as supporting bestiality “as long as it’s not abusive to the animal”, Singer believes that early-term abortion is morally acceptable, not because of any usual pro-choice arguments, but because killing a human being is not necessarily wrong:

“[The argument that a fetus is not alive] is a resort to a convenient fiction that turns an evidently living being into one that legally is not alive. Instead of accepting such fictions, we should recognise that the fact that a being is human, and alive, does not in itself tell us whether it is wrong to take that being’s life.” (Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics, 1994)

He extends this line of thought further, arguing that killing an infant which the parents do not want is morally acceptable, as it would result in more happiness overall than allowing the child to live. (For the full discussion, see Practical Ethics, 1993 – it’s too depressing to quote extended passages).

I have chosen these passages for this essay, not because they are morally repulsive and I wish to score an emotional point, but because they are the logical outworkings of a secular humanist worldview when applied consistently to the field of morality by the leaders in the movement.

What I am even more concerned with is why we find these concepts repulsive. It is not our rationality which objects – I suggest rather that it is specifically our humanity that is repulsed by infanticide and eugenics.  And I assert that the logical product of secular “humanism” is a coldly rationalist shell with all traces of humanity removed.

Can the flower of our morality survive without the nourishing root of a Christian worldview? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, perhaps the finest commentator on the great Soviet experiment with institutional atheism in the 20th century, summarised his views thus:

“…if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some sixty million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”

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Related posts:

Living a good and/or Christian life

Lumpy atheism

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Faith: reflecting on evidence

Update:

This post has been edited and expanded. The full version can be found here.

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There seems to be a great deal of confusion among non-Christians about the meaning of the word “faith” in a Christian context. The prominent atheist evangelist Richard Dawkins writes that: “Faith, being belief that isn’t based on evidence, is the principle vice of any religion.” And further: “[whereas] scientific belief is based upon publicly checkable evidence, religious faith not only lacks evidence; its independence from evidence is its joy, shouted from the rooftops”. And thus we see that for Dawkins (and many atheists), religious faith is blind faith.

But such a view is totally at odds with the view of faith presented in the Bible and maintained throughout mainstream Christianity. The biblical narrative is full of references to faith based overwhelmingly on evidence. This was the whole reason that the apostle John wrote his gospel: “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31, NIV). Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, says that Dawkins’ definition of faith “certainly does not describe the faith of most serious believers in history, nor most of those in my personal acquaintance.” Throughout the Bible we see this theme: you have been given evidence, so believe.

On the topic of evidence, we often see the charge that “Faith is opposed to science”. As both a scientist and a Christian, I find that to be patently false. Firstly, we must understand the rightful position of science on the topic. The great evolutionary proponent T. H. Huxley coined the word agnostic to describe not only his own personal philosophy, but also the necessary stance of science. He wrote,

“Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe. Consequently Agnosticism puts aside not only the greater part of popular theology, but also the greater part of anti-theology.”

This is not to say that science can never contribute to faith. Among the central issues of the Christian credo are belief in the historical truth of certain events. I believe that Jesus was a real person, that he lived around 2000 years ago, that he was crucified under the orders of Pontius Pilate, then the Roman Procurator of Judea. I believe that God raised him from the dead, and that he appeared physically to hundreds of people after his resurrection. There are many other things that I believe about Jesus, but I offer these as a starting point, not only because they are all verifiable by historical and archaeological evidence, but because all my other beliefs about Jesus hinge on his death and resurrection. The apostle Paul, preaching to the gentiles in Athens, explains that the resurrection of Jesus was “proof to all” of God’s plans. In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul is even more explicit: “if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless.” (1 Cor. 15:14, NLT). But the scientific contributions to the question of the death and resurrection of Jesus, principally through archaeology and textual criticism of the historical records, overwhelmingly endorse the beliefs I have stated above. There is evidence, so I believe.

On broader issues, such as the existence of a God who created the universe, science is in a far more difficult position. I have already discussed in a previous post how Stephen Jay Gould articulated so clearly that:

“Science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists.”

The tools of science are unequipped to deal with the supernatural and the unobservable. Sir Peter Medawar, Nobel laureate in Medicine, noted that:

“The existence of a limit to science is, however, made clear by its inability to answer childlike elementary questions … such as ‘How did everything begin?’; ‘What are we all here for?’; ‘What is the point of living?’”

Furthermore, for any postulated experiment to determine God’s existence, we have what I would term the isolation problem. That is to say, scientific experiments rely on experimental controls: if we wanted to determine the existence or lack of existence of God in an experiment, we would need another experiment in which God didn’t exist, to which we could compare our results. But God is present in the entirety of existence. He is not just the Creator but the Sustainer of the universe. Imagine a creature which lived its whole life under water and could not exist without water, attempting to eliminate “wetness” from an experiment.

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Acceptance of evidence: the real issue

In fact, the perceived lack of “evidence” for the Christian faith generally arises from an a priori decision that any evidence pointing towards the truth of Christianity must automatically be rejected. When the “Big Bang” theory was first proposed, it was met with staunch opposition from atheists on principle, rather than on scientific grounds, because it would lend support to the idea that the universe had a specific beginning, and thus force the issue of God’s creation into the picture. An endless universe could ignore the need to explain its beginning, but a universe with a definite and identifiable starting point could no longer bypass this issue. When the cosmic microwave background was discovered, the validity Big Bang theory was accepted as being conclusively demonstrated, but the same objectionists simply moved on to other semantic arguments and ignored the theological implications.

Jesus himself referred to this phenomenon: in chapter 16 of Luke’s gospel, he tells the story of a man who has died and is suffering in hell, and he begs that someone rise from the dead to go and warn his brothers of the truth. He is told that the prophets and the scriptures already give all the information his brothers need. But, he says, if someone from the dead goes to them, then they will believe. To which the reply comes:

“If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (Luke 16:31, NIV)

For those less insistent on keeping our eyes closed, every facet of the universe is a glorious testament to God’s creation. Even T. H. Huxley acknowledged that:

… true Agnosticism will not forget that existence, motion, and law-abiding operation in nature are more stupendous miracles than any recounted by the mythologies, and that there may be things, not only in the heavens and earth, but beyond the intelligible universe, which ‘are not dreamt of in our philosophy’.”

Or, as the psalmist phrased it:

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (Psalm 19:1, NIV)

Is that a statement of science? No. But so much of what makes life glorious is inaccessible to science, and it really would be a shame to just ignore it all.

As for me, I do not take a blind leap of faith. The path ahead is thoroughly illuminated by historical evidence, scientific insight and personal experience, and I see clearly where I am choosing to walk.

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Related posts:

Believing and understanding

On Spherical Cows and the Search for Truth

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