Optimistic Secular Humanism

by Dennis McCallum

Humanism is an ideology based on the centrality of humankind. It is possible to espouse theistic humanism, or even Christian Humanism. In these cases, the term humanism means a concern for humanistic goals, with the understanding that God is the final solution to man's needs. Secular humanism, on the other hand, implies a focus on man apart from God, whether or not God exists.

Recognizing Secular Humanism

The following statements are drawn from the Humanist Manifesto I written in 1933. Signed by many of the leading atheistic scholars of that day, it was the benchmark test for so-called "religious humanism" up until 1973, and continues to embody many of the key values of this world view.

"Humanism believes that man is a part of nature and that he has emerged as the result of a continuous process."

"Holding an organic view of life, humanists find that the traditional dualism of mind and body must be rejected."

"Humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantee of human values."

"We are convinced that the time has passed for theism, deism, modernism, and several varieties of 'new thought'."

"Religion consists of those actions, purposes, and experiences which are humanly significant . . . all that is in its degree expressive of intelligently satisfying human living."

"In place of the old attitudes involved in worship and prayer the humanist finds his religious emotions expressed in a heightened sense of personal life and in a cooperative effort to promote social well-being."

"Man will learn to face the crises of life in terms of his knowledge of their naturalness and probability."

"Believing that religion must work increasingly for joy in living, religious humanists aim to foster the creativity in man and to encourage achievements that add to satisfaction in life."

"The humanists are firmly convinced that existing acquisitive and profit-motivated society has shown itself to be inadequate and that radical change in methods, controls, and motives must be instituted."

"Fifteenth and last: We assert that humanism will: (a) affirm life rather than deny it; (b) seek to elicit the possibilities of life, not flee from it; (c) endeavor to establish the conditions of a satisfactory life for all, not merely for the few." [Quoted in Norman L. Geisler, Is Man the Measure? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, l983) p.]

The Humanist Manifesto II was written in 1973. This document was signed by such notables as the author Isaac Asimov; professors Brand Blanshard, Anthony Flew, and A.J. Ayer; psychologist B.F. Skinner; situational ethicist Joseph Fletcher; and biologist Jacques Monod. Following are some selections showing the general direction of the statement.
"In the best sense, religion may inspire dedication to the highest ethical ideals. The cultivation of moral devotion and creative imagination is an expression of genuine, 'spiritual' experience and aspiration." The authors quickly add, however, that "traditional dogmatic or authoritarian religions . . . do a disservice to the human species." Further, they "find insufficient evidence for the existence of the supernatural." For as "non-theists, we begin with humans not God, nature not deity." Moreover, "we can discover no divine purpose or providence for the human species." Hence, "no deity will save us; we must save ourselves."
"Promises of immortal salvation and fear of eternal damnation are both illusory and harmful." Why? Because "they distract humans from present concerns, from self-actualization, and from rectifying social injustices." Moreover, science has found "no credible evidence that life survives the death of the body."
"We affirm that moral values derive their source from human experience. Ethics is autonomous and situational, needing no theological or ideological sanction."
"Sixth: In the area of sexuality, we believe that intolerant attitudes often cultivated by orthodox religions and puritanical cultures, unduly repress sexual conduct." The authors affirm "the right to birth control, abortion, and divorce." They also permit any form of "sexual behavior between consenting adults," for "short of harming others or compelling them to do likewise, individuals should be permitted to express their sexual proclivities and pursue their lifestyles as they desire."
It calls for "the highest commitment [i.e., to these values] of which we are capable," a commitment which "transcends . . . church, state, party, class, or race." [Quoted in Norman L. Geisler, Is Man the Measure? pp.*ll5-*ll8]
Later still, a number of the signatories of the second manifesto produced a document called, "A Secular Humanist Declaration." The intent of this document seems to have been to remove the religious designation from humanism (hence the term "Secular").

"It decries contemporary orthodox religion as "anti-science, anti-freedom, anti-human," pointing out that "secular humanism places trust in human intelligence rather than in divine guidance." It ends by deploring "the growth of intolerant sectarian creeds that foster hatred."

Geisler points out that the turn away from the term "religious humanist" is a change in tactics, because humanists, "have pleaded for recognition as a religious group and...has even been defined as a religion by the United States Supreme Court (Torcaso v. Watkins, l961). [Free Inquiry, Winter l980 - 8l, p.3. also quoted in Norman L. Geisler, Is Man the Measure? p.120-121]

A Case Study-- Julian Huxley

To gain a more personal feel for a famous secular humanist thinker, selections are included from Julian Huxley's book, Religion Without Revelation. Huxley begins by affirming,

"I believe firmly that the scientific method...is the only method which in the long run will give satisfactory foundations for beliefs...It consists in demanding facts as the only basis for conclusions; and of consistently and continuously testing any conclusions which may have been reached by new facts and, wherever possible, by the crucial test of experiment. It consists also...in full publication of the evidence on which conclusions are based, so that other workers may...put a quite different interpretation on the facts."[Julian Huxley, Religion Without Revelation. (New York,NY: Mentor Books, l957) p.l5]

At the same time he admits that,

"There are, however, all sorts of occasions on which the scientific method is not applicable...(because) The exigencies of everyday life... make it necessary to act on a hasty balancing of admittedly incomplete evidence, to take immediate action, and to draw conclusions in advance of the evidence." Therefore, "It is here that belief plays its most important role. When we cannot be certain, we must proceed in part by faith--"[p.16]

What happened then to the scientific method? To this he responds,

"When there exists no evidence or next to no evidence, and when the conclusion to which we may come can have no influence on the facts, then it is our duty to suspend judgment and hold no belief, just as definitely as it is our duty, when practical issues hang on our decision, not to suspend judgment, but to take our courage in both hands and act on the best belief at which we can arrive."[p.17 (Emphasis mine)]

How does one decide which situation one is in? Huxley explains,

"I hold it to be an important duty to know when to be agnostic. I believe that one should be agnostic when belief one way or the other is mere idle speculation, incapable of verification: when belief is held merely to gratify desires, however deep-seated, and not because it is forced on us by evidence; and when belief may be taken by others to be more firmly grounded than it really is, and so come to encourage false hopes or wrong attitudes of mind.[p.17 (Emphasis mine)]

Unfortunately, it is at this very point that Huxley manifests an inability to follow his own creed. He continues,

"A personal God, be he Jehovah, or Allah, or Apollo, or Amen-Ra, or without name but simply God, I know nothing of."

This would certainly be consistent to a degree. But he goes further,

"...What is more, I am not merely agnostic on the subject...I disbelieve in a personal God in any sense in which that phrase is ordinarily used." [p.18 ]

It seems that Huxley is not withholding judgment here, but that he is affirming a faith position even though the situation has not "forced" belief on him at all! He goes on to affirm other faith positions as well,

"I disbelieve in the existence of Heaven or Hell in any conventional Christian sense..."

"I believe, and believe strongly, that if the standards of good and evil by which we ought to live this life are different from the standards by which we may hope to achieve satisfaction or blessedness in a life to come, then so much the worse for the universe and its governance; but I refuse on that account to modify my standards of conduct in this world, for that appears to me an outrage, and a surrender of the highest part of our nature." [p.19]

It would seem as well that the emotional outcome of belief affects his view.

"For my own part, the sense of spiritual relief which comes from rejecting the idea of God as a supernatural being is enormous." [p.32]

Critique

We can see from the case above that the presuppositions of the secular humanist betray his/her own methodology. The key then, for the Christian communicator, is to resist the science/faith dichotomy, unless it is actually appropriate. In the case of morals, aesthetics, religion, and philosophy, such a dichotomy is not appropriate.

Far from being one who has entered the light of scientific objectivity, the secular humanist is often involved in blind faith of the worst kind. We begin to realize that if Huxley's new age finally did dawn where, "The insufferable arrogance of those who claim to be in sole possession of religious truth would happily disappear..." he would himself be the first to de-materialize. [p.33]

The debate with secular humanists, then, is intimately tied up with the issue of burden of proof. If Huxley can claim that a strident denial of theism is holding "no belief", and is "scientific", rather than admitting that it is an unverified leap of faith, then the theist will obviously be cast in a bad light.

It is always desirable to divest one's own world view of all burden of proof, while casting that burden entirely on an opponent. If on the other hand, that burden is shared equally (as we must insist), the humanist will have to look to his/her own problems as well. It is to these problems that we now turn.

Problems with Secular Humanist's Positions

    1. The claim that all morals & values are relative is first of all self-contradictory, because it is stated as an absolute. There is also the problem of the inability of man to live consistently with it. All men including humanists hold for absolute values. Will the secular humanist admit that there is nothing necessarily (or absolutely) wrong with rape and murder of a three year old girl? Also be aware of the biblical problem with conflicting moral values and with the best answers available.
    2. To the humanist there is no ultimate meaning to life. Yet no one lives in harmony with this view. The humanist is forced to live as if his life matters, thus belying his own belief. We can be sure that the humanist will not hesitate to point out where the Christian is inconsistent with his/her faith!
    3. In view of the plausibility of the existence of God, it becomes difficult to see why such energy is expended trying to deny Him. It is often possible to show that the secular humanist is more interested in autonomy in the moral area than in discovering truth.

Communication

    1. Since the secular humanist is attempting to establish a science/religion dichotomy, the worst thing a theist can do is to become inappropriately emotional during a discussion. Yet this has too often been the case. The fundamental church has also ascribed every social evil in our culture to humanists, while ignoring the responsibility of the church for many of those or other problems, whether by commission or omission. The result is the appearance of another witch hunt rather than an objective treatment of the facts.
    2. Nothing establishes secular humanism faster than the specter of an ignorant foam-flecked fanatic, looking for a secret international conspiracy by humanistic devils.
    3. It is important to also realize that the modern secular humanist has taken a name for himself that has a history going back as far as the renaissance. The great humanist scholars of that period, however, were mostly theists. Their humanism consisted in taking an interest in the humanities-- including the study of original source writings for the Bible, the classics, and other works. Many humanist scholars also became a part of the reformation. Any attempt by modern secular humanists to identify themselves with these men should be resisted.

Other Reading

Is Man the Measure? Norman L. Geisler,
The Dust of Death, Oz Guiness
The Universe Next Door, James Sire
A Christian Manifesto, Francis Schaeffer

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