Atheists looking for a moral framework are turning to humanism. Justin Brierley meets humanist philosopher Stephen Law to find out what’s involved.
Angus Ritchie asks whether atheistic humanists have any foundation for their beliefs.
What’s in a word? ‘Humanism’ has increasingly come to mean a form of atheism. It seeks to add to the essentially negative claim made by atheism (‘there is no God’) something much more positive; something to give life meaning and hope. In 2002, 50 years after the first World Humanist Congress, humanists from around the world gathered to adopt the Amsterdam Declaration – a positive account of what human values might look like without God.
AMEN TO HUMANISM
It’s worthy stuff. The Declaration ‘affirms the worth, dignity and autonomy of the individual and the right of every human being to the greatest possible freedom compatible with the rights of others’. It warns that ‘the application of science and technology must be tempered by human values’, and that ‘Science gives us the means but human values must propose the ends.’ It ‘supports democracy and human rights’ and ‘insists that personal liberty must be combined with social responsibility’.
Christians should be saying ‘Amen’ to quite a lot of the Amsterdam Declaration. We have every reason to value the dignity of human beings, and to praise the faculty of reason as something given to us by a loving God.
That’s why Nick Spencer and I wrote a report called The Case for Christian Humanism: Why Christians should believe in humanism, and humanists in Christianity. The report argues that it is a huge and dangerous mistake for Christians to talk as if ‘humanism’ is the preserve of non-believers. In fact, there is a long and distinguished history of Christian humanism. More than that, Christianity provides the best foundations for most of the ‘human values’ in the Amsterdam Declaration. And Christianity provides much more secure foundations for humanist values than atheism does. So as well as arguing that Christians should be humanists, Nick and I argue that humanists should believe in Christianity.
WHAT IS CHRISTIAN HUMANISM?
The Christian understanding of human dignity is rooted in the fact that God has created us, become incarnate as one of us, and died for us. If God made us, and took on our flesh in Jesus, then there can be no doubting the dignity of human beings.
That’s why many Christians have always called themselves humanists. We need to keep on doing so, because without Christianity, humanism is in danger.
Pope Francis recently warned that ‘a Europe which is no longer open to the transcendent dimension of life is a Europe which risks slowly losing its own soul and that “humanistic spirit” which it still loves and defends’. His comment was simple yet revolutionary. While most people now take humanism to be opposed to anything religious, Pope Francis was suggesting that the ‘humanistic spirit’ can only survive within a culture that is open to God.
The intellectual threat to the ‘fundamentals’ of human dignity, humanistic ethics and human reason comes from atheism, not religion. This is emphatically not to say that atheist humanists themselves are necessarily less moral or less reasonable. Rather, our argument is that atheism simply saws off the intellectual branch on which humanism sits.
Most atheistic humanists explain why human beings have dignity by appealing to a specific faculty that we have. It might be our ability to reason or our ability to suffer. But the problem with such arguments is that they limit the range of people who can be said to possess this inherent dignity. Arguments that ground our dignity as humans in our capacities exclude those human beings who have either never possessed such rationality, or who have lost it (for example, through degenerative conditions) and have no chance to acquire it again. Indeed, by some reckonings, it even leaves out infants, although
the vast majority of them will one day acquire it.
WITHOUT CHRISTIANITY, HUMANISM IS IN DANGER
Wherever one draws the line, the fact is that when built on these foundations, human dignity becomes relative, not absolute. It is interesting that Stephen Law actually denies that human beings, just by virtue of being human, have any unique dignity. And he wrote one of the bestselling defences of atheist humanism! Law is uncomfortable with the Amsterdam Declaration because it singles out humans for too much special treatment. In saying that, he seems to be making our case for us. So it looks like Christians really do have more reason to call themselves ‘humanists’ than atheists do.
Let’s also consider the wider question of moral reasoning – how human beings come to know right from wrong. Christians and atheists share a determination to use reason to help determine which moral beliefs are true, and which are simply prejudices. The challenge for any moral philosophy is to avoid one of two dangers: either making moral truth wholly relative (collapsing it into whatever our culture currently believes) or being unable to explain how humans have a capacity for getting to the truth. Our argument is that atheism can’t walk this tightrope. It either makes morality relative (whatever I or my culture believes is ‘true for us’) or it accepts that there is an absolute truth about right and wrong – in which case it can’t explain how we come to know that truth.
If evolution is the only thing providing any kind of purpose or direction to the development of our capacities, then our ability to reason has only been placed in us because it helps us to survive and multiply. But there’s a world of difference between a belief being useful and a belief being true. If we can trust human reason, it has to be because it guides us towards true beliefs. Christians, by contrast, have a different story. Although it has been damaged by sin, the voice of conscience is something God-given.
Human reason is not perfect, but it is something placed in us by a loving and trustworthy creator.
Christians can call themselves humanists, and often have. But if atheist humanists think they have arrived at a rational belief in the inherent dignity of humans, then they too should become Christians.
A system of morality which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion
Morality is the herd-instinct in the individual
When people begin to ignore human dignity, it will not be long before they begin to ignore human rights
A person’s worth is quite independent of their usefulness to society
Kjell Magne Bondevik
CANON DR ANGUS RITCHIE is director of the Centre for Theology & Community. Listen to his debate with Stephen Law at premierchristianradio.com/unbelievable.