Alone Together: A Critique of Secular Humanism

INTRODUCTION

Secular Humanism

Secular humanism is “a progressive lifestance that, without supernaturalism, affirms [mankind’s] ability and responsibility to lead meaningful, ethical lives capable of adding to the greater good of humanity.”[1] Secular humanism is a philosophy that has seen tremendous growth over the last 25 years and shows no signs of slowing down.[2] The promise of a meaningful life lived that is devoid of supernatural motivations for doing so is an increasingly popular notion to the current generation and people are flocking to it. One would think that as quickly as secular humanism is growing, it must provide a healthy, robust sense of community for its adherents, but studies show that secular humanists and atheists do not experience as rich a social connection as religious people do.[3] Despite the rapid growth of secular humanists/freethinkers/atheists over the past several years, “their hopes and visions of a secular America have been of little use in sustaining an identity within a highly religious (though pluralistic) society.”[4] It appears that there are systemic issues within the secular humanist philosophy that prevent meaningful community from developing, and thus prevent secular humanism from accomplishing it’s stated purpose. We will take a look at some of the key statements in various humanist manifestos that help shed some light on what this systemic problem is, but first, there is a crucial cultural development that has taken place over the last 200 years as a direct result of rising secularism that sets the stage for secular humanism’s current communal struggles.

SYSTEMIC BARRIERS TO COMMUNITY IN SECULAR HUMANISM

The Buffered Self

Charles Taylor, a Roman Catholic philosopher and social theorist, in his book A Secular Age, describes how modernity and naturalism have led to disenchantment, which in turn has led to the development of what he calls “the buffered self.” Premodern people were much more accepting of transcendent presuppositions that affected how they viewed the world, namely because, for most observed phenomenon, there was not sufficient data to rationally explain how the world worked. “In this premodern, enchanted universe, it was assumed that power resided in things, which is precisely why things like relics or the Host could be invested with spiritual power.”[5] To use Taylor’s terminology, this view of the world produced in humanity a belief that the self was “porous”, or able to be influenced by outside factors. James K.A. Smith explains:

“Just as premodern nature is always already intermixed with its beyond, and just as things are intermixed with mind and meaning, so the premodern self’s porosity means the self is essentially vulnerable (and hence also “healable”). To be human is to be essentially open to an outside (whether benevolent or malevolent), open to blessing or curse, possession or grace.”[6]

But as the Enlightenment progressed and science began to provide natural explanations for things like diseases and mental disorders, transcendent presuppositions were shattered and the world became disenchanted—we lost the sense of wonder that came with deep contemplation of reality.[7] Humanity was now able to derive meaning and explain life through rationality and understanding, rather than other transcendent means. Taylor argues that this resulted in a primary shift in the location of meaning, moving it from “the world” into “the mind.”[8] No longer having to appeal to religious teachings, transcendent forces, or supernatural deities to derive meaning, humanity was now free to create meaning for itself. The human self was no longer “porous”, but now “buffered”, protected and cut-off from outside influence and able to be its own god.

When the concepts of “porous” and “buffered” selves are applied to societies and communities, it’s easy to see how, from the beginning, secular philosophy has undermined the creation of community. A porous community is able to unite together around an idea (or a “force”) that is outside itself, and as far as this idea is detached from the influence of a fickle community, it is free from being corrupted, abandoned, and forgotten. But the same cannot be said of a “buffered” community. When meaning and purpose are derived solely from personally crafted definitions of human fulfilment, and all attempts to influence another’s perspective are diffused by an ideological buffer, then you wind up with a community that, at most, can only be united around broad, vague values that do not encroach upon another’s sense of worth and meaning. This concept of the buffered self that has been created by secularism is important to understanding exactly what it is that prohibits the growth and flourishing of secular humanist communities—namely, a vagueness in moral teaching that is not specific enough to grip the hearts of its adherents.

Vague Positivity

The fatal flaw of secular humanism lies in its vagueness. The movement seems to be built around providing a positive moral framework for people to adopt that is divorced from religion, but it lacks the specificity and moral precision that is typical of most major faith traditions (which, one could argue, makes secular humanism an insufficient substitute). Many secular humanist manifestos have been published[9] and a survey of them reveals that the only clear moral imperative that has been consistently proposed is that humanity should do whatever is best for human flourishing. This is the “humanism” of secular humanism. And this moral imperative is frequently paired with a condition that is the only other tenet of the system that is just as clear: any transcendent basis for the development of moral values must be denied. Skepticism is allowed, and sometimes encouraged, but justifying any moral teachings by religion is strictly forbidden. This is the “secular” of secular humanism.

The only moral standard that secular humanism requires is a vague positivity with no exact description of how that positivity should be manifested in word or in deed, only that it should aid in bringing about human flourishing. In other words, secular humanism hopes to encourage human flourishing by merely encouraging human flourishing. There is no clear description of what human flourishing looks like or what is required to get there. Without a more meaningful moral agenda, secular humanism will not provide a strict enough path for its adherents to follow and they will roam about without direction and guidance. There will be no lasting unity or solidarity amongst the group. Without a shared moral ground on which to build a way of living in peace with one another, secular humanist communities will continue to give way to strife and conflict, preventing any deep communal roots from forming.[10] A more complex moral structure is needed if secular humanism is going to develop the community that it needs to accomplish its goals. Now, by its own admission, “secular humanism is not so much a specific morality as it is a method for the explanation and discovery of rational moral principles.”[11] So secular humanism is not meant to dictate morality, it is only meant to provide a means for humanity to develop and understand what moral behaviors and actions are rational and acceptable.

Subjective Morality

The “method of moral discovery” that is espoused by secular humanists is consequentialism, which judges actions as right or wrong based upon their results.[12] The American Humanist Association explains that “ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns…” (emphasis mine).[13] In secular humanism, the means justify the ends, but herein lies the problem: moral values are determined by current “human circumstances, interests, and concerns”, which leads to a morality that is not objective, but relative to the age we live in and subjective to each individual secularist’s whims. In secular humanism, there is no objective arbiter of moral truth and so there is no consensus of morality that can be united for, fought for, and achieved. Without an objective, common, unifying vision, secular humanism will not be able to gain any traction.

Among human secularists, who is it that chooses what is good and what is bad? Who decides what is morally acceptable? The loudest majority that are the most vocal about their circumstances, interests, and concerns—that is who decides. This eventually creates a system that is self-defeating to the secular humanist’s agenda. Friedrich Nietzsche understood this and Tim Keller unpacks Nietzsche’s thoughts for us:

“In a note on the writings of George Eliot, Nietzsche observes presciently that the English-speaking world would try to abandon belief in God yet maintain the values of compassion, universal benevolence, and conscience. But he predicts that in societies that reject God, morality itself will eventually become a problem. It will be harder and harder to justify or motivate morality, people will become more selfish, and there will be no way but coercion to control them. In his book Beyond Good and Evil he mocks the philosophy of the utilitarians—those who promote human rights and compassion as simply practical wisdom, the best way to pursue the greatest good for the greatest number. How, he asks, can you promote unselfish behavior using selfishness as the motivation? It won’t work, and ‘rights talk’ will simply be the way whatever party is in power keeps itself there.”[14]

Secular humanism is trying to gather together a group of subjective individualists, tell them to determine what is best for humanity by tallying their own concerns, interests, and desires, and then refuses to give them a road map for how to bring this vision about. This is a breeding ground for disagreement and strife, which in turn produces fractured relationships, stifles social and relational depth, and prevents true community from developing.  The buffering of the self, the vagueness of moral values, and the subjectivity of moral truth all create significant barriers to the development of a meaningful, deep, common identity for secular humanists.

A Host of Deceptively Small Tents

This moral vagueness moves the pegs of the secular humanist tent to extreme poles, allowing for anyone who agrees with the two basic tenets of the philosophy, religious skepticism and individual freedom, to join in the party. As we’ve already seen, the number of people falling within these parameters have increased dramatically and show no signs of slowing down. But agnosticism and individualism by themselves are not strong enough ideals to support any meaningful growth for a community, let alone global human flourishing; again, these ideals are too broad. For authentic relationships to develop, there must be a specific, shared commitment for (a group of) people to experience together. Any community that downplays the importance of commitment will find the relationships that are built to be shallow.[15] Therefore, it is a safe prediction that any sense of community that is realized by secular humanists will be short-lived until it is recognized as the illusion that it is. By relativizing moral truth and declaring the independence of the human mind, secular humanists are inviting people into their tent, promising the outcast a place of acceptance and a sense of family, but at the same time forbidding that any toes be stepped on. “You are free to have your own sphere of atheistic beliefs, as long as your sphere doesn’t collide with mine.” Secular humanism is not the big tent philosophy it appears to be. Instead of community, what secular humanism creates is a plurality of small, cramped tents, scattered across the vast moral spectrum, filled with people who are all alone together.

 

CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY

Beyond Human Flourishing

Christianity shares a common goal with secular humanism in that both Christians and humanists desire to maximize human flourishing. Reflecting on the prophetic future of humanity described in Isaiah 60, Tony Reinke says,

The sun will become obsolete as it gives way to the manifestation of the glory of God, his “everlasting light,” which will illuminate this city forever. In God’s radiant presence, all sorrow will cease. All sin will be done away with. All enemies will be vanquished. God’s people will possess this new land forever with no threat of exile. Nothing will threaten or hinder their joy…Isaiah 60 is compounded blessing upon compounded blessing cascading down in holistic human flourishing.[16]

This is the eschatological result of the Christian’s hope. Christianity is currently devoted to, working toward, and will realize, its promised vision of eternal, holistic human flourishing. But there is something very distinct about the Christian’s idea of human flourishing and the secular humanist’s in that the Christian “goal” of human flourishing is not a goal at all, it is a means to an even greater end. And this greater end includes human flourishing, but is not dominated by it. Again, Charles Taylor explains, “there is a notion of our good which goes beyond human flourishing, which we may gain even while failing utterly on the scales of human flourishing, even through failing (like dying young on a cross) …[Christianity] redefines our ends so as to take us beyond flourishing.”[17]  The end that Christianity pursues, the end that human flourishing serves, is the end to which God created the world: His glory. The reason given in Isaiah 60 as to why God would prepare for His people such a spectacular future is so “that [He] might be glorified” (v. 21). It is for the praise of the glory of God that human flourishing exists, and the praise of the glory of God is something that is actually served, not derailed, by human suffering (John 9:3; 2 Corinthians 12:8-10; 2 Peter 4:12-13). The secular humanist’s dream of human flourishing is crushed under the weight of the cross that we must all bear; but for the Christian, this weight is a constant reminder that the dream is still alive. For that reason, Christianity provides a greater goal by which humanity can be united and strive for.

Also, Christianity is not plagued by a lack of specificity in its moral teaching. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Paul’s pastoral epistles, and the book of James all provide a clear, distinct, moral road-map for Christians to follow.[18] We’re not all on separate paths trying to make our way to Heaven; we have a Leader who is carefully instructing us every step of the way.

No Wiggle Room

This common morality, common goal, and common Leader allow for Christianity to develop the type of community that secular humanism lacks. The reason is because everything that holds the church together is outside of itself, transcendent, free from being morphed by the fluctuating and ever-changing physical concerns of humanity. In Christian terms, the truth of the Gospel (a transcendent message) applied by the power of the Spirit (a transcendent power) to the repentant heart of the believer (a transcendent plea) cleanses us from sin (a transcendent problem) and unites us to Jesus Christ (a transcendent Savior) who preserves us until the end (a transcendent hope). Christians are an enchanted people who reject the buffered self and realize that human flourishing, in this life, is found by emulating the example of Christ, who “emptied Himself” for our sake (Philippians 2:7). Like Jesus, we are free to deprive ourselves so that others might flourish.

We do this because “now [we] are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27). We care for one another with the same concern that we care for our own selves. “And as each individual part does its work, the body grows and builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:16). The church is an unstoppable force, a lavish, selfless community where everybody has something to offer, for “the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (v. 22). This reality drastically changes the dynamic of our relationships with one another, where we understand that since human flourishing is not ultimate, we can freely give up our luxuries for the sake of others and the benefit of the whole, rather than the one. This is true community, one that “doesn’t merely bring people together to tolerate each other, but to be so tightly committed that Paul can call them a ‘new humanity’ (Ephesians 2:15) and a ‘new household’ (2:19).”[19] In other words, the Christian community isn’t made up of people who are alone together in their deceptively small tents, afraid to brush moral elbows and step on ethical toes. The church is intimately united in the deepest possible way. There’s no wiggle room in this big tent.


[1]American Humanist Association. 2017. “Definition of Humanism.” Accessed December 1, 2017. https://americanhumanist.org/what-is-humanism/definition-of-humanism/

[2]Pew Research Center. 2016. “10 Facts About Atheists.” FactTank: News in the Numbers, June 1. Accessed December 1, 2017. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/06/01/10-facts-about-atheists/

[3]Bainbridge, William S. “Atheism”, Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion 1 (Article 2).  2005. Web. Accessed on 11/18/2017. http://www.religjournal.com/pdf/ijrr01002.pdf

[4]Cimino, Richard P, and Christopher Smith. 2007. “Secular humanism and atheism beyond progressive secularism.” Sociology of Religion 68, no. 4: 407-424. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed December 2, 2017).

[5]Smith, James K. A. 2009. How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle.

[6]Ibid.

[7]Cosper, Mike. 2017. Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. pp. 10-11.

[8]Taylor, Charles. 2007. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA; Harvard University Press. p. 35.

[9]For example: Humanist Manifestos I and II. 1973. Buffalo: Prometheus Books.; and also, Humanist Manifesto 2000. 1999. Free Inquiry. Fall, p. 6.

[10]Forster, Greg. 2017. Free Faith: Inventing New Ways of Believing and Living Together, “Our Secular Age: 10 Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor”, Edited by Collin Hanses. Deerfield, IL: The Gospel Coalition, p. 99.

[11]Council For Secular Humanism. 1980. “A Secular Humanist Declaration.” Accessed December 4, 2017. https://secularhumanism.org/index.php/11

[12]Ibid.

[13]American Humanist Association. 2017. “Humanist Manifesto III.” Accessed December 1, 2017. https://americanhumanist.org/what-is-humanism/manifesto3/

[14]Keller, Tim. 2016. “Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical.” New York: Viking, p. 48.

[15]Dever, Mark and Jamie Dunlop. 2015. “The Compelling Community: Where God’s Power Makes a Church Attractive.” Wheaton, IL: Crossway, p. 53.

[16]Tony Reinke. 2015. “Why God is After Your Joy.” Desiring God. Accessed December 3, 2017. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/why-god-is-after-your-joy

[17]Taylor, p. 151.

[18]Along with the rest of the New Testament, of course.

[19]Dever and Dunlop, p. 25.

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