This is the text of an address I delivered in 2007 to The Ohio State University “Students for Freethought” student organization on the topic “Christian Humanism: Is it a Contradiction?”
Good evening. I am here tonight to address the topic of whether or not “Christian Humanism” is a contradiction in terms. I will argue that it is not a contradiction, and that the combination of Christianity and humanism makes both historical and contemporary sense. I will further attempt to convince you that secular humanism is fighting the wrong enemy, and that the future of humanism lies in a reconciliation between religious and secular humanists.
So basically, some very easy goals!
In an attempt to be fair, I’m going to to start with the best evidence counter to my claims. In other words, we first need to consider why people might think “Christian” and “humanist” would be necessarily contradictory in the first place.
Accordingly, I would like to read a few statements taken from your own website.
This is from the section titled: “What is Humanism,” and appears to be taken from a national organization called the “Center for Secular Humanism”. I won’t read the whole thing –hopefully you are well familiar with your own website, but I thought I’d highlight a few particularly relevant passages.
We are committed to the application of reason and science to the understanding of the universe and to the solving of human problems.
We deplore efforts to denigrate human intelligence, to seek to explain the world in supernatural terms, and to look outside nature for salvation.
We are committed to the principle of the separation of church and state.
We affirm humanism as a realistic alternative to theologies of despair and ideologies of violence…
We believe in optimism rather than pessimism, hope rather than despair, learning in the place of dogma, truth instead of ignorance, joy rather than guilt or sin, tolerance in the place of fear, love instead of hatred, compassion over selfishness, beauty instead of ugliness, and reason rather than blind faith or irrationality.
Okay, I assume that everyone here, with the possible exception of myself, is willing to endorse these as humanist principles. Let’s also look at the usual definitions of Christianity. This first is from Christianity.com:
A faith based on the belief that Jesus Christ is the son of God, sent to earth to save mankind from the punishment of sin.
It is also the belief that every person has been given an opportunity through Jesus’ death and resurrection to enter into a personal relationship with God on earth and for eternity. The result of making a commitment to Christ is a changed life. Believing that the Bible is the living breathing Word of God and without error, Christians use it as a guide book to instruct the way to live.
This second is from “gotquestions.org”
A true Christian is a person who has put his or her faith and trust in the person of Jesus Christ and fact that He died on the cross as payment for sins and rose again on the third day to obtain victory over death and to give eternal life to all who believe in Him.
OK, again, I don’t think these statements are particularly controversial. Most Christians would more or less endorse those definitions. So at this point, it looks like an open-and-shut case in favor of incompatibility. There doesn’t seem to be any way to reconcile the emphasis on faith and belief of Christianity with the rejection of faith by secular humanism.
Nor is this the limit of the evidence of conflict. I’m sure I don’t need to alert anyone here to the hundreds if not millions of Christian websites attacking humanism, and humanist websites attacking religion. I will, however, read just a few quotes, again taken from your own website, under the heading “Approved SFF Quotes”:
Religions are all alike — founded on fables and mythologies.
If God wanted people to believe in him, why’d he invent logic then?
Religion is essentially irrational and it encourages other forms of irrationality to flourish.
Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.
OK, so it seems clear that religion and humanism are natural opposites, intrinsically incompatible, one of which must win and the other of which must die. And yet, that natural conclusion completely contradicts the historical record.
If we research the origins of the term “humanist” it was coined in the 19th century to refer to the philosophy of the Renaissance, which in turn was inspired by the philosophy of the ancient Greeks. The term is a variant on the Italian Renaissance term “umanista” who was a teacher of the humanities, i.e., art, music, literature, philosophy and so forth, and that term itself was based on the ancient Latin “studia humanitatis,” again referring to the humanities.
Thus, the most legitimate claimants to the English term “humanist” as originally conceived would be the philosophers of the Renaissance.
It is of course, tempting to posit these first humanists as establishing the rule of reason in opposition to the religious superstitions of the Middle Ages. But any attempt to view the founders of humanism as pioneering atheists runs hard up against the facts. For example, five figures often mentioned as being most representative of Renaissance humanism are Erasmus, Thomas More, Francois Rabelais, Francesco Petrarch and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola.
Of these five, Petrarch was a devout Christian. Erasmus was not only a Christian but a noted theologian, and Rabelais was a monk.
I do realize, however, that there have been recent attempts to rescue prominent Christians of the past by blaming their public avowals of Christianity on pressures from the Church. In other words, there are some –none in this room, I hope –who like to claim every progressive thinker of the past as a closet atheist, living out a lie only in order to escape some version of the Inquisition.
It seems to me dangerous to try and reshape a deceased thinker’s beliefs in this manner. Let’s suppose, however, that we could make an argument for that conclusion in the case of Rabelais, who seems like a likely candidate because of his arguments with the church hierarchy and his notoriously dirty sense of humor.
What then are we to make of Thomas More who was not only a Christian but even worse, a martyr, who to top it all off was later sainted by the Catholic Church? If faith for the Renaissance thinkers was merely a merely a ruse for avoiding trouble, then it seems to have been in his case a singularly unsuccessful one.
Perhaps more significant, however, than any details of the biographies of these thinkers is the relation they themselves drew between their various beliefs. In particular, I would like to draw your attention to Mirandola, who wrote the seminal work “Oration of the Dignity of Man”, sometimes referred to as the “Manifesto of the Renaissance,” a work in which he wholly credited his Christian faith as the source of his humanist convictions.
So is this merely an accident of history?
One tempting way to deal with this problem is to simply write off these founding humanists entirely. Words, after all, change meaning over the years, and it seems easiest to just assume this is what has happened with humanism. When it was coined it had one meaning, under which it was essentially a type of Christian philosophy, but now it has a completely different and diametrically opposed meaning excluding religion.
I would argue against such an approach, however, for two major reasons. First, because the Renaissance is widely considered one of the finest flowerings of humanism in history. To write off Renaissance humanism is to give up claim to the great art, music, philosophy and science that developed in that period. In other words, it is to apply for divorce from the source of most of the positive associations the general public has towards the term “humanism”.
Second, it raises the question, if there is no relationship at all between the historical humanists and the humanists of today then what reason is there for retaining the “humanist” title. Wouldn’t the movement be better served with a more descriptive title such as “secular rationalists” or “unreligious dogooders”?
I’m just joking. Clearly, the name secular humanist is no accident, and I imagine most of you would argue that there is, in fact, some unbroken thread connecting the humanism of today with the contributions of the extraordinary and exemplary humanists of the Renaissance, their deep and abiding faith notwithstanding.
I would argue that there is such a thread, one that we can uncover simply by adjusting our definitions of “humanism”. In justification of this move, I would point out that there can hardly be said to be consensus around the meaning of the term even now. For example, the Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism, published only ten years ago, confidently defines humanism (I’m paraphrasing here) as “a concern with the legacy of Greece and Rome”.
So is there a single definition that encompasses modern secular humanism, the Christian humanism of the Renaissance and the legacy of the Greeks and Romans?
I would again argue in the affirmative, and I’d like to support my claim with yet another quote from your own website:
The cornerstone of Secular Humanism is that we, as humans, should spend our time dealing with human problems in the here and now and the foreseeable future.
This is actually fairly close to my own personal definition of humanism which is: “The celebration and support of the skills, potential, characteristics and accomplishments of the human race considered as a whole.”
Again: “Humanism is the celebration and support of the skills, potential, characteristics and accomplishments of the human race considered as a whole.”
Not only does this cover all the humanisms we’ve so far discussed, it has the advantage of allowing us to discern humanist leanings in other times and places such as classical China, or among many of the traditional societies of Africa and other parts of the world.
This definition also makes clear the connection between the adoption of humanist philosophies and the resulting eras of extraordinary human achievement. It only makes sense that when people are more interested in human potential and accomplishments, humanity as a whole accomplishes more.
This in turn is important because it gives people an objective reason to value humanism.
And that last point is more important than you may realize, for the simple fact that secular humanism often presents to many people as a religion –the faith of faithlessness.
As ludicrous as that may seem to many of you, consider the evidence. Secular humanism, as it generally presents to the public, has a set of beliefs, including the primacy of reason and the non-intervention of the divine. It even has a heaven of sorts, not in terms of metaphysical real estate, but rather in the form of the anticipation of the formation of an ideal society of free-thinking rational beings –an earthly heaven that somehow seems always just out of reach.
A humanism, however, based on a definition such as the one I just advanced could truly be called secular, since it could be embraced without mandating any beliefs and attitudes about or against religion at all.
But let’s return to the topic of Christian humanism. The term is no longer self-contradicting under our new expanded definition. But is there any reason to believe that there is anything in Christianity that promotes humanism?
Well, let’s begin by noting that there’s a certain strain of humanism, widely defined, present even in the general Judeo-Christian tradition, in as much as mankind is seem as the pinnacle of Creation, created in the Spirit and Image of God Himself. This is often referenced in the form of the stories of Genesis, where humanity is created last, and given placed over all that came before.
My own favorite statement of this line of thought, however, comes in Psalms 8:
What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?
For thou hast made him little lower than the angels, and has crowned him with glory and honour.
Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands;
thou hast put all things under his feet
So, in as much as placing a premium on being human is humanist, this suggests that there is humanism even in the Old Testament. Moreover, in as much as having a concern for human beings is humanist, there is humanism present in the works of prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah and Amos, with their endless calls for justice and agitation on behalf of the poor.
For me, however, the real humanism of the Bible comes in with the New Testament. In my view, even the basic concept of Christianity, the notion that God would voluntarily take on human form, is humanist in the premium it places on human existence.
At a less metaphysical level, however, you also have in the message of Jesus what is perhaps the global discourse’s first strong emphasis on individuality and the specific value of individual human life.
If you’ll allow me the liberty to quote the Bible at you one more time.
Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings,
and not one of them is forgotten before God.
But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.
Fear not therefore:
ye are of more value than many sparrows.
How think ye?
if a man have an hundred sheep,
and one of them be gone astray,
doth he not leave the ninety and nine,
and goeth into the mountains,
and seeketh that which is gone astray?
And if so be that he find it,
verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep,
than of the ninety and nine which went not astray.
Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven,
that one of these little ones should perish.
We live in such an individualist age that it is hard to understand how revolutionary these words must have seemed in their original time, but if you go back and look at the history of thought, it’s difficult to find anyone who predates Jesus in this insistence that the individual is important, in of him or herself, and independent of the community.
Furthermore, it’s a well-known fact that Jesus also preached extensively on such characteristically humanist themes as love of one’s neighbor, distributing wealth to the poor, discarding prejudice and abolishing capital punishment.
So at the very least, it seems clear that Christianity and humanism are not intrinsically incompatible. But in that case, what happened?
I’d like to begin this part of the conversation with a quote from my favorite secular humanist, the late great Kurt Vonnegut, who made the following reply specifically to the question “What does it mean to you to be a humanist in this day and age?” as posed by David Brancaccio on PBS’s NOW.
Remember, the question is: “What does it mean to you to be a humanist in this day and age?”
And Vonnegut answers: “Well, to admire the hell out of Jesus Christ or of everyone who speaks well. And, well my grandfather said is– if– what Jesus said was marvelous. ”
This quote is taken out of context, but it’s not anomalous. If any of you read Vonnegut’s luminous last work Man Without A Country, you’ll be able to confirm that Vonnegut had some similarly complementary things to say about Jesus there as well, despite his own atheism, and his status as the head of the American Humanist Association. So Vonnegut, at least, did not consider the message of Jesus incompatible with humanism.
In fact, from all I’ve been able to discover, Vonnegut was far from being alone in this stance. You might even consider him simply as the last visible representative of a generation of humanists who might have been happy to describe themselves basically as Christians, minus all the metaphysical mumbo jumbo, esoteric rituals, and obsolete beliefs.
Yet today, that same statement would sound somewhat ridiculous. It’s hard to imagine taking a typical Christian of today, stripping him or her of metaphysical commitments and revealing a humanist.
So what happened over the course of the last generation?
My guess –and here I’m delving into pure speculation –is that the impetus behind the birth of secular humanism with a capital secular was the popular embrace of Spiritualism in the mid 1800’s. This was a widespread movement which placed a premium on mystical phenomena, supernatural occurrences, and the afterlife. Accordingly, secular humanism responded by attacking superstition, and by emphasizing rationality and the here-and-now.
Let’s skip to the present. It seems to me, and correct me if I’m wrong, that secular humanism is still fighting the good fight against Spiritualism. Yet spiritualism is, for all intents and purposes dead as a doornail. Meanwhile, a more powerful, deadly and dangerous enemy goes unrecognized as it kills off humane values in both the religious world and the secular world alike.
Ladies and gentlemen, the new enemy is materialism. And while religion and rationality have been engaged in a fruitless struggle against one another, materialism has made inroads on every front, with disastrous consequences for all humanity.
Let me start by telling the half of the story I know better, the half that deals with religion.
I first want to state for the record the Christianity that is most publicly visible today has little to do with the message of Jesus Christ.
The idea that the world is a battlefield between God and the devil is from Zoroastrianism. The strict, legalistic moralizing is from the Old Testament, and the emphasis on incessant evangelizing is from the letters of Paul.
Everything else in modern Christianity is pure capitalism with a twist of mammon: the so-called gospel of prosperity, the tee-shirts and bumper stickers, the bad music and the wealthy televangelists.
But in the process of putting all those things in Christianity, something important got left out –the humanist message of Jesus Christ.
Meanwhile, secular humanists are getting all het-up fighting against a phantom enemy –the spiritualist Christianity of ages past. Those Christians don’t even exist any more.
For example, what about the complaint that Christians focus too much on the after-life. That’s a big one, right? How many modern Christians do you know who are willing to wait to the afterlife to get their rewards? They seem pretty eager to get them right now, don’t they? There’s a reason that argument hasn’t pulled much weight recently.
Here’s another one, the one I always personally find most offensive. “Go home, Christian, and play with your imaginary friend Jesus!”
I won’t ask if anyone here has ever used that one. Except what does the Christian reply?
Nothing. He doesn’t have to, because he’s got ten thousand indisputably real friends at his brand new shiny mega-church.
In fact, the number one reason why people flock to this new Christianity is for one very practical, rational, empirical reason that has absolutely nothing to do with faith. It is because these churches promise, and sometimes seem to deliver, functional communities of a type that are rapidly disappearing from other facets of American public life. If you don’t understand that fact, then you don’t understand modern Christianity.
Now the downside to it is that these shiny happy communities are often infested with racism, sexism, homophobia, greed, judgementalism and self-satisfaction. But don’t blame Jesus, because he never preached any of that.
And the medicine of secularism offers nothing in the way of a cure, because the problem is not that these new Christians are too spiritual, but that they are too worldly. It’s not that they listen too much to Jesus, but too little. It’s not that they have a faith that is too strong, but that their faith is too weak.
So you have a decision to make here. You have to decided which is more important to you –you’re humanist ideals, or the chance to score cheap points. If you just want to make a Christian mad, then by all means, go ahead, and ask him why he doesn’t believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But if you want to make him change his mind then ask him why he doesn’t follow Christ.
If you want to put him on the path back to humane values then don’t tell him to read the Gospel according to Richard Dawkins. Tell him to read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
I’m going to let you in on a dirty little secret here. Christians don’t read the Bible. Not even the conservative ones. Oh, I believed it for years. I was like most liberal Christians, afraid of the Bible because I was sure the conservatives had it all sewn up. But they don’t. They do the exact same thing you do. I know that you have a website where you can go to or a book you can read and it has all the most difficult passages of the Bible neatly indexed, so that you can pull them out if you’re ever ambushed by a passing missionary.
Ok, here in Leviticus it says to beat the brains out of the babies of your enemies. How do you respond to that, Brother Jed?
Well, surprise, surprise, the conservatives have been doing that for years. They don’t read the whole Bible. They simply study the sections that seem to support the views they already hold. Which is why you’ll rarely ever hear any part of the gospels quoted outside of John 3:16 and Matthew 5:18. Because there is nothing out there that is any more radical, revolutionary, subversive and humane than the gospel according to Jesus Christ.
Oops, I almost thought I was in church there for a moment. Let me resecularize this conversation. Time to look at the major mistakes of modern secular humanism:
First, it has allowed itself to become parasitic on the energy and vitality of religion through defining itself largely in opposition to religion. It’s true books with titles like The God Delusion are climbing the best sellers lists, with that particular volume coming in at Amazon sales rank #27, but they merely form a subset of bestsellers about God, also including books such as The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, clocking in Amazon #210. Meanwhile, the bestselling Amazon book with “Humanism” in the title comes in at #95,950.
Second, I think secular humanism has made a mistake by idolizing rationality. By focusing exclusively on rationality it precludes the embrace of other, equally human and equally valuable modes of human thought and behavior. Great art is often irrational, as is great insight. So is human nobility, particularly when it involves self sacrifice. Last, but far from least on my list is faith itself, and its distant cousin hope, which are at least as characteristically human traits as reason.
Third, and most seriously, secular humanism has been critically subverted by transhumanism, which is the belief that human beings, with the aid of science and technology, can transform into a new and superior type of being. Although transhumanism is humanist at a superficial level, it has two qualities that are destructive and oppositional to the most valuable parts of humanism.
1st – By focusing on technological advance, it devalues all human activity and potential outside of technology’s sphere, thus stunting advances in areas such as art and philosophy.
2nd – it has an intolerance for characteristic human weaknesses, demanding that they be transformed into strengths. Thus it leads to an embrace of things such as plastic surgery and cybernetic augmentation. Ultimately, this feeds into materialism and creates a disdain for being fully and naturally human.
So in conclusion, there’s no humanism left in Christianity and none left in secular humanism either. Consumerism is running amuck and global warming will bring about the secular apocalypse in less than a century, so we’re all going to die.
Just kidding! Or at least I hope I am. Actually, I think there’s a lot of reason to be optimistic right now. Within the church there are a lot of people, like myself, who are rejecting the Christian right’s message of violence, greed and hypocrisy and reclaiming the humanist message of Christ. Meanwhile I sense a new openness from groups hopefully like yours, who are willing to look past religious beliefs to a shared core of humane values.
At the same time, I think there’s an nascent anti-consumerist and anti-materialist grassroots counterculture just beginning to take shape and look for an identity. In a sense, we’re in the same position as the members of the first Renaissance. We’re the guardians of the answers to questions that people have just begun to ask again, after long years of silence.
In real conclusion, rather than wasting time in unproductive attacks on the dead phantom of Spiritualism, or falling into the cold metal embrace of transhumanism, I think the time has come for secular humanism to join forces with religious humanism against the advance of materialism, and towards a new Renaissance of art, culture, environmentalism and humane values.