Conway Hall Ethical Society, London

There is a good article in Friday’s Church Times by Nick Spencer and Angus Ritchie, describing a new Theos report, The Case for Christian Humanism.

Apparently it was not till the middle of the 20th century that the word ‘humanism’ came to refer to the non-religious.

According to the 2002 Amsterdam Declaration of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, which the British Humanist Association describes as ‘the fullest definition to have a measure of international agreement’, modern humanism has seven fundamentals. Among these, the ‘worth’ and ‘dignity’ of the individual human are stressed, together with the belief that ‘morality is an intrinsic part of human nature’. Spencer and Ritchie then suggest that

the problem is not whether Christianity can support humanism in these beliefs, but whether atheism can.

I think they are right, and this is one of the reasons why religious belief and worship refuse to go away. On dignity:

Atheist humanists tend to ground dignity in our capacity for rational thought and action. It is the ability to direct our will to our own, freely chosen ends that means that we exist as an end in ourselves, and not merely as means to other ends.

The problem with this is that ‘they limit the range of people who can be said to possess dignity’.

On morality:

While few can doubt that most humanists, religious and atheistic, are genuinely committed to moral truth, atheist humanists struggle to explain why humans should be able to grasp a moral truth that lies beyond our individual preferences. Evolution, after all, is interested in survival rather than moral truth, let alone goodness… For the Christian, humans are not simply products of a blind and purposeless process.

On reason:

This is atheism’s alleged crowning glory, in contrast to the “superstition” and “irrationality” of religious belief. In reality, however, it is atheism that cannot explain why human reason should be trusted. If our rational capacities are simply evolved to help us survive and multiply, why should we think they will also lead us to beliefs that are true, in complex areas such as science, mathematics, or philosophy?

They are right on all three counts. Dignity, morality and reason have been affirmed as meaningful not because they are self-evident or rationally deducible (which would be a circular argument anyway) but as a result of thousands of years of theological debate about what kinds of gods made us and for what purpose.

More specifically, three points:

Atheist humanism reacts against irrationalism

In the nineteenth century, when atheism was on the rise, many churches reacted by emphasising that their teachings transcended scientific knowledge: it was about the other-worldly, revealed by the Bible or church authority, anything but reason. Many atheists still like to call themselves ‘rationalists’ or ‘free-thinkers’, as though there was no rational case for believing in God. Churches often still defend this anti-rationalist tradition, typically by rejecting gay sexuality or evolution, and to this extent the churches are their own worst enemy.

Secular modernity doesn’t know what to do

Most modern institutions are now designed to function without any engagement with any beliefs about God. Because Spencer and Ritchie are right, the system as a whole has no sense of purpose or direction. Any one institution – the health service, the legal system, etc – is given its function by some other part of the system, but the system as a whole cannot point to an objective or vision outside itself calling it in a particular direction. If public opinion wants to evict immigrants, or leave the unemployed starving and homeless, any appeal to transcendent truths about dignity, morality or reason would in practice be appeals to some kind of deity. This is why modern western governments are complete failures at tackling the biggest problems, like environmental destruction and polarisation of wealth.

The churches should be shouting it from the rooftops

Instead of counting, recounting, and counting again the numbers of people attending their services, the churches should be addressing this gap in our national culture, drawing attention to the fact that the nation needs to re-establish a strong, recognised spiritual dimension to its affairs. Instead of saying ‘Help! We need more people!’ they should be saying ‘We have something you need’.

It is exceptionally difficult at the moment, partly because of the continuing popularity of anti-rational religion and partly because public discussion of spiritual matters has been given an unhelpful reputation by all those artificial programmes of mission and evangelism. Nevertheless, this is the direction in which we should be heading.