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The Hollow Promises of Secular Humanism

April 15, 2019


In a lot of ways the modern world, to me, is a Christian heresy because many of these extraordinary ideas—the rights of man, the idea that everybody should be free—[these ideas from] Locke and Hume and all these people were informed by Christianity so their ideas didn’t simply come out of some kind of philosophical vacuum.
—Sheikh Hamza Yusuf

One of the lasting images I have from my repeated readings of C.S. Lewis is the metaphor he offers about the relationship between Christianity and the modern Western world: inoculation. According to Lewis, we can distance ourselves from Christianity because we constantly receive small doses of it. Enough Christian-ness makes us immune to Christianity.

Take, for example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Adopted by the UN in the wake of World War II, the Declaration was a landmark international statement on the dignity of human life and the freedoms of speech, religion, thought, and association. Few twenty-first century Westerners see anything religious about the Declaration. But, from outside a Western perspective, the secular trappings of the Declaration turn out to be a thin veneer. At the time of its adoption, the American Anthropological Association warned that the ideals expressed in the Declaration depended on the assumptions of Western cultural values saturated in two thousand years of Christianity. This, the Association argued, could make its worldwide implementation difficult. The Declaration was not neutral. Echoing those concerns, in 1982 an Iranian UN representative observed that the Declaration was “a secular manifestation of the Judeo-Christian tradition.”

I suspect that many self-styled secular humanists are unaware of such critiques and have a very different idea about the origins of what we now call human rights. Under this narrative, human rights are not secular manifestations of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but secular creations developed in opposition to that tradition. That myth rests, however, on poor history.

The eighteenth-century predecessor to human rights—natural rights—did not emerge in Christendom by chance. Under natural rights theory, our intrinsic nature, rather than the state, gives us our dignity, privileges, and duties. They come from a higher power: the human person itself, cloaked with the glory of being made in the image and likeness of God. Natural rights also presuppose a natural law grounding those rights and a transcendent Creator-Lawgiver ordering a discernible nature. If natural rights foreshadowed human rights, St. Thomas Aquinas’ natural law ethics foreshadowed natural rights. And the seventeenth and eighteenth century natural rights philosophers knew it.

To divorce such ideas from their religious roots is a clear example of the C.S. Lewis principle. It is only believable if its religious backdrop is invisible, and it’s only invisible because it’s too familiar to stand out. In fact, I’d argue that secular humanism itself is a demonstration of the Lewis principle.

Secular humanism attempts to affirm the intrinsic value of humanity while rejecting religion and the supernatural. The father of secular humanism, Paul Kurtz, described it is an attempt to combine religious skepticism with a moral system built on “the principles of free inquiry, ethics based upon reason, and a commitment to science, democracy, and freedom.” Yet every one of those values is utterly ungrounded in the secular humanist’s world of naturalistic materialism and scientific determinism.

A genuine moral obligation requires transcendent value. Otherwise, morality is a sophisticated herd instinct, a social construct, a hobby, or a mere opinion. It cannot be an obligation. Unless humanity’s inherent value under humanistic moral systems comes from on high, how else can we account for it? According to ethicist Peter Singer, we can’t. Humanity is not sacred. Thus, Singer’s “posthumanist” (i.e., non-humanist) moral system unsurprisingly permits infanticide and bestiality.

Friedrich Nietzsche also descended into the bizarre when he confronted morality without God, famously renouncing conventional ethics and proposing a value system based on self-realized power. If there is no fixed standard for moral obligations, what else is there other than power? Thus, we see Nietzsche’s obvious influence on another philosopher, Michel Foucault, the pioneer of postmodernism, which categorically rejects the notion of truth. In that grim vacuum, power alone animates every dimension of life and society.

The Anglican priest-journalist, Giles Fraser, observed that just as Nietzsche proclaimed the “death of God,” Foucault announced the “death of man.” “Indeed, Nietzsche himself insisted the belief in humanity was itself just a hangover from a belief in God and, once God was eradicated, the belief in human beings would follow the same way.” The bottom line is this: the aforementioned atheist thinkers have thought through the implications of a Godless world in ways the secular humanist has not. Thus, the secular humanist, acting morally according to his conscience and espousing the fundamental dignity of human beings, may not be religious, but he certainly has faith. The failure of secular humanists to recognize that their “faith” borrows heavily from the same Judeo-Christian tradition they repudiate is the Lewis principle in action.

In fairness, some secular humanists admit borrowing moral capital from Judeo-Christian faiths. So perhaps the real debate is whether secular humanism depends on those faiths for survival. I’d say we’ve seen enough social experiments in this area to justify a sobering yes. The twentieth-century bloodbaths unleashed by Communism and Nazism come to mind. Both were aggressively secular and saw religion as an obstacle to realizing their respective utopian visions.

Reasonably enough, the secular humanist will object that those ideologies are “political religions” and repudiates them alongside actual religion. After all, “political religions” have been more destructive than even the worst episodes of authentic religion combined. We must remember, though, that if they are religions at all, they are secular religions. The Nazi and Communist catastrophes demonstrate how naïve it is to think that a secularized society will default to a secular humanism, which owes its basic moral assumptions to the Judeo-Christian tradition. It seems more likely that a thoroughly secularized society will default to something more closely resembling social life in Soviet Communism, which made atheistic materialism the philosophical cornerstone of society. Sir Roger Scruton describes this dreary world as follows:

[Atheists] tell us that the “self” is an illusion, and that the human person is “nothing but” the human animal, just as law is ‘nothing but’ relations of social power, sexual love “nothing but” the procreative urge and the Mona Lisa ‘nothing but’ a spread of pigments on a canvas. . . . Nothing brought this home to me more vividly than the experience of communism . . . people were regarded as “nothing but” the assembled mass of their instincts and needs. Its aim was to replace social life with a cold calculation for survival, so that people would live as competing atoms, in a condition of absolute enmity and distrust.

“Political religion” naturally arises when real religion is displaced. Psychologists and sociologists tell us that religion may be an inescapable part of human consciousness and, in the US, there is a growing body of statistics suggesting that the nonreligious are turning to politics to fill the void. We’ve all seen the results: polarization, intolerance, and demonization—the very things that secular humanists tell us are supposed to disappear along with religion. Instead, the opposite has happened. It is no accident that the most extreme and intolerant political camps, both left and right, share an irreligious demographic profile (discussed in this previous post) while the Democracy Fund’s 2016-2018 Voter Study Group surveys demonstrate that religion moderates contemporary political opinions.

Currently, US unemployment is at a fifty-year low, and the number of Americans without health insurance has declined substantially. And yet, for the first time in modern American history, life expectancy in the US has dropped for two of the last three years. The reason for the drop? According to CDC statistics, just two things: drug overdose and suicide. Consider that in light of Harvard studies concluding that religious people routinely perform better in key metrics of social stability, including drug abuse and suicide, than their less religious neighbors. It turns out that an increasingly irreligious society is also an increasingly unhappy one, haunted by nihilism and despair.

The reality is that secular humanists are living a shell game. Having borrowed capital from the religious sphere and then repudiating it, they are sawing off the branch they sit on. If morality is socially constructed or an evolutionary trick, there is no morality. If the meaning of life is invent your own meaning, there is no meaning. If a human being is “nothing but” a walking coalescence of complex biochemical reactions, there is no humanism. Thus, contrary to the prophecies of secular humanism, the declining influence of Judeo-Christian religion in Western social life is not replacing the “God-shaped hole in people’s hearts” with a flowering of rationality, compassion, and fulfillment. Instead, it is uprooting the source of those things, leaving an empty pit of hatred, tribalism, and nihilism.