One of my favourite fairy tales is the Emperor’s New Clothes. The emperor is persuaded that he is wearing some incredible new outfit when actually he is naked. He parades in front of his people who are too shocked to say anything, and perhaps become involved in the delusion that he is finely attired. And of course there’s just one little boy in the crowd who says the obvious, calls out the fact that he is naked, and breaks the spell.
This story came to mind as I was writing my book God Created Humanism – but in reverse as it were. For the first part of my argument is that we do have a positive core belief in our culture – in the West generally – but we tend to speak as if it is not there, or as if it’s too empty to be taken seriously. We often speak as if the emperor is naked – the emperor being our basic shared ideology – but in fact no, he’s wearing something very impressive. And maybe it takes a certain naivety, like that of the boy in the story, to say so.
I want to begin by drawing attention to this – we do believe in something. It’s awkward, a bit embarrassing – but we have a positive ideal in our culture, an ideology that unites us. We must see this afresh, strengthen our appreciation of it.
Of course we all know what it is – humanism, equality, liberal values. It’s hard to avoid using three of four different terms when naming it – and that adds to a sense of vagueness, of incoherence. And when we hear these terms we’re conscious of how they are disputed – for example, there are aspects or interpretations of liberalism that we disagree with – and this is likely to be one of our first reactions on hearing the word.
So what’s the best single term to sum up this creed? Is it liberal democracy? Not quite: that’s a form of politics (and quite complicated to articulate). We need to talk about the worldview, or ideal, that underlies it. It might sound hopelessly naïve or vague or earnest, but it is the belief that all human lives matter, and should flourish, and that part of such flourishing is the freedom to express one’s core beliefs; it of course entails ‘human rights’. I think we must call this ideology ‘secular humanism’ – despite great risk of being misunderstood. It is secular in that it expresses itself in non-religious terms, which doesn’t mean it’s anti-religious, but that it seeks to include those of all faiths and none. This is important to underline because ‘secular humanism’ is often used to mean the rejection of religion: a softer term for atheism.
Maybe it’s best summed up as moral universalism – every human being is theoretically of equal importance, and it is desirable that all human lives should flourish. Yes, it’s very vague – but nevertheless this ideal is a very real force in history. And it’s the core ideology of the West. Yes of course, we’re always arguing about what this entails, whether this or that government is serving it – but almost all of us do feel that it is our common creed, that it lies deeper than our political differences.
Why are we so inclined to avoid dwelling on, and affirming, this basic common ideal? Partly because this thing is so amorphous, elusive, unclassifiable. It’s hard to say what sort of thing we’re taking about when we talk about secular humanism. This intersection of politics and morality is awkward. When we say that everyone is equal, is that a statement of fact or a moral aspiration? It must be a moral aspiration, but it’s so built in to the culture that we don’t really link it to personal morality: we are in the habit of seeing secular humanist morality as just normal, the default position of civilized people, not a moral commitment that one has to think about, and even work at. It’s a sort of morality that is public rather than personal; a morality that society does for us, perhaps, for it is built in to our politics. Is it a form of moral idealism? Yes and no: for it is ordinary, expected of us, and we think of ‘idealism’ as something more than that.
Also there’s a sense that it’s embarrassingly naïve, to focus on this basic common creed. It is too vague to be worth focusing on, say hard-headed people of the world. Left-wingers say it is too vague to inspire the fight for social justice. Right-wingers say it is too vague and weak to deliver meaning, or to underpin deep social bonds.
But there’s another reason it’s so hard to focus on and so difficult to celebrate… religion. The divisive, contentious issue of religion gets in the way. For this moral idealism overlaps with religious idealism in a very problematic way. For many people, religion is the real source of this moral vision, and a secular version is suspect. And many atheists say that this moral vision can only be clarified and completed if it is explicitly anti-religious. In other words, the humanist ideal is divided by the question of religion. This is chiefly why secular humanism is so difficult to think about: its relationship to religion is powerfully unclear.
Was it ever thus? Yes and no: this tense relationship was, until rather recently, softened by a liberal religiosity that fused with national identity. In the twentieth century, the big ideological battles did not expose this tension; rather fascism and communism could both be fought by a vague alliance of religion and secular humanism. But the principal ideological enemy of our day, militant Islam, is different. By accusing Western freedom of being godless and selfish it drives a wedge into our creed. It sows opposition between believers and nonbelievers. The former want to say: don’t call us all godless, many of us dissent from secularism; the latter want to say: yes, our creed certainly does reject religion, thank God.
Most Christians are ambivalent about the term ‘secular humanism’ – especially the secular side of it. Yes, they might say, of course we value the largely secular nature of our politics, and the separation of church and state – but our culture has become arrogant in its secularism, in a way that impinges on religious communities, so ‘secular’ is not a term we want to celebrate or affirm – rather it’s something we reluctantly accept as necessary, up to a point.
I suggest Christians should be more upbeat about secular humanism as the common creed of modern society. Otherwise they seem to be nostalgic for a previous order in which religion and politics blurred together, and churches bossed people around and so on.
We must be clear that we basically affirm the huge modern shift whereby Christianity loses its role as the official common creed, and people of other religions or of no religion are seen as fully valid citizens. In other words we should affirm the secular nature of our common social creed, the fact that it makes no reference to God.
Surely the churches have been accepting this shift, you might say. Well, yes and no – in recent decades it’s more common to hear Christian voices grumbling about it, implying that secular humanism is a dubious thing. This comes in the erudite form of postmodern theology, and in more populist forms. As they become more marginal, Christians want to heighten their distinctiveness, and that largely means kicking against liberal assumptions. That’s a wrong move, I suggest – instead we need a new clarity, about how we relate to the world around us.
An example of this wrong move is the way in which Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats, resigned. He said – ‘To be a political leader – especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 – and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me.’ There’s a wider implication that really committed Christians will prove it by being at odds with secular humanist values. I don’t deny that such opposition can arise, but the more important thing to show is that Christians affirm the secular nature of public life.
Unless we are clear in this way, then we can’t really articulate who we are – it’s a crucial part of apologetics to say how we relate to the culture around us. We must go back to basics and clarify the positive affinity of Christianity with liberal values or secular humanism.
This is tricky – we have to articulate this affinity with great care – there’s a danger of presenting Christianity and secular humanism as essentially the same thing – of implying that secular humanism is the modern expression of Christianity. This is the mistake that liberal Protestantism made for a very long time – suggesting that rational humanism was the essence of this religion, so it doesn’t matter if the old traditions of faith and ritual fade away. Of course that’s a betrayal of Christianity, to say that it has been superseded by secular humanism.
But we should, I think, say something that might sound similar. We should say something that many Christians will see as a betrayal, a sell-out.
We should affirm secular humanism as the right public ideology. Because it is secular it is more universalist – it can unite all sorts of different people with different beliefs. Its universalism is fuller than that of any religion, in the sense that it can bypass the questionable particularity of religion, and theoretically include everyone irrespective of their belief.
So why not conclude that secular humanism is a superior creed, that we can abandon Christianity? Because on another level it is inadequate, it is limited to the practical public sphere, the surface of life; it has no strong account of life’s meaning and purpose, but gravitates to an evasive shrug. In other words it is also thinner. It cannot say why we should affirm this moral universalism, and it evades the full drama of this moral vision, which is its absolute and perfectionist desire for the good of all humanity – a desire which clashes with the fact of human fallibility.
So it’s a paradox. Secular humanism is on one hand superior to Christianity, it is a better public ideology, a fuller universalism; but it is also thinner, or shallower.
We must take a cunningly ambiguous approach to secular humanism. We must both affirm it as the right public ideology; and criticise it as a limited world view. It can’t tell us why we should seek the good of all humanity, its vision is derivative from something else. In a sense it is a fuller universalism, but it is thinner. We might say that Christianity and secular humanism are two halves of the same vision, two sides of the same coin. There is both opposition and unity.
I admit this is a strange, paradoxical idea, that Christianity should affirm a public ideology that is other than itself, that is secular. It makes sense because we have the story of one tradition giving rise to the other. We need to refer to the history of ideas to give substance to this idea. We need to insist that the moral universalism of secular humanism chiefly derives from Christianity. So Christian tradition gives rise to this other tradition, secular humanism. That is why Christians can affirm it without losing integrity and that is why we should see it as a providential development.
Much of my book, God Created Humanism, is the story of how this modern ideal of secular humanism gradually emerges from Christian tradition. Of course that means confronting atheist and agnostic assumptions that secular humanism is not dependent on religion, but emerges naturally or rationally.
To claim that Christianity is the primary source of secular humanism might sound excessive. But where else did secular humanism get its optimistic moral vision, its idea that human beings ought to seek the wellbeing of all other human beings? Is this just the morality that comes naturally to all human societies, the evolved instinct for altruism perhaps? No – that sort of instinctive morality certainly exists, but it is frail and ambiguous: it might come naturally to protect an orphan of one’s own tribe, but it also seems to come naturally to see other tribes as enemies, and to treat their orphans with less care. Maybe a widening of morality comes with the development of rationality? But the morality of the rational ancient Greeks was limited, hemmed in by fatalism, militarism, hierarchy, slavery (their rationality was intrinsically elitist). Yes, but modern humanist thinkers overcame such limitations, says the atheist, and discovered the great truth of human equality, of universal rights. Perhaps so, but how did that happen? When one bothers looking into the matter, one finds that these humanists were almost all Christians, or semi-Christian believers in a rational God – ‘deists’. Secular humanism very gradually emerged within Christian culture. Which means that the modern humanist principles of liberty and equality are rooted in Christianity. It does not come naturally to us to believe that we can move towards a world of ever-greater justice for all, that all lives are of equal worth, that oppression and discrimination must end. It comes far more naturally to us to see drastic inequality as inevitable, and distant others as inferior.
With respect to more recent atheist writers – I suggest that they refuse to reflect on their own central assumption, the truth of secular humanism. This sort of atheism treats a certain moral agenda which is natural, obvious even: equality, justice, human rights and so on. It insists that religion is not just false but morally culpable, as it tends to contravene these secular humanist principles.
Where do the atheists suppose that these values come from? Of course they hotly deny that such morality is rooted in religion: how can something good come from something bad? Where then? The dominant answer is that morality is just a natural human thing: the moral faculty is part of what it means to be human. Secular humanism is therefore seen simply as a fully up-to-date expression of natural human morality. To rational agents, it is clear enough how to be good enough.
There are two major problems with this. First, if morality were merely natural, it would be equally present in all human traditions everywhere, in all periods of history. There would perhaps be local variations, but there would surely be no longstanding cultural practices that could be called immoral. Also, it is hard to deny that human moral culture has almost always taken religious form – which makes it a bit absurd to present religion as a force for immorality. In other words, there is a contradiction between calling morality merely natural, and claiming to represent a morally superior tradition that liberates us from the blockage of religion. The atheist wants it both ways: there is no special moral tradition, morality being natural; and yet, the tradition that sees through religion has huge liberating power – in effect it’s our salvation.
It can be fun arguing with the atheists but in a sense my main purpose is to confront the agnostic humanist, who is not anti-religious, but just assumes his world view is safely free of religion. I want to shake him by the shoulders and say, ‘look at what you believe – look at this limitless idealism – and admit it is not just pragmatic or rational, but there’s a sort of religious vision there under the surface.’ I want to say that secular humanism has an element of dishonesty: it advocates an absolute good, justice for all, but tries to do so on the cheap, without facing the fact that this ideal is indeed absolute, perfectionist. It finds it possible to affirm this ideal in a muted, pragmatic, sceptical way, to believe in the good of all within reason, up to a point that is deemed sensible by the culture of the day. And it assumes that it is normal to espouse this ideal; it is what is expected of all rational civilized people. A huge, culture-sized, convention calls this a coherent enough position. But is it? I suggest that it’s a timid dilution of moral absoluteness, and that the full and direct expression of Christianity is still needed, if one is seriously to affirm the fullest moral universalism, the fullest humanism.
I won’t try to sum up the entire narrative of Christianity giving rise to secular humanism except in a very sketchy way. Christianity is distinct from the other monotheisms in rejecting political violence, so the potential is there for the rejection of theocracy, for the separation of church and state. This happens in a gradual way in the medieval period, primarily, as the church spreads the idea of the sacred worth of all human lives. Also there are new criticisms of religious authority, new affirmations of the secular realm for example from humanists like Erasmus. This continues after the Reformation and especially in England and Holland where an intense new humanism emerged in the seventeenth century. Some of the pioneers were radically religious such as the puritans who demanded liberty of religion, and so launched the idea of the separation of church and state, ending the long reign of theocracy. Others were rationalists, but their rationalism was intensely influenced by radical Protestant belief.
The fact is that just about all of the major Enlightenment thinkers, from Spinoza and Locke to Voltaire and Jefferson, Kant and Hegel, were either Protestants or were decisively influenced by Protestantism. To put it bluntly, the secular humanism that gradually emerged did not come from nowhere. Nothing comes from nothing, as King Lear said. The whole idea of universal human rights came from the rational version of Christianity that was developed chiefly by Protestants.
The actual tradition of practical humanism was chiefly advanced by committed Protestants, from the Quakers who modelled egalitarianism (including for women) to the evangelicals who denounced slavery as a violation of the brotherhood of man, to all the campaigners for better treatment of the poor, and politicians like Gladstone who continually reminded society about its universal moral obligations. Even in recent times it was still Protestantism that produced the foremost prophet of social justice, Martin Luther King.
Maybe the humanism of secular humanism largely derives from Christianity, some might say, but this is surely not true of the secularism. Well, look again at the history of ideas, especially in the crucial seventeenth century: it was radical Christians who first insisted on freedom of religion, and said that battling theocracy, or the unity of religion and politics, was a sacred cause. These radical Protestants (such as Milton, and other supporters of Cromwell, and also Roger Williams in New England) gradually gave way to a cooler, more rational sort of Protestant reformer, who dominated the eighteenth century, from Locke to Jefferson. It was such liberal Christians (or semi-Christian ‘deists’) who launched the principle of secular politics, not atheists.
I have laid out in brief the basic argument made in God Created Humanism. To finish, let me quote a passage from the book’s conclusion:
“I have tried to expound the paradox: secular humanism cannot be understood in purely secular terms. It is not cleanly post-religious. If we are to affirm this moral tradition, celebrate it, be proud of it, we must acknowledge that our public creed is not simply secular humanism, but Christian-based secular humanism. Only so can we strongly affirm it. We garble and falsify our ideology if we do not acknowledge its religious basis. Only if we acknowledge its debt to religion can we have a sense of this tradition’s groundedness, its depth.
“What’s my agenda in putting this case? I suppose it’s two-fold. I want to see a more confident, robust and self-aware secular humanism. Only with a renewed sense of its ideological purpose can the West stand up to threats coming from the Middle East, China, Russia. We must become prouder of our ideology: moral universalism, human rights. And this means becoming proud of the story of this ideology: the story of Christian universalism learning to reject theocracy and express itself in inclusive, even post-religious terms. This story is difficult, paradoxical. (It is with a heavy heart that one dusts down the word ‘dialectical’.) But without this story we do not quite know who we are.
“Also, my agenda is ‘apologetical’: by highlighting its influence on our public morality I am trying to persuade people to take this religion a bit more seriously than they are accustomed to. Am I suggesting that, if you like secular humanism ‘you might also like’ its basis, Christianity? Maybe I am.
“The reader might reply: hmmm, maybe it’s true that secular humanism has Christian roots, but so what? Surely I can prefer the fruit of a tree to its roots. And surely post-Christian secular humanism is an improvement on Christianity – for surely it purges the tradition of its irrational and authoritarian elements? Why can’t we have the sensible modern fruit, without the traditional mythology and ritual and so on? Why not just believe in the good of all, in the sacredness of universal human rights? Why not stick with secular humanism?
“I suppose I want to suggest that there is something small-minded, pinched, intellectually dishonest about sticking with secular humanism. For what do secular humanists actually believe? They believe in the good of all humanity. But only within reason, only in as far as it seems normal. They are always looking over their shoulder, seeing how far such idealism is deemed normal, rational. If one thinks for oneself, one might notice that the good of all humanity is an absolute ideal, a utopian perfectionism; it entails a narrative of paradise regained. Secular humanism wriggles away from this absoluteness, it does not really believe in its own idealism. It turns this ideal into a vague aspiration, most commonly expressed in negative form – in the insistence that certain actions and attitudes are wrong, as they impede the rights of others. But authentic humanism is positive and absolute; its desire for human flourishing is unlimited. Secular humanism lacks a mechanism that fixes it to absoluteness (though the Marxist belief in revolutionary transformation is a stab at this). It is parasitic on the absolutism that it comes from and scorns.
“Am I saying that Christians desire the good more completely than secular humanists? Well, that’s a hard thing to measure. But it is surely the case that they see ‘the good’ in more intense, absolute terms, as a call to moral perfection – an impossible demand that one cannot fulfill, but must struggle to. As a demand that exposes one’s inadequacy, one’s inner division between obedience and sin (to slip into religious speech). Christians can face up to the absoluteness of this moral ideal, because they have a story that makes sense of our failure to live up to it. The secular humanist, by contrast, thinks in more realistic terms – of being morally good enough, by affirming the rights of others. Of course no one is perfect, she says, so let’s put aside the unhelpful notion of moral perfection and instead uphold realistic rules of conduct, a moral law – it is enough to be among the morally civilized people, who affirm equality. But this is a brittle, somewhat dishonest position, for all humanism, religious or not, is half-hypocritical. All are equal, we say, but we’d rather hang out with an interesting attractive person than a poor, uneducated, smelly one. In other words, morality entails a tension between idealism and our selfishness, and secular humanism lacks a language for pondering this, and so evades it. We all have a duty to be moral, it says, and it assumes that this civilized moral way is straightforwardly possible. But morality, in this tradition, cannot be confined to such sensible rule-based pragmatism. It is about the perfectionist good of all, and we betray that vision with every self-centred little thought we have.
“I am claiming that Christianity is the pure humanism, the ur-humanism. Well, we’d rather have humanism in a more developed, evolved, form, you might say, purged of its irrationality. But that’s a dilution. Full-blooded humanism is absolutist, perfectionist, it needs this mythical and ritual context. It needs to inhabit the paradox that we must exceed our human nature, defy sin, rely on the miracle of God’s grace. It needs these rationally indefensible concepts and phrases, which belong to a ritual tradition. Why? Because otherwise the absoluteness slips away – one moves to a sensible moderate version of humanism, in which this ideal is thought to be normal, our default position. To put it differently, Christianity is a primitive form of humanism. But this primitivity can’t be rationalized, progressed on from. This is primitivity that can’t be improved upon, like dance”.
Theo Hobson was discussing his book:
God Created Humanism, SPCK, 2017.Share: