Giles Fraser: Why don’t humanists give value to humans?

22 October 2008

Humanists (and by that I mean secular humanists for now) would do much more to persuade me of their world-view if they took more seriously the idea that the human is of fundamental value. Instead, secu­lar humanists are becoming increas­ingly cavalier with their central belief. They have become a bit like Christians who don’t believe in God. This leads me to ponder whether human life is really all that safe in the hands of human­ists.

Here, for instance, is a passage from the British Humanist Associ­ation’s website: “Religious people also often use phrases like 'the sanctity of life' to justify the view that life has intrinsic value and must not be des­troyed. Humanists, too, see a special value in human life, but think that if an individual has decided on rational grounds that his life has lost its meaning and value, that evalu­ation should be respected.”

Oh, how nice: humanists think life has a “special” value, whatever that means. Less sarcastically, it is clear that here is an admission that the value of human life is down­graded by those who call themselves humanists. Human life is something that is deemed to have no value for the individual if that individual decides that it has not.

I am thinking, of course, about the support that so many secular hu­man­ists have given for the assisted suicide of Daniel James, the disabled former rugby player who felt, at the age of 23, that his life was not worth living.

My friend Jerry, at a similar age, broke his back in a motorbike ac­cident, and could move only his head and tongue. With these he managed to woo his caregiver, marry her, have three children by IVF, and run a pizza franchise. Humanists see the differ­ence between these cases as hanging from the fragile thread of individual choice. That is not good enough.

Baroness Warnock recently sug­gested that elderly people ought to offer themselves for euthanasia. “If you’re demented, you’re wasting people’s lives — your family’s lives — and you’re wasting the resources of the National Health Service,” she said.

The truth is that Christians make better humanists. In the 1480s, the whole humanist revolution was kicked off by Giovanni Pico and his weighty tome An Oration to the Dignity of Man. Pico called for a public debate, insisting that human dig­nity derives from God. That de­bate needs restarting.

Not only have contemporary atheists snatched the term humanist and claimed it as their own, but — in the name of choice — they have sold out on the very value that inspired humanism in the first place: the dignity of man (and woman, too). Shame on them.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, in south London.

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