WORDS, as T. S. Eliot wrote, will not stay still. They "decay
with impression", change with use. "Nice", for example, used to
mean "foolish"; "silly" used to mean "blessed". Such is the nature
Most of this just happens, slowly. "Silly" took centuries to
migrate from "blessed", through "innocent", to become the "foolish"
we know today. Sometimes, however, it is more deliberate.
Take the word "humanist". Originally associated with speech,
education, and a particular understanding of human nature, over the
past two generations it has come to mean non- or even
This was never part of the original deal. Early, and even
Enlightenment, "humanists" were thoroughgoing Christians, and it
was not until the mid-20th century that the non-religious really
seized on the word for their beliefs. As recently as 1997, a
Rationalist Press Association pamphlet on humanism admitted that
"it is only half a century since we took over words which for
several centuries had already been used by other kinds of people
with other kinds of meanings, so that we may just as well be
accused of stealing them as anyone else."
And yet, today, it is commonplace to talk about "Christians v.
humanists" or "humanism v. religion" as if the two concepts were
somehow opposed. They're not, and it matters why they're not.
The reason has little to do with Christianity. Even if the word
"humanism" was once "ours", there is little to be gained by
reporting its theft to the vocabulary police. Rather, it matters
for humanism itself.
THE 2002 Amsterdam Declaration of the International Humanist and
Ethical Union, "the fullest definition to have a measure of
international agreement", according to the British Humanist
Association, lists seven "fundamentals" of modern humanism.
Although it is not entirely clear how fundamental these
fundamentals actually are (at one point the declaration claims that
"humanism is undogmatic, imposing no creed upon its adherents"),
they are clearly important. Tellingly, many show a striking harmony
with Christian orthodoxy.
Like mainstream Christianity, the Amsterdam Declaration affirms
the "worth" and "dignity" of the individual. It believes that
"morality is an intrinsic part of human nature". It "recognises
that reliable knowledge of the world and ourselves arises through a
continuing process of observation, evaluation ,and revision", and
The problem is not whether Christianity can support humanism in
these beliefs, but whether atheism can. This is the question we
have raised in a new Theos report, The Case for Christian
Humanism. Specifically, we argue that three of humanism's most
important "fundamentals" cannot be sustained on an atheistic
THE first is human 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 such arguments, however, is that they limit the
range of people who can be said to possess dignity, excluding those
human beings who have either never possessed such rationality, or
who have lost it permanently (e.g. through degenerative
conditions). They may even exclude infants, although the vast
majority of them will one day acquire it. Wherever one draws the
line, the fact is that, when built on the foundations of our innate
capacities, human dignity becomes relative, not absolute.
Then there is 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
Evolution, after all, is interested in survival rather than
moral truth, let alone goodness. What is good for evolution is what
keeps us, or our genes, going.
By contrast, Christianity offers a powerful explanation of why
our conscience provides a window on to moral reality. For the
Christian, humans are not simply products of a blind and
purposeless process. Evolutionary biology is true, but tells only
how we have developed. The Christian story answers the question
why: we are created by a loving God, who wants us to know and love
what is truly good.
WHAT, finally, of humanism's faith in 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?
By contrast, Christian thought has (usually) valued reason,
albeit acknowledging its limits, understanding it not as an
accident but as a reflection of the mind in whose image we are
Christian humanists will not necessarily be more moral or
rational than their atheistic peers. Sadly, we know this is not so.
In some ways, however, the claim is more surprising than that. Far
from being a friend to the great truths of humanism - human
dignity, moral truth, reliable rationality - atheism saws through
the branch on which humanism sits.
The great truths of humanism do not have just deep historic
roots in Christian culture. They have deep philosophical ones. We
tear them up at our peril.
Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos. Canon Angus
Ritchie is Director of the Centre for Theology and Community, and a
Research Associate in Philosophy at Oxford University. The
Case for Christian Humanism: Why Christians should believe in
humanism, and humanists in Christianity is published by Theos.