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Siblings divided by a common language

05 December 2014

Christianity and humanism should be singing from the same hymn-sheet, argue Nick Spencer and Angus Ritchie

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 of language.

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 anti-religious.

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 so forth.

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 basis.

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 preferences.

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 made.

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. www.theosthinktank.co.uk.

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