*** DEBUG END ***

God Created Humanism by Theo Hobson

10 March 2017

Nick Spencer looks at an argument about Western thought

God Created Humanism: The Christian basis of secular values
Theo Hobson
SPCK £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30


WE ARE slowly losing our amnesia. Thanks to recent tomes — in particular Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (Harvard, 2007) and Larry Siedentop’s masterly Inventing the Individual (Penguin, 2015) — the idea that the modern world was hatched in a smoke-filled room by Voltaire, Kant, and Rousseau is losing to its credibility.

Before the Enlightenment, the West had a history that was marked by more than ignorance, theocratic violence, and industrial-scale witch-burning. Neither a commitment to equal human dignity (let us call this “humanism”) nor to a state whose legitimacy is grounded in its obligation to administer equal justice under the rule of law (let us call this “secularism”) is natural; neither is an invention of the 18th century. Both rest on deep Christian foundations.

Theo Hobson’s is the latest book to argue this case, which he narrates at a brisk pace and in engaging prose. From the Hebrew prophets, through the New Testament, Christendom, Reformation, Enlightenment, and 19th and 20th centuries, to a slightly longer chapter on where we are now, he tells the tale of how what he calls “secular humanism” came to be our common creed today.

His purpose is polemical rather than purely historical. Believers need to be less hostile to “secular humanism”, he argues, as it is the ideological child to which their faith has given birth; and non-believers need to be less hostile to secular humanism’s Christian roots, not least because, he intimates, it is only those roots that will sustain it in the long run. The “humanitarian ideals” that mark our time are not natural, nor “rationally deducible”, but the result of “complex cultural traditions, brewed over centuries . . . the main ingredient [of which] was the story of God taking the side, even taking the form, of the powerless victim”.

His case is provocative and well made, though perhaps not aided by his idiosyncratic use of the phrase “secular humanism”, which, idiomatically at least, describes a world-view that affirms humanism on non-religious, usually naturalistic, grounds. What he means is a commitment to humanism and to (a certain kind of) secularism, both of which do indeed have Christian roots and invite Christian support. “Secular humanism” may be a concise term, but it obscures rather than clarifies his point.

After taking a well-deserved break around the Millennium, history has resumed business as usual. Where we are going is once again a matter for uncertainty and even a little fear. Answering that will be easier if we understand where we have been, to which Hobson’s book is a helpful contribution.


Nick Spencer is the author of The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016).

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events


Church Times/RSCM:

Festival of Faith and Music

26 - 28 April 2024

See the full programme on the festival website. 

Early bird tickets available


Intercultural Church for a Multicultural World

28 May 2024

A Church Times/Church House Publishing webinar

Tickets are FREE


Church Times/Modern Church:

A Political Faith?

Monday 3 June 2024

This panel will explore where Christians have come to in terms of political power and ask, where should we go next?

Online tickets available


Church Times/Modern Church:

Participating in Democracy

Monday 10 June 2024

This panel will explore the power of voting, and power beyond voting.

Online tickets available


Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards


The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)