Humanists Should be Christians, Argues New THEOS Report

December 8, 2014

Atheists ‘saw off the branch on which Humanism sits’, argue the authors of a report by Theos, Britain’s leading religious think tank. The Case for Christian Humanism argues we atheist humanists should be Christians (2,800 words). POSTSCRIPT: THEOS respond directly to my post below here.


Why should Humanists should be Christians? Here I look at the three arguments offered for that conclusion. But first…


What do the authors mean by ‘humanism’?


As those of us who campaign under the banner of ‘Humanism’ use the term, ‘Christian Humanism’ is an oxymoron. We use ‘Humanism’ to refer to a certain sort of non-religious life stance. But of course the term has other uses, including uses on which ‘Christian humanism’ is not an oxymoron. If the authors of this Theos report want to use the term in one of these other ways, that’s their prerogative. But to be clear, let’s use humanism with a small ‘h’ to mean what they mean, and Humanism with a capital ‘H’ to mean we what we mean.


So what do the authors of this report (Angus Ritchie and Nick Spencer) mean by ‘humanism’?  There’s some overlap with Humanism, though of course without the commitment to atheism or agnosticism. In particular, suggest the authors, there are three humanistic fundamentals: our being rational, ethical and believing in human dignity.


Now of course, as we all know, many Christians sign up to these things. The Theos report says Christians should sign up to them


But now for their more controversial claim. The authors say only belief in God can provide a robust philosophical foundation to sustain three of humanism’s most fundamental claims. The authors insist 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.’


What’s the argument for this conclusion? It’s worth reading the document in full here, but if you’re pressed for time, there’s a neat summary here from which I’ll quote.


Misleading misquotation


But first a quick digression. A personal gripe, in fact. On page 32 of the full report I am quoted:


On the British Humanist Association website, Stephen Law has written that ‘Theists use the term “faith” as a tool by which they can, quite unfairly, avoid justifying their belief and sidestep awkward atheistic arguments (“But belief in God is a matter of faith, not reason!”), to disguise the fact that atheism is far, far more reasonable than theism.’


The authors say my remarks typify ’a cast of mind’: that the Christian faith is incompatible with a positive view of reason, and must instead rely only on tradition, authority, revelation and faith.


Well that’s wrong. First off, they misquote me. The passage has been edited, with the first and last parts of the sentence removed, and a capital ‘T’ and a full stop inserted which makes it look like they haven’t (that constitutes misquotation in my book).


Second, it’s clear from the essay they’re quoting that I don’t suppose all religious folk believe we should entirely cast reason aside and rely wholly on ‘faith’. Rather, I’m warning against sliding between different ways of using ‘faith’ – which I suggest theists are prone to do. But I clearly spell out not all theists are guilty of this like so:


Of course, not all theists resort to such linguistic trickery. Many try to deal honestly with the arguments and evidence.


Of course it would be silly to suggest all Christians suppose their belief involves eschewing all reason and relying blindly on tradition, authority and revelation (though some do).


Now on to their three arguments.


Argument 1: Belief in Human Dignity Requires Christianity


Why do we atheists saw off the branch on which humanism rests? The authors say about 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 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. Arguments from our capacities to our dignity exclude those human beings who have either never possessed such rationality or who have lost it (e.g. through degenerative conditions) and will not acquire it again. Indeed, by some reckonings, it even leaves out infants, even though 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 capacities, human dignity becomes relative, not absolute.


Well some atheists may ground dignity just in the capacity for rational thought, but there’s no official humanist position and in fact many would disagree with that account, myself included. I think being autonomous and self-directed is an important good, but it’s not the only thing about us that’s important.


What is true is that many Humanists consider the human/non-human species boundary of no intrinsic value. What makes individuals valuable and worthy of moral consideration are characteristics other than species membership. These characteristics no doubt include the capacity to suffer, which is one reason why we Humanists suppose other species matter morally.


Now obviously there are all sorts of interesting and important issues to resolve here about the extent to which we should extend rights, moral consideration, and so on to other humans and non-humans (pigs, dogs and extra-terrestrials). But the one thing we Humanists don’t do is claim we humans are all ‘special’ by virtue of our possessing some mysterious, God-given, only-theologically-revealed ‘something’ – a ‘something’ the presence of which in us humans and the absence of which in other species we must accept on the say-so of the theologians.


Once we accept that the differences that matter re. rights, moral respect, and so on are such magical, otherwise undetectable differences, difference we can know are there only because scripture/revelation/religious tradition tell us so, then it will be theology and the theologians that determine who gets what rights, moral respect, and so on. And of course we know how reliable theology and theologians are on such matters, don ‘t we? Want to draw a line determing who gets certain rights and who doesn’t between humans and non-humans, or men and women, or gays and straights, or black and white? You’ll be able to find a theologian willing to tell you that is indeed where God drew one of his magical lines.


The thought that there’s a magical, only-theologically-detectable difference between humans and non-humans that grants all and only the humans (including human embryos) a special ‘dignity’ requiring a special sort of moral ‘respect’ can certainly make moral judgements concerning abortion, euthanasia, etc. reassur
ingly simple and straightforward. We Humanists, on the other hand, consider these issues rather more complex. Because they are.


Notice, by the way, that to appeal to such a magical, only-theologically-detectable difference in determing rights and dignity is indeed to appeal to a difference beyond the ability of science and reason to detect, making its existence entirely a matter of ‘faith’. Which is what I thought the authors of this report wanted Christians avoid?


Argument 2: Objective Morality Requires Theism


The second argument for atheism sawing through the branch on which humanism sits runs like so:


Then there is morality. While few can doubt that most humanists, religious and atheistic, are genuinely committed to moral truth (as opposed to mere opinion), atheist humanists struggle to explain why humans should be able to grasp a moral truth that lies beyond our 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 why our conscience provides a window onto moral reality.  For the Christian, we 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 this deeper why question: we are created by a loving God, who wants us to know and love what is truly good.


This is standard Christian apologetics of a sort with which anyone who’s seen a Christian debater sometime during the last few decades will be familiar. Objective morality requires God! As even atheists accept objective morals exist, they should believe in God!


This kind of argument may be effective rhetoric, but it’s philosophically shaky. Few moral philosophers endorse it. Even many Christian philosophers reject the moral argument (e.g. Prof. Richard Swinburne: ‘I cannot see any force in an argument to the existence of God from the existence of morality.’)


Why suppose there can be objective morality if and only if there’s a God? The argument sketched here, even in the full publication, seems to be of the evolutionary debunking variety: if our moral intuitions are merely a product of evolution, there’s no reason to think they’ll track moral truths. But this is a notoriously complex and controversial issue and few philosophers are persuaded by the argument. Philosopher Ronald Dworkin writes ‘the widespread assumption that a successful Darwinian explanation of moral concern would have sceptical implications’ is ‘plainly mistaken’. For an excellent overview of the many issues see Guy Kahane here. There’s no attempt by the authors of the Theos report to deal with any of the many objections and counters that have been raised to such evolutionary debunking arguments.


Also notice, by the way, that it’s no good arguing: ‘Humanists are naturalists and naturalism cannot accommodate objective moral value’ as many Humanists (and indeed atheist philosophers), myself included, aren’t naturalists.


Also notice that even if it could be shown that objective moral value requires the existence of the Judeo-Christian God (and that is an enormous ‘if’), that still wouldn’t necessarily give us much reason to believe in such a God if there were (as many Humanists, myself included, suppose there is) overwhelming evidence against such a being. The correct conclusion to draw then, surely, would be that there’s no objective moral value.


Now that last conclusion – there is no objective moral value – might even be true. True, I’d prefer it not to be true. And I’m intuitively drawn to the thought that objective moral value exists. But intuitions can be mistaken. It struck many of us intuitively obvious that the Earth does not move. Science and reason revealed that intuition was wrong. Science and reason might reveal our intuitions about objective moral truths are unreliable too. The fact that we’d prefer it if the conclusion was not true is hardly much of a counter to such an argument.


But of course, as I say, the authors have not shown – indeed they’ve barely attempted to show beyond gesturing vaguely in the direction of evolutionary debunking arguments – that objective morality requires God.


I would have expected a piece of generously Templeton-funded research to have sought to do more than this: i.e. to have spelt out a clear argument and then attempted to deal with the many objections raised against it. This report looks less like research, more like a thin bit of Christian propaganda designed to reassure the faithful.


Argument 3: Reason Requires God


The third argument that atheism saws of the branch on which humanism sits runs like so:


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 like science, mathematics or philosophy? By contrast, Christian thought has (usually) valued reason (albeit acknowledging its limits), understanding it not as an accident but as reflection of the mind in whose image we are made.


Again, there’s no real argument here, just hints at some deep ‘problem’ for atheism. The full document, which references an unpublished paper by Ralph Walker*, scarcely provides more supporting argu


But on the face of it, there really isn’t much of ‘problem’ here, is there? True enough, we have evolved to make many cognitive ‘short cuts’ that work for the most part but can in certain circumstances, lead us systematically astray (as Daniel Kahneman and others have pointed out). Human reason is not always to be trusted. But if the content of our beliefs and belief-forming mechanisms more generally causally impact our behaviour** then there’s good reason to think that evolution will indeed favour true-belief forming mechanisms, as has been spelt out by many, including me. Cognitive mechanisms that tend to produce false beliefs are very likely to be maladaptive – natural selection will weed them out.


But what of the thought that there’s no reason to expect belief forming mechanisms that have evolved to work in our local environment to work when it comes to the bigger, more abstract questions? Well here are two pretty obvious reasons to expect this.


First, deductive reasoning is truth-conducive. True premises guarantees a true conclusion if the argument is deductively valid. Now suppose we evolved in an environment in which rabbits and potatoes formed our staple diet. There are various rules of inference or cognitive tricks we might employ to figure out where the rabbits and potatoes are located, some of which are rabbit- and potato-specific. However, logical and mathematical rules are not potato- and rabbit-specific. They work just as well whether the subject matter is rabbits and potatoes, carrots and sheep, or galaxies and atoms. Those of us who use  truth-conducive abstract rules (e.g rules of deductive reasoning) that are not tied specifically to certain sorts of content will therefore have a huge survival advantage when our environment changes: e.g. when the rabbits and potatoes disappear to be replaced by carrots and sheep. Those using content-specific rules and tricks will probably starve, while those using the more abstract, generally truth-conducive rules will be much more likely to survive. So natural selection will indeed select for those who follow the more abstract, generally truth-conducive rules.


Second, science advances by the application of the scientific method. That method is not an innate product of natural selection, but an artefact which we have developed to help us deal with our cognitive unreliabilities and limitations in our search for the truth. The authors have given us given no reason to suppose that, absent God, we won’t notice that our basic cognitive tricks and methods sometimes lead us astray. But then if we come to  be interested, not just in survival, but also in truth, why wouldn’t we develop and refine systems to aid us in revealing the truth by compensating for the unreliabilities and limitations of our innate cognitive systems? Even if natural selection isn’t much interested in truth but merely in survival, that’s no obstacle to our developing methods that are truth-sensitive. That’s what the scientific method is.


I just made those two explanations up off the top of my head. They are pretty obvious explanations. What’s the matter with them? Don’t expect to find any explanation in this Theos report.


What’s the alternative explanation for our ability to reveal deep mathematical philosophical and scientific truths – the explanation offered by the authors of this Theos report? That there’s a God who wants us to be knowers and has the power to make it so.


This sort of explanation is of course handy and convenient, isn’t it? Struggling to explain x? Just posit a being b who both desires that x be the case and has the power to make x the case and bingo! that’s x explained. Then run down those who reject belief in b by pointing out they have a much harder time explaining x. By such means, you might argue for gods, fairies, trolls, and Men in Black. Can’t explain why the flowers grow? The fairies love flowers, and have the power to make them bloom. Can’t explain why your keys vanished from the mantelpiece? The gremlins love stealing keys and had the opportunity and power to steal yours.


The God-explanation for human dignity, objective moral value, and reason is handy and convenient. It may be much handier and more convenient than available non-theistic alternatives. But then the same may be true of my gremlin explanation for the mysterious disappearance of your keys. All my gremlin explanation requires is that there be hidden beings (whom I dub ‘gremlins’) who (i) like stealing keys and (ii) had the power and opportunity to steal yours.


You might well ‘struggle’ to think of any plausible alternative to my gremlin explanation for the disappearance of your keys. That doesn’t make it reasonable for you to believe gremlins were responsible.


Similarly, while non-theists may ‘struggle’ to explain all sorts of things (and they’re usually humble enough to admit they do), that does not, as it stands, make it reasonable for them, or you, to believe God’s responsible.



*Ralph Walker’s paper is unpublished and may be very good. Unfortunately I have not yet been able to obtain a copy (my request to see it is pending). Nothing I say here should be taken as a criticism of that paper which may, for all I know, have been misrepresented by this Theos publication. POSTSCRIPT Ralph Walker was just kind enought to let me have sight of his paper. His challenge does seem to me to be answerable in the way I outline above.

**denied by Alvin Plantinga, who uses this thought to run his evolutionary argument against naturalism, which is a different argument to the one Ralph Walker seems to have in mind (given what’s said about his argument this Theos report). Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism requires a different sort of response to that which I offer here.