It considers religion outmoded, yet cannot make sense of human life
“Religion ceased to be a significant factor … between the First and Second World Wars.” Humanism raises this self-confident shout of victory in “Religions of the Future,” an essay by Tolbert H. McCarroll, editor of the Humanist (Nov./Dec., 1966, p. 190).
As an organized philosophical movement, humanism functions in the International Humanist and Ethical Union, the American Humanist Association, and other regional bodies. C. H. Schonk says that “humanism is … to a rather high extent the concern of the intelligentizia” (sic) (International Humanism, April, 1966, p. 27), and he hopes that the view will spread among ordinary men. Evangelical Christians can assure him that it has already done so, for in unorganized form humanism now permeates labor unions, political parties, and even large Protestant denominations where some say God is dead.
What Is Humanism?
If religion lost its significance between the two world wars, the precise date may have been 1933. In that year thirty or more distinguished ministers and professors (E. Burdette Backus, Harry Elmer Barnes, A. J. Carlson, John Dewey, John Herman Randall, Roy Wood Sellars, and others) published A Humanist Manifesto. On July 13, 1963, the American Humanist Association cautiously disavowed the economic pronouncement of Article XIV but by silence apparently approved the remainder.
This distinguished company of humanists said in 1933, “First, religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created.” That is to say, humanism is atheism. And later in the manifesto: “Fifth, humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values.” Or, in other words, neither God, whose existence is excluded, nor the universe cares about man.
To this day, these ideas and the import of the other articles of the manifesto continue to be repeated in the Humanist with pietistic insipidity. For example: “Essential to our survival is the ability to distinguish those who search their condition in joyous affirmation from those who would forsake and annul life.… The enforcement of conscientious life is humanism.… The major task for humanism is persuading people to join the human race” (The Humanist, Mar./Apr., 1966, p. 46).
The number of vague generalities in the humanist publications is astounding. Some humanists themselves recognize the meaninglessness of their hazy formulas: “If one merely put down what all humanists hold in common, the result would not be very inspiring” (International Humanism, April, 1966, p. 1). Is it not pedantic as well as uninspiring to say that “the humanist makes a judicial reassessment of human beliefs and practices in the light of modern knowledge and discards whatever is found groundless”? Is there not a tinge of self-contradiction in the next sentence: “He accepts reasoned findings but keeps his mind open” (ibid., p. 12). In the matter of definiteness and clarity, the contrast between humanist generalities and the precisely formulated supernaturalism of the Westminster Confession is amazing.
The unifying principle so conspicuously absent from humanism’s platitudinous affirmation is provided, however, by its thoroughly definite negations. Humanists know what they are against. They hate God. They “take counsel together, against the Lord, and against his anointed, saying, Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us” (Ps. 2:2, 3).
What Humanism Is Not
Despite humanism’s inability to agree on any definite affirmations, one should not be blind to its negative force. Nor to its unorganized prevalence. When people neglect Bible reading, they are advancing humanism. When they no longer “say grace” at meals, when golf or fishing is their Sunday occupation and civil rights their sacrament, they are practicing atheists.
So victorious has been the humanist advance that McCarroll can even tar Eugene Carson Blake with defeatism (“Dr. Blake has good reason to fear”—The Humanist, Nov./Dec., 1966) when Blake asserts that “humanism … is nonetheless the greatest threat to man’s morality or even to his survival or salvation.”
It is somewhat amusing, of course, that Blake should thus express his fear of humanism. While under his control a large denomination was directed away from the Bible to the so-called Confession of 1967 and to new ordination vows that commit the clergy to a very small fraction of what the present standards require. As far back as 1924 those who shortly gained control of that denomination had denied the infallibility of the Scripture and, in the Auburn Affirmation, had denied that the Virgin Birth, the Atonement, and the Resurrection are essential to Christianity. Since that date supernaturalism has steadily evaporated in Dr. Blake’s organization.
Humanism is not all platitude and propaganda. Nor is it all completely negative. The more competent representatives offer some positive views on ethics. Their ethics, of course, is not Christian.
Thomas S. Szasz argues for abortion. “Such an operation should be available in the same way as, say, an operation for the beautification of a nose: the only requirement should be the woman’s desire to have the operation” (The Humanist, Sept./Oct., 1966, p. 148; cf. ibid., Nov./Dec., 1966, p. 206, col. 3). This proposal is neither negative nor vague.
In general, humanism advocates promiscuity in sex. Says Gerald A. Ehrenreich, “Nor … is sexual behavior immoral in itself—in or out of marriage, with oneself or with someone else.… Judging sexual behavior in moralistic terms … results in laws which arbitrarily impose the moral views of one group on others. This is unfortunate” (ibid., Sept./Oct., 1966, pp. 153 f.).
Also sufficiently definite, but not commanding complete agreement, are the socialistic proposals advanced by various humanists. Although they frequently criticize the Communists for doctrinaire fanaticism, their social and economic views hardly coincide with those of Barry Goldwater.
These ethical pronouncements help to rescue humanism from total vacuity. At the same time, however, they raise the philosophical problem of the identification or justification of alleged values. It is not enough to advocate freer sex and abortion; one must explain why these are good, right, or obligatory. Very few humanists attempt to justify their ethical principles.
Two notable exceptions deserve mention. Erich Fromm (ibid., July/Aug., 1966, p. 121) employs a subtitle, The Validity of Human Values. Having rejected divine revelation as the ground of moral distinctions, he relies on “an examination of the conditions of the existence of man, an analysis of the intrinsic contradictions in human existence, and an analysis of how they can be solved.” Some lines later he adds that “humanism must have a strict hierarchy of values.” Unfortunately this does not take us very far. It merely repeats the problem. Although Fromm has some kind words for Zen Buddhism, Spinoza, Goethe, and Marx, the question he so courageously faced remains unanswered.
Herbert Feigl, a man of no mean ability, also faces this question (International Humanism, April, 1966, p. 11). But like many others, he does not direct his ability in this direction. He merely says, “Does life have meaning without a transcendent creed? Of course it does.” And that is actually where he leaves the matter.
A Christian Question
The Bible teaches that man was created for God’s glory. It was God who gave man a purpose, and therefore man’s good is to fulfill that purpose. But if nature is indifferent to man’s desires, comfort, or well-being, as atheistic naturalism teaches, can man have any purpose at all? Men may have purposes, but logical positivism cannot maintain a teleological unity of the human race. This philosophy repudiates every objective system of morals or values to which all men are answerable.
Yet the unity of the human race is a pet theme of the humanists. They urge us to join the human race. Their goal is to become human. A Christian, with the doctrine of creation, has an adequate base for biological and teleological unity; and with the doctrine of the fall he has an adequate reason to deny the spiritual unity of mankind. But the humanists assert spiritual unity without reason, contradict generic purpose both by their positivism and by their atheism, and by evolution cast doubt even on the biological unity of the races.
If, now, neither a purposing God nor an indifferent nature imposes a purpose on all men, if “humanists believe that mankind has only itself to rely upon” (Living with Uncertainty, promotional folder of the American Humanist Association), and if, further, morality is relative and constantly changing, then it is hard to see what obligation anyone has to accept humanistic ideals. Each person must select his own purpose. One man will choose the life of a playboy; another will desire to be a miserly recluse; and, to put the question most pointedly, how can a humanist insist that anyone should choose to live rather than to commit suicide?
The question of suicide must be insisted upon, no matter how distasteful it is to humanists. An exponent of ethical culture once engaged in public debate with a Calvinist. The Calvinist was asked: If you were persuaded that theism was false, how would you live? Perhaps the humanist expected a sheepish avowal of orgiastic desires. More probably he expected a respectable choice based on common notions of prudence. On this second possibility the ethical culturist would have claimed victory, for if rules of prudence allow choices of action, then theism is unnecessary for ethics.
But the actual answer given was, “I would shoot myself and save a lot of trouble.” At this the humanist threw up his hands in despair, as well he might, because he could not justify the value of life itself. Obviously, if life is not worth living, discussion of the relative merits of a playboy versus a hermit is irrelevant.
When, in answer to the question, “Does life have meaning without a transcendent creed?,” Feigl merely asseverates, “Of course it does,” we cannot accept his optimism without verification. Indeed, verification is one of the main points in Feigl’s naturalism. Not only is the (temporarily) true distinguished from the (temporarily) false by verification, but the identification of meaningful statements as opposed to sentences that hold no meaning depends on verifiability. With his strong insistence on scientific procedure, verification becomes a matter of sensory observation. “If and only if assertion and denial of a sentence imply a difference capable of observational (experiential, operational, or experimental) test, does the sentence have factual meaning” (“Logical Empiricism,” reprinted in Living Schools of Philosophy, ed. by Dagobert D. Runes, p. 334).
Among factually meaningless sentences Feigl classes all expressions of “praise or blame, appeals, suggestions, requests and commands” (ibid., p. 334). He would therefore be compelled to agree that the suggestion to join the human race is meaningless. So also with every moral command. Such sentences cannot be tested by observation or empirical validation. “An ethical imperative like the Golden Rule … having its accent in the emotive appeal, could not possibly be deduced from a knowledge of facts only; it is neither true nor false.… The question raised (and sometimes answered negatively) by metaphysicians, ‘Is the satisfying of human interests morally valuable?’ is therefore not a factual question at all.… The term ‘valuable’ (in the non-instrumental sense) is used purely as an emotive device.”
Now, Feigl, as well as other humanists, does not refrain from emotional devices. He writes, “A completely grown-up mankind … will acknowledge no other procedure than the experimental and no other standards than those prescribed by human nature” (ibid., pp. 354 ff.). Not only is this sentence with its context emotional and pejorative, but even if we choose to live rather than commit suicide, there is no experimental procedure that verifies the superiority of a “scientific” or positivistic life. Nor can the ideals of Jesus, St. Francis, Newton, or Einstein be considered superior to or more practical than those of Stalin. Certainly Stalin meets every empirical test of success.
A Christian Conclusion
In view of the logical flaw at the basis of logical empiricism, in view of the relativity of humanistic moral standards, and in view of the insipid pietism of its emotional exhortations, the best thing for the Christian churches to do is to recover their full-fledged supernaturalism. The God who by creation imposed purpose on the human race has infallibly revealed to the prophets that the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.
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