Secular Humanism and Ethics





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A Declaration of Secular Humanism states, “Ethics was developed as a branch of human knowledge long before religionists proclaimed their moral systems based upon divine authority.” [1] Again, the document declares

For secular humanists, ethical conduct is, or should be, judged by critical reason, and their goal is to develop autonomous and responsible individuals, capable of making their own choices in life, based upon an understanding of human behavior. Morality that is not God-based need not be antisocial, subjective, or promiscuous, nor need it lead to the breakdown of moral standards. Although we believe in tolerating diverse lifestyles and social manners, we do not think they are immune to criticism. Nor do we believe that any one church should impose its views of moral virtue and sin, sexual conduct, marriage, divorce, birth control, or abortion, or legislate them for the rest of society.

As secular humanists we believe in the central importance of the value of human happiness here and now. We are opposed to Absolutist morality, yet we maintain that objective standards emerge, and ethical values and principles may be discovered, in the course of ethical deliberation. [2]

Humanist Manifesto II states

We affirm that moral values derive their source from human experience. Ethics is [sic] autonomous and situational, needing no theological or ideological sanction. Ethics stems [sic] from human needs and interests. To deny this distorts the whole basis of life. Human life has meaning because we create and develop our futures. Happiness and the creative realization of human needs and desires, individually and in shared enjoyment, are continuous themes of humanism. We strive for the good life, here and now. [3]

Humanist Manifesto III states

Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility. [4]

Kurtz has written

Humanists have confidence in human beings, and they believe that the only bases for morality are human experience and human needs. Humanists are opposed to all forms of supernaturalistic and authoritarian religion. Many humanists believe that scientific intelligence and critical reason can assist in reconstructing our moral values. Finally, humanism is humanitarian, in that it is concerned with the good life and social justice as moral ideals. [5]

Corliss Lamont declared

Humanist ethics is opposed to the puritanical prejudice against pleasure and desire that marks the Western tradition of morality. Men and women have profound wants and needs of an emotional and physical character, the fulfillment of which is an essential ingredient in the good life. Contempt for or suppression of normal desires may result in their discharge in surreptitious, coarse, or abnormal ways. While it is true that uncontrolled human desires are a prime cause of evil in the world, it is equally true that human desires directed by reason toward socially useful goals are a prime foundation of the good. [6]

A Declaration of Interdependence: A New Global Ethics affirmed

Moral codes that prevail today are often rooted in ancient parochial and tribal loyalties. Absolutistic moral systems emerged from the values of the rural and nomadic societies of the past; they provide little useful guidance for our post-modern world. We need to draw on the best moral wisdom of the past, but we also need to develop a new, reversionary ethics that employs rational methods of inquiry appropriate to the world of the future, an ethics that respects the dignity and freedom of each person but that also expresses a larger concern for humanity as a whole. [7]

What evidence do the humanists have that ethics developed as a branch of philosophy prior to the claim of divine authority? Before woman was formed, God told Adam, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Gen. 3:16-17). God was the first Being to assert ethical principles.

The student next explored the humanist desire to have ethics based on critical reason. God gave reason; [8] therefore, reason has a place. However, humans dare not elevate human reason above what it can accomplish. “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death” (Prov. 14:12). “Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Cor. 1:20). “The foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength” (1 Cor. 1:25).

How many individuals have reasoned and made some of the most foolish decisions imaginable? In 1980, Bill Gates offered to license an operating system to IBM 48 hours before he actually had an operating system. [9] Within 48 hours, Gates had obtained the rights to QDOS for $50,000, but Gates failed to inform QDOS’s owner that he planned to resell the system. Gates renamed the system DOS and sold it to IBM for $80,000, but he retained the rights to sell the system to other companies. No one could conceive of someone wanting an IBM computer made by someone other than IBM, but within a year, the company could not sell enough computers and Gates had sold MS-DOS to some 50 additional companies.

What would have occurred if the managers at IBM could have seen where things would have ended? Would they really have allowed Gates the right to sell MS-DOS to other companies? Would the term “IBM compatible” ever been introduced to the English language? God knows what is ahead; he knows what is in man’s best interest. Thus, he has informed us of the way man needs to act.

Humanists, however, claim that morality needs to divine sanction. Kurtz, for example, wrote

Ethical principles cannot be deduced from the concept of God. First, the existence of God is questionable. Second, not all men and women of different cultures share the same religious beliefs. Third, granting the fatherhood of God is no guarantee that uniform moral codes will emerge. Theists have “deduced” any number of moral codes at variance with those held by other believers. For instance, witness the sharp differences of opinion held by Jews, Christians, and Muslims regarding marriage and divorce. [10]

Humanists, however fail to recognize that human morality flows from God’s character; actions are right or wrong based on who God is. Francis Schaffer said

One of the distinctions of the Judeo-Christian God is that not all things are the same to Him. That at first may sound rather trivial, but in reality it is one of the most profound things one can say about the Judeo-Christian God. He exists; He has a character; and not all things are the same to Him. Some things conform to His character, and some are opposed to His character. [11]

Scripture concurs with Schaffer’s assessment. “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Col. 3:1-2); in other words, Christians are to think on heavenly things, for God dwells there. “Just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’” (1 Pet. 1:15-16).

God has told man what is right and wrong. Several passages of Scripture detail activities which do not conform to God’s character. “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents: they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Rom. 1:29-31). “The acts of the [flesh] are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19-21). No matter how much humanists claim that ethics need no divine sanction, God has spelled out quite clearly what he desires.

Secular humanists base ethics upon the individual. “We affirm that moral values derive their source from human experience. Ethics is [sic] autonomous and situational, needing no theological or ideological sanction. Ethics stems [sic] from human needs and interests. To deny this distorts the whole basis of life.” [12] “Humanists have confidence in human beings, and they believe that the only bases for morality are human experience and human needs. Humanists are opposed to all forms of supernaturalistic and authoritarian religion.” [13]

What the humanists advocate is antinomianism, i.e., each person doing his or her own thing. That philosophy has been tried before – “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit” (Judg. 21:25). If ethics are autonomous and situational, how can we have any system of law? If there is no absolute right and wrong, how can the state condemn one for any behavior? How could they charge me with murder if I commit murder in my own best interests? How could they charge me with embezzlement if that embezzlement is in my own best interests?

Humanists claim that objective moral standards come through moral reasoning. “We are opposed to Absolutist morality, yet we maintain that objective standards emerge, and ethical values and principles may be discovered, in the course of ethical deliberation.” [14] There are a couple problems with that view. First, if “objective standards emerge,” can ethics really be autonomous and situational? Second, what if what one individual believes is an objective moral standard conflicts with what another believes is an objective moral standard? Whose reasoning shall determine who is right?

Humanist ethics seek for individuals to have a good life at present. “Human life has meaning because we create and develop our futures. Happiness and the creative realization of human needs and desires, individually and in shared enjoyment, are continuous themes of humanism. We strive for the good life, here and now.” [15] “Humanism is humanitarian, in that it is concerned with the good life and social justice as moral ideals.” [16]

Life has nothing to do with striving “for the good life, here and now.” Joshua told the children of Israel in his farewell address, “Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD” (Josh. 24:14). “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Eccl. 12:13). Some might think saying life is solely about honoring God would make life too restrictive and unfair, yet God made man for his glory and honor.

Life is far more than the here and now. To those who served the Lord, Jesus said, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” (Mt. 25:34). This life does not compare with the glory to be given the children of God – “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor. 4:17). There is also a place of eternal torment for those who have not served God. “This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt. 13:49-50). For those who refused to give to the needy, the King said, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25:41).


[1]Kurtz, Humanist Declaration, 14.

[2]Ibid., 15.

[3]Humanist Manifesto II, Third.

[4]Humanist Manifesto III.

[5]Kurtz, In Defense, 33.

[6]Lamont, Philosophy of Humanism, 229-30; quoted in David A Noebel, Understanding the Times (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1991).

[7]A Declaration of Interdependence: A New Global Ethics, Part IV, Paragraph 1.

[8]Prov. 2:1-11; “Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding” (Prov. 4:7).

[9]This illustration comes from Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal, Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003).

[10]Kurtz, Forbidden Fruit, 72.

[11]Quoted in Noebel, Understanding the Times, 238.

[12]Humanist Manifesto II, Third.

[13]Kurtz, In Defense, 33.

[14]Ibid., 15.

[15]Humanist Manifesto II, Third.

[16]Kurtz, In Defense, 33.

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