Secular Humanism and Ethics
Secular Humanists have a vastly different ethic than we Christians.
From A Declaration of Secular Humanism: “Ethic was developed as a branch of human knowledge long before religionists proclaimed their moral systems based upon divine authority. . . . 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.” (Paul Kurtz, A Secular Humanist Declaration (Buffalo, NY, Prometheus Books, 1980), p. 14).
From Humanist Manifest II: “We affirm that moral values derive their source from human experience. Ethics is autonomous and situational, needing no theological or ideological sanction. Ethics stem 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” (Humanist Manifest II Third.).
From Paul Kurtz: “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” (Paul Kurtz, In Defense of Secular Humanism (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1983), p. 33).
From Corliss Lamont: “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 int eh world, it is equally true that human desires directed by reason toward socially useful goals are a prime foundation of the good” (Corliss Lamont, The Philosophy of Humanism (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1982), pp. 229-30, quoted in David A Noebel, Understanding the Times (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1991).
From A Declaration of Interdependence: A New Global Ethics: “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, revisionary 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” (A Declaration of interdependence: A New Global Ethics, Part IV, Paragraph 1).
What Shall We Say in Response to Such Assertions?
Secular Humanists claim that ethics was developed as a branch of philosophy prior to the claim of divine authority. Just how do they know that? What evidence do they have for such an assertion? Before the woman was even 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 2:16-17).
Secular Humanists desire to have ethics based on critical reason. God gave us reason. I’m convinced that part of our being made in God’s image is our ability to think and reason. Therefore, reason has a place. Proverbs 2:1-11. “Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding” (Prov 4:7).
However, we dare not elevate human reasoning 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 it 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.
How many of us have reasoned and thought things through 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. Within 48 hours, Gates had obtained the rights to QDOS (Quick and Dirty Operating System) for $50,000, but Gates failed to inform QDOS’s owner that he planned to resell the system to IBM. Gates renamed QDOS simply DOS and sold it to IBM for $80,000, BUT he retained the rights to sell the system to other companies. No one at IBM could conceive of someone wanting an IBM computer made by someone other than IBM, but within a year, IBM could not sell of their computers and Gates had sold MS-DOS to some 50 additional companies (Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal, Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003). 3rd ed.).
What would have happened if the manager at IBM could have seen where things would have ended? Do you honestly think they would have allowed Gates the right to sell MS-DOS to other companies? Would we have ever heard the term “IBM compatible?” God knows what’s ahead; he knows what’s in our best interests. Thus, he has informed us of the way we need to act.
Humanists claim that morality needs no divine sanction. In a work dealing specifically with Humanist ethics, Paul Kurtz 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 unfirm 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” (Paul Kurtz, Forbidden Fruit (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988), p. 72).
They fail to recognize, however, that human morality flows from God’s character; God’s character is why certain things are right or wrong. Frances Schaeffer, a well-known Christian thinker, 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” (Quoted in Noebel, Understanding the Times, p. 238).
Scripture concurs. “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, think on heavenly things, for that is where God is. “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 declared what is right and wrong. Several passages detail activities which are wrong. “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 wants.
Secular Humanists ethics are different based upon the person. Notice the desire to establish ethics based upon the person. “We affirm that moral values derive their source from human experience. Ethics is autonomous and situational, needing no theological or ideological sanction. Ethics stems from human needs and interests. To deny this distorts the whole basis of life” (Humanist Manifesto II, Third). “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” (Paul Kurtz, In Defense of Secular Humanism (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1983), p. 33).
What the Humanists say is that each person should do his or her own thing. That’s not going to work very well. That philosophy has been tried before: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit” (Judg 21:25)—no one followed objective standards, but he did what he thought was right.
If ethics are autonomous and situational, how can we have any system of laws? If there’s no absolute right and wrong, how can the state condemn me for any behavior? How could they charge me with murder if I commit murder in my own interests? How could they charge me with embezzlement if that embezzlement is in my own best interests?
Secular Humanists would say 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” (Ibid., 15).
There are a couple problems with that view:
- If “objective standards emerge,” can ethics really be autonomous and situational?
- What if what I believe is an objective moral standard conflicts with what you believe is an objective moral standard? How shall we determine who is right? Whose reasoning shall we use to determine who is right?
Humanists ethics seeks for individuals to have a good life at present. Notice what the Humanists say about seeking the good 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” (Humanists Manifesto II, Third). “Humanism is humanitarian, in that it is concerned with the good life and social justice as moral ideals” (Paul Kurtz, In Defense of Secular Humanism (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1983), p. 33).
Life has absolutely nothing to do with striving “for the good life, here and now.” The purpose of life is to bring glory and honor to God. Notice what 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 it’s too restrictive to say that our sole purpose here is to honor God, and some might not think that’s fair. “You mean that my life’s not about me at all.” Our lives are not one bit about us; our lives are about God; he made us for his glory and his honor.
Life is far more than the here and now. There is a place of eternal joy for those who have served God. 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” (Matt 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 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” (Matt 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” (Matt 25:41).
Do you need to come tonight and pledge yourself to appropriate ethical standards and thereby prepare yourself for the glory God will give his children?
This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at the Alum Creek church of Christ in Alum Creek, West Virginia.