The Secular Humanist Idea of Free Inquiry
A few weeks ago, we introduced the concept of Secular Humanism, and we explored the ten basic tenets of Secular Humanism. We noted then that one tenet was “free inquiry.”
Tonight, I want us to explore their concept of free inquiry in light of Scripture.
First, let’s explore some quotations from Secular Humanists concerning free inquiry:
From A Secular Humanist Declaration:
The first principle of democratic secular humanism is its commitment to free inquiry. We oppose any tyranny over the mind of man, any efforts by ecclesiastical, political, ideological, or social institutions to shackle free thought. In the past, such tyrannies have been directed by churches and states attempting to enforce the edicts of religious bigots. In the long struggle in the history of ideas, established institutions, both public and private, have attempted to censor inquiry, to impose orthodoxy on beliefs and values, and to excommunicate heretics and extirpate unbelievers. . . .
Free inquiry entails recognition of civil liberties as integral to its pursuit, that is, a free press, freedom of communication, the right to organize opposition parties and to join voluntary associations, and freedom to cultivate and publish the fruits of scientific, philosophical, artistic, literary, moral and religious freedom. Free inquiry requires that we tolerate diversity of opinion and that we respect the right of individuals to express their beliefs, however unpopular they may be, without social or legal prohibition or fear of sanctions. (Paul Kurtz, A Secular Humanist Declaration (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1980).
Again, Kurtz has commented,
We are committed to free inquiry, the free mind, freedom of research, respect for civil liberties, and the open democratic society. This entails the right to believe, or not believe, in prevailing religious or ideological doctrines. We object to any effort to censor or prohibit dissent and restrict liberty. (Paul Kurtz, “When Should We Speak Out? (Secular Humanism and Politics)” Free Inquiry, 2003, v 23).
We believe that the problems and issues of contemporary life are inescapable; evasion and ignorance are not avenues to solutions. We do not believe that any one group has the answers to these or related problems. By questioning, seeking alternatives, and encouraging free inquiry, we have a far better chance by success than by limiting the coming generation to the narrow fields of study recommended by the critics of secular humanism (Academy of Humanism, “Education and Free Inquiry, A Statement from the Academy of Humanism,” Contemporary Education, vol. 58, Fall 1986, p. 41).
The first principle of humanism is a commitment to free inquiry in every field of human endeavor. This means that any effort to prevent the free mind from exercising its right to pose questions and initiate inquiry is unwarranted (Paul Kurtz, Eupraxophy: Living Without Religion (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1989), p. 26).
Let’s examine both what’s right with these statements and what’s wrong with these statements:
What’s Right with These Statements?
We are free to make our own decisions and draw our own conclusions. God created us with free will—we are free to do and to think as we choose. Moses told the children of Israel, “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Deut 30:19). “If serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living” (Josh 24:15). I do not have to believe what is right; I do not have to do what is right. I have free will to choose what I think and what I do.
The Secular Humanists are correct that some in Christendom have attempted to exert uniformity in immoral ways—e.g., the Inquisition.
We need to oppose any movement to force our beliefs on others. When Christians speak out on moral issues, we are often accused of attempting to force our morality on others. The ironic thing about that is that the Secular Humanists are perfectly happy to force their morality on the rest of us. They’re perfectly happy to take our tax dollars to fund abortions, they’re perfectly happy to put moral relativism in school text books, and they’re perfectly happy to put smut on the TV when our kids could be watching.
I fail to see how speaking out on social issues, however, is attempting to push our morality on others. However, we dare not attempt to coerce anyone to do what is right. God does not coerce us to do what is right, and we dare not attempt to do something God’s not even willing to do.
The Secular Humanists are correct in encouraging us to investigate. Investigation is a biblical concept. You know quite well why Luke praised the Bereans: “The Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11). They didn’t take Paul’s word for what they were supposed to believe, but they used “free inquiry” to see if he was telling them the truth or not.
Christian faith is not blind: Notice what Luke wrote—Luke 1:1-4. Luke acknowledges that there were “eyewitnesses”—the things Jesus did weren’t done in a corner, but they were done in public. People could easily have stood up and said, “That wrong; that didn’t happen.” Luke himself said that he had “carefully investigated everything from the beginning.” He wasn’t content to take everyone else’s word for it, but he put on his investigative reporter’s hat and used free inquiry to see if what he had heard was true. So many accuse us of having blind faith, but the biblical writers didn’t believe they had blind faith; they understood that they had faith grounded in investigation.
We should not fear honest investigation; in fact, we ought to encourage honest investigation. I’m persuaded that if we put Christianity up against atheism, secularism, Marxism, or any other ideology, Christianity will win it. That is, Christianity will win out, if people honestly investigate its claims.
Several have set out to investigate Christianity, and they came to believe in Christ when they did so. Sir William Ramsey, an extremely well-known archeologist of a previous century, was persuaded that the Book of Acts was fictitious. He decided to take a sabbatical from his teaching at Oxford University to prove that the Book of Acts was not inspired; to do this, he traveled in Paul’s footsteps. Guess what happened? He traced Paul’s footsteps and became a believer (Lon Solomon, “The Reliability of the Bible,” A sermon delivered at McLean Bible Church on September 24, 2002, Available at http://www.mcleanbible.org/uploads/Bible_Reliable_Pt_2_Spir_Btcp_092402.pdf. Accessed October 3, 2005).
Think of Lee Strobel. In January of 1980, Strobel, an atheist, began a nine-month investigation into the claims of Christianity after his wife began attending a denominational group. Strobel, at the time, was an investigative journalist for The Chicago Tribune, and he used that investigative spirit to examine Christianity’s claims. Here’s what Strobel himself said about his investigation, “One Sunday, after coming home from a church service, I went into my room and began to summarize the evidence I had gathered on a yellow legal pad. As I categorized and analyzed the evidence I had after nine months of investigation, I realized that the evidence for Jesus being the Son of God is so strong that in order to maintain my atheism, I would have to have more faith” (Lydia B. Boys, “Lee Strobel: An Inquiring Mind Led Him to Christ,” Internet article available at http://www.hourofpour.org/interviews/lee_strobel.html. Accessed October 4, 2005).
Yes, inquiring minds can believe.
What’s Wrong with These Statements?
Just because we are free to choose for ourselves what to believe does not mean that we will choose to believe what is true. Secular Humanists deny that knowledge can be known with any certainty. “The vast majority of secular humanists assume that one should be ever skeptical and that knowledge is human-made and comes not from some infallible source. Secular humanists eschew supposed absolutes for statements of probability” (Rod Farmer, “Toward a Definition of Secular Humanism,” Contemporary Education 58 (1987): 127). “Secular humanists don’t believe the one, final absolute truth has been revealed to them. On the contrary, we believe that all beliefs are fallible and provisional, and that diversity and dialogue are essential to the process of learning and developing” (Matt Cherry and Mollen Matsumura, “10 Myths About Secular Humanism,” Free Inquiry 18 (1997), http://find.galegroup.com/itx/informark.do?&type=retrieve&tabID=T003&prodID=Eaim&docID=A205828&source=A20582810&source=gale&srcprod=EAIM&userGroupName_avl_uah&version=1.0 (accessed on September 15, 2005).
There is truth—absolute truth—revealed in Scripture. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14). “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (Jn 14:6). “‘You are a king, then!’ said Pilate. Jesus answered, ‘You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (Jn 18:37).
The idea of absolutes is quite unpopular in our society. Notice what Kurtz said about morality:
it is one thing, however, to lay down the rules of conduct by law and to enforce them by sanction, leaving opportunities for them to be modified and revised in democratic societies. It is quite another to uphold unchanging orthodoxy of belief in the sciences, philosophy, literature, the arts, politics, morality, or religion and to seek to legislate acceptable modes of personal behavior. Here the appeal to authority is illegitimate, for it substitutes a conformist faith for intelligently grounded knowledge” (Kurtz, Eupraxophy, pp 24-25).
Notice fully what Kurtz said in that quote:
- We cannot have “unchanging orthodoxy of belief” in morality and religion—We can say that neither morality nor religion are unchangeable.
- Notice that he also says that the authority is “illegitimate,” for it is not “intelligently grounded knowledge.” In other words, we cannot appeal to God, for Kurtz cannot arrive at God’s existence by “intelligently grounded knowledge.”
However, regardless of what Kurtz and others say, there is absolute truth. Ignoring truth doesn’t negate truth. Imagine if I go for a check-up and the doctor says, “Justin, I felt a mass in your abdomen. I really think we need to run some tests; it could be cancer.” And I ignore that truth and go about my merry way. Does that make the cancer go away? Absolutely not! Ignoring truth doesn’t negate truth.
Kurtz and others can ignore biblical truth, if they so choose, but that does not make that truth irrelevant or false.
There needs to be uniformity of thought. The Humanist believe in diversity of thought. Remember what Kurtz said in A Secular Humanist Declaration? “In the long struggle in the history of ideas, established institutions, both public and private, have attempted to censor inquiry, to impose orthodoxy on beliefs and values, and to excommunicate heretics and extirpate unbelievers” (Kurtz, A Secular Humanist Declaration). “We value tolerance, pluralism, and open-mindedness as positive and beneficial qualities in society” (Cherry and Matsumura, “10 Myths About Secular Humanism.”).
Scripture does not say that we must arrive at the same conclusion on all matters. “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables” (Rom 14:1-2). “Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a new Moon celebration or a Sabbath day” (Col 2:16).
Do you notice what Paul is advocating in both these texts? He says, “There are matters where we might arrive at different conclusions. You might think it’s okay to eat meat sacrifices to idols, but another might think it’s sinful. Don’t judge one another, but each of you have your own opinions.” There are areas where we need to be free to exercise our own judgment. For example, some may wish to celebrate Christmas as a family time and a time for exchanging gifts, and others choose not to do so as a matter of conscience. In such matters, there ought to be pluralism, and we ought to allow individuals to reach their own conclusions.
But when it comes to essentials, we must have uniformity of thought. “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Cor 1:10). “Finally, brothers, good-by. Aim for perfection, listen to my appeal, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you” (2 Cor 13:11). Will we be of one mind?
Kurtz in A secular Humanist Declaration decries the efforts of churches “to excommunicate heretics and extirpate unbelievers” (Kurtz, A Secular Humanist Declaration). This obviously goes against the humanists’ concept of free inquiry—if one must believe a certain truth, he isn’t free to arrive at his own truth.
However, the church has a serious obligation to defend truth and oppose error. Timothy was to charge individuals in Ephesus “not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies” (1 Tim 1:3-4). Notice why Titus was to appoint elders in Crete: “There are many rebellious people, mere talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced, because they are ruining whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach” (Tit 1:10-11).
Honestly, truth can be found only in Christ. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14). Jesus himself said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6).
Jesus is truth, he taught truth, and we must believe that truth. “I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins” (Jn 8:24). Jesus said that if we reject his claims to have come from the Father, to be the messiah, and to be the way to eternal life, we shall die in our sins. Have you acted on the belief that Jesus came from the Father, that he is the Messiah, and that he is the way to eternal life? Do you need to come tonight and act on that faith?
This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at the Alum Creek church of Christ in Alum Creek, West Virginia.