Secular Humanism and Free Inquiry

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The student presented a lesson concerning free inquiry from the viewpoint of secular humanism. The student provided several quotations from humanists concerning free inquiry. Kurtz wrote,

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. [1]

Again, Kurtz wrote

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, nor not believe, in prevailing religious or ideological doctrines. We object to any effort to censor or prohibit dissent and restrict liberty. [2]

The Academy of Humanism issued a statement which reads, in part,

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 of success than by limiting the coming generation to the narrow fields of study recommended by the critics of secular humanism. [3]

Kurtz wrote in Eupraxophy, “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.” [4]

The student first showed these statements’ limited appropriateness. The statements are appropriate, for God created men free to make their own decisions about what to believe and how to act. [5] Because God allows individuals free choice, they are not forced to believe the truth or act in appropriate ways. The statements are also correct, for some in Christendom have attempted to force their beliefs on others, such as occurred with the Spanish Inquisition. Secular humanists are also right to encourage investigation. Luke investigated his Gospel carefully; he wrote,

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught (Lk. 1:1-4).

Luke praised the Bereans because “they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11). Truthful investigation should cause Christians no alarm. Sir William Ramsey set out to prove the Book of Acts false, but as he followed Paul’s travels, Ramsey came to believe Christian truth. [6] Lee Strobel began a nine-month investigation into the claims of Christianity after his wife began attending a denominational church. [7] After Strobel finished his investigation, he came home from a church service, locked himself in his study, and listed the evidence for Christ’s deity on a legal pad. [8] About summarizing the evidence for Jesus’ divinity, Strobel wrote,

I’ll admit it: I was ambushed by the amount and quality of the evidence that Jesus is the unique Son of God. As I sat at my desk that Sunday afternoon, I shook my head in amazement. I had seen defendants carted off to the death chamber on much less convincing proof! The cumulative facts and data pointed unmistakably toward a conclusion that I wasn’t entirely comfortable in reaching.

In light of the convincing facts I had learned during my investigation, in the face of this overwhelming avalanche of evidence in the case for Christ, the great irony was this: It would require much more faith for me to maintain my atheism than to trust in Jesus of Nazareth! [9]

After exploring the positive effects of free inquiry, the student showed the dangers lurking in the humanists’ understanding of free inquiry. First, just because individuals are free to choose for themselves what to believe and how to act does not mean they will choose appropriately. Second, humanists largely deny that any absolute truth exists. Farmer said, “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.” [10] Cherry and Matsumura also said, “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.” [11] From Scripture, however, absolute truth not only exists but has been revealed. “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 very idea of absolutes has become unpopular in modern society. Concerning morality, Kurtz said,

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. [12]

In the above quote, Kurtz makes two important claims. First, he claims neither morality nor religion are unchangeable. Second, he denies one can appeal to God, for Kurtz could not arrive at theism from “intelligently grounded knowledge.” [13] To deal with the quote, the student noted that ignoring truth does not negate truth. If the student goes for his yearly physical, for example, and the physician finds a mass in his abdomen, Justin could choose to ignore that truth, but ignoring the truth does not make the danger disappear.

Additionally, uniformity of thought is important. The student reminded the congregation of the following quote from Kurtz: “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.” [14] Additionally, Cherry and Matsumura said, “We value tolerance, pluralism, and open-mindedness as positive and beneficial qualities in society.” [15] Christians are free to come to different conclusions on some matters. Paul, for example, said, “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). In another place, Paul wrote, “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). The student noted that on certain matters, Christians must allow their brethren to reach different opinions. To illustrate, some Christians wish to celebrate Christmas as a family time and a time for exchanging gifts, and other choose not to do so as a matter of conscience.

In essentials, however, Christians 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). Again, to the Corinthians, Paul wrote, “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).

Next, the student turned attention to Kurtz’s decrying the efforts of churches “to excommunicate heretics and extirpate unbelievers.” [16] Such obviously goes against the humanists’ concept of free inquiry; if one must believe a certain truth, he cannot arrive at his own truth. However, the church has a serious obligation to defend truth. 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). Titus was also to appoint elders in Crete because “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).

[1]Kurtz, Humanist Declaration, 10-11.

[2]Kurtz, “When Should we Speak Out?”: 64.

[3]Academy of Humanism, “Education and Free Inquiry: A Statement from the Academy of Humanism,” Contemporary Education (1986) 58: 41.

[4]Paul Kurtz, Eupraxophy: Living Without Religion (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1989), 26.

[5]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); Joshua told the children of Israel, “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).

[6]Lon Solomon, “The Reliability of the Bible,” McLean Bible Church, (accessed October 3, 2005).

[7]Lydia P. Boyle, “Lee Strobel: An Inquiring Mind Led Him to Christ,” Hour of Power, (accessed October 4, 2005).

[8]Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998).

[9]Ibid, 264-265.

[10]Rod Farmer, “Toward a Definition of Secular Humanism,” Contemporary Education 58 (1987): 127.

[11]Matt Cherry and Mollen Matsumura, “10 Myths About Secular Humanism,” Free Inquiry 18 (1997), (accessed September 15, 2005).

[12]Kurtz, Eupraxophy, 24-25.

[13] Interestingly, the psalmist took the opposite position and said, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Ps. 14:1).

[14]Kurtz, Humanist Declaration, 10-11.

[15]Cherry and Matsumura, “10 Myths About Secular Humanism.”

[16] Kurtz, Humanist Declaration, 11.

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