A friend of mine and I were in downtown Lincoln, NE, last Friday night (as been our pseudo-ritual this summer), where there is a particular street preacher who we occasionally have discussions with. Evidently, over the course of the past year, the Lincoln Secular Humanists have taken it upon themselves to stand on the opposite street corner with signs that say things like “Good Morals Don’t Come from the Bible,” “Humanists Don’t Blow Up Buildings,” and my personal favorite, “Honk for Tolerance.” Words and their actual meanings aside, the most interesting part of the night was a conversation James and I had with two humanists on the nature and existence of morals.
At one point, we wondered where they thought their morals came from, to which they replied, “our parents,” who got them from their parents, etc. They insisted that they were not relativists, yet some form of moral relativism, while not guaranteed in such a system, is eminently possible (and, I would argue, probable). Eventually, they shifted their position slightly and said we should refrain from doing certain things (like random killings, torturing babies for fun, etc.) because they either are illegal or, more generally, they would prevent the continuation of the species. These are generally true descriptions of the way the world is. If I abide by the law, I will refrain from committing all sorts of heinous acts and I will help to continue the existence of the human race (if only by refraining from taking members out of it). These are true facts, though they say nothing as to whether or not I am a “good” person, because they do not define goodness, only legally acceptable things. Further, they offer no account of the value, or oughtness, implicit in the statement “murder is wrong,” for instance. Why is murder wrong, and not simply illegal? Why is the continuation of the human race considered a “good” thing? Invariably, it seems to me that this eventually, in one form or another, regresses to a statement of “because I/we said so,” without ever addressing the real question of moral content. If a society exists in which murder is not necessarily wrong, but allowed in certain circumstances, we begin to tread relativistic waters. And yet the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), among others, endorses a universal morality.
In his book, “A Christan Manifesto,” Francis Schaeffer points out that “Humanism, with its lack of any final base for values or law, always leads to chaos. It then naturally leads to some form of authoritarianism to control the chaos.” I do not think it’s difficult to see why this would be true, if man is indeed the measure of all things. How dangerous is that idea! One sometimes hates always bagging on Nazi Germany, but it’s just such a good example of what can go wrong when we take our prescriptives for morality and behavior from societal codes: chaos and authoritarianism.
Note that, regardless of what they thought we were saying, we never once accused them of being immoral people. No properly functioning Christian would accuse a humanist of being completely amoral. Of course, everyone is capable of immoral behavior; that’s not the issue. We merely pointed out that they cannot account for a moral order in the world. They may certainly point to laws and parental directives, but that is to simply skirt the issue of the existence of a universal moral order.
As I continue to pursue a career in academia, I am constantly reminded (and disheartened) at the pervasiveness of secular humanism in the academy, both among my fellow graduate students as well as my professors. As such, I am anticipating an ongoing series of thoughts on conversations I have with my fellow students and others on this subject. I’ll doubtless post on other topics, as well, but this is a theme (along with the more general theme of the intersection of Christianity and the academy) that I will continue to explore, especially as I have a chance to attend the C.S. Lewis Foundation’s National Faculty Forum, entitled “The Crisis of the University: Religion and the Future of the Academy,” this fall.