A Better Humanism: Part I - The Challenge of Secular Humanism

By Joshua Chatraw

Saint Augustine once spoke of the challenger he preferred, “Give me a man in love: he knows what I mean. Give me one who yearns; give me one who is hungry; give me one far away in this desert, who is thirsty and sighs for the spring of the Eternal country. Give me that sort of man: he knows what I mean. But if speak to a cold man, he just does not know what I am talking about.”[1]

Our current national unrest reminds us that one does not need to be religious, at least in the traditional sense of the term, to passionately hunger for justice and thirst for a better country. Secular humanism has been on the rise for some time. Countless movements have been formed to stand against the injustice of racism, serve the poor, end sex trafficking, provide disaster relief, and care for abused children. And while as Christians we can’t get behind the secular of secular humanism, we should welcome the human part. In such a time as this we have an opportunity to follow the early church as long-suffering apologists in both word and deed. By persevering in care for the vulnerable while also learning to explore the underlying aspirations of these movements, we can challenge secular humanism (part I) and invite others to join us in a story that better supports humanistic aspirations (part II, which will appear in the next Worldview Bulletin).

Challenges for Secular Humanism

What can ground universal human dignity and our obligation to care for others? The belief that every human being, regardless of age, sex, or race, is of equal dignity and the sense that we should be concerned to uphold such dignity in caring for people beyond our tribe or nation have not been universally held.[2] A common assumption in ancient cultures was that different people groups were unequal. This is why, for example, practices such as slavery, infanticide, the mistreatment of women, and even, in some cases, human sacrifice and widow burning were accepted. Only later, after the biblical story had infiltrated the Western world, did the idea of basic human dignity begin to change moral conceptions. In some instances, changes came more quickly; in other cases, the fruit was far slower to arrive. Yet when changes did occur in favor of a morality based in the ideal of love for all people and human rights, it is difficult to escape the fact that the history of these developments can be traced back to the biblical story.

For centuries, the Christian story served as the backbone of Western morality, even as it spawned some movements that are not conscious of their lineage.[3] Beginning with the Enlightenment in the 1700s, late modernism has attempted to formally sever the connection that runs from Christianity through dignity and benevolence, while still living off of its heritage.[4] This is why Jürgen Habermas, a leading philosopher who once insisted on an exclusively secular framework for public life, changed his posture toward religion because he saw “there is no alternative to” the heritage of the “Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love” for the ideals of “freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy.”[5]

The question, then, is, “If you deny the Christian assumptions that were essential for the formation, what reasons do you have for believing in universal human dignity and rights?” Nature doesn’t provide a basis for human dignity any more than it gives us a comprehensive moral instruction manual. What we observe in nature is that the strong eat the weak, “red in tooth and claw.” Insiders within a group might help each other, such as when animals hunt for their prey in packs, but this is ultimately for their own tribe’s advancement and often at the expense of other groups. Observations from nature alone can’t lead us to modern conceptions of justice. Again, this is not to say that many atheists don’t live lives of high moral integrity, respecting the dignity of all humans and seeking to care for others. This question is whether their story grounds such a high level of morality and if secular narratives themselves can sustain these moral aspirations for society in the future.

Some propose that the grounding for these high-level values is found in their ability to promote peace and order. In other words, people should strive toward these moral ideals and encourage others to do the same so they themselves can live in a society that will bring themselves the most happiness. Christian Smith, however, points out that while this argument has some practical merit in promoting some “ethical” behavior rooted in a morality of self-interest, it fails to provide a convincing rationale for “obligations to promote the good of all other human beings.”[6] This reasoning can only warrant concern for a limited number of people with whom they have a vested self-interest. Why should someone work, often with much personal sacrifice, for the welfare, prosperity, and happiness of other people, say on the other side of the globe, when they are utterly extraneous to one’s personal well-being? “If morality only exists to benefit us, then I will be moral with people I wish to benefit and who might benefit me.”[7]

And when local cultural conditions become highly polarized, society is fragmented into tribes governed by self-interest, and the well-being of certain other groups has a perceived negative impact on oneself, the logic grounding “good” behavior will no longer stand. If people do not have a vested self-interest within a secular story line to maintain justice, compassion, and equality for all, rationally it seems they have two choices: they can jettison these values and simply do what seems best for themselves, even if that comes at the expense of others, or they can look to a different metanarrative that can support these ideals.

What will motivate people to sacrifice immediate self-interest for the common good? For secularists concerned with the world’s injustices, their inability to understand and articulate the basis for this moral conviction is not their only problem. It is one thing to have a general desire for justice; it’s a very different thing to labor self-sacrificially against injustice and steadfastly pursue just circumstances for others. Quite simply, most people are committed first and foremost to their personal welfare, not to the welfare of others.

And why shouldn’t they be? The guiding moral ethos of our age—“you be you”—provides shallow motivations to give selflessly of one’s money, time, health, social standing, and even one’s life for the good of others.[8] After all, if we are to be “true to ourselves,” why should I give of myself for others’ sakes? To take secular naturalism at its word, we are all heading toward an inglorious final act—decomposition in the ground, no memory, no lasting meaning. Why, then, should we care so profoundly for others? Why suffer for people we don’t know? Why not seek pleasure for ourselves while we can?

There is also the problem of what Smith calls the “shrewd opportunist.” If there is no God, why should rational persons “uphold a culture’s moral norms all of the time?” While agreeing that it is personally beneficial to keep up appearances and support standards that will lead to general orderliness in society, the shrewd opportunist asks, “Why not be good when it serves one’s enlightened self-interest but strategically choose to break a moral norm at opportune moments, when violation has a nice payoff and there is little chance of being caught?”[9]

What will provide the needed hope for perseverance? Even as we challenge the ability of late modern frameworks to adequately ground quests for justice and provide reasons to act on them, we should still affirm people’s intuitive desires to right wrongs, as well as their efforts to do so. Yet conversations can make one take interesting turns here, as people may express their own desperation.

Humans need hope. And yet, most will concede that satisfying their deepest desires for justice often seems to be a hopeless endeavor. Fighting injustice can feel like trying to plug holes in a dam that’s on the brink of failure. The problem is that once you cover one hole, three more sprout open and the water pours through. The fight quickly becomes overwhelming. And it only gets worse if we look beyond the present moment. We know our efforts are futile, because most certainly the dam will collapse. In the end, the world will cease to exist, and justice—ultimate justice—will be left unserved. Our cosmic insignificance casts a very dark shadow over our best intentions and most selfless acts. What will our efforts come to in the end? Is the answer really, Nothing?


[1] Cited in Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, New Edition with Epilogue (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000), 377. Also see, Curtis Chang, Engaging Unbelief: A Captivating Strategy from Augustine and Aquinas (Downers Grove: IVP, 2000), 88. I am in debt to Chang’s work for pointing me to this passage.

[2] See Christian Smith, “Does Naturalism Warrant a Moral Belief in Universal Benevolence and Human Rights?” in The Believing Primate: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Reflections on the Origin of Religion, ed. Jeffrey Schloss and Michael Murray (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 295–98.

[3] See Tom Holland, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (New York: Basic, 2019).

[4] A growing number of scholars make this point. For two examples, see Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008); Chares Taylor, Sources of the Self (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[5] Jürgen Habermas, Religion and Rationality: Essays on Reason, God, and Modernity (Cambridge: Polity, 2002), 149.

[6] Christian Smith, Atheist Overreach (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 18.

[7] Smith, Atheist Overreach, 22.

[8] This morality, labeled by Alasdair MacIntyre as “emotivism” is constructed around “nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling.” After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 11–12, emphasis in original.

[9] Smith, Atheist Overreach, 25, emphasis in original.

* This essay is adapted from Joshua’s book Telling a Better Story: How To Talk About God in a Skeptical Age (Zondervan, 2020).

— Joshua Chatraw is the director of the Center for Public Christianity and theologian-in-residence at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. Some of his books include Telling a Better StoryApologetics at the Cross (co-authored with Mark Allen), and The History of Apologetics (co-edited with Alister McGrath and Benjamin Forrest).

Image: StockSnap from Pixabay

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