While coming of age in the 1990s within the realm of conservative Evangelical Christianity, I heard my fair share about the boogeyman. No, this wasn’t the devil and his henchman although we heard about them too and they are recorded as active in the Scriptures. The boogeyman I’m referring to was an elaborate conspiracy made up of liberals, Hollywood people, elites, political establishments and especially atheists (although the latter can encompass all of the other categories). The often just under-the-radar ideology threatened to brainwash children through the public school system (through the teaching of atheistic evolution), mainstream music, film and television. Parents were to be ever vigilant and there were Christian resources dispensed to aid in recognizing this toxic message that was seeping into our culture.
The boogeyman was secular humanism.
The conspiracies got colorful in a lot of cases and Christian fiction had an opportunity to seize. Talk regularly involved a globalist agenda that back then was referred to as a one world government. The anti-Christ, carrying the distinctive 666 marking, would rise to power perhaps by embodying this humanistic ideology to take control. Secular humanism would seek to destroy God and persecute Christians. Anyone can check this out in the best-selling apocalypse series “Left Behind” by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. In the conservative Evangelical world, this was the heyday of premillennial dispensationalism.
Setting up secular humanism as a boogeyman lurking in the subtext of popular entertainment and stalking the halls of academia fulfilled a key purpose. That purpose was uniting a Christian subculture against the identity of a common enemy. Us vs them. An unending culture war that portrayed our side as righteous and good compared with the horrific other side- the forces of evil.
At the present time, some of the seeds of this thinking have come to fruition in the bitter partisan blood feud that is our politics. Globalism, while having many credible critiques of its effects, has been used to elicit fearful responses from some demographics about a new world order coming or a one world government (by the way, the Bible never mentions anything like this). Secular humanism is almost always regarded as a driving force toward this goal.
Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist (and one of my favorites by the way), commented on the psychology of the Evangelical movement in America by exploring the ideas of Christian Smith: “About 20 years ago, the eminent sociologist of religion Christian Smith coined a useful and resonant phrase, describing evangelical Christianity in the post-1960s United States as both ‘embattled and thriving.’ By this Smith meant that evangelicals had maintained an identity in a secularizing country that was neither separatist nor assimilated, but somehow mainstream and countercultural at once.” In other words, Evangelical Christianity wielded a surprising amount of influence and power and yet was able to communicate a message to those of us within the ranks that we were being attacked. The assault often portrayed as being carried out by those secular humanists lurking in the shadows and anxious to destroy our sacred faith.
As a result of feeling embattled, many Evangelicals huddled within the confines of our safe subculture-complete with our own music, films and publishing arms- which, in many ways, led to a scandal of the evangelical mind as author Mark Noll has argued. What happens is we hear about secular humanism from Christian authors and faith-based speakers not from humanists themselves except for a quote here or there (probably often lifted out of context). This strategy has resulted in cartoonish caricatures and straw man arguments about what secular humanism is and also what an average secular humanist may think about a given topic or issue.
Recently, I ran across a blog on Medium that was written by a social media friend of mine, Kyle Johnson. I do not know Johnson personally but we both were past attendees at Mars Hill Church and a number of people coming out of that debacle gathered in online forums to hash out our thoughts which is where I first connected with him. Having an Evangelical background, he is now a secular humanist and wrote a thoughtful post on what exactly he believes. He also digs into some of the misrepresentations both Christians and humanists may have about one another as well as his basic beliefs. You really should read the whole thing but here are some excerpts I want to interact with. He writes:
“Christian culture has deeply embedded assumptions about what atheists believe and how atheists view the world. I was a Christian for nearly 25 years and carried many of these same assumptions — generally without realizing they were merely that: assumptions, not based on any informed interaction with the average atheist. That’s not to say the assumptions are entirely useless; “angry atheists” do exist and some of those assumptions apply to such people.”
From there, he lays out his creed:
“I am a secular humanist. Secular: my outlook on life ignores the supernatural, including gods. Humanism: the flourishing of human life is of immediate concern. By the simplest definition of humanism, many Christians are humanists since many Christians seek the flourishing of human life. That is why I add secular: a Christian may look to their god to define what is and is not human flourishing and how best to affect it, while I ignore any commands or desires a god may or may not have.”
The general tenants of his worldview are then presented:
“Methodological naturalism holds that — regardless of the existence or non-existence of the supernatural — we should ignore supernatural causes and concerns in how we understand the world. Today, the best tool we have to understand nature is the scientific method and knowledge gained apart from the scientific method tends to be unreliable. Perhaps the supernatural does exist, but we have yet to discover a method of reliably detecting and studying it.”
“Consequential ethics rejects any religious notion of divine commands which define right and wrong. Instead, ethics are determined by the outcome and guided by compassion. If we have a goal — the flourishing of human life — and we can observe that goal in the natural world, then we can develop an ethics system based on observable outcomes. No divine command is needed to determine that a low speed limit on a residential street makes for a healthier community.”
I wanted to interact with this blog post and discuss Christianity up against what Johnson has presented.
First off, I like how Johnson went to a commonality between a Christian worldview and secular humanism. Christians do indeed want to see the flourishing of human life as many secular humanists do. As Johnson certainly knows, believing in a Creator God has Christians believing that Elohim (the name for God in Genesis 1) formed man and woman in His own image. The most direct interpretation of “imago dei” is that human beings are God’s representatives upon the Earth (like people representing a king in a monarchy). Many theologians take the idea farther ascribing a sacredness to people’s lives because people have been made intrinsically and specially by God.
Starting from this core belief, Christians value the lives of the unborn to the elderly. Like our secular humanist neighbors, we want to support our best and brightest scientists in finding cures to the diseases that plague people’s lives. Believers in Christ should also listen to our elite scientists regarding environmental problems, specifically climate change, and participate in trying to alleviate the problem. After all, the first tasks that God gave to Adam and Eve were taking care of the garden and naming the animals. These jobs strongly imply an intimate connection with the world and a sacred responsibility for its care. While a few Christian denominations are pacifist in nature (I’m personally not), all believers should make war and violence an extreme, last resort scenario in our world. It is encouraging to have secular humanists (as Johnson has described them) share most of these same values for the world we find ourselves on. Obviously, there are many areas of commonality.
With the commonly described morals above, we would not have a full dialogue without addressing the monumental differences between the perspectives. Of course, that comes with the “secular” label. Certainly, there are a cadre of secular humanists who are more aggressively atheistic then Johnson presents. In his post, Johnson seems to be indifferent to the existence of God (“regardless of the existence or non-existence of the supernatural”) to the point that a theistic belief does not matter. This is actually a relevant question that I have heard people ask in different forms in our day and age. What difference does it make in my life if God exists or not? How would my morals or values be different if I did not believe in God? From my perspective, belief in God makes all the difference.
I’m aware of Christians (specifically Evangelicals- my own tribe) using the moral argument for the existence of God in a lazy manner. The position is defined generally as “if there is no God, there is no ultimate morality therefore people can do whatever they want morally.” I’ve heard descriptions of this get pretty fanciful including atheists murdering people walking down the street or raping anyone they want or being wild genocidal maniacs. This is precisely the kind of idea that Johnson seeks to combat and he is mostly right too.
Regarding ultimate morality (a set of principles for all people of all times and all cultures), if God does not exist there cannot be a universal morality. Martin Luther King, Jr famously proclaimed, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” An arc bending toward justice implies a direction. A direction implies a Higher Power that is channeling the arc toward a specific future point. This cannot be reconciled with an atheist worldview which involves chaos and randomness as a tenet.
Let me emphasize that this is not to imply that atheists or non-believers are not moral. Quite to the contrary I have found in my own experience. I know atheists who have solid values and who are very ethical people. There are explanations of why we have human morality, according to secular humanism, which Johnson touched on in his piece. Being a non-scientist, my understanding is that human beings evolved in tribes and communities thereby needing each other and so rules and laws came out of those arrangements. Not a universal morality but morality as a construct because those ideas worked to hold together developing human societies. My point in bringing up the difference God makes is in the acknowledgment that there are moral ideas which transcend the human experience and are beyond a mere construct.
As a Christian, I would emphatically state that what we believe about metaphysical reality does make a big difference in our lives (certainly in mine at the very least). The Christian worldview, as we learn throughout Scripture but especially in the Sermon on the Mount and the book of James, postulates that what we believe in the innermost part of our being translates into the actions of our lives. Jesus famously taught, “You will know a tree by its fruit (my paraphrase).” That is, what we see in a person’s actions is a reflection of what they sincerely believe. Belief flows to action and the two are interwined.
What difference does it make to believe in a God that is transcendent of time and space and all that we know of as reality and beyond? In speaking about God, we are not talking about an impersonal force or the god of the deists who wound a universe up and then went away. Christians have faith in a God that is defined by the Johannine community so long ago in 1 John 4:8: “God is love.” One of the fundamental elements of God is unconditional love.
Believing in this God makes a difference. All of our actions stem from what we really believe deep within our mind and heart. Jesus taught us that the greatest commandment was to love God and love our neighbors (Matthew 22:36-40). Jesus was not a figure simply pontificating commands to His followers. He was guiding them to a place where they can find hope and meaning in a very dark world. In my view, the goal of the command is not to just a remain a divine fiat but to become a source of joy and peace for those who strive to live it out.
Legendary singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen (who sadly passed away last year) in his song “The Future” which is about the apocalypse sings, “but love’s the only engine of survival”. The apostle Paul wrote in the often read 1 Corinthians 13 passage: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13, NIV)
In a world that everyday seems to be continually spiraling into chaos and an amoral abyss, the invitation to believe in Jesus still is an invitational light to all. The Son of God is not just an inspirational figure although He is that. He also seeks to empower us to a higher kingdom and the values the subsequently go along with that kingdom.
Love is the engine that God has given us to attain a higher existence. A righteous life by His assistance. A secular humanist/atheist/non-believer can certainly love and they do love others. Scientists can do a brain scan and show what happens in a person’s brain when they love or are in love. However, what is immeasurable is the unconditional love- a spiritual reality given by God- that moves people toward altruism on behalf of others. Altruism is the grand contradiction to survival of the fittest and was profoundly and completely demonstrated by Jesus on the cross. Believing in the God-man, empowers us toward this kind of love and I pray that all would experience it.