Are Secular Humanists Humane?
There was a time when most people in our society, whether Protestant, Catholic, Jew, or nothing in particular, shared common assumptions about the big issues--you know, basic questions about God and man, right and wrong, religious values and society.
Not that there was complete agreement on these matters. Despite what some Fundamentalists want to believe, America was never, strictly speaking, a Christian nation. But, as the late Francis Schaeffer once pointed out, there was a time when most Americans viewed things from Judeo-Christian presuppositions.
Not so today. Increasingly matters of faith are being relegated to the private sphere. We hear a lot about "not imposing one's religion on others." In the abortion debate, for example, pro-abortionists have argued that pro-life legislation is unconstitutional because supporters of such legislation base their attitudes about abortion upon religious principles.
There's widespread disagreement even on basic questions which aren't exclusively religious in nature, such as, "Is there an objective right and wrong?" or "Is all human life intrinsically valuable?"
In the absence of common principles by which important social and moral issues can be considered, the wider American cultural scene is rapidly becoming what Richard John Neuhaus has called the "Naked Public Square."
Not surprisingly the areas under greatest attack have been those which represent mediating structures between the individual and society as a whole--the family, the church, and the school. In many ways the history of the late twentieth century is the history of a struggle within Western culture as to whose values will shape these mediating structures in the next century.
The moral, religious, and philosophical fragmentation of our society reflects a process of secularization which has its origin in the period stretching from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. The name for the philosophy which has gradually emerged from this process is secular humanism.
Although secular humanism poses a great threat to Christianity (and traditional Judaism too), few contemporary Christian commentators who have dealt with the subject have exercised their wits, as opposed to their passions, in trying to understanding it. Many have denounced it without really understanding what it is they are denouncing.
Many Fundamentalists, for instance, view secular humanism as merely the latest in a long line of "isms" which have plagued "true" Christianity. Others would be Roman Catholicism, Darwinism, Communism, and Fluoridism (the ideological basis for fluoridation of water).
Not that secular humanism hasn't had a positive side to it. Bible prophecy preachers, always on the lookout for the next sign of the end times, have gotten a lot of kilowatt-hours out of denouncing "sec-a-lar yoo-man-ists."
Pop Christianity’s zaniness in dealing with the subject has done as much harm as good. Christians stand to benefit greatly from a balanced discussion. Fortunately, they have one in James Hitchcock's What is Secular Humanism?
Hitchcock takes the time to define his terms. This is important because humanism means different things to different people.
I remember how scandalized an Evangelical friend of mine was to learn that J. I. Packer (a leading Evangelical theologian) and Thomas Howard (a Catholic writer) had co-authored a book about Christian humanism. To my friend's way of thinking, Christianity and humanism are antithetical terms.
For some people the word humanist is synonymous with atheist. But this definition neglects a more general use of the word which is perfectly compatible with Christianity: A humanist is one who is interested in the humanities, either in a professional way as a scholar or more broadly as one interested in the works of man. Humanism in this sense derives its emphasis on humanity from the belief that man has intrinsic dignity and worth.
From the Christian perspective the value of the human person comes from his being made in the image and likeness of God. This is why Packer and Howard could write that book about Christian humanism.
When we talk about secular humanism, we're talking about something else. Secular humanists want to exclude God from all.aspects of human life either on the grounds he doesn't exist or because, if he does exist, he is irrelevant. Man stands alone in the universe.
Hitchcock shows how secular humanism has influenced all.aspects of contemporary society. From television sit-coms to Supreme Court decisions, the secular humanist presupposition that God is extraneous to the problems of the modern world is evident.
For example, if God is not there or is uninvolved with the world, there's no such thing as sin. Contemporary psychology peddles this idea and dismisses sin as unnecessary guilt. Hitchcock writes:
"It is not clear that people today actually behave in a more sinful way than their ancestors did. What is undeniably different, however, is how they think about their sins. A skewed modern psychology not only recognizes neurotic guilt, which is real and a perversion of genuine moral sense, but equates all sense of sin with such guilt and defines it as sick.
"Repentance is ruled out as a product of a neurotic guilt which stifles personal growth. . . . The sinner wears his sin as a badge of honor, boasts of his emancipation from all moral authority, and, in effect, dares God to judge him."
Although Hitchcock is unafraid to discuss secularism's influence by looking at contemporary examples, he is careful to make vital distinctions. He doesn't see everything in the modern world as secular humanism. The fact that much of modern psychology has been shaped largely by secularist principles, for instance, doesn't mean all psychology as such is bad or that Christians shouldn't use it. One must distinguish, as Hitchcock does, between true and false humanism.
This caveat having been made, Christians should be on guard against secular humanistic ideas in the Church. In fact, one of the most important chapters of What is Secular Humanism? deals with the secularization of the churches.
Hitchcock shows how secularized Christianity reduces traditional Christian doctrines to mere symbols which express what are only human realities. The Bible and other Christian documents are merely man's words about God, not God's Word to men. The ultimate criterion for religious truth is one's own human experience.
From the point of view of Catholic apologetics, secularized Christianity has induced many people to leave the Catholic Church for Fundamentalism. Much of contemporary Catholicism (and mainline Protestantism) has abandoned traditional Christian doctrines in favor of theological ambiguity and an overemphasis on this-worldly concerns.
Fundamentalism, even though a truncated gospel, retains far more basic Christianity than its secularized alternatives. We shouldn't be surprised, then, that people are leaving what they see as theologically empty churches and flocking to Fundamentalist ones.
Hitchcock makes this point well when he writes:
"There is no finer irony than this, that the people who have been so sure that they were making Christianity 'relevant' to the modern world turn out to be those who are losing followers, while the supposedly outmoded denominations are attracting them. . . . Many people now realize that valuable things were thrown away heedlessly in the midst of the frenetic rebelliousness of the period 1965-1975. They are now looking to rediscover what they lost and are coming to realize that the liberal churches cannot provide guidance."
Hitchcock observes that, "as the third millennium of the Christian era begins, Christians will be fewer in number than they are now, but it will be a precious designation because claimed only by those who truly believe in Christ's name."
The real problem with secularized Christianity isn't that it fails to attract adherents, but that it betrays Christ and his truth. Secular humanism as a whole betrays. It promises a freedom which can only be possessed by a voluntary submission to the Creator.
Ultimately, then, secular humanism reduces to a form of bondage and rebellion. Its slogans are merely a contemporary echo of the First Dissenter's non serviam.
-- Mark Brumley
What Is Secular Humanism?
By James Hitchcock
Ann Arbor: Servant, 1982
Dissent Into the Maelstrom
Heresy: To the modern mind the word evokes images of dungeons, pillories, and burnings at the stake. When was the last time you heard the "H word" used in polite conversation?
Before you answer that, ask yourself, What does heresy mean? The term comes from the Greek haireo, in ancient times meaning "I grasp" or "I seize" and later taking on the connotation of "I take away."
Hilaire Belloc, one of the most celebrated Catholic apologists in this century, defines its modern theological meaning as "the warping of a system by 'Exception': by 'Picking out' one part of the structure." This "implies that the scheme is marred by taking away one part of it, denying one part of it, and either leaving the void unfilled or filling it with some new affirmation."
In explaining what heresy is and how it affects the Church Belloc outlines five major departures from orthodoxy: Arianism, Islam, Albigensianism, Protestantism, and Modernism.
He explains the salient points of each one clearly and simply, showing how each exhibits two traits: (1) a denial of one or more cardinal doctrines and (2) a retention, to varying degrees, of other orthodox doctrines. The latter trait is what makes heresies so pernicious.
Consider Mormonism, which is a "sub-heresy" of Protestantism. It embodies several errors (gnosticism, polytheism, and Pelagianism to name three), but is embroidered with just enough truth to make it seductive to unwary Catholics. Its adept misuse of orthodox nomenclature (terms such as "Virgin Birth," "salvation," and "atonement") largely accounts for its success in attracting converts by feigning orthodoxy.
Belloc explains this phenomenon: "The denial of a scheme wholesale is not heresy, and has not the creative power of a heresy. It is of the essence of heresy that it leaves standing a great part of the structure it attacks. On this account, it can appeal to believers and continues to affect their lives through deflecting them from their original characters. Wherefore, it is said of heresies that 'they survive by the truths they retain.'"
The section on Arianism is especially helpful in understanding the theology of today's "neo-Arian" groups: the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Iglesia ni Cristo, and United Pentecostalism. These cults, like their Arian precursors, deny the Trinity and (excepting United Pentecostalism) the divinity of Christ.
It may surprise some to find Islam listed as a heresy. We don't think of it as such, but Belloc explains why we should. He provides a broad (and sobering) analysis of Islam's theology, history, and appeal.
Islam doesn't figure into the American religious scene (yet). It looms beyond the horizon, an alien presence more cultural than theological, rarely mentioned except for occasional media blatherings about "Islamic jihads."
Catholics can't afford a laissez-faire attitude towards Islam for three reasons.
First, it engages in aggressive missionary activity, especially among Christians. Second, it now numbers about one billion people. And third, it's growing at an explosive rate. This spells big trouble if Catholics remain complacent.
Belloc's treatment of Albigensianism and Modernism is particularly incisive. One perceives the ironic antithesis between these two movements. Albigensians (like the earlier Manichaeans) viewed the material universe as wholly evil and the spiritual realm as the only true good.
Modernists have the opposite tendency. They aggrandize the temporal order and de-emphasize (almost to the point of repudiation) things spiritual.
What about Protestantism--is it a heresy? Belloc says yes and explains that, before Protestantism's errors can be refuted, the theological and political circumstances surrounding the Reformation must be understood.
"Only a few of the most bitter or ardent Reformers set about to destroy Catholicism as a separate existing thing of which they were conscious and which they hated.
"Still less did most of the Reformers set out to erect some other united counter religion. They set out (as they themselves put it and as it had been put for a century and a half before the great upheaval) 'to reform.' They professed to purify the Church and restore it to its original virtues of directness and simplicity . . . [and] to get rid of excrescences, superstitions, and historical falsehoods--of which, heaven knows, there was a multitude of them to attack."
Although there is much good in Protestantism (it has retained many orthodox doctrines such as the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the Virgin Birth, and the Resurrection) there is also much that is in error (aberrant doctrines such as sola scriptura and justification by faith alone).
By attacking two key pillars of orthodoxy--authority and unity--the Reformation set itself on a course of fragmentation and internecine wrangling. The result: thousands of squabbling sects.
As Belloc explains, Protestantism, far from providing the reformation the Church so badly needed, became an engine of disunity and confusion among Christians for five centuries and is now playing out its dwindling vitality in an ever-widening maelstrom of splinter groups.
Today we see the rapid evaporation of mainline Protestantism. The void is being filled by hardier Evangelical and Fundamentalist strains. Over fifty years ago Belloc foresaw the demise of the mainline denominations:
"At the moment in which I write these words, [the mainline churches are] still on the surface all-powerful--but we every one of us know that their hour has struck. They have rotted from within; and with them the Protestant hegemony which they so powerfully supported in the generations immediately preceding our own."
Belloc’s onclusion is that, far from having an organic theology of its own, Protestantism is really just a reaction to Catholic theology. As the centuries following the Reformation have so tragically demonstrated, Protestantism ultimately works against unity.
The Great Heresiesis a crash course in today's religious movements and the factions within those movements, all of which are competing zealously for Catholic souls. These days it's not enough simply to knowthe faith--one also must be able to defend it intelligently.
Here's why: With 53 million Catholics, the U.S. provides a "target-rich environment" for groups like the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, and Fundamentalists--groups that specifically seek out Catholics for evangelization.
What next? In 1938, when The Great Heresies was written, Mormonism, the Watchtower, and Fundamentalism were hardly blips on the screen--amoebae wriggling in a theological petri dish. But their phenomenal growth over the last fifty years may mean they'll become the "Great Heresies" of the next millennium.
Belloc is saying we'd do well to prepare for the future by studying the past.
-- Patrick Madrid
The Great Heresies
By Hilaire Belloc
Manassas, Virginia: Trinity Communications,  1987