The Humanist’s God

Nearly 150 years ago, Friedrich Nietzsche announced `Gott ist tot`—“God is dead,” slaughtered by enlightened mankind. Since Nietzsche’s time, the curious conglomerate of beliefs that is secular humanism has risen to the challenge of creating meaning for a godless mankind, doing so by pushing man himself into the role of moral magistrate and embodied goodness—or, in premodern phraseology, God. Nevertheless, the conflicting claims of this philosophical system in the end cause it not only to collapse on itself but also ultimately logically force humanity once more into the clutches of an unknown transcendent entity.

To begin, humanism’s peculiar collection of foundational premises reflects the poverty of its definitionally suspect attempt to be “a nontheistic religion” (Mirriam-Webster). According to the New Oxford American dictionary, “Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings . . . and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems,” but secular humanism specifically openly claims to be naturalistic. The system is therefore brazenly contradictory: while claiming to be monistically naturalistic, humanists’ great concern with the metaphysical matters of morality, social justice, and reason reveals a conspicuous (if unacknowledged) dualistic aspect of their philosophy. 

For this reason alone, secular humanism proves to be an illegitimate philosophical system. In order to devise a coherent worldview, the humanist must choose definitively between monism and dualism. If he truly wishes to affirm that the physical world is all that exists, he must abandon the premise that moral differentiation is possible—morality is nonmaterial, after all, so if he continues to acknowledge it he must jettison his naturalism. As long as humanists attempt to hold these two conflicting beliefs simultaneously, however, their worldview must on the basis of the law of noncontradiction be regarded as philosophically inane.

Unfortunately, humanism’s dissension with logic does not end here—actually, despite humanism’s eager embrace of reason, it fails to reasonably justify the legitimacy of logic. While humanists promote reason as the omnipotent savior of the deified yet clearly flawed human race, naturalism once again stands in opposition to this tenet. If the physical is the entirety of reality, then reality (and hence reason) is necessarily determined by the laws of physics and chemistry. In this case, because man’s animal instincts are fundamentally comparable to his messianic reason, reason is rendered interchangeable with the baser aspects of man’s self from which he theoretically requires salvation, a reality that surely conflicts with the claims of humanism. Likewise, if all is matter and the matter that comprises humans is comparable to the matter that comprises the rest of the universe, the humanist’s choice to elevate man as ultimate being might be viewed as arbitrary or even selfish (if it were a free choice, which, obviously, it cannot be on this view). Finally and most importantly, in order to be the useful and rational instrument humanists consider it to be, logic must be free, a tool to be wielded in whichever direction necessary to encounter truth. Conversely, naturalism enslaves humanism’s savior Reason to the inhuman and inhumane hands of nature and chance.

Indeed, continuity and rational errors are not the extent of humanism’s hurdles—the system even ultimately fails in its attempt to liberate man from an exacting God. As mentioned above, among the foremost assumptions of humanism is the assertion that humans are inherently good or are at least capable of achieving moral goodness individually and collectively. Obviously, this proposition requires an objective standard of goodness, a term atheistic humanist philosophers tend to define much like their theistic counterparts, justifying the description on the ability of virtue to promote human flourishing and happiness rather than on the declarations of a presiding God. However, this standard for goodness has an interesting consequence: if humans are inherently good, then, alternately, goodness is inherently human. When phrased this way, it becomes apparent that secular goodness is reliant for its definition upon humanness. In other words, man literally becomes God.

Yet this raises an interesting dilemma for the humanist: according to the materialistic dogma of secular humanism, man is an exclusively physical, mechanical being, the result of untold years of chance evolution. Therefore, the true divinity of atheism is not the wonder that is man but the endless string of accidental DNA replication errors that created him. While he claims to worship man, the humanist finds himself ultimately paying homage to the omnipotent but impersonal, all-forming but invisible hand of Chance. In so doing, he subjects himself once again to the dominion of an unknown deity that brutally yet unfeelingly wreaks pain and terror on that which it has created, escaping the frying pan of religious superstition to fall into the fire of prehistoric Earth worship.

As the rise of secular humanism demonstrates, the past century and a half have proven Nietzsche right—“we ourselves” have “become gods simply to appear worthy of [God’s murder].” Nevertheless, glorious Man cannot escape the reality that he did not create himself, so even humanism is forced to reckon with a superhuman deity. Having killed God in order to free man from God’s imposition, the humanists may in the end find their new master even less agreeable than their first.

Morality, Atheism, & Reason

In 2007, atheist writer Adam Lee of PatheosDaylight Atheism wrote a post responding to and attempting to discredit a column from the Washington Post’s Michael Gerson in which Gerson argues that morality is ultimately untenable in the absence of God. In his reply, Lee commits a number of the blunders common to traditional atheistic moral arguments, fallacies that have been widely rebutted and thus will not be addressed here. In one of the arguments near the end of his post, however, Lee does raise an interesting point. Speaking to Gerson, he writes:

You asked what reason an atheist can give to be moral, so allow me to offer an answer. You correctly pointed out that neither our instincts nor our self-interest can completely suffice, but there is another possibility you’ve overlooked. Call it what you will—empathy, compassion, conscience, lovingkindness—but the deepest and truest expression of that state is the one that wishes everyone else to share in it. A happiness that is predicated on the unhappiness of others—a mentality of “I win, you lose”—is a mean and petty form of happiness, one hardly worthy of the name at all. On the contrary, the highest, purest and most lasting form of happiness is the one which we can only bring about in ourselves by cultivating it in others. The recognition of this truth gives us a fulcrum upon which we can build a consistent, objective theory of human morality. Acts that contribute to the sum total of human happiness in this way are right, while those that have the opposite effect are wrong. A wealth of moral guidelines can be derived from this basic, rational principle.

The utilitarian argument here presented for atheistic morality is a common (and insufficient) one, but Lee’s wording uniquely highlights one of its major flaws. Because he labels the sociological phenomenon he addresses as a “truth,’ his argument begs a pivotal question: how does he know that “happiness that is predicated on the unhappiness of others . . . is a mean and petty form of happiness”? Presumably, he makes this claim because his personal experience validates it, but thanks to the unavoidable principle of restricted access in human thought, neither he nor anyone else can definitively prove that this is the case for human beings in general. To assert such a claim, one must appeal to the knowledge of some omniscient psychologist—truly, to some revelation—to do so with confidence.

Indeed, the central crisis of naturalism is not a spiritual or moral crisis; it is an epistemological one. Undeniably, the existence of God is a difficult fact to incontrovertibly prove, but by even approaching the topic in a rational manner, the theist and the atheist alike make a perhaps greater leap of faith even than the theist’s belief in an invisible God by assuming that the inscrutable mind and especially the chemical complex that is the human brain can be trusted to follow a trail of rational arguments to truth in a metaphysical quandary. Even the theist is obligated to be slightly speculative to conclude that the rational mind can be trusted based solely on his belief in the existence of a rational God, but neither of these basic beliefs are remotely so flimsy as the atheist’s insistence that the trustworthy rational brain evolved through sheer chance. By his own logical dogma, the atheist ought to distrust logic because of the extreme improbability of its accuracy—which, ironically, he cannot do without justifying his suspicion with logic.

In the end, then, Lee’s mediocre argument for morality without God is potentially tenable only if God—or, if he finds God too extreme a term, some immaterial, omnipotent, and omniscient being that upholds reason—does exist. Otherwise, the reason on which he bases his moral framework (and presumably his atheism as well) is highly unreasonable.