Secular Humanism and the Reorganization of Religion

Humanism is a religion, and the Supreme Court defined it as such in 1961 (Torcaso v. Watkins, 1961; the word “religion” or “religious” occurs 28 times in the first Manifesto, 1933). While the initial Manifesto is specifically religious, the subsequent humanist documents are not. However, the democratic humanism of the Secular Humanist Declaration (1980), and the “planetary” humanism of Kurtz’s Humanist Manifesto 2000, do not contradict the major premises of the first Manifesto.

The initial Manifesto most plainly declares humanism to be a religious enterprise. The very first section (or article) states: “Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created” (1933, emp. added). Religionists familiar with the goals and practices of secular humanism may be surprised at the high praise of traditional religion in this seminal treatise:

Religions have always been means for realizing the highest values of life. Their end has been accomplished through the interpretation of the total environing situation (theology or world view), the sense of values resulting therefrom (goal or ideal), and the technique (cult) established for realizing the satisfactory life…. [T]hrough all changes religion itself remains constant in its quest for abiding values, an inseparable feature of human life (Humanist…, 1933, Preface, parenthetical items in orig.).

So the secularist’s problem is not with religion per se, but with religious beliefs and practices that are antithetical to certain humanist norms and objectives. Secularists reject “salvationism,” which they regard as based on mere “affirmation” (Humanist…, 1973). Practically all religion other than humanism falls into the category of religion that humanism would oppose. So, religion must be restructured into a humanist “faith” or belief system.

The first Manifesto unveils the humanists’ desire to reshape modern religion. “The time has come for widespread recognition of the radical changes in religious beliefs throughout the modern world. The time is past for mere revision of traditional values…. Religions the world over are under the necessity of coming to terms with new conditions created by a vastly increased knowledge and experience” (1933, Preface). In a sense, humanists see themselves as saving people from theistic religion: “There is a great danger of a final, and we believe fatal, identification of the word religion with doctrines and methods which have lost their significance and which are powerless to solve the problem of human living in the Twentieth Century…. Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created” (Preface-Section 1).

Because theistic religion is so “out of date” according to secularists, a mammoth adjustment is in order. Religion of practically every kind must be eliminated or restructured.

Today man’s larger understanding of the universe, his scientific achievements, and deeper appreciation of brotherhood, have created a situation which requires a new statement of the means and purposes of religion. Such a vital, fearless, and frank religion capable of furnishing adequate social goals and personal satisfactions may appear to many people as a complete break with the past. While this age does owe a vast debt to the traditional religions, it is none the less obvious that any religion that can hope to be a synthesizing and dynamic force for today must be shaped for the needs of this age. To establish such a religion is a major necessity of the present. It is a responsibility which rests upon this generation (Humanist…, 1933, Preface).

Humanists seem to have as their primary religious activity expunging God from society and the minds of people (see “Humanists Praise…,” 2007; “‘Church Polling Place…’,” 2006). Only when God is out of the picture may humanists convert all humans to the religion of humanism (and this is precisely what they intend to do; see Ericson, 2006; Lyons and Butt, 2007).

Before we examine how the humanist position on religion is contradictory and wanting of evidentiary support, consider that humanists and other religionists who seek the truth would agree that we should try to know the facts before forming opinions or committing to values—especially when organized religion attempts to dictate those opinions and values. Humanists and theists disagree, however, on the question of what truths are available. Underlying humanism is the assumption that it is impossible to know such fundamental truths as “God exists” or “the Universe was created by an intelligent Designer” or “the Bible is the Word of God,” therefore we should deny them or profess ignorance as to their truth or falsity (see Thomas, 1981, 123[2]:46,51). On these points, and many others, humanists and other religionists disagree.

Humanists and many other religionists (including Christians) agree that certain positions held by religious people may prove dangerous to both soul and body. Richard Dawkins, the 1996 Humanist of the Year, offered a critique of an outrageous religious view of violence: “One of the stories told to the young Muslim suicide bombers is that martyrdom is the quickest way to heaven—and not just heaven but a special part of heaven where they will receive their special reward of 72 virgin brides” (“Is Science…?,” 1997). Sometimes, religion goes wrong. However, we disagree that religious error is sufficient grounds for dismissing all religion. It is possible to be right in religious belief and practice, as we will see. [NOTE: Just as any religionist may harm humanity in the name of his religion, a humanist may harm humanity in the name of humanism; see Colley, 2007.]

Humanists offer their rationale for universal religious overhaul. The first Manifesto cites “man’s larger understanding of the universe, his scientific achievements, and deeper appreciation of brotherhood,” as well as “new conditions created by a vastly increased knowledge and experience” (1933, Preface). Then, humanists suggest that religions fail in their objective to provide man with “satisfactory life,” because they are outdated (Preface). Observe that even humanists acknowledge religion’s role of interpreting “the total environing situation,” giving people a “world view” (Preface). Religion is a tool by which people understand the whole human situation. The humanists’ point (that a new world religion is necessary) is valid only if their rationale is justified by the evidence.

First, what of the claim that our larger understanding of the Universe calls for a new, universal religion? Certainly, the scientific world learned many things about the Universe in the decades prior to 1933, when the first Manifesto was published, and science continued to find more in the years after 1933. However, we have learned nothing about the Universe which makes a fundamental difference to the beliefs or practices of orthodox religion. While it is true that each year brings exciting discoveries which further demonstrate the existence of God and the intricate design of His creation, nature always has provided us with abundant evidence for the existence and power of the Almighty, and for the reliability of His Word (see Thompson, 2004). Notably, the “Big Bang” hypothesis of the origin of the Universe was developed in 1927, just six years prior to the first Manifesto. Although the Big Bang is nowhere mentioned in the treatise, perhaps some of the 34 signers were thinking of the Big Bang when they based their arguments on a “larger understanding” of the Universe. Of course, the Big Bang idea has been destroyed thoroughly as a scientific possibility (Thompson, 2004, pp. 19-130).

Religious people—even religious scientists—were aware of the complexity of the Universe for centuries prior to 1933, and argued that orthodox religion and scientific understanding of the Universe are not mutually exclusive, and may logically coexist. (One need look no further than a history of the creationist Isaac Newton [1642-1727].) If humanists believe that only a modern, “larger” understanding of the Universe is sufficient reason for abandoning all religion save humanism, they must show how such a modern understanding completely inverts all historic religious sensibilities about the Universe. Because they cannot do this, secular humanism logically fails, falling short of its self-imposed obligatory standard.

Second, the Manifesto offers man’s “scientific achievements” as a reason why we should abolish all religion except humanism. We wonder what modern “scientific achievement” was so phenomenal and groundbreaking that all religion should be restructured into humanism. Such an achievement is cited in neither the first nor the second Manifesto. Long before 1933, scientists had provided sufficient scientific evidence for the existence of God, and no one had disproved the evidence by 1933 (it still has not been disproved).

For example, creationist Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) demonstrated the impossibility of spontaneous generation, showing that an intelligent Designer must have been responsible for the Universe (see Butt, 2002). Pasteur’s finding went undisputed until 1933, and it remains undisputed today. If humanists believe that only modern scientific achievements provide sufficient grounds for abandoning all religion save humanism, they must show how such achievements completely counteract all historic religious sensibilities about science and human nature. Because they cannot do this, secular humanism logically fails, having fallen short of its chosen obligation.

Third, humanists propose that all religionists should become humanists because, in the years leading to 1933, modern man developed a “deeper appreciation of brotherhood” (Humanist…, 1933, Preface). Admittedly, this is a somewhat subjective area; it is difficult to be certain that humans possessed a generally greater or lesser appreciation for each other at any given time. Possibly this is a topic for sociologists and/or historians, but since the first Manifesto offers no specific evidence or frame of reference to support their claim of enhanced brotherhood, we may speculate.

Some people living in the decades prior to 1933 may have felt a deeper appreciation of brotherhood, but this was temporary. World War I was touted as being “The War to End All Wars” (“The War…,” 1998), so its conclusion likely led to a general recognition of brotherhood and feeling of camaraderie among Americans. The framers of the Manifesto were products of these times, living under a brief cultural milieu of brotherhood. Yet, World War II followed just a few years later. If the end of World War I brought a sense of heightened brotherhood to the framers of the first Manifesto, it was short-lived.

Further evidence of the framers’ skewed perspective is the fact that the first Manifesto was produced during the Great Depression. Consider this description of the circumstances surrounding the Depression:

The United States had emerged from the war as the major creditor and financier of postwar Europe, whose national economies had been greatly weakened by the war itself, by war debts, and, in the case of Germany and other defeated nations, by the need to pay war reparations. So once the American economy slumped and the flow of American investment credits to Europe dried up, prosperity tended to collapse there as well. The Depression hit hardest those nations that were most deeply indebted to the United States, i.e., Germany and Great Britain. In Germany, unemployment rose sharply beginning in late 1929, and by early 1932 it had reached 6 million workers, or 25 percent of the work force. Britain was less severely affected, but its industrial and export sectors remained seriously depressed until World War II. Many other countries had been affected by the slump by 1931 (“Great Depression,” 1997, 5:443).

An economic crisis of such magnitude would tend to produce a sense of brotherhood among a vast number of Americans who shared the struggle to survive.

However, the framers of the first Manifesto probably were unaware that the murder rate in America was reaching a peak in 1933, the very year they published the Manifesto (Gomez-Sorzano, 2006, p. 2; cf. McIntyre, 2000). Furthermore, nothing in the last seven decades of American history suggests that we are any closer to true “brotherhood,” than we were in the 1920s. After the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Desert Storm, and more recent conflicts, one is challenged to see where a heightened sense of brotherhood fits. From this perspective, it seems the times which produced the first Manifesto may have seemed brotherly, but enduring sodality remained elusive.

Then, there is the question of whether biblical theism promotes brotherhood. If the Bible is the Word of God (as has been demonstrated; see Thompson 2003a), then it is the religious authority on the topic of brotherhood, and it promotes brotherhood. For example, the apostle Paul stressed that people may be Christians regardless of their nationality, social status, or gender: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Jesus prayed to His Father: “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:20-21, emp. added). Observe that Jesus prayed for unity not only for those who worked with Him during His ministry, but also for all those who would believe in Him in the future. This suggests that the unity of which Jesus spoke and Paul wrote was intended to be unlimited by time period. Therefore, the Christian ideal of brotherhood would apply even during 1933. As Packer and Howard noted, “[T]he Christian vision…seems to have brought not only consolation but also joy and courage to hundreds of millions of people for two millennia now, and this despite the troubles of which, as expected, they have had what might seem to be more than their fair share. Unlike other religions, Christianity has leaped all boundaries of culture, race, intellect, sex, age, and preference…” (1985, pp. 54-55).

Obviously, Christians may fail to adhere to the ideals of brotherhood inherent in their faith, but that is the fault of the individual adherents, not the religious system itself. Since humanists can prove neither that the time period which generated the first Manifesto was especially brotherly, nor that religion fails to promote brotherhood in modern times, their case for a new world religion cannot rely on this third argument.

Fourth, humanists suggest that “new conditions created by a vastly increased knowledge and experience” make traditional religion outdated (Humanist…, 1933, Preface). This vague assertion is of little help, because humanists failed to pinpoint what kind of new conditions, knowledge, and experience had such drastic, disastrous implications for theistic religion. Perhaps we should assume that these changes are related to the scientific advances addressed above. Similarly ambiguous language introduces the second Manifesto: “Dramatic scientific, technological, and ever-accelerating social and political changes crowd our awareness” (1973; Section 1). However, at least the second Manifesto offers a few practical, if nonspecific, examples, such as moon travel and progress in communication technology (Section 1).

Note that by making this argument, humanists tacitly agree that biblical theism was not outdated prior to the era just before 1933, and they stated it overtly, as documented earlier. Doubtless certain conditions changed during the period around the turn of the 20th century. Theistic religions, however, typically present themselves as enduring and relevant regardless of circumstances. The Bible, for example, calls Christians to be “faithful until death” (Revelation 2:10). Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away” (Mark 13:31). Generally speaking, theism showed no plan to become irrelevant or outdated prior to 1933. Such a religion would merit no human allegiance.

The humanists’ stated argument is that traditional religion was effective at some point, but later became futile, due to the “vastly increased knowledge” of humanity. But if there ever was a time when traditional religion could provide “the abundant life” (John 10:10) through faith in an unchanging God who created and controls the Universe (James 1:16-17; Colossians 1:16), then the lessening of human ignorance would not cheapen the benefits available through that religion. Put simply, humans who are blessed by religion would not be robbed of a single blessing simply by knowing more about some of their blessings (such as the natural world, traveling to the moon, or communication technology). Humanists admitted in the Preface of the first Manifesto that religion was effective at one time. They cannot prove that religion is less effective now. Furthermore, it is easy to observe that Christianity helps people (see Thompson, 1999, 19[1]:7).


If there were no way of knowing that God exists and that He has prescribed religious practice which pleases Him, and enlightens and enhances practitioners, then secular humanists would have a strong case against Christianity. However, there is convincing, irrefutable evidence that God exists, that the Bible is a revelation from Him, and that Jesus Christ is His Son (see Thompson 2003b, Thompson 2003a; cf. Myers, 1994; Butt and Lyons, 2006). When we follow the religious doctrine of Christ and His apostles, as presented in the Bible, then we can be assured that our religion has heavenly authority (see Colossians 3:16-17; cf. 2 Timothy 3:16).

May a person be both a humanist and a Christian? The answer depends entirely on our conception of humanism. Classical humanism is not necessarily antithetical to Christianity, and where applied properly, will give the Christian a greater appreciation and understanding of humanity and how it relates to God. J.D. Thomas wrote:

Classical humanism is an older form that flowered in the 15th and 16th centuries. It was impelled by the finding of manuscripts and documents of ancient Greece and other cultures where intellectual and other pursuits had reached a high level. This humanism is quite unlike the one of today with its rigorous atheism. The classical view simply came to appreciate man more because of his abilities and attainments, of which they had become more fully aware. Although not religious, per se, they were not anti-religious, as is the humanism of today (1981, 123[2]:46, emp. in orig.).

The “Christian humanist” would encourage humans to look to Christ for ultimate fulfillment in life. In so doing, the Christian would point out that “all secular attempts to find a way by which we mortals may live fully and freely seem to end finally in inward desolation, or at best in a stoic refusal to succumb in face of what must horrify us beyond all else, namely the end of our own being” (Packer and Howard, 1985, p. 52).

Because secular humanists believe that all theistic religion must be thrown out or completely restructured, they are evangelistic in their attempts to convert people to their false religion (see Waggoner, 1999). However, their rationale for this drastic upheaval is faulty. As we answer secularists by advocating a theistic, biblical, Christian worldview, may we be just as eager to convert the lost to true New Testament Christianity, the only right religion (Matthew 28:18-20). We must recognize the deception involved in secularism and dedicate ourselves to the truth of God (John 8:32).


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