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Our Common Creed: Secular Humanism, Reimagined

4th May 2017

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What, if anything, unites us a nation? And does it even matter?

Following on from the success of our last ‘long-read’ seriesThe Mighty and the Almighty (now available as a book), we have asked a number of leading theologians, philosophers, sociologists, historians, and writers – some Christians, others not – to think out loud on the topic. Next up is Theo Hobson, author of 'God Created Humanism: The Christian Basis of Secular Values'.


I want to proclaim good news to the ideologically weary. The hugely complex question of common belief in Britain, and indeed in the West, can, I think, be simplified.

It can be simplified if we name the creed that effectively unites us. OK, ‘unites us’ is a bit strong: unites us up to a point. But there is something that up-to-a-point unites almost all of us, and affirming it matters very much. Essential to this is naming it. Terminology sometimes matters. Sometimes a movement must find its proper name in order to take off. In this case, naming can help us to remember our core identity. 
 
First let’s briefly admit that now might seem a terrible time for taking this step back and pondering our common creed. Two events suggest that this common creed is in flux: Britain’s decision to leave the EU, and Donald Trump’s election. Do these events, especially the latter, mean that populist nationalism is shifting the Western values we have been familiar with for decades? It is unclear – but we should be wary of overstating the possibility. It’s safe to say that these events are symptomatic of a fundamental uncertainty about our core identity. It makes sense to ignore them temporarily, in order to address the underlying issue.
 
Naming Britain’s common creed has always been problematic, due to its fascinatingly gradual development. How to sum up the common creed of a land that has retained its Christian and monarchical character (sort of), while pioneering the principles of liberty and democracy, and becoming highly diverse? But defying such complexity, and proposing a key label, is sometimes necessary. In the mid-twentieth century, the presence of totalitarianism led many to emphasize ‘liberal democracy’, or more often just ‘democracy’, as Britain’s core creed. Some wanted to point to the Christian basis of democracy, others did not, but there was little tension over this difference of inclination. This emphasis on democracy was notably internationalist. These thinkers wanted to proclaim a core creed that was common to the West. Of course they did not deny the importance of Britain’s particular traditions; they did not suggest that these be rejected in favour of a new blanket ideology of ‘Western democracy’. But they did want to suggest that Britain’s core values were not confined to these shores, but were shared throughout the West. 
 
In the later twentieth century, this big-sweep impulse to name the common creed of the West faded somewhat. Perhaps peace brought complacency and evasion. Perhaps things were complicated by the close association of ‘liberal democracy’ with triumphant capitalism. This century, we have become increasingly aware that such evasion is problematic. Mainly this is due to the rise of Islamic extremism. Like mid-twentieth century totalitarianism, it requires us to reflect on who we fundamentally are. But today it feels insufficient to reaffirm ‘democracy’, or ‘liberal democracy’. Why? Because these terms are too impersonal, formal, official, cold. They refer to systems of politics (and economics). Something fuller is needed. Also, democracy in the strict sense of regular elections has been proved inadequate; it can easily be manipulated by autocratic regimes, and certain electorates are inclined to vote for theocracy.
 
A fuller, thicker definition of who we are is needed, one that refers to people’s everyday habits of thought, or ‘habits of the heart’, not just to the political system that they approve of and occasionally participate in. So it falls to us to be a bit grander and bolder than the previous generation was inclined to be, and to dare to wield a broader brush.
 
Secular humanism. That is the necessary name for our common creed, I suggest. It might sound hopelessly naïve or vague or earnest, but it is the belief that all human lives matter, and should flourish, and that part of such flourishing is the freedom to express one’s core beliefs; it of course entails ‘human rights’. It is also the belief that this ideal must be stated in non-religious terms, so as to unite as many people as possible, at least on a political level. What (up to a point) unites us is the British version of this international creed.
 
I foresee two possible objections to this. First: It is too vague to be of any use. This complaint will come both from leftwingers who say that it lacks the power to criticize the status quo, and from rightwingers who say that it privileges trendy causes and neglects deep social bonds. The second likely objection: by prioritizing ‘secularism’, this term alienates those Britons (probably around half) who are either actively religious or are sympathetic to the role of religion in public life. 
 
Let’s consider the first objection. In effect it says that the goodness of ‘humanism’ is a truism, which all cultures affirm. Don’t all humans have an altruistic impulse? Isn’t it obvious that all human lives are valuable, that everyone’s rights should be respected? Doesn’t this idea come naturally? Well, no actually. The Western idea of humanism is distinctive in its robustness, and rather than coming naturally it is a tradition whose gradual development can be traced. Attending to the fact that it is a tradition, a story, is what can give this creed solidity.
 
To the second objection, that the secular aspect implies opposition to religion, the answer is partly: yes, secular humanism does oppose, or at least criticize, some forms of religion, and it should not apologise for this. Forms of religion that deny equal rights are indeed at odds with secular humanism. But the wider response is to say that secularism, in the sense we are using it, does not mean the denigration of religion. This must be asserted in surprisingly strong terms. A false paradigm must be shifted.
 
In fact it is precisely here that new ideological clarity is possible. It is through a bold new telling of the religion-secularism relationship that we can articulate who we are.
 
The strange fact is that secular humanism is rooted in Christianity. Its moral universalism is an adaptation, or mutation, of Christianity. And it is not just the humanism that is rooted in Christianity: the secularism is too. It is a paradox: secularism has Christian roots. And it is this interestingly paradoxical story that can give the creed solidity. Because of its surprising religious roots, secular humanism is not the bland obviousness that it is assumed to be.
 
Let’s put it this way. Our public creed, secular humanism, has two major problems. It seems vague, insubstantial, it melts into air. And it is difficult to articulate one aspect of it, its secularism, without alienating religious believers. These problems are largely solved when it is seen as a tradition deriving from Christianity. This story of its origins thickens it up, and involves rather than alienates religious believers. 
 
To claim that Christianity is the primary source of secular humanism might sound excessive. But where else did secular humanism get its optimistic moral vision, its idea that human beings ought to seek the wellbeing of all other human beings? Is this just the morality that comes naturally to all human societies, the evolved instinct for altruism perhaps? No – that sort of instinctive morality certainly exists, but it is frail, ambiguous: it might come naturally to protect an orphan of one’s own tribe, but it also seems to come naturally to see other tribes as enemies, and to treat their orphans with less care. Maybe a widening of morality comes with the development of rationality? But the morality of the brainy ancient Greeks was limited, hemmed in by fatalism, militarism, hierarchy, slavery. Yes, but did not modern humanist thinkers overcome such limitations, and discover the great truth of human equality, of universal rights? Well, when one bothers looking into the matter, one finds that these humanists were almost all Christians, or semi-Christian believers in a rational God – ‘deists’. Secular humanism very gradually emerged within Christian culture. Which means that the modern humanist principles of liberty and equality are rooted in Christianity. It does not come naturally to us to believe that we can move towards a world of ever-greater justice for all, that all lives are of equal worth, that oppression and discrimination must end. It comes far more naturally to see drastic inequality as inevitable, and distant others as inferior. 
 
Maybe Christianity played a historical role in founding secular humanism, some might say, but that’s all in the past. No: secular humanism has continued to be shaped by its Christian basis, in recent times. Two examples: in the mid twentieth century the ideal of universal human rights was launched by mostly Christian thinkers and statesmen. And a bit later, Christianity was central to the civil rights movement in America, with its vision of future harmony. Before that movement, secular humanism did not entail the urgent commitment to racial equality that it now does. 
 
Maybe the humanism of secular humanism largely derives from Christianity, some might say, but this is surely not true of the secularism. Well, look again at the history of ideas, especially in the crucial seventeenth century: it was radical Christians who first insisted on freedom of religion, and said that battling theocracy, or the unity of religion and politics, was a sacred cause. These radical Protestants (such as Milton, and other supporters of Cromwell, and also Roger Williams in New England) gradually gave way to a cooler, more rational sort of Protestant reformer, who dominated the eighteenth century, from Locke to Jefferson. It was such liberal Christians (or semi-Christian ‘deists’) who launched the principle of secular politics, not atheists.
 
We must tell and retell this simple yet paradoxical story. Christianity gave rise to a post-religious creed, secular humanism. This story used to be widely accepted in some form: it was basic to the Whig worldview, and to British socialism (Tony Benn, for example, often highlighted the origin of socialism in the biblical prophets and radical reformers). Perhaps it is implied in the British constitution, which is narrative-shaped: religious unity gradually gives way to post-religious liberty. But increased secularization and multiculturalism edged it aside, made it seem a defunct assumption. And of course it was the sort of narrative that postmodernists competed in rubbishing. To some extent, such developments were healthy: the story of Christianity-begets-humanism had become complacent, unconsidered, stale. Clumsy versions of it had to be cleared away. But what other story do we have? If we do not tell this story, we have no serious story to tell about the nature and origin of our values. We either imply that they arise naturally, if people are rational (which is false), or we evade the issue altogether.
 
Our task is to find new freshness in this story. Only so can our shared creed be solidified, built up.
 
Will this task fall to Christians? To a large extent yes (semi-Christian agnostics might lend a hand, and so might Jews and others). But such Christians must defy the majority Christian view, which disparages secular humanism. The relationship between secular humanism and Christianity is inevitably tense. For secular humanism has an air of superiority: it is a non-religious form of moral universalism, and this allows it to be more fully universalist, in that it overlooks religious difference in asserting fundamental human unity. Of course this makes Christians wary: this creed seems to imply that religion is superseded, exposed as limited, divisive. But Christians should resist this reaction. The proper Christian attitude to secular humanism is to affirm it as the right public ideology, but to say that it is nevertheless thin, that it has no strong account of life’s meaning and purpose, but gravitates to an evasive shrug. It cannot say why we should affirm this moral universalism; it does not understand that this vision derives from the thicker narrative of religion. In other words, the right public (or political) ideology is necessarily thin. So the Christian should think on two levels: secular humanism is the right public creed, for the unifying of a diverse nation, and yet Christianity is very much still needed, as it provides meaning on a deeper level.
 
Non-believers might reply that secular humanism is not necessarily ‘thinner’ than religion. It is a positive belief in universal human flourishing, they might say – no less idealistic than Christianity; the difference is that its idealism is rationally founded. In fact, I suggest, the crucial difference is that the Christian vision of human flourishing has an absoluteness that secular humanism lacks. A better word for absoluteness might be perfectionism. Or rather, secular humanism half-lacks this. It has it, but in an ambiguous, ‘deniable’ form. For the ideal of universal human flourishing, or universal human rights, is, at base, a vision of the total triumph of justice, equality, love and peace. A vision of paradise regained. Secular humanism half-knows this, half-denies it, or wriggles away from it. It prefers to affirm this ideal within reason, in a spirit of sensible moderation. And – at the risk of sounding a touch polemical - there is something dishonest about this. Secular humanism is a radical vision of human life becoming perfectly good – but its adherents tend to see it as mere ideological normality, what all civilized people are expected to subscribe to. It is the humdrum realistic orthodoxy of our day – and yet its latent logic is the hope of the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. When this ideal is secularized, it of course loses various aspects: for example it loses the drama of sin and grace – the understanding that we are not capable of creating the perfectly just world to which we aspire. Non-religious secular humanists do not have a version of this religious narrative – they just ‘don’t go there.’ A huge cultural conspiracy calls this common sense - to affirm a perfectionist religious vision in pared-down form. For this is what it means to believe in ‘human rights’.
 
So: our common creed is ‘secular humanism’, but this category is empty unless its Christian roots are acknowledged, discussed. If they are not, then secular humanism is vaguely identified with normality, human nature. This is incoherent, for most of the world does not affirm secular humanism. The implication, which cannot be spelt out without causing offence, is that these others are uncivilized. In other words, our ruling assumption is that it comes naturally to civilized people to be secular humanists. This assumption is supremely vague, of course, but it is there. It is only inhabitants of the liberal democratic West that we expect to adhere to secular humanist principles.
 
I suppose I am calling for more honesty. Our creed, secular humanism, has fallen into a deep habit of dishonesty. It is reluctant to admit that it is a tradition. For fear of disparaging other cultures, it presents itself as mere normality. To put it bluntly, we have become scared of thinking about our creed, because we sense that to do so is divisive.
 
Many liberals will say: but surely a more robust assertion of ‘secular humanism’ will further alienate the Muslim minority in our midst; and saying that this creed has Christian roots will hardly help. But what is really unhelpful is the conventional liberal evasion of the issue. We must make clear to Muslims and others that we in the West believe in something (something more than shopping and pleasuring ourselves). But above all we must explain this to ourselves. Only so can we clearly articulate why certain forms of religion are intolerable (those that directly deny human rights), and borderline-intolerable (those that glorify illiberal regimes). At root it is theocratic forms of religion that secular humanism rejects. Muslims living in the West should be encouraged to declare themselves ‘Post-Theocratic’ (rather than ‘Still-Theocratic’ – PT not ST). So should Christians. We can only avoid charges of Islamophobia if we show that we are carefully subjecting all religions to the same test, of compatibility with secular humanism. This means that the story of Christendom giving way to pluralism must be revisited. The question of whether Christianity retains some of its old privileges in a way that causes offence to our shared creed should be debated more earnestly. 
 
Above all we must come to a new understanding that ‘who we are’ is a story. And the core plot of this story is the emergence of a shared humanism from a religious base.
 
A final word on what I promised to ignore at the start of this essay, the rise of populist nationalism, especially in the US. One reading of events is that America struggles to live with the fullness of its own idealism. More than any other nation, it has been the modern site of the emergence of secular humanism. This happened partly at the outset, with the writing of the Constitution. But the implications of that document were not understood at the time; it took almost two centuries to see that ‘all’ meant all. And the nation, being composed of ordinary human beings, has struggled to cope with the intense humanist idealism it has progressively committed itself to. It is little surprise that it kicks against secular humanism more angrily than other nations. It is little surprise that, as well as supremely expressing the creed of the West, it has periodic fits of resentment at its demands. But the creed stands.
 

Theo Hobson is the author of God Created Humanism: The Christian Basis of Secular Values

Image by ezelsoordesign from pixabay.com, available in the public domain, modified